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.

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