Religion in the 21st century
OUT of interest I tried to check my students’ views on religion. “If given a chance to be any of the founders or figures of the major religions, who do you want to become?” This was the last question in the final exam I gave in the course Introduction to World Religions. I got inspiration from the World Economic Forum’s 2013 conference in Davos, Switzerland which among others, asked the question “is religion outdated in the 21st century?”
One student said that he would like to be Mohammed. As the prophet, he would review some of the teachings of Islam. This is important, according to him, amidst the increasing prejudices against Islam. He sees the value of the belief in Allah as a God who is just. But how to teach justice to believers without being violent and aggressive, in his view, is most essen t i al .
Another student chose to become the Buddha. “This world needs to go back to the middle path” was her explanation. Amidst chaos, increasing issues in mental health, and confusion, humanity needs to be ever mindful. “If we only try to balance everything . . . stop for a while and check ourselves then we can be at peace with ourselves and other s.”
Expectedly some students would prefer to be like Jesus. One answer however caught my attention. The student courageously sai d “[w]hether he was the Son of God or not does not really matter [to me].” What is most important, the student answered, is how [Jesus] “showed nothing but kindness and generosity to the people.”
We look up to great figures like Jesus, The Buddha, and Mohammed not just because they are historical figures that left enduring legacies that have enriched human civilization and culture. More than their place in human history, they are the archetypes of the worldview they represent. In them we see and feel humanity’s values fully expressed and synthesized: compassion, solidarity, and hope.
I am reminded of a book by the Jesuit theologian Roger Haight, “Jesus Symbol of God.” The book offers an alternative reading to the very meaning of Jesus’role as the Son of God. The author avoided the philosophical categories of Greek philosophy in order to explain what it means to believe that Jesus is God. He proposes instead that we understand Jesus as a historical reality who makes present another (greater) reality who is God.
The answers of my students are revealing. They validate my contention that there is still so much to hope in today’s young people. They are often misunderstood and sometimes labeled as less religious than those who were raised to follow mainstream religiosity decades ago. Today’s youth may not necessarily be less religious or irreligious. On the contrary, they are in the process of clarifying what basically constitutes the humanity of man and the very values that bind us all.
Religion is meaningful only and insofar as it touches the core of our being. Religiosity is not merely the repetition of devotional practices. Our deep longings for things greater than ourselves are the doors to the sacred. Pietistic rituals and repetitive gestures of veneration are useless if they do not enable us to open these doors.
Thus, religion is here to stay. It may shrink (although numbers say otherwise) but it will never be gone. Some religious groups will be forced to evolve even compromise or revise certain doctrines. However the home of religion is the human heart. And so long as that heart continues to seek justice, communion, compassion, and truth people will continually turn to figures that stood as models of these values.