-Springtime in the Wilderness-
I have been discovering something interesting about myself over the past several months. Every once in a while I will get this "flash of insight" - often a rather new idea about something I've thought about and taken for granted all my life. Yesterday I had one of those insights.
In some form or another I have always been connected to a religious institution. For most of my life I've been pretty much at the center of it all in my capacity as an ordained priest.
For years now, religion in America has been on a very slippery slope. Affiliation with churches and synagogues (and even mosques) has drastically declined. This is especially true among younger people in the population ( the "Millennials") who often see themselves as "spiritual" but hold the religious institution in disdain - often viewing religion as an obstacle to authentic spirituality.
Over the past few years I have been observing how religious leaders are trying to cope with this severe decline.
Some hide their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge a problem even exists. However most have recognized the severity of the problem, and are involved in a wide variety of programs, campaigns and schemes for reinventing the church or reviving the synagogue - all aimed at making the institution more attractive and accessible especially for younger people. Contemporary music, less formal worship settings, gatherings in pubs are a few of the many efforts to reinvent a dying institution.
Now to my flash of insight about it all.
Yesterday there was an article in the New York Times describing a "revitalization" program aimed at younger folks in the Jewish community who are disaffiliated from the synagogue. At first reading, the article looked like more of the same stuff that every declining religion seems to be doing. Instead of meeting in a synagogue, the congregation gathers in a wine bar, the service is more informal, the music more contemporary, etc. etc.
I was just about to let out a big yawn when I came across something the young rabbi of that congregation said. He described an awakening he recently had when he asked himself a core question, "Why do I even care if the synagogue survives? Why even bother with religion? Then, he had a flash of insight"
Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line. Thinking that Judaism or any religion is the end goal misses the point. I'm practicing Judaism because I was born into it and I think it's got a deeply profound ancient and relevant toolbox for leading a meaningful life.
But, the end goal of my religion is not to be a good Jew but to learn how to be a better human being.
For me this "hit the nail on the head." The rabbi's insight was especially meaningful for a guy like me who has been so steeped in (and maybe stuck in) the religious institution for so many years.
I am a Christian, and for most of my life I lived under the impression that the goal of my connection with the church was to help me be a good Christian. I was a leader in the church. I preached sermons and conducted worship and developed endless programs so that I might help other people to be "good Christians."
But I think the focus was all wrong. I think the rabbi from the New York Times' article got it right - the goal of any religion is not to make people more religious- the goal is to help them become more fully alive human beings.
The end goal of any religion- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, what have you--is not to get people more committed to that particular religion. All religions are toolboxes for people - helping them to be better human beings who can go out into the world and make it a better place.
If religious institutions honestly expect to reinvent themselves for the 21st century, this must be the starting point.