Religion and Reengagement—A Conversation

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory;


Jonathan (a minister): I want to talk about religion.

CJ:  Great. What about it?

Jonathan:  Its future. Does it have one, one that will benefit us? I look at interminable conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, the years of sectarian violence in Ireland, the trivializing roles religion-based “culture wars” often play in modern politics. My faith is deeply important to me, and I love being a minister, but religion today can at times seem more like an obstacle to what the world needs than an answer.

CJ:  I think it is both.

Jonathan:  I figured you would, and I think I agree—but I can’t explain my conclusion.  The picture is pretty simple for some people. Times ahead will be bright if their particular religious precepts prevail—not if they don’t. The best I’ve been able to get to in my sermons is that our ideas about God need to be more inclusive, more ecumenical, but that can’t be the whole thing. It deeply bothers me to realize how often I am not convinced by the words I put forward to my congregation.

CJ: Let me share a story. It is a bit long, so bear with me. What it describes presents an interesting way to approach your question.

Jonathan:  Sure.

CJ:  Several years ago I and some others in a think tank group I’d brought together decided to take on exactly your question—religion’s likely long-term future. In trying to get started, we went off in four or five different directions, each time feeling that we had somehow missed the point. Finally someone said: “We throw the word religion around like we know what we mean. I don’t think we do—not deeply enough to talk about its future.” The group agreed. To get useful answers, we needed a deeper sense of religion’s function in culture.

We decided to try an experiment. We would devote two hours to each of four developmentally related voices of the sacred: the animistic spirituality of tribal times; a more mythic polytheism like that practiced in ancient Egypt and much of the classical East; early (more fundamentalist) monotheism; and the more philosophical, humanistic monotheism frequent in modern times. Our goal was to ascertain what was most important in how each of these broad ways of seeing the world understood and applied spiritual truth.

We saw from the beginning that learning anything useful was going to require unconventional methods. Religion has always been more about faith than analysis, and early forms like animism are particularly impervious to academic dissection. We needed not just to describe and define religion’s stage-specific realities, but to somehow inhabit them.

We decided to use improvisational theater techniques as a way in. We would pick a single issue to which spiritual truth might be applied—we chose the presence of a famine—and try to get inside how each of these very different spiritual orientations might approach it.

Jonathan:  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall.

CJ: We discovered a couple of things that relate directly to making better sense of the functions religion (or spirituality or whatever term you find most satisfactory) serves in culture. To start, we were struck by how religion/spirituality/faith has focused on parallel concerns—even thought beliefs at different cultural stages have differed dramatically,. We identified four primary themes. Religious belief (and practice) addresses how things came to be (“in the beginning”). It connects with the experience and meaning of oneness (of spiritual wholeness—the root of the word holy). It engages the importance of community (for example, in the idea of congregation and the symbolism of communion). And it emphasizes right social behavior (shared moral “commandments”).

Jonathan:  That seems right.

CJ:   We then recognized something even more basic. These four themes are themselves related; they express a similar esthetic orientation. In different ways each affirms connectedness—in the symbolism of creation’s original undivided wholeness, in the perceived unity of the cosmos, in the circle of community, in the harmony that results from shared moral precepts. This second observation gave us a way to think about religious experience in a more general sense, perhaps come a bit closer to the core of its contribution.

We tried out various ways of putting this common orientation/contribution into words. We discussed how religion could be understood as a way individuals and societies “connect with connectedness.” We talked about religion having to do with original unity—as opposed to the materially manifest world of parts and particulars. Drawing on the language of systems, we framed the diverse forms of spiritual experience as ways through history we’ve accessed polarity’s more mysterious “left-hand,” archetypally feminine world of experience—in contrast to secular experience’s more “right-hand,” archetypally masculine world.

We recognized that while such sweeping generalization wasn’t going to provide ultimate understanding, But it did help us get beyond the specfics of belief and provide enough of a shared foundation that we could proceed.

Jonathan:  Your analysis is a bit more abstract than I am comfortable with, but I can go along.

CJ: I appreciate your patience. With this as foundation, we returned to our original task of deciphering religion’s future.

You asked whether it had a future at all. Culture’s past trajectory might suggest not. With each cultural stage, “the one” has surrendered more of its power to “the many” (individualism today rules); the world of creative origins has more and more given way to the world of manifest forms (progress and technology have become analogous); and archetypically feminine sensibilities have been gradually eclipsed by archetypally masculine values (money has, in effect, become God). Consistent with this progression, each of religion’s four underlying questions has had diminishing significance over the course of our cultural narrative. Given this trajectory, it is not surprising that post-modern conjecture might propose that God was dead—or at best a common psychological dependency.

