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Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
--W. B. Yeats
Much of the contemporary world is torn between violent gods and soulless economics, dogmatic religion and a profane void. The honorable name of an ancient God is being used to sanctify war and the demonic designs of tribes, nations, and empires. Technicalintelligence threatens the blessed earth. The sacred is eclipsed, our spiritscape desecrated. It is a confusing time to think about religion.
The closing decades of the twentieth century were marked by optimistic predictions that we were on the road to social, economic, and technological progress. We thought that after an estimated one hundred million deaths from state-and-church-sponsored violence we had seen through the utopias promised by conventional religion and secular ideology. But we were wrong.
Instead we are experiencing a resurgence of militant fundamentalism, holy war, and theocracy. Already in this new millennium, hot-blooded religious fanatics of all persuasions have butchered millions of innocents. The ancient demigods of tribes and empires, the landlord deities, and the political idols have returned. Once again we hear the demonic claim that the time has come to rise up and smite the evil ones--Hutus, Serbs, Americans, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. How quickly we have forgotten that talk of God and country, of infidels and axes of evil, is just politicized idolatry to justify murdering the Other.
Instead of confronting our global problems--poverty, injustice, hunger, environmental degradation, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and small arms--our imaginations have been seized by something akin to our love of Disneyland. Bothreligious institutions and secular governments have chosen to hide their heads in the sand and promote fantasies of apocalyptic and utopian futures.
Untold millions of Christians, Jews, and Christian Zionists imagine that spiritual renewal will arrive in the form of the apocalypse that will take place when the Jews have all returned to Israel. More than half of all Americans believe that the end-of-times events predicted in the book of Revelation will come to pass. Of those who believe Armageddon is just around the corner, 47 percent believe the Antichrist is on earth now, and 45 percent believe that Jesus will return during their lifetime. For these believersthe future is clear. With the Antichrist in power, life on earth will be a living hell for those who remain, but just in the nick of time Jesus will come again, and gather his born-again children in a rapture. The graves of the saved will open, family members will be snatched up from the dinner table, pilots plucked from their planes, and lovers interrupted midcourse. After a terrible war in which most people on earth will die, Christ will come for a third time and rule over the earth for one thousand years, ushering in a golden era of universal peace. Following Christ's millennial reign, history will end, followed by a new heaven and a new earth.
The eschatology of Muslims is only slightly less dramatic. It centers on the appearance of the Mahdi, a messianic figure whom Shia Muslims identify as the hidden imam, who will put an end to the suffering of Muslims and bring justice to the world. Surprisingly, Jesus makes a cameo appearance in the Islamic version of the end-time. According to the Qur'an, Jesus will return and destroy the Antichrist. Then the Mahdi will complete the spread of Islam and reestablish the Caliphate. The armed radical wing of Islam expects,with or without the help of the Mahdi, to defeat the godless West and establish a global Islamic order.
Watching the bloody acts of violence committed in the name of religion, reasonable people will naturally wonder why they should have anything to do with it. Regrettably, the secular ideologies of our time that compete with religion for our hearts and mindshave created their own fantastical vision of the end-time. For unredeemed secular optimists the myth of progress continues to forecast a bright, if not utopian, future. The new prime mover that will lead us into the global empire of milk and honey is not Godbut a global conglomerate. The promised alabaster city undimmed by human tears morphs into the Mall of America.
Americans are profoundly schizophrenic, split between expecting Jesus to return and hoping for the coming triumph of liberal democracy. In this land of TV evangelists and Wal-Mart, fundamentalism and modernity cohabit more amiably than Democrats and Republicans. And the best part of the triumphant future promised by the evangelists of progress is that it is already here! In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy is the final form of government, the pinnacle of humanity's ideological evolution. In the last century it has conquered all its rivals--monarchy, fascism, and communism--proof positive that this is the secular utopia toward which all human life has been struggling. We are the last ones, the expected ones, the culminationof history's dialectic. Fukuyama puts it this way: "If we looked beyond liberal democracy and markets, there was nothing else toward which we could expect to evolve because they are the only political system that satisfies individuals' desire for recognitionand dignity. Hence the end of history."
