Any study of the history of religion will reveal that, despite claims to a certain constancy down the ages, there has been development of understanding of core teachings and their application in new circumstances. New discoveries, new ways of thinking about the world, about human purpose and destiny have been interpreted by religious thinkers in response to change. Even those who cry ‘no change’ in their inherited pattern of teaching, worship, religious culture, are responding to external change in a particular way. Things that are emphasised or neglected in this response still reflect what is significant in the changing social and cultural agenda. Only by a complete isolation from contemporary society (the preferred response of a few), is it possible to live in unchanging continuity with the past. Adaptation and development in continuity with the core intention of one’s inheritance from the past is most commonplace. But coming to terms with the present is the goal. The future we rarely take into account, beyond transmitting of beliefs and customs to the up-coming generation. There is no equivalent to the tree planter’s vision in ordinary religious thinking and planning.
The flourishing disciplines of social anthropology and psychology during the twentieth century provided means to uncover the convergence between people who are spiritually searching, across cultures and boundaries of ancient religious traditions. We have learned that many of the moral, social and spiritual concerns of human beings across the world are similar in content, if not in expression. We are conscious that we share the same humanity, and can identify with each other’s aspirations and longings. Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue have not destroyed existing religious institutions and cultures, but rather have begun to change the way each relates to the other. Where interfaith and cross-cultural communities exist, they are quietly more influential than they are sizeable. They do not threaten their parent bodies, but they do suggest that a very different future might be in store for people of faith in succeeding generations, if the developments of the past century continue.
Religious institutions and worshipping communities, are expressions of a past which previous generations have wanted to transit to the future, which is us. Where do we stand? Of course there are many things of past tradition which seem timeless in their quality, which we want to preserve and hand on. Using things both ‘Ancient and modern’ is what we think are doing. But, even in the most modern of churches, adventuring to re-interpret traditional motifs, in art and architecture and music, little is really immediately current, unless its members have a particular gift for spontaneous improvisation. Look at the date of copyright on contemporary hymns and choruses – ‘modern’ can mean five to fifty years old in terms of date and people’s perception. Likewise the ways in which worship, social life, pastoral care, engagement on issues of conscience are organised. In few things, and rarely does a religious community feel free and able to be truly innovative. It tends to imitate and follow trends, rather than initiate. Yet we live in a world of rapid change. Are people of faith meant only to react and adjust to change? Or are they capable of seeing ahead and acting, like the horticulturalist to make innovations today whose full effect will not be seen for another century?
The New Testament is a future-oriented book, full of expectation of the end of the world, of judgement, and Christ’s second coming breaking into the present day and age. Many people in Palestine under the Roman occupation felt themselves to be living in times of crisis. To be able to cope with endemic political, social and economic instability, the virtues of endurance, vigilance and faithfulness were required, ever ready to give an account of the belief and hope they lived by. Believers lived in hope of being found ready for the Day when time finally stopped, all things came to an end and the rule of God was made manifest in an everlasting new heaven and a new earth. This view of human history dominated the thinking of the first generation of Christians.
Eventually, however, they realised that life continued as usual, moving from one crisis to another, without the hoped-for end ever arriving. They were obliged to come to terms with this, and adapt to living within the continuity of history as it unfolded, keeping intact the necessary virtues that enabled them to cope with crisis in the light of their belief in Christ. Once freed from the pressures of persecution, the church, developed into an international organisation of great influence, trying to apply Christian moral teaching to the social and political situation of each era. For many centuries it saw itself and its own social vision as the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth, the realm within which God’s rule and purpose were acknowledged and followed, until such time as the End finally did arrive.
In any period of radical change, for whatever reason, people have believed that the end of the world was upon them. The end of the world as they knew it arrived, but instead of everything ceasing to exist, there was a new beginning. The necessity of re-creating their world was imposed upon them by events, whether these were seen as originating with God or not. The more we have to learn to live with a perceptible and permanent state of change in various areas of our existence, the more our situation compares with second generation Christians, learning to live with a provisional state of affairs, calling for endurance, fidelity and vigilance.
