Human beings are irrepressibly religious. Our souls, even if ignored, will always seek transcendence, wonder, and a way to connect with something larger than the small world of our own egos and social groups. Modernity excluded and maligned religion (often for good reason), but at great cost. Without good religion, human beings are adrift in the cosmos; we are lost to the things that help us find meaning, identity, and wholeness. Religion can be a healing force if we bring new life to it.
Here’s my sermon from August 18, 2019. It’s the second part of a three week series called, “What Matters Now?” It’s based on Ecclesiastes 2.1-11 and Luke 12.16-21. For the first in the series, “Soul Matters Now,” click here.
1. If we lose our souls
Today’s readings are witnesses to the truth that you can get what you want but may not have what you need. They’re two ancient voices testifying to that moment in life when you wake up and realize life, even if it’s as good as it can be, isn’t working for you.
The reading from Ecclesiastes is from a part of the Bible’s “wisdom literature.” It’s very old; it feels timeless, it’s wisdom, universal. The text is the musing of someone who says he once had it all—King Solomon according to the tradition—but that having it all gave him no meaning at all. “I acquired whatever my eyes desired; every pleasure of my heart, I satisfied—I bought it all, I did it all, I knew it all. Then I considered all I’d done, how hard I’d worked and how much money I’d spent; it was meaningless, vanity, a chasing after the wind.”
The reading from the Gospel of Luke is a parable, a teaching story. Jesus wants us to wake up to the ways of living that lead to vanity, meaninglessness, the chasing after the wind. With echoes of Ecclesiastes, we hear of a man who’s got it all, but having it all means nothing at all. The rich man, has, to quote the saying of Jesus from last week, “gained everything the world could offer him, but he’s lost his soul in the process.”
A woman, retiring after a long and apparently successful career once told me: “I spent all my life climbing the ladder, only to find I’d leaned it against the wrong wall.”
That’s true for too many people, but it’s also true for our civilization. We thought we were so enlightened, but now we’re not so sure. Despite what people like Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling say about how the world is making steady progress, deep inside many of us wonder if somewhere along the way we leaned our ladder against the wrong wall. Capitalism is not the great liberator, ideology divides and dehumanizes, nationalism endangers the common good, and ecological abuse threatens life on the planet. Older cultures would say that we not only lost our way, we lost our souls.
2. We can find them again
In the summer of 1977, I walked into a movie theater in Boulder, Colorado, a bored and aimless teenager. Two hours later, I walked out determined to find meaning and purpose for my life. Star Wars, a New Hope, wasn’t a great movie, but it gave me hope; it changed my life.
I grew up without religion. My parents—mom a preacher’s kid and dad the son of a church musician—had done what so many people in the 1960s did: they walked out of churches and synagogues and temples and never returned. They left the mid-west and moved to Boulder, the Haight-Ashbury of the Rocky Mountains. I was born among the hippies and protesters, anarchists and counter-cultural warriors of love, freedom, and peace.
Our non-religious life made an atheist out of me. My parents had left the problems of religion only to plunge me into new ones. I grew up despising religious people as backward, ignorant, gullible, and superstitious, and I prided myself for not being among them. But I was lost. My relationship with my father was a disaster. My aunts and uncles lived too far away to have any moderating influence on my development. Our family had no real community. I was on my own to find myself and my way in the world. I had nothing, no one to mentor me, nothing to initiate me into adulthood; we had no connection to the rituals, stories, and symbols that have shaped human life for a hundred thousand years. I know now that I was a kid in search of my soul, for a sense of meaning that comes from something deep inside, connected with something big outside, joined to the mystery we call “God.”
I was a lot like Luke Skywalker: alienated from family, lost on a desert planet, wandering aimlessly . . . until something broke into my life and I discovered something dormant within me that not only would change my life but link me to everything else in the universe. And I needed to be schooled in a tradition—initiated, mentored, coached, and discipled—in rituals, symbols, stories, and practices that could give me a sense of meaning, that would reconnect me with something deep and big.
Star Wars stirred something spiritual within me. I left the theater with a sense that there was something like a fire within me, something living around me, and I was determined to find it.
George Lucas and Star Wars didn’t induct me into a particular expression of religion. I was still hostile to religion. And if you’d told me then that my spiritual awakening, my awareness of what Star Wars called The Force, was a religious quest, I’d have fought you tooth and nail. Religion was to me then, as it is to many people now, a dirty word. And for good reason. Religion is responsible for some of the worst things human beings have done. But if we’re honest, we also know it’s responsible for some of the best.
3. Our souls need religion
Forty-two years have passed since I walked out of that theater, on a quest for purpose, meaning, a spiritual life. That quest led me to the religion I once, in my arrogance, despised—to God and to the Jesus who, like many of us do, had a lover’s quarrel with religion. It looks like I’ve settled my quarrel with it; I am not just religious, but professionally religious—a preacher at that.
But my quarrel with religion is not settled. I am, as I’ve told you before, religious despite religion; I’m Christian despite Christianity. I know that religion is still a dirty word. I know that for many people Christianity is not only irrelevant, it’s harmful. And I get that. I can sympathize.
