Is religion still relevant for modern humans? It has been said that the time of miracles is past, and that the era of faith is fading. But I don’t agree, while the world is changing with ever increasing speed human beings remain much the same. We need connection, to each other and to something greater than ourselves. Faith and modern life are hardly impossible. I find the possibilities and opportunities of modernity exciting for a life of faith (or spirituality).
For the last few decades there has been this pervasive myth that modernity and faith, or the life of the spirit, were somehow opposed to one another. Which is odd since it was exactly the religious who were the first serious scientists. In Europe it was monks and nuns, who had the freedom of time and learning on their side. For North Africa and the Middle East it was Muslim scholars who plumbed the depths of science and mathematics (that we aren’t using the hugely clunky Roman number system is thanks to Muslim religious scholars.) In the far East there was no separation between the science of the interior and exterior life.
And yet here we are. How we came to the odd assumption that science and spiritual life are opposed to one another is a story for another time. What I want to explore is why today is such an exciting time to be a person of faith (whatever faith that might be).
The World is Big (and varied)
And that’s the first awesome and amazing thing right there. Modern humans live in a time where our world is so connected and small that we can actually talk about different faiths. You see it wasn’t that long ago that most humans never left a couple mile radius of the place they were born. And their worlds were monochrome. All the people around them looked like them (most were related), spoke like them, and were the same religious tradition. Uniformity was all there was.
And if you stuck out like a sore thumb, if what you had been born into didn’t fit? Too bad, there simply were no alternatives for most people. Today our cities and town are becoming a patchwork quilt of difference, and that is something to celebrate. Do you want to eat the same meal every day for your whole life? Of course you don’t, then why would you want the rest of your world to be unrelenting sameness?
A web of possibility
The sheer diversity of our modern world, and its interconnection has opened up possibilities we could have never dreamed of in the past. Two of my absolute favorite spiritual teachers are the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (of South Africa). Imagine just 100 years ago a gal in the Pacific Northwest of the United States having even heard of those two men? And yet today one of my favorite books was written by them both in collaboration. Not only do I know about them, they know (and adore) one another! So as we ask “is religion relevant” it might be wise to be sure what we mean by religion.
I regularly have discussions about faith, ethics, and life online with Jews, Muslims, atheists, and members of other Christian groups. The wisdom those varied groups share is precious and would have been almost impossible to find even a few years ago.
A spiritual microscope
A few years ago I read The Universe in a Single Atom (Another excellent title by the Dalai Lama) which dealt direction with faith and modern life, especially the intersection of a life of faith with the scientific world. I think many would be surprised at the Dalai Lama’s deep thirst for scientific knowledge. He applies himself as deeply to understanding the universe from leading scientists as he does to his prayer and meditation practices.
Traditional Buddhist teachings make no distinction between spiritual wisdom and scientific wisdom. The two are as entwined as our DNA. And the Dalai Lama was excited about how the discoveries of modern science could inform his Buddhist understandings of the universe. When someone asked him what he would do when (inevitably) science showed some ancient Buddhist belief to be in error, he replied that he would be happy to correct and update that teaching.
A spirituality or religion that embraces the whole of life (and creation) as connected, and sacred is given a great gift each time science unravels some new secret of the universe.
Those aha! moments
For generations my particular religious tradition has practiced set, regular prayer (this is not unusual). We pray the same prayers every morning, noon, evening, bed. We use the same communal worship service in all our communities around the world every week. And we have done this because wise people hundreds of years ago noticed that what we say and do habitually shapes how we act, believe, and think.
And within the last few years neuroscience was able to show why this is the case. Scientists were finally able to show how such repeated actions and words (words are important) actually changed the shape of our brains. It was an aha moment for many of us, a glimpse into the meaning behind the wisdom, the reason behind the practice.
The ability for modern science, research, and a connected world to teach us more about the traditions and practices we have perhaps taken for granted is a gift only possible through faith and modern life.
Maybe we were wrong…
I think that perhaps one of the greatest gifts that modern life has to offer the life of faith is the opportunity to critique our own traditions. When we lived in insular communities of sameness it was easy to dismiss any difference as wrong. When everyone believes as you do deviation from that belief is really difficult and risky.
But in a world where just about everyone you know is from a different culture, language (remember words shape our reality), or religious tradition we are invited into the uncomfortable place of being wrong.
Recently someone for whom English is not their first language pointed out that English’s lack of a plural you entirely changes who we read Jewish and Christian scripture. Both of the languages in which those scriptures were composed (Hebrew and Greek) do have plural forms of “you.” English does not. And so suddenly what was written as an address to a group of people (plural you) sounds individualistic in English. The whole meaning changes, because of a missing pronoun.
This is the gift of faith and modern life.
You are here because you want to be
This hasn’t always been the case. In the ancient world religion wasn’t a choice, it simply was. The religion of your king (emperor, or other ruler) was your religion. When your king converted, surprise you converted. Even a hundred years ago in the West it would have been fairly socially unacceptable to not be Christian. And so everyone was (at least outwardly). The churches were full, but they were full the way country cubs were full. They were the social and business center of the community, the place to be seen, to make contacts, to build your reputation.
Today, in most parts of the West there is very little pressure to belong to any particular religious or spiritual group. Which means if you walk through the door of your local synagogue you are almost certainly there because you want to be there. And so is everyone else. For me, this is very good news. It frees us up to actually be the spiritual communities we were called to be in the first place and to focus on the teachings and practices that we believe matter.
Faith and modern life is actually faith, not a default, but a choice. Faith and modern life is a reaction to a desire to draw closer to the divine, to share this journey with like spirited people, to do the hard work of inner growth. I believe that faith and modern life can enrich and support one another, bringing freedoms we have never known before, and a network of spiritual teachers beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
This is the good news of faith and modern life.
My journey from an un-examined, shallow faith to one informed by science, scholarship, and a huge diversity of spiritual experiences led me to write a book (well first I wrote about 10 books worth of articles here). And I am so excited to say that it launches on August 1st. It’s All Sacred chronicles my 2×4 moment when I realized I couldn’t fail at spirituality because spirituality was my whole life. And it offers concrete help for those who want to live whole, integrated, and awe filled lives themselves. For me it is the definition of faith and modern life.
Check out It’s All Sacred and if you find Crazy Whole Life helpful I hope you’ll grab a copy for yourself or a friend!