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Craig Chalquist, Ph.D. Headshot

How to Rescue Your Religion

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How often have we heard this? "Religion is violent." "Religion is sexist." "Religion is wrecking the planet."

Actually, more often than not, religion gone wrong has been hijacked. Stolen. Bought, sold, made off with.

Hijacked

What is it about religion that makes it so vulnerable to appropriation, often for purposes radically contrary to those of its founders?

One theory is that religion starts out corrupt. The criticism promulgated by the likes of Freud, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, that religion is just a comforting irrational belief, is contradicted by how small a part belief plays in the majority of the world's religions.

This criticism is also sociologically naive. In many places around the world it would be easier to live as a secularist to escape religious persecution.

Some Modernists--fans of the historically recent overemphasis on reason and intellect--claim that all religion is extreme. This criticism has the dual advantage of ignoring the complexity of religion while forgetting what secular extremism has given us: aerial bombardment, the concentration camp, the atomic bomb, bioweapons, drones, eugenics, Chernobyl, Fukushima, mass surveillance, CAFOs, erosive industrial agriculture, Monsanto superweeds, and Colony Collapse Disorder, to name just a few. And who would protect a world seen only as a resource or a dead heap of unintelligent matter devoid of holiness? One of the scientists who devised the Bomb referred to the project as a "Faustian bargain." In everyday terms: selling one's soul to the devil.

Another theory is that religions share in full the cultural biases of their founders. Actually, this is more an inevitability than a theory. But coming in with a bias is different from being hijacked by the unscrupulous--who in many cases prevent the religion from cleansing itself of the bias. For example, Jesus taught women as well as men. According to Gnostic texts written almost two thousand years ago, he regarded Mary Magdalene the brightest of all his pupils. (In the Pistis Sophia, when Jesus wants to know why she doesn't get along with the male disciples, she replies, "I fear Peter; he threatens me often, and he hates women.") By the time of Gregory the Great, however, this Mary was defamed as a prostitute, and the Gnostic texts were forbidden.

Yet religions remain with us because, as the etymology of "religion" suggests, they link us to so much of great worth when they are healthy: to sacred depths of experience, to each other, to the world, to a framework for living in it, to a sense of meaning and purpose. This makes them magnificently attractive not only to us, but to subversives looking around for an energy source to hook up to. Such power can raise temples and synagogues and cathedrals and mosques, create and level empires, found languages and libraries, inspire great art, push the flow of history into new channels.

No wonder religions persist. Even the most technical-minded of us are influenced by them. When the three astronauts of Apollo 8 looked in awe at Earth from the Moon, they read from the book of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep...And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good."

Even atheists want their own church now. No religion, they insist; no "superstition." Just a bit of temple space with sharings, reflections, and a bit of artwork. Some candles for ambiance. Perhaps an altar to Galileo, Newton, or Francis Bacon. Maybe a big book of their writings. A few hymns to Rationality and Progress. Robes for non-clergy conducting the ritual. A collection plate for donations....

As living things, religions do wear out. Some die off. Others degenerate until, not quite dead but not really alive anymore, they walk the earth as institutional zombies.

CG Jung and Joseph Campbell thought that when a religion stops being taken literally, it begins to die. But what was a personal truth for them seems not to be a historic truth for religion. Instead, rigid literalism actually signals the oncoming decline. Wisdom stories and illustrative parables harden into dogma. The shaman, prophet, and seer give way to the theocrat and bureaucrat. "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Bias, literalism, bureaucratization, and zombiehood are symptoms, it would seem, of a deeper issue.

Old Wineskins Wear Out

Throughout his Collected Works Jung distinguishes between signs of known content and true symbols that point beyond themselves into mystery. Signs are all around us: labels, titles, wheelchairs emblems for enhanced access, STOP and GO colors. By contrast, symbols can never be fully defined because they invoke transrational experience. The Crescent, Cross, Star of David, Communion, Pentagram, and a host of other religious symbols hold an emotional charge for people in whom they resonate. They are numinous (Rudolf Otto): fascinating, awe-inspiring, highly charged.

