I should be working on my talk for Sunday. Yet, here I am trying to spring a few thoughts coiled up in my mind.
Nine months ago I wrote a letter to myself. Portions of it have leaked into my weekly columns, conversations, and Sunday talks; and I’ve shared a paragraph or two with a few close friends, but largely I’ve kept it to myself. And while I should be working on that talk for Sunday, I have to reveal a few of my thoughts here, as it seems timely.
Here is my thesis: “Our bridges, the structures that formerly served us well, the ones that we confidently relied upon for the longest time, can longer guarantee safe passage. This is a societal-wide phenomena. ‘The times are a-changing,’ said Bob Dylan, and the political, economic, social, commercial, and religious structures that have underpinned our greater community are ‘rapidly aging.’ Consequently, each person has a choice: To regressively trust the perilous, collapsing status quo; or to courageously create new paths forward.”
That statement seems obvious enough, even before the events of 2020, but we may not understand what this means for our communities of faith. Here are a few suggestions for where we can begin:
ONE: Churches and other houses of worship – while essential to building better bridges to the future – are far too small and restrictive for the task. I’m speaking of course of their philosophical outlooks, not physical space. Only those who can leave behind religious tribalism and boundary-setting can learn to live what Janet Hagberg calls the “Life of Love.” Spiritual transformation will have to be decentralized and become “free range,” where it can thrive outside the usual institutions (No, I did not predict the explosion of virtual worship gatherings during a pandemic, but I’m glad for those gatherings).
TWO: Religious people who are seeking genuine transformation, will have to learn to let go. Let go of what? Most everything. Power. Being in charge. Privilege. Proving one’s orthodoxy. All the charts and explanations about the end times. Being convinced of one’s rightness and righteousness. I’m with Dietrich Bonhoeffer here: “Religion directs people to the power of God in the world. This is an illusion, for…the God of the Bible gains ground and power in the world by being powerless.” We are going to have to learn to live, love, and serve from a displaced position, from a Philippians 2 position, the Christ-like way of surrendering our own self interests.
THREE: Spiritually-curious people will have to trade their interpretive certainties for mystery. That is, there is no need to cling to the long-held beliefs in a literal, seven-day creation; the supernatural dictation of the Scriptures; the fear of an eternal burning hell; the anticipation of a literal city with golden streets. Holding literalistic views will only inhibit further growth. This doesn’t mean there is no God, no Mystery, no “Wondrous More,” as William James said so beautifully a century ago. It’s quite on the contrary: This simply means we know far less about God than we think we do, as God breaks the barriers of all conventional thinking, but what we know of God is love, a love with reconciliation not retribution as the final goal.
FOUR: Faith should welcome conversation and partnership with other disciplines – science, philosophy, and art in particular – recognizing that each of these use their own language, but attempt to speak of the same thing. When a religious person says “God;” a scientist speaks of the “Universe;” a philosopher grapples with “Reality” and an artist creates any work of “Beauty;” each of us is using our own vocabulary to bear witness to the “Wondrous More.” It is what Tillich was getting at when he spoke of the “The Ground of all Being,” and what Rohr calls, “The Universal Christ.” How others understand the Ultimate cannot be automatically rejected simply because their beliefs are outside our given perspective. This is a massive paradigm shift: To see others as partners instead of competitors; friends, not objects of manipulation; to recognized our differences (in regards to nationality, religion, race, ethnicity), but then to honor these differences and move forward together.
FIVE: Increasing the capacity of individuals, organizations, and faith communities to love others has to become the highest priority and practice. Thomas Merton understood this as well as anyone when he said, “If we attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, our own…capacity to love, we will not have anything to give to others. We will communicate nothing but our own ego-centered ambitions.” Merton made the proper diagnosis of our current malignancy. It is a failure to love, and more than anything, this must change.
What would such a change look like? It means we would stop the pursuit of the prosperity gospel, obsessed as it is with personal blessing and wealth, while a large portion of the world exists in squalor. It means we would no longer compartmentalize our faith, choosing an escalating 401K, or xenophobia, or racism, or rank nationalism over decency, compassion, and justice. It means we would cease the exclusion of others from different cultures, who are of other faiths, or who have lifestyles or orientations outside our expectations. It means we would do the hard work of finding consensus in the face of our most pressing challenges, and craft workable interfaith, intercultural, intergenerational solutions for the common good. It means we would give up being strict religionists who would rather be right, orthodox, or pious than be gracious or kind.
It is no wonder that religious structures are shaking and collapsing in the early 21st Century, for our selfishness has eclipsed our self-awareness; self-centeredness has replaced sacrifice; and our capacity for narcissism has exceeded our inclination to serve others. How could it not be this way? Without a deep, grounded, inner ability to love, the only result possible is this current state of affairs. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that the West has enjoyed more religious freedom than most any culture in the last 2,000 years, but our religion has taught people doctrine and dogma instead of how to show love and compassion. This must change if there will be any viable future for faith in North America.
There’s so much more, but that talk for Sunday won’t prepare itself…