An Op/Ed piece in the news last week suggested that organized religion in the United States should step forward to preserve American politics from self-destruction. (Richard Just, “How Religion can help put our broken system back together,” Washington Post: Nov. 2, 2020). The author observed that organized religion exists in order to inspire a sense of awe in its adherents. He opined that a renewed sense of awe and reverence would return civility and tolerance to the public conversation about politics in this country.
The author acknowledged the widely observed fact that participation in organized religion has been in decline for quite some time. Furthermore, he suggested that the decline in religious practice would probably accelerate in the near future. He went on to say that the influence religion exerts on culture does not necessarily have to continue its decline.
I agree with the author that religious practice can have both a moderating and an uplifting effect on participants. I agree, as well, that religion in its current state offers little benefit to society. Organized religion has the capacity to promote a sense of well-being and a sense of awe; unfortunately, organized religion has mostly abandoned its essential mission to do so. Theoretically, religion can preserve both people and politics from self-destruction. In order to do so, however, religion would have to remove the plank from its own eye first to see clearly to remove the splinter from the eye of politics.
The author of the Op/Ed piece suggested a possibility for the reform of organized religion. His suggestion is very similar to the message of today’s Gospel reading.
The parable in today’s Gospel reading presupposes a familiarity with ancient Israelite marriage ceremonies. Typically, marriage partners were betrothed to one another as infants. In adulthood, the groom would journey to the home of the bride’s family. The groom would then escort his bride to his family’s home for the wedding feast. The ten young women mentioned in the parable had a responsibility somewhat similar to the responsibility of a wedding planner today; they were expected to give the bride and groom a formal greeting, escort them into the feast, and promote a festive atmosphere.
In the parable, five of the young women were able to fulfill their responsibilities because they were prepared for an unanticipated delay in the groom’s arrival. The remaining five failed in their responsibilities. The five “wise” young women embraced a healthy degree of uncertainty about the groom and about their own abilities; the “foolish” young women assumed that little or no effort would be required on their part. Here, I think, we can see a diagnosis of how religion and politics have failed American society.
Both religion and politics in America have fallen into the trap of overconfidence. For centuries, organized religions have been fighting sectarian battles in which each religion claims superiority over the others. The result has been that religion is largely a matter of being right rather than a matter of being faithful to God and neighbor. Politics has been a little slower to fall into this trap, but we have seen this happening over the past few decades. Enmity between the two major parties in our country has increased to the point of civil conflict. If the trend continues, the social unrest will divide our country into two or more competing nations.
The author of the Op/Ed piece successfully identified a potential in religion that could made a decisive difference in the trend toward decreasing social cohesion. The author suggested that both religion and politics should learn to cherish doubt.
In Christianity, doubt has come to be identified with weakness and unworthiness. This judgment is ridiculous. Jesus’ preaching is entirely about the healthy nature of doubt. He consistently called his hearers to repentance; a person with no doubt is incapable of repentance. Doubt is indispensable to authentic faith because doubt is faith’s only opportunity to grow.
In the absence of doubt, there can be no faith. This is clearly evident in both religion and politics. The absence of doubt in organized religion has led to the on-going decline in church participation. The absence of doubt in politics has led to the on-going decline in decency, compromise, and social progress.
The “wise” young women took reasonable steps to prepare for the unexpected; they did so because they doubted their ability to be ready for the groom’s arrival. The foolish young women had no doubts at all; they were ready for anything, until they weren’t.
Faithful religion teaches one to trust in God unconditionally and to trust in oneself conditionally. Religion and politics have become the antitheses of shared identity and shared values because they have embraced the antithesis of faith: they trust unconditionally in themselves and only conditionally in God.