But they remain numinous only with fresh interpretation. Once they are felt to be irrelevant their glow vanishes like dew in the desert, and the same with the creeds they support. Even in Jung's time many people sought out psychotherapy because the icons, images, and teachings they grew up with no longer excited them.

This happens--and is historically quite normal--because collective consciousness never stops changing. As the years become decades and centuries, humanity needs new frameworks of value and meaning, new cosmological understandings, new ways to appreciate old truths. If these new containers (new "wineskins," Jesus called them) are not forthcoming, if religious leaders offer only medieval cosmologies and dated creeds, the religion cannot serve those people for whom the ancient formulas and images no longer work. Deprived of what they need, such seekers either deceive themselves into clinging to the old forms or they leave the religion.

This dynamic also sheds light on fanaticism and fundamentalism. The fanatic is a secret doubter who shouts an archaic creed to quiet the inner turmoil. The fundamentalist's mental rigidity wards off the unavoidable clamor of other points of view, religious and otherwise. Fundamentalism is a modern psychological complex, not a traditional one, erected from the need to deny the truths of other systems of faith increasingly visible in a shrinking world.

The more a faith system resists necessary updates of its structures and symbols, the greater its vulnerability to hijacking. (The ancient Gnostics would have said such a system is "archontic," meaning kidnapped by worldly "Authorities of Darkness" who strive to keep us all asleep.) "Christian" hate groups, Islam warped into terrorism, Judaism used to segregate, Hinduism invoked to justify violence against women, Shinto twisted into kamikaze pilots and Norse neopaganism into Nazi ideology are all examples of the subversion of religion and its mutation into thoroughly irreligious ends.

For the non-extremist, the growing gap between what is needed spiritually and psychologically and what is relevant creates a difficult problem to solve. Some of us solve it by declaring ourselves spiritual but not religious. An obvious advantage is feeling liberated to explore beyond the boundaries of the traditions we felt constrained by. A disadvantage, at least for some, is a lack of continuity and community. Many still revere at least some of the symbols, truths, and rituals of an otherwise outdated spiritual system. What are such people to do?

If going their own way doesn't feel right to them, they need to discover and participate in a new story, a fresh interpretation, that updates their capacity for reverence and faith.

Taking Back Your Religion

As a depth psychologist who has struggled with this, I offer the following 15 suggestions to start with. All of which align with the overarching goal of rescuing one's religion from its hijackers:

1. Call out the hijackers for their hypocrisy. That does not mean turning into the Morality Police! That is itself a symptom of religious decay. Rather, issue a protest when someone pushes an agenda for warfare, racism, sexism, classism, or ecocide as a supposed representative of your faith. Discourage fellow faithholders from giving any financial or political support to this kind of hypocrisy. Push your religious organization to take a public stand against it.

2. Demand that your religion replace oppressive rules ("women cannot be clergy") with empowering roles. Maintained by hijackers, patriarchy has been around for too long already. It's time for us to move beyond it.

3. Join a progressive interfaith organization with values and goals consistent with yours. The Network of Religious Progressives is one of many excellent choices.

4. Replace religious exceptionalism with appreciation for diversity. The outdated idea that one guru, path, or religion has exclusive access to truth is an example of what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described as group narcissism: a form of egotism that derives its sense of superiority from identifying with an exclusive group. All the great spiritual teachers denounce egotism and intolerance. Go even farther and appreciate what other faiths offer.

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5. Make room for alternative tellings and fresh interpretations. The Gnostic story of Mary Magdalene mentioned above is an example. To Adam, whom she awakened, Gnostic Eve says, "I am the foreknowledge of pure light; I am the thought of the undefiled spirit...Arise and remember...and beware of the deep sleep" (Apocryphon of John). I never heard that story in the church I grew up in, but if I had I might still be a member.

6. Demand that your religion welcome the marginalized. Sexism, racism, homophobia, hatred of the poor, of immigrants, of anybody have no place in an authentic religious life. Rejection of entire groups of people is contrary to what every one of the world religions professes.

