The Future of Religion and Spirituality

Excerpted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future:

Essential leadership tasks: Religious leaders need to firmly denounce doctrinal polarizations, help us step beyond outdated moral absolutism, and challenge us to engage the larger questions of purpose and well-being that will determine whether we ultimately honor what in ourselves and the world around us is most sacred.

What lies ahead for the world of spirituality and religion if Cultural Maturity’s predictions hold? Spiritual/religious experience has had an important place in the human endeavor throughout history. And religion’s future presents most intriguing questions.

As with art, a somewhat more extended look is warranted—for ultimately related reasons. To an even greater degree, we confront left-hand sensibilities inherent elusiveness. Again we encounter the need to think in terms of a developmental trajectory that might seem contradictory. And religion’s developmental/evolutionary story, like that of art, provides important further insights for understanding culture’s larger story.

People who give special importance to spiritual/religious experience will find this examination at once affirming and disconcerting. The concept of Cultural Maturity strongly acknowledges the importance that at least the roots of religious experience have for the future. It also identifies multiple important future roles. And at the same time, the concept of Cultural Maturity challenges religion in fundamental ways. It doesn’t confront religion any more severely than we’ve seen with other spheres, but the central place religion holds in many people’s lives can give this challenge particular significance. For many people, the church (the synagogue, the mosque) has served as a primary refuge from Cultural Maturity’s easily overwhelming demands. And while newer, alternative forms of spirituality may claim to take us forward, rarely do they effectively get us over Cultural Maturity’s threshold.

Addressing the future of spirituality/religion presents us with two kinds of questions that are important to distinguish. The first is most familiar: Does God—or however we think of ultimate spiritual/religious authority—exist? Culturally mature perspective is humble to the fact that this is a question that even culturally mature understanding cannot ultimately answer. It does invites us to ponder how the Cultural Maturity’s challenge to understand authority in ways that leave behind the parental imagery of times past might alter how we conceive of such authority. But it is limited in what more it can say.

The second question asks what the role of spiritual/religious experience has been through history and how that role may now be changing. Here culturally mature perspective has a great deal to tell us. Answering this second questions also at least puts the first question in larger perspective.

Engaging it necessarily starts with religion’s Question of Referent—we need to ask how, ultimately, spiritual experience serves us. The simple notion that there is a Question of Referent to ask about by itself challenges traditional assumptions. Conventionally, religious truth is God’s word (or the word of Allah, the utterance of a polytheistic pantheon, the inclinations of a collection of animistic forces, or whatever) and that is that. No larger perspective is needed—or desired.

In Chapter Eight, I framed religious experience’s referent creatively. I proposed that we can think of our diverse interpretations of the spiritual dimension as time- and space-specific expressions of the far extreme of archetypally feminine, “left-hand” sensibility as it manifests at a cultural scale. This might at first seem a terribly abstract way to speak about religion’s function. But if we examine spiritual/religious thought and practice over the course of the human story, we find strong support for this interpretation.

Four shared motifs stand out through history: Spiritual/religious experience finds particular significance in how things come to be (“in the beginning”), in community (with congregation and communion), in how things are connected (indeed all things), and in right thought and behavior (with ethics and morality). Each of these motifs in different ways reflects the relatedness-affirming values that characterize the archetypally feminine, left-hand side of fundamental polarity. In Latin, re-ligare, the root of the word “religion,” means “to connect.” William James put it this way: “In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”

We must be careful with such reframing not to just psychologize the sacred, a negation of the spiritual of which the social sciences have often rightfully been accused. The spiritual in Creative Systems Theory’s interpretation represents more than just projection from within ourselves (though the images we attach to our beliefs may be just that). Rather, it marks our felt connection with every aspect of creative context—the personal, interpersonal, and cultural, certainly; and, at least metaphorically, also the biological, and the cosmos as a whole.

But if we take needed care, we can effectively use a creative framing of spiritual/religious experience to at least make sense of religion’s past—its progression over time from animism in our Pre-Axial beginning, to polytheism with Early-Axis culture, to a more fundamentalist monotheism with the emergence of Middle-Axis developmental sensibilities, to monotheism of a more personal sort with Late-Axis culture. Creative Systems Theory describes how this progression follows predictably from how, in the Creative Function, formative process’s left hand manifests through the stages of creative differentiation. Religion’s history becomes an evolving story of how, collectively, we have connected with connectedness.

