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The Importance of Religion

by Rev. Tom Thresher

A friend just returned from a trip overseas.  While there, she attended a variety of church services and sat with the elderly as they witnessed the slow but steady demise of their church. 

This is as true of the Seattle metropolitan area as of Western Europe.

If the public is saying that church is no longer relevant or interesting, what’s the point of keeping it alive?

At a recent workshop I finally heard a really good reason for keeping religion, and the church, alive.  It comes from a developmental perspective which states simply that our awareness, and our way of understanding, continues to develop well beyond adolescence.  In fact, if we allow ourselves, our awareness can expand throughout our lifetime.  This expansion of awareness is at the core of spiritual development and the importance of the church.

It is a truism that we do not all arrive on the earth fully enlightened, or in Christian terminology, saved.  No matter who we are — Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, or an ordinary person — we develop through all the stages, beginning with infancy, progressing through childhood, adolescence and, hopefully, into various dimensions of adulthood.  Everyone passes through these stages, and everyone is free to stop at any point along the way. 

If, however, there is a mismatch between where we stop in our development and what the culture demands of us, we can find ourselves in over our heads and in great emotional pain. 

Much of the struggle and strife in our world today can be attributed to this mismatch.  The modern Western world demands that we see through the eyes of science and rationality, while much of the world continues to see through the eyes of tradition and myth.  “Tradition” is threatened by “Modernity,” and violence is an increasingly common response. 

The result is a global “pressure-cooker” as ethnocentric, fundamentalist beliefs run into modern reason and postmodern morals.  And it is argued (persuasively, I believe) that the great religious traditions have a pivotal role in keeping that pressure cooker from exploding.

The world’s great religious institutions are the ones, the only ones, that can carry us through all the stages of our development, from infancy to adulthood. Precisely because our religious stories are multi-level, they can nurture us as we pass through the major transitions in our life.  Folks in Western culture have abandoned institutional religion because it stops at traditional understanding while our world is demanding modern and postmodern capacities; hence the pressure cooker. 

According to this reasoning, it is the role of religion to find a way to expand the meaning of our stories to include both the modern world of science and rationality, and the postmodern world of paradox.  Only the great religions possess the myths that have nurtured us, plus the legitimacy to lead us beyond traditional belief structures with support and caring.  As such it is essential that we simultaneously nurture their existence and demand that they engage in fundamental and transformative change to meet the spiritual demands of the modern and postmodern world.

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