It would be a mistake to conclude that a drop in church attendance means that interest in spiritual matters is diminishing.Despite the public's lack of fidelity to various nature and social models embraced by religion, it still holds a very special place in a great many hearts. Why is this?
When it comes to knowing the self and mapping its transformations, nothing holds a candle to religious models. The only competitors in the Western canon are to be found in literary classics such as those by Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, and Dostoevsky, whose works serve as handmaidens to the world's holy books.
Examples of religious insight into the nature of the self and of the creative model-building process can be found in all the religious traditions. I'll cite just two here, drawn from Christianity and Hinduism, respectively--the doctrines of "resurrection" and "reincarnation." As applied to the physical body, these tenets are arguable. Nonbelievers reject them outright and even some believers take them metaphorically, not literally. But as applied to the model-building process, they are profound and powerful.
Models must "die to be reborn," none more dramatically than our self models. We who live by them, identify with them, and sometimes cannot separate our persona from a particular, familiar one, may well experience the disintegration of a self model as a kind of death. The struggle to come to terms with the loss of a partner or child, or with a sudden change in our status or health, can feel like what St. John of the Cross described as a "dark night of the soul."
From the model-building perspective, resurrection and reincarnation are evocative descriptions of the metamorphoses of identity that most of us experience over the course of a lifetime. Yes, the process occurs within one's lifetime rather than connecting one life span to another. But where can we find more luminous and consoling guidance for making life's most hazardous journeys than in the Bible, Talmud, Koran, Upanishads, and Sutras? That the core teachings in these books provide the most accurate guide to inner transformation is the reason they are deemed holy.
During those perilous passages wherein one self dissolves and another crystallizes in its place, we are at maximum vulnerability, like a crab molting its shell. When an old self begins to disappear, our defenses are down, and our dignity at high risk. At times the community we normally depend on to shore up our self-respect, even the fellowship of friends and family, can fail us, and we may find ourselves utterly alone.
When others deny our dignity, religion upholds it. For many, the idea of a personal god assures them that even in the darkest of times, when they may feel bereft of human support, they are valued, respected, and loved. This accounts for the relatively greater commitment to religion among peoples whose survival is precarious as well as for the common phenomenon of conversion during a life crisis.
Granted, individual priests, rabbis, roshis, and mullahs have sometimes failed to respect the dignity of those to whom they minister, adherents to other faiths, or of nonbelievers. But in their essential teachings, every religion testifies to the inviolable, sacred dignity of humankind, at all times and under all circumstances.
Religion is the tool of tools when it comes to becoming a new somebody. It combines art, literature, and theater in the context of communal fellowship to effectively transmit truths about the self and its transformation that are vital to maintaining our balance and creativity. No other body of knowledge offers more relevant and resonant teachings on what is one of humanity's most precious faculties--the intimate, intricate process of building models of ourselves. For this reason, the role of religion in a dignitarian culture is secure.
The Eye of God
Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and soon found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I spy on the cosmos.
On cold winter nights I sometimes imagine that I've drifted out the aperture and am floating in the near-absolute zero temperatures of empty space. In that subarctic infinitude, the earth is an igloo and we are all Eskimos. If other beings exist, we seem beyond their reach and they beyond ours. In any case, my thoughts go not to aliens but to the stars and the lifeless emptiness holding them.
Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, "Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anyone out there care?" My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. The universe seems uncaring, the cosmic indifference of infinite space a blow to my dignity.
But then the old saying that "God helps those who help themselves" pops into my head. And President Kennedy's variant thereof: "Here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does indeed have a heart--in fact, it has lots of them. They are beating in our breasts.
Any inventory of the cosmos that omits human beings is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument of self-understanding and empathy. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If we believe the universe is heartless, it's because we do not love.
But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There's a crucial difference between that time and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for Homo sapiens. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated model-building skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes--those of our own making as well as hurtling asteroids with our names on them.