Living in an Insane World
The Need to Transcend Religion and Secularism
for the Sake of the Well-Being of Life on Earth
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
Editor's Note: John Cobb is one of JJB's most influential columnists. His American Gun Culture presents a warning to Americans to transcend violence; his God and the Sendai Earthquake is an invitation to move beyond images of an all-powerful deity; his Vocation is an invitation to recognize that each person is called, not only to help others, but to critique the systems that lead to the need in the first place. His Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet and Five Foundations for a New Civilization point toward constructive alternatives to contempory collective instanity. His Miracles offers a vision of miracles which takes life itself as the greatest of miracles. His Prayer and Planetarity is an invitation to pray, not only for people but also the planet as a whole. This essay is addressed primarily to his own faith community: that is, to fellow Christians. It is an invitation to recognize that the Christian alternative to collective insanity is not to become more religious, or more secular, but to follow the secularizing path of Jesus. He suggests that people of other religions and no religion can do the same. If you are a Buddhist or Jew, a Hindu or Muslim, a Taoist or a Naturalist, we trust that you can translate his points into your own terms. The upshot is that, if we are truly concerned with the miracle of life and our collective insanity, we will transcend religion and secularism alike, and give our selves the the well-being of life itself, which is God's well-being as well.
I. Collective Insanity
If the driver of a car that is racing down the side of a mountain ignores repeated signs stating that a bridge a short distance ahead is out, and if one of his passengers explains that this means the car is heading for a plunge into a deep gorge, we would expect the driver to slow down and plan to stop before he
came to the edge of the gorge. If he did not do so, we would judge that he was crazy.
There are, of course, other possibilities. Perhaps he is so stupid that he does not understand the signs or the passenger’s explanation. Perhaps he does not know how to stop the car.
Perhaps, despite all of the warnings, he does not believe that there is real danger. Perhaps, he wants to kill himself and all those in the car. Or perhaps he is so caught up in the immediate excitement of rushing down the mountain side that he cannot think about the future.
One may, in such ways defend him against the charge of insanity, but the price is high. He must be charged with criminal stupidity, stubbornness, viciousness, or addiction. No favorable account is possible.
But what about the passengers, who allow him to continue?
One of them does reinforce information about the danger.
Another passenger shares in the enjoyment of the race down the mountain and feels nothing else. Still another is preoccupied with planning for the next day. And the remaining passenger is having financial problems and trying to calculate the best way out. They all hear that they are headed for imminent death, but they act as if this were just one bit of information with less importance than other factors in the situation. Are they sane?
I am, of course presenting this as an analogy with the current behavior of human beings generally. Our leaders ignore the signs that our civilization is destroying itself. A few individuals keep reminding us of this fact. But most of us think of other things and act as if we assumed that the world we have known would continue indefinitely. Are we sane?
Now let us ask ourselves about those of us who follow the one who taught us to pray for the coming of the basileia theou.
This is often translated as “Kingdom of God,”but I prefer “divine
Commonwealth.” There is no prospect of the emergence of a world that follows God’s will if we destroy the habitability of this planet.
It would seem that taking our faith seriously would lead us to give primary attention to redirecting humanity away from suicide. Is that happening? I do not think an affirmative answer is possible. We do well if we get “the environment” listed as one concern alongside many others. I fear that we are little more than part of that large human community that participates in the insanity.
2. Religiousness and Secularism
There must be something about our basic orientation that causes us to ignore what is overwhelmingly most important and to concentrate of what is relatively trivial. What is this blinding orientation? To answer that, we must go to very fundamental levels. At those levels, it seems that the two main types of orientation, opposing each other in the contemporary world, are
“religious” and “secular.” Let me acknowledge here that speak as a Westerner about Western history. I think much of what I am saying has relevance in other parts of the world, but significant
qualifications would be needed that I do not have time to introduce into this lecture.
The vast majority of human beings through most of history have been “religious.” We must ask whether being religious, that is, “religiousness,”encourages sanity or supports insanity. In the present context, this means, does being religious lead people to appraise our situation well, or does it block such appraisal and lead theme to ignore that to which it is most important that we pay attention? My judgment is that the latter is the case.
To test that negative judgment, let us consider what characteristics of people lead us to call them “very religious.” A very religious person typically spends a great deal of time in religious activities and practices. These may include group worship and private prayer, meditation, scripture reading, and spiritual disciplines. Such a person works hard to achieve inner serenity, awareness of the divine presence, and freedom from negative feelings.