And we can go further—a creative interpretation provides important perspective for both understanding current circumstances and looking toward religion’s future. To make sense of how it does, it is important to appreciate how the historical picture I have just described confronts us with the same potentially confusing dynamic that we just encountered in reflecting on the history of art. We reasonably ask whether religion has become more or less significant over time. Certainly, each chapter in religion’s story to this point has brought more conceptually sophisticated understanding (or at least more philosophical and differentiated understanding). But at the same time, with each stage, the sacred, along with other left-hand functions, has diminished in the attention accorded it and in its relative potency as a cultural force.

We can recognize this dynamic with the changes that accompanied the arrival of the Modern Age. With the Reformation, spiritual truth shifted from the realm of decree to that of individual experience and belief—a radical and important step forward. Before then, intermediaries had always stood between individuals and the sacred (a shaman, a god-king, a priest). But at the same time, religion lost the cultural centrality it had held in the Middle Ages. Its influence was replaced increasingly by science, philosophy, government, and the marketplace.

If we extend this creatively predicted dynamic, where takes us at least makes how deeply religion has been questioned over the last century more understandable. We’ve seen how the influence of left-hand sensibilities not only decreases over the course of history, with Transition it becomes largely eclipsed—a situation that would seem not to bode well for things spiritual. If this direction were to continue unmodified, we would appropriately pronounce God dead. Respected thinkers through the last century and earlier have argued just that. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that, “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” Noting religion’s role in world conflict, Bertrand Russell argued good riddance to any notion of divine causation: “[If life has] deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend. For my part, I find accident a less painful and more plausible hypothesis.”

This would be the end of the story if it weren’t for important further notions that also come with a creative frame—in particular the Dilemma of Trajectory and how Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes reconcile it. Integrative Meta-perspective supports the conclusion that the underlying sensibilities of religious/spiritual experience are inherent in who we are—they can’t really be lost. (Truth’s left hand is necessary for anything creative.) More, if the concept of Reengagement holds, the contribution of spirituality’s root experience should in fact grow in times ahead. I’ve described how the more left-hand sensibilities that the spiritual has traditionally helped link us with will be very much needed in the future.

For people who identify strongly with religious belief, this picture presents reason for celebration. If the concept of Cultural Maturity accurately defines today’s fundamental challenge, in the future the sacred should manifest with even greater significance than in times past. But as I have suggested, the concept of Cultural Maturity does not at all let religion off unscathed. The price for this renewal is high—extremely so. The doorway to this deepened spirituality can open only to the degree we are willing to reexamine much in the very foundations of belief.

Certainly the concept of Cultural Maturity brings into question culturally specific notions of the sacred. It argues that life in the future will be most unhappy if we cannot transcend differences of belief. This is especially the case where such differences make one religion true and all others false.

In addition, religion confronts Cultural Maturity’s challenge to truth’s past parental/mythologized status. Inherently that challenge includes spiritual truth. Whether manifest in the more maternal imagery of animism and mysticism or in the sterner and more philosophical images of patriarchal religious structures, the incarnate forms of sacred authority have served as mythic protectors, shielding us like children from the all-too-easily overwhelming complexities and ambiguities of mortal life. Cultural Maturity’s changes call into question the value of this kind of protection. Integrative Meta-perspective repeats the Reformation’s call for responsibility in a further, quite ultimate way.

There is also an arguably even more fundamental kind of dislocation that comes with Cultural Maturity’s changes. It follows from Integrative Meta-perspectives whole-box-of-crayons picture. Culturally mature systemic perspective challenges the notion that spiritual truth lies at the center of truth’s equation (as it does for scientific truth and the truths of any other approaches to knowing—but again, for many people that it might for religion can feel particularly consequential). With Cultural Maturity, it no longer works to think of the spiritual as some ultimately defining core of experience, as life’s essence. The kind of experience that through history we’ve described in spiritual/religious language becomes one crayon in the systemic box—very much an essential crayon, but only one of many we must draw on. Integrative Meta-Perspective views spiritual experience as an important aspect of truth, but only that, an aspect. If we make the spiritual some last word today, it not only fails as truth we can rely on, ultimately it fails as spiritual truth—which, to be the real thing, must honor the particular truth challenges of its time.