7. Update your cosmology. Every system of human knowledge is imperfect and science is no exception, but it's silly in this day and age to deny scientific achievement. Nor need we settle for a disenchanted, dead cosmos, not after the work of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. "It's all a question of story," wrote Berry. "We are in trouble just because we do not have a good story. We are between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story." But we are starting to as we study the grand beauty of the universe and find that modern discoveries give new depth to ancient truths. As the Qur'an states, "God is the Light of the heavens and the earth....like a niche wherein is a lamp; the lamp is in a crystal, and the crystal, shining as if a pearl-like radiant star" (24:35). Look up at a clear night sky and you can see this.

8. Support environmental justice. Learn its 17 Principles. Read the work of Robert Bullard. Familiarize yourself with terms like "redlining". Advocate for people stuck in crowded, polluted, toxic surroundings. Everyone deserves clean air to breathe, garments and foods free of poisons, clean water, a safe place to live, and some soil to touch.

9. Discern the allegorically true from the literally true. Some religious truths are literally applicable. "Do not kill," for example, and, "As we forgive our debtors." What ever happened to "Love your neighbor as yourself?" "Blessed are the poor?" On the other hand, how many people do you know with a wooden beam sticking out of one eye? How often do you hand coins over to a man named Caesar? And do you really think you should sell your daughters into slavery and execute everyone who works on the Sabbath? Hardly.

10. Reconnect in kindness with nature, place, and Earth. Officials in every world religion agree that the religious life includes care of the planet. This is a personal as well as a collective obligation. It can start with a sense of appreciation of the beauty of your surroundings, the subtlety with which they arouse your senses, the intelligence and playfulness of animals, the gratitude of being born on a planet that cares for and supports us.

11. Recognize animal personhood. The scientific evidence for it overwhelmingly supports the accounts offered by sensitive people down the millennia. When you think of your food and clothing being torn from animals tortured in laboratories or crowded into poisonous stalls, ask yourself the question cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff poses: "Would I do this to my dog?" All the faiths uphold their version of the Golden Rule. It doesn't apply only to humans. "Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the Earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of God has done this?" (Job 12:7-9).

12. Encounter the Holy as immanent and earthly. You know a religion has been hijacked when its self-authorized leaders separate heaven from earth and begin storing up riches in this world while demanding that everyone else do without. The hijacking of organized faith started with the traumatic separation of "us and them," feminine from masculine, domesticated from wild, and spiritual from natural. The supposedly eternal split between these has offered religious job security to the unprincipled. It's time they found other work.

13. Treat your body as an altar. To disfigure your fleshly vehicle with addiction, overwork, stress, or processed food is contrary to embodied piety. And did you know that your stomach contains roughly the same number of neurons as a cat's brain? Listen to the wisdom of your gut. Let into your body--your life--what nourishes, pleasures, and awakens it and spit out what does not.

14. Organize with others to form an Earth-honoring planetary community of justice, reverence, and belonging. Martin Luther King called his version of this the Beloved Community and insisted it was not foolishly utopian but practical and achievable. Other names for it include the Great Turning and Earth Community. H.G. Wells, the writer and futurist who predicted the sexual revolution, atomic power, powered flight, and both world wars, called it "the world community of my desire." Contact the Earth Charter Initiative to learn about their international efforts to bring that world into being.

15. Learn to laugh at religion, especially your own.. In an individual an inability to laugh at oneself usually indicates something seriously wrong. The same is true of a religion, whereas not taking oneself so seriously is a sign of health and perspective.

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Death through irrelevance, dangerous zombiehood, or deep rejuvenation: these are the options for our religions as we try to figure out how to live on an overheating planet as one species among many others in peril. High time to ask, not only what our religions require of us, but what we require of them.

The Buddha ended his life and career by calling for each seeker to "be a lamp unto yourself." It was sound advice then and still is. Today, on an increasingly talkative and interconnected planet, we can also be lamps unto each other. One way is to forget about converting others and instead be a missionary to your own religion.