Here is an article I have recently written for the 4th anniversary of The Porpoise Diving Life titled: "Does Biblical Worldview Emerge?" I hope you enjoy it (note: it is not only about Christianity). Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment. ~ Samir Selmanovic
Millennia ago when Shamanism was the prevalent religion in the world, the cushiest job could have been the Shaman. Imagine having the responsibility to interpret reality for your people, blaming the spirit world (or your personal enemies) when things go bad and taking the credit when things go well. In his recent book The Evolution of God, Robert Wright makes a reference to a particular tribe whose Shaman could have all the food he wanted, all the land he wanted, and all the women he wanted, as long as he could make any solar or lunar eclipse eventually go away! He delivered a stellar job performance. Unlike those who had to deal with managing the diseases, enemies and weather. As strange as this sounds to our modern ears, Shamanism actually helped people develop a working relationship with the mystery of human experience, and people not only survived, but thrived. Shamans would occasionally get out of hand with their pronouncements, but eventually people would make course corrections by instituting new contextual rules and systems of order. Wright describes a Shaman prone to declare wars with neighboring tribes. Eventually the tribe required him to take a piece of wood, make a hole in his penis and run a rope through it before declaring a new war. A period of peace ensued. However painfully, religion does change.
The three Abrahamic religions, although based on unchanging texts, did and still do change. The creation, maintenance, and interpretation of these texts has always depended on the context of people’s lives. At times when the people of God found exclusion to be advantageous or an imperative for their survival, the texts that required the exclusion, isolation, or destruction of others provided the rationale. At other times, when the people of God had to learn to live in the diverse context of a diverse empire like Babylon or Persia, and taking over was not an option or to their advantage, the texts that required inclusion, cooperation, and relational healing provided the inspiration. Today, monotheistic religions have texts to justify both. More than any time in history, the ethics of the interpreter have become the ethics of the text. In the case of Christianity, the way we read the Bible is always emerging along with a renewing biblical worldview that accompanies it. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to struggle with the way we read our Scripture. The living word requires a living relationship. There must be a distance and not only an embrace—a tension. If we read the Bible faithfully for our time and place, it will demand the engagement of our entire being, requiring more from us, not less.
In the case of Shamanism, changing times required changing the ways people dealt with authority. Shamanistic religions are still with us, and in some important ways they are better attuned to life on earth than religions that developed later. As for monotheism, our formative texts are still around going strong, and have been instigating much beauty and justice in this world for thousands of years. But we live now now. The present moment, where God is fully present—as God was present during the creation of our texts—demands our faithfulness not only to the God of the past, but also to the God of now. If we are to stay faithful, the ways we understand authority, texts, rituals, and practices today, are to change.
Different authors have attempted to give different names to the interpretative shift we are presently experiencing. In her latest book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong frames the discussion as the “return of the mythos” to the center of religious experience, displacing the logos that usurped the place after the Enlightenment. In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox dubs the coming era as “the age of the spirit” that follows “the age of belief.” Other authors talk about our spiritual journey to non-duality, a correction that current and healthy interest in the mystical aspects of religion can bring. In addition, one of the most important insights into our current context of faith comes from behavioral science. We are discovering that most people’s beliefs and practices do not neatly fit into conventional categories. A growing number of us hold hybrid worldviews made, at times, from seemingly incompatible or even contradictory beliefs or practices. We do what works, because life has the power to change the rules, break the hierarchy of authority, alter the meanings of our texts, and interrupt our theologies. We cannot but honor what life insists on.
In her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor has named the shift in very helpful terms. She says that our sense of the “geography of faith” is changing. Boundaries of brick and mortar that attempt to hold in the sacred, “501c3” status (US government law code that regulates non-profit organizations) that attempts to say who is in and who is out of God’s crowd, and books that systematize the Kingdom of God into propositions, are losing their power to delineate the geography of God. God spills over. God is not only within us, or among us. God is also outside of us. God is everywhere.
We tend to forget, however, that “everywhere” includes our religion.
I think the people that embrace the slogan “spiritual but not religious” tend to miss this point. God is on the outside, but once you are outside, God turns out to be on the outside again, which is inside. Religion can be defined as the “spirituality of others” or the spirituality we hold together. That’s why to be spiritual but not religious can be not only lonely but frighteningly undemanding. To disregard religion is to disregard the discoveries of our spiritual predecessors, close our ears to our spiritual contemporaries, and refuse to deliver our spiritual experience into the future. Religion does all of that and more. Religion organizes our individual spiritual selves into spiritual communities. Religion gives voice to what matters to us, offer stories, histories, communities, group impact, and a long catalogue of teaching, experiences, and practices that have both served us well in the past, or that have miserably failed us.
Religion refuses to live in the right brain only. Budgets, salaries, deadlines, plans, and committees are human realities, and therefore spiritual realities. A spirituality that cannot be sustained in a community is not spirituality at all, for we humans are communal. Organized community exists so that we can make an impact together. It also exists to cross my individual will at times. If I do only what I want to do, I wind up in a place I don’t want to be. Religion is there to rescue us from the illusions of spiritual self-sufficiency. And by religion, I don’t necessarily mean traditional religion, but any “system of meaning” that has a story, community, and a way of being in the world. It can even be an atheist community, a humanist church, or a community of people who want to be spiritual but not religious!
Which brings us to “hybrid spirituality” that so many contemporary people practice. It has been there for a long time, sometimes as a welcome guest, sometimes as a helpful stranger, and sometimes as a parasite or plunderer. It is a form of religious life that fits the current way we live, our nomadic selves. However, in a world where the necessity of going local is becoming ever more important for survival, we may be required to go local in the geography of faith. We not only travel through the world, we abide in it. How do we do both?
In his paper The World in a Wafer, theologian William T. Cavanaugh draws on Michel de Cereau’s helpful distinction between itineraries and maps. Pre-modern geography marked out itineraries which told “spatial stories,” with specific instructions for journeys such as pilgrimages, with reports from previous travelers about where to pray, where to cross the river, where to stay for the night, where to ask for help. In contrast, Cavanaugh explains that modernity has mapped space into a grid, in which an abstract geographical knowledge and universalizing description supplant the stories of the itinerants. On maps, space is rationalized as homogeneous, divided into similar units, organized on a grid. The map user is detached and universal. Itineraries on the other hand are not only told, but also performed; they represent bodies in movement, immersed instead of detached. As such, these individual and localized stories have no territory to defend, boundaries to maintain, or divisions to die for. Perhaps that’s a way we can envision our religious future. While the whole territory of being human is a cosmic and sacred experience, we are not there to defend this territory, but to live in it, to be guests, and hosts, both traveling and abiding, both giving and receiving.
A biblical worldview in the recent past meant clinging to the maps at any cost. People are done with such idolatry. They are interested in the landscape itself, walking, praying, staying for the night, coming home, building homes, serving as a host, taking care of other pilgrims, traveling again. Every religion holds maps, but it is the stories that hold every religion.
None of us possesses a perfect map. That perfect map would be identical to the landscape itself—life. And life is not ours to posses.
Our Scriptures have spoken to us, and our lives ought to speak back. That's how we love our religions, not only by studying the itineraries of the Bible, but by adding our own. As it has always been, so shall it be: stories of our generation can, should, and will change our religion.