I’ve been reading essay papers for the last week on whether religion is a positive or negative force in people’s lives and in society. My students fell on both sides of the issue and a number of them argued that religion is BOTH a positive and negative force. I would tend to agree that religion is “both”.
Religion is a negative force in individual lives and society when it inflicts pain, causes people to feel guilt or shame, is judgmental and punishing, and uses manipulation to maintain or grow its membership. Too often power, greed and self-preservation operate in the institution of religion with these unfortunate outcomes.
A healthy religion that positively affects people and society is one where people are encouraged to reach their maximum potential, to be all that God created them to be. It provides a supportive, loving, accepting community. It evolves and incorporates new ideas, new discoveries, new theories and is relevant to current times. And, it has the ability to inspire beauty, creativity, and artistry.
Wow. I choose what’s behind door number two! Or at least I wish it were that easy. Throw a few human beings into the formula with their differences of opinion, their egos, their baggage, and their preferences and it is hard to maintain a healthy religion that is consistently a positive influence. Yet I feel compelled to try! Call me crazy (somedays I feel crazy), but I believe that religion, as the external expression of our internal spiritual journeys, is truly meant to help us connect to the divine within. And when we connect with the divine within, all of those other good things happen – we’re inspiried, we love, we reach out, we encourage, we look beyond our differences and so forth.
One of my students said that in religion we are “unfolding the mystery together, but understanding it on our own.” Isn’t that beautiful? Together we worship, learn, study, discuss and reach out so that the mystery of God’s Sacred Presence can unfold in our midst. But ultimately, how we each understand this presence is highly individualistic. We come to understand the mystery deep within ourselves, in ways that are unique to each person. Then it becomes a wonderful circle. The more we understand and are aware of God within us, the more it will find external expression in our lives. As we are inspired, we tend to become inspiration for others, which then inspires us more. As we find we are loved by the Eternal One, so we reach out in love to others, which helps us to see even more the love that dwells within. In this way religion becomes a truly powerful, positive force.
I look forward to continuing to unfold the mystery of God together, and to create as positive a force as we can in our lives and in this world.