Thursday, May 12, 2005

Beyond Religion As We Know It

Huston Smith, renowned scholar of the world’s religions or “wisdom traditions” as he calls them, says that these traditions don’t need to change their fundamental teachings and practices in response to the exigencies of today’s world except in one important respect. They have always taught compassion and charity, but they originated in times when people, living in smaller communities or larger ones relatively insulated from other communities and cultures, believed that fundamental social institutions such as government and slavery were manifestations of natural law that could not be changed. So people may have extended charity and compassion to their families and friends and to others with whom they had face-to-face contact in their communities, but they tended not to push for incorporating these virtues within social institutions because they believed that it was against natural law to do so.

However, as transportation and communication improved, people in one community or culture became increasingly aware of other communities and cultures and of the fact that there were important differences between the institutions in different communities and cultures. This demonstrated that these institutions weren’t immutable products of natural law but arbitrary and malleable products of human invention.

Nevertheless, even though people have become more and more aware of this, they need the wisdom traditions to encourage and inspire them to instill the qualities of compassion, charity, and social justice into social and cultural institutions that are moving more slowly in this direction than they should. For example, a candidate for president couldn’t get elected today if he said that government should adopt measures requiring those of us who have more to make major sacrifices to insure that desperately poor and needy people in this country and throughout the world have adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care. The founders and sacred texts of all the great traditions teach compassion, charity, and social justice, and their followers have a responsibility to practice them as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and members of other faiths, but we must also practice them on the institutional and governmental level if we and these virtues are to truly transform the world. Yet, this is unlikely to happen unless the wisdom traditions become more actively involved in making it happen. This is how they need to change so that they can change us and we can change the world.

I have tremendous respect for Huston Smith as a religious scholar and as a person. Though I have never met him personally, I have seen and heard him interviewed many times on television and radio and have come away from every such experience with the impression that he is one of the wisest and most warmly engaging human beings on earth. People who know him say the same and love him. However, unlike him, I tend to believe that the wisdom traditions, such as they are, need to change profoundly to significantly improve the quality of life for most people in today’s world, much less deliver us to any kind of ‘promised land’ of fulfillment or realization of our highest purpose. That is, I believe that the wisdom traditions, such as they are, are too rooted in archaic myths and traditions to serve as a medium through which most of us can transform ourselves and the world. I believe that their teachings and practices need to incorporate not only the best of ancient knowledge and wisdom, but also the best of the what all the relevant disciplines of today--including the physical, biological, psychological, social, and information sciences and modern philosophy--tell us about ourselves and the universe and the relation between the two, and how not only to experience this understanding as abstract concepts but also how to live it as concrete percepts or realization.

In other words, I believe that religion needs not so much to collaborate with these disciplines as to include and integrate them in a new and tenable way, and only then will religion--no longer religion as such but a whole and powerful way of understanding and living--inspire and effect the changes in ourselves and in the world that the best of the ancient religious leaders and texts implore us to achieve. Such a new religion or way of life may very well abandon the fairy tale gods and myths of antiquity or make it exceedingly clear, in way they don’t now, that these are only myths designed to direct our attention toward the deeper truths they symbolize. But if human beings in today’s and tomorrow’s world are to develop into the best and happiest people they can be, it may be time for them to put down the religious toys of children and step into the world of religious adolescence and adulthood.

As quixotic and wildly grandiose as it may be, I am dedicated to fashioning my own understanding of what such a new religion or way of life might be, and my goal is to write an influential book about it someday.

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