By Nathaniel Torrey
Recently the Dalai Lama turned the heads of believers and nonbelievers alike when he had this to say about the future of religion via a Facebook update:
All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
This is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from “not religious, but spiritual” people here in the United States. You’ve probably seen them driving about town in their hybrid cars covered with coexist bumper stickers, listening to New Age music, and reading Deepak Chopra. It does come as a bit of a shock that the Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most prominent spiritual leaders, would say that we must start thinking beyond religion, that religion is no longer fit to meet the task of emphasizing love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.
This makes clear the difference between the “religion” the Dalai Lama is talking about and how traditional Christianity views itself. They both see the list of virtues given by the Dalai Lama, love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness, as vital. However, where they depart is the end toward which those things are practiced and obtained. Christian loves his neighbor not because it is good for the world, but because it is what brings about his salvation. It is of course good in and of itself to be kind to ones neighbor; but it does not end there. The Christian also doesn’t do it for the sake of public order or for society; he does it out of love for God. The fact that public order is maintained by practicing Christian love is merely a side effect of working out ones salvation.
The other view of “religion” sees the world as the end for which those virtues are emphasized. Therefore, if these “spiritual” people see that Christianity is at odds with the world, which it often is because its ends are not of this world, they assume that religion is “no longer adequate.” What they see as the grounds for being moral has become “outdated.” Perhaps the Church was a great institution for the middle ages, but human beings have grown up and so must the means of founding morality. True religion is not about making people loving and compassion for a particular time and place in the world. It has never claimed to be merely one step on the evolution towards a better future. Christ didn’t say “I’m the Way, and the Truth, and the Life until something better comes along to meet the current needs of men.” True religion has always claimed it is the Way.
One possible etymology of the word religion is from re-ligare, Latin for “bind again.” As we face the challenges to religion on into the future, it is important to remember that it’s not something to be tossed aside as unfit for today’s challenges. It is by its very nature transcendent and binding.