There are not many things I have done in thirty-six years of ordained ministry in the church that have generated expressions of interest from places as distant as Minnesota and New York.

So, I was a little taken aback to receive queries about how people from such far away places might access a series we recently advertised on “Rethinking Religion”.

Perhaps it was just the great poster rethinking-religion-poster-rachel(thanks Gillian). Or perhaps it was the list of questions that went out as part of our publicity:

– What is “religion”?

– Why do people leave “religion”?

– Is there any loss in the departure from “religion”?

– What calls people back to faith?

– How do people find their way back?

– How do faith and silence relate?

– How might the current interest in meditation point a way forward?

Whatever it is, the prospect of “Rethinking Religion” seems to have touched a chord I have not often experienced in my years of putting on public “religious” events.

No doubt, there is a feel in the air that something has gone wrong with religion. There has been in the past thirty years a huge backlash against religious institutions, much of it well-deserved.

Religion in all its institutional forms has at times inflicted grievous harm on those who have looked to it for nourishment, encouragement, and support in living a healthy spiritual life. To some extent this is inevitable and unavoidable. Religious institutions, like any institutions, are made up of human beings. Human beings are always imperfect expressions of their highest ideals.

Paul was not engaging in idle hyperbole or exaggerated rhetoric when he proclaimed,

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

Paul was simply expressing a reality we all know to be true. We never perfectly embody the love, beauty and truth for which we sense deep in our being we were created. And, individuals who live imperfect lives, inevitably create less than perfect institutions. On one level, the only response to an imperfect expression of institutional life is to ask, “What did you expect?”

Why are we surprised when human beings who fail create institutions that fail?

Acknowledging the inevitability of failure however is no excuse for the egregious faults of our institutional expressions of life.

One of the fundamental functions of religion at its best is to hold up a mirror to our faces and ask us to take a long cold hard look at ourselves. Honest self-examination is a cornerstone of the spiritual journey.

The ancient book of Lamentations instructs the spiritual pilgrim

Let us test and examine our ways,
and return to the Lord. (Lamentations 3:40)

It is tempting to chuck the whole idea of any institutional embodiment of religion. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and those who lead them are often so deeply flawed that it is understandable people might conclude that it is better simply to “go it alone.” In many cases, people who walk away from religious organizations do so with good reason and just cause. Those who leave may at times be the people with the greatest integrity and the most honesty.

But the agent sage’s advice in Lamentations applies equally to those who have stuck with religious institutions and those who have left. There can be good reasons for abandoning religious institutions or for staying. A person may be diminished as much by the choice to walk away as by the determination to stay.

So, where might the journey to “Rethink Religion” take us? Certainly, it will not take us anywhere helpful if we start with resentment, bitterness, anger, or heavy self-interested agendas. The starting point for any effective journey is the willingness to put aside for a time and to a degree that which is familiar and that which has formed and shaped us from the past. The journey to “Rethink Religion” requires that we start from a place of genuine openness and a desire to engage in honest inquiry.