Text: Luke 4:14-21
If you could start a new religion that would change the world for the better, what would it look like? That is the challenge question being asked by the 92nd Street Y in partnership with radio podcast and website On Being. And if you can come up with a compelling proposal, you could win $5,000. And $5,000 would really help our budget right now.
If that $5,000 cash prize got your attention let me share a bit more information with you. The 92nd Street Y (92Y) is a multifaceted cultural institution and community center located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City, at the corner of East 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue. Its full name is 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association. It is not part of the YMCA. Founded in 1874 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association by German-Jewish professional and businessmen, 92nd Street Y has grown into an organization guided by Jewish principles but serving people of all races and faiths. The diverse programs offered through the 92nd Street Y serves more than 300,000 people annually in New York City.
Asha Curran, Director of the Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y says that the whole point of this latest challenge of creating a new religion seeks to “empower people to think about solutions and explore how religion can act as a powerful force for good.” The “Challenge for a New Religion” she writes “invites people to imagine a religion or philosophy that cuts across boundaries, strengthens our sense of community and acts as a force of good.” Those who wish to participate in the challenge can design a new philosophy to live our lives, a framework for a new belief system—or a reimagining of an existing one.
This past Tuesday, I presented this challenge to the Pullen young adults. As you can imagine it made for some spirited, stimulating, provocative and evocative conversation. One of my favorite moments in the discussion, at least 45 minutes into the conversation, was when one of the young adults asked, does our new religion have a Godhead—a God who has agency? This young adult went on to talk about the struggle and theology of a God who has agency verses a God who does not. After listening to the conversation for a while, I asked a probing question – that I now can’t remember – to the young adult who asked about a God with agency. And while I can’t remember my question, I do remember the response. To my question, this young adult replied, “You’ve got to remember Nancy, I’m a growing atheist.” “I’m a growing atheist.” It might seem odd but that was a beautiful, profound moment for me. Why? Because I know how deeply committed this particular young adult is to the mission of Pullen Church. I know that this particular young adult cares deeply about peace and justice and living a moral life. And I know how thoughtful and deliberate and serious this particular young adult is when it comes to intellectual integrity and authenticity, especially in matters of faith. After all it was this young adult who raised the question of a God who has agency. So when I heard the words, “Remember Nancy, I’m a growing atheist.” I recognized a seeker, a searcher, a sojourner. In that exchange, I realized I was looking into the eyes on a young adult who is living the challenge every day of shaping a faith for himself that has integrity and meaning.
But here’s what I really wanted you to know about the conversation with the young adults. The first thing they said—and I mean the very first thing that came out of their mouths—was “let’s just write up who we are, and what we stand for at Pullen and send it in.” They couldn’t see the lump in my throat or the tears I fought back but in that moment I felt both pride and humility for being a part of such an amazing group of young adults and an amazing church. I was humbled knowing that we, the church, are fumbling to connect with this younger generation; and that sometimes we are not doing enough to connect with the younger generation; and that it can feel like they are constantly calling us, pushing us out of our comfort zones. And yet, they say to the challenge of creating a new religion that would make the world a better place, “let’s just write up who we are, and what we stand for at Pullen and send it in.” What we are doing here at Pullen church is making a difference in the world, and a new generation of seekers and searchers and sojourners recognizes it. And thank goodness they are here to remind us that we are a growing community with more to learn and more to experience and more to risk.
From the Tuesday young adult group to the Wednesday lectionary group to a few individual conversations, Pullenites have shared with me this past week their thoughts and ideas about what their new religion would look like—a religion that would make the world a better place. One person suggested that her new religion would be a calendar of events and rituals that would bring people together in community. And out of the community would come the framework of morals and values and beliefs. The exchanges have been stimulating, stirring and inspiring. And I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts.
I want to shift now and say why I think this question/challenge is an important one for the church of today and, for that matter, for our society. As one person has said of religion: “Religion explores some of the richest and most profound questions about what it means to be human, from morality to mortality and beyond.” It is religion, when at its best, that compels us look beyond ourselves, to care for our fellow human beings, while forming within ourselves a deep well from which to draw strength and courage. Religion today, while it has us literally killing one another, is also the one force in our society that can bring together Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Atheists and Agnostics and Hindus and people of all other religions to stand together in solidarity when humanity loses its way of compassion and respect and justice-love. Just as we have seen the destructive power of religion, we’ve also seen its healing power. We’ve been its healing power. We are its healing power.
I believe that this challenge is naming something that is already happening in our world. A new religion is taking shape. If you look at the religious landscape not only in America but globally there are several indicators of this new religion. Here’s how I would describe it: the new religion taking shape is a religion beyond beliefs, beyond boundaries and beyond buildings. I don’t mean that beliefs are no longer important. Or that boundaries are not necessary. Or that religious buildings are becoming extinct. What I do mean is that beliefs and artificial boundaries and buildings will no longer define a new world religion. I believe that what defines this new religion taking shape in our world is wherever LOVE embodied/en-fleshed is bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to our blinded eyes, and freeing the oppressed—those who are beaten down by cultural systems that favor the rich and powerful. The new religion that is making our world a better place cares for the poor—for those still working for $8.25 an hour, two and three jobs and still struggling to make the rent. The new religion that is making our world a better place is a new truth: the truth that more is not better, the new truth that there is enough for everyone if we take only what we need, the new truth that money doesn’t buy our happiness. This new truth is proclaiming release to the captives—you and me and others. This new religion is restoring sight to those of us blinded by greed and power and privilege. And we are beginning to see again that we are all members of the same body and when one of us suffers we all suffer. This new religion that I see taking shape in our world values the justice work of freeing the oppressed more than preaching prosperity to those who already have more than they need.
Never before in history has there been a time more important than this time in which we are living to take on the challenge of a new religion that makes the world a better place. What has been is past. And what is to come is yet to be. Now is the time for this challenge. Not just for internet gawkers but for the church. And I believe that the challenge for a new religion neither ignores nor abandons the wisdom and truth of ancient faiths that have explored the richest and most profound questions about what it means to be human. But rather a new religion that says to us, “Remember, you are a growing atheist, a growing Christian, a growing Muslim, a growing Jew, a growing Buddhist, a growing Hindu, a growing agnostic, a growing seeker, searcher, sojourner. A growing community that seeks to make the world a better place.”
This challenge is not new. Every generation defines for itself how it will interpret and live out its religious convictions. We are blessed to be the inheritors of a 2,000 year tradition that stands on the shoulders of another 1,500 years of our parent tradition. 3,500 years of continuous experience and relationship with God, formed again and again through the experiences and relationships of each generation. Now think, for a moment, about the age of the universe. 14 billion years is a working estimate. And human existence? A few million years. I wonder if this challenge can help us shift our thinking. Maybe we are not the tired faithful, fighting against a world that has lost its way. Maybe we are not quite ready to await judgment as the world winds down to a biblical conclusion. Maybe, just maybe, we are adolescents of faith. Or maybe, collectively, Christianity is closer to a toddler. What would be different about our approach to religion if we gave ourselves and our tradition permission to be beginners, and not experts? What would be different if we gave ourselves permission to remake our faith in community? What would be different if we shifted our own thinking beyond beliefs, beyond boundaries, beyond buildings? Whatever new religion is taking shape—whatever framework, or moral matrix, or mission statement we might affirm—there will always be the call to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim God’s blessings on all people.
Maybe it’s not a silly idea, after all, to write up who we are, and what we stand for at Pullen and send it to the 92nd Street Y.