We are called today to rely upon our skills for recognising, interpreting and managing change, less exclusively upon inherited knowledge. Ability to improvise, re-create and re-interpret what is known about life here and now is as important as being able to reproduce the good things of past knowledge and interpret them according to their originators’ intentions. We learn to rely more upon our powers of observation and our ability to understand what we see in different ways, in order to identify the appropriate response. Old formulas have limited use when a rapidly changing world produces many new possibilities to be worked on, for good and for ill. Training in the art of diagnosis and discernment is what enables us to live creatively with the end of our world staring us in the face. As well as recognising the ‘signs of the times’ in the context of rapid change, it is necessary also to be able to identify the signs of hope for the future, existing in the responses of believers who are open to the future.
One small sign of future oriented thinking exists in the realm of education which embraces learning about major world religions in the school curriculum. Both secular and religious schools figure among the innovators in this realm. However, there are many schools which, in the name of ‘progress’ allow no place for learning about religions in their curriculum. The task of learning about religion is relegated to churches whose value as cultural transmitters is diminished in the minds of an increasing number of people. A major source of cross-cultural and ethical enquiry is eliminated in the name of an ideology of cultural neutrality. The consequence is that many more people grow up ignorant of their own cultural inheritance, let alone that of other cultures and faiths.
Prejudices and stereotyped views of others are easily acquired and not so easily disposed of. Good educational process may well teach good methods for critical engagement, but religious culture and ethics do not spring from abstract ideas, but from rich participatory experience of community life. Much art, music and architecture are produced by community life deriving from religion. They give many clues as to the nature of this community, but are no substitute to exposure by participation in its life. Religious educators who advocate a genuine openness to learn from the religious plurality of mankind, and help their students to work out their own criteria for responsible evaluation, are often faced with having to defend their policy in the face of criticism from those who see the faith transmission of a particular tradition as being the only necessity in the face of the erosion of belief. In times of great change and insecurity, freedom of informed decision-making is perceived as a threat, yet, it is what make possible an individual’s maturing in faith and self realisation.
Since the time when the edict of Constantine made Christian religion a state tolerated religion in the early fourth century, prophetic resistance to the compromise of the community of faith with the secular world has been found in the emergence of monastic orders. These are communities of people adopting, ‘ordered’ by an ascetic and disciplined lifestyle and creating their own alternative society, more or less independent of their original culture, seeking to express ideals and values uncompromised by the materialism and violence of the status quo.
Part of the crisis of the church in twentieth century society was the marked decline of many existing religious orders. After the second Vatican councils, most attempted to reform themselves, but this did not prevent some from becoming extinct, due to lack of vocations. A few enjoy a relative degree of success in attracting young vocations - houses of the ancient enclosed contemplative communities – Cistercian, Carthusian, Carmelite in the Western Church, and the isolated monasteries of Mount Athos and Upper Egypt in the Eastern Church, where radical disengagement from some aspects of contemporary lifestyle are a chief feature. A rich mixture of traditional and innovative forms of worship make them attractive to large numbers of spiritually hungry ‘refugees’ from conventional churches. Some have begun to offer courses to prepare candidates for Christian initiation who are coming anew to faith in adult life. Even more significant, however are the innovations in the concept of religious community life, which emerged in the twentieth century. They exercise the same prophetic critique of contemporary society in the light of their faith conviction as their counterparts in earlier epochs. They have emerged, both within catholic and protestant settings, with several features in common :
the fact that they are missionary responses to the impact of materialism and secularity upon traditional established forms of Christianity.
the importance they give to prayer, worship and spirituality
their different forms of social engagement
their accent on shared discipline, lifestyle and experiment in relating to both the institutional church and secular society
their adoption of dialogue, and sharing personal experience in building relationships
their understanding of provisionality in understanding and applying Christian truth.
Their accent on integration and reconciliation as core features of living the Gospel.
Here are just some examples of this new generation of communities, which in a variety of different ways have been innovative in their approach to questions of how people can live and work together in response to change
L’Arche – is an organisation of residential self supporting communities of common prayer and work in the catholic tradition which embraces, lay and clergy, male and female, different denominations and most importantly able bodied and handicapped people, in long term commitment to each other. People, some of them several disabled, who would have previously been incarcerated in hospitals or asylums are given a chance to make a home together with others in the ordinary world.
