Tons of people are walking away from religion in the West.
A recent Gallop poll found that in 2013 only 59% of Americans considered themselves a member of a church or synagogue, down from 70% in 1992. While some are moving toward a secular humanist world-view, others are migrating towards the religions of the East, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. One could argue, as many have, that the cause of this mass exodus is the increasing influence of modern science.
Undoubtedly, the influence of science on the psyche of modern man is a contributing factor but it is, in my opinion, a conditional factor not a causal one. The dysfunctional relationship between science and Christianity is somewhat misleading. It isn’t a clash between science and religion, as the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell once pointed out. It is a conflict between the science of 2000 BC and modern science. The real problem is fundamentalism. This is her mortal wound.
The strict, literal interpretation of scripture characteristic of the many modern churches puts people at odds with the findings of modern science. For example, young earth creationism paints a picture that denies the findings of biology, geology, archaeology, paleontology, and physics. Moreover, a literal interpretation of scripture establishes an irreconcilable relationship between terrestrial man and a cosmic God and in doing so, transforms religion into an extra-terrestrial system of beliefs that are disconnected from the reality of our day-to-day lives, placing modern man in a position where he must deny both his direct experience and common sense in order to carry the party line.
The friction between fundamentalism and the sensibilities of modern man creates a zero sum ultimatum where the individual must blindly accept a world view diametrically opposed to both the findings of modern science and the world as it is revealed through their senses or simply walk away, lest they be subjected to insincere pieties and passive judgment. Rather than reading scripture as metaphor, we are forced to accept that a man was born of an actual virgin, undoubtedly walked on water, really restored sight to the blind, and was literally resurrected from the dead just before ascending to a post-mortem paradise where he sits next to his Dad, the creator of the universe. When taken literally these ideas are not congruent with the world we live in. Such literal interpretations of mythology, when compared to our personal experience, are revealed to be peculiar and incongruent with the world we live in. As a result, religion has become nothing more than a collection of disassociated beliefs.
These sensational belief systems have nothing to do with who we are or the world we live in, but they are the stock in trade on the Western religious market. Not only has belief based spirituality—as opposed to an experiential spirituality—transformed Western religion into a system of thoughts obsessed with other-worldly concerns, it has become an evangelical enterprise. The success of a given belief system is measured, not by its transformational potential or its contribution to our quality of life, but by its popularity. The driving force is converts and attendance, not what works to renew our minds and transforms our life. As a result, we have lost touch with our practice tradition. People say, “You have got to give that over to God…” But how? How do I let go? Only practice can answer that question, and we have discontinued spiritual practice. Why?
Because there is no need to practice…everything has already been accomplished.
People in the West are becoming increasingly exhausted with the church’s other-worldly concerns and impractical approach to daily life, both of which stem from the literal interpretation of scripture. When we read in 2nd Corinthians that we are “ambassadors of Christ,” we assume St. Paul means, “Go door to door with pamphlets until the pews are full.” We think that the object is to believe, not embody, and since we “believe” we set out to install our belief system in someone else. We do not come to a practical conclusion because the lens through which we read scripture projects the meaning out on to the world around us, rather than internalizing the message so that we may be transformed, which was the meaning of Paul’s words.
In the preceding verses Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new person; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” Paul is talking about personal renewal, not conversion. How do we miss this essential point? When we read the word Christ, we see not a symbol or a title, but a last name. Like there was a mail box in Nazareth that read, “Christ, Jesus.” Christ was not his last name. Much like the term “Buddha” was a title (not a name…his name was Siddhartha Gautama) which meant, “the awakened one.” Christ was a title meaning, “the anointed one.” In Paul’s mind Jesus was not the only anointed one. In fact, Paul says at the beginning of chapter five in his second letter to the Corinthians, entitled Assurance of the Resurrection, “Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee,” emphasis mine. For Paul, Jesus is not the sole recipient of God’s anointing Spirit. Our renewal or resurrection is guaranteed through our anointment. When were we anointed? According to chapter one of both Genesis and the Gospel of John, “in the beginning” primordial man—not you, Ben, Paul, or Jesus—was anointed with the Spirit or image of God. Man was made in the image and likeness of God, and in the New Testament this indwelling image or our true Self is symbolized as “Christ,” which Jesus of Nazareth embodied.
When we interpret scripture literally we generate a self-depreciating belief system that absolves us of personal responsibility. We are not called to a kenotic life like Jesus lived, one marked by self-emptying, as Paul described in chapter 2 of his letter to the Philippians. Rather, the literalists would have us ignore our depression, anxiety, our anger, and the meaninglessness that haunts us and go on pretending that our life is not substantiated by what we do, but what he did. This denial of personal responsibility makes us unsuitable ambassadors or representatives. That does not mean that we can’t give fancy speeches. It means that we are incapable of embodying the spirit of God with our presence and actions. As the old saying goes, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Allow the old man to die, so that the new man may live through your body. How?
How do we crucify the old man, so that the new man may be resurrected?
In short, practice. We are crucified through prayer and meditation. Because we have always assumed that God was an extraterrestrial entity, disconnected in every way from the immediacy of our being, prayer has been about getting out of ourselves. Prayer has been tied up in a bunch of words, “vain repetitions”, and “the worry of many things.” But this is not the practice prescribed by scripture.
Once again, if we look closely—that is beyond our preconceived ideas—we will see an entirely different picture of practice. The path to ambassadorship, so to speak, is silence. Silence is our cross. It is her path to recovery. Fundamentalism is not a new problem. Paul had to deal with literalists in his day. In a section of his second letter to the Corinthians entitled, Glorify God in Body and Spirit, Paul writes, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” The temple is the house of God, but it is not a building in Jerusalem. It is your body. The body is where God dwells. Jesus says, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer.” So, how do we pray? Jesus answers, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” This is a difficult instruction to take literally, so we tend to ignore it. When we pray we have to recollect our awareness. We have to bring our awareness into the temple—in the body—so that we may reconnect with our true Self, the anointed spirit that lives within us. What do we do when we get there? “Be still and know that I am God.”