Is Religion Opposed to Change?
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Published: Thu, 07 Sep 2017
Religions are often presented as if they are opposed to choice and change. To what extent do the ‘controversial futures’ examined in Book 4 support or challenge this view?
Controversies surrounding religious futures rely on a premise of religions either remaining true to their origins to retain authenticity or adapting to change to accommodate an increasingly spiritual and consumeristic world. The tensions that arise stem from assertions that religion, in an unaltered state cannot remain relevant to modern adherents and therefore will eventually die, alongside a view that a religion that adapts loses the essence of its original message to the pressures of consumerism and therefore its integrity is depleted. Proponents of the latter view argue that when an adopted message become too far removed from the revealed religion a ‘cut flower culture’ (Herberg, cited in Mercadante, 2014) is created where the moral and spiritual messages of the root religion withers and dies; in other words, they ‘lack the moral depth and social cohesiveness of more traditional religions’ (Gauthier et al., 201, p. 292) The choice between stasis and change is not binary, however, as there is a ‘continuity between sacred scriptures and the most eclectic, free-spirited spirituality of today’ (Gottlieb, 2012). This continuity has become increasingly important as the terms religion and spirituality become less synonymous than they have previously been, highlighting a shift from a static, structured and institutional view of religion to a more individualistic ‘pick and mix’ (King cited in Harvey, 2013, p. 20) approach to spiritual futures. This transition has witnessed approximately 40% of Americans ‘unchurched’ with ‘no connection with organized religion’ who ‘claim to be strongly religious or spiritual on a personal level’ (Fuller, 2001, p. 1), exemplifying the balancing act that religions must take in charge to maintain identity against a maelstrom of modern demands whilst adapting to attract or retain the consumers needed to exist in the competitive spiritual marketplace.
The change of emphasis from institutional to individual has been in discussion for many years, indeed the definition of religion varies from the ‘personal and psychologized versions of spirituality’ (Harvey, 2013, p.19) where the individual feelings and experiences are of supreme importance or the ‘feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude’ (James, cited in Harvey, 2013, p.9) to the institutional view of a religion where the church is central and essential to a faith, or as Durkheim suggests ‘the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church’ (Durkheim, cited in Harvey, 2013, p.9). Durkheim’s view could be considered to represent a view of religion that is resistant to change, placing emphasis on the continuity of the Church and the ‘sacred things’ therein (Durkheim, cited in Harvey, 2013, p.9), whereas James’ view of religion, being more individualistic in nature is infinitely more susceptible to change because the very nature of the individualism adapts spirituality to the person who perceives it, a situation in which a spiritual seeker ‘creates or rec-creates his or her own private system of symbolic meanings and values’ (Hanegraaff, 2009, cited in Harvey, 2013, p.25). Such individualism allows for exploration of spirituality outside of the constraints of church mores, spirituality then, can be seen as ‘the positive aspects of the ancient religious traditions, unencumbered by the ‘dead hand’ of the church; (Carrette & King, 2005, p.2), with a ‘strict emphasis on the self and on spiritual experience not a concept of God, but, rather, of ‘the higher self’ (Hanegraaff, cited in Houtman et al., 2009, p.170). Such contrasting viewpoints highlight a definition of religion as a being concerned with ‘external dogmatic authority set over the individual’ and spirituality being concerned with ‘the deepest experiences of the individual’ (Vincett and Woodhead, cited in Woodhead and Catto, 2013, p.158). The individualistic element of spirituality has often been labeled as New Age, although this is an all-encompassing label for a multiform ‘hypersyncretic splicing of ideas’ (Sutcliffe, 2000, cited in Harvey, 2013, p.23) that is hardly satisfactory. Such is the diversity of human spiritual need and options available to the seeker that a consistent formula for spiritual satisfaction cannot be achieved, in which case a label such as New Age can only be used as a contrast to traditional religions under the assumption that traditional religions do not undergo any form of borrowing from other faiths; as Hanegraaff suggests the term ‘”New Age” is a label attached indiscriminately to whatever seems to fit it’ and ‘as a result, the New Age means very different things to different people’ (Hanegraaff, 1996, p.1, emphasis in original). However, New Age belief invariably stems from traditions as there has been a mutation of traditional religions for a New Age believer to accommodate, in this sense ‘New Age religion unquestionably emerged from esoteric traditions in Western culture’ (Hanegraaff, 1996, p.383).
Such variation means that New Age believers, with such an infinite matrix of needs become ready consumers and, as their spiritual needs change so do their material wants, a phenomenon borne out at Glastonbury in the South West of England; which is a keen example of the mutation, adaptation and commercialisation found within religion and spirituality. Glastonbury’s past is steeped in claims made for it on behalf of goddess worship, paganism, Christianity and new age spirituality. These claims range from Glastonbury being the site of Avalon; the site where Joseph of Arimathea washed and buried the Holy Grail and a venue that Jesus himself visited; it is therefore a popular pilgrimage site for Christians and non-believing pilgrims as ‘pilgrimage is not clearly distinguishable from acts such as tourism’ (Hedges, 2017). Such a diverse pedigree in one venue has the potential for conflict and controversy between groups of believers, as well as between believers and local residents; however, Glastonbury, as a religious site, has successfully incorporated all of these claims in such a way that, not only do different belief groups co-exist but they do so symbiotically, with each group benefiting, often financially, from the lure of diversity for spiritual consumers keen to sample all that beliefs that Glastonbury has to offer; this has created a spiritual marketplace of significant proportions. The attraction of Glastonbury for the spiritual seeker is evident in the windows of the shops which display a plethora of spiritual material culture catering for a wide variety of spiritual interests within one shop. This enables the spiritual seeker to purchase ‘containers of the sacred’ (Colman and Elsner, cited in Bