05/28/2014 01:14 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Myth or Method in Religious Education

In a failed economy, at a time when several studies show interest in religion on the decline, why would anyone devote time, energy, and money to studying theology? I would love to write an article with definitive, bulleted reasons why religion is still important, making a case for why we need people to devote themselves to serious consideration of faith and tradition, but I consistently find such an approach stunted. Making a case for religion is a tired exercise. I'd prefer to suggest that religious studies be reconsidered, to look at the leaders of religion and put our questions to them instead of the straw-man we make of religion in toto because what we are seeing is a divide between myth and method. If religion continues to hold apathetic, even at times antagonistic attitudes, then as theologian N.T. Wright has so famously said, "I'm not surprised you don't believe in that god. I don't believe in that god either."

Every day, the world doubles over with social, economic and political systems dictating our behaviors and ethics. Given how prominent these systems are and how little our religious leaders actually discuss them in informed ways, is it any wonder so many become disillusioned and leave the faith of their childhood? I have no moral issue with this kind of exodus. It is warranted. I am sympathetic to it and understand it, as I am sure you do as well. A faith that has turned itself from the concerns of our world and our neighbor is hardly worth having. In turn, it is not unreasonable to expect more from our clergy and even God. I suppose this is the thing so many are afraid to articulate - we must ask the facile god that our leaders have presented to "grow up" and act like a god (cf. Gen 18:25).

More than anything, these were the ideas that compelled me to begin more serious theological consideration. There has been an absence in theological thought, a neglect to consider the issues of our time and this dilemma requires new minds.

It does not take a great search of the mythic ether to see incongruence. In I Kings, Elijah says any god who is "out to lunch" is not worth serving. Buddha cannot reach enlightenment until he first sees the pain all around him, accepting the world and his part in it. "Doubting" Thomas says he could never believe in Jesus' return unless he first saw the scars of pain and hurt - that which is familiar to all of humanity. Sarah laughs at the prospect of having a child - her husband is impotent, for goodness sakes! We keep these stories alive because they resonate. They present the world as it really is. Their faith and practice remain staples of a robust religion, not tertiary matters. Yet out leaders teach us to insulate ourselves from the world. Is it any wonder religion is lampooned when not even the leaders can take their field of interest, or the people they serve, with a measure of sobriety?

This may sound like too much to ask, but as a theologian, I take the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, "repairing the world," quite seriously. We may not be able to change the whole world, but we can certainly change our respective corner of it. We can set the world right by rebuilding it. For me, that means correcting religious instruction. My own areas of interest are sexual ethics and sexuality, with all that might mean. A very close friend of mine has focused on developing understanding within Christian-Muslim relations. Still another friend focuses on economic and social issues in East Africa. She and her husband bring attention to issues of material fact, getting their hands dirty with the grunt work of rebuilding the world. We each describe our efforts in terms of religious conviction because we no longer believe in antiquated visions of the divine but still believe religion is an important frame for our efforts. The god we knew and worshipped was small in comparison to the pandemic crises our world has found itself tumbling into. Rather than abandon our faith, we "leaned in" to challenge the isolationism, ignorance, and nationalism we had learned at the feet of our pastors, rabbis and gurus. We seek to invigorate the method, not the myth.

The greatest reason so many are ambivalent towards religion is because our leaders have stopped answering, responding, or even acknowledging the great questions of our time. We must begin to ask for more from them, we must ask them to move from myth to method. We must begin to ask for them to "up their game" and find ways to put long-held beliefs into practice. To make their doctorates and advanced degrees meaningful. As it stands, much of religious studies has become the articulation of where God once was instead of seeing God, or even people, face-to-face. For those of us who feel that something more is needed, giving up seems a rather rash decision. We would prefer more rigorous engagement, not abandonment.

As Wright said, when it comes to cheap answers or watching the world crumble around us as we anticipate the hereafter, I'm not surprised you don't believe in that kind of religion. I don't believe in that kind of religion either.