Adapting Religion

The Golden Rule (UN Photo/ Milton Grant)
I share this post in part to recognize World Interfaith Harmony Week. With our world’s storied history of religious conflict, strides towards mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among all people is a welcome endeavor. Here I offer some thoughts on adapting religion:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever - Hebrews 13:8

Such a proclamation is central to Christian belief and practice. Foundational doctrine such as this is shared by most religions in the world. Whether it is a specific belief in God (e.g. YHWH, Jesus, Allah) or a certain description of ultimate reality (e.g. Dharma or Brahman), the centrality of these beliefs is integral to the identity of these religions. Such foundational concepts then shape much of how these religions are practiced in all areas of life.

I recently had the privilege of attending an interfaith dialogue event that addressed some of these connections between beliefs and practices - “Bridges of Faith - Thoughts and Practices On Birth and Death.

It was fascinating to hear presentations from two religions practiced by many in the Greater Vancouver area. Two Muslims reflected on their rituals around birth and death, highlighting the key role of family/community in both these monumental moments - reliance on others symbolizes the limit of self-reliance both in this life and beyond. Two Mormons then reflected on their theological perspectives on life, mortality and immortality, underscoring how the pursuit of truth can bring peace to ultimate questions around life and death. Following these presentations we discussed these themes around tables, at which I had the chance to share engaging conversation with Buddhist, Sikh, Agnostic, and Christian individuals. The openness and respect, combined with heartfelt conviction, made for an enriching experience all around.

As different people shared I was struck by how difficult it is to separate cultural practices from religious belief. The various stories revealed how foundational beliefs combine with family history, country of origin, personality, conviction, and cultural influence. The result is a rich, though often complicated, approach and understanding to issues of utmost importance, such as life and death.

During the conversation and following the event, a question has lingered for me - one which I believe all religions need to address throughout their history and culture, whatever the time and place: How do we adjust to changing cultures while remaining true to unchanging religious convictions? Or as would be the case for most in my table group, how do we engage a secular N.A. culture without losing our particular religious identity?

To take an example from the event I attended, many religions practice a very engaged process for family and friends following someone’s death. The body is washed and prepared by family. Periods of mourning place people in close and intimate community for long durations of time in order to properly process their loss. There is no distance from the reality of death - it’s confronted and integrated into the mourning rituals. These types of practices reflect a cultural-religious blend that is often counter to current trends in N.A. culture around the process of death. How or even will these practices adapt in a culture that increasingly distances itself from the physical reality of death? Funerals are replaced with memorial services. Cremation replaces burial. We have professionals to deal with awkward, practical, and no doubt emotionally difficult aspects of saying goodbye to our loved ones. Will certain religions continue to boldly confront death when all around them the culture is denying it? And if change is accepted, how are foundational beliefs maintained? Such shifts are a reality that every religion cannot ignore.

I pose this question of adapting religion for reflection. And I don’t think there are easy answers. Extremes of rigid traditionalism or complete cultural acceptance will likely fail to sustain religious vitality in an ever-changing culture. One thing's for certain, however, religion and culture will continue to mingle in the complex, yet often beautiful, reality that life and meaning, rituals and practices, connect with the lives we live. Our religious foundations will no doubt remain strong, but our experience of such truths will always need adaptation. Such is changing culture and adapting religion.


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