Reinventing ‘religion’ in America


In the Book of Exodus, after hearing God’s voice and with Moses on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the ancient Israelites create and worship a golden calf, proclaiming, “This is our God.”

An angry Moses breaks the stone tablets when he descends to the foot of the mountain. According to the early 20th century commentator Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of what then was Dvinsk, Russia, Moses’ shattering of the tablets was not an act of anger. Moses saw that if the people could turn a golden calf into an object of worship, they would likely do the same with the tablets. Faith itself could become an idol.

Today, faith is less threatened by the overriding secular forces in the world than by religion. Religion is increasingly becoming the product of its own undoing. Religiosity is often too narrowly identified with the realm of ritual practice alone things such as Jews keeping kosher and Catholics showing up on Sunday for Mass no small commitments, we admit, but only a partial and incomplete notion of religious devotion.

To be less generous, religion is more and more equated with closed-mindedness, triumphalism and, often, violent extremism. And in seeming response, some Americans have become more comfortable defining themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.”

They build a faith that is tailor-made for themselves and their families rather than subscribe to a set of inherited principles that they imagine to be fundamentally dangerous. They keep their distance from the fanatics. And yet even those believers who feel comfortable calling themselves “religious” have begun to shape an eclectic and individualized set of beliefs that are ever more therapeutic and materialistic.

In each of these cases, the most central notions of our faiths such as the dignity of our neighbor, created in God’s image are somehow cast aside as less central. We fmd distressing the results of the National Survey of Youth and Religion, published last year, which show that previously key elements of our religious imagination repentance, selflessness, social justice, self-discipline, self-sacrifice and humility, for example no longer hold a prominent place.

Worse, for too many, the hatred and violence we see escalating every day in the name of religion have created additional reasons for youths and others to reject such ethical values, seeing them as too intimately connected with the violent means that some believe will establish God’s kingdom on Earth.

We desperately need new ways to think about what it means to be “religious.” Hundreds of religious movements have articulated what might be considered liberal positions over the centuries with great profundity, yet, in large part, especially among progressives, religiosity remains synonymous with fanaticism and extremism. Today, those liberal notions of religiosity have failed to elicit sufficient passion; vibrant communities of faith that embody these ideals are rare.

As devoted members of long-standing faith traditions, we find it both unnecessary and undesirable to abandon our institutions, communities and sacred Scrip tures to stake out a position of faith that is liberal and humanistic. Judaism, Christianity and Islam indeed, all religious traditions have the capacity to bring about more good than bad, more peace than violence, more universalism than chauvinism, if we understand them, and religious duty, in different ways.

As Jews and Christians approach the festivals of Passover and Easter, there is an opportunity to read even our central stories in ways that can smash the idols currently governing religious belief in the US.

The Exodus, for example, is about physical and spiritual liberation. As such, it informs how we treat the stranger and denies the deification of human leaders. As ritualized in the Passover Seder, it speaks of the power of story itself and how words can form a chain that links a hundred generations into a single narrative told over a single meal.

For Christians, the Resurrection is about finding peace through long suffering and new life in what seems like death. As ritualized throughout Holy Week, it speaks of our hope for justice in the midst of tyranny.

If religion has been, at least in part, the soufce of its own destruction in this new century, we believe it can also be the source of its renewal. Faith can be more about meaning than truth. It can celebrate difference as part of God’s ethical will. It can read Scriptures seriously if not literally. It can welcome tension and dialectic.

This Passover and this Easter, it is religion itself that needs to be liberated and raised from the dead. Our stories can lead the way.

Reinventing 'religion' in America

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