Linda Woodhead in “The Guardian” has announced what she calls “the de-reformation of religion”. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/may/07/mind-body-spirit-dereformation-religion?newsfeed=true
Looking around England, Woodhead observes that,
For most people, religion has ceased to be a matter of belonging to a clerically led community, affirming unchanging dogma, participating in prescribed rituals, and holding conservative social attitudes. It’s transformed into something else.
But for Woodhead the demise of the “clerically led community,” is not something to be lamented. Rather she sees the decline of “unchanging dogma”, “prescribed rituals” and “conservative social attitudes” as a sign of hope for the spiritual life of the nation. In fact she suggests,
real religion – which is to say everyday, lived religion – is thriving and evolving, while hierarchical, institutionalised, dogmatic forms of religion are marginalised. Religion has returned to the core business of sustaining everyday life, supporting relations with the living and the dead, and managing misfortune. That’s why angels, cathedrals, pilgrimages and retreats are all doing well. And why mind, body, spirit has taken over from theology in the bookshops.
Why be surprised or dismissive? In democratic, consumerist societies we believe that we are responsible for own choices, and that our participation counts. We don’t want to be preached at any more, we want to participate and test things out for ourselves. It doesn’t mean we are anti-tradition, that Christians cease to tick “Christian” on the census, that young Muslims stop reading the Qur’an, or that young Catholics don’t turn out for the Pope. We appreciate tradition, but want to discover and sift it for ourselves, with people we trust.
If you hang around churches much you will probably at some time hear reference to the evils of “individualism”. But again, Woodward finds in the individualist tendency of the 21st century a positive sign of life-giving change.
It’s misleading now to think of six or nine world religions, of pre-packaged traditions into which individuals can be subsumed without remainder. The monopolies have broken down. Religious leaders don’t have the same authority. Religious identity is more individual, more idiosyncratic, more interesting.
The tragedy is that we continue to asphalt over all this change and variety with simplistic understandings of religion rooted in the past, and all too often projecting some sort of fundamentalist understanding. The effect is to let religious and secular extremes get away with it – get away with telling us that only dogmatic, conservative, totalising religion is real religion. It isn’t, and it’s time to stop dwelling on minority extremes at the expense of the middle ground majority – which is to say, most of us.
If Woodward’s insights are correct, what might those of us who still labour in the traditional institutionalized church learn from her observations?
1. We must take seriously the reality of change. We in the church can spend our lives decrying the changes that are flooding over us until those changes completely sweep us away. Or we can open to these changes and find what God might be saying to us in the midst of these vast forces swirling around our culture.
2. We can lament individualism, or we can see the positive side of this tendency for people to take genuine responsibility for their own lives, refusing to be bullied and pushed around by some distant authority figure simply because of the office that figure happens to hold.
3. We can capitalize on peoples’ yearning to find creative healthy ways of living. The sacred texts and traditions of all faiths have deep and profound wisdom to share, if that wisdom can be liberated by its current teachers from the bonds of ancient social forms and modes of expression.
4. We must accept the diversity of religious life that people outside the church are increasingly able to embrace. If Christians are willing to learn skills for living from Buddhists, why should we complain? If Buddhists are comfortable sharing in ancient Christian chants, why should we feel threatened?
Woodward points to a growing spiritual openness that can only be good news for those who are able and willing to surrender some of the bonds of the past. We do not need to give up our identity and reduce all spirituality to the lowest common denominator. But we do need to open to new ways of being people of faith. We need to embrace those with whom we share a common vision for nurturing the flourishing of transcendence and spiritual life in the soil of the 21st century materialist culture.