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Theological Publications





The Future Fate of Religions

Robert M. Price


The world is moving rapidly toward a state in which virtually everyone will have no choice but to think for himself in religious matters. Few will remain whose individual creeds will conform to their inherited faith, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc. The rampant forces of scientific modernization and cultural pluralism cannot be turned back, and if we understand what they are, few of us would even want them turned back. And it is these forces which are creating what theologian-sociologist Peter L. Berger calls "the heretical imperative." The future fate of religions can be summed up in two words: secularization and syncretism. I call it "fate" because you may affirm it or bemoan it but no one can stop it. But what will this mean for the great historic religious traditions: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christianity; Hinduism; Buddhism; Islam; Judaism; Sikhism? Will they fade into obscurity, dead relics like the ancient religions of Manicheism and Zurvanism?

            What are pluralism, secularization, syncretism? First we have to understand that all  traditional societies throughout history were basically self-contained. Contact with other cultures was only marginal and intermittent. Most everyone you met could be depended on to share your own assumptions about this world and the next. As Peter Berger puts it, you and your contemporaries would have lived happily and obliviously in the same comfortable "cognitive universe." This was the world as you all understood it and navigated it. This consensus included universal agreement on religious belief. You would no more have doubted the existence of your culture's gods than we would today doubt the Law of Gravity. You might be dimly aware that there were other people somewhere who did not share the true faith, but you would take for granted that these benighted souls were stupid or savage, so their silly beliefs were not to be taken seriously. Or you would have been led to write them off as devil-worshippers, which is pretty much the way Medieval Christians viewed Muslims, Jews, and pagans. You would not even take seriously these strange beings as fellow humans, which is of course why religious wars, witch-burnings, and pogroms seemed so unproblematic to people in such cultures.

            While a culture remains monolithic, relatively unaffected by other cultures, the traditional religion will be indistinguishable from the culture. It will simply be the culture. The religion forms what Berger calls a "Sacred Canopy" for the people and the society. All their laws, customs, values, stories, and institutions will be derived from religion, legitimated by reference to religion. Remember how even the minutiae of ancient Israelite tort law were supposed to have been revealed by the mouth of Jehovah himself! There can be no real difference between "church and state." There can be no meaningful difference between a person's ethnic and religious identities.

            What happens when cultures begin to interpenetrate? That is, when on a large scale, people in a dominant culture begin to get to know people from another, foreign culture, as fellow human beings, not as vicious cartoon caricatures? This is what happened in the Hellenistic world, in the aftermath of Alexander the Great. Alexander had succeeded in spreading Greek culture and language throughout the known world. The empire he built quickly fragmented, but the cultural unification, or at least cross-fertilization he accomplished stood the test of time. As a result, for the next few centuries, trade and travel were much facilitated, and ideas, products, and art washed freely from one end of the world to the other. The Jewish Bible was translated into Greek, and statues of Gautama the Buddha made him look like Apollo. And just as Greek culture spread from the West throughout the East, so did religious ideas spread from Asia into Europe. The Persian religion of Mithras and the Egyptian religion of Isis became world religions, easily competing with the fading gods of the traditional Olympian pantheon. And of course Christianity and Judaism spread quickly into the West as well. The Hellenistic Age was an era of cosmopolitanism such as the world had never before seen.

            Though all cultures were much enriched, there ensued a crisis of traditional religions. Judaism nearly succumbed to Greek Dionysus worship and threatened to reinterpret itself into a pale ghost of Platonism. Many pagans, especially intellectuals, had long since given up on the Olympian deities, turning instead to popular philosophy, fortune-telling, and Mystery cults transplanted from the East. These last were the various religions of Isis, Mithras, Attis and Cybele, and a host of others. One undertook elaborate and costly initiation rites in return for which one expected blessings in this world and salvation in the next. But it was an embarrassment of riches. There were too many options, and people experienced what Rodney Stark calls religious inflation. You could join as many cults as you wanted: a diversified portfolio of salvation. But this meant you were hedging your bets. You needn't feel much loyalty to any one of them. You must not believe any one was sufficient, else why bother with the others? Many people believed that all the gods were really the same anyway, just sporting different aliases. Others embraced syncretism, a "one from column A, one from column B" approach--theological mix and match. It was the rise of Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman Empire which eventually led to the extinction of virtually all its competitors, and with the Middle Ages, there was a restoration of a single monolithic traditional culture, only this time it was the Christian culture.   

