Slouching toward a New Religion?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

         W.B. Yeats


I have been thinking about the reform of Christian religion and theology off and on for most of my academic life. I came of age intellectually and religiously during the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council and that reform movement influenced the whole course of my life. Lately this issue became more pressing, while I wrote a series of blog posts on the issue of religion and abortion in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. A particular religious position propelled that catastrophic decision, and the outcome potentially will have a great impact on American religion

If Christian religion and theology need to change, and I think they need radical change, how can we go about it? I have come up with two rules and one question to kick off this conversation. I have framed them provocatively, but, I think, defensibly.

1. Nothing reserved.

The western monotheistic religions have understood themselves as founded on revelation, each religion having its own distinct revelation. Thus, truth resides in an unchangeable past that cannot be surrendered.

But to move forward, we must come to terms with our understanding of truth. The received tradition, understood as divinely revealed, must be subjected to critical analysis. This does not mean tradition must be rejected; only that nothing can be exempted from critical scrutiny. One cannot say, this must be accepted on faith, that cannot be doubted, this must be accepted, that need not be proved. To shield any element from scrutiny sets the stage for reactionary, authoritarian, and antidemocratic religion.

Why must this first rule be absolute? Because we cannot know in advance what critical analysis will reveal. Much in Christian tradition has already failed critical analysis. For example, the notion of divine revelation depends upon a three-story universe.  

But surely, you will ask, we can’t reject Jesus Christ? What would Christianity be without Jesus Christ?

Westar Fellow Lane McGaughy has argued that there have been two quests for Jesus. The first quest for the dogmatic Jesus, Jesus the Christ, began in the third century and has continued to this day. The dogmatic quest claims to have found the Christ of faith, a unified orthodox construction of who Jesus really is. But this claim is a rhetorical strategy that serves to exclude every competing view. Upon critical inspection, the orthodox Christ of faith turns out not to be THE Christ, but multiple Christs, none of whom are necessarily rooted in the historical Jesus.

McGaughy’s second stage in the quest for Jesus is the quest for the historical Jesus that began in the Enlightenment with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768). In McGaughy’s model the quest for the historical Jesus does not accompany the dogmatic quest but replaces it. Theology should therefore emerge from the historical quest, not the other way around. 

McGaughy’s analysis leads to a corollary to my first rule: something cannot be historically false and theologically true. The historical Jesus did not think of himself as God. How, then, can he be God? This is a ditch I cannot cross, like the “broad, ugly ditch” of Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781).

Westar’s Christianity Seminar in its report After Jesus before Christianity recently concluded that neither Christianity nor Christians existed in the first two centuries. Those who want to defend the importance of tradition focus on the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian creeds, or the sixteenth century of reformation. Why should these define tradition? Why not the first two centuries? I have often wondered, if Jesus and Paul were not Christians, why should I be? I would want to build on traditions of Jesus and Paul as one of the resources for a new religion. But I would want to cast my net as wide as possible, without privileging any one tradition as authoritative. A religion for today requires resources, not authorities, from all the religious traditions and in alignment with a scientific understanding of truth.

2. Science cannot be rejected or ignored.

The Christian churches have failed over and over in their encounters with science. From Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin, the churches have failed to come to terms with scientific ways of knowing. Faith does not offer some alternate way of knowing. In each confrontation of religion and science, science has proven correct; religion wrong.

This outcome was predictable. In the medieval period, the Christian church dominated the political, cultural, and intellectual spheres. Theology was revered as queen of sciences. Beginning with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the rise of modern science, Christianity and theology have had to forfeit their central and leading roles, often being demoted to the private realm. Conflict over place of prominence was inevitable. The churches and theology were not prepared for such a challenge. The situation is now irreversible, although bitter conflict remains.

This leads to another corollary: science has much to teach religion and theology and can serve as a resource, but religion and theology have nothing to teach science.

3. What is religion fundamentally about?

My two rules can clear ground to create a new religion and corresponding theology, one that can respond to the world we actually live in.

I take my cue from the evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson: “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.” This is why religion often has much in common with art, music, and literature. They play to our sense of imagination, wonder, and amazement. Religion may meet some evolutionary need.

So what is religion? What needs should it meet? These questions beg for discussion and research.

I would point to community and ritual as fundamental for religion. We humans are social animals, so we need community. Religious community should provide safe space for us to ask who we are and how we make meaning in a world and universe that seem random and without purpose.

Ritual is the way we symbolize life transitions and acknowledge the importance of those transitions within a safe and supporting community. Traditionally, rituals sanctifying initiation, repentance, thanksgiving, marriage, and death incorporated those transitions into a myth of Christianity. Now we need rituals for birth, death, and other situations that reflect the reality of our modern world.

I would focus a new religion on praxis, the way we do things, over articles of faith, things we believe. Putting belief at the center of Christianity was a tragic mistake that drew Christianity away from its historic roots.

The Christianity Seminar discovered that the first two centuries of the Jesus movement were full of social experimentation. We are in a similar situation of social change. If a new religion is to have any chance, it will require a trial and error. The only way forward is through experimentation. Nothing should be off limits. Failure is inevitable. But without failure, there will be no success.  

--Bernard Brandon Scott

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