What do religious institutions provide in the 21st century?


Yesterday, an article in The Atlantic was published on “mix-and-match spirituality.” Recounting a Saturday panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the thrust of the article is that individualized spiritual experiences may be a bad thing. Certainly the two panelists quoted, Leon Wieseltier and Molly Worthen, find the crumbling of firm institutions as harmful. Unitarian Universalists  can certainly be accused of mix-and-match religious practice; the criticism in the article is worth reading, if only to get a feeling of what others think about 21st century religion.

Two major issues I have:

  1. the depiction of religious institutions as being places of diversity, in people and in doctrine. This is from Worthen.
  2. invoking tradition, perhaps in an uncritical light. This is from Wieseltier.

The first shows up in the subtitle of the article, “Religious institutions force members to grapple with hard ideas, to interact with different kinds of people, and to receive the wisdom of the ages.”

That sentence is a minefield of dubious claims. Religious bodies don’t always force members to grapple with difficult topics, they often shield the membership from outside doctrine and the diversity of ideas. There are plenty of churches and temples where having a radical new idea leads to ostracism, if not outright sanction.

Continuing, Worthen states that religious institutions “[force] you into conversation with people you might not agree with.” This is just as problematic as the previous quote. Any group with rigid criteria will filter out a large portion of the total population. If you go to a conservative Baptist congregation, where will the serious differences be? Are there a lot of people there who don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, or propose there’s nothing wrong with LGBT individuals?

Finally, people are forced to receive the “wisdom of the ages.” This doesn’t hold up if the point is that individualized or non-traditional spiritual choices are a bad thing. Going to a Catholic Mass, you will get one take on the wisdom of the ages. If you are confined by that institution, that means other groups with hundreds if not thousands of years of accrued wisdom- Jews, Muslims, Hindus, freethinkers, and all the different flavors and denominations within- will not factor in. If one has read A Chosen Faith, you may remember Forrest Church’s allegory of the infinite Church. Each institution and individual sees the light of truth a bit differently. Each has their own window with different characteristics. A good way to get the most out of truth (the wisdom of the ages) is to look through many different windows.

This idea of tradition leads into Wieseltier, who states about 21st century takes on Judaism, “What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not.” Now this is a very real concern. Ditching the past has led to some very serious crises, both political and personal. At the same time, sects that claim to be the most “traditional” have serious issues with gender equality and free speech. Though Wieseltier is right that there is much to appreciate and keep alive, it should be viewed through a frame where tradition is not inherently a good thing. Tradition is practice plus time, with a little magic that keeps it going over many years. The practice may not have been good even then, and time has done it no favors. And of course new traditions are being made each year, a process that “mix-and-match” worshippers are a part of.

Passions flare in the debate over the current state of religion, and its trajectory in future decades. That’s not unique to religion, far from it. But is this article fair to liberal religion and the nebulous “mix-and-match spirituality”? Related, does it accurately describe what a traditional religious institution provides? It would seem that if a diversity of opinion is sought, one would be more likely to find it in the liberal branches of mainstream religions. Any denomination that places a high value on creed is not going to have a wide diversity of ideas and congregants. Are the new generation of believers, non-believers, and sorta-believers perverting vital tradition, or dismantling ideas that have reached their expiration date?

I do agree with Wieseltier: religion in recent times has sometimes merged with consumerism. There is always the threat of belief becoming a fashion statement, nothing in the modern capitalist system is immune from hype and fads. Mobility in the spiritual realm should not be viewed as intrinsically bad though- those that move from faith to faith, read books on the Dalai Lama one week and the Dead Sea Scrolls the next, are exercising a freedom of religion that vast populations across the world do not have. The dynamic behavior of the newest generation may be a move past the sense of obligation and communal pressure to conform and stay in one religious institution.

To end, it is important to not oversell traditional religious practice, and to dismiss 21st century spirituality. The two have much to teach each other, if they will listen. And if this article believes that religious institutions force difficult conversations, then such institutions must be active in engaging those that hold radical and unorthodox views.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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