One puzzle of the world is that religions often don’t resemble their founders.
Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays. Muhammad raised the status of women in his time, yet today some Islamic clerics bar women from driving, or cite religion as a reason to hack off the genitals of young girls. Buddha presumably would be aghast at the apartheid imposed on the Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar.
“Our religions often stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for,” Brian D. McLaren, a former pastor, notes in a provocative and powerful new book, The Great Spiritual Migration.
Founders are typically bold and charismatic visionaries who inspire with their moral imagination, while their teachings sometimes evolve into ingrown, risk-averse bureaucracies obsessed with money and power. That tension is especially pronounced with Christianity, because Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment, while Christianity has been so successful that in much of the world it is the establishment.
“No wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity?’ ” McLaren wrote. “We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and anti-science. That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels!”
This argument unfolds against a backdrop of religious ferment. The West has rapidly become more secular, with the “nones” — the religiously nonaffiliated, including atheists as well as those who feel spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religion — accounting for almost one-fourth of Americans today. The share is rising quickly: Among millennials, more than one-third are nones.
The rise of the nones seems to have been accompanied by a decline in public interest in doctrine. “One of the most religious countries on earth,” Stephen Prothero says in his book Religious Literacy, referring to the United States, “is also a nation of religious illiterates.”
Only half of American Christians can name the four Gospels, only 41 percent are familiar with Job, and barely half of American Catholics understand Catholic teaching about the Eucharist. Yet if Americans suspect that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, or wonder if the epistles were female apostles, then maybe the solution is to fret less about doctrines and more about actions.
“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in The Great Spiritual Migration. “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
That would be a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the moral vision of the founder, and it would be an enormous challenge. But religion can and does migrate.
“Because I grew up in a very conservative Christian context, we were always warned about changing the essential message,” McLaren told me. “But at the same time, we often missed how much actually had changed over time.” Christianity at times approved of burning witches and massacring heretics; thank goodness it has evolved!
As society has modernized and people have grown more skeptical of accounts of virgin birth or resurrection, one response has been to retreat from religion. Yet there’s also a deep impulse for spiritual connections.
McLaren advises worrying less about whether biblical miracles are literally true and thinking more about their meaning: If Jesus is said to have healed a leper, put aside the question of whether this actually happened and focus on his outreach to the most stigmatized of outcasts.
It is not just Christianity, of course, that is grappling with these questions. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that he sees a desire for a social justice mission inspired and balanced by faith traditions.
“That’s where I see our path,” Jacobs said. “People have seen ritual as an obsession for the religious community, and they haven’t seen the courage and commitment to shaping a more just and compassionate world.”
If certain religious services were less about preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity and more about tackling human needs around us, this would be a better world — and surely Jesus would applaud as well.
This may seem an unusual column for me to write, for I’m not a particularly religious Christian. But I do see religious faith as one of the most important forces, for good and ill, and I am inspired by the efforts of the faithful who run soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
Perhaps unfairly, the pompous hypocrites get the headlines and often shape public attitudes about religion, but there’s more to the picture. Remember that on average religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.
It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral, temple or mosque, but rather a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, a rabbi battling for Palestinians’ human rights — they fill me with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018