            Peter Berger calls such a monolithic cultural worldview a sacred canopy, but there are other helpful metaphors to be considered, and then we will be in a better position to understand the breakdown of traditional monolithic religio-cultural spheres in our modern world. Francois Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition, speaks of the master narrative by which each culture lives, and by which each culture understands itself. The narrative of a culture is the great historic or mythic saga that tells of the origins of the national, religious community. The master narrative of Israel was the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, the Monarchy, the Exile, and the Restoration. The master narrative of the United States was that of the colonies, the Revolution, the Civil War, Lincoln's Assassination, Manifest Destiny, the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War. Just as Israel's master narrative told each generation of Jews that they were/are God's chosen people, so do the great events of American history (carefully selected from a larger mass of not-so-heroic tales) make us proud to be Americans. There are special times when these master narratives are, so to speak, taken down from the shelf, like a book to be reread or a favorite video to be viewed again. We rehearse our master narratives, for example, on Passover and the Fourth of July. Because we do this, each new generation of our group comes to know who they are, who we are. If we did not do it, we would not know who we as a people (whether Jews, Christians, Americans) are. There would be nothing to guide our group existence. Nothing would define us. We would be on-stage without a script.

            Mircea Eliade, a great Romanian scholar of comparative myth and religion, explains how having such a script, a sacred narrative, spells the difference between sacred time and profane time, or in other words, meaningful versus meaningless time. We renew the meaningfulness of our personal and communal histories by periodically repeating the ancient narratives. We observe certain holidays each year, like Easter or July 4, others every week, like the Eucharist or the Pledge of Allegiance. Preliterate people think that the world is running down and that the yearly reenacting of the creation myth will literally rejuvenate, recreate, the world. We wouldn't go that far, but we might say that these periodic celebrations of our master narrative make the story of meaning new and fresh for us just when we had begun to take it for granted. At any rate, meaning is narrative, even fictive, in character, because like your group, you as an individual are living out, or trying to live out, a particular story. It may be a classic heroic adventure translated into the terms of your life, or it may be a soap opera. (That's why stories are told in the first place, of course, to provide you with life-models.) It may be a tragedy; it may be a comedy. So the framework of meaning in a culture is not just a system of laws and values, a sacred canopy; it is also a story, a master narrative.

            Though we still need and have narratives to live by, things are much different in the modern West, and increasingly everywhere else as well. We live in a climate of pluralism unparalleled since the Hellenistic Age. This is because the United States has from its inception been a home for refugees, pioneers, colonists, missionaries, and adventurers from many lands. It soon became obvious that there could be no single state religion for America. Even in Mother England the sprouting of numerous "nonconformist" religious minorities made the State Church, the so-called Church of England, into merely one of the churches of England alongside Catholics, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Levelers, Ranters, and Quakers. It stayed on top because it had always been on top. But in America no one church had such a tradition of hegemony, so none ever attained it. The early sectarian pluralism has been made infinitely more diverse by the influx both of immigrants from Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim lands and of missionaries spreading (and inventing) new religions. So what becomes of our sacred canopy? Our master narrative?

            Our master narrative is fraying, coming undone, as witness the debates over the canon of great books to be read in college and the controversies over American history textbooks, where both the oppressions and the neglected accomplishments of non-white minorities are now being highlighted. The result is a pluralistic "equal time" framework in which multiple ethnic narratives fragment and replace the old master narrative. We used to thump our chests with pride for having conquered the American Indians. Now we cringe in shame as if we were the executioners at Auschwitz. What does it mean to be an American? Anything more than the NFL, shopping malls, and McDonald's?

            Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed insist that we are a Christian country, that only a Christian narrative should inform us. Hence the current disputes over teaching the Bible as history in public schools. But theirs is a lost cause. Ours might once have been a Christian country, but it is Christendom no longer. Falwell screeches that secularism, secular humanism, has replaced Christianity as the sacred canopy of America. As usual, he is wrong. As Harvey Cox (The Secular City) pointed out over thirty years ago, what is happening to us as a culture is not secularism but secularization. The difference between the two is great indeed. Secularism means the imposition of an anti-religious ideology as in the old Soviet Union, an officially atheistic state. But secularization means the absence of any particular dominant ideology. We have far too many religious allegiances in America for any one of them to supply the sacred canopy of values for all of us to live under. We will not brook the imposition of any particular religion on everyone else. But don't we still need a sacred canopy to avoid chaos and anomie? We all have to live together from a common set of rules and values, don't we?

            The American answer to this question is two-fold: the social contract and civil religion. Our Constitution does not really posit a system of values and virtues to be inculcated among the people. Instead it presupposes simply that we will not get in each other's way. We maximize individual freedom, we live and let live. Our laws are based not on morality but rather simply on non-interference. Thus for the government not to outlaw abortion means not that it considers abortion to be morally right and good, but that it feels it has no business interfering in the matter. Religiously, you can do whatever you want to do--except draft me as a human sacrifice! Your freedom ends where mine begins. Such an arrangement is purely pragmatic, and it is a great way of dealing with pluralism. Live and let live.

