Do I think we are in the process of birthing a “Post-Religious” Society?
My answer is “yes” and “no”. Humans seem to need religious underpinning in their lives; it gives them a sense of belonging, and religion often attempts to provide answers to the questions that plague most souls: “Where do I come from? Why am I here? Do I have a purpose for being? And what happens after I die?” But, most of all, religion provides guideposts upon which civilizations are built. Let’s be clear, we all feel, at least from time to time, to know that there is some kind of compass to guide us through the darker times; both those dark times that are only felt within, and the dark times felt by whole nations.
But, I believe that religion needs to be an evolving, growing underpinning… providing “community” for those of us seeking answers to our spiritual questions and needs. However, religion seldom delivers what it promises. At their inceptions, religions started out with a human who somehow reached spiritual heights that seemed miraculous to others. These people knew things that most humans don’t; and there was just something about them that made other people want to listen, and follow. From what I’ve studied, all religions start out pretty innocently, but give them a hundred years or so and the decay starts to set in as the community becomes an institution. Institutionalization happens to all religions, and this leaves me wondering if institutionalization of religion is inevitable.
Those who are Christians need to remember that Jesus was a Jew; that he never intended to be anything but a Jew; that he never thought he was establishing a different religion; and that all he was trying to do was share what was in his own heart, soul, mind and spiritual experience. He was seeking to bring life into the religious path that had morphed into an institution in which knowing and following the rules was more important than what might be going on in one’s heart or soul. The early Christians were Jews, and when non-Jews started to become Christians, Peter and Paul argued over whether the pagan (non-Jew) had to be circumcised (become a Jew) in order to be a Christian. Peter always thought of himself as a Jew who followed Jesus. Paul always thought of himself as a Jew who followed Jesus. It was the Jews who first recognized the fact that these folks who were following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were a threat to the Institution and threw them out of the temple. These Christians wanted more than the Jewish temples of the day could offer to them. They wanted more than to follow laws and learn the stories that comprise Jewish scripture. They wanted their religion to come to life within them; they wanted a religion that would help them to change their lives and help them in their spiritual growth.
The stories about how people usually end up leaving religion behind are fairly similar; someone becomes dissatisfied with the status quo of their own religion and goes on a solitary spiritual quest. Many times, that spiritual quest pushes them outside of the very institution that had once provided them with security and a sense of belonging. But, in the end, the quest becomes more important than the security and community that the institution provided. And so they find themselves outside the community as they pick up their pilgrim’s staff and continue on the solitary journey of a spiritual seeker. Others have a more sad story; they realized that going to a building every week or so and reciting memorized prayers, listening to sermons that did not feed them, and sitting amongst other people who were, for the most part, strangers, just didn’t provide them with any spiritual food so, gradually, they simply drifted away, and both religion and spirituality become something other people do.
Most of my personal experience has been with Christianity, so I will use it as the base for my commentary on religion. I suspect that those who have been members of other religious communities may have some very similar tales to tell. For me, institutionalized religion is not much more than a spiritual and psychological box. If you want to be a part of a particular religious community, you need to learn at least a little bit about what their box holds. For many of those who were raised within a Christian tradition, changing “religions” is not an option; they simply feel they should be able to find a church box that feels relatively comfortable and safe. So, whenever they feel the need to be with a spiritual community, they try to find a local church that makes sense to them; a place where they can feel reasonably comfortable; a place with at least a few people who think and believe pretty much as they think and believe. Few go to a different church looking for a community that will challenge their own personal beliefs; that’s just too much to ask.
I’ve often thought that those who feel really comfortable with their religious community feel comfortable because the community mostly reflects their own, personal beliefs. There are religious communities that will support you in your personal beliefs, and help you to stay convinced that you all believe what you believe because this is what God believes. Rarely do I hear anyone talk about how they “wrestled” with God over a personal belief that God seemed to be wanting them to change. I’ve never met a racist who stopped being a racist because their religion told them they were wrong to hold their beliefs about racism. I’ve never met a homophobic Christian who confessed: “I used to hate gay people, but God got hold of me and helped me to see how wrong I was in my judgment.” I’ve never met a man who confessed to having beaten his wife and/or children until God came into his heart and set him on the right path. I’ve never met a woman who said that God helped her to understand that staying in a marriage to a brutal man was wrong; that she deserved to be treated as the precious person she was.
Right now, the United Methodist Church is very close to splitting over the issues of gay marriage; and many United Methodist clergy have had their ministerial license revoked because they are gay. I know there are Christian denominations that will allow a divorced person to attend church services on Sundays, but will not allow those who are divorced to teach Sunday school to their children or hold an office in the church. Now that must make all divorced people want to run to the nearest church where they can be tolerated out of “Christian love”, but never full embraced as equals.
I don’t like to use the word “God” because I’ve come to the realization that there are as many ways to understand that word as there are people who use it. When most people use it, they naively think that those around them understand the word “God” exactly the same way they do. And that’s when we all get into trouble.
I’m not sure society can create a religion that doesn’t, at some point down the road, start to get corrupt and eroded by its own institutionalization. And once institutionalization sets in, it’s all pretty much downhill from there. It all starts out innocently enough. A few people start to gather on a regular basis in order to discuss their spiritual journey. As the group grows, there’s a natural tendency for them to want to find those experiences and beliefs they share in common. Eventually, these beliefs become so entrenched that anybody who seeks to come to the meetings, but does not share the same beliefs as the others seem to share, soon learns that they probably aren’t going to feel welcomed or comfortable with the group. And so the group has taken its first steps into becoming an institution.
I must confess that I don’t see much hope for “Institutionalized” religion. I don’t think most religious institutions would even consider the possibility that they may just be in need of some honest belly-button gazing. But, perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.
About the author: Victoria Clair is a citizen of the U.S. who has been living in the Philippines for eleven years. She holds a M.Div and a Ph.D. in Metaphysics. She is the author of the book Let My People In, which won the Meyer Award for its contribution to social justice. Both Psychology and Spirituality have always been a focal point in her life and she has done extensive studies in Christianity, Buddhism, Pagan Religion, the Enneagram and Jungian psychology. She continues to both write and paint in her retirement years.