That’s America for you. Specifically, the United States of America. Think about it. Mormonism. The Church of All Worlds. Wicca. Paganism. The plethora of varieties of Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and other churches. Cults. Secret Societies. But America is only carrying on a tradition of free thinking going back more than 500 years. The whole idea of large monolithic congregations will slowly fade away and the notion, ecumenical, will cease to be comprehensible, for all religion is a social activity, an important mission that all societies must fulfill if they are to be healthy and sustainable. Religion is grounded in the basic building blocks of all societies, of which there are several. The family. The tribe. The community. It is diversity incarnate operating in the social context. So, it should not be surprising that the most forward leaning of the liberal democracies that spread out from the European Renaissance, the U.S., was demonstrating perhaps some of the most shocking and even frightening experiments in these areas. But don’t forget. We learned a of our bizarre behavior from the Brits. Remember, they invaded us twice… in 1812, and when we first heard the Beatles. America really is such a contradiction in this context. While being so militant about religious freedom at the same time we continue to tighten the grip of imposed religious conformity. America is described as a Christian nation and Islam is treated as alien and unwanted. This has been a bad streak in the American temperament since before there was an America. Unfortunately, some of the American experiments have ended badly. Jim Jones. David Koresh. Heaven’s Gate. But many others have flourished and opened up new and exciting ways of worshiping, celebrating, and generally being in community together. It is less and less about answering to self-appointed spiritual authorities, less and less about belief in doctrine, dogma, ideology, than it is about maximizing the benefits of human sociality for the purpose of the higher purpose we all feel we must share, even if we still know almost nothing about it and what it calls upon us to accomplish together. Right?
We are going up the J curve of evolution and when a planet finally produces an intelligent species, like us, that is capable of doing science and mathematics, poetry and music, capable of civilizing itself, well… the whole thing begins to accelerate, and, pretty soon, you have an explosion of innovation and invention, the rise of industry and technology, and it is at this turn that the developments become most difficult to cope with socially because the changes are all happening too rapidly.
What we are still learning and haven’t quite fully understood yet is just how important our new cyber tools are. In the end, science and technology, which got is into this hot mess of social disruption, is the only thing that will get us through it. Our supercomputers are way faster at calculating possibilities than we ourselves are. They are a massive amplification of our brain power. Brain superchargers. That’s what they are.
So… guess what? The nature of the family, the tribe, the community, although not essentially changed, are certainly impacted, both positively, and negatively. Life is a network of trade-offs. The whole idea is to maximize the benefits. But sometimes it is not clear what the benefit actually is. We think it is noble highfalutin ideas like liberty and justice. But really it is more about not being hungry all the time and being healthy and having an education sufficient to enable you to compete in the world along with 7 billion others much like you in the same predicament.
What we are finding out is what happens when we don’t pay enough attention to the facts and projections our science tells us about. That’s why we have a climate crisis and a coronavirus. Because we haven’t yet figured out how to properly leverage our new found scientific and technological power in order to save ourselves… and our planet. This is a huge paradigm shift for us! We instinctively rebel against it, worried that it is too… authoritarian. We worked hard to free ourselves from ecclesiastical authoritarianism. Why would we turn around and submit to technocratic authoritarianism?
Good question. But the more important question is this one.
What makes you think it is authoritarianism?
That only happens when you PUT people in charge and you give them too much power. You didn’t PUT Nature in charge? Did you? What is at issue here is the need for us to become smarter and wiser, to understand that we can choose our own destiny, yes, but within the parameters of the natural environment in which we live, and upon which we depend for our survival. This is where science helps us. It gives us, not just the facts, but also the explanations as to how, and why. The purpose question does not belong to science. It belongs to religion.
This is where we have to get creative because science has recently utterly transformed and vitally expanded what we know about where we live, and, most importantly, a better understanding of what the real threats to our survival are. Not communism. Not socialism. Not totalitarianism. Not consumerism. But rather, a virus, a comet, or an asteroid, even the Sun itself. Or… the Earth herself! A super volcano. There is a reason why religions are, almost without exception, so interested in the idea of apocalypses. It is because they happen… frequently. Some of them on a schedule. Others… just randomly.
I don’t think we have seen anything like the end of the spiritual and intellectual turmoil. All of these new revelations about the vastness and the violence of the universe we live in haven’t really sunk in yet. Hell, there has barely been enough time for new mythic stories and religious inspirations to take hold and mature. Many of the old religions struggle with continuing to be relevant. New ones are often too extreme and too contrived.
I think the fundamental purpose of religion is the socialization of wisdom. Pure and simple. It has a profoundly social mission, as it should. Science cannot give us this wisdom. It is religion that must fulfill this task. I also think that it is all, at its core, mythic, and bardic, it is about the telling of our spiritual story, which is, in part, our understanding of our true history, not some made up fairy tale of a story, as well as our most noble and uplifting hopes and plans for our future, enlightened by just how big the field of exploration really is. But we must also be true to our deepest anxieties and fears and treat those experiences as valid, no matter how horrific they may be. In other words, we own up to our negative nature, our tendencies toward violence, exploitation, largess, greed. All biological beings, once they evolve to our point, deal with these issues. There must be solutions to them. But, for the most part, we fail to find them because we are chasing our preconceived notions of what the solutions ought to look like.
As religions, just like societies, continue to adapt to our expanding knowledge and deepening understanding of how our world works and how our universe works, we will come up with amazing and efficient solutions to our various problems. The field of possibilities for humans of the future has the potential to expand by many orders of magnitude if we survive the crisis that is still only just beginning for us. It is at times like this when we need to be more open to letting ourselves take that truly forward step of trust into an entirely new spiritual perspective.
So… the DIY quality of American religious experimentation is just fine with me. But it seems to me that a lot of this socialization of wisdom is actually going on via media like music, lyric poetry and literature in general, and cinema, theater, and festival gatherings of all kinds. I see a lot diversity there, and even the bizarre. But what I also see in that diversity is adaptability… and, ultimately, sustainability. So I look more and more these days to what new music and what new films are coming out, what the messages are. How serious or frivolous they may be. I do not discount the frivolous either. Every human expression is part of the new religion. It is fitting, I think, that you simply cannot capture it by reading a Summa Theologica that tells us all about it, or a catechism or something, but only by directly experiencing it in the company of spiritual brothers and sisters.
This is a kind of neo-tribalism that has gained strength over the past few decades. A good kind of tribalism. Where you share your story, your spiritual journey, and you receive no judgment, but rather, acceptance and assistance. That is what it is all about I think. How we can all help each other.