Say the word religion and you’ll get differing emotional responses from almost everyone ranging from unabashed, warm and fuzzy adoration to stomach-churning discomfort. You may also receive the impression that a lot of people have entirely rejected the idea of religion. Scratch beneath the surface of this phenomenon and you’ll likely find a wound inflicted by someone who purportedly was religious. In any case as long as there are people in the world who look to others for support and comfort and who are seeking a deeper transcendence, healing and wholeness, religions are here to stay. But to be effective in fostering transcendence most religions are going to have to evolve and change some longstanding positions.
The purpose of transcendence is two-fold. First, it enables all of us to respond to those influences outside of us that make our lives difficult, cause emotional disharmony, or create unnecessary external and internal suffering. Family of origin dysfunction rooted in psychological or spiritual disorder, illness, addiction issues, and abuse all contribute to human suffering. Societal dysfunction manifested by economic inequality, political conflict, war, and the need for better education and health care exacerbate eternal suffering.
Second, transcendence gives us the power to respond to interior influences that cause unnecessary suffering. We cannot escape the pain associated with living and triggered by external influences, but we can move away from conscious suffering and needless anxiety. Co-dependent relationships, self-criticism, low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt and other self-destructive attitudes and beliefs are at the root of much internal suffering.
The work of transcendence moves us away from the influences we feel from the outside and processes them from within souls. Our souls are our true self, not our ever-changing bodies, minds, emotions or personalities. The soul is able to experience the non-judgmental awareness or observer of our body and mind and also of itself. It is the deepest intelligence in the self and in the universe. Our soul helps us to access our passion to serve others with our gifts, which in itself becomes the ultimate channel for our existential pain and brings about healing and a return to wholeness.
What is the relationship of religion to faith and spirituality? A lot of people use the terms interchangeably, but they are very different concepts. Faith is trust in a person or a spiritual being, or even in oneself. It’s a radical decision to love, to be loved, and be committed to another. Faith can take several forms, for example:
Personal faith as in a marriage, partnership or family as well as in a divine being;
Corporate faith as in a group assembled for a purpose, such as a corporation, government, or even an athletic team or condo association;
Religious faith as in any number of organizations built around a divine being, a founder, and with a visible governing structure.
Spirituality is distinct from faith in that it is the way we internalize, reflect upon, or express our faith in words and/or actions that are meaningful to us. Spirituality often involves art, music, rituals, practices or images that help to move our hearts and minds toward the object of our faith. Any one faith can be expressed through a multitude of spiritualities. The keys to a particular spirituality are a common image, language, feeling, and sensation that describe the faith experience.
Religions bring together faith and spiritualities in a community setting, whereby people of similar beliefs gather to manifest their faith in concrete actions. One other obvious characteristic we see in nearly all religions is a founder, someone whose actions, personality, teachings, or leadership inspired and sustained the faith. The Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, among others, have been held up as founders of their respective spiritual traditions, and ultimately of particular religions (Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a spiritual religious system).
Religions also have symbolic rituals, art, and public prayer that enhance the experience and foster the growth of community. They also have hierarchies of leadership that lead prayer and govern the organization. Once a religion becomes established and accepted by a large enough number of people interest groups tend to influence the leadership in one direction or another. Over time religions absorb bits and pieces from these constituencies and from the culture around them. Not everyone is happy about this phenomenon and so it often causes break-away groups and therefore new religions to form. Eventually the founder’s core message might get lost amid the current spiritualities, governance, laws, and teachings that have sifted down through the ages.
Religions in the West have used a particular kind of non-empirical science to aid their self-understanding. This science is called theology, or the study of God. Theology is meant to be rooted in core beliefs or doctrines, and explain them in a cogent manner. But sometimes theology becomes speculative. Deep thinkers introduce new concepts that are meant to explain the faith more thoroughly or perhaps in more current language. Religious leaders make judgments regarding the appropriateness of these newer theologies. Sometimes they accept these newer theological formulations; often they condemn them, and later they frequently show up again in another expression. Since words by their nature are loaded with alternative meanings theology can both clarify and muddle a founder’s core message.
Theology has also been unfortunately used to support extreme ideologies in religious organizations that have led to persecutions, pogroms, war, and jihad. Leaders may also use popular theologies to their advantage and by doing so can increase their influence for harm or good. It’s a way of creating a new “tone” in the expression of core teachings, thus making them more palatable to a wider audience, even though the central message has not changed.
Theologies and doctrines that need closer examination in religions are concerning the use of words, radical justice, sexual ethics and the founder’s core message. These affect the daily decisions of almost everyone in the conduct of their private and public lives and the carrying out of their social and ethical obligations. They also most intimately touch upon human transcendence.
In my new pamphlet, How Religions Must Change, which is available as a free download on here I attempt to offer suggestions that go to the root of the status quo in religions. I am hoping to promote a deeper reflection in individuals and religious communities regarding the necessity for evolution in doctrine and theology that keeps pace with our lives as we experience them today. Many people need and use religion to support their striving toward transcendence. On a basic level that is what social media has been trying to achieve…making it easier for us to connect with one another. This need to connect touches upon our innate hunger to transcend time and space and ultimately to find the deepest meaning of who we are and what our life purpose is.
Original artwork copyrighted by the artist, Michael Parise