Religious Recoding

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 10, Number 2, 1993, pages 207-215

Religious Recoding

Rev. Walter Debold

Seton Hall University

The symposium with Danish Lutheran minister Johannes Aagaard, professor of theology at Aarhus University, was a very effective catalyst for a daylong discussion about the future of religion. The wood-paneled conference room with its oval table and comfortable chairs lent itself to a wide-ranging and candid discussion in response to Aagaard, who lost no time in challenging the group. It is his conviction that all religion is being affected "even challenged" by the cultural shifts taking place in the modern world.

It is Aagaard's persuasion that a "recoding" is taking place in the contemporary person's thinking about the meaning of existence. He spoke of the development of a "new cosmology" in the sense of a comprehensive system of symbols through which the meaning of life receives structure and order. This worldview is evolving under pressure from "popular religiosity" and, he insists, quite apart from any influence on the part of the churches. The result is that more and more of our contemporaries are opting for a new code to decipher the meaning of existence and find purpose in their lives.

If these judgments are accepted it would seem to be in the interests of all the religious institutions to make an assessment of the present situation. That assessment could profitably be undertaken from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Approaching a new millennium, and against the backdrop of enormous political changes and continuing scientific and technological progress, we would seem to have sufficient motive to take stock.

The Situation

It is not difficult to find confirmation of Aagaard's contention that great change is underway in Western culture. Marilyn Ferguson in her 1980 book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, holds that we are experiencing "the change of change, the time in which we can intentionally align ourselves with nature for the rapid re-making of ourselves and our collapsing institutions." Scientist Stephen Hawking and Princeton sociologist Manfred Halpern appear to be not far apart in their assessment of our current cultural milieu: Hawking describes it as "bewildering." Halpern sees the change in our thinking to be so radical and revolutionary that it requires nothing less than a new consciousness.

In the decade of the sixties Thomas Kuhn disturbed the scientific community by his use of the term paradigm change. Many of his fellow scientists reacted. They feared that it would be impossible to carry on rational discourse with a person who saw reality through a different prism. How could any two researchers communicate about their vision if they used two completely different symbols to signify the one reality? Surely human communication is difficult enough without our further blurring meanings! We have already had warnings of the confusion that can be generated by those manipulators who employ Aesopian language to advance evil purposes.

The hornet's nest stirred up by Kuhn was matched in the eighties when Hans Küng and some respected theologians began to use the concept of paradigm change in the realm of religious studies. Küng very reasonably insisted upon our being aware of the movement of history and our place in it: We live after Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag. We cannot evade those terrifying facts. We cannot erase the memory, nor should we. We are now striving to counter some of the less noble contributions to life on this planet such as colonialism, racism, and genocide. Our positive achievements "even our reaching the moon and beyond" do not redeem our burden of guilt.

In the decade of the sixties we were reminded by the Second Vatican Council of the need for a wide-angled vision of our environment: "We must recognize, understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings and its often dramatic characteristics."2 At the same time the Council Fathers were able to provide a wise caution: "True there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems."3 With this warning it was not their intention to inhibit a forward thrust. That is apparent when one hears their words of encouragement to men of thought and science: "Continue your search without tiring and without despairing of the truth.... Happy are those who, while possessing the truth, search more earnestly for it in order to renew it, deepen it and transmit it to others.... May they seek the light of tomorrow with the light of today until they reach the fullness of light."4

The historicity of human knowledge and human faith is something that Karl Rahner faced up to when he proclaimed the need to attend to the present and to the future saying that the good news has to be announced "in such a way that it can be heard and received by the pagan worlds today." Pointedly, he urged us to make the Good News "real" today.5

Such an effort may very well require that we stir up our imaginations to give fresh expression to our confidence in the Creator and his divine plan. We ought not to be afraid of the statement, "We must re-imagine our faith!"6 We have a responsibility to hand on to future generations not a dead letter but a living tradition carried through time by people with a pulse. The words with which we offer our vision of existence ought to convey meaning relevant to these times. They ought not sound like an unconvincing echo of a message packaged for an earlier age. (What is being urged here, obviously, is no mere faddish adoption of the banalities of the age which simply trivialize religion and the spiritual life.)

Abraham Heschel once said that modern man has a hunger for the voice of God. In his paradoxical manner he would be just as likely to reverse the proposition and say that God has a hunger for the voice of man. In any event, we need the poetic spirit of men such as Heschel who could speak in a direct manner to the youth of today saying, "Life is fashioned by prayer.... Prayer is a crucible in which time is cast in the likeness of the eternal."7

That sort of spirituality, however, would not prove compatible with every cosmology. It represents a conviction that comes out of a Judeo-Christian confidence in a Creator who "in the beginning" set man and woman on a path aimed at some fulfillment in an "Endtime." The "in-between time" is not without meaning: It is intended for the experience of building the earth by work and a mutually supportive life in society.