Taizé – is a classic re-working in protestant framework of traditional evangelical monastic discipline, with a particular focus upon hospitality and dialogue in relation to young people, involving large number of non-monastic volunteers in their mission programme. What makes it so distinctive is the breadth of nationalities and Christian traditions that are encompassed in its membership, and the commitment to work for reconciliation, peace and justice within and outside the church across the world.
Bede Griffiths’ ashram is one of several experiments in ascetic contemplative monasticism, lived in a cross-cultural and inter-faith context dedicated to dialogue through the life of prayer, meditation, appreciation of different traditions, and adaptation of, in this case, western catholic monastic life to a non-western cultural setting. There are also Hindu and Buddhist communities teaching their traditions of religious philosophy and meditation to people beyond their own tradition. Some of them are in their native territories, others have migrated to the west and are adapting their way of life to western culture.
The Iona community focuses around the ancient Scottish pilgrimage island of Iona – those who are associated with the place and its Celtic spiritual tradition embrace the essential values of a radical socially aware Christian worship lifestyle. They explore how to live together in Christian community in an everyday secular environment, and exist as an ecumenical movement crossing the boundaries of many established traditional churches.
St Egidio, Focolare are but two of a number of democratic fraternities which network laity and clergy bound by the same devotional inspirations and common concern for justice and peace in the world. People live a rule of life, either in residential communities or dispersed in the secular environment, and the emphasis is on prayer and service of the poor.
The Jerusalem community – is an expression of catholic contemplative monastic life in an urban setting shared by clergy and laity, men and women, some living in community, others on their own or with their family, most supporting themselves in secular employment.
Catholic communities in a dozen or more countries under the name ‘le chemin neuf‘ are similarly mixed in membership, gathered around the life of a retreat or worship centre, where their uniquely ecumenical vocation is worked out in a commitment to foster spiritual renewal dialogue and mutual understanding among churches.
In the industrially developed countries of the world, the twentieth century saw a steep decline in numbers of people committed to participate in parochial worshipping communities. This resulted in the closure of many ‘redundant’ churches, no longer economically sustainable by small numbers of worshippers. The merging of parishes and grouping of churches was a necessary reponse to decline in worshippers and shortfall in vocations to ordained ministry. Not even the opening of ordained ministries to women among protestant churches succeeded in maintaining the overall numbers of clergy, or the proportion of clergy to laity at the beginning of the twentieth century.
At the same time, the number of converts and the development of new churches exploded in the poorer underdeveloped countries, of Asia, Latin America, Oceania and South Asia, to the extent that there are more Christian believers in countries touched by Christian mission in the previous two centuries, than there are in Europe, North America and the Middle East, from whence Christianity originated. Christian growth in the third millennium is likley to be predominantly a third world phenomenon. Characteristic of third world Christianity is a kind of faith that to modern Western eyes seems unsophisticated and naïve. It relies strongly on simple biblical teaching, preaching, and an accent on divine providence, healing and miracles. It seems to preserve for its believers an adherence to what Westerners would call a pre-scientific world-view, and labelled ‘fundamentalist’.
A similar attitude prevails also towards the resurgence of Islam in third world countries. This comes from a reaction against what is perceived as the failure of Western materialism and colonialism to do justice to the religious view of human beings. While there is no doubt that the spread of this movement has been assisted by the generosity of oil-rich Muslim states towards the poor, it is not the whole story. Third world Christians too have benefitted from the generosity and support of believers elsewhere. The renaissance in Islamic devotion, scholarship, social and humanitarian action is broader than what is implied by the pejorative use of the term ‘fundamentalist’. For both Christians and Muslims in a variety of different settings in the third world, their starting point in human experience is in some ways quite different from the Western world view. So, their reading of and their response to the world-view represented within the Bible or the Qu’ran is quite un-Western.
