Religion In Our Time: Adaptation or Extinction.

Through this text I wish to engage you in a discussion regarding the relationship between ourselves and the religious experience- not necessarily religious belief in the orthodox theist sense, but rather the wilful adoption of moral principles on an individual basis, without any physical coercion or external input, fostered internally just as those prescribed by religion are held, regardless of society’s attitudes as they currently stand or the permissions granted to us by the state. The core idea at the heart of this investigation is to understand how we can distance ourselves from any instilled or unquestioned ethics, something that is oddly commonplace in a world so obsessed with the individual’s tangible experience- what material wealth they possess or how much attention they garner-  yet with such little care given towards individual psychological experiences, and how the gradual removal of individual agency from morality through socialised norms, expectations and enforced laws has created a culture of people unwilling to question those norms and therefore unable to understand the significance there is in obedience or disobedience to them. There is a climate of lethargy in ethical thought, morality is thought of as being formed around the laws and principles of society at large, which none can function outside of, however much they may disagree. To provide an antithesis to this we will examine the ideas of C.G. Jung and Soren Kierkegaard on the topic, examining their utility in giving us a new perception on faith and religious devotion in a way that both strips away the long-defunct role of religion in enforcing moral uniformity whilst breathing into it new life, giving us an opportunity to use the process of religion as a defence against the thoughtless, materialistic individualism that is prevalent throughout the west and as a tool to deconstruct and analyse the normative prescriptions that are impressed on us.

 

Our generation has been raised with religion generally being consigned to the cultural dustbin along with other artefacts of the past, condemned to be held as something to be looked at with general disinterest, apathy or even hostility from some circles. This is the logical end of the work that began with the reformation, a process that has produced a multiplicity of benefits whilst distancing us further and further from those elements of religion that can be utilised to benefit both the individual and society. The detachment of spiritual credence from the temporal realm that the papacy once dominated, that of a moral arbiter at the spiritual centre of a tumultuous world where violence and starvation were commonplace and a part of daily life, was the beginning of the erosion of religious objectivity. The papacy provided both a directional force to the polities of Europe, which can be seen particularly in the practice of crusading, the abandonment of interpersonal conflicts between monarchs and their underlings to pursue a higher objective which was both spiritually justified and mobilised through the political influence of the papacy. This relationship between religious bodies and political entities, though it rarely showed itself as directly and with mutual gain as its defining element as it did under Urban II or Gregory VIII, was fractious and inconsistent, with only one tenet perpetually at its core, that of tacit co-operation in maintaining an atmosphere of oppression and moral objectivity within the social environ of its subjects, as well as the justification of political power as an extension of the papacy, and the justification of the papacy being to keep polities in check and stop one single body from having dominion over all of Europe, something the Holy Roman Empire was keen to do under Frederick II and Henry IV in particular. This paradigm persisted for almost a millennium.

 Our generation has been raised with religion generally being consigned to the cultural dustbin along with other artefacts of the past

This relationship between states and the Church was for many the prime reason for the wave of religious disobedience in the 16th century. The temporal authority on religious matters had descended into horrendous corruption and greed by the day of Martin Luther, with the sale of indulgences- a trade of wealth for the exemption of sins- being only one of a multitude of examples of practices that brought the reverence for the established Church to a new low and led to a desire to reform on the part of the intellectuals of the time. This was the beginning of what we see now, the beginning of the erosion of spiritual objectivity. This was by no means a negative development- it initially fostered in people the idea that faith was something to be understood and given reverence on an individual basis, without the need of some higher institution to dictate what interpretation of the scripture is correct or what practices must be adhered to. This was one of the great intellectual developments of the millennium (John Wyndham and others had advocated for the vernacular Bible and pushed for reform in Church practices without developing the deep intellectual framework for Protestantism that Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin would later provide) and the germ that grew into enlightenment thought over the course of a century. As Protestantism grew in popularity, so did the concept of the sovereign monarch without the intercession of the Papacy. Of course, the monarch always held sovereignty, but the acts of Henry VIII proceeding 1529 gave a basis for a monarch sovereign in and of himself, at the head of a national, state-owned Church. This is where issues begin to arise. This was not Protestantism in the sense that it transferred a large degree of spiritual authority to the individual, but rather it transferred it to the state.

 

What began as the quest of one man to defy the Church for his own benefit led to this synthesis of spiritual and temporal rule. The monarch, by virtue of his political power, has dominion over the Church whilst his position as the spiritual head of the Church justified his holding of political power thus abolishing the division of powers between separate ecclesiastical and political bodies. Over the centuries, this idea has slowly devolved as religious attitudes shifted and the position of monarchies as legitimate forms of government slowly waned throughout the enlightenment and into the 19th century, we arrive at an undesirable state of affairs. The state still possesses the role as a moral arbiter, it still prescribes ways of living and decides what behaviours are permissible and what are not. Yet it doesn’t care for holding spiritual power. It is fine allowing people to follow whatever faith they wish, so long as they still obey its edicts. This cemented the state as an entity that has the supreme authority over the most necessary and important part of religion in practical and social terms, morality. The state relies on the ability to exert physical force in the temporal realm and the ability to condition individuals through ownership of the education system to ensure that it maintains power and is never challenged. Most religious institutions cannot now boast of having the same means as the state, and as people’s connection to the idea of the metaphysical (traditionally used to offer rewards in exchange for obedience through the concepts of paradise and damnation) having worth or being real in any sense diminishes, they no longer have any real ability to exercise coercion.