What We Have in Common

We are the heirs of a tradition, the most recent of that great crowd that has stretched through western history confident that "our hearts are by nature addressed to the Lord."8 We are the most recent chapter of a story authored by a living Creator who happens to be at once a loving father and the ultimate judge of our fidelity. It can be said that we have a will to believe. It must also be confessed that God is the source of our vision and our values. If we have the freedom to love one another he is the inventor of that freedom and that love. If we possess a willingness to collaborate in the building of the earth, he is the initiator. In any promise we make, any contract, we are reminded that the God of the Covenant has taught us to be committed to Future. When we hope and dream it is because he is like that. We believe in a creator who "holds the whole world in his hands": He originated Time by inventing the "beginning." He sometimes inspires prophets to say such things as, "God is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance."9 He knows that from time to time we need a sage to say such things as, "Our profound human duty is not to interpret or to cast light on the rhythm of God's march, but to adjust, as much as we can, the rhythm of our small and fleeting life to his."10

A couple of years ago Life magazine proposed a question to fifty people in various fields. There were judges and lawyers, doctors and philosophers, entertainers and artists approached with the query, "Why are we here?" The answers were amazingly varied. Some said, "Only God knows." Others judged that "we are here to find God's will for us,"or "to make this world a better place," and so forth. One of the simplest and most interesting expressions came from the poet, Maya Angelou:

I'm looking out a large window now and I see about forty dogwood and maple and oak and locust trees and the light is on some of the leaves and it's so beautiful. Sometimes I'm overcome with gratitude at such sights and feel that each one of us has a responsibility for being alive: one responsibility to creation of which we are a part, another to the Creator--a debt we can repay by trying to extend our areas of comprehension.

Religion is, in essence, this gratitude, this reverence. Religion is response. It is not magic or superstition even if it often seems to be in danger of running downhill toward such temptations. Prayer expresses praise and thanksgiving and sometime it does both in the same breath as in the Hebrew berakah which has so influenced Christian spirituality. It praises the Holy One for the great works of the past and pleads, in effect, "Do it again!"

Jews and Christians find their faith expressed with exultation in the Book of Daniel where the three young men in the fiery furnace chant in unison a praise of creation:

May you be blessed Lord, God of our ancestors, be praised and extolled forever.... All things the Lord has made, bless the Lord ... sun and moon ... stars of heaven ... shower and dews ... cold and heat ... night and days ... seas and rivers ... birds of heaven ... Servants of the Lord ... give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love is everlasting.11

Similar sentiments were echoed many centuries later by Teilhard de Chardin in his Divine Milieu when he wrote, "By means of all created things without exception the divine assails us, penetrates us, molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible whereas, in fact, we live steeped in its burning layers."12

Where Do We Go from Here?

As this is being written there are countless statues of Lenin being torn down all across Europe. Men are now convinced that his ideas have failed. For years people have lined up waiting to enter his tomb on Red Square. Now they would like to be rid of it. The 70-year experiment has run its course. But we are seeing that it is easier to tear down a worldview than to construct a new one. We may wonder now if this upheaval is a hint of other shifts in the modern mind. We might ask ourselves, What is really going on? How widespread is this revolution? Does it all have any relation to religion? When Russians now prove ready to pray in the streets and refurbish their churches does that signify a cosmological change for them?

At the time of the Second Vatican Council Roman Catholics found an opening and a renewal brought about for them. That convention of the world's bishops showed great respect for the other world religions. They said specifically that it is our duty to "correspond more adequately to the special conditions of the world today."13 That clearly reflects the concept of change and development which brought them together for an aggiornamento.

Those Council fathers had faith that "Christ will progressively illumine the whole of human society with his saving light."14 The aspect of progressive illumination especially deserves our attention as well as the fact that it will be the whole of human society that is to be the beneficiary. (Teilhard de Chardin who died ten years before, and Cardinal Newman who died a century earlier, would have been happy to find their ideas of development gain this acceptance.)

One of the Council documents which itself experienced an arduous development was the one on Religious Freedom. When, after four years of study and debate, it finally won a vote of acceptance it made a clear defense of individual freedom: "No one is to be forced to act contrary to his beliefs."15

This sacred synod likewise professes its belief that it is upon the human conscience that these obligations fall and exert their binding force. The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth and it makes its entry into the mind at once quietly and with power.16

Only God knows at what point in history believers might achieve unity. But it is a reality for which the church and the synagogue wait in confident expectation when they hear the promise of Isaiah (66, 23), Zephaniah (3, 9), Psalm 65,4 and Romans 11.

