Your Own Personal Religion
The first piece of writing I ever published was called "Christianity and Humanism." All my life I've been interested in undoing any separation between everyday life and religion. For thirteen years, starting when I was thirteen, I lived a monastic style of life in the Catholic Servite Order, and since leaving there in my mid-twenties I've tried to have a mark of monasticism on my lifestyle. I tend to be contemplative and visionary, and I live a fairly simple life and consider my work as a writer and therapist to be my best form of prayer.
I went from the most formal and visible form of religion you can imagine -- I wore a long black habit with a large rosary dangling from the belt and followed a precise schedule every day that included hours of meditation, ritual and prayer -- to what looks like a completely secular life. I've learned the lesson of Zen emptiness and hold to my version of Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the natural world as spiritual and holy. Today you couldn't easily find signs that I'm a religious person, yet religion is baked into everything I do, and I don't, as they say, wear it on my sleeve.
I'm in my early seventies now, and this evolving sense of religion, fortified by a Ph.D. in the field and another advanced degree in theology, has become a well-formed philosophy. I now publicly claim that we are entering a new era in which old competitiveness, moralism, dogmatism, exclusivism, sexism, and preachiness of the established religions is over. On the other hand, I would hate to see secularism win the hearts of the entire world, because by nature a fully secular world is soulless, and, as ancient writers often remind us, the soul is what makes us human.
So, an advocate of soulful living, I want to see religion thrive, but not religion as we have known it. I want to see it rising out of the heartfelt search of each man and woman for meaning and purpose. That search is the foundation of a religious life, and in a way it never ends. We always have more questions and can always go deeper into the convictions and understandings we have. This kind of religion is dynamic and tries to avoid static structures.
When they hear the title of my new book on this theme, A Religion of One's Own, people almost always ask: "But what about community?" Well yes, I say, we want and need community in everything, but we have grown used to religious community as a certain group of people who think alike on important matters. That kind of community belongs to an outmoded way of imagining religion. Today we can start with our spiritual discoveries and form a religious practice of our own. We can do this within the setting of either a formal religion, like a church, in a less formal group, or on our own. We will find community because of the power of our open mind and the sincerity of our quest. We will draw people to us inspired by our intelligence and fervor, and we will seek out people who show similar courage and a spirit of adventure. No worries -- community will happen.
I foresee a deeper kind of communal sense developing hand in hand with more intense personal involvement. Since the less significant trappings of institutional religion are no longer in the way, we can have a keen feeling for the planet and the beings that exist on it. Community now can be hugely inclusive: other types of belief, other ethnicities, animals, vegetative forms and even manufactured things will be part of it. My old colleague Ivan Illich used to speak about the loss of "the commons," the places and things that we share by living together: our roads, buildings, fields and public spaces. A return to "the commons,' inspired by our discovery of a sacred world, will result in a vivid community and strong ethics. We need to get past a too literal and centripetal sense of community.
In this new religious era the old traditions and institutions could come to life and become more relevant than ever. They are teeming with beautiful language, ideas, music, architecture, ritual and story. For our own religion, we don't have to invent the wheel. It's there in the books and buildings and customs spread around the globe. In my travels, I run into spiritual teachers and rabbis and imams and priests and sisters who are witnesses to a new spiritual intelligence. They are already far ahead in their re-visioning of religion, and they can guide and educate.
But you don't have to be a member or follower to build your religion from the traditions, learning from these wise people and being inspired by them. Still a Catholic in my own mind, I have three outstanding rabbis I can contact for counsel at any time. I am friendly with several sisters and priests who have been on the frontier of this new religiousness for years. My buddy in teaching spirituality and making it accessible is a Baptist minister, who is a master of the old theology and yet far ahead in re-forming religion for the future. These admirable people are variously close to or remote from the official old-style churches. Once you leave spiritual regimentation behind, you discover multiple ways of being genuinely and solidly religious.
The habit of preferring "spirituality" over "religion" is also passing. It's time to be more open, firm and courageous in countering the soulless, ego-centered philosophies of the modern era and embrace a new sacred. It's time not to abandon religion but to re-imagine it.