CAN WE FIND GOD IN ORGANIZED RELIGION?
Organized religion has had a bad rap for several decades now. No doubt much organized religion is subject to many valid criticisms. Many individuals have been deeply wounded in their personal experience of organized religion. That churches, synagogues, and mosques all need to repent and reform is certainly the case. This question, however, suggests a deeper challenge.
Does organizing religion, or more precisely, organizing people interested in religion, block the way to what is most beautiful and divine in life. There are different names for this reality: the Spirit of Life, the Adventure of the Universe as One, the Harmony of Harmonies, the Beauty, the Beloved. We in the process tradition celebrate these different names and ways of conceiving the divine reality. I will speak of this reality as God.
The questioner seems to be quite confident that individuals in their private and deeply inward experience can find God. This may be in meditation or in getting away from the artificial world and feeling the presence of God in nature. Some individuals have abrupt and startling experiences of God’s presence. But organized religion may not be conducive to these experiences.
These days a common statement is that one is spiritual but not religious. That can mean that one does find something divine in one’s life but does not care to participate in churches, synagogues, or mosques. This is surely a valid choice for some. But it does not mean that participation in public worship should be viewed as something inferior. It is just different. And in my view, turning away from organized religion often expresses an aspect of our culture that is troubling.
That aspect is extreme individualism. Modern society roots in what we call the “Enlightenment.” People wanted to free themselves from the weight of tradition and build up their beliefs out of their own experience. The tradition bound people tightly, and often oppressively, into communities, whereas the Enlightenment emphasized individual freedom and rights. We can all be grateful for its accomplishments. But when individualism carries the day, so that societies are thought of simply as individuals grouping together for their individual benefit, the consequences are appalling. Ayn Rand gives expression to the resulting vision and ideals. No one has responsibility for others. The ideal of compassion is replaced by that of self-assertion.
For process thought, this individualist ideal is based on an erroneous metaphysics. In fact, who we are is constituted largely by our relationships with others. The well-being of others contributes to our own well being. We are persons-in-community. The healthier the community the better off we are. The healthier we are as individual persons, the better the community that together we constitute.
In politics, the dominance of extreme individualism is leading to the dismantling of welfare programs, public health, and public education. It is assumed that those who are rich should not have to pay taxes to help those who are hungry and homeless and ill. If they pay taxes at all, it should be in order to support their corporations and protect themselves from any who threaten their security
I am afraid that some of the celebration of purely individual spirituality is related to this individualism. One’s individual relationship to God does not involve any care for others. There is no sense of “we” or of “our” relationship with God. That type of relationship is cultivated in worshipping communities that make many demands on their members to care for one another and for the larger community outside. These demands and pressures can, indeed, interfere with the cultivation of one’s individual interior serenity, as well as with one’s pursuit of activities one enjoys, but it is possible to experience the God of the community in worshipping together. It is also possible to find God in the neighbor who is in need and to know God in service of others and even in committee meetings that plan such service.
Overall, the decline of organized religion is part of the decline of Western society, as the fabric of mutual responsibility that has held it together frays and disappears. We need to find God in the tensions and frustrations of community life as well as in times of quiet meditation and participation in nature. I end with a personal reflection:
Perhaps it is easier for me than for many others to affirm organized religion because I have been so fortunate in the congregation in which I have been worshiping for fifty-three years. We talk openly about what we do and do not believe with no fear of rejection. We welcome everyone, especially refugees from other countries and gays and Lesbians from our own. We have worked especially with Muslims to build friendship and understanding. Our pastors, who have included a Korean and a Black and currently a woman, have all been good preachers; none have substituted moralism for the good news about Jesus.
We work together to feed the hungry and promote peace and justice and become Earth-friendly. Two weeks ago I had the privilege to speak at the groundbreaking for the first superadobe building in our nation, which will be constructed almost entirely from the ground on which it is built. The land was given by our church to an organization called "The Uncommon Good," which is completely independent of us, but is working sacrificially and imaginatively for what we believe in.
My wife and I now contribute very little to any of these activities. Simply getting ourselves to Church on Sunday morning is for us octogenarians enough of a challenge. But It is a joy, Sunday after Sunday, to greet our fellow church members and to bow with them before the God we try jointly to serve.