Proposal: The future of religion is ethics.
For a few years now, I have been wrestling with the idea of the future of religion. In part, this was brought on by the Death of God philosophers (Dawkins & Co.), in part by reading the non-traditional histories of Karen Armstrong, in part by my vantage at the ground floor with rural churches and (of course) the way my mind works as a futurist… and other circumstances.
Before I begin developing this idea in limited space, I want to preclude any suggestions that I don’t know what I’m talking about. You will either agree or disagree. Either is fine. I’m not here to convert anyone who believes the future of religion is x, y, or z, only that I believe the (forseeable) future of religion lies with ethics. My credentials may or may not speak for themselves, my thoughts are the same, and there are a host of reasons you could toss up to vilify, excuse, or dismiss me. I would be glad to provide you with more ammunition, should you request it, as I am my premier critic.
That said, a thought has been ruminating for a few years now that we (that is, those of a religious persuasion) need to consider how to revitalize our beliefs in a broader way. To think bigger and larger than our past. To “dream a little bigger, darling,” and exercise a heretofore unknown inventiveness and creativity. Someone once said I had “the spirit of an inventor” and when I was a child, people expected me to go into neurobiology or mathematics because I would not give up until I found a breakthrough, a solution, a way to “fix” things after I had disassembled them. This has proven to be a blessing as well as a curse, as I can see patterns and excel at war/strategy games but also overanalyze things that I should not (two of the most important relationships I have been in collapsed, in part, because I could not “shut down” my mind). None of these things matter to you perhaps Reader, but they matter a great deal for me because I have become personally invested in seeing my faith (as well as other faiths or “the faith of others” depending on your sensitivities) overcome our present challenges and capture the elusive “breakthrough” to begin pioneering a new society. From interpersonal relations to automated adaptive technology, we are a race racing to find an adaptive ethic to govern our behavior and the limitless possibilities before us.
You may say I am a dreamer, but I’m not. At my best, I am a practical realist with idealistic and romantic fantasies. At worst, a cutthroat pirate.
I hesitate, of course, to share this next step.
What became clear during my first adventure to World’s End was that I had failed. Miserably. And rather than repurchase the sensational trope about a god who saves and loves and protects without regard to the particulars, without regard to karma or reciprocity or justice, I “rewound the clock” looking for something that made sense with the world. I time travelled. If you’re into that kind of thing. Rather than re-invest in a broken Christianity, rather than sacrifice to a god who turned third eyes blind to our world as a remote planet, I looked for the rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Call it Babel, call it Prometheus, call it Randall, I demanded an answer and sought to ascend the heights for my answer if need be. And so I “went back” to the long line of Levants and found a framework that… In metaphorical ways (here I speak cautiously, as I am very guarded about what happened) I was “healed.” I “rebuilt” my spine. Oh, it took many years and I will always walk with a limp, but I survived. And then I came back. Two Herculean challenges if ever there were. And I came back with two thoughts: What we have doesn’t work. We must rebuild.
Now, I am perfectly aware that this is where angels fear to tread and humans press forward. From Mohammed to Joseph Smith and everything in between, there are a host of characters who presume to say, “I found it! I found what was missing. Everyone else was wrong so I, and I alone, have the real truth straight from the lips of God!” And if I were a madman or prophet, perhaps that would have been my story too. Except I didn’t hear from God and am unwilling to put the “God said” bumper sticker on my Kia Soul. My ears still ringing, I instead became like the wandering Aramean and journeyed across the sands of time, collecting rabbis in my wings (if I might sound so magnanimous). Somewhere along the way, the pieces began to click-clack together and I saw our future lies with ethics.
