Religion is a Gordian knot. Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds. Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it. And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.
Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently. Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life. Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred. It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II. Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, “re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.
Everyone is ambivalent. Everyone finds religion a conundrum.
Both these groups agree that religion needs to change. But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound. For the first is wary of religion precisely as uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs. As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable. A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human. It cannot change. Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify. Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations. Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.” It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender. All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.
The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human. As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture. Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism. (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)
I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief. They will help guide our reflections.
The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world. Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control. Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.” It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.
Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed transcendence of “God.” People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order. It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives. It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.” Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.
This brings us to a further anomaly. Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining how. Since the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated. Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving? Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke. Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?
If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control. If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.” Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”
This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.” Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started. For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”
Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block. For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking. But it won’t work. The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious. It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.
The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. For everyone must acknowledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin. Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.” Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate. Roman Catholicism, for example. The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.
The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable. I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that
(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural. It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world. Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form. It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.
(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred. It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.
(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane. Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions. They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”
(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE. As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus. There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings. Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.
Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past, by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake. It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated. This approach simply won’t work. It renders dialog impossible. For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises. I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.