Religion in Transition: Living Between the Worlds of God
This summer I had the privilege of attending two very different spiritual events, the first, a gathering of spiritual seekers at Princeton Theological Seminary and, the second, a Catholic Sisters’ retreat at San Alfonso retreat house in New Jersey. These events were contiguous, and I found myself moving between worlds.
We are living through one of the most significant religious paradigm shifts, since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Ours is less apparent but no less real. There are no visibly written theses being tacked on a wooden door, as Martin Luther did, but there are streams of information flowing across our computer screens that convey new religious worldviews, practices, and ways of understanding ultimate reality. The different worlds of spirituality that are emerging are not simply due to young people ditching formal religion or the archaic formulas of doctrinal creeds—both of which are real– but more so, the new religious consciousness reflects a new type of person emerging in evolution. To put this metaphorically; we are not rearranging the furniture in the same house; rather, the house is being demolished and a new one is being constructed.
Let me begin with the Princeton gathering. It was a fascinating group of diverse persons, most in their twenties and thirties. For the first time ever, I was probably the oldest in the group, but not quite the grandmother; more like a baby boomer in a millennial body. Religiously, the group was predominantly Protestant, represented by various denominations including Evangelical, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ, among others. Several members were Unitarian Universalists, and some were spiritual but not religious, and could be identified as religious naturalists. I was the only Catholic in the group but quite at home with the rich diversity of voices. The main locus for God-talk was not the Bible or formal theology but personal experience. A question arose as to who has the authority to speak of God. In my view, everyone has the authority to speak of God from personal experience, but those who have a theological education might be best to teach and preach about God. But then again, I reminded myself of Angela of Foligno, a thirteenth century Franciscan penitent, and one of the greatest Christian mystical theologians who inspired, among others, Teresa of Avila. Angela was illiterate; she could not read or write, yet her theological insights were so profound, her epithet read: “Theologian of Theologians.” She certainly gives us pause with regard to theological authority.
This group of young spiritual seekers showed a genuine desire to kindle the religious depth of life in the twenty-first century. They shared insights humbly, happily and without guile. For many, social media and the God search were intertwined. One young black man, who is a YouTube phenomenon, spoke with a seamless inner flow and shared how he uses social media to engage personal experience and identity construction. As he spoke, I could not help but think of the posthuman that Katherine Hayles discusses in her book, How I Became Posthuman. A brief excursus on the posthuman might help us understand the importance of the shift we are in.
If you were born before 1965, you are probably at the tail end of the baby boomers. My boomer generation was the epitome of liberal autonomy, freedom and personal expression. I grew up with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” books like, “I’m Ok, You’re Ok,” and movies like, “The Graduate” (“plastics are the future”) and “Love Story,” where the famous line, “love means never having to say you are sorry” was indelibly inscribed in culture. It was all about “me first” and then “you.”
The term “posthuman” signifies the end of the autonomous, liberal subject and the rise of a new understanding of personhood in which subjectivity is emergent rather than given, distributed rather than located solely in an autonomous individual. Katherine Hayles regards the category of person as a historically contingent rather than a stable ontology. The posthuman is a nature-culture complex emergent unity. Deep relationality marks the holism of nature, and since humans are a complex facet of nature, deep relationality distinguishes human identity. This is a transpersonal capacity for new life that belies universalism and is grounded instead in the radical immanence of a sense of belonging to and being accountable for a community.
Relationality, not betterment, is the operative word of posthuman life. Humans are part of a deep relational wholeness that is characteristic of nature itself. Humans are part of the surrounding world, including culture, other creatures, plant life, animal life, solar life and elemental life. Complex dynamical thinking impels us to think of humans as integrated into wider systems of relationality.
Philosopher Donna Haraway expounds deep relationality in a way that reflects the posthuman concern. The term poiesisor the artistic ability of nature to craft (techne) relationships into particular forms means that humans are never a solipsistic species but a species being formed in relationship with all other forms of life; we “become-with” other forms of life, including networked life, in the ongoing emergence of life. Haraway used the symbol of the cyborg to define the emergent boundaries of personhood. The basic idea of the cyborg is that a human can fuse or be merged with something other than human in a way that optimizes function. Cyborgs appear where boundaries are transgressed. The cyborg disrupts persistent dualisms and challenges us to search for ways to study human identity as a cultural construction rather than a given.
The emergence of the cyborg as hybrid organism tells us something about nature that jars our prevailing understanding of nature as fixed and inert. Nature is not dead but a vital flow of living processes. Biological boundaries are not essential or universal but local; boundaries can change as living entities form new relationships. The concept of hybridity destabilizes a concept of human personhood as bounded substance. We cannot assume to know what constitutes human nature because what counts as human or nature is not self-evident. Nature is an emerging process of evolving life that is marked by co-creation among humans and nonhumans, such animals, trees, chemicals or machines. Nature begins with relationships; it is an ongoing, co-creative process; it is capable of being hybridized. In this respect, natures and cultures are co-constituting, co-creating collectives.
The Religious Posthuman
What I found in the Princeton group, and what I see emerging today, is a new type of religious person whose boundaries of ultimate meaning are constantly being formed and reformed through various types of relationships. Undergirding the dynamism of spiritual values, is a constant discernment of community, shared values, and meaningful relationships. Rather than judge the posthuman against the baby boomer who asks, “what does this mean for me?,” the posthuman searches for personal meaning as an ongoing engagement, not something that redounds on a fixed, stable self. The self, like the soul, is in the process of construction through creative engagement, which is why social media plays a significantly different role in younger generations than in older ones. If religion is the power of evolution, as Teilhard claimed, the soul must find a new place for transcendence in the cosmos and that place is the future itself and the infinite realm of possibilities.