Often the very religious person has a strong sense of dos and
don’ts. In a theistic context, these are understood as divine commandments to be carefully followed. Often there are also established beliefs that one should accept wholeheartedly. These beliefs often focus attention on what is “supernatural.” Often the authority of the supernatural leads to conclusions that are in some tension with practical reasoning and empirical
evidence. The willingness to act according to such rules and to believe such ideas is regarded as a special mark of strong religiousness. Even if the consequences are negative in worldly terms, it is believed that in the wider supernatural world they are positive.
I think it is clear that the very religious person has priorities that do not encourage close attention to what is actually happening in the historical or natural world. Current history is viewed from a perspective that does not encourage efforts to direct it away from
its destruction of the human environment. The natural world typically plays a secondary role. If the actions needed in order to save it do not fit the moral principles inherited from a time when the human impact on nature was marginal, then engaging in new types of relationship is typically viewed askance.
For example, there is an important biblical mandate that we should “be fruitful and multiply.” At a time when the human population was small, this made a lot of sense. Human communities, insecure about their very survival, felt that sexual
intercourse should be directed toward procreation within responsible families. Other forms of sexual activity appeared put personal pleasure about the needs of the community.
Today’s world is very different. The threat to all of us comes from
overpopulation of the planet. It is insistence on large families that is self-serving and insensitive to the needs of others. However, the very religious person is likely to be committed to continuing the practice approved in ancient times, regardless of the profound difference between our world and the world in which the command was given. Hence efforts at population control, urgently needed in the current threatening scene, are often opposed by the devotedly religious.
In the older situation men were expected to take wives and sire children quite independently of their personal sexual preferences.
The personal preferences of the women played even less of a role. Producing children was a social duty. In more recent times it has been possible to give primary consideration to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. The change is most dramatic for women, who are now much freer to make their own decisions. Having children is a highly valued option but not a requirement. There are other reasons for marriage, and marriage itself is optional. Sexual ethics needs to be rethought from the ground up. Obviously there is no longer a reason to pressure those whose sexual desires are oriented to members of their own sex to act contrary to their given nature. However, churches have
been unable to give much leadership in rethinking sexuality because so many of their most religious members oppose the changes needed to adapt to the very different situation.
Strongly committed religious individuals and many religious institutions teach what may once have seemed reasonable but can now only be held by ignoring or rejecting the best thinking of our time. They encourage behavior that was once appropriate but is now destructive. They conserve much of value from the past, but because they do so uncritically, their conservatism also holds on to much that is now inappropriate and undesirable.
For these reasons, beginning with the Western Enlightenment, there has been a reaction. Instead of judging worldly matters from a religious perspective, more and more people have
come to judge religious teaching and practice from a worldly perspective. Secularism has replaced religiousness as culturally dominant. Hence, it is time to turn our attention to this movement.
We ask, in our situation of radical global crisis, does secularism
provide the guidance and leadership we so urgently need?
Sadly, the obvious answer is that it does not. In my judgment, following secularist principles has done more damage than
being guided by religiousness. Whereas critiques of religiousness are now widespread and we could simply
recognize their validity, critiques of secularism are much less fully
Of course, very religious people oppose secularism, but their criticisms often display their own weakness. For example, religious communities sometimes organize to oppose
toleration of sexual differences. Some have focused on opposing the secularist acceptance of homosexuality. This opposition
shows to persons who care about other people that obedience to ancient rules is more important to religious people that the well being of their neighbors.
In another area, the intensely religious community has devoted a great deal of effort to opposing Darwinian evolutionary theory.
This is because the intensely religious are likely to want to maintain unchanged an understanding of creation that is not now supported by the evidence. The non-Darwinian explanation proposed by the community are inherently implausible and are unsupported by the evidence. Those who care about truth are turned off.
The negative character of the dominant religious opposition to secularism actually serves to weaken the valid criticisms we now urgently need. Secularists can show that they are more tolerant of differences than are religious people and more open to evidence about the nature of reality. My view, nevertheless, is that secularism is a disaster. Because the secular critique of secularism is less visible and less fully developed than the critique of religiousness, I will deal with it at somewhat greater
3. What is Wrong with Secularism?
What is right about secularism is its critique of religiousness. It rightly affirms that truth cannot be determined by the authority of past figures who did not have available to them the information we now possess. It rightly affirms that what may have been desirable behavior at some points in the past may be undesirable in changed circumstances. It rightly affirms that we should be guided by currently available evidence and reflection.
But consider where these criteria alone have in fact led us?
When norms for action and reflection in the present are cut off from the wisdom that has grown out of human experience over thousands of years, the consequences are disastrous. Of
course, no parent can ever raise a child in this abstract context; so the separation from collective human wisdom is never complete. But today we see the results of a long move in that direction.
