Response to:
"The World's Religions:  Pieces or Patterns"

Vern Barnet's recent essay, "The World's Religions: Pieces or Pattern" reflects brilliantly on the crises of secularism in America and the healing potential of world religions. This stimulating summary of the sacred and the secular deserves broad discussion.

The essay identifies three crises in contemporary culture: the degraded environment, the loss of personal identity, and the deterioration of social order. Perhaps it is a sign of my own Christian worldview, but I found myself thinking that the deterioration of social order lies at the root of all three. Paradoxically, our society values the individual. That is, the movements toward greed and self-gratification, and the movements away from service and altruism can be ascribed to an emphasis on the individual's selfish concern. That selfishness is actually prized by marketers of products as diverse as candy and prescription drugs. It has long seemed to me that personal comfort drives many of the decisions people make.

However, reading this essay challenges my assumption, because it establishes no hierarchy among the identified crises. Perhaps someone coming from an Asian religious tradition would argue that the absence of inner awareness is what drives all the evils of society, and someone from a Primal tradition would place the entire blame on the loss of appreciation for nature's sacrality. Any of us could argue that our religious perspective offers the key to undo society's ill.

What this essay suggests is that not one perspective, but all can cohere to bring healing. This is itself a new solution, although it embraces old traditions. The three patterns of world religion are ancient, but relying upon them all to solve problems together is asking something that none of the religions has directly incorporated into their framework of belief. Traditionally, I think, it is the peculiarity of a religion, not its potential for cooperation with others, that drives its proselytizing, formational, and worshiping spirit.

The essay does not consider the possibility -- perhaps anathema -- that American secularism is itself a religion that deserves credibility on the global sphere together with other religious partners. In a worldview that includes no afterlife, worship of the bottom line joins with the temples of violent cinema and the establishment of "doctors" and "scientists" as gods with the power to prolong life. This aspect of American culture, the acceptance of death as finality instead of passage, and the attendant philosophy that "Whoever dies with the most toys wins," also appears absent from the essay's treatment of secularism. I think the abandonment of belief in life after death has been a major factor in shaping secular belief.

Another question the essay raises is why these evils of secularism seem pertinent to America's culture, and why world religions provide the antidote. I realize this would expand the essay considerably, but it would interesting to know how many of America's crises appear in countries as diverse as El Salvador, South Africa, and Finland. Would the solution of crises in those countries also come from a combination of world religions? Or is there something distinctive about the United States that makes our country a candidate for this benefit?

I like the idea of world religions working cooperatively to challenge the secular framework, but it will demand a more porous acceptance of the sacred than customary, among the very people who value it. The spirit of cooperation will have to fend off extremes like the acceptance of all beliefs no matter how perverse or deprived they appear, as well as the fear of the loss of a religion's self-identity by working with another one. Both those extremes have their roots in the secular influence of fragmentation.