It is a tension that has confounded people for centuries: ‘the world as it is’ vs. ‘the world as it should be’. Most people make some commitment to doing something that will help bring about the world as it should be, but their commitment may falter, or may even be abandoned, because of the overwhelming stress, if not despair, over the world as it is.
Every religious expression that I know about stakes out a vision of a world as it should be. In spite of their many differences in history and wide variations in symbol, narrative and practice, there are common threads that are universally embraced across the religious continuum: peace, justice, hope, love. Each religion has carved out a unique pathway for achieving the world as it should be.
A growing number of people have been disillusioned by religion, to the degree that – for some, any religious perspective is dismissed as overly sentimental, too judgmental – or so far removed from the world as it is (particularly given the many advances of science) that religion is little more than a caricature.
I was a Religion major in college. One of the first things I learned in my studies is to come to terms with what religion is not. My most important early teachers in this were Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Marx described religion as the “opiate of the people”, as it offers endless addictive bromides to people who couldn’t otherwise escape from the inequities of a capitalist system – from the world as it is. Freud maintained that religion was the psyche’s attempt to escape the pain of relationships by projecting a pie-in-the sky set of beliefs that were totally disconnected from reality (the world as it is).
I agreed with them as a college sophomore, and I agree with them still. Religion – especially when it distorts or denies reality, and/or exclusively engages people in the world as it should be, runs counter to the Latin root of the word religion: religio, which refers to the symbols, practices and stories that bind people together. As opposed to pulling them apart.
And we have a lot of religious, and certainly political, forces that are pulling people apart, by demonstrating a deeply held commitment to have people limit their lives and their perspectives to the world as it should be – as they define it. There are growing efforts to deny the world as it is: be it the existence of transgender persons or the painful and brutal history of race, or the continuing saga of racial inequity. Or locking up criminals (and, as some would suggest, throwing away the key), as a way of getting rid of the “criminal element”, leaving the rest to live in the world as it should be.
And on the other end of a religious and political spectrum, there are many for whom a world as it should be is one where there are no guns; when in reality (the world as it is) there are over 400 million guns in over one third of the households in America. Guns have been part of the American landscape from the beginning; they are not going away.
Where religion – and politics, are most effective – and needed, is when they can arrive at some integration between ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as it should be’. Honoring injustice, pain and despair while at the same time offering hope, peace, blessing and love. The two circles of the ‘world as it is’ and ‘the world as it should be’, need to intersect. They can never be completely separate, nor can they completely overlap. They live in tension, a tension which ultimately is creative and life giving. The intersecting circles form a mandorla, which is the Italian word for almond. (and is pictured in this post’s graphic) It is the space of where hope and pain meet, where joy and sorrow can flow in and out of each other. It is a space we should seek.