Does Religion Have a Future? Flip a Coin!

September 28, 2018

I have friends and family who have been predicting the demise of religion for a long time. One of them recently asked me what kinds of students could possibly have an interest in studying about religion in any form, given all the bad publicity about religious organizations. In our spirited conversation, I realized that my friend, who was hurt several times in his youth by religious leaders, is only able to see one side of the religious “coin” because of his experiences. He sees the scandals, hypocrisies, ignorance, and mean-spiritedness that is too often associated with religious believers and their organizations; and he has a homing device for catching the inconsistencies between the stated and lived religious values of many people professing a religious faith.

My friend believes he has history and current events on his side. He is quick to point out Christianity’s long history of complicity with violence, oppression, and misogyny and he has followed closely two recent controversies: the Catholic sex abuse cover-up and the revelation that four out of five Evangelicals are now voting for U.S. politicians with proven records of immorality and even documented illegal behaviors. In addition, he knows that this unholy mix of religion, bad acting and politics is not just an American phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has been linked with Russian efforts to destabilize the Balkans, particularly those nations seeking to join the NATO alliance, like Montenegro and Macedonia, and Judaism is criticized regularly for fomenting the diminishment or even dehumanization of Palestinians and Arabs in and around the Jewish state of Israel. Islam, of course, is the religious bogeyman, condemned for having members that embrace terrorism, and even followers of the peace-centered religious traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism are lampooned for the violent extremists in their own ranks, particularly in nations like Sri Lanka and India.

There is undeniable truth to this description of one side of the religion “coin.” But, there is another side to the coin that holds an equal truth that eludes my friend. Religion has been like gum stuck on the sole of the human shoe, because people of every generation find meaning, purpose, motivation, and direction in and through the rituals, traditions, and teachings of religious traditions. More importantly, the other side of the religion coin opens doorways to sets of relationships that collectively create the possibility of re-imagining one’s interpretation of creation and the human condition. It offers an “imaginary,” in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, that can become drenched in hope, kindness, solidarity, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the kind of love that makes room for the possibility of human connectivity that transcends all divisions.

For more than half a century, many professors teaching students about religion have been engaged in an on-going debate about the nature of religious belief and practice. The debate has criticized the so-called World Religions Paradigm, the most common way most educators have approached teaching religion. This paradigm believes that there are “great” historic religious traditions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and the way to teach people about them is to explain each religion’s doctrines and dogmas, rituals, and practices. If a student knows these, they have some sense of what makes people tick who follow those religious traditions.

In the 1960s, William Cantwell Smith, a Canadian professor of comparative religion, argued that thinking about religion as information to share with people misses the whole point. Religion has all these things, and they have a certain level of importance, but ultimately religion is about relationships, he insisted. Religion is about helping people to understand how to relate to God, a Higher Power, or maybe just a Higher Purpose. This understanding of religion is about human relationships with each other, the way we engage and accept one another as companions on the human journey, despite our many differences. A religion of relationships also emphasizes relating to the environment, to the earth and dust from which we come and return, and all of the animate and inanimate beings sharing space in the universe. Lastly, this idea of religion, particularly in its mystical forms, is all about learning to relate with compassion, acceptance, and discipline to the fragmented pieces of our own human spirit, and to know experientially that our deepest connection to each other is through our shared brokenness.

This is the other side of the religious coin, the clarifying, sensitizing and liberating form of religion, and every fall Seattle University’ School of Theology and Ministry welcomes a motivated, bright and idealistic group of students who want to explore this side of the coin.

I marvel at the pathways many of these students have walked, the hurdles they have climbed, and the disappointments and disillusionments they have endured before crossing through the doorway of our school. Some have already overcome obstacles that would have crushed the spirit of others, and have quietly made contributions to human flourishing that would dwarf the efforts of those receiving laurels. They are testimonials to generosity, humility and the indomitable spirit of the human mind and heart to live more fully aware and more fully alive because it is right, not because anyone notices.

Our students are motivated to study with us for an assortment of more immediate reasons. Some are preparing to lead congregations; others to become leaders in faith-based organizations, particularly in the social service and social justice sectors, working on issues like homelessness, immigration, prison reform, or restorative justice; still others want to serve as counselors, with a special sensitivity to spirituality and faith as a resource for mental health; and some seek to become chaplains in hospitals, the military, prisons, police departments or industry. Every year, we also have students who come back to school because they have discerned this is a step they must take in their life journey, even though they are uncertain about the next step. There is also an emerging group seeking education to bring a “ministerial consciousness” or “spiritually awakened” sensitivity to leadership in institutions of education, government, and industry.

This mélange of educational goals among our students is complemented by other important forms of diversity. For several years, the school has had an increasing level of pluralism in religious or spiritual backgrounds. Our wildly different students join an educational environment that swims against the tide of the polarized politics, religion, and culture wars that has been releasing poison into the lives of our organizations and societies for three or four decades. We have students coming from every imaginable Christian tradition – from Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal – as well as women and men with backgrounds in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, not to mention spiritual seekers, and even agnostics and atheists. The students also come from many different cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds, disparate educational backgrounds (from business and law to healthcare and liberal arts) and various socioeconomic backgrounds (from financially comfortable to living at or below the poverty line). Lastly, our students are an intergenerational group, with ages ranging from the early 20s to the mid-70s, bringing thousands of years of human experience into every academic year.

What could such different people with varying interests find in common? Although they might not readily recognize these common patterns in themselves, over the past few years I have noticed that our students share a hunger for something “more” in their life. They seem to intuit that exploring the ebb and flow of spirituality, faith-informed ethics, and the good side of the religious coin provides the gateway to a unique form of human wisdom: a wisdom designed to help people find something “bigger” than themselves. Our students seek a wisdom grounded in ideas, perspectives, and practices, but also the resources needed to develop the courage, strength, and skills to devote their lives to layers of relationships to which we must attend if we truly seek to leave a mark on our world. They want to heal the broken places in creation; they want to inspire others to live in an impregnable hope that can stand against even insurmountable odds; and, they are eager to set others on fire with a vision and passion for creating a more just and humane world.

Although they might talk about it differently, our students realize that they will come to this place of generous service and a more deeply rooted identity in the midst of a world of growing plurality precisely through their study of the other side of the religious “coin,” a process that will help them to not only understand the other side of the coin but to become it for others. They will learn the wisdom of a young, precocious teenage African-American poet, Frederick J.B. Moore II:  

To change the world 
your heart has to be into it 
you can’t half step what you do
or everything will fall apart …

to change the world 
you need a foundation behind you 
that will encourage you to keep pushing the world 
when you’re broken and exhausted 

to change the world 
your first step has to be yourself 
because you are the greatest catalyst for change 

This is the good side of the religious coin my friend just can’t see, but millions across the world hunger to encounter and always will, even when the forms of religious institutional structures change and come and go, even when a religious tradition gets swamped in a moral crisis that highlights the negative so much it renders the positive invisible. Ironically, an era of vast political ineptitude and disintegration makes the good side of the coin more attractive to people who are looking for something more enduring and transcendent.

Does religion have a future? Flip a coin. But, make sure you are looking at both sides.

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