Western culture has a very narrow definition of religion. We usually understand religion to consist in supernatural beliefs, obedience to the rules of our sect, and as repetition of rituals intended to magically change our world or ourselves.
There are many religions in the world that transcend those limited understandings. I always have loved Niebuhr’s elaboration of St. Paul’s call to faith, hope and love:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”
With religion’s history of intolerance and superstition, it is understandable that many today believe humankind would be better off without it. But if we assume Niebuhr’s definition of religion, even for a moment, we are led to the question of how all of us might take up the task of making religion a healthier part of our world.
I will mention three possibilities:
The religion the world needs will lead us into reality, not out of it.
Faith is often associated with superstition and untestable truth claims. Whatever assertions religion makes about God or the afterlife must not distract us from our common duty to be honest about the world we share with others, even those who believe differently.
The religion the world needs will hold the holy torch of reason above the occluding smoke of dogma. Religious education must no longer produce minds closed in sectarian belief, but ones open to shared truths. The sacred should not be honored with pacified curiosity, but with scientific wonder. The highest praise will be given not to those who memorize traditional answers, but to those who ask honest questions. The religion the world needs will be less afraid of heretics and more afraid of its own prejudice.
The religion the world needs will call us to be good citizens of the world.
Every religion must end the practice of making itself the exception to the principles of the common good. Every religion must realize that its power hierarchy is a frozen form of violence, and that every inch of property it claims in the name of God is a form of theft.
The religion the world needs will place principled compassion over merciless rules. Centuries of abusive discipline will be replaced with a burning passion for universal human happiness. The tragic supplication each nation and sect makes in support of its own warriors will be replaced by a universal prayer for the peacemakers who call us to live as one human family.
The religion the world needs will teach the art of living.
Religion must come to see that the greatest miracle can be found in our ordinary lives. It should teach every child not what it means to belong to a sect, but what it means to be human. Religion must ensure that no one has to go through the passages of life alone.
The religion the world needs will value spontaneous creativity over established worship. The polished lyrics of the dead will no longer drown out the heartfelt music of the living. The paintings of the masters will take second place to the drawings of the children. People will leave worship with eyes hungry for seeing and hearts thirsty for living. World scriptures will not be treated as literal but as different sheet music to the greatest love song of all time.