What might the next century hold for religion?

Although the 20th century has been a challenging one for religion--one in which its irrelevance or obsolescence has repeatedly been declared--the past ten or fifteen years have demonstrated in very concrete ways the strength of the religious impulse. Booming book sales in religion have spoken of a continuing spiritual hunger.

As we enter the 21st century, will organized religion survive, perhaps even become more vital than ever? What will be the key issues facing religion professionals in the next five to 10 years? What will be the role of religion publishers in addressing contemporary challenges and opportunities? These are some of the questions we posed to our panel of distinguished experts.


Seeking More Community

The wide-ranging "seeker spirituality" that has dominated the religious landscape in the decades leading up to the year 2000 will find some moorings and anchor itself during the first years of the new millennium, predicts Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of close to 60 books on American religion. Marty believes that all of those people who say they're spiritual but not religious, who encounter the Divine while meditating or at weekend retreats and who find their "bibles" in the spirituality section at Barnes & Noble are going to start seeking community. "As they mature, they'll find that not all wisdom is born within," says Marty, who is also a Lutheran minister.

This turn away from hyper-individualism and toward community already is happening. "Free-flowing individualists" like Marianne Williamson and Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch still appeal to many seekers, but they are being overshadowed by writers such as Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, who are connected -- if only loosely -- to a faith tradition. "These are people who 'give the church a chance,' although in nontraditional ways," notes Marty. Joining the spiritual writing by these more "moored" writers will be many serious trade books reflecting the widening conversation between science and religion in areas such as cosmology, evolution and the brain, according to Marty.

He also envisions a spiritual "desert" or "wilderness" created by the triumph of the market and economic globalization. "The market has simply won," he says. "But it isn't feeding the soul." To respond to the spiritual devastation created by the omnipresence of market values and thinking, Marty urges deeper philosophical and theological reflection. He hopes authors will address such issues as stewardship, mission and the gap between the rich and poor. "But it will be fatal if it's done in a preachy style. It has to be done by people who've been through it." --Heidi Schlumpf


New Lines, Labels, Literacy

As Phyllis Tickle sees it, developments in American religion offer significant opportunities for religion book publishers. Tickle naturally thinks that way, having been the religion editor for PW from 1991 to 1996. The author most recently of God-Talk in America (Crossroad, 1997) and a contributing editor for PW since 1996, she has just completed work on The Divine Hours, a series of prayer manuals for Christian fixed-hour prayer. The first of three volumes, Prayers for Summertime, will be published by Doubleday in March 2000.

A prolific writer and popular speaker on religion and religion publishing, Tickle predicts that American Protestantism in particular is in for a new look and some new labeling. The old denominational hierarchies are crumbling, she says, and the dividing lines between the various communions within Protestantism are blurring. What will take their place, she believes, is new groupings of believers, like liturgical Baptists or charismatic Episcopalians, who will realign themselves along lines of practice rather than theology. Organizational hierarchies will be replaced by networks of communication, many of them Internet-based and all of them offering a greater role for local congregations.

Such a tectonic shift in American Protestantism opens the door for publishers to offer books and materials about and for the new players in a changed religious landscape. "We are indeed in postdenominationalism, by whatever name you want to call it," says Tickle. " -- Marcia Z. Nelson


The Danger of 'Idolatry''

Like the biblical prophets he has written about, Cornel West is ready to castigate America for its idolatry. The professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Harvard sees Americans enmeshed in a market culture that prefers maximum profit and minimum charity over social transformation and equal justice. So the danger American religion faces is dilution by the values of the marketplace and degradation into the worship of mammon. "Pecuniary success becomes the center of religious practices," says West, who is equally fluent in the languages of the pulpit and lecture hall. "You might have a little charity on the side, but you basically you have a religion of idolatry."

In West's view, contemporary religion could use a few prophetic blasts of fire and ire against the sin of hypocrisy. "It's not just a matter of feeding the homeless, it's also a matter of being part of a movement to eliminate homelessness," says the prolific author of 16 books, reiterating a characteristic theme of cultural and social engagement. The recently published Cornel West Reader (Perseus, Sept. 1999) sounds the latest note in his 20-year call for social change that would enlarge participatory democracy and honor the best within cultural traditions, including religions and the role they play in articulating values. "Values have always been the black hole of capitalism," says West, who occupies the endowed Alphonse Fletcher Jr. professorship at Harvard. "Religions are stuck with nonmarket values, but it's a wonderful thing."

