For six years, I left church. And until the day I wandered back in 2010—mainly to accompany a friend, I didn’t expect to return. I needed time to learn what religion actually does when done well. Not only did I find a great church in the end, but I made peace with religion. I came to value its importance.
Recently I wonder what role religion can play in resistance over the next several years, though I can already hear the detractors, “Religion got us into this mess!” On the surface, they have a point. A moderate majority of Protestants, white Catholics, and Mormons, and a huge majority of white Evangelicals (81%) voted for Trump. But looking at non-white voters, the story shifts. A much smaller number of Hispanic Catholics (26%), Jews (24%), and people of other faiths (29%) voted for him (PEW Research exit polls). Pre-election polling of African-American Christian voters leaned decidedly in favor of Clinton. If these statistics say anything, it is this: there is not something wrong with religion, there is something wrong with the worldview of many white people. As a white person healing from my own racism and implicit bias, I am convinced religion is not the problem. Unhealthy white people who “have religion,” will co-opt and contort religion to justify their worldviews, just as those who are non-religious will find other justifications.
So what is the value of religion? My faith tradition, Christianity, teaches God is within us as well as outside of us, and that each person has direct access to God. Why, then, shouldn’t everyone eschew religion and seek God individually in his or her own way? I have heard this question from those who support spirituality but not religion.
Religions are much like languages. Both religion and language are systems of symbols and meanings that create the capacity for deep sharing and communication. We need language of some kind to convey meaning. When a group of different-language speakers is thrown together for a long period of time, they begin to share words and gestures, and in time, to create a kind of language. In the same way, a group of friends who are purportedly “spiritual but not religious” begin to develop their own shared religion, combining words, symbols, rituals, and various moral practices that lend cohesion to their spirituality, allowing them to share it in a deeper way. In language, people develop uniqueness—different vocabularies, favorite phrases, and other ways to riff on words; and in religions, people have unique understandings and perspectives within the larger meaning system of the religion. Because the “great religions” are ancient, the institutions are cumbersome and slow to change; thus, when strident disagreement arises, it can lead to splits and a multiplicity of denominations or sects.
Now let’s circle back to the spiritual-not-religious friends. If they want to incorporate more people into their circle, or they want to pass on their spiritual words/beliefs/symbols/rituals/values to their children, they will begin to establish a set “meaning system” that will start to look like a small institution, a small religion. This tendency is not a bad thing, it is how humans share and communicate.
But what if spiritual-not-religious people do not share and talk about their spiritual experiences with others? I believe this is where many modern people find themselves. At moments of openness—when gazing over a forested valley laden with fog, or during a birth or death—they apprehend something more than the material, something spiritual. But for the most part, they keep the experience to themselves. The moment passes and they go back to living largely materialistic lives because they have no system by which to be formed into deeply spiritual people. They do not invest time in learning from examples of wise spiritual elders. Of course, there are individuals who independently and voraciously seek spiritual nurturance and example outside of religion, cobbling together a strong spiritual foundation out of several traditions. But these people are exceptional. By and large, our culture militates against this; it draws us increasingly into the material, the ephemeral.
Most people are not the lone, tireless seeker. Rather most need support, common language, examples, meaning stories, and structure—in other words, a symbol system or religion. Most people nourish their spiritual lives in the context of religion, whether the great religions of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Indigenous spirituality (in its many forms), and the host of slightly smaller religions like Taoism or Sikhism, or the tiny religions people form among their own inner circles—among the people who share their fairly proscribed constellation of spiritual words and symbols. These meaning systems are called “mythologies.” Our mythologies are the sacred stories that give our lives meaning. We all have them. A popular definition of “myth” is “something that is not true,” but this is not what I intend by the word “mythology.” In fact, mythologies or sacred stories are profoundly true. They are true on a level that transcends facticity. They often convey truth metaphorically, teaching us how to live. People can construct their mythologies out of almost anything, not just religion—literature, political affiliations, science, sports, economic models or business, entertainment, family dramas, country-western songs.
My new truism is this: The best antidote to an unhealthy mythology is a healthy one. Without a doubt, religion can be co-opted to help create toxic mythologies (jihadist terrorism is an example of this). And in the 2016 election of Trump, we saw toxic mythology run amok in the United States (and certainly a white, misguided Christianity was co-opted to lend it religious sanction). But again: the best antidote to an unhealthy mythology is a healthy one.
I contend that many people in developed countries are hungry for shared meaning stories. In some cases, these longings and passions animate their adherence to unhealthy figures, whether authoritarian fundamentalist pastors whose teachings are antithetical to Christianity, or to narcissistic leaders who tweet their school-boy rants and shamelessly mock the disabled or overweight before fawning crowds. These figures provide a sense of meaning in a world that seems out of their control. The rise in popularity of right-wing groups in Europe and the rise in fundamentalisms globally evidence this hunger for shared meaning.
I think one way religions can form and inform the resistance to this trend is by unflinchingly providing the antidote—healthy mythologies or counter narratives. All of the great faith traditions share common values at their core: love of others, care for the weak and the stranger, connection with a higher power that guides one’s life, generosity, and compassion. They all witness to the holy mysteries. They provide a common language for people to discuss these concepts and to symbolize them ritually and otherwise. When done faithfully and well, religions grow in us these values. We become reflections of our communities, so we should choose our communities well. Individually, we may not agree with every creedal statement or practice of our religion. That is okay; conformity should not be required. Religion can still do what it does, which is allow us to share deeply with others our spiritual journey and to learn from those who accompany us. It allows us to delve deeply into learning, calling into question the worldviews and biases we otherwise hold unconsciously. We can still riff on our religion in ways that are unique to us, developing our own vocabulary.
I hope that in the days ahead, as our country collectively reaps the consequences of empowering a man-child and a cabinet who see violence and Earth-plundering as the way forward, we begin to re-assess our meaning stories. In the midst of the fray, I pray we find religious communities who live out a meaning story that contradicts the politics of domination, offering a beautiful alternative. I pray we dialogue more about our unique experiences of Spirit.