“Mind the Gap”: Uncertainty and Questioning as a Form of Religious Travel

Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden
May 2016
I left religion, and any concern about religion, in the course of being socialized as a teenaged Catholic, confirmed sacramentally, and now practically free to do so at age 14. Many of us in the congregation have a story of how our lives of religious practice and non-practice, finds us here, in a church again, with varying degrees of certainty, claiming a religious faith. I continue to ask myself how and why?

     I recently did some reading of and about the “Frankfurt School” of intellectuals and artists who emerged in Europe between the World Wars and in America during the Cold War aftermath.  Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin,  Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm were early pioneers. Hannah Arendt earned her place among these men later and Jurgen Habermas still walks among us.

     They struggled to make sense of most destructive and deadly war ever experienced on Hegel’s “slaughter bench of history.” Frankfurt scholars probed into the depths, the kernel, of the question:  how did our embrace of unqualified modern world positives— science and rationality, mass industry and mass democracy, produce such irrational and inhuman conditions of life for so many people?  Answers from them, and by us, remain elusive but a style of questioning is evident. “Critical theory” is a broad term that has come to be associated with inquiries of this sort.  How can we usefully pay attention to the difference between what a society claims to be and how the society actually is?  In this antagonism—this gap—between who we say we are and how we are lies pain and suffering. In the gap, the contradiction, also exists the possibility and potential for change.

     Kant and Hegel as much as Marx and Freud helped guide this new brand of critical  social theory. Greek poets and philosophers, Jewish mysticism, the creation myths of surviving “primitives”, and the dream notes scribbled down by analysts in Vienna also shaped their often obtuse, always difficult conclusions.  And so did, for these mostly Jewish writers, the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John! 

     The “critical theory” of religion is interested in how the various world religions seek, above all and in differing ways, happiness and redemption. Our human potential to bring about justice, equality, truth, and peace— our secular values as citizens are the heirs of Judaism’s ethic of justice and Christianity’s ethic of love.  Habermas puts it plainly: “Can religious myths, language, concepts, and symbols be translated through the social process and contribute as a partner for a reconciled and rational future society?”

     There is urgency—there is a gap. Are business and finance elites, whose control of natural resources and of governments increases inequality and spoils our planet, the best representatives of the secular, the “not religious”? Is the reactionary and retaliatory religious fundamentalism, increasingly attractive as a safe space for the growing millions of marginalized and dispossessed, the best representative of what is “religious?”  Alternatives are difficult to envision- what fills this gap?  Practice loving community, advance justice, nurture spiritual growth, our new congregational mission statement offers a starting line.

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