07/10/2011 10:15 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2011

Ecstasy and the Future of Liberal Religion

The future of liberal religion in America depends entirely on its ability to generate experiences of religious ecstasy.

Hundreds of articles and books have been written on the decline of liberal religion, and the explanations offered usually depend on sweeping and unproven sociological generalizations: the decline is due to cultural turmoil, or economic dislocation, or confusion about sexual mores, or growing individualism. These ideas are interesting but wrong. Americans are disenchanted with liberal religion because they crave religious passion, because they yearn for moments of religious ecstasy, and because they are disenchanted with religious institutions and leaders who spend too much time talking and who are seem genuinely afraid of religious feeling.

Let me be clear: The majority of Americans are not fundamentalist in their religious orientation and they are not drawn to fundamentalist religion. They are not attracted by a religious tradition that reduces everything to black and white, tells them what to do in every situation and requires them to check their brains at the door when they enter a place of worship. The majority of Americans are reasonable people, and when they study the Bible and other sacred texts they realize they will be engaging in a cerebral act that requires thinking and contemplation.

Nonetheless, they look with envy at their fellow citizens who, from time to time at least, have found powerful, pleasurable religious experiences that take them beyond themselves. They believe, even if they can't articulate it, that it should be possible to open up to the mystical without surrendering more inductive ways of thinking. They yearn to let their souls fly free.

They believe, in short, that their religious tradition should be one that makes it possible to welcome deep emotions as well as ideas. And if liberal religious institutions cannot do that, they will look elsewhere -- or, in many cases, they will look nowhere at all. (It should be noted that the growth of fundamentalist religion is much exaggerated, and what we refer to as "fundamentalist" is often nothing more than a religious service that pulsates with emotion.)

There are, of course, innumerable reasons why religious ecstasy is problematic for liberal religion. Those of us in the liberal religious camp fear that our most treasured religious values, such as commitment to justice in the world, will be swept away by religious bliss. We know that a state of religious ecstasy is impossible to maintain and, once it recedes, may leave disappointment and bitterness in its wake. We remember the warnings in Deuteronomy against magicians, false-prophets and dream-diviners. And we have learned from experience that religious fervor is often the domain of religious charlatans, who prey on the gullible, harness magic rather than God and thrive on manipulation.

As a result, we in the liberal religious world may resist passion in our teaching, our worship and our religious lives -- sometimes without even being aware of it. And when we encourage passion we may do so tepidly and without enthusiasm, thus sending the opposite message. And because the realm of passion is so foreign to us, we may want to promote it but not know how; after all, religious passion and ecstasy are not things that we do to a congregation or for a community, but things that the congregation or community generates itself, together with its leaders.

But we must not despair. The creation of a modern, thoughtful, reason-based, justice-oriented religious tradition that can also fill us with exuberance and ecstasy is our ultimate challenge and ultimate test. Liberal religion that lacks true passion and religious fervor is religion that is doomed to extinction.