The Dalai Lama has been talking a lot in recent years about the need to find a “secular ethics”, that is, an ethical code that is not dependent on any particular religious system, one that any human being would be able to sign on to. I think his conviction about the importance of such a code is based on his assessment of how much religion in our time seems so often to get in the way of genuine human community, particularly across cultures. So, removing religion from the equation and focusing on those things that we can hold in common simply based on our shared humanity seems to be the Dalai Lama’s way of getting us over the divide of religion to a more fruitful place.
This has gotten me to thinking about how often we tend to think of religion as being primarily about ethical codes and moral values. Certainly, religious traditions evolve these codes and values and seek to teach and encourage them. As more than one atheist has pointed out, however, it is possible to be a “good person” without holding any particular religious belief. And, history is certainly filled with religious people who were, in the end, not at all “good”. This all seems to call into question whether being a good person really has anything to do with religion at all.
And that raises another question: Is religion primarily about ethical codes and moral values?
Having lived and breathed the Christian tradition for what is now perilously close to 50 years, and having devoted a good part of the last 25 years or so delving deeply into that tradition, I have to say that I am rather deeply convinced that the answer to that question is, “No.” I am not suggesting that religion is unconcerned with how people behave, nor that it is neutral on ethics and morals. What I am suggesting is that the primary purpose of religion, at least as I have come to understand it and experience it within the Christian tradition, is to lead people into an authentic inner experience of the sacred – what we in the Judeo-Christian tradition would call God. And it is equally clear to me that for most of the last 500 years, the churches have pretty much utterly failed at doing so.
Part of the reason for that failure is that Christianity became synonymous with civil society in much of the world, blurring the lines between culture and religion, church and society. Under such conditions, it is very easy for the church to become an institution with an interest in social control, an agent for establishing cultural boundaries and seeing that they are enforced. And as the church took on this role in a serious way, it simply stopped teaching most Christians the tools and practices for opening up to and cultivating an authentic inner experience of God. In our own time, when civil society is moving beyond an identification with Christianity, we are seeing how difficult it is for many Christians to move beyond the idea of the church as an instrument of social control, an enforcer of ethics and morals.
Another reason that the church has largely failed to offer people this inner experience is the relegation of that experience to a spiritual elite. As parish churches ceased to teach people how to access and cultivate an inner experience of God, it was left to monks and nuns to be the keepers of those practices. People came to identify the use of these practices with those who turned away from “normal” life in the world and dedicated themselves exclusively to the “pursuit of God.” And with the passage of time, people just came to assume that the way of life adopted by monks and nuns was essential to having an authentic inner experience of God. And since most people were not willing to adopt that way of life, they assumed that the inner experience was not for them. They would need to be content with the outward forms of religious life and following the church’s moral teaching. Divorced from any connection to authentic inner experience (though, of course, there were people who found that experience, either by refusing to accept the common wisdom that it wasn’t for them or “by accident”, or perhaps grace), it is no wonder that church life for many began to become dry and arid.
As Richard Rohr phrases it, the church became a belief system and a belonging system that could give people guidance in living their lives and a sense of community. But ultimately, the vitality of our tradition cannot be sustained when reduced to these two systems. Ultimately, that vitality can only be found when people move through these systems into a search for that inner experience.
While there is much regret and hand-wringing among church people these days with respect to decline in membership and in interest, the shift which the church in the West is now experiencing contains within it an important opportunity. As the church becomes less and less a function of culture and society; as the church loses its privileged position as a social institution and transitions into a movement within society, I think we have an opportunity to recover our role as an experiential community, able to show people paths that can lead them into an experience of God that is not a manufactured emotional high but an authentic inner discovery. Indeed, I believe that is what people long for. All of those folks who have started to check the “unaffiliated” and “spiritual but not religious” boxes in surveys, or at least a good number of them, are people who long to experience God but do not find that the churches have the ability to help them get there.
The fact is, however, that the church has a great toolbox of spiritual practices that can, indeed, help people get there. We only need to be willing to pull them out, dust them off, and open them up. Then we can give up our preoccupation with whether people are good, and get on with the much more important task of helping people to become authentically and fully human. And that is the path that truly leads to an ethical and moral life that has staying power.