As a religion, so much about Christianity is trapped at the lowest stages of its development: it’s captive to reactive conservatism, literalism, and moralism. But I’m convinced Christianity could play an extremely important role in shaping a sustainable human presence on this planet and any other world we may one day inhabit. In fact, I’m convinced we cannot do without Christianity. If it can evolve, if it can emerge from its adolescence and enter the maturity the world needs at this critical moment, Christianity, and other religions as well, could give us all a new hope for the future.
Look, I’m not naive to the problems of religion and mess Christianity can make of things. I once despised religion for the evils it’s done. But a life without religion left me empty. Life without religion leaves our civilization without a soul, bereft of a way to dance with the Divine.
I look at the world now. I feel its tumult. I sense the fear and anxiety. I grieve the ways we dehumanize each other and exploit and degrade the earth. These are not the evils of religion anymore. This is the sour fruit of a civilization that has lost its soul, that’s severed itself from its connection to what is deeper and bigger than our egos, more important than our party politics, patriotism, ethnicity, race, gender, or anything else that defines our identity.
We are a people in search of our soul, and without religion—the best that it could be—we will climb the ladder only to find we’ve leaned it against the wrong wall; we will not transform our lives, we will not evolve our consciousness, we could destroy the Earth.
4. Good religion reconnects
Religion comes from the Latin word, religare. Re means again. And ligare means to connect or attach. Ligare is the word from which we get ligament. So religion, re-ligare, is, when it’s at its best, about connecting us with what matters most, holding us together, enabling us to rise into our full and beautiful humanity, able to dance with the Divine.
Good religion can offer us rituals, symbols, stories, practices, and a sense of community that helps us experience the Ineffable, what Goethe called “that mysterious power everyone senses but no scientist can explain.” Good religion can help us find and nourish our souls so we can participate responsibly in the exquisite web of life that’s all around us.
Since the Enlightenment many have tried to save civilization from the bad effects of religion. Over a hundred years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche challenged religion to change. He called for the “euthanasia of Christianity” not because he hated religion, but because he hated what religion had become. Religion had failed in its calling. It had traded mystery and myth for moralism and materialism. It was bankrupt, soul-less, and because of its failure, we’d be better off without it.
Today’s New Atheists are less generous. They don’t want to challenge religion to be better; they want to destroy it. They think the mind alone is the answer to our problems. But there are signs the secular vision is fading. Secular society, scrubbed of religion, now finds itself drifting, and something inside us is grasping for help. Secularism has presided over a century of the world’s greatest wars, the rise of enormous environmental threats, the jeopardy of Earth’s ecosystem, and the development of technology that, while doing immense good, has also given us tools to do enormous evil.
We have lost our souls . . . but some are beginning to find them again.
5. People are searching
Sarah Jane Bradley was an unmarried, “spiritual but not religious” professional in her early 30s. She had a start-up to tend and a group of rowdy friends, but found herself struggling for meaning, seeking something deeper, something bigger. Last year, she and some of her friends did something crazy. They moved out of their shared house and into a convent.
It’s a project they call Nuns and Nones. The Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame, California are the Nuns, and Sarah and her friends are the Nones—progressive millennials, irreligious, engaged in creative enterprise and passionate about social justice, but unmoored by the present state of the world.
“These are radical, badass women who have lived lives devoted to social justice,” says Ms. Bradley. “We wanted to learn from them.”
The millennials worked their normal jobs during the day and at night lived in community, sharing in the life of the convent.
The sisters of Mercy weren’t quite sure what to make of this partnership when Sarah pulled up with her friends in her Subaru. “I was stunned,” said Sister Harney to the other sisters, “you’ll never guess what the millennials want to talk about: the vows.” The sisters laughed. But the millennials were dead serious. Sister Harney pulled out an old book on the vows—poverty, obedience, and chastity. The millennials devoured it. Sticking Post-it notes in so many of the pages, it looked like it had feathers.
“The millennials were looking at the book like it was our secret sauce. I realized that what they were looking for was a road map for life.” They wanted practices, rituals, and stories. They wanted intentional community. They didn’t want belief, they wanted belonging. They were searching for meaning, for soul.
Sister Carle recalls that they’d say things like: “I’m looking for a way to make my lesbian community stronger. Or I need courage to keep working for racial justice. I need grounding, stories, rituals, symbols. One young woman wanted ritual and symbol so much she started going to Mass every morning; she doesn’t even believe in God, at least not in the way I do.”
But who’s to say? Maybe it’s not belief that matters, but experience, not dogma but encounters with the Divine.
6. Towards good religion
Here’s a young woman who found what we all need, what our world needs, now more than ever: our souls and the kind of religion that can tend them regardless of what we may or may not believe. To tend our souls, to do the good religion can do, the re-ligare of the future will be a religion that:
reconnects us to an attitude of reverence toward the web of life,
reconnects us to a sense of the sacred in the ordinary, every-dayness of our lives,
reconnects us to the wonder and awe of what’s transcendent in ourselves, others, and nature,
reconnects us to the power of ritual, symbol, practice, metaphor, and story, and
reconnects us to the experience of authentic community, to belongingness, as a crucible of transformation
The question is not, “Will we have religion?” but “What kind of religion will we have? Will it help us or hurt us? Will it rise to the need of our times? Will it reconnect us to meaning, to our souls, to life and all that is sacred?”
Good religion matters; it matters now.
Reclaiming, reforming, renewing, and reconnecting religion to what matters most is our great work now.