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Down to Earth

Casper ter Kuile encourages us to deepen our spiritual lives—with or without religion.

September Darwn Bottoms/The New York Times
September Darwn Bottoms/The New York Times

In an era of declining religious affiliation, Casper ter Kuile is inviting a fresh look at spiritual practices. A Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, ter Kuile grew up in the U.K. without religion but has become an evangelist for meaningful ritual. As co-host of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, he (with Vanessa Zoltan) pored over chapters of the beloved series using reading techniques traditionally reserved for holy tomes. His book, The Power of Ritual, explores how adapting age-old practices to a secular world can, ironically, open a doorway to novelty and change in one’s own life.

How do you conceptualize spirituality?

For me, spirituality is about connection. Yes, it’s about a connection to your inner self, but it’s also about connecting with something—other people, the landscape, our history, our story, and I think also a sense of transcendence. I like to think of it as a part connecting to the whole. You can think of that in ecological terms or cosmological terms or more theological terms.

Did your upbringing shape your views on spirituality?

I grew up in a nonreligious context. Certainly, once I came out in high school, I was very resistant and skeptical of religion. Nonetheless, I had this rich experience of ritual life through the school I attended as a child, which was a Waldorf school. It had a pretty strong, I guess, pagan vibe—it involved a lot of nature-based rituals like walking around the maypole on May Day and going to sing to the barnyard animals on Christmas eve. I look back on it and I’m like, wow, that was an unusual situation. I was lucky that my childhood was infused with a lot of that sense of magic and beauty that comes with good ritual.

How did you open up to the idea of being spiritual?

I grew more interested over time in thinking about culture change and how religion has tried to influence the dominant culture.That ultimately led me to divinity school. But I came to divinity school as a hardened atheist. What shifted was that I started to understand spirituality and religion as not about what you believe in but what you practice. And that it does not have to be limited to formal practices like going to a house of worship, but could include a way of engaging a book that you love or a song that you sing or a place that you go to.

You’ve engaged with the Harry Potter books in a manner akin to scriptural study. Can you describe that?

It’s not the Torah, it’s not the Bible, and yet, I think some of what you get from Bible study you can get from studying a favorite book if you’re doing it in the context of community and engaging with rigorous practices that help us reflect more deeply on our own lives. For me, what makes a text sacred is not the divine inspiration of an author. It’s about a community returning again and again to a text to engage life’s biggest questions—wanting to find, if not answers, at least insight.

One approach you’ve used is inspired by the practice of Lectio divina.

My favorite way of doing Lectio is that you enter with a very open mindset and choose a sentence at random and then go through meaning-making steps one after another. In the Christian context, the final question you ask would be, what is God asking me to do through this text? The way that we have asked it on our podcast is, what is the text inviting me to do? But there are other practices—for example, we draw on the Ignatian practice of reading a text and imagining ourselves into the story. We try to notice what a character is feeling, seeing, and hearing. It’s a practice of empathy within a spiritual practice.

How can people ease into their own rituals?

In so many of our lives, there are moments that already have a shimmer of sacredness. Maybe it’s that once-a-week bubble bath you have while your partner and kids are at a movie. Maybe it’s the walk that you take with the dog before bed. I’m curious about how we can deepen experiences or lift them up so that they have the place of ritual. What can we learn about pilgrimage that would help shape a dog walk into something special? Is it paying particular attention to the five senses as you’re walking? Is it about walking a certain route? I think bringing elements of spiritual practices into what we’re already doing is a more affirming way to think about spirituality than believing that you need to buy a bunch of crystals or go to a yoga retreat in Bali.

What is the ultimate aim of rituals?

Rituals are not just decorative, they are formative. Practicing a ritual really is practicing. If you’re practicing the piano, you’re going to become a better player. If you’re practicing every day to list three things that you’re grateful for, you’re cultivating a capacity for generosity. By practicing these rituals, we’re choosing, over and over, to become a certain person.

How does your consultancy, Sacred Design Lab, draw from tradition in its work?

We work with religious institutions that understand that the way people engage with spirituality is changing, and we also work with secular organizations. We worked with the Obama Foundation in developing its online training for young people who will become community organizers and activists. One important thing about that process of becoming is that it’s relational. Sometimes we don’t know how we’re changing until someone says, “You really stepped into that in a way that I haven’t seen you do before.” In working with the foundation, we drew on the Quaker tradition. The practice of being with someone and listening to something deeper than their words, noticing the quality of their presence, is something the Quaker tradition carries beautifully.

You bring a spirit of innovation to spiritual traditions. Is that dissonant to some people?

Absolutely. The irony is that every tradition was once an innovation. Judaism was a kind of priestly religion oriented around the temple and rituals in a certain place. When that place was destroyed, Judaism had to innovate. Things like the sabbath and dietary laws are mobile, not place-based. The rituals change because the context changes. In America, still primarily a culturally Christian country, there’s a sense that this is how it always was and will always be, and that’s just not accurate, historically. So I’m gung ho about not just the need for change, but the rightness of things changing.