The field of higher education is a good one to examine. From classical Greece through the medieval period and well into the
nineteenth century the basic element in schools and universities were the liberal arts. How these were understood changed, but the broad goal was to shape mature human beings for
leadership in society. Beyond a liberal arts education came the preparation for the professions. These were understood to consist of communities of people committed to the service of their societies through specialized preparation. Law, medicine, education, and ministry were the major professions. Those qualified in these fields must also accept responsibility for their professions and police their own membership. This provided a center of influence within society separated from political and economic power and acting as a check on both.
Now consider the contemporary secularist university. It is understood to serve the economic order rather than other dimensions of social life. It is funded for that purpose, and it offers those courses that students wanting to prepare for
better paying jobs require.
The university often prides itself on being value free in its
instruction. Professors are to offer information but not judgments about what is better or worse. In this way they avoid imposing on students the teachings of any one religious community. They are
thereby free form proselytizing and open to students coming from any community of belief and practice.
There is much to be said in favor of avoiding proselytizing in the class
room. Here, too, there are examples
of very religious teachers who violate these rules only strengthens the case for
secularism. But there is also a
high price to pay.
All of the religious traditions have emphasized that there are values greater than that of money. However, the secular university rejects the teaching of any of these values. The default position is that the one universal value is money.
This is not only the implication of failure to affirm other values. It is also the one explicit teaching that is allowed. Economic theory
identifies value with market price. It provides a comprehensive picture of human society based on the idea that individuals seek to acquire money. This is accepted by the secular university as secular teaching. Economics is considered the model for the social sciences. Elsewhere also explanations in terms of self-interest are accepted much more readily than explanations that require acknowledging a role for altruism or for aiming at other values such as truth and beauty.
The professions are fast losing their special status. To be a professional now is simply to have expertise in some specialized
field. People with such expertise are hired and fired by corporations according to how well they serve their ends. Law is simply one area in which there are experts who can benefit the corporation economically. For this service lawyers are often well
paid. But this has nothing to do with what was once understood as a “profession.” Some element of the medieval meaning
may still be found among lawyers in private practice. Similar changes are occurring among teachers and doctors.
Of course, the graduates of universities are shaped by forces other than their schooling. But we should not discount the socializing effects of a secularist education. To ask how one can best serve humanity and God is not the question that comes most naturally to a university graduate. The expected question is rather how one can advance one’s career.
In this situation, it is understandable that universities on the whole do not prepare people to concern themselves with the long-term health of the planet. Most graduates have rarely heard this topic mentioned in their classrooms. It simply does not fit into the major disciplines or to the training for the job market. Students are not taught to ask basic questions about what is going on and
what implications this has for them. Instead, they learn to think conventionally about their jobs and how to get ahead.
Universities often describe themselves as “research universities.” Those who teach there are supposed to be contributing to the development of their disciplines so that their students will be exposed to cutting edge thinking. One might claim that“knowledge” rather than “money” is central to the
university’s value system.
I do agree that it plays some role. The great majority of professors value truth and being well informed. They respect those who pioneer in improved theories.
However, the reality is that most research is not guided by a
disinterested desire to learn. In many fields research is expensive, and in all fields time is required. Money is needed to free up time, provide for travel, and often for laboratories and expensive equipment. Universities have modest amounts of
funding for supporting research projects. Most of the funding must come from outside sources. This is largely, directly or indirectly, related to military and corporate interests. There are
also foundations whose goals are human well being in one respect of another, and they support a great variety of research projects. Money is usually available for research contributing to medical advances.
My point is, accordingly, not that there is no money for excellent
research projects. My point is only that, in general, professors advance in their professions by doing the research for which money is available. There is much less research dictated by the needs of academic disciplines. And there is still less that is directed by the needs of the world. If we want universities to devote research to responding to the global crisis, they will oblige only if they are given money specifically for this purpose. Sadly those who control most of the money are themselves shaped by secularism and therefore have other priorities. In our time secularism may be useful in countering religiousness, but it offers little positive help in responding to the global crisis. It is part of the insanity in which we all seem to be caught up.
4. The Prophetic Alternative
Fortunately, we are not forced to choose between religiousness and secularism. At the heart of the biblical tradition lies an alternative. It would be too much to say that this alternative pervades the whole of the Bible. Other traditions find
support there as well. But Jesus and Paul stood clearly in this tradition; so for Christians, it is right and proper to read the whole of the Bible from this perspective.
