My friend, Doug, is not what I’d call a religious person. He grew up in church but has since taken to a combination of practicing martial arts, yoga, and independent study, primarily of Buddhist philosophy. In a lot of ways, his journey is a familiar one for younger adults today (he and I are both 40 so we don’t really qualify as “young” adults anymore).
Doug is, like I am, an intellectually curious guy. He follows my work pretty closely, and he is certainly open to other points of view, even if they’re not ones he embraces for his own life. Sometime we share ideas back and forth, but this quote from the Dalai Lama that he sent me recently really got my attention:
"All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether."
Pretty strong words from a leader of one of the world’s major religions. Granted, some might argue that Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion, but given the rituals, practices, and other vestments that accompany Buddhism, it’s reasonable to consider it a religion. And with 300 million practicing Buddhists in the world, the use of the word “major” in describing it is safe as well.
It’s one thing when philosophers, atheists, or even religious folks on the fringes of a system call for serious reevaluation, but when the Dalai Lama says it, that’s enough to give me pause and wonder if this post-Christendom direction we’ve been headed toward in the west isn’t a greater trend that’s seeping into the global zeitgeist.
Granted, he’s not exactly calling for the end of religion per se, but rather he’s beginning to imagine what spirituality and ethics might look like “beyond religion.” This, in itself, seems to hold plenty of promise, freeing one’s relationship to God (or whatever you identify as Divine) from being mitigated by an intermediate body of any kind, and removing the yoke of religious doctrine from the human pursuit of moral and ethical standards.
I think we can all agree, after all that although such doctrine may originally have been established to provide moral guidance, it’s not necessarily imperative to have a moral compass. What’s more, there are plenty of cases in which rigid adherence to religious doctrine actually has led to what many might call immoral ends. So In that sense, the Dalai Lama and I seem to be on the same page in this postmodern thought process.
But is this really the only purpose religion serves – to lay out a moral path for followers to look to? Certainly we’re fairly capable of understanding the basics of right and wrong without religion to tell us. However, being a good person is certainly about much more than getting all the rules right.
Jesus himself was the one who, in the Bible, challenged the Pharisees’ strict observation of Jewish law, to the point of arrogance, lording their purity over others. He noted that the law of right and wrong was forever within us, and not captured within the pages of any text. But to do that takes practice. It is certainly a counter-cultural mindset to practice things like selflessness, mindfulness, and the virtues of humility in today’s world. A belief system that tells you to release all you own and follow is not particularly one that aligns well with the tenets of capitalism. Yes, the laws of our culture can help mitigate obvious acts of violence, but there’s more to good living than that.
So where do we gain such a skill set? Ideally, from the collective wisdom of fellow practitioners, and in some cases, guided by those who may have dedicated their lives to honing their practice of such a way of living. After all, most of us would not simply decide to call ourselves black belts in karate; we’d find a dojo with a proper sensei. We’d learn the moves, condition our bodies and minds, work over and over again at emulating those whose example we admire or respect.
Why would our faith practice be any different?
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have such a community outside of institutional religion. In fact, some of the greatest movements of faith have come from beyond the scope or reach of present-day religion. But the wholesale abandonment of such a history and such a wealth of wisdom and connection to something greater than ourselves would lead to a kind of cultural poverty we can ill afford.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.