 

Why is this undesirable? In the first instance, the loss of temporal power on the part of religious bodies is necessary in the sense that it has removed religion from the shackles of human beings, in that most religious literature is readily available for individual consumption and interpretation, ending the ability of any one body to legitimately claim to have an objective conception of spiritual life or have an unassailable theology that subjugates the individual rather than enriching him. However, what makes it undesirable is the transfer of legitimate moral authority to the state. This process has now reached its zenith, with the vast majority in the west having only a weak connection to any sort of spiritual existence, most having abandoned it as assaults from every intellectual discipline assailed it, particularly from the physical sciences, whilst culture and economy quickly propelled the world into the arena of capitalism, where materialism rules and individual morality sinks under a wave of uninhibited, directionless self-interest. The death of the Church was a positive development, one that should have brought about a new era of religious consciousness and spiritual exploration. Instead, due in no small part to the moral engineering of the state, we have reached a point where most people have no impetus to form for themselves boundaries, to utilise the power of religious ideals to form their own morality. I don’t speak of any specific practices or any particular set of values, but rather the idea that morality ought to be detached from obedience to a higher temporal body, allowing one to build their own thought, their own ideas detached from the world in which they inhabit, allowing them to reap the plethora of benefits that accompany self-actualisation and self-awareness.

 

Though the idea of the self is a recent development, and religion (though functioning as a primitive psychological outlet in practical terms through rituals such as confession and by providing a community around believers) did hamper the development of psychological awareness and analysis, there is much that religious awareness can contribute to the health and vitality of one’s self. The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung wrote at length of the need for religious expression, the role of symbolic and mythologic elements in religion of bringing one into closer contact with the collective consciousness, to understand the social and cultural environment they have to live within and to have a greater affinity with their own cultural historicity. This is something we have neglected to take to heart. Jung wasn’t particularly enamoured with engaging with teleological or descriptive accounts of God, something that I have refrained from touching upon due to the theological tensions and philosophical implications that would be redundant to discuss at any length in this context. God isn’t necessary in religion so much as religion is necessary to justify and argue for the existence of a God. As such, it is of little consequence whether God actually exists, or even if any one conception of Him or religious doctrine is true. Jung himself argues that God is a concept born from projections of human psychological tendencies into the metaphysical realm where they took on a life of their own, changing as people’s attitudes and psychological awareness gradually developed over the course of history. In his view, God is not a deity that one must prostrate before, but instead a state of being, a parallel to our own psychology, something that should act as a locomotive accelerating one into a state of wholeness and transcendence through continual analysis and the cultivation of spiritual awareness.

there is much that religious awareness can contribute to the health and vitality of one’s self.  

The brilliant though tragic Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard also contributes through his idea of faith as integral to human development and the vital role it plays in living a fulfilling existence. He looked at religious devotion as a constant renewal of commitment, the perpetual exertion of will being necessary for one to have a meaningful individual relationship with God. Of course, his ideas were in a large part influenced by a strictly protestant upbringing under the auspices of an equally strict pastor in the person of his father. Despite this, he identifies the most important element of religious devotion, that being the will of the individual in its role of providing perpetual consent for the moral framework in which religion places them within. There is no need for a Church to enforce uniformity, no need for a state to exercise its coercion, it is simply a choice on the part of the individual, making them the principal actor and the religion only a subject of their will. This is what religion ought to be, not given to the people in a consumerist sense where a mass of individuals shape something democratically (as we can see in the continual influence on the Church of England from the tastes of society at large), but an interior, deeply psychological relationship with one’s moral values that forces them to engage their will in a routine refreshing of consent, something that is an alien practice in the 21st century. When applied in tandem with the Jungian conception of God as a state of being, as a goal of completeness we all unconsciously strive towards, we reach an idea of religion as not another chain on autonomy, but as an integral part of it. In our world of mindless consumption and petty selfishness, where people are blinded to anything that can’t be sold to them or entertain them, maybe what we need is a renewal of our bonds with spirituality, to abandon the decrepit and useless vestiges of established religions that still remain whilst finding for ourselves our own morality.

 

Through our own will and a constant process of self-reflection and psychological self-awareness we could find again what makes us human beings, our independence from the decrees of some other individual from some other time, freedom from bondage to another’s ethics, the ability to forge one’s life by themselves and for themselves. An awakening of this depth and magnitude would force people to once again, after centuries of instruction, destroy and then recreate in their own image the integral part of any social order, any political authority, that being their laws and norms. None of us chose to be born in a world consumed by so many structures that suffocate and indenture what little life we have been given, but we are free in our role as moral agents to escape the state and again take possession of ourselves and our lives, something that a new understanding of religion could provide both as a conceptual antithesis and a motivating force against the state’s cruel hegemony and the prevalence of homogenised mass culture that are slowly withering our autonomy and philosophical independence.

This article was written by Alife Pickering