But if there is a cosmological change underway right now and if Aagaard is right that it is essentially a confrontation between West and EastCthat is, the Judeo-Christian tradition and Hinduism/BuddhismC

(and I, for one, would suggest that it is wider and deeper than that), then the clash of visions is between those, on the one hand, who trust that they are a part of a creation that is "real" and those who perceive themselves to be part of a cosmos which is maya, illusion.

Such a confrontation would divide those who perceive life as linear, directed toward an omega point, and those who experience life as cyclical, fundamentally repetitive. It is a difference between those who would say, "It is given to each man once to die,"17 and those expecting to return in some form, for aeons upon aeons, by a transmigration of souls.

For anyone striving to appreciate the different cosmologies of East and West it is useful to reflect on the fact that the Eastern mentality conceives the universe as making a sound, the sacred syllable OM, the repetition of which by the devotee can bring about a harmony with the All. The Westerner, on the other hand, believes that in the beginning was the word, the instrument for dialogue. Reliance upon the word symbolizes the Western confidence in the One who listens and who waits for human response. That trust in the word reflects man's confidence in rationality and in the possibility of reasoning with another.

Perhaps it is that only we in the West are undergoing a change of mentality. Nevertheless, if one does accept the hypothesis that a recoding is taking place one might wonder why it is that there should be such an earth-shaking shift in our culture at this point in our history. Does it have any relation to other changes in politics, economics, technology, population? There are so many other areas of change in this century that one wonders about the possible connections. One wonders whether any one of these things--or all of them together--have pushed us unwittingly into a reassessment even of our relationship with God? Or is the answer simpler than all of that? Could it be that, in the face of all the wars and the violence of this century that the youth especially are disappointed in the churches which seem to be so ineffectual in motivating modern man toward love and compassion?

On another note, it is interesting to observe that the music of young people everywhere in the western world is very much the same and that invites the speculation about how deep the sameness goes. Are all of Western youth on the same plane religiously or politically? Do they live by a similar cosmology, one perhaps not yet defined?

In a survey imitating the one in Life, I asked relatively small groups of college students the same question, "Why are we here?" One group of about 75 (about three-quarters Catholic, at least nominally) offered responses that exactly paralleled the ones that the magazine had obtained from celebrities. They ranged from a simple, "I don't know," or "There is no meaning; life is absurd," through "Life is a gift, a joy to be celebrated, lived in expectation of greater fulfillment," to "The grace of God is in us as a sown seed; we must nurture and foster that seed until it reaches full bloom."

If one could summarize these admittedly limited surveys one would have to say that the most frequently expressed attitude is one of searching. This may be merely a reflection of their youth. Or it may hint at their vulnerability. Or it may say something about all of Western culture--and our vulnerability. It certainly says something about their acceptance of tradition. They are not willing to accept a message from the past uncritically. It cannot be a dead letter but to be credible it must appear to be part of a living tradition. This is all to the good. But neither should they offer an uncritical ear to the evangelist who approaches from another culture with a message that catches attention merely by being "different." In this half-century a good number of spurious prophets have reached our shores with hodge-podge religious notions that are an embarrassment to intelligent and devout people in Asia. It would seem that our education should be doing more to make our young people questioners.

And, for their turn to the Future, what better counsel can we provide them than the joyful, courageous words of James Joyce? "Welcome, O Life! I go for the millionth time to the reality of experience, there to forge in the smithy of my soul the conscience of my race."18


  1. Ferguson, M. (1980). The Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 29.

  2. Abbott, W. M. (1966) The Church in the Modern World: Documents of Vatican II, New York: America Press, 202.

  3. Ibid., 203.

  4. To Men of Thought and Science, Documents of Vatican II, 730.

  5. Congar, Y. (1984). Quoting Karl Rahner. Diversity and Communion. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 176.

  6. Lynch, W. (1973). Images of Faith. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 3.

  7. Heschel, A. (1982). Quest for God. New York: Crossroads Press, 13.

  8. Polyani, M., & Prosch, H. (1975). Quoting George Santayana. Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 180.

  9. Heschel. Quest for God, xiii.

  10. Kazantzakis, N. (1969). The Saviors of God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 100.

  11. The Jerusalem Bible. (1966). Daniel 3. New York: Doubleday, 51.

  12. de Chardin, T. (1960). The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Brothers, 89.

  13. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Documents of Vatican II, 63.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Declaration on Religious Freedom, Documents of Vatican II, 679.

  16. Ibid., 677.

  17. The Jerusalem Bible, The Letter of Paul to the Hebrews 9, 27.

  18. B. Joyce, J. (1974). The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking Press, 526.