06/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Toward a Broader Understanding of Religion's Functions

We tend to equate religion with belief systems, and to think of religious people as individuals who believe in, or have faith in, a particular set of doctrinal principles. But defining religion in that way severely restricts our understanding of what religion is -- or can be, at any rate -- in the lives of individuals. It also distorts the conversation about religion. By expanding and deepening the way we frame the subject, we can examine religious institutions and spiritual phenomena in a more productive way. Here's a model I find useful.

As I see it, religion in its most complete form serves five basic functions. I've given each of these a name beginning with the prefix "trans-", which means "across," "through," or "beyond," because religion at its best crosses boundaries and points to realities beyond the ordinary. Those five functions are:

1. Transmission: to impart to each generation a sense of identity through shared customs, rituals, stories, and historical continuity.

2. Translation: to help individuals interpret life events, acquire a sense of meaning and purpose, and understand their relationship to a larger whole (in both the social and cosmic senses).

3. Transaction: to create and sustain healthy communities and provide guidelines for moral behavior and ethical relationships.

4. Transformation: to foster maturation and ongoing growth, helping people to become more fulfilled and more complete.

5. Transcendence: to satisfy the longing to expand the perceived boundaries of the self, become more aware of the sacred aspect of life, and experience union with the ultimate ground of Being.

Among other things, the functional view helps explain why people choose to stay involved with a religion even when they don't fully approve of the institutions they belong to and don't believe all of their traditions' truth claims. Staying religiously engaged connects them to both an ancient heritage and a living community; helps them comprehend at least some of the mysteries of existence; and gives them some guidelines to live by.

That applies mainly to the first three functions, which are the ones we tend to think about when we talk about religion. But adding the other two functions to the discussion expands the perspective radically. It also explains a great deal about contemporary spirituality.

For better and for worse, organized religions in the West have emphasized the first three functions. But they have, historically, failed to provide opportunities for authentic transformation and transcendence. That shortcoming has been a driving force behind several important trends. For one thing, it accounts for the rise of an entirely new religious category: spiritual but not religious. Surveys indicate that anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the population is in that cohort, depending on the polling source. They're after personal growth and direct spiritual experience, and they'll go wherever they find it.

The yearning for transformation and transcendence also explains the burgeoning interest in long-hidden mystical teachings: Kaballah and other forms of Jewish mysticism; contemplative Christianity as exemplified by the likes of Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton; and Sufism, the tragically suppressed and harassed school of Islam that most people associate with the medieval poet Rumi.

But perhaps the most significant phenomenon driven by the absence of transformation and transcendence in mainstream religion has been the explosion of interest in Eastern traditions. What started with spiritually adventurous baby boomers in the sixties and seventies has since affected tens of millions of Americans who engage in practices that were, for centuries, the exclusive domain of Hindus, Buddhists, and, to a lesser extent, Taoists. Elements of those traditions were translated and packaged for Western consumption, offering practical methods for transformation and transcendence that did not bump up against reason, science, or history. Experience-oriented more than belief-oriented, they were adapted for use by people of all faiths -- and no faith -- who were willing to follow the instruction manuals. This led to the secularization of traditional spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, and to a remarkable scientific enterprise that has already produced thousands of studies documenting the effectiveness of those disciplines on mental and physical health.

The point is, the religious landscape has changed radically in recent decades, but we continue to discuss, argue about, and evaluate the subject as if religion consists only of doctrinal beliefs and serves only those first three functions (transmission, translation, transaction). Adding the dimensions of transformation and transcendence helps us frame the subject in a way that does justice to the original purpose of religion: to expand and deepen our sense of ourselves, and to forge a connection to the transcendent. The word "religion," after all, derives from the Latin religare, which means to bind. When we assess any given expression of religion, therefore, we need to ask not only whether its stories and claims hold up to evidence, but how well it binds us to our higher nature, to each other, to the planet, and to the cosmos. To the extent that religion fails at those tasks, it does not live up to its name.