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Beyond Religion Altogether: Some Religious Notes on the Dalai Lama's Suggestion of Post-Religious Ethics

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"All the world's religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether."

And with these words, the Dalai Lama, leader of a major world religion, has set the religious blog-o-sphere abuzz. Reflecting on the recent religiously rooted violence in Libya and Cairo -- including the death of an American ambassador and his three co-workers -- the Dalai Lama seems to be calling for a space of ethical and spiritual reflection that is not rooted exclusively in religious traditions.

Living in the post-modern age -- which is also sometimes referred to as being both post-religious AND post-secular -- we find ourselves in a time where religious institutions increasingly have less and less voice, culturally. Meaning-making should be a project of the human-person-in-community and cannot be limited exclusively to the members of a particular religious community, nor can or should a religious community claim exclusive control over the tools and ability to engage in meaning making.

This is not to say that the various traditions of human spirituality, from the major world traditions -- Christian, Islam, Judaism and Paganism -- to the myriad of emerging traditions and the non-religious, don't have something to contribute to the conversation on meaning making. It only means that we must live in an intentional tension with the post and trans-traditional.

But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.

It is important to recognize that there is no such thing as a religion or religious person. Essentially a religion, made up of individuals-in-community, is a cluster of conversations dependent on a shared vocabulary and image system, often called theology or spirituality. When we speak of religion we are more often than not speaking about religious people. Religions are as diverse internally as the cultures they take place inside of. One could easily resist Christianity on the basis of its historical treatment of women, LGBT folk and minorities -- but we could only do this once we come into a state of denial of feminist theologies and churches, LGBT and queer theology and the liberation theologies that have emerged from minority communities.

Problems emerge when we try to treat our religions as systems of universal claims. A propositional theology tends to become obsessed with its own truth claims, thus pushing perspectives that do not agree with its own exclusivity out of consideration. What emerges is a language game that cannot even acknowledge the other as a possible partner in meaning-making. Thus you have the emergence of thought systems which are more likely to argue for the ascendancy of world views -- the Christian worldview, the Islamic worldview, etc. These propositional systems eventually begin to fail to discern between their own religion and their cultural system. For example, Americanism and Christianity begin to become conflated.

Traditions, though, are all living things. They emerge in context -- in response to ground conditions, contexts, communities and cultural trends and conversations -- and they become something new as context shifts. Tradition-as-history views the traditional as the once for all, tradition-as-process views the traditional as a dynamic unfolding of history and response. Religions are not exclusively belief systems but are mostly cultural systems -- they are a history of community relationships, music, art and experiences in community. Religions resist being systems of pure meaning-making.

And it is in this moment that the Dalai Lama's comments begin to become clear. Religions cannot be exclusive meaning-making systems, as they are not about meaning-making exclusively. Meaning-making must include, but transcend the culture making impulses of religious communities. It the very nature of religions to form communities - one of their greatest strengths! - that give rise to the necessity of post-religious/post-secular meaning making systems.

This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

With this phrase the Dalai Lama identifies the core values he believes are essential to the meaning-making conversation, namely: love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness. These values are not absent from religious communities but are also not exclusive to them either. Communities create rules and doctrines to teach a theology or spirituality of how to practice these things and then become in-debted to maintaining a certain interpretation of what these look like. Eventually the formed communities become dedicated more to the work of maintaining the past-tradition of how they exercised their values in the past instead of asking how they may be practiced in the present as process-tradition.

In arguing for ethics beyond religion we should not argue for the end of religion. Religions, as has been stated above, are living traditions and cultures. In this shift toward a post-religious meaning-making system we find that people do not become unreligious in the way we would like. Christian fundamentalists become secular fundamentalists. Otherwise unreligious people reveal themselves to be secular Calvinists. In the absence of religion our tendencies toward fundamentalism and extremism emerge in other contexts and conditions. The fundamentalist impulse can emerge in forms that are not traditionally considered religious: the political, the social, the philosophical and the sociological.

Many people here will make the claim of the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR), citing the deep justice concerns of the New Age and independently spiritual. And there is much to praise in these communities. Indeed a post-religious meaning-making system would have to treat the core values the Dalai Lama has described as spiritual values. Is the Dalai Lama suggesting that the post-religious ethic is "spiritual but not religious"?

The danger of a spiritual but not religious approach would be the one that the SBNR tend to fall into, namely treating spirituality and meaning-making as just another commodity. Spirituality can easily become a collection of unrelated experiences and philosophies that we buy into. Without communities-of-practice the SBNR then become just another expression American capitalism: individuals buying into an experience or ideology.

The Dalai Lama's suggestion then cannot be just another form of consumer-grade spirituality, even if they do or could embody the values he suggests. The post-religious ethic then would need an almost religious approach: communities of practice willing to root the ethical conversation in a historical context and frame it as an unfolding, dynamic process of tradition.

Religious communities cannot fully be committed to the ethical quest; they are as much centers of culture-making as they are meaning-making, though this does not mean the process-tradition does not have much to contribute.

Likewise a post-religious approach to meaning-making and ethics runs the risk of becoming just another form of the Spiritual But Not Religious, a form of capitalist fadism leaving the meaning-making quest as another disposable commodity.

The post-religious ethical quest then must be outside the religious commitment to institution, but must also be post-secular with a commitment to communities of practice which resist the urge to make meaning-making an historical-tradition instead of a process-tradition.

Religious communities then become places that do not dictate morality and ethics to the world -- but instead become centers of reflection in which ethical reflection can be refined and renewed through practice, community, history and process-tradition. It is possible that the church or community in the post-religious world ceases to be a center of absolutes and instead becomes a space of celebrating and naming. It is not our job to name the True and the Moral for society, but to be a place where those dedicated to the quest for meaning-making gather to share resources, listen to history and tradition and be encouraged for the task at hand.