New Realities and the Future of Religion

Our Age

We live in astounding times. Earlier generations didn' anticipate the great and many advances of knowledge and understanding we’ve seen in our relatively brief era. It’s utterly reasonable that we should incorporate those advances into our religion. This is pioneering, exciting work.

But religious orthodoxies—the customary cultural forms—are conservative. They are first, reluctant to accept and second, slow to adapt to change. In fact, the most conservative religions self-consciously and aggressively resist change. They present their worldviews as authoritative and reject compelling evidence to the contrary.

For example, in our relatively conservative and traditionally religious culture, there are significant groups that continue to maintain the cosmology of the Old Testament. We label them religious fundamentalists. They maintain that the Jewish record, called the Old Testament from the Christian perspective record—several millennia ancient—is factual revelation, rather than the political-religious deposit of a relatively obscure Semitic tribe working out, over centuries, its own destiny in a contentious time and place—a deposit that drew from earlier Middle Eastern myths and legends, even as it spun its own myths and legends.

After the First World War, religious conservatives reacting to modernity organized to keep the theory of human evolution out of American public schools in the name of the Bible and the doctrine of creationism. Who isn’t familiar with the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” waged in Dayton, Tennessee in the mid-1920s? Although the story of that event is complicated by a variety of influences, we mythologize that event as a comic exposé of the religious fundamentalism that tried to resist inevitable cultural transformations in the tumultuous decade after World War I. Clarence Darrow, the lead counsel for the accused teacher John Scopes, said, “Scopes isn’t on trial, civilization is on trial.” Scopes was found guilty, but it was those who prosecuted him that subsequent generations judge and find wanting.

The resistance to the theory of evolution continues, though with different strategies. Every so often, we hear of another attempt by religious conservatives/fundamentalists to impose their ancient and tribal worldview in our contemporary public schools. For example, in 1999 the state board of education of Kansas, at the urging of religious conservatives/fundamentalists effectively made the teaching of evolution optional by removing evolution from state standardized tests. With flawed reasoning the conservatives/fundamentalists asserted that Biblical Creation is a theory—Creation Science—that should be taught as equal to, that is, alongside, the Big Bang hypothesis of the origins of the Universe, biologic evolutionary theory, and geologic plate tectonics.

The “Scopes Monkey Trial” and contemporary corollaries may seem comic, until we soberly consider the practical consequences. For instance, in the world scheme American students don’t generally compare favorably to students from other industrial nations such as Japan and Germany. And we obviously live in a global context in which this shortcoming is to our national detriment. Teaching Biblical creationism as valid “scientific” theory in our public schools is a waste of time and resources.

This campaign to impose creationism in the curricula of public schools reveals the deficiencies of those who advocate it. They are not of great faith, but of little faith—their faith limited by a fear of what is reasonable and can be demonstrated. At best they confuse, at worst they implant their fear in those to whom they teach their discredited worldview.

In the larger perspective, such religious conservatives/fundamentalists demean and possibly diminish the religious instinct—the innate desire within every human spirit to realize and live meaning. They diminish the God they seek to lift up, because they block the possibility of considerable direct, contemporary religious experience that elicits the most profound responses, religious responses such as awe and wonder, humility and connection.

The religious instinct is an essential aspect, arguably the defining aspect, of the human condition. We have opportunities to know and to understand beyond the wildest dreams of the generations that preceded us had. Our religious consciousnesses could be keen and penetrating, if only we were generally open to the Realities that the astounding times in which we live open up to us.

This call to a progressing Religion is not new. Rationalists made it during the Age of Reason (Enlightenment) that birthed the American Revolution. The Idealists of the Romantic Era known as the New England Transcendentalists made it, too.

Absolute Religion and the Human Condition

These New England Transcendentalists, circa 1840, envisioned an absolute religion that lay beneath all the familiar forms that religion takes in human culture. They recognized the customary forms to be corruptible, if only because a restless, inquiring spirit extends human knowledge and expands understanding with each generation.

The leading New England Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called for each generation to give itself up to an ongoing process of creation—a process implied in a fragment of Emerson’s poem “Woodnotes II:”

“All the forms are fugitive
But the substances survive.
Ever fresh the broad creation.”

And the way of society was also the way of the individual. Emerson also counseled, “Trust thyself!” The goal was an integral, living, progressing religion. (The New England Transcendentalist motto was “Individualism, Intuition, and Ingenuousness.”

The Transcendentalists called for each generation, ultimately, each individual, to discover her or his living religion, not only from personal intuition and experience, but also consistent with advancing knowledge. The results were realized in personal growth and generational progress.

The Transcendentalists had it intuitively right. Religion is a human instinct—a defining trait of the human condition—to realize and to live ultimate meanings centered in personal experience. When this happens, there is passion and commitment. A vital relationship emerges—an I-Thou relationship of the individual with Nature in its varied aspects converging in an overarching Reality. Such a relationship is supremely satisfying. Such a relationship is itself an ongoing revelation. Such a relationship is the means to what theology calls salvation. We are individually saved to a fullness of the inestimable gift that is our individual being.

In the old Transcendentalist outlook, we have given ourselves up to the ongoing process of creation. We are creators, too.

The forms of religion—the cultural traditions—should not interfere with the nurture and course of absolute religion The one Religion worth promoting is the Religion that nourishes the individual’s instincts and possibilities yet is pliable and progressive to advancing thought for the individual.

Now, I acknowledge that all of what I’m contending—invoking the old Transcendentalists’ radical individualism, notion of progress, and commitment to religious experience—relates to a particular vision of the human condition. This vision is optimistic, adventuresome, and muscular. It is always grounded in Reality—as Reality becomes progressively known.

Reality Is Compelling

The resulting beliefs we hold may be relatively hard beliefs:
  • hard in the sense that they overturn what family and culture tells us we should believe,
  • hard in the sense that they dispel what we might like to believe to relieve us of responsibilities or to assuage fears,
  • hard in the sense that they are acquired with attentiveness and often considerable work.
But while they may seem hard, we are not inadequate before them.  We never have anything to lose or fear in embracing truth. To the contrary: we have everything to gain, most significantly, the one life each one of us possess and is responsible for.

We have the resources to reach, to accept, and to adapt. And when we reach, accept, and adapt we grow in Self and in Spirit—a realization of meaning and a commitment to values charged with feeling. These are the intimate, relational fruits of what the old Transcendentalists called absolute religion.

This is exciting work! We, who draw the breath of life in these refulgent days, may peer deeper and see more clearly into absolute religion (what I’m summarizing as Religion) than any age or people were able to do so before us. Astounding insights, profound understandings, and sure meanings by which to live our lives as deep human beings beckon us onward.

Yet many persons haven’t yet encountered the advancements, knowledge, and understandings of these astounding days. That this is so, I maintain, is intellectually and spiritually sinful—an indictment of our culture, especially the interests that block access to these astounding advancements, growing knowledge, and deeper understandings.