The Death of Real Religionby Dr. Joseph Chuman -- Leader of the Bergen Ethical Society.
The Decline of Belief and the Rise of the Therapeutic ModelIn previous generations what one religiously believed made a difference. Religious devotees affirmed doctrines, articles of faith, and the ritual practices which they symbolized because they were comforting. But not merely comforting -- because they were true. Belief was the fabric of conscience and often inspired moral sacrifice and deeds of courage. Martin Luther's proclamation "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise" has echoed through the ages as an example of the power of conscience to guide one's actions.
Religious belief made demands evoking a sense of obligation and duty which often lifted the person beyond his or her immediate interests to serve the interests of others. In our own day, Martin Luther King reflected the force of religion to impel moral action when he said, "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
Today, the search for religious truth and ethical obligation is greatly replaced by the quest for personal, "spiritual" fulfillment. In this sense it imitates the aims of therapy albeit with a different approach and content. The questions people often ask before joining a congregation or engaging a spiritual discipline is "How will it enhance my personal life", "How will it bring me greater fulfillment?" "Does the ambiance of this congregation -- its music, the vitality of the congregation, the personality of the minister -- meet my personal needs? In short, "what's in it for me?" These questions, needless to say, have little to do with belief.
The shift of religion away from theology to matters of psychology may make congregational life a warmer, more engaging, but less serious, affair. In the worst cases, it becomes an arena for self-indulgence at the expense of higher, more outer-directed callings. The search for commanding truths by which to assess one's own shortcomings and challenge the ethical shortcomings of society is falling by the wayside. This transformation of American religion, sweeping across the American landscape like a whirlwind, whether in organized churches or among private seekers, by its nature does not readily evoke strong moral conscience nor passionate commitments extending beyond the individual alone.
The Problems of Religious SurfingIt used be disparaged as syncretism, but today it has become fashionable to borrow not only the wisdom of other traditions, but the very ceremonies, rituals and doctrines that lie at the sacred center of thefaiths of various peoples. New Agers don the appropriate regalia and engage in Native American rites. Christians build sukkot and hold Passover seders. Justified in the name of greater understanding, ecumenism, and spiritual fulfillment, few practitioners or critics question this appropriation of the rituals of others as one's own.
But what appears on its face complimentary (Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?) raises very serious problems. Not least of these is the unwitting issue of political condescension. When religious practices of subjugated or marginalized people are appropriated by religiously dominant groups, and not the other way around, some questions as to the dynamics underlying the current craze of shameless borrowing need to be posed. When surveyed, Native Americans are not flattered by Caucasians sitting in sweat lodges and passing the peace pipe. Rather, many see it as the last insult in a tragic history of theft and exploitation which has characterized the cultural genocide of native peoples.
Such borrowing also makes religion more superficial. Virtually every religious practice is an expression of a tradition and often a religious culture with complex roots that penetrate deeply. Living the religious life involves immersing oneself in that tradition. To skim off what is best and most appealing is to ignore the contradictions, subtleties and historical reach which augments religion's edifying power. Behind this surfing of the religious landscape is often an intention to jerrybuild an overly optimistic spiritual outlook while sidestepping confrontation with the reality of suffering and evil. The easy importation of exotic and foreign rituals, may, again, fulfill the desire for immediate spiritual gratification. The cost is a forfeiture of deeper moral commitment.
Religion's Mimicking of the MarketReligion's most important role is to stand outside society and criticize its evils and excesses from a plateau of higher moral values. It points a finger at government and the wielders of secular authority and speaks "truth to power." Religion's social role needs to uphold those ideals which money cannot buy and which lie outside the realm of financial exchange justice, charity, human dignity, compassion, righteousness and peace among them.
Most ominous of religion's current tendencies is its aggressive appropriation of the values of the marketplace. The free market is all therage, and religion lamentably has fallen prey to its seductions. Large churches are modeled on shopping malls. Ministers have become entrepreneurs increasingly preoccupied with body counts and keeping the collection plates brimming. With self-fulfillment a motivating impetus behind religious seeking, the religious leader is being transformed into an entertainer in order to fill the pews and retain the interests of parishioners in an era of diminishing attention spans. Today religion is a consumer item, and people shop around for a church or spiritual regimen as they would a new refrigerator.
But what happens when religions sells out to the marketplace? What effect does it have on religion's traditional prophetic function when it envies, mimics and jumps on the bandwagon of the unfettered market? Clearly, it yields its vitally necessary role as a standard bearer and protector of those values which civilize society and give meaning to individual lives. Throughout American history, religion's authority to criticize the abuses of power has been its greatest gift to a society much in need of reform. This proud legacy has all but disappeared in an era awash in "spiritual" seeking, when religion's rewards begin to look too much like the blandishments of the world.
The abolition movement, the movement for women's suffrage in the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th exemplified religion in its prophetic role; religion at its best. Masses of Americans were liberated from conditions of oppression, and the American character was transformed and uplifted. Today, American religion has greatly ceded its grandeur and high moral purpose. In many quarters it has abandoned its distinctive calling. In this era of religious triumphalism, American religion is in danger of losing its soul.
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