In spite of recent setbacks on the road to utopia, the vast majority of Americans still retain a dogged belief in American exceptionalism and the eventual return of an economy that will allow us to enjoy unrestrained consumption and military dominance sufficient to remain the world's only superpower. We may be down at the moment, but we'll bounce back up before long. The U.S. presidential election of 2008 was won with bywords that captured the perennial optimism of the American spirit. Change! Hope! Yes we can!
But this knee-jerk optimism ignores a multitude of problems. (A multitude of sins?) We live by the grace of an unacknowledged inheritance from a rich godfather. The "civil" in our civilization was created by generations whose religious institutions taught them that the golden rule and the inalienable rights of citizens were ordained by God. Civic religion inculcated the virtues of care for our neighbor and sacrifice for the common good. But our inheritance is running out.
It is doubtful that the imperatives springing from modern secularism can create a civil community. How can a consumer economy justify sacrifice, generosity, and the commitment of time and energy to nurture the young? In a culture that worships efficiency, speed, profit, and consumption, where do we get the mandate to love one another, to feel compassion toward those who are sick, unemployed, homeless, or old (i.e., "useless")? I can't help wondering if the idea of a secular civilization is an oxymoron, a failed dream of the Enlightenment.
Without some vision of the sacred, what will be the source of compassion, sacrifice, and mutual care, without which there can be no commonwealth? How will we discover values that transcend the selfish interests of the ego, the family, the tribe, the corporation, and the nation? How will we learn compassion for a stranger? Where will we get that sense of reverence for life that is the cornerstone of the desire to preserve our environment? Where shall we look for hope? Can we reasonably hope that multinational corporations will get a heart, like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and become more concerned for the common good than for the bottom line?
Can we reasonably hope that politicians and journalists, like the Scarecrow, will get a brain and present complex issues to the public rather than invent scapegoats and enemies? Can we reasonably hope that the military establishment, like the Cowardly Lion, will stop hiding behind women and children, reject the policy of acceptablecollateral damage, and find the courage to become a peacemaker? Can we reasonably hope that technophiles will develop the social conscience to devote themselves only to creative innovations--not to inventing more and better weapons of mass destruction? Can we reasonably hope that consumers will learn the meaning of enough, and hold off on buying luxuries until everyone has necessities? Can we reasonably hope that the complacent majority of good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims, and good Hindus will demandthat their leaders stop sanctifying the violence of empire and jihad in order to create a compassionate commonwealth of all sentient beings?
Absent these slim hopes, Dorothy will never find her way back home to Kansas. Failing our rediscovery of the virtues of reverence and respect, our future on this planet looks dark and brutish--and very short indeed. In a brilliant and disturbing article,"The Slow Apocalypse: A Gradualistic Theory of the World's Demise," Andrew McMurry argues that the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse--arms proliferation, environmental degradation, the crisis of meaning, and the malignant global economy--are already riding roughshod over the earth. The mushroom cloud is already rising above us, and our leading nations lack the collective will to do anything about our precarious situation. He concludes that our hyper-complex civilization may be nothing more than an evolutionary blind alley.
But before we despair over this bleak scenario we should ask if there is a hopeful alternative to the relentless onslaught of fundamentalism and nihilistic secularism. Is there a way out of limbo for those of us who are unable to believe in the miracles, mystery, and authority offered by institutional religion yet are unable to thrive in the spiritual poverty of our economic ideology?
I suggest that there is, if we know where to look.
Surprisingly, the renewal we seek is most likely to come from a new understanding of what lies at the heart of religion. The vision we require is not missing, only forgotten. It sleeps in the taproot from which religion originally grew--the kaleidoscopic richness of our experience of the sacred. We have been looking in all the wrong places.
The word religion covers a vast and vague territory. Under the same umbrella it includes gentle Quakers and ruthless jihadists, sedate Episcopalians and shouting tent evangelists, rock-and-roll mega-churches and solitary monks. Any analysis of religionmust acknowledge that it includes both the best and the worst of human endeavor. In these pages I will attempt to peel away the shell of the many formal expressions of religion and get to the meat, the living heart of the matter: the experience that all authentically religious persons share of living within a world that is sacred.
From the Hardcover edition.