And so here we are at the first. The story is told, and now I must explain myself, my platform, why you should elect me to become your leader. Except I don’t want to be anyone’s leader. Or advisor. I just want to be a good man, someone who doesn’t betray and swindle and hurt people just so that I can feel better about myself. I don’t want to stretch and hum the sacred Om, I don’t want to pedal my bike and tweet the miles and call that personal fulfillment or Oprah or a graphic design degree or an internship at Fossil, doodling dogs down the dandy Dallas turnpike to Chandler and Driscoll (for they are, word for word, the same shenanigan) and call that my god. In fact, for the first time, I don’t want anything – thank you, Buddy Buddha. But since I have come this far, I suppose I have no choice (having painted myself into the corner) except to do just that, hunh? To explain myself. To explain my intentions with your daughter.
A few years before Jesus, there lived a man named Hillel and while the story doesn’t begin with him, it certainly provides some context for where I am going. The stories surrounding Hillel typically cast him against another rabbi – Shammai. Hillel and Shammai offer two sides of the coin. Shammai has been considered the “stricter” of the two for his aggressive/antisocial tendencies. He believed that the Torah was law, the oral tradition was law, and the only questions about these two should be directed towards a literal “reading.” In modern terms, we could say that Shammai was ultra-conservative. Once (or thrice, depending on how far you read into the Talmud and Midrash), a Gentile came to him asking for a short explanation of the Torah. Shammai, incensed that 1) a Gentile would ask for 2) a brief summary of the law, chased the Gentile away and pronounced curses after him. The same man, the Gentile, ran to Hillel and asked the same question. Because Gentiles are like that.
Unlike his contemporary, Hillel played along (in all three stories) and summarized the Torah – ethically – by presenting the Golden Rule. Do not do to others what you would not want done to you. The rest is commentary, go and study. One would almost be inclined to say, No. Hillel didn’t make an ethical move. He summarized the law, except that the summary is an ethical statement. What we have missed or at least neglected is the ways in which we must stand for something. It is not enough that we are dying to go to Heaven – we must have lived for something, stood for something honorable. And so we aspire to an ethical life to live in such a way as to inspire others, to be noble and charitable and lovely – to be champions not in our death, but in life. To overcome evil with good. To be ethical. The only reluctance in this endeavor is determining whose ethic we live out.
Hillel, unlike the conservative Shammai, inaugurates a new era in religious practice that Jesus and especially Paul will adopt – that religion is not about what we do as much as who we are. Whether we “do unto others as we would have them do to us” or whether we “refrain from doing what we would not want done to us,” at core is a concern for how we behave towards others, how we live our lives with meaning and significance, and how we dignify the worth in others. No longer is the concern self-preservation. The only thing is that it is about what we do. This isn’t a mutual exclusive. Somewhere along the way we began using scripture and commentary to excuse ourselves, each generation becoming more… gassy than the one before it. We raise our voices, claiming that we can be whoever we want to be and act any way we want because what we do doesn’t matter, Jesus saves, ad infinitum.
So, as apostate as it sounds, I believe Jesus saves but that this isn’t enough without a change.
A parallel: I know of a woman in this very zipcode (71457) who lost her home, abandoned her children, abandoned her parents, abandoned all of her responsibilities not because she was on drugs, not because she lacked the means, not because there were not people to help her, not because she was unloved… But simply because she refused to change. And each time I pass in front of the shell of that house, it is a testimony to how corrupt we can become when we refuse to make hard choices, to live ethically, and do what is right even when it is hard.
And that is, in the simplest way I can say it (without footnotes or a long treatise on how I believe we can live this out), the reason why I believe our future is headed towards something new… or old, as it were. In Hillel, we have a shift (an important shift, considering the influence he has had on Judaism and how he so clearly influenced Jesus) in the practice of religion – from making sure one is right with God to making sure one is right with their fellow humans.
It is not enough to be saved. How you treat(ed) me, and how I treat(ed) you are still important. These kind of stories define who we are, who we are becoming, and of what our destinies are made. If you ask me, these are some of the most important questions to be had when it comes to religion. So while you may tweedle-dee about Joyce Meyer or C.S. Lewis under the supposition that you are “right” with God, maybe you should begin asking if you’re right with others. I hesitate, of course, to make such a moralist statement but feel compelled to press it. A religion which damns the rest of the world has no god in it but is an empty exercise in blowing other’s candles out to make your own brighter.