"What does religion have to do with the future of the world?" If you would have asked that question to Westerners 20 years ago most would have responded, "Not much." Granted, there would be a sizable group of conservative American Christians who would have said, as they still do, "Lack of RIGHT religious belief will bring God's final judgment on the world, and the return of Christ."
But religious liberals and secularists tended to think that the world had achieved an acceptance of religious pluralism. We could "all get along," despite significant differences.
Enter U.S. targeted terrorism in the '90s, thrown into hyper-drive on 9-11, 2001. All our views were transformed, whether liberal, secularist or fundamentalist.
Religion and Extremism
It is now painfully obvious that religion is yet a powerful driving force in cultural conflict and "holy war." Religion influences not only suicide bombers, but American foreign policy views of how to relate to cultures and nations guided by religious passions difficult for us to understand.
Cultural and technological change and globalization are challenging factors that destabilize certain cultures particularly. We often fail to see that religion may serve as a place of sanctuary--either mitigating or exacerbating problems. Religion CAN serve to help people adapt, if it is wisely understood and applied.
Two common extremes, here and abroad, need to be moderated: One, the idea that getting religion doctrinally RIGHT is the world's answer. For millions of Americans that means becoming born-again Christians. For a majority of Iraqis, that means affirming Shiite practices over Sunni traditions. Two, the concept that nothing would help the world more than the ERADICATION of religion, of all types. Both secularism and fundamentalism push their views aggressively.
Why not look for realistic middle ground? Religion is not going away any time soon, despite the hopes of some currently popular writers. But it is not necessary to stand idly by as the radical fringe of fundamentalism promotes fear, hatred and violence. And this includes more than just radical Islam.
Am I foolish to be optimistic about a positive contribution from religion? Not if enough of us are willing to take a step back from our personal religious (or anti-religious) views and examine how spiritual drives tend to work in us and in society. For example, we might reflect on how truisms in religion feed extreme positions. Here are some on the uncritically pro-religion side.
Misplaced Religious Truisms
1. Without organized religious beliefs there is no valid basis for morality.
Mere careful observation should put this one to rest.
2. Personal experience (conversion, a "miracle," etc.) validates whatever religious beliefs are associated with the experience.
This is a natural and common assumption and hard to dissuade people from. However, the obvious conflicts produced when people of diverse beliefs think this way should point out that personal experience does not translate directly to universal truth.
3. History validates certain religious claims (particularly traditional Jewish and Christian ones) over against others.
This one, of course, is hotly debated. If one is inclined to lean on this, as most 'true believers' do, he or she should look at the work of numerous historical scholars. Not sufficient are church leaders who have looked for (and usually found) supposed historical validation. Neither are New Testament scholars who are highly trained, but rarely are cultural historians or take a vital interdisciplinary perspective. New Testament backgrounds, literary criticism and theological interpretation are HIGHLY complex areas, not readily deciphered. Pick the necessary multiple experts very, very carefully. Hold even cherished views tentatively…. Evidence is still emerging and shifting--religion is perhaps the slowest of systems to be transformed, though it does change.
How Religion Can Be Part of the Solution
The counter to these truisms suggests that mature, helpful religious concepts are those which are broad and gracious. They are not specific dogmas or metaphysical concepts (such as on the nature of Christ, eternal punishment, etc.) set in certain words. Rather they are practices of awe, gratitude and love, lived out in actions.
There is something positive and extremely powerful in the "personal relationship" that many Sufis or even Evangelicals feel they have with God. Sometimes this is called "intimate" or even a "love affair." Millions of "spiritual but not religious" people experience something very akin to this though they probably consider that the relationship is with their "higher self" or "higher power," conceived as a non-individual god.
I am confident that it is the same dynamic both types enjoy. This conclusion comes from close observation and my own experience (which alone can't be generalized, of course)--I actively cultivated such "relationship" for 27 adult years as a devout Christian and now 12 years as spiritual but not institutionally religious. We should aim to see commonalities rather than difference in our spiritual experiences.
There is little question that the crucial religious conflict of our day, greatly impacting the world's future, is the exclusivist aspect of Islam vs. general Western culture plus the exclusivist, evangelizing aspect of Christianity. Since few Americans have direct contact with exclusivist Muslims, the most direct, practical way for us to do something positive about this tension is to begin building bridges with everyone around us.
Actively seek out common ground. Focus on the things you and the other person value and inwardly experience--usually more workable than dealing with religious language or outward forms. As you are able, extend your shared experiences to people who seem to believe quite different things than you do. I believe you will be in for some pleasant surprises. If most of us will do this consistently, our collective effort will contribute far more in the "war on terrorism" than military might ever can, necessary as it may sometimes be.
About the author: Howard Pepper, M. Div., M.A.- is author of parenting and spirituality books, a retired marriage & family counselor and business/life coach, and current spirituality researcher/writer. Ebooks and free Ezine available at http://www.GoodNewsBetterNews.com Blog: http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com