Thursday, April 29, 2010

Putting religion back to work (Sunday Reflections for May 2, 2010)

Typically we evaluate religions based on their beliefs. In a recent essay on Huffington Post, spirituality teacher and author Philip Goldberg says it’s more helpful to think of the functions religion serves.

As I see it, religion in its most complete form serves five basic functions. I've given each of these a name beginning with the prefix "trans-", which means "across," "through," or "beyond," because religion at its best crosses boundaries and points to realities beyond the ordinary. Those five functions are:
1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.
2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).
3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.
4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.
5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

Goldberg’s five functions are reasonable and pretty easy to understand. His functional understanding of religion is one that I think a growing number of people accept (even if they might define those functions somewhat differently). I wonder though if we realize how different such an understanding is from that of previous generations. Being able to think about religion as Goldberg does is almost entirely the result of one development in the modern world. Namely, we now have religious choices, including the option of having no religion at all.

Until recently, most people were born into a religion, either via geography or family. It came with the territory or it came with your pedigree. The United States was the first major exception to this tradition. From the start, it was made up of immigrants from a variety of religious traditions. The country’s founders were also acutely aware of the chaos and suffering caused by religious strife in Europe. As a result, the relatively new idea of religious freedom conceived by European intellectuals was put into practice and built into the constitution of this new country in the New World.

Acceptance of religious freedom did not become a global phenomenon until after World War II. It was championed by Americans as part of a post-war new world order (e.g. FDR’s four freedoms). What really moved it forward, however, was the dramatic growth in communication and transportation.

The new burgeoning global economy was soon sending people in all directions. Suddenly countries and communities that had been identified with one religious tradition found themselves with significant minority populations following other traditions, sometimes to the point where everyone was a minority. Growing secularism also weakened religious ties and many people simply dropped religious affiliation from their identity altogether.

By focusing on beliefs, religions end up in a nearly unending state of conflict. Internal squabbles arise continually as there are always differences over interpretation of scriptures, doctrines, theology, ritual, etc. As the world has gotten smaller and more interconnected, there are also increasingly strident inter-religious rivalries as each one, at bottom, inevitably assumes it has the truth and the others are in error.

Goldberg’s view sets aside the question of the truth of a religion’s beliefs but instead asks about a religion’s usefulness. A religion or religious community should be evaluated on how well it is helping its members meet certain basic human needs:
  • Is it helping them establish a meaningful and positive identity?
  • Is it helping them navigate and make sense of the challenges and stages of human life?
  • Is it helping them understand their role in society and guiding them in their interactions with others?
  • Is it helping them mature emotionally and socially, especially in learning to balance their personal ego needs with the needs of the community?
  • And does it connect them with the wider world and give them a sense of meaning and place in the universe?
The orthodox faithful or “true believers” do not and cannot see their religion in this way. They follow their religion because it is true and right—end of discussion.

More and more people, however, see the religion they personally may follow and all the world’s religions as part of a larger whole, which includes the whole range of human experiences and endeavors. For them it is impossible not to realize how all religions have developed historically and influenced each other, sharing traditions, gods, stories, myths, rituals and scriptures. Recognizing this, to then ask which religion is “true” is not only impossible to determine but pointless.

Fundamentalists would see Goldberg’s perspective as blasphemy but he is, in fact, trying to preserve what he believes is the vital role religion plays in our world and in people’s lives. While born in antiquity, the world’s religions cannot remain anchored there. Much of the energy of contemporary fundamentalism comes from a fear and rejection of the extremes and imbalances of modern life. Such a response is often entirely justified but dragging the world back to religion’s ancient origins is not a workable solution.

Goldberg (and many others) recognizes that religion provides an important critique of human life and its excesses. It provides guiding principles and interpretive stories which help us keep life in balance, individually and as a society. By insisting on remaining stuck in the past, religion is losing its ability to perform that essential role. Indeed doing so often allows it to be manipulated by the very forces it ought to be keeping in check (e.g. despotic political leaders wrapping themselves in religious images and symbols).

Religion’s value and power is not in what it thinks it knows about past events, the origin or make-up of the universe, or about God (which even the Bible insists is ultimately unknowable). Rather, religion’s value is its insight into our hearts and minds, i.e. the human soul. It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that the souls of many individuals and indeed of the planet as a whole are hurting badly. Rather than contributing to that darkness, religion must rediscover how to be a guiding light leading to wholeness and life.

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