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On the Future of Religion

Not Mistaking the Bottle for the Wine

On the Future of Religion

by Ben Bowler

      “And he said unto them, the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
                                                                         – Mark 2:27

One of the biggest problems with discussing religion is the definition of the term. Few words have such breadth and depth of meaning and even fewer words can spark such passionate debate. My experience is that often those debating the subject are using the word in fundamentally different ways. Are we talking about religion as a personal experience (connection to God), or are we talking about religion in its institutional and organisational sense, a collection of forms, rituals, and dogmas?

There is a tendency among some to refer to the more personal expression of religion as spirituality and to laud this above and beyond the institutional forms of religion, which are viewed as outdated systems predicated more on power and control than upon genuinely idealistic values. Hence the term “spiritual but not religious,” which affirms spirituality as positive and casts religion as undesirable. This criticism of religion hits the mark in the sense of institutional religions being essentially self-serving organisms (religion as virus); but in my view it misses the mark of the profound utilitarian value of religion and religious forms. It also fails to see that religion can be personal, can be spirituality.

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

I am a supporter and defender of healthy religion, not any religion per se, but religion in general as an evolutionary force for good. Religion brings out our best and our worst, and there is no wider gap in all human endeavor than the gulf between good and bad religion. We hope and we expect that the future of religion would see a continued growth and development in religions worldwide along a positive evolutionary trajectory of spiritual maturity. Ken Wilber’s Integral theory certainly has some good tools and maps for tracking this developmental progress.

Those of us who are evolutionary optimists – and I’m one (our theme song must be The Beatles “Got to Admit It’s Getting Better”) – need to be mindful that there is a distinction between what we hope to see as the future of religion and what it may actually be. At the very least there may be time delays involved that are beyond our reckoning. In researching this subject, I came across the full text of Vivekananda’s landmark speech to the inaugural Parliament of World’s Religions in 1893. His opening greeting “Sisters and Brothers of America,” which precipitated a two-minute standing ovation, is of course very famous. Less famous are his remarks on religious extremism. He said:

 Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

In 2018 at the Parliament of World’s Religions, we certainly share the same prayer and the same hope as Vivekananda, 125 years earlier. So while we must surely be guarded about any wildly optimistic predictions about the future of religion, I would like to turn now to sharing my hope for the evolutionary direction of religion.

The Utility of Religion

Guru Nanak – Photo:    Aavtar Singh, C.c. 2.o

Guru Nanak – Photo: Aavtar Singh, C.c. 2.o

First, though, let me speak a little more about the utilitarian value of religion. It is sometimes said that “all religions are essentially teaching the same basic truths.” There is much equanimity and often a gentle generosity in this homespun wisdom, but it also fails to honor and acknowledge the elemental truth that all world religions are born out of specific and unique revelation.

The Jewish prophets, the advent of Christ, the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha, the prophethood of Mohamed, peace be unto him, the Bhagavad Gita, the life of Guru Nanak – these are all profound gifts to our world, and they each carry unique and precious value. Ultimately there is but one truth and one Source, but each of these religions represents essential and distinct elements within that universal unity.

Without religious forms to carry their essence through the ages in the traditions mentioned above – Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism – these infinite gifts of revelation would not be accessible to generation after generation. Frankly these wisdom traditions are carriers of truths that are essential to the spiritual development of humanity. This is the real value of institutional religions, self-serving as they necessarily have been to survive the centuries. Religions provide a vital conduit from the source of the original revelation to modern humanity. Their collective impact on world culture, our morals and ethics, our health and education systems, and on shaping virtually every sphere of human life, is immense beyond measure.

However, perfect conduits they are not. At best institutional religions are man-made and flawed channels carrying holy waters of divine inspiration. Being human, we nearly always get it wrong, and we end up worshiping the forms themselves rather than the Spirit that they were designed to carry. We mistake all too often the bottle for the wine, the human vessel for the divine essence.

This becomes the cause of much division, confusion, and conflict (as in my form is better than yours). And yet we see in the interfaith movement much genuine cause for optimism. Religions are largely learning to coexist, even to get along, and furthermore even to love, value, and respect each other! This is the dawning of the Interspiritual Age written about by my colleague, Dr. Kurt Johnson, in which a healthy variety of religious forms exist in right relationship with one another in a beautiful, vibrant, colourful Ecosystem. Rev Deborah Moldow, convenor of today’s panel on the future of religion, has marvellously termed this the Garden of Light.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose  by John Singer Sargent – Photo:    Wikipedia

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent – Photo: Wikipedia

Ultimately religion must be measured by the service it renders and the ability to execute its two mandates: first, that at the individual level it bring humanity into more fulsome relationship with God / Creator / The Divine; and second, to bestow their unique revelatory gifts for the institution of God’s kingdom on Earth.

My hope for the future of religion is that in this interspiritual age, each religion ceases to concern itself with its own dogmatic boundaries and institutional survival and gives itself wholly and fully and unreservedly to these two sacred duties as an inspiration for all. If each of them did that, then in God’s time we would indeed see a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Back at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda shared a beautiful hymn from his childhood: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”


These remarks were prepared for a panel on The Future of Religion, convened by the Garden of Light at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada.

Header Photo: Pxhere