On the Future of Religion

On the Future of Religion

Matthew Fox

When one looks at the wars and rumors of wars abounding around the world—and the number that are religion-based or religion-fed—one cannot be optimistic about religion as we know it or the future of religion as we know it.  I think the words of John the Baptist applied to the Christ in John’s gospel may apply here: “I must decrease and he must increase.”  Religion may have to decrease in order that spirituality can increase.  That is how I see the future of religion playing out.

So much religion has taken on an air of Institutional Ego, an air of Institutional Entitlement.  One of the first acts of the new pope, the former inquisitor general, Cardinal Ratzinger, who gave up his theological career to become a theological policeman and expelled over 100 Catholic theologians from their work and livelihood, was to go to Prado, the Italian exclusive boutique clothes designer to get all the papal outfits remade and redesigned. He did this after his first words on being made pope (or making himself pope since he appointed 112 of the 115 cardinals who voted in the election) were that he was a “humble man.”  Indeed.

So much for any hopes of the Vatican wing of Roman Catholicism returning to the spirit of Jesus or the spirit of liberation theology which was a “preferential option for the poor.”  I guess we can expect Catholicism to offer a “preferential option for the well dressed (cleric).”  I guess this story tells us something of the direction some religion is headed.  (Ratzinger is the same person who did the last pope’s dirty work by rushing into canonization Father Escriva, the founder of opus dei.  Escriva was a fascist who admired Hitler.)

In my recent book, A New Reformation, I call for the reformation and transformation of religion, a reinvention that takes into account the profound sociological and psychological shifts from the modern to the post-modern era, and one that honors pre-modern wisdom as well as post-modern awareness.  (No one could accuse modern conscious of honoring the pre-modern awareness—ask the 80 million indigenous peoples of the Americas who lost their lives when the Europeans landed here about that.)  The fundamentalist craze that is circumventing the globe in the name of fierce religion, whether Islamic style or Jewish or Vatican or Protestant or Hindu or whatever does not augur well for the future of healthy religion.  Which is the only kind worth having a future.  As I put it in a poem I wrote recently, “religion can be sin.”  Religious people can come in sheep’s clothing.

Healthy religion does not kill innocent victims in the name of its God or gods or idols.

Healthy religion struggles to practice compassion and to learn what the God of compassion means and desires of us.

Healthy religion respects the healthy religion of other traditions and welcomes shared wisdom and grace.

Healthy religion teaches a healthy relationship to the body and to the earth body and to sexuality (Cardinal Ratzinger and Co. flunk this test.  As one recent priest theologian said, the official church is as much consumed by sex as are pornographers).

Healthy religion cares passionately about keeping the earth healthy for future generations to come.

Healthy religion does not preach war.

Healthy religion recognizes the motherhood as well as the fatherhood of God, sees the Divine as feminine as well as masculine and does not make an idolatry of punitive Patriarchal Deity.

In short, healthy religion is not religion at all.  It is not about institutional ego.  It is about spirituality, about living fully and deeply, about taming the reptilian brain through spiritual practices such as meditation so that the crocodile brain—which we all carry inside of us—does not take over the planet.  Or our corporations.  Or our governments.  Or our religions.

Healthy religion teaches spirituality.  That means it brings alive the mystical capacities of all of us—our capacity to celebrate Awe and Wonder; to undergo darkens and silence (when I heard recently that 83% of the clergy of the United Church of Canada are on anti-depressants I was reminded of how far religion is from spirituality—it has failed to teach us how to grieve, how to navigate the dark night of the soul, how to be mystics on bad days as well as good days).

Healthy religion also arouses creativity, the image of God the Artist comes alive in people practicing healthy religion or spirituality.  The Holy Spirit is the Creative Spirit.  How are we doing?

Healthy religion is a powerful source for social justice (it was good to see some Catholic priests marching with their people in the demonstrations of Latinos against immigration laws that would have made felons of all illegal immigrants and those who fed them or sheltered them or treated them like human beings); for economic justice; gender justice; gender-preference justice and eco-justice.  How are we doing?

The fact that so much homophobia is wrapping itself in religious sentiment is telling.  Did God not make gays and lesbians?  Does God and nature not want sexual diversity?  It would seem they do since 8-10% of any given human population is homosexual—even though most come from heterosexual parents!  Of course we have now counted 464 other species that have gay and lesbian populations so nature, which is God’s work, is obviously biased in favor of diversity.  What other diversity is the religion of homophobia against?

The shibboleth that homosexuality is “against nature” has been proven by those who study nature—scientists!—to be a lie.  Homosexuality is altogether natural to a minority of human population.  To force gays and lesbians into heterosexual marriage is unnatural and unfair to all parties concerned.  The issue of homosexuality is not a theological issue any more than the issue of whether the earth travels around the sun or the sun around the earth is a theological issue.  It is science’s job to answer these questions and science has spoken.

Sinclair Lewis once said: “When fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Healthy religion stands up to fascism.  It stands up to control compulsions.  It does not welcome fascism or run from the room when it enters (often in fancy clothes and garments).  Like Jesus did, it stands up to power.  Healthy religion is in touch with moral outrage and anger and uses it to fuel the struggle for justice.

Healthy religion celebrates the insight of the great African American mystic, Howard Thurman, who understood well the call to Interfaith or Deep Ecumenism.  Thurman wrote: “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”

Of course the Dali Lama warns us that the number one obstacle to interfaith is a bad relationship with one’s own faith tradition.  This is critical.  I think many Taliban-like fundamentalist Muslims have strayed very, very far from the prophetic words of Mohammad who, among other things, broke many taboos in his treatment of women and his insistence on the equality of women.  The same wandering has occurred in fundamentalist Christianity where the Vatican and the Pat Robinsons and Jerry Falwells are so far from Jesus’ teachings as to be unrecognizable.

Healthy Christianity, one that is aligned with its own faith tradition, will fly on two wings—that of the historical Jesus who was a prophet interfering with false religion and false empire building and that of the Cosmic Christ who represents the mystical tradition of the Christ or the Light or the Divine presence present in all beings in the universe.  The historical Jesus comes from the wisdom tradition which is the creation-based spiritual tradition of Israel.  This is agreed upon by all scholars today.

As for the cosmic Christ, one Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has recently written in a major volume on St. Paul that for Paul “only mystics can be Christians and that all Christians must be mystics.” (p. 280)  Paul after all was the first writer in the Christian Bible—and he was a mystic!  Regarding Paul himself, Crossan write, “as far as we can tell, Paul was both an ecstatic and a mystic.  And no matter how one explains or interprets ecstatic mysticism, it is absolutely fundamental for an understanding of Paul.”

Furthermore, Paul was a cosmic mystic!  As another recent biblical scholar, Bruce Chilton, has put it: “No Christian thinker before or since has thought on so cosmic a scale, linking God’s Spirit to humanity’s and both to the transformation of the world.  The picture he conveyed of what it meant for even small groups of believers to meet together involved them in a literal reshaping of the universe….The range of Paul’s thinking was literally cosmic, and metacosmic, because the viscera of Christ, the mind of Christ, wove all things into the primordial whole that had been their source.”  (207, 249)

How well are the churches doing in turning out mystics and prophets?  How well are the seminaries doing?  My advice?  Don’t hold your breath!  Start a Reformation.  Now.