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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The future of religion

Trends of membership in religious groups seem to be down pretty much all around the world. Billions of people are living out their lives without any connection to a religious group. If survey results in our country can be believed, many people still practice religion in some form--the "spiritual but not religious" folks. That label betrays an individualistic bias. You don't have to be involved with other people to be "spiritual."

The question of the future viability of religion has been around ever since the days of the Enlightenment. "Secularization" is the label given by sociologists to the idea that religion will eventually disappear.

I keep coming back to the analogy with music. Recently I attended a performance of the Quincy Symphony, which featured young artists--high school age musicians. The symphony and its incredibly proficient young performers tell me that music is not likely to die out.

True, 99% of the people in Quincy were not present for that performance, but I'm sure a larger percentage of the 99% watched the recent televised Grammy awards, which reward musical excellence of a different kind.

Quality music requires professionals--people skilled both in performance and in support for performers. Without both performers and supporters, music languishes. As societies grow wealthier and more peaceful, the number of professionals and supporters grows. Music is not dying out.

Religious groups need professionals and supporters. The Catholic Church has prided itself on the quality of its leadership. It has prided itself too much. The sex abuse crisis is just one aspect of the failure of its leadership to address issues. Even more important is its failure to motivate people to become its leaders on the local level (priests). Maybe the present structure of leadership will have to dissolve into ashes before something new can arise. But something new will arise.

One theory is that religion appeals to people when everything else falls to pieces. I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled that the "religion of the gaps." Religion can only flourish when people are hurting. Perhaps the world will face disasters such as nuclear war or total environmental degradation, and then people will turn back to religion.

But religion can flourish without such dire conditions. With proper leadership, religious activity of all kinds can enrich life just as much as music. Religion does not need to control everything, nor does it need to convince everyone of a vision held by a particular group. I believe my Catholic vision reflects reality, and I look forward to dialog with other faiths in order to see what I can learn about how others see God working in the world. The proportion of the world's population that will be Catholic is God's problem. In the Gospel of Matthew (10:23), Jesus is quoted as saying: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This suggests that the followers of Jesus will never get universal coverage.

I want to share my vision of God's kingdom because that vision is life-giving, just as musicians want to share their vision about how music can enrich our lives. That is the proper motive for "evangelization." Evangelization gets a bad name when it turns into a tool for any kind of control.

We believe that Jesus Christ was God become human. Jesus didn't take over the world and get everyone to accept his vision of God's kingdom. Who are we to expect that we can do that?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The word "testify" is sprinkled all through the Gospel of John. John the Baptist testifies, Jesus testifies, the Father testifies, Jesus' works testify, the beloved disciple witnesses the blood and water from the side of Jesus on the cross and testifies about that, and his testimony is true. 

But science depends on testimony. When a scientist in a laboratory observes the results of an experiment, that scientist puts the observation into words, or perhaps into mathematical formulations of what has been observed. Other scientists have to depend on the truthfulness of the observer's witness. Occasionally an observer lies and is discovered. The observer has committed the unforgivable sin in science: falsifying observations. That scientist's reputation is ruined.

Scientists are expected to disclose the sources of their funding when they publish the results of their research, because it is always possible that their testimony may be biased in favor of the people who are paying their bills.

Thus even science depends on human witness. What distinguishes scientific observation from other human observation is the expectation that other observers are able to repeat the observation process and hopefully describe their observations the same way as the original observer. Scientific statements must be replicable. But all scientists are human beings testifying to what they experience when they observe their instruments.

Science is a massive operation of millions of people observing and testifying to what they observe. How is that different from millions of people observing phenomena in their spiritual lives and testifying to what they have experienced?

Religious experiences are replicable, not on an individual basis, but on a larger scale, across time. The fact that millions of people gather for religious rituals is evidence that something replicable is going on. This is the basis for the field called "sociology of religion." Scientists in that field do not judge the truth of the stories that people tell--they do not judge the statement that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They observe the behavior of people who make such statements.

Of course there are millions of people who do not claim to have spiritual experiences. That does not invalidate the testimony of the people who do have such experiences. There are millions of people who report that they get enjoyment from listening to music. The fact that there are millions of people who do not enjoy music--who are not "musically inclined"--is not evidence that music is valueless.

Religious people turn off a lot of other people by behavior that other people judge as foolish. There are religious sects that promote handling poisonous snakes on the basis of a statement in the Gospel of Mark. We think such behavior is unwise and leads to harmful consequences, but that does not mean that people who attend Mass are behaving unwisely. There are scientists who use science for bad purposes, or who conduct their research in harmful ways. The Nazi scientists who performed experiments that caused people's deaths, or the research on syphilis done at Tuskegee have not caused us to judge all research as harmful.

Postmodern theory is correct in claiming that no statements are absolutely verifiable. They are correct in claiming that statements of truth can mask desires to control. I can accept the truthfulness of postmodern theory without concluding that making truth statements is worthless or harmful. To reject all truth statements is to repeat the ancient riddle: "All statements are false, including this one."