One of the most poignant moments in the wake of the Paris attacks was the street musician who played a moving rendition of John Lennon's Imagine. As the melody sounded, the familiar words rang in my mind:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
The Paris attacks reignited an argument we have been having for a long time, but most especially since 9/11. Religion, particularly when twinned with nationalism, is to blame for division, terrorism, violence and war. Not just Islam. Religion. As Lennon lyrically opined, the planet would be better off without it. Religion is the problem.
And I agree. Religion is the problem.
By its nature, religion embodies particular understandings of God. For the last millennium or so, the world's most influential religions have envisioned a hierarchical God who ruled over a vertical universe. God lived above in heaven; we lived on a sinful or evil earth; and the terrors of death threatened us from below.
Thus, religion became consumed with an issue: getting people from here "up" to heavenly bliss with God in order to escape damnation. Although a crude image, religion basically functioned as a sort of holy elevator between heaven, earth, and hell. And an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-distant God in the clouds oversaw the whole business, ready to condemn or punish heretics and infidels at a moment's notice.
Vertical religion has made a mess of the earth. First, it diminished life here in favor of obsessive concern about eternal destiny. The planet served as little more than a temporary station on the way to the heavenly afterlife. Second, religions developed different plans about how to receive eternal reward. Each designated their path as the only one, making everyone else spiritual and ethical competitors in the process. And each valorized divine violence against outsiders as a mark of holiness.
Many people still believe in a hierarchical God and the vertical universe. Despite each religion's claim to uniqueness, this conception of God is not exclusive to any one. Adherents of the vertical God are Christians and Muslims and are counted in most other religions as well. And that is the problem: The followers of the sacred hierarch seem behind much of the world's most insidious evil at the moment. This is especially true when they view everything as a battle of "our" true God against "your" false one, hoping to force an apocalyptic confrontation that assures heavenly reward for the faithful in a global holy war.
With such a horrifying narrative, it is no wonder so many other people have come to believe that no religion is the best option for our time. But I think there is another way, one that is even hinted at in John Lennon's song:
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
Although the old God is the source of much trouble, there is a spiritual possibility that does not banish God from the moral equation. What if the vertical universe with its heavenly rewards and hellish threats, and not the divine presence itself, is the real problem? What if the whole point of faith is life here, on earth, living for today? This does not exclude God from the human story. Instead, ridding ourselves of the vertical universe relocates God with us.
In my new book Grounded: Finding God in the World, I argue that there is a spiritual revolution that is doing just that. And this revolution has everything to do with what just happened in Paris.
Millions are rejecting "religion" in favor of "spirituality," a turn that can be empirically demonstrated in polling data, church membership statistics, and changes in faith practices. Recently, for example, a Pew Research Center study showed that Americans were less conventionally religious but more spiritual than ever.
The data, however, is odd. While people are less religious, belief in God remains high. People believe, but they believe differently than they once did -- it is increasingly clear that they have lost trust in distant institutions and the distant God of the old vertical universe. They find it increasingly difficult to sing hymns that celebrate a heavenly realm, recite creeds disconnected from life, pray liturgies that emphasize personal salvation, participate in sacraments that exclude others, and listen to sermons that claim there is only one way to God.
But this is not a negative revolution. Instead, God is being relocated with the world and with all of us, in nature and with our neighbors. It is a revolution of divine nearness -- as if people are storming heaven and dragging the sacred into the here-and-now. True faith consists of one thing and one thing only: love. And love does not mean you get to kill your neighbor in the name of God or destroy the planet. It resists apocalyptic nightmares in favor of a dream for a world household of peace.
What if the real choice is not between a Christian God and a Muslim one? What if the choice is not about embracing the hierarchical God or rejecting him? There is a different choice -- to walk a way of compassion, justice and kindness wherein God is discovered in the earthy horizons. This is a grounded God whose primary concern is not eternal life but life abundant for the whole human race.
Fundamentalists get all the headlines with their brutal dedication to a deity whose day is nearly done. But this other God revolution is happening as well -- and it is that which can heal and save us.
You may say I'm a dreamer. But I assure you, I am not the only one.