West also suggests that the ongoing conversation about developments in American religion and culture will be enriched by participation from Muslims in this country. "The anti-Islamic, anti-Arab sensibility is still too strong in America, but I think their struggles against it will produce some insights about American society, across racial lines," says West. Asked whether religion books to come will represent that institution's transcendent best or its intolerant worst, West tells PW he fears what he calls "spiritual malnutrition" stemming from an unmet hunger for the divine. "We'll get a lot of religiosity," West answers. "Whether we'll get prophetic religion is another question." -- Marcia Z. Nelson


Expecting a Correction

Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University and author of 10 books (including The Shema, JPS, and The Religious Thought of Hasidism, KTAV/Yeshiva Univ. Press), says that American religion is currently in transition. "We are moving toward a more spiritual conception of religion, one that is highly subjective and involves more emotion than reason," says Lamm. This tendency will continue in the next five to 10 years, he predicts, and with it comes a turn to what Lamm calls "pseudo-mysticism, which is looked upon as a state of mind but fails to appreciate the objective elements of Kabbalah."

Lamm thinks this phase will then begin to spend itself: "Like everything else in life, religion, too, is subject to the laws of the pendulum," he observes. "Over-emphasis on spirituality will make religion appear totally subjective, without any anchor in reality." That will eventually give way to a more balanced view that lends equal credence both to spirituality and a more structured religious life based on conduct and behavior in the ritual, ethical, moral and social realms, he asserts.

In Judaism, too, Lamm detects a confrontation between a strong focus on halakah -- the highly structured laws of the Torah -- and the growing stress on spirituality with its subjectivity, individualism and emphasis on emotion over reason. At the end of the next decade, he foresees that spirituality and Jewish law will reach a dynamic equilibrium.-- Rahel Musleah


Satisfying Spiritual Hunger

"I think people are going to get tired of their diet of fast-food spirituality and want to get back to good, nutritious meals," says Joel Fotinos, director of religious publishing for Penguin Putnam. The general, "New Agey" spirituality books that have fueled the growth in the religion category will be replaced with titles by authors who connect with a specific "wisdom tradition," says Fotinos.

For churches, synagogues and other religious institutions, that means "pick-and-choose" practitioners who had previously eschewed institutional connections will be coming home. "You know the saying, 'It's better to dig one deep well than 12 shallow ones.' People are going to go back to digging one deep well," predicts Fotinos. After years of individualistic sampling of spiritual truths, people are recognizing that they don't always know what's best for themselves, he says. "It's interesting that all religious traditions, each in their own way, teach the paradoxical concept that true freedom comes from complete obedience," he notes. "That's not what the 'lite' spirituality books are telling people."

But Americans' return to their religious roots will not simply mean reverting to old beliefs and practices. "Every generation needs to take the traditional teachings and reinvent them for their time," says Fotinos. "What that does is make religion or spirituality and religious publishing constantly growing and ever-changing, yet rooted in principles that don't change," he says. "It makes everything new all over again." -- Heidi Schlumpf


Religious Ideas Go Global

As she surveys the spiritual landscape and looks toward the near future, Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University and the author of 14 books (Muslims on the Americanization Path?, Oxford Univ. Press, Jan. 2000), singles out the role of immigration in shaping American religion. "We are a different country now than we were in the '70s as a result of the new Asian and Hispanic immigration," Haddad notes. "Immigrants especially are shaping their identities through religion, America reshapes these religions and America itself is being reshaped by that reshaping."

In the U.S., for example, the role of imam in a mosque is often assumed by a layperson, whereas overseas, the imam is appointed either by the government or by a religious organization. "The mosque in America is a replica of a church or synagogue, with social and educational activities. Overseas, it's not community based. People pray and go home," Haddad says. "This American interpretation is exported when transnational Muslims return home. Ideas are not place bound anymore." The question of how ideas generated in America by new immigrant groups are being transplanted overseas is a major one, according to Haddad. "Globalization is a big issue."

While the Muslim community estimates about five million followers in the U.S. today, not enough attention has been paid to the large Hindu and Buddhist populations, Haddad says. In the next century, she predicts, "we will become more aware of the diversity of American religion and the major changes in the demography of religious America." As another example, she points out that Presbyterian churches are not stereotypically white Protestant anymore. In California, they are predominantly Korean. In the Hispanic community, sociologists have found that 50% of immigrants become Pentecostal Protestants, she adds.- Rahel Musleah

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad