Religion in the World: A Challenge and an Opportunity

When religion ventures out of its traditional worship space, controversy inevitably ensues. We have seen that recently in Iran where the morality (read religious) police arrested 22 year old Mahsa Amini because her hair was not properly hidden under her hijab. She died in custody a few days later under suspicious circumstances. Street protests have erupted in response.
We see that in a somewhat different way in this country when informal morality (read religious) police strip out of libraries what they perceive to be offending books , or keep transgender kids out of certain bathrooms, or insist on redacting American history.
What is telling about these and other examples — and distressing, is that the morality or religious responses are all about control. To have people behave, think or learn a certain way. This commitment to control results in a continuum from disdain to death for those who refuse to comply.
The Latin root of the word religion is religio, which refers to the practices, symbols, stories and language that bind people together. Which is not what we are seeing and reading about.
The mainline church, of which I am most familiar and am very much a part, has been somewhat reluctant to move into the public space. This is somewhat understandable, given that the more progressive expressions of religion don’t want to be linked to other religious entities, be they Christian or non -Christian, that are so committed to exercising control. Mainline religion voices and presence tend to be muted and cautious.
Into this unique landscape some creative initiatives have emerged, which are not intentionally religious, but nevertheless have religious overtones. Several years ago a rabbi friend of mine introduced me to “The Dinner Party”, a quasi-movement that began in 2014, organized by young people in their twenties who were the first in their cohort who had lost a sibling, child or parent to death. They gathered over dinner to tell their stories and share their grief. In 2017 some 50,000 dinner parties were held across the country. It is meeting a need for people to find meaning and support; and to reinforce values. As I hear and read about the Dinner Party, it sounds very religious — in a secular sense. No doubt the Dinner Party leaders do not want to be identified as religious, nor do they want to invite official religious leaders into their process, because of their concern that whatever religious group is brought in will want to take control.
A couple of weeks ago I attended an outdoor wedding on a beautiful day. The officiant was a friend of the couple who was licensed for the occasion. The celebration was joyful. The statements of love that the bride and groom made to each other were loving and moving. Yet in spite of it all, as a professional religious person I found that some elements of the ceremony were missing. And I missed them. And I suspect that one of the reasons the couple decided that they didn’t want the ceremony to be overtly religious is they didn’t want religion to come in and control — and squelch the deep and abiding feelings of love.
The mainline religious world needs to be more in the world. Not to control, but to learn. Marrying couples and young adults experiencing grief have values and standards; and deep desires to make moments meaningful. We need to learn from them. We don’t need to sacrifice our traditions and values, but we do need to recognize our historical need to control. We need to build relationships. To get out of our worship spaces to find out where else God is working. And to join in.

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