Faith in the 21st Century

Decline of religion can be checked by progressive religion, including progressive Christianity and religious pluralism. Creativism should be a global ethic.

Unsustainable religion

We have come to an unexpected situation, where religion is under threat in significant parts of Western civilisation but flourishing elsewhere, especially in developing countries. Taken as a whole, religion seems confused about what it stands for. Partly this is a failure in responding to change. Faith traditions are typically conservative and therefore deeply challenged by the rapidity and intensity of the changes happening in the world at large. Their struggle for continued identity and relevance only adds to problems or deficiencies which they have always experienced (for religion might have higher aspirations but it is, after all, a human institution like any other). Core messages remain buried in doctrine and clouded by oppressive and repressive behaviours, greed, deceit and the excesses of fundamentalism. One has to conclude that the stewardship of souls has become, at times, as toxic and unsustainable as humanity’s stewardship of the Earth. Fortunately, in small ways around the globe, there are signs of hope and at least some realisation that the “look” of religion is distinct from its truth, which is pure goodness.

A new approach to religion

Religion as a whole is in need of reaffirmation. There is much to celebrate: the cosmic insights and broad humanity of Hinduism, the self-sacrificial giving of Christianity, the gentle wisdom of Taoism and Buddhism, the passion of Islam, the idealism of Jainism, the everyday practicality of Confucianism and Judaism – and so on. Like Joseph’s coat of many colours, the different faith traditions together are a thing of immense beauty. This religious pluralism, like multiculturalism, gives us great opportunities to find core truth in different ways. But many improvements are needed. Religious beliefs everywhere need to be refreshed and made more contemporary, and religious institutions and practices need to be reformed. Above all, religion needs to show leadership through a more rational, empathetic and liberated approach, addressing the hard 21st century issues of inequality, injustice, and the relief of hardship. This way of thinking is often called progressive religion, or in the West progressive Christianity. The end result should be that each person on the planet has an informed understanding of goodness and its value as a focus for living, and the freedom to act on this understanding, either in concert or independently.

Creativism as a world ethic

Goodness as truth, love and creative action is ultimately something spiritual, but it can also stand as an ethic. Religion can and should guide us in this direction, not as doctrine but using it as the mainspring of its responses to need. (The role of religion should not be to impose or control, but to answer all sorts of need and to serve). Adoption by the Parliament of the World’s Religions would be a good start. The ethic of truth, love and creative action also must live in the secular world. Globalisation in the 20th century saw an increasing move towards statements of ethics, and rightly so, even though their implementation has often been disappointing. We lament the lapses from codes such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but we recognise their value all the same. As a race we would do well to adopt creativism or truth-love-creative action as an ethical base for all other ethics, for it is simple, profound, and applicable to all. Like wisdom, it is a universal meeting point, a way of finding the oneness or unity in the midst of perplexing, conflicted diversity.

Great heroes and lesser heroes

While most of us are afflicted with too much ego, we also paradoxically lack confidence in our approach to the big things of life. We feel a need for leaders, heroes, and intermediaries. Factual or mythical, great people are hugely important as drivers of change. So, it is incumbent on us to use our 21st century knowledge and understanding to choose our heroes wisely, for the need for such people will always be with us. We still hold to ancient and historical heroes such as Jesus, Joan of Arc and St Francis of Assisi, and life-enhancing mythological heroes such as Shiva, Avalokiteśvara and Budai (the Laughing Buddha). We have also chosen worthy heroes from our own time – Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and others. That we have done so with full knowledge of their weaknesses is to our credit, for it is truthful. But how often do we acknowledge leadership in our own backyard or street and realise our own individual capacity to be heroic, even in the small things of life?

Moving forward

Globalisation, the tendency for everything to become one, has inevitably been resisted by atomisation; this is yin-yang at work. Still, every minute as our Universe expands, so we become more and more complex and potentially more adrift from our source. What is this source? There are different views on this, some seeing it as the all-encompassing Brahman or Tao, for example, others as the ultimate goodness which we call God. This is beyond us to definitively know, but not beyond us to act upon, for we can all make it our life’s mission to reach beyond complexity and get to (what we see as) the simplicity at the heart of everything. This is the aim of truth, love and creative action. Our whole life is in one way a push to expand our self, to enlarge our capabilities and experience, to be bigger and better. Balance, however, demands that we also pull back, going into our psyches to find and better know our core. When we do this, we may be able to dissolve the boundaries that we have erected between ourselves and everyone and everything else, and get and give a greater enjoyment of life. Amen – “let it be so.”

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read Life’s Journey

There is a very real danger that, seeing the challenges and uncertainties ahead, we will throw up our hands in despair, and say it is all too hard. Or else, we will simply relapse into our default “business as usual” mode and, equally, achieve nothing. At the very least we can embrace the ethic of truth-love-creative action as a way of making life better, not just for ourselves but for all. Even better, we can realise the enlargement of spirit that comes with this approach to life. To have trust in this simple goodness is to enjoy the benefits of faith.

Suggested further reading

Cox, Harvey. 2009. The Future of Faith. New York: HarperOne.

Geering, Lloyd. 1999. The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

Hunt, Rex A.E. and John W.H. Smith, eds 2013. Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘Progressive’ Christianity. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press.

Runzo, Joseph, and Nancy M. Martin, eds. 2001. Ethics in the World Religions. Oxford: Oneworld.

Spong, John Shelby. 1998. Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. San Francisco: HarperCollins.