            But that is not much of a national identity! Religion would have provided that, too, as it still does for each faith community, but if there is no dominant religion, what can fill the vacuum? American civil religion, that's what. Our common scripture is the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Our Exodus was the Revolutionary War. Father Abraham was George Washington, Moses was James Madison, Solomon was Ben Franklin, Jesus was Abe Lincoln. The Founding Fathers equal the Church Fathers. The deep rage felt over the flag-burning issue some years ago shows that the basic issue was not simple freedom of speech but rather sacrilege and blasphemy. Our holidays are holy days. It is these things which provide us with our national identity as Americans. So religious Americans have two religions. Just as immigrants learn English as a second language, they also learn American patriotism as a second religion. We just don't call it a religion too loudly, lest people catch onto what's really going on. They might not like the idea of having two religions if they realized that's what they are doing!

            Notice the parallel. We all have ethnic backgrounds of which we are proud, but our national identity is American. Similarly, we all have religious backgrounds (born Methodist or Mahayana, Muslim or Mormon), but our national religious identity is Americanism, its creed simply "God Bless America." Sociologist Richard Fenn saw what was happening here. Personal religious values and beliefs are allowed less and less outlet in a religiously plural culture, where political decisions must instead be made on pragmatic considerations. This means religion in America becomes privatized, something like a hobby, allegiance to a sports team.

            I mentioned "the heretical imperative" earlier. Peter Berger coined this term to describe the situation in which every religious individual in America finds himself or herself. "Heresy" literally means "choice," and it denotes something like George Orwell's "thoughtcrime." The idea was you ought to be a good Medieval Christian and let Mother Church spoon-feed you. By contrast it was the most brazen effrontery to choose one's beliefs for oneself! A customized creed had to be false. One ought to bow to the authority of the religious establishment. But what if there is no more dominant religious establishment? There is nothing to dissent from. The gravity of religious authority has ceased since pluralization, just as the gravity of a planet would be reduced to insignificance if it shattered into a swarm of asteroids. One would not need very great escape velocity to take flight from any single asteroid. In the same way, in a pluralistic society, everyone is inescapably faced with the prospect, the need, to choose one's own beliefs from the smorgasbord around him.

            This is so because whereas one used to simply adopt religious views from significant others who all shared traditional beliefs, now one is surrounded by parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, etc., who may all embrace different beliefs. It is simply not as easy as it used to be to surround oneself with the unanimity of the old traditional religious communities. The isolated ghetto-existence of religious communities is harder and harder to maintain. The Amish and Hasidic communities are eloquent lessons of what will be necessary in the modern pluralistic world if one is to maintain a traditional faith community. Placing one's children in the shelter of parochial schools is only delaying the inevitable. Defensive "Old Time Religion" groups are last-gasp efforts to fend off the inevitable. Surveys of American denominational church members indicate a startling amount of syncretism, of people heeding "the heretical imperative." Presbyterians who can't explain to you what Calvinism is but believe in reincarnation. Catholics who believe their opinion counts as much as the Pope's. Lutherans who are into New Age spirituality. And the rest of the world is already catching up with us.

            Or perhaps it is we who are catching up with China and Japan, where individuals freely participate in the celebrations and sacraments of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Christianity interchangeably. I believe this easy post-ecumenicity typifies and vindicates the distinction proposed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith in The Meaning and End of Religion (1964). Smith was wrestling with broad categories that would make sense of the diversity of religions, as well as the reluctance of religious individuals to have their cherished faith lumped in with vague collectivities called "Christianity" or "Buddhism." You may have seen buttons or bumper stickers sporting the slogan "Christianity is not a religion. It's a relationship." Right! And the same is true for Buddhism, Islam, etc., as all their adherents will quickly point out. So Smith decided it would make most sense of things if we used two categories.

            First, there is the "cumulative tradition," the history, rituals, doctrines, scriptures, creeds, etc., all the concrete data of each religion, all the stuff you'll find discussed in the text-books. Second, there is the individual, highly personal faith experience of each religious person. Wilfred Cantwell Smith knew it would be blatant stereotyping to hear that So-&-so is a Hindu and then to plug him into some textbook definition of Hinduism (such as the oversimplified sketch provided by another Smith, Huston Smith, in his famous book The Religions of Man). That would be to reduce each individual to a mere instantiation of the religion he belongs to. And that is seldom true.

            I have introduced Wilfred Cantwell Smith's two-pronged analysis of religions because his distinction between the cumulative religious tradition and the individual religious believer will prove more useful than ever in light of the future fate of the world religions. The relation between Smith's "cumulative traditions" of the various world religions and the faith of the individual religious believers changes, but it still exists. Earlier I mentioned the analogy between one's ethnic heritage and one's religious heritage. Just as they were one and the same in self-contained traditional cultures, so both become somewhat vestigial once one belongs to a pluralistic culture.

