Can Engaging with a Radical Religion Help Save Progressives from Self-Indulgence?


The following is an excerpt from the new book All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice by Robert Jensen from Soft Skull Press.

To imagine a just and sustainable world, we need not just a politics but a theology that can help us face the delusional arrogance and disastrous self-indulgence of humans, especially we humans of the modern industrial era. These qualities have put us on a collision course with natural forces more powerful than we can ever hope to understand fully or control much at all.

There's a chance -- with no guarantee, of course -- that we can draw on the best of our traditions and find the strength within ourselves that will be required to alter that course and create a world that is both just and sustainable. If we cannot create such a world, we will need that deepest strength to cope with the grim realities we will face in a future that we cannot now imagine.

These are the end times, of a sort. I am not talking about Rapture and tribulation, but about rupture and triangulation. The challenge isn't to anticipate the return of Christ but to face the reality that we modern humans have created unsustainable social and ecological systems that have ruptured the world, and we need the insights of all our best traditions to triangulate from multiple viewpoints and devise new ways to live.

We are facing the end of an era of irresponsible human domination of the planet, which cannot -- and will not -- continue much longer. I do not fear the apocalypse as it is imagined by end-time Christians (a dramatic finish with the saved being lifted up and the damned left behind), but rather a steady erosion of the conditions that make possible a minimally decent human existence in the context of respect for other forms of life.

With those realities, threats and challenges in mind, I offer the following thesis:

There is no God, and more than ever we all need to serve the One True Gods.

All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice is an attempt to make sense of that apparently nonsensical sentence with its deliberate singular/plural confusion. In proposing this idea to those who are religious, I have to defend vigorously the first clause in the sentence, the assertion that there is no God. That task wouldn't be quite so difficult if we would keep reminding ourselves of one simple reality:

Humans created religion; religion did not create humans.

Whatever one believes about the nature of the divine, it clearly was humans who developed the doctrines and ceremonies to express spirituality. That means we can change and update those traditions as we learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

To those who are secular, the second clause -- the assertion that "we all need to serve the One True Gods" -- needs considerable explanation. But the statement wouldn't seem so obscure if we could keep reminding ourselves of another fundamental reality:

Inanimate matter created life; life did not create inanimate matter.

At a point when human activity is threatening to undermine the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain human life as we know it, it's crucial that we keep our arrogance in check and remember that we are not a creator but instead a part of Creation.

Taken together, these two simple reminders suggest that when we look to the spiritual realm and religion for insights into how we should live in this world, we must remember that religion is our creation. Likewise, when we look to the secular realm and science for insights into how the world works, we must remember our place in Creation.

I want to articulate a conception of theology, and argue for its importance, in a way that may provoke some folks on all sides -- religious fundamentalists and relativists, as well as secular fundamentalists and relativists.

Although I have a deep contrarian streak in me, that instinct is not the motive force here. I have spent most of my 50 years studiously ignoring theological debates, which seemed annoying and irrelevant. I still often find them annoying, but I no longer feel I have the luxury of opting out of theological conversations. After a period of listening to the conversations of others, I have concluded that two important things must happen if we are to move forward. Stated provocatively, by design:

To the fundamentalists on both sides: Grow up. To the moderates on both sides: Buck up.

Both religious and secular fundamentalists tend to be convinced that they really know what they claim to know, which makes them unrealistically confident in their judgments based on those knowledge claims. These are childlike claims; respectfully, I will argue that people who make them need to grow up.

Moderates, both religious and secular, typically are less insistent about the absolute truth of what they claim to know, and as a result often are hesitant to judge. These are irresponsible positions; respectfully, I will argue that people who take them need to buck up.

Although these two "requests" are formulated in what could be seen as harsh language ("grow up" and "buck up" typically are instructions to the immature and the weak-willed), they are not meant that way. It is not difficult to understand why so many people seek certainty in a complex and confusing world, nor is it hard to understand the desire to avoid making judgments about others when one is aware of the limits of one's own knowledge. The crucial work of theology today is to help us abandon any pretense of secure knowledge, but at the same time provide the confidence and courage to judge -- and act on those judgments -- despite the inevitable risks that come with human limits.

It's time to face questions for which we have no answers, to address problems for which there may be no solutions. We have to accept the radical uncertainty of our lives, yet meet the challenges that life puts in front of us.

To help us cope, what kind of theology -- what ideas about what it means to be a human being at this moment in time -- will we need?

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