The pope recently visited England. While addressing parliamentarians and other dignitaries at the Palace of Westminster, he denounced what he described as the “increasing marginalization of religion, particularly Christianity.”
After reading excerpts of his speech, I was left with the feeling that the pope actually believes religion is being marginalized in society, and that the cause is culture and social and political liberalism. And, by implication, people. Regular folk like you and me.
This much I can agree with. The pope is right that religion is rapidly becoming a marginalized relic in public life and discourse. Larger and larger numbers of people, according to the recent American Religious Identification Survey, do not take organized religion very seriously anymore.
But, who’s really to blame for this?
My own sense is this: It is not culture, society or, by implication, people who have marginalized religion. Religion has successfully marginalized itself.
While all religions share the same essential purpose, virtually every religion is failing miserably, and none more notable to Westerners than Christianity itself. And it isn’t so much that Christianity is failing; it is the church itself in its varied complexity.
Today, for example, there are more than 20,000 groups or denominations within the larger Christian church. Each believes its understanding of truth is a little more “right” than the 19,999 others. It is not that there is anything abnormal about this variety or phenomenon of diversity. In Hinduism, for example, there is a diversity that would make this seem slight by comparison. And what would explain this? The longer a religion is around, the more diverse it seems to become.
Diversity, however, isn’t the cause of “marginalization of religion.” It is, instead, what accompanies the diversity – an insanity that assumes “We’re right, you’re wrong,” “We’re in, you’re out,” “We’re the chosen ones, you’re not.”
It is this madness that divides people. It is from this madness within most expressions of religion that multitudes are moving.
Religions start out well-meaning, but it isn’t long before they seem to become obsessed with matters of lesser importance.
For example, instead of being a bridge to a unified self or a sense of the divine, which is the principal purpose of virtually all faith traditions, religion too often becomes a barrier. Instead of freeing people of their burdens, religion itself is a burden. Instead of divine approval and acceptance, religion gets preoccupied with guilt, failure and depiction of the deity as a displeased despot who is mad about virtually everything and everyone.
And as we have seen with the recent Quran burnings that gained media attention on the 9/11 anniversary – and here I am talking about the radical Christian groups who led the charge – instead of bringing unity to humanity, religion is often the cause of great disunity. It is madness, and it must end or the future of humanity is at stake.
There are many Christians who are just as radical as Islamic radicals. But the way they typically express their displeasure with the world, and the fact that their evangelical efforts at converting the world have failed, is to look and earnestly pray for the end of the world.
They call it the “rapture” or the return of Jesus for his elect, which of course means them. This too is madness and a menacing threat to the future of the human family. These Christians would love to influence America’s foreign policy so as to speed up what they believe to be the ultimate showdown in the Middle East. They may be succeeding.
What many of these Christians want is the return of Jesus to secretly zap them from Earth and whisk them off to a peaceful never-never land. Nevermind the fact that Jesus himself said no one could predict the end of the world or his return, whatever that may mean, but that one thing is certain: It would be when people “least expect it.” Since these Christians are expecting it, even longing for it, it has perhaps not occurred to them that they are most likely responsible for his delay.
I’m pretty sure there are many other explanations for the “marginalization of religion” today. But, if the pope, and indeed all religious people, are serious about restoring the place of religion in public life and in people’s personal lives, the way to do so is clear from Jesus’ own words: “He who would save his life will lose it, but he who gives his life will find it.”
Here are three simple suggestions:
1. Make room for peaceful faith expressions. The religions are here to stay. They may be all needed, but the insanity that they easily become is not. The divine is big enough to embrace all faith traditions with abundant grace.
2. Send missionaries armed with knowledge about farming, water purification and the like. Send them with supplies and equipment, with medicine and medical and financial resources. Give away your compassion and see what happens.
3. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Trite but true. I’m pretty sure that’s about all this world has ever needed. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what you will,” which is just another way of saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Until religious leaders know this and practice it, I suspect Pope Benedict and others will continue to blame the marginalization of religion on culture, ideas, conflicting movements and ordinary people like you and me.
And that will lead nowhere, except to greater marginalization. What you seek to save, you lose.