But the exercise also suggested that this apparent finality might not be the end of the story. At least it made clear that we wouldn’t want it to be the end. The four concerns that religion has traditionally addressed will be no less important in times ahead. Indeed these concerns should only increase in importance. Just as we would pay an unacceptable cost (indeed a potentially terminal cost) if we lost ultimate connection with other more left-hand aspects of experience—nature, children, our bodies, our imaginations—so too, it would seem, with the spiritual.

Jonathan:  If it is right to talk of a “crisis of hope and purpose,” it would certainly seem that the spiritual would have continued importance. Each concern has been closely tied to the human experience of meaning.

CJ: The concept of Cultural Maturity also provides a more conceptual sort of affirmation.  Each of these four concerns relates directly to the kind of thinking Cultural Maturity predicts the future will require and make possible. Maturity gives “how things come to be” renewed significance—mature understanding makes change/generativity intrinsic to who we are. Understanding “oneness”—the interrelationship half of mature systemic perspective—becomes increasingly critical. We see deeper appreciation of who we are together—community is an acceptable term.  And, as the measures we use to determine our actions reside increasingly in our human hands, in an important new sense all questions become moral, questions of value and right behavior.

Jonathan:  So we might witness a kind of religious renewal?

CJ:   Yes and no. This picture suggests sustained and even renewed interest in spiritual topics—which appears to be what we see. The concept of Cultural Maturity goes further to not only affirm that such “forgotten” sensibilities have future value, but also to describe how their reengagement is something we would expect.

But it also suggests that faith as we’ve known it will not be enough. Much of what Cultural Maturity predicts, at least for the long term, will make many people who identify with religion decidedly uncomfortable. If Cultural Maturity’s thesis holds, the future will help us newly appreciate the sacred’s four core concerns, but it will also demand that we address the questions they present in ways that will often seem to contradict exactly what the sacred has been most about.

Jonathan:  Heresy (said with a smile). I need to hear more.

CJ:   The challenge has multiple layers. The first is most obvious. A more systemic picture requires that particular faiths surrender claims to perceived monopolies on truth. Nobody—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan or animist—gets the defining last word. This simple acknowledgment will be for some a major stretch.

Beyond this there is how Cultural Maturity requires that fundamental “growing up” in our relationship to truth. That includes spiritual truth.  Religion has offered us the comforting safety of being children to a divine parent. Cultural Maturity challenges that relationship.

We confront an arguably even more basic challenge in how in Cultural Maturity calls into questions any notion that makes one kind of truth the final reside of truth. While it affirms spiritual truth, it makes such truth but one of multiple ways of knowing. Religion isn’t alone in losing center-of-the-picture status, but for many people religion’s particular dislocation is the most disturbing. Cultural Maturity proposes that religion can continue to be powerful only to the degree it is willing to leave behind sureties that in the past provided much of religion’s attraction.

Jonathan:  I still feel left hanging with regard to religion’s future.  I get that questions at the core of religion may find renewed importance. I also get that warring creeds—and ultimately, if you are right, last-word religious notions in general—can’t continue to work.  But I don’t get what you think religion in times ahead will look like—or even whether it will continue to exist.

CJ:  At its best it will continue to exist. As far as what it will look like, it is too soon to tell. I find one approach helpful at least with the future of belief. An Integrative Meta-Perspective supports big picture understanding with regard to religion’s history as well as its future. Part of what it tells us is that the realities of each past stage hold truths that have pertinence to the tasks ahead. If this conclusion is accurate, we should be able to use religion’s past ordering realities not just to identify the sacred’s underlying questions, but to piece together some of the new answer.

Certainly, each stage has contributed something particular to religion’s story. With animism we witnessed a unique depth of connection in mystery and nature’s rhythms. With polytheistic forms, we saw an especially rich and numinous accessing of ritual, myth, and spiritual imagination. More fundamentalist monotheism brought special emphasis to the interpersonal/moral dimensions of sacred experience. And with more philosophical monotheism we observed a dramatically expanded appreciation for the intellect and the place of individual choice. Each of these attributes is relevant not just to the past, but also to an ultimately full understanding and experience of the sacred.

Gathering pieces together in this way provides at best a crude pointer. But if what   Cultural Maturity suggests proves true, future religious belief must—and will—somehow affirm the best from each of these ways of seeing the world. And it must somehow also step beyond each of them and offer religion a new, more mature, responsible, and encompassing picture of possibility.



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