Sunday, January 28, 2018

Reimagining Religion

"A Way in the Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

On any given Sunday plenty of people across America will find themselves in the pews of their local church; however, nowadays there are far less people than were there in years past.

Recent statistics about “church attendance” in this country indicate that “religion” in America is in a steady and probably unstoppable decline - more and more people nowadays are rapidly abandoning affiliation with organized religions, and this is especially true among younger people.  Furthermore, in spite of the seemingly endless campaigns to get people to return to the religion they have left behind (or never before joined), there seems to be little or no way to reverse this trend over the days to come. When people leave a formal religion they probably won’t come back and despite the wishful thinking of church leadership, most younger, non-religious folks are unlikely to become part of any established “church” in the foreseeable future.

I recently came across this observation about religion in contemporary society by author and theologian, Brian McLaren, in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration:

As I see it, religion is at its best when it leads us forward,
when it guides us in our spiritual growth as individuals
and in our cultural evolution as a species.
Unfortunately, religion often becomes more of a cage than a guide,
holding us back rather than summoning us onward,
a buffer to constructive change rather than a catalyst for it.
This is even more tragic in these times when our culture needs
wise spiritual guidance
and all it gets from spiritual leaders
is anxious condemnation and critique
along with a big dose of nostalgia
 for the lost golden age of the good old days. 

I wonder if so many people today are abandoning religion in America because they see “religion” more like a cage than a guide?  Glib and easy answers about “God” and “faith” have become stale and childish to them, religious laws, rules and rituals are seen as unduly restrictive, many churches and church leaders come across as stridently judgmental and discriminatory against those who are are different.

I have been a “religious” leader for most of my life and yet, in some ways, I think that maybe it’s a good thing that religion as we have known it is in a free-fall decline.  Maybe now a new vision of truer, more genuine religion can emerge from the ashes of the old and religion might become the guide it is capable of becoming?  The religious crisis in contemporary America may be an opportunity for all of us to reimagine rather then reject the role of religion in today’s contemporary culture. Nowadays everywhere I look I find people wandering about, trying to find their way through the wilderness of life. Now more than ever we need a guide to help us on the way.

I recently read an interview with the contemporary Rabbi Rami Shapiro. He was asked about the advisability of affiliating with some sort of “organized” religion and if so, which one would he recommend? I found his answer to be very wise:

When it comes to religion
 or for that matter, when it comes to embracing any spiritual path,
there is no security, surety or safety.
There is only the wildness of life lived in the shadow of death.
If your religion provides you with the humility
to know that you do not know,
the wisdom to see past what you claim to know,
and the courage to navigate the unknown
with compassion, curiosity, justice and grace,
then it is as true as any religion can and needs to be

In this era of growing confusion and societal chaos, where bigotry, prejudice and violence are so visible in our public life, it seems to me that the “primary” task of any religion is to help each of us as individuals and as a culture to “navigate the unknown with compassion, curiosity, justice and grace.”

When it comes to religion, there is no safe harbor, no security or dogmatic surety.  Religion should, instead, help us to embrace the “Great Mystery” known as “God” as we make our way through the wonderful and sometimes frightening territory of living every day - the wildness of life lived in the shadow of death. As we navigate our way through the wilderness, religion should help us to hold each other as close as we can as we treat each other with dignity and compassion and work to build a more just society.

We do indeed live in “interesting times” – such a great opportunity for people who are religious or non-religious, believers or non-believers to “reimagine religion," to free ourselves from the bondage of our restrictive cages and and boldly walk together into that wonderful, unexplored territory known as “God.” The world may be depending on us more than we may imagine.


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