Does this mean that there is a difference between being “religious” and being Christian. My answer is an unqualified “Yes.” That does not mean that Christians cannot be “religious.” A Christian can include religious practices in her or his life. It
does not mean that a Christian cannot be in some ways “secularist.” Secularists have contributed much to freeing society from some of its distortions and injustices. But to be a true disciple of Jesus is to pay attention to his life and teaching. That is neither religious not secularist, but it does not exclude practices and ways of thought that are developed in those contexts.
In ancient Israel modern “secularism”was not an option.
Accordingly, the prophets did not teach against it. Instead, they opposed much of what secularists oppose. In particular they opposed the religiousness of their day. If you doubt this, please read Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and others with this question in mind. Were they calling people to be more“religious?”
Of course, everything depends on what we mean by “religious.”
If we mean by that “faithfulness to God,” they were indeed calling for people to be more“religious.” But again and again they were criticizing the religious practices of their day. The prophets claimed that God told them that God hated their ceremonies and feasts. God wanted them to treat their neighbors justly, especially the weak and outcast. They were not moderate in making these claims. They did not say,“of course, your worship of God is fine, but it should lead you to being a bit kinder to your neighbor.”
I might say that, but moderation was not their calling.
It should not be hard to see that Jesus stood in the prophetic tradition. He spoke as harshly as the prophets against the established leadership and the dominant values of society. He
made very clear that if we love and serve God we cannot participate in a social order that serves wealth. It is those who are successful in this now dominant world order who have the most difficulty in authentically joining in the service of God.
Jesus’ teaching that “The Sabbath is made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath” means that any codification of rules of behavior is to be judged by its effects on people.
Their wellbeing is never to be subordinated to such rules.
If one has wronged someone, righting that wrong takes priority over taking part in community worship.
Jesus intensifies some prophetic teachings to the point of radical
novelty. His focus is on the motivation from which we act. That
motivation is to be love. And that love is directed not only to members of our own group but to all. It entails forgiveness of all evil that is done to one. That love is incompatible with violence even in one’s own defense.
It is ironic and sad that, despite the fierce clarity with which the
prophets, including Jesus, affirmed the difference between the religiousness of their day and what God wanted of them, so many of those who profess to follow Jesus fail to make these distinctions. Many Christians suppose that the prophetic tradition is a minor part of the “religion” to which they belong.
Many think that it is more important to believe certain things about Jesus than to follow his example and his teaching.
Many think that being Christian is spending more and more time in prayer and Bible reading, rather than figuring out how to respond as a follower of Jesus to the needs of those around one.
Christians have excelled at developing new legalisms despite the teachings of both Jesus and Paul.
That the prophetic message, especially in the form it attained in Jesus, is radicallyopposed to secularism hardly needs to be said. Yet in an important sense it is“secular.” It calls us to focus on the concrete reality of the world. Religiousness often leads to seeking refuge from the world, thus leaving the world to its self-destructive ways. It may even focus more on what happens after death than on this life. But to pray as Jesus taught is to ask for the coming of God’s basileia, and this is immediately explained as God’s will being done on earth.
In a recent book, entitled Spiritual Bankruptcy, I call the prophetic movement “secularizing.” The prophets of ancient Israel called for secularizing the religious practice of their day. Jesus called for secularizing the religious practice of his day. And in the Abrahamic traditions, the prophetic message has reappeared
again and again. It influences the leadership, and here and there we find movements that carry it much further than our communities and institutions generally can go.
Some of those who secularize Christianity today find it necessary to abandon our churches in order to express the passion and commitment that they feel to the salvation of the world.
We should wish them well and support their work. It is also God’s work, even if they do not acknowledge it as such.
At a time when redirecting the whole world is of absolutely critical
importance for realizing God’s purposes on Earth, it may be that some who reject Christianity and even deny God still serve God better than do the churches. Perhaps God needs this kind of unbelief in order to save the world. Let us not judge.
But this does not mean that our traditional communities are unimportant in the larger scheme of things. Again and again, people abandon Christianity because the prophetic message they have learned is so poorly embodied in the dominant forms of Christian religion. But again and again, with the passage of time, this message fades, and secularism triumphs in the new communities. Those who cut themselves off from the sources of the prophetic form of secularizing find that this prophetic vision needs roots that they cannot elsewhere find. Outside the intentionally Christian community, it is hard to transmit it to new generations.
We Christians possess a great treasure, a treasure apart from which the world will continue its insane march toward self-destruction. For the most part we obscure that treasure and seek our personal well-being in other ways. Today we are called – as never before – to work with God for the salvation of the
world. May we repent of participating in the world’s insanity, redirecting our lives to the service of God!