For our time, the concept of Cultural Maturity predicts something very similar to what we witness today—an often conflicting mixture of doubt, dogmatism, and fresh curiosity. Many people find themselves deep questioning religion, at least as conventionally conceived. Some of their concerns are fairly immediate—for example, the sexual and financial transgressions of church leadership that grace the pages of our morning newspapers. But their doubts can also be more far-reaching.

We also witness more fundamentalist beliefs becoming newly attractive for many people (while at the same time people are turning away from mainstream religious institutions). The way I’ve framed religion’s systemic contribution suggests a dual explanation—one cause regressive, the other a reflection of emerging needs. The more absolutist doctrines of fundamentalist belief (whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, or other) work as a defense mechanism, providing a bulwark against today’s new uncertainties and the loss of clear moral guidelines. And at the same time, such persuasions also often offer a deepened sense of devotion, ritual, and community—things missing and missed in people’s lives (and missing in most more liberal forms of religion).

We also see a third trend. A growing number of people recognize the deep importance of the spiritual/religious in their lives, but at the same time are uncertain as to what to do with that recognition. Ultimately, they may or may not find their answers within established traditions. A 2009 Pew Forum report describes a slight drop in overall church attendance over the last fifty years accompanied by a dramatic increase (from 22% to 48%) in people who describe themselves as having had a personal “religious or mystical” experience.
As far as the future, the concept of Cultural Maturity, at the very least, tells us a lot about what will not be helpful going forward. It makes clear that none of our usual more comfortable postures in relation to spiritual/religious experience will be able, ultimately, to get us where we need to go—not religious absolutism, not atheism (its own kind of “religious” absolutism), not agnosticism (in the end but a Compromise Fallacy), and not even conventional dualism that keeps sacred and secular in safely separate worlds. And as I’ve described, more contemporary spiritual formulations rarely get us any closer. Each of these options equally protects us from the necessary magnitude of a maturely conceived world.

The concept of Cultural Maturity can also take us a bit further. The conclusion that we should see fresh acknowledgement of the more receptive/connectedness side of the creative is consistent with a deeper valuing of experiences we might more generally describe as spiritual: loving relationships, peaceful surroundings, life lived at a sustainable pace, and the “spirit” of creative and intellectual pursuits. For some people this might translate into a renewed appreciation of specifically religious belief, for others not.

The concept of Cultural Maturity also supports that we should see new and deeper acknowledgement of faiths beyond one’s own heritage. Ecumenical acceptance is a start. But we should also see a growing interest in how spiritual persuasions relate one to the other and, as here, the very different ways that spiritual/religious experience has taken expression through history.

In addition, the concept supports the conclusion that we should find ourselves able to draw in new ways on spiritual/religious sensibilities when addressing important challenges. Three examples most stand out. Each requires that we fundamentally rethink assumptions that have historically been inseparable from spiritual/religious belief. But with each, if we can make the needed stretch, the root sensibilities of spiritual/religious experience can provide valuable assistance.

The first example returns us to that critical task of getting beyond our historical need for enemies. Religious values traditionally emphasize peace (“God is love”), humility (“blessed are the meek”), and tolerance. The difficulty (and needed stretching), of course, lies with the fact that our gods historically have reserved their love for our own kind. Religion has played as big a role as politics in defining the world in “chosen people/evil other” terms—and some would argue that it has played a bigger role. To realize its potential as a force toward peace, religion must embrace a more inclusive “us.” At the level of ecumenical perspective—and sometimes in ways that are more overtly integrative—it is doing just that. I’m reminded of Reverend Desmond Tutu’s role with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The second topic looks again to the task of culturally mature moral decision-making. I’ve described how today’s loss of clear cultural guideposts means that even the most familiar moral concerns make new demands. I’ve also emphasized how questions of every sort have today become questions of value—in the largest sense moral/ethical concerns. Because moral understanding has traditionally been the province of religion, spiritual belief, at least if maturely conceived, should be able to help us navigate what should be an ever-more-demanding moral/ethical landscape.

