08/14/2012 11:54 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Conserve or Transform: Religion's Dilemma

"Radicalism," particularly in the context of religion, evokes ambivalent if not conflicting reactions. On the one hand, for many, religion provides a sanctuary from the "Sturm und Drang" of dramatic change and discontinuity, as well as feelings of security rooted in the anticipation of continuity. On the other hand, our Abrahamic traditions all embrace narratives of dramatic change, both for the individual and for the world. Personal salvation, in different formulations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are important components of the religious narrative. Looking ahead to a radically transformed world in messianic or millennial formulations is likewise a significant part of all of our religious narratives. Reaching inward, finding comfort and security in one theological formulation or another is appropriately in tension with the obligation to reach out and change the world and to transform ourselves as well.

Writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times just a few weeks ago, Ross Douthat quoted approvingly the first lady's expression of this tension. Addressing a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mrs. Obama stated: "Our faith journey isn't just about showing up on Sunday. It's about what we do Monday through Saturday as well. ... Jesus didn't limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day." In this appropriate characterization of Jesus' ministry, Mrs. Obama was placing Jesus in the direct line of prophetic religious radicalism, in the tradition of Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah, both conserving tradition but also calling for radical change. Eliminating the radical voice of religion, retaining only the conservative dimension of theological doctrine and ritual scrupulosity, it would be difficult if not impossible to defend the role of religion in human affairs.

When we speak of radicalism and religion, we need to distinguish between two discrete subjects: radicalism and religion, and religious radicalism. By radicalism and religion, I mean those voices in our religious traditions which both describe the religious impulse to transform the world into something better than it is and call upon us to be active participants in that transformation, even if the ultimate transformation requires divine intervention of one sort another. This is religion reaching out into the world. By religious radicalism I mean the project of re-examining traditional theological and liturgical formulations with an eye to bringing them into conformity with regnant plausibility structures. This is radicalism turned inward. Some would argue against this latter enterprise, suggesting that tradition must trump any changes in plausibility occasioned by our evolving understanding of history, of science, of cultural development and of the universal characteristics of human experience. I reject this argument completely, because if accepted it leads to a growing gap between religious belief and an enlightened and informed understanding of the human condition and ultimately dooms the religious enterprise to irrelevancy.

Two significant 20th century Jewish personalities illustrate these two sides of radicalism in the religious sphere. Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai M. Kaplan were both traditionally educated Jews who were also deeply steeped in the European philosophical tradition. Both contributed substantively to the field of rabbinic scholarship, and both, incidentally, were teachers and colleagues of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Heschel retained his loyalty to traditional Jewish theology but reached out to the larger world through active participation in movements for social justice, civil rights and interreligious understanding. His commitments derived from his understanding both of what his Judaism required of him and his sense of the shared humanity of all people in God's world. Heschel's impact and reputation were significant, perhaps even more in the larger religious and political world than in the Jewish community, though he remains a significant presence for many in the Jewish community some 40 years after his death. He well represents the bridge between religion and the conviction that the world requires radical transformation. His life and career strengthened that bridge.

Mordecai M. Kaplan turned his attention to the second meaning of religious radicalism. Arguing that traditional theological formulations were unacceptable for a world informed by social and physical scientific insights, Kaplan shaped a new Jewish theology, Reconstructionist Judaism, which re-defined or "revalued" traditional Jewish religious language in the context of a non-supernatural Judaism. Kaplan never abandoned traditional language, but he attempted to infuse new meaning and significance into such theological terms as God, salvation and creation, and associate new values with traditional Jewish observances such as the Sabbath and the holiday cycle. His was a truly radical Jewish religious position and led to the burning of the prayer book he created by traditionalists and an overall vilification of Kaplan and what he stood for in traditionalist circles. Reconstructionist Judaism survives today as the fourth Jewish "denominational" group. Kaplan's ideas have had an impact throughout the Jewish world, even among those who reject them and survive also in such groups as Secular or Humanistic Judaism. He illustrates "radical religion," the second dimension of the topic to which I referred earlier.

My own religious position is informed by both meanings of radicalism in the context of religion. Beyond moving religion from the confines of synagogue and church into the real world, in order for religion to become a force for good in the world it needs to replace the arrogance of certainty that each of our traditions conveys about having exclusive access to truth and virtue, with an "epistemological modesty," the sense that all people are struggling to make sense of the mystery of being alive on this earth, that none of us has access to ultimate truths and definitive answers, and that the best we can do is find ways of hearing the voice of the other alongside our own. We need to nurture our ability to hear as well as to speak, to learn as well as to teach, and to do our best to enhance the quality of life for all people. This requires a radical transformation in our understanding of the meaning of religious truth for it makes the starting point for religion all that we don't and can't know, as opposed to proclaiming with certainly the truth of what we do not and cannot know.