            To measure what I am saying in theory with a practical illustration, the great incidence of interfaith marriages in our day corresponds to the way in which once-frowned-on interethnic marriages have long since become typical. Couples who marry across religious lines have implicitly decided that their religious identities present no more an obstacle than their mixed ethnicities--and that they are to be taken no more seriously. Children of such couples must inevitably infer that religious identities are simply extensions of ethnic heritages, and that they have been equally relativized. Someone who can stroll into Walden Books for a Bible and then see various translations not only of it but also of the Koran, the Gita, the Analects, etc., cannot long resist the conclusion that they are all equal and equivalent, just different languages of the same Spirit.

             Or think of it in terms of Max Weber's "ideal types." An ideal type is a kind of textbook definition, an abstraction that no actual example will match exactly. An ideal type functions as a yardstick against which to measure actual examples of a thing. Is a collie a dog? Obviously it is. Is a wolf a dog? Close, but no cigar. Is a wolf a mammal? Definitely yes. Is a duck a mammal? No, it is a bird. What is a duck-billed platypus? Gee, it's kind of half-mammal, half-bird! It doesn't actually fit either ideal type perfectly, but you still need the two categories to explain just what the heck it is! A mammal with avian features! I am suggesting that in the dawning future, everyone will be theological platypuses. Sixty percent Catholic, forty percent Buddhist, like Thomas Merton. Eighty percent Buddhist, twenty percent Christian like Don Cupitt. Seventy percent Hindu, thirty percent Catholic like Raimundo Panikkar. Individuals will no longer be primarily identified by their allegiance to a particular religious tradition, but we will still need those discrete religious traditions to measure by. Paul Tillich once remarked that face-to-face encounters with members of other religions leaves no room to doubt that God has not left himself without a witness in any land. Tillich nonetheless warned what a tragedy it would be should the great religions someday melt into a theological Mulligan Stew. For then the distinctive wonders, the precious treasures, of each faith would be lost. If you want proof, look at Unitarianism, or the New Age Movement. The individual's faith may be a steaming cup of Mulligan Stew, but we still need to be able to tell the difference between the ingredients!

            In short, the great religions will retain their integrity as cumulative, historic traditions so they can continue to function as potent sources of revelation and inspiration for individuals who are increasingly drawing from them severally.

            Lyotard sees as the hallmark of the Postmodern era the breakdown of all the traditional master narratives. All cultures find their old narratives in shambles, rendered desolate by science, industrialization, multiculturalism, pluralism. And this, as one might expect, has precipitated a crisis of meaning. And not least in the religious communities. What I am proposing is a new way of putting that meaning back together, and not by turning back the clock. Let me suggest that since the world is shrinking into one interpenetrating global village, the problem with the old master narratives is that no one of them can be dominant anymore, in just the same way that no one religious denomination can dominate pluralistic America. But there is nothing wrong with any one of them as a potent narrative. Not being master narratives doesn't change that.

            Think back to the image of the shelf full of world scriptures in the bookstore. What we are seeing now, in effect, is a shelf full of once-master narratives, the historic narratives of the great religious traditions. They are there for us to take down and read and learn from. We may adopt this belief from the Gita, that one from the Bible, another one from the Upanishads. And what do we usually call a collection of religious narratives? We call it a canon of scriptures. In a larger, only slightly metaphorical sense I am saying that we are coming to look not just at literal books, literal writings, but at the great "cumulative traditions" of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc., as a canon of "narratives" at our disposal. Why limit yourself to only one? It is we as religious individuals who will mix and match items from the religions. But the religions themselves will continue forever to stand as great and distinct monuments of historic revelation. As we now page between Proverbs and the Gospel of John, the Psalms and the Sermon on the Mount, making our own synthesis of what we find there, so we will sample now from Buddhist tradition, now from Catholic, or from Zoroastrian. In the process the integrity of each religious deposit need be compromised no more than are the distinct books of the Bible.

            I envision a future of interreligious spiritual communities in which members will pursue a spirituality of quest and inquiry, not of answers and dogmas. And yet the individuals comprising such communities will revere their religious backgrounds as we still cherish our ethnicities. The doctrines and confessions propounded by the great religions will still serve as a menu of options, approaches, techniques, mantras. My guess is that parish clergy will be more and more what they are already becoming, namely therapists, counselors, social workers, motivational speakers, less and less theologians. Clergy will be shepherds of their flocks, as they ought to be, and it will be left to scholars, theologians, and historians of religion to serve as consultants, providers of insights and lessons from history. They will be, in Paul's words, "stewards of the mysteries of God." In fact, that is the role I have been trying to play here.



Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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