Updating Your 'Old Time' Religion

When I was growing up, it was a different planet. I was part of an Irish-American Catholic family that knew exactly what to believe and how to behave. Theology had no fuzz or fog around it, and everyone knew that belief and behavior were the important things. There was no talk of meditation or yoga or spirituality. There was a lot of praying going on, but no interest in diets or gurus or the Dalai Lama.

The world has changed radically in the past 50 years, more radically than we think. Day after day new scientific developments chip away at the worldview that has shaped our lives. We don't notice the erosion until we go into a church and notice how empty it is or how old the people are who are present.

Science willingly takes the place of religion, offering explanations for how the world works, why we behave the way we do, and how to prolong life. Read the news carefully and you'll see scientists saying that they can now verify what we always knew to be true. Verify is from veritas -- truth. Science will tell us if our beliefs and intuitions meet the criteria of truth, whereas religion used to do that.

I'm not saying at all that we should go back to the religion of 50 years ago, but we should be aware that science is the new religion and that it demands our acquiescence as much as any religion ever did. It advocates a secular society, but as religion gives way, so do the roots of ethical behavior: important human practices like ritual, prayer, contemplation, reverence, a deep and expansive sense of community and an appreciation for the mysterious. We think we can live without a religious base, but without it our very souls shrivel.

So, we have a problem. We can't go back to old-time religion in familiar ways, and we can't go on bowing down before the scientific method. What is a person to do?

Let me offer a few hints:

First, we can return to old beliefs and deepen them and find a more intelligent way of understanding them. Any bookstore today has excellent resources. Many priests, ministers, rabbis and imams are equipped to offer a more adult view of the traditional teachings.

Next, today it's a necessity for a thinking person to learn about the many spiritual traditions of the world. Again, the sacred texts are available and well translated. Good books and films on the many traditions abound. If you haven't yet addressed this important aspect of your education, do so and you will find it deeply rewarding.

Then, you can find excellent thinkers in the arts, depth psychology and practical philosophy who will help you bridge science and religion. Many of my friends and I have found deep spiritual understanding in C. G. Jung and James Hillman, for example.

Finally, in an everyday, practical way you can create your own spiritual way of life. I model mine on the monastic life I experienced as a young man and think of myself as a monk in the world. I give work a spiritual dimension by making sure that it's ethical and honest and that as much as possible it makes an explicit contribution to the human community. I take time to contemplate nature and art, and I place my work on ecology within the scope of my spiritual activity. I adopt Albert Schweitzer's three-word philosophy: "Reverence for life." I apply that principle to my actions as much as possible, and I add variations on it: "service to humanity," "respect for the other," "advocate for beauty."

Behind all of this is a deep, open-ended notion of God that I learn from mystics in many spiritual traditions. No more bearded grandfather in the sky pulling the puppet strings. As many say, maybe God is such a mysterious and holy notion that the name should be used rarely, if ever. Your whole life could be a continuous deepening and deliteralizing of the idea of God to the point that it becomes more intense and influential in your life, even as it loses its naive clarity. Maybe it is only accessible in the most mysterious moments of reflection and prayer. I think we are all called to be mystics.

Yes, you can pray intelligently in this new world, but don't do it naively, as a throwback to a childish belief system. Have your prayer complement and fit snugly with your most recently informed scientific view of how things work. Never be unintelligent about religion again.
We grow our souls through an active, up-to-date, grounded, intelligent and personally relevant spirituality. Without it, life isn't worth living.