The Modern Transformation of Religious Language

For many people, religious language is failing. New words are being used to refer to similar religious ideas.

Many people today no longer accept the language or ideas of conventional religion. They feel that it is too supernatural, superstitious, magical, pseudoscientific, and generally unbelievable. It’s not that they lack faith in something unseen, or unknowable, it is that they cannot authentically have faith in something they know with considerable confidence cannot be real or true.

What religion presents seems to simply not be consistent with the way the world works, as has been overwhelmingly demonstrated in the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and in biological evolution. And so we are beginning to see a great transformation in the way people are approaching religion and spirituality. It is a major paradigm shift which will rock the religious world this century, and may spill over into many other areas of life and society. And it’s happening fast.

One of the ways that we will transform religion I think will be in translating religious language into the language of science, psychology, mystical philosophy/theology, direct experience, feeling, and acting in relationship to one another and to nature. There will be less appeals to ancient mythologies, deities, supernatural stories, traditions, and divinized persons, and we will enter fully into our present moment. We won’t forget the past, but we will recast our understanding of it as it pertains to us today. Those religious ideas that had substance or truth in them will be reinterpreted or retranslated in radically new ways that are in harmony with our modern views of the world.

We may no longer feel any sense of admiration, awe, obedience, or relationship to the word “God,” which has been indoctrinated in Western religious culture as a great bearded “man in the sky” somewhere, an external Creator God. But we may feel that sense towards an Ultimate Reality, an Absolute, the Truth, the Cosmos/Nature/Universe, and the mystery of Consciousness in all of Life. This is a shift of language.

We may no longer believe that there is a “heaven” or “hell” in an “afterlife” for us after this body-mind dies. But we may have a sense of afterlife in our identification with Life itself that will continue after we are gone, in Consciousness, in humanity, in leaving a positive legacy in the world, in seeing ourselves live on in our children (both genetically and through our parenting) and in those many others we influence while we live. And insofar as we are selfish and greedy in the world, we produce for ourselves a kind of hell that we live in while we are still here, and for those around us and who survive us when we die.

We may not give any credence to the idea that our body will one day “resurrect” and come alive again. But we may have a sense of resurrection in the way we see Life emerge anew every spring, in every new baby, in every new situation, in every new challenge, in every new day when the sun rises. As we shed our ego and identity with the past, we may realize new identities throughout our lives, resurrecting new versions of ourself continually. Bodily death may be seen as the ultimate shedding, and a return to the purity of nature, the elements of our bodies to be recycled into ever new forms.

We may not think it rational to think that Jesus will ever return one day to Earth, floating down from the sky in a cloud, to rule and reign. But we may realize something like a “Second Coming” in the way we transcend our finite individual self conceptions of the psyche, and awaken to an identification with the deeper and universal current of Life that inhabits each of us, in the energy that flows through us, in pure consciousness, in our pure being, our original embodied living flesh, and in the way we find deep unity, solidarity, love, compassion, and comm-union with one and all humanity and other forms of Life.

We may not consider that there will ever be a literal utopian “world to come,” a “millennial era” on the Earth, where all is perfectly well globally. But we might arrive at a sense of deep inner peace and equanimity despite world affairs, through contemplative practice, through participation in community, through letting go of our selfish desires, through allowing love to flow through us to all we come in contact with in Life, creating our own innumerable havens, refuges, sanctuaries of peace and love and beauty in a mad and unconscious world.

We may no longer believe that the goal of our life is to be “saved” by any omnipotent deity. But we might find salvation in realizing our deep relationship to the Life on Earth and perhaps throughout the cosmos, in identifying with the Cosmos itself in its eternal permutations and increasing complexity and consciousness, our current body-mind being one temporal instance of that, in transcending the ego-self of the mind to realize a deeper Reality beyond it or beneath it, that our thoughts are not our true nature, and that what we really are is something much more fundamental in the ground of Being. As Carl Sagan said, we may come to directly intuit and realize that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

I don’t think we should be frightened of this shift of religious language, this reinterpretation, this new translation of human experience into new words, ideas, forms, expressions, understandings. I think it is a movement of the Spirit, or if that word doesn’t work for you, of Reality, or the Absolute. It is incarnating or manifesting itself even now in all of these new ways, giving life to new ways of seeing ourselves in the world and cosmos. And insofar as we allow the Truth to be what it is, and surrender ourselves to harmony with it, we may discover once again what we thought our religious ideas were about in far deeper and more beautiful expressions than we could have possibly imagined.

As Saint Augustine once said,

God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed…

If you understood him [sic], it would not be God.

-St. Augustine

Or, in keeping with the subject of this article, the very same intuition might have been expressed in the following language by modern astrophysicist Carl Sagan:

I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.

-Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

What religious language do you think will need to change, or is already changing? How is it being reinterpreted or translated into the language of science, and direct experience?


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2 thoughts on “The Modern Transformation of Religious Language

  1. Some feelings seem common to many mystics when on the verge of divine union. These are symbolic expressions, not of one person, and are felt simultaneously. The radiance of endless Love dissolved conflicts of the exterior world. Absolute Truth in intuitive insight replaced knowing through images and words. Ultimate Reality absorbed them and illusions of separate realities disappeared. The bliss of Oneness surpassed all the pleasures in earthly multiplicity. They were about to fully experience the divine unity of existence.

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