Have you ever wondered: What is the current role of religion in our society? Does religion do more harm than good? What does the future of religion look like?
Are churches, temples, mosques and religiously-affiliated nonprofits serving the greatest good of the community (or even the greatest number of common values of community members) with their programs and outreach?
We depend on religious institutions to grapple with life’s big questions and to provide peace and counsel in times of pain and suffering. We rely on them to connect individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities not only physically through face-to-face experiences and in service to others, but also virtually online.
Can we not also depend on them to evolve — to address the needs, values and beliefs of the world — to transcend and include?
Religious communities convene people physically in rooms together, but let us foster connections between the interior dimensions of those same individuals, families, and neighborhoods. These connections are formed around common values and teachings and this shared, intersubjective space called “we” is where the seed of the greater good can be planted.
Sometimes we are told that the teachings of science and religion contradict each other. But there are plenty of ways that science and religion might exist together, as two dimensions of our very complex reality. These subjects should be taught early and often as our ability to understand and our perception of the world changes over time. Certain amounts of doubt and skepticism to balance out our faith and wisdom can be healthy. Believing something (until we don’t anymore) is good for us — it keeps us flexible, responsive, engaged and alive.
THE SPIRIT OF THE COSMOS
In Sanskrit, the word namaste means that there is a light (Spirit, consciousness) inside of me that is identical to the light inside of you. There have been empirical scientific discoveries that explain this connection (from mirror neurons to quantum entanglement). And we also know from watching episodes of Cosmos that the matter that comprises the universe is at the same time connected by — and cradled in — vast regions of invisible or “dark” matter. Dark matter is involved in both the attractive and gravitational force between celestial bodies (that which keeps our worlds in place) as well as the repulsive force between solar systems (that which keeps our universe expanding). It is that same ubiquitous, unifying, dynamic and regenerative force that some call “God.” (May that force be with us, always).
We are still in the transition from modern to post-modern (hierarchy to holarchy, “text to context”), and we may have a tendency to rely too heavily on the advances and authority of science. We may feel we have outgrown the tribal and magical traditions of our ancestors through thousands of years of transcending and including. New stages always include those that have come before. Matthew Fox, the iconoclastic founder of the Creation Spirituality movement, once said, “we are not born onto this earth, but from it.” If we give ourselves permission to access and honor (even exalt) our tribal/magical roots, it may be through this process that we extend the much-needed consideration (not just behavioral change) to the ground from which we have come — showing our planet the same love and respect that we would show an elder.
Our planet, our people and our future are badly in need of a spirituality that is not rooted in erecting boundaries and “either/or” thinking. Our spirituality should be one of “both/and” — a spirituality that radically includes the forms of masculine and feminine, inner and outer, individual and collective, faith and practice.
There are many forces at work in the Cosmos, many opportunities for us to be over-stimulated or distracted, many different ways to express love. Our spirituality shouldn’t force us to choose sides against men, women or even love itself.
Let us not assume “safe” ways of thinking. And let us never affirm that thought itself is dangerous. Exercising our intellect might even be part of our spiritual practice. We might even embody a spirituality that is both creative and self-critical — a spirituality that holds more than one belief at a time.
But what does this have to do with religion? Can’t a person be “spiritual” but not “religious?”
PLURALISM AND THE RISE OF THE “NONES”
This attitude is definitely on the rise, and more and more people identify as “none” according to the latest PEW research (23% of Americans now have “no religious affiliation,” up from 16% in 2008). The “nones” now outnumber Catholics (21%) and mainline Protestants (15%). Eventually, those “nones” will come into power, becoming an equal voice at the table alongside Evangelical Protestants (who still make up 25% of the population) and they will begin to shape public policy.
Religion should speak to the generations raised on pluralism and social media. Spirituality should not be limited to the powerful few. Belief systems should be inclusive of all faiths and voices — rooted in the idea that the perspective and worldview of others is what gives value and definition to one’s own.