I was inspired by the Princeton group. There was a palpable goodness and a genuine search for God. Here are some of the insights collated at the end of our time together; insights that resonated with my own work of evolutionary spirituality:
- I love talking about God with others
- God is always becoming
- Humility is an essential element of engaging others in conversations about ultimate things
- We talk about God even when and if we don’t open our mouths to say the word
- God is changing and evolving through relationships with us and our experience. This idea resonates with people.
- People are experiencing God as beautiful in new ways
- God can be spoken about without verbal words but from our presence and the way we live and share
- Love is the thing that holds us together. If God is love then that word is enough.
- Talking about God is tricky because it is a proxy for talking about ourselves
- Young people are exploring Christianity and spirituality through content creation and curation
The shifts in personal identity today correspond to the shifts in religious identity. When these shifts are ignored, as if cultural changes are irrelevant to Christian doctrine, religion atrophies. Theology and anthropology are correlative disciplines. As the human person changes, so too does the understanding of the world change, and hence the understanding of God must change as well. Raimon Panikkar put it this way:
God is always God for a World, and if the conception of the World has changed so radically in our times, there is little wonder that the ancient notions of God do not appear convincing. To believe that one might retain a traditional idea of God while changing the underlying cosmology implies giving up the traditional notion of God and substituting an abstraction for it, a Deus otiosus. One cannot go on simple repeating ‘God creator of the world,’ if the word ‘world’ has changed its meaning since that phrase was first uttered—and the word ‘creator,’ as well.[i]
Two days after the Princeton conference, I attended a Catholic Sisters’ retreat in which about eighty Sisters from various congregations gathered for a five-day preached retreat. The average age of the group was between seventy-five and eighty years old. Unlike the first group, I was one of the “younger” ones among the Sisters. I could not help but reflect on my years of convent life, with the fixed schedule of morning prayer, Mass, work, lunch, rest, afternoon prayer, dinner and evening recreation. The retreat schedule followed convent life, although the retreat house is beautifully situated on the Atlantic Ocean with a private beach in the backyard—not typical of the usual convent! The talks were good, solid spiritual ideas, but not enough to light a fire or cause sparks across social media. Words of compassion, care, forgiveness, detachment, surrender, all covered the retreat blanket of God’s comforting love. We were asked to slow down, settle in, rest in God, let go, focus on the simple, put it all in God’s hands—these were the words and ideas which led the good Sisters through a week of spiritual renewal. I loved being with the Sisters because it is the world in which I spiritually grew up; however, it is a closed form of life with a limited future. In fifty years, religious life will have a very different configuration.
We are in a new axial age brought about by mass media, communications and internet technology. While first axial religion was solitary and other-worldly; second axial religion is collective and planetary: “No longer simply a religion of individuals and of heaven, but a religion of mankind and of the earth—that is what we are looking for at this moment, as the oxygen without which we cannot breathe.”[ii] This new axial age has been developing for several centuries, beginning with the rise of modern science. While the first axial period produced the self-reflective individual, the second axial period is marked by interrelatedness and global consciousness. The tribe is no longer the local community but the global community which can now be accessed immediately via television, internet, satellite communication and travel. “For the first time since the appearance of human life on our planet,” Cousins wrote, “all of the tribes, all of the nations, all of the religions are beginning to share a common history.”[iii] People are becoming more aware of belonging to humanity as a whole and not to a specific group.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin realized that a new spirit of the earth needs a new axis mundi, a new religious consciousness, born out of the wisdom of the past but refashioned for an evolutive and convergent future. We are religiously tethered not only to God but to one another. We long to go beyond ourselves, to become something more, to be oriented toward a goal in a way that liberates us and brings out the best in us. There is a direction in evolution toward greater complexity and consciousness, which suggests we are in a process of cosmic synthesis. Something is taking place in our midst. Computer technology is a convergent process that signifies something is developing on a new level of thinking, a collective mind is forming, unlike anything else in human history. Teilhard wrote: “We should consider inter-thinking humanity as a new type of organism whose destiny it is to realize new possibilities for evolving life on this planet.”[iv] But mind alone cannot gather the many into one. We need a convergence of heart, a spiritual energy of love that draws together the many tribes of the earth into a new collective whole, forming a new type of person, what Teilhard called, the “ultrahuman” or the “terrestrian.” Religions of the past no longer meet the needs of our world; they cannot provide the zest for life, to evolve toward a more unified planetary life. We need a new religious sensibility, a convergent transcendent center of unity, and a new understanding of God in evolution.
God has not gone away but God is showing up in new ways. We have not stripped the world of God; we have taken God out of the world and made God an object rather than the radical subject of all reality. We have created a controlling God rather than accept a kenotic God, a God who becomes poor and weak to be God in us and with us. We insist on divine reality as a power beyond us, but the new Christian myth says otherwise: Christ attests that God would not be fully God without becoming human. . .another ourself… Transcendence no longer hangs over us; rather we are its privileged bearers.[v] Revelation continues in this open universe because God is unfinished. This is what the new religious seeker is about today—revelation rather than mere religion. As God wakes up in us, we are to wake up in God. Christianity is the religion of waking up to a new God-human reality where divine light shines within and ahead. Learning to see that which we encounter may be the most important religious experience of our age.
[i]Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Guifford Lectures (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), p. 186.
[ii] Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, 240.
[iii] Cousins, Christ of the 21st Century, 7 – 10.
[iv] Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man
[v] Merleau Ponty, Signs, cited in Richard Kearney, Anatheism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 91.
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