Book Review – Spiritual Innovators

Spiritual Innovators: Seventy-Five Extraordinary People Who Changed the World in the Past Century By Ira Rifkin (Editor), Foreword by Dr. Robert Coles

2002 Skylight Paths Publishing

Individually, we are the arbiters of our own spirituality. Most of us, thankfully, are free to decide for ourselves what sort of beliefs we ascribe to, and apply, in our lives. Some of us adhere to traditional religious doctrines, while others are decidedly unconventional in terms of spiritual attitudes and practices.

The impact of religion on human life is incalculable. Much of this impact stems directly from the power of classical religious texts such as the Koran, the Bible, and the Bhagavad Gita. And, of course, there is the significant impact of religious institutions and churches.

Ironically though, human culture as a whole is more often changed, not by churches or books, but by individual people–spiritual innovators–whose very lives often embody and define our ideas of spirituality in its varied forms.

In “Spiritual Innovators: Seventy Five Extraordinary People Who Changed the World in the Past Century,” Ira Rifkin presents wonderful biographical portraits of some of the architects of modern religious and spiritual attitudes. Included are quotes from each individual, a list of books by and about the individual, and other resources for further research.

Part reference book, part biography, the real impact of the book is to reflect the amazingly varied spiritual influences of the past century. From evangelist
Billy Graham to Paramahansa Yogananda, from Mary Baker Eddy to Ram Dass, religion reporter Ira Rifkin manages to include a true “who’s who” of 20th century spirituality. Various spiritual leaders and authorities were asked by Rifkin to name spiritual figures active in the last century who were most responsible for shaping modern understanding and attitudes about religion and spirituality. The result is a wonderfully diverse, though compact, collection of profiles of modern spiritual movers and shakers.

Each of the seventy-five individuals profiled are grouped into one of eight categories, such as “They Shook Things Up,” or “They Made Intellect a Spiritual Force.” Each category is prefaced with a brief introductory essay by Rifkin, who’s skilled at bringing to light common threads and connections throughout the seemingly disparate attitudes and doctrines of the individuals presented.

The book reminds us of the Herculean efforts of Mother Teresa to assist the poor of India, the stroke Ram Dass refers to as his “gift,” and the sacrifice of
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp. It highlights the unifying work of Deepak Chopra, Bede Griffiths, and Black Elk who have opened our minds to both new and ancient spiritual concepts. And, the book pays tribute to the contributions of thinkers such as Ken Wilber, Carl Jung, and Evelyn Underhill, who have used intellect and wisdom to penetrate the deeper mysteries of spiritual life.

Even those who are well-read in spiritual and religious literature are sure to learn more about the real scope of influence these people have had on our world.

With every page the reader is opened to a deeper understanding of both the
individual being profiled, as well as the impact that person has had on modern religion and spirituality. Set against the constantly shifting historical backdrop of the 20th century, each profile carries it’s own sense of inspiration and poignancy.

Rifkin and the other contributors bring a very human element to the portraits; the book was not written to sanctify anyone or endorse a belief system, but to give an honest and open representation, true to the word and spirit of each innovator.

My only complaint is a minor one, which is that I wanted to see more detail on each individual profiled. The one or two page bios were just too brief. But I think Rifkin’s intent is twofold; first to inspire the reader to further their own personal exploration into these varied and fascinating lives (which is easy to do thanks to the helpful bibliographical information included with each profile), and second, to demonstrate the amazing diversity of spiritual attitudes and perspectives that have shaped our lives in so many ways. He succeeds in both aspects.

Although it’s possible to use the book as a handy reference guide, I enjoyed simply reading it straight-through. Doing so gives the reader the full effect of seeing the incredible spectrum of influence this relatively small number of people have had on so many millions of lives.

Skylight Paths Publishing is developing a well-deserved reputation for offering books in recognition and celebration of spiritual diversity. Rifkin’s “Spiritual Innovators” is a superb reflection of that spirit, and a great addition to any library.


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