Squandering Influence

One challenge religious leaders face is
convincing ordinary people they understand the day-to-day struggles that many

If the Roman Catholic Church does not reconnect with its heartland, such as Brazil and other Latin American countries, it risks losing moral authority and social influence, according to Nicholas Kristof in his column this morning.

I’m going to intentionally mix apples and oranges here–or Protestants and Catholics. The challenge facing religious leaders today is to demonstrate to skeptical grassroots people that they not only understand the day-to-day issues that ordinary folks are confronted with, but that they also have a spiritual (faith) system that helps them to find meaning as they face these issues.

That isn’t just a challenge to the Pope. It’s also the challenge that every other religious leader faces, from the bishop of Rome to the pastor in the local church. And if they don’t address these issues, or address them in such a way that people feel they understand their struggles, they will be ignored and ultimately marginalized, as a Brazilian priest told Kristof.

If they ignore the best scientific and educational information (as in use of contraceptives for birth control), they risk loss of influence because people will exercise this option regardless.

Here comes the apples and oranges mix. Ultimately, this is the risk that the hard core right-wing evangelicals are taking on right now. Their super-heated rhetoric will run head-on into realities far more complex than they have demonstrated capacity to understand. It won’t be enough to demonize the liberal left relativists forever on issues such as end-of-life decisions, abortion, evolution and homosexuality, among others. They will have to show that they live in the same world, with its ambiguities and moral complexities that the rest of us live in. And they will have to demonstrate a capacity to function in a world of information and knowledge that is not a throwback to the 19th Century.

The rest of the world will move forward, and they will be marginalized. The new physics and genetic research are moving us forward at a rapid pace. Astronomers are finding new planets daily. The brain is being mapped in new ways for the first time. Both our interior space and outer space are being explored and put into new constructs that we have never before known. Think string theory, for example.

When the technology of the printing press made it possible for ordinary people to understand themselves differently–as thinking individuals instead of an uncritical mass that merely reacted to those in power–and when they took control of the information they were learning through the new skill of reading, they created a revolution in thought known as the Reformation.

A revolution is percolating today as a result of new knowledge and new technologies. It can’t be forestalled by intransigent religious figures who wish to hold on to the past without incorporating the best of the new into the best of the traditional. Kristof is onto something rather profound, I think.

If we look at the long sweep of history, the Christian faith has renewed itself maintaining both the progressive values that are at its core, while also adapting to profoundly different social contexts.

People who are searching for a faith perspective by which to live are looking for help to make it through the day, or night. We live in a world that is unique to our time and place, and with technologies that none of our human ancestors have known. That’s a different world.

It requires a faith that can help us to find the meaning and purpose of Creation in this confusing welter of newness that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. A bit of humility and openness to that challenge would go a long way for those of us on this journey. A closed system that hearkens to the past but cannot help us live into the future is a dead-end.

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