Is it possible to create a personal transformative practice within a pluralistic community or framework? It’s been said that “interfaith” cannot be a religion, that pluralism cannot be it’s own path, or it’s own practice.
But we, as individuals, come through these houses of faith and practice. Some of us are born there, and some have knocked on the door or wandered in off the street. These houses of religion contain room upon room of knowledge, custom and tradition. Eventually, we find the back door of these houses, and discover that they all back up to one another, converging onto a lush garden courtyard where all beings are engaged in interreligious study, collaborative seeking, service to one another, shared meals and mutual celebration. That courtyard is interfaith dialogue. That courtyard is pluralism. That courtyard is where we may choose to worship. Yes, we may run back into any one of these houses if we need to reference a specific text, appeal to a certain teacher, or find inspiration that only the smells and stained glass of that specific house may afford, but we may choose to no longer live there.
The interfaith/interspiritual movement plays a vital role in the next phase of the development of religion itself. Religious pluralism is the next reasonable step for those that view these traditions in a holarchical (not hierarchical) context and find themselves craving an integrative practice that doesn’t exclude ritual or ceremony from the forms that have been transcended, but carries it forward and honors what is true, beautiful and good in each of them.
Engaging in this new interspiritual approach may even create what James Fowler called the “ultimate environment” or “dependable life space.”
To put pluralism into practice, however, it is important to avoid the trappings of religious syncretism (which puts all of the world’s teachings into a blender and flips the switch). Some modern churches and communities combine the language and teachings of Christianity, Buddhism and Native American religions into one unified expression. These rituals may be beautiful and transformative, but they are not pluralistic.
Religious pluralism explicitly honors the individual faith traditions, keeping them intact and deliberately moving from Christian scripture to Buddhist teachings to Native American wisdom.
The authors and storytellers of the world’s wisdom traditions did so from a unique historical perspective, a specific cosmic address, originating from their own intersection of states and stages — and it is God and the Cosmos (as Spirit-in-Action) that speaks through these teachers, healers and prophets, constantly unfolding and becoming self aware through the apertures of human consciousness. We affirm this Universal wisdom, and understand that even expressions of the Divine require context.
THE FUTURE OF RELIGION
Author Daniel Gustav Anderson recently laid out four suggestions for the future of Integral Theory as it applies to philosophy, business, politics, medicine and education.
I propose that we consider including them in our conversations about integral spirituality.
They are as follows:
A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS CRITICAL: Not negative, but dialectical; it should have the ability to scientifically examine and experiment with truth claims. It should exist in a state of unknowingness. It should be critically self-aware of how it makes knowledge, and how that knowledge functions.
A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS COMPASSIONATE: Its purpose should be to alleviate the sufferings of the totality of others, to work for the objective well-being of all beings by remedying specific problems and striving not to attain any kind of advanced state of consciousness or enlightened condition but to be useful. One model for this kind of compassionate action is that of upaya or skillful means as presented in the Lotus Sutra, a pinnacle of Mahayana Buddhism.
A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS COMPETENT: It should be increasingly competent at doing critical and compassionate work, replacing the model of the philosopher-sage dispensing timeless-wisdom-units with a gathering of knowledgeable, committed friends in earnest discussion and debate. The success of each participant should be a success for the group. These friends would help each other disagree more competently, and see each other in themselves. It should be a dynamic relationship that is agonistic, not antagonistic.
A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS CONSCIOUS: A spirituality that is situationally aware of the social and political consequences and investments of the work at hand, and conscious of the work as a form of skillful means. It should be purposive and directed toward an intentional and explicit aim, not uncoordinated acts of kindness or indiscriminate and unfocused acts of critique.
*A SPIRITUALITY THAT IS CREATIVE (I’ve added this one): It should consistently be producing new experiences and artifacts by the community and for the community in the form of teachings, writings, workshops, rituals, groups, clubs, video, social media, etc. and regularly adapting and improving upon those forms.
If our religion cannot meet these criteria in its current form, then we owe it to ourselves, to our future generations, and to the planet, to build a new one.