The press of news, continuing transitions in my own life, a recent conversation with a good friend, a fascinating article in the Times and reflections on a career that has spanned almost half a century all converged this week and led me to consider again the essential role that faith plays in the human condition.
First, the news: commentator Joe Scarborough often calls President Trump a “day-trader,” transactional by nature and ill-inclined to either look back at history or ahead to the long-term implications of his comments and actions. As a result, we are inundated with a deluge of headlines, often designed to deflect from more important issues. We’re left exhausted and overwhelmed, swamped by daily distractions. As a result, we fail to take a breath, view events from 30,000 feet and infuse our decision-making with the things that are important and enduring. It is through this big-picture lens that our religious traditions offer guidance—a perspective we too often overlook.
In Stephen Asma’s insightful article in the New York Times, “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t),” I was reminded of the counter-balancing role to our frenetic pace that faith systems play and why I chose the church as a vocational vehicle for advancing social justice and human dignity in the world. (Some would argue that I did not choose, that God chose me—but that is a topic for another posting!)
Asma does not deny that religion has its dark side (and I have certainly spent countless hours combatting religion’s excesses and hypocrisies). However, he adds, “religion is energizing as often as it is anesthetizing. As often as it numbs or sedates, religion also riles up and invigorates the believer. This animating quality of religion can make it more hazardous to the state than it is tranquilizing, and it also inspires a lot of altruistic philanthropy.
“Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, ‘But is it true?’ are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear.”
One significant center of power and sensitivity in most major religions lies in the sweet and sustaining power of community. In an age when everything from social media to vitriolic rhetoric against society’s most vulnerable render us increasingly isolated, communities of faith are a saving grace for individuals and families, enabling us to move forward, even after intense trauma or loss. Asma again: “Religious rituals, for example, surround the bereaved person with our most important resource — other people.”
And while I am unabashedly Christian in my faith and practice, this phenomenon is not unique to Christianity. Countless conversations with Muslim brothers and sisters over the years have affirmed the power of the ummah, the role of the community, to enhance the cause of justice and mercy in the world. As the Quran challenges: “You (Muslims) are the best nation brought out for humankind, commanding what is righteous and forbidding what is wrong.” [3:110]
I met this week at a sidewalk café in New York City with my good friend Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem Campus. Rabbi Kelman lamented the disappearance of civility in our social discourse, both in this country and in Israel. Together, we spoke about the role of religion in these divisive times and how important it is for religious professionals to claim their authority and hold our elected officials to a moral compass focused on the North Star of truth, justice and compassion.
We may live in an age of science and technology, but at the end of the day, it is our religious values that will sustain us, assure our quality of life and determine how we treat one another. It may be out of fashion to say it, but it will be our religious virtues that see us through these perilous times and lead us to a more grace-filled tomorrow.