JANUARY 17, 2002
Modern Faithfulness and Religious Confidence
-- Mary Reath
The major religions of the world have outlasted empire, country, nation-state, and business. Cultures continually address them with new information and fresh worldviews. Religions are not static; they change constantly, though deliberately and, as a rule, very slowly.
Today, there is a fundamental and perplexing question for people looking to practice a faith authentically. This question is centered on confusion about truth, authority and relativity. In our global, science-oriented, and multi-cultural world, if we believe that no one faith has the complete and only truth, and that there are multiple ways to approach and understand the divine -- the wholly other -- then who is going to say which ways are okay and which are not? Who will name the ethical and moral boundaries? Who is going to define what sin is? What does this confusion mean for the honest practice of a faith?
There is sincere and significant disagreement about faith and morals among the faithful, and within religious leadership. There is confusion about what really matters. How subliminally de-stabilizing is it when huge blocks of people who name themselves as Catholic or Jewish, Muslim or Protestant live their lives with little clarity about which teachings are essential? What does it mean that so many raise their children in ways that are so out of sync with the institutional bodies?
This confusion has created a sense of disequilibrium and a feeling of dis-ease for those of us looking for something in these churches, mosques, synagogues and temples today. Not many people want to go backward, whatever that might mean, but the confusion and resultant pressure exists, and the future seems unimaginable.
Admitting the need for another runs against deeply-held notions of what it means to be American. The acknowledgement of God as something greater than we runs against the predominant ideas of the last few centuries. Before the founding of the United States, it was thought to be imprudent to form a country without an established religion, but for many today the very idea of religion, and the associated implications regarding authority and obedience, create intense discomfort, even disdain.
But, now, at the beginning of 2002, we vividly feel a concentrated national and international interconnection, from town to town and country to country. The intensity of this fact has taken us by surprise and is newly significant. We have little understanding of what it really means. The global and the 'glocal' are forever present. People and money and jobs fly around the world. Nation-states are over-shadowed, and sometimes run-over, by the efficiency of the trading systems, the allure of cultural products, the reflexivity of the media, and the power of technological inventions. Whether we are physically going anywhere, we see and hear and know what people are doing and thinking about everywhere. The "haves" and the "have-nots" are literally watching each other.
These are big ideas, and we muddle about them, haunted by the unknown future. How is our religious thinking and decision making clouded by our country's history and these global themes? What is the status not just of our religious literacy but, more importantly, of our religious confidence? What is the place of submission or prostration in this world?
There is a loneliness in the post-modern world. We don't know how we got here, why we are here or where we are going. The boundaries are so wide open, and the conflict between individual conscience and group authority has seemed unbridgeable. Biology will surely never prove the physical existence of the soul, and physics may never fully and finally explain our origins. But we have felt the pulls of good within us and have seen it in others. The twentieth century began with the question "Who am I?" The question now is "How are we meant to live together?"
-- Mary Reath is a writer and publisher living in Princeton, NJ. She is the editor of Public Lives, Private Prayers (Sorin Books, 2001), a collection of prayers, poems, and statements about the spiritual life, from well-known public figures.