Reinventing Religion

In a time when many violent acts are made in the name of religion, what does it mean to be one of the faithful? Rabbi Leon Morris and Scott Korb, a Roman Catholic, help Scott Simon sort it out.

Listen to the discussion featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition here.

Read the transcript below:


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Millions of people will celebrate holy days this week. For Christians, Easter celebrates the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Jews, Passover marks the exodus of Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. Religion seems to play a huge role in world events these days when we read of people who are killed because of their faith and governments forming around religious principles.

Scott Korb, the Roman Catholic and co-author of the upcoming book, The Faith Between Us, and Rabbi Leon Morris, director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanuel in New York City, have co-written a piece in the Baltimore Sun this week that examines what it means to be faithful from their particular vantage. They join us now from our studios in New York. Thank you both very much for being with us. We want to make plain this takes place and is being recorded before Passover.

Rabbi LEON MORRIS (Director, Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning): Thank you, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT KORB (Co-Author, The Faith Between Us): Thank you.

SIMON: Rabbi Morris first, then Scott Korb, you gentlemen suggest that a lot going on in the world has managed to give religion a bad name these days.

Rabbi MORRIS: That’s correct. Both of us are troubled by the way in which being religious has become synonymous with close-mindedness, chauvinism, bigotry and much, much worse, great violence in the world.

Mr. KORB: And I think what it also has done, it doesn’t really offer a place for, at least a public place in a large sense, for people who are liberal and people who have liberal ideas or to have a place where you can actually call yourself, proudly call yourself a religious person.

SIMON: You suggest that more Americans at any rate are comfortable describing themselves as spiritual than using that word, religious. What does that suggest to you?

Rabbi MORRIS: This is Leon. I think the critique that we were trying to offer is really a two-fold critique. On the one hand, we’re disappointed that more people who want to emphasize the humanistic, compassionate, tolerant sides of faith are reluctant to call themselves religious and to be part of organized religious communities and to partake in traditional religious practice of some form, but I think each of us is bothered by the prevailing alternative which seems to us to be very narcissistic, very self-oriented, and there’s something powerful about the meaning that can emerge from traditional religious communities by the religious establishment, by churches and synagogues and mosques.

Mr. KORB: This is Scott. Too often than not, attendance becomes something understood outside the church, as an obligation to some idea that one has to show up for Mass on Sunday.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KORB: Whereas, it really is an opportunity, for me every week, to go and learn. You know, Mass is edifying.

SIMON: You suggest in this article we’ve read in the Baltimore Sun that a lot of Americans, in particular, kind of tailor-make a garment of faith for them and their families. Could you help us understand that?

Rabbi MORRIS: The challenge is to be able to take these liberal, tolerant, humanistic values to get beyond ourselves and our families.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Rabbi MORRIS: And I think traditional religious communities, congregations, churches, synagogues, they help us to do that. They help us to go outside of ourselves.

SIMON: One of the themes you write about is the importance of stories to faith, as a way of conveying faith, as a way of maintaining faith. This is a good week to hear a couple of stories. I wonder if I can turn to Rabbi Morris first; each of you in turn for a story of faith.

Rabbi MORRIS: For Jews, the story of the exodus from Egypt, leaving Egypt in haste and seven days later crossing the Red Sea, is meant to be a story that tells us something about the place of the outsider and the stranger; something that enshrines in memory the notion that we were slaves. It’s meant to be a story that is both about physical liberation and spiritual liberation. These stories, especially read through the prism of thousands of years of interpretation, are unsurpassed in their profundity.

Mr. KORB: This is Scott. The story from the Christian Gospels that I continue to go back to is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s really the sort of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. So the story is that a man has two sons and one of his sons goes off and goes to his father and asks him for his inheritance takes that inheritance and goes and spoils it, and waste it and then ends up coming back after realizing that he had really wasted his life and that it had become a shambles. And he comes back and his father embraces him and throws him a big celebration and kills the fatted calf.

And then the second son approaches the father and complains and says, Look, I’ve been with you all this time and, you know, you won’t even give me a goat to celebrate with my friends. What’s going on? And his father says, Look, all that I have is already yours. You’ve already enjoyed your life with me. You enjoy your life with me. And that is your inheritance.

SIMON: What should a prayer do?

Mr. KORB: For me my most focused prayer always takes place in church. It takes place with the community. And it is largely this poetry that I didn’t come up with, but it’s been spoken and spoken and spoken for centuries. And now I get to say those things with the community and really commit myself to belonging.

Rabbi MORRIS: I think that prayer needs to be focused outward. I think that prayer is one of the vehicles that gets us beyond ourselves. In a way, the prayers, our inherited prayers are our people’s and our faith community’s poetry to address what it means to live and what it means to hope and what it means to be a human being.

SIMON: Rabbi Leon Morris is director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. And Scott Korb, co-author of the upcoming book The Faith Between Us.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Rabbi MORRIS: Thank you very much.

Mr. KORB: Thank you.

SIMON: You’re listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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