The Christian message touches upon the importance of community (the living, the dead and the unborn) in a way which is important to an individual sense of identity. Christian ethics and discipline once accepted as being essential to a life of faith, enable believers to develop their own and their community’s resources. Worked out in the context of third world deprivation and injustice, it has the capacity to strengthen the poor, to help people to help themselves and help each other in circumstances where many have become weakened by over-dependence upon external aid, and the corruption which often accompanies it. What a living faith in God offers believers in terms of dignity, self-esteem and solidarity, though not identical from one religion to another, has more in common than it has differences. Engagement in aid and development programmes by humanitarian organisations of Muslim, and even Bhuddist and Hindu origins is a feature of the way devout believers around the world are also rising to the challenges posed by the failure of modern materialism.
The problem for Christian credibility in the industrialised countries is its engagement with, some would say entanglement in a culture and institutions dominated by the secular and materialist world view. Churches, like every other social institution, have benefitted from wealth created by economic and technological development. However, their opinion on religious and ethical issues is often disputed or ignored, either because churches fail to present a united and coherent position, or because what they say is unappealing to those conditioned by the pragmatism of the dominant modern world view.
Exceptions to this are churches (both great and small) known for their strong and coherent stance, demanding commitment, demanding lifestyle and behaviour from adherents that make them stand out from the secular norm. Many of these Christian communities are deemed to be in Western parlance, ‘fundamentalist’, though not all. Their distinctiveness begs comparison with monastic orders. Some sociologists prefer to see them as resembling sects, because they recognised by having a boundary of commitment to their membership.
These are churches whose popularity defies the trend, gathering people, sometimes from one locality or social grouping, but more often from a wide area, or constituency of people, prepared to make the effort to travel in order to find the experience of common life and worship they find most nourishing. This sense of having a distinctive commitment to a community defined by its worship and lifestyle obligations is at variance with centuries-old parochial tradition, grounded in belonging to the territory and church building that served it.
Parishioners’ ancient loyalties to their local church, persisted despite changes in spiritual or political leadership, despite change in liturgy, ritual or devotion, to the extent that this can be interpreted only as attachment to place or building. Ever since the Reformation, geographical communities have divided into confessional bodies in the same area, and the same persistent loyalties to the places occupied by denominations have arisen. A choice of places of worship emerged in one locality. But family memories attached themselves to one place nevertheless. It became part of family identity. In contemporary society, with people more mobile than ever, choice of where to worship is no longer bound by where you live. First, directories of churches for tourists and visitors appeared, then good church guides, evaluating features on offer to those looking for a place to call their spiritual home. Continuity of place and the sense of stability that goes with it no longer appear as essential.
Identity loss, not knowing where we belong, is a feature of our age. No longer distinguished adequately by our place of origin, our strength and focus is found in commitments to groups of the like-minded, or to those who pursue the same ideal or discipline as ourselves. So it seems. Yet, the institutionalised commitment to marriage and family life, as the most basic unit of community, is weaker and more variable than it has been for centuries – to judge by the rate at which partners are exchanged. Is this because marriage used to be grounded in a common locality and culture, whereas social mobility makes this now quite rare?
Divorce is a symptom of the break-up of local community. No group of family and friends is there any longer to help couples survive the difficulties which occur naturally in lifelong relationships. Nevertheless, failure of a marriage rarely deters survivors from seeking another partner or believing in the importance of a lifelong commitment in marriage, even if several tries are needed for success. Hunger for successful relationships and the need for stability persists. What has changed so radically are circumstances in which success is possible – not only for marriage, but for every other kind of human relationship.
In times past where we came from, who we knew or were known by, was all-important in determining, not only our identity, but also our capacity for success. Now, the knowledge we have acquired and the commitments we make to principles and values is becoming more important. The child of a landless peasant who can get access to learning, if they have ability and will directed to this end may rise to become president. This can happen because it is more possible for people to be appreciated for their gifts rather than for the achievements of their forebears, although there is a long way to go before this is universally the case.
Whether we are among the leaders or one of the led, we are learning to rely on being able to discern the value of others, and commit ourselves to them on the basis of what we know of them and their actions, rather than on the reputation of their forebears or their social group.
This makes for a radically different concept of what its required to create and sustain community, religious or otherwise. It re-defines human trust, but does it thereby re-define what faith is? And the community of faith?