But of course, “at least if maturely conceived” is no small addendum. Different religious traditions may view what is good and what is evil quite differently. And even if traditional belief is not held dogmatically, it generally stops well short of the subtlety and nuance that today’s increasingly complex and often highly situation-specific moral/ethical concerns require. Cultural Maturity affirms that religion has a critically important potential role to play in bringing a moral voice to today’s conversations. And at the same time, it emphasizes that that voice can make useful contribution only to the degree that it speaks from a maturity and subtlety of systemic perspective that people of religious conviction often still find difficult to welcome.

The third topic is death. I’ve emphasized how a new maturity in our relationship to death will be necessary to effectively addressing the health care delivery crisis. I’ve also hinted at how this aspect of Cultural Maturity has broader implications—for example how greater maturity in our relationship with death might greatly diminish our vulnerability to artificial-stimulation-masquerading-as-meaning dynamics in the media. Helping us deal with death has been a primary function of religion though history. The difficulty in this case is that one of the main ways in which religion has helped us cope with death is by protecting us from it—certainly from how fundamentally death challenges us to confront limits to what we can know and control.

But with Cultural Maturity, new access to the more creatively germinal sensibilities that spiritual/religious experience draws on should at least invite a more reflective relationship to death. The way Cultural Maturity makes uncertainty part of common sense should also make the ultimate uncertainty presented by death more tolerable. The potential for important leadership with regard to this critical developmental/evolutionary challenge becomes an expected result. I’ve described how hospice care represents one the areas where medicine is making important steps in becoming more accepting of death. Hospitals with religious affiliation are often doing some of the best work in this regard.

Beyond these basic observations, our ability to predict the future when it comes to religion, as with other domains, is limited. We will almost certainly still have traditional churches, mosques, and synagogues well into the future—though their significance in culture may change. (If spiritual experience remains important, we will continue to need places that engender it. Traditional structures should at the least be historically revered.) And spiritual practice such as prayer and meditation should similarly still have a role—perhaps an expanded one. (If the spiritual is a kind of knowing, then we should increasingly value approaches that help us access such knowing.)

We will likely also see a deepening appreciation of relationships between spiritual/religious sensibilities and the contributions of other cultural realms. At least conceptually, this extends all the way to the ultimate spirituality-related polarity—that which has traditionally cleaved sacred and secular: science and religion. The best of thinkers in our time have appreciated the important role of each—and in many cases also at least some level of complementarity. I’ve argued that most views that claim to bridge the science/religion polarity fail—in the end, collapsing one pole into the other in the name of integration. But I’ve also described how more encompassing perspective is consistent with Cultural Maturity (and pointed toward how a creative frame provides a conceptually solid starting point for developing such perspective).

Creative Systems Theory’s more detailed formulations highlight one last new accomplishment that will be essential if future spiritual/religious understanding is to be up to the task—part of the “multiplicity” aspect of culturally mature perspective. We need more differentiated understandings of belief and practice. I’ve proposed that a full maturity of perspective requires an appreciation of the larger story of religious sensibility through time, and also the ability to make sense of the very different ways in which sacred experience manifests within that story’s various chapters. Each accomplishment involves a considerable stretch with regard both to our general ability to tolerate complexity and our capacity to think in maturely systemic ways.

This more differentiated result presents a particular challenge we encounter with other more left-hand aspects of our lives (for example, with art or love). It requires us to “think” a whole lot more than we are accustomed to when it comes to questions of faith. Addressing religion’s Question of Referent, teasing apart how faiths from different times and places are different and how they may relate to one another, theorizing about how spirituality might relate to science and other concerns—these things involve making subtle distinctions.
People of more spiritual/religious inclination might not at first find this call for more nuanced discernment very appealing—even feel that what it asks is antithetical to what the spiritual is about. There are two keys to such discernment becoming attractive. First is the recognition that bringing detail to culturally mature understanding is about “thinking” in a fundamentally different sense than that which deadens faith. This is not just rational analysis, but inquiry that draws on the whole of who we are. Second is how, once we are into culturally mature territory, a more conscious and differentiated picture becomes increasingly essential to our spiritual discernments being helpful. Ultimately, it supports a fundamentally more rich, abundant, and powerful spirituality

Religion’s success with making its important contribution to the future depends on the courage and fullness we bring to our spiritual inquiries. I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” There is hope for this task in who we are. While we tend to think of religion as a conservative force in culture, it is important to remember that religion at its best has always too been about the possible. As Langston Hughes put it, “We build our temples for tomorrow.”