Christianity, and the other religious traditions of the world, are often looked upon as keepers of morality. Many people — perhaps even most, whether religious or non-religious — seem to look to these traditions as providers of moral guidance, the source of a society’s or culture’s rules of right and wrong. Or, alternatively, these traditions are seen as keepers of outmoded moral rules, enforcers of moral standards that seem in many respects no longer to be applicable in today’s world. Either view tends to see morality as occupying the heart of what religious traditions are about.
I think that casting religious traditions and institutions primarily in the role of moral arbiter misses the heart of religion, however, rather than defining it. Because the religious traditions of the world, it seems to me, are not so much the keepers of morality as they are keepers of wisdom.
Miriam-Webster defines wisdom in this way: a : accumulated philosophic or scientific learning : knowledge; b : ability to discern inner qualities and relationships : insight; c : good sense : judgment; d : generally accepted belief <challenges what has become accepted wisdom among many historians — Robert Darnton>; a wise attitude, belief, or course of action; the teachings of the ancient wise men.
The world’s religious traditions contain within themselves accumulated knowledge about inner qualities and relationships that are part of the human experience, and preserve teachings that emerge from this accumulated knowledge. More than that, religions combine with this accumulated knowledge an accumulated experience of the human exploration into the inner spaces of humanity that we might name the soul, and the relationship between these inner spaces and the sense of “the More”, the sense of transcendent connection with the Other Other, named by many of these traditions as God. This experiential knowledge, and the practices that go with it, have the ability to lead human beings toward a transformation that is like an inner revolution, changing our perspective on our own lives, on our relationships with others, on our relationships with creation and with the cosmos. It is precisely this goal of transformation, this inner revolution, that really lies at the heart of our religious traditions.
Often, people like myself — what I might call professional religious practitioners — find ourselves trying to maintain an open space for religion in an increasingly secular contemporary context. Many clergy and others seek to maintain that space for religion by insisting on the exclusivity of their moral codes, beliefs, and doctrines — because they, too, believe that these constitute the heart of what their religion is. When you have people of different traditions all taking this approach, the effect is to close off whatever wisdom each tradition has to offer to people who are not prepared to embrace such an exclusive way of holding one’s religious identity.
What if we took a different approach? Instead of holding our traditions so tightly, we could hold them more flexibly. Rather than insisting on strict adherence to codes, beliefs, and doctrines, we could instead explore the wisdom of our traditions contained within the lived experience and practices of our communities, including the stories and insights found through engagement with our sacred texts. From this perspective, we could offer to others wisdom on how to live meaningfully, compassionately, purposefully, and relationally. And it is precisely this wisdom that is so needed in our world.
Because a “hard-edged” approach to religion in our time has tended to win the day, increasing numbers of people are losing touch with the art of living humanely; many people live devoid of any sense of meaning. The world’s religious traditions have the resources to help people recover this art of living well, if only we could make them more accessible.
Every human culture in history has had its wisdom keepers and story-tellers. Where are such people in our own time? The world’s religions can offer these resources to us, if only we are willing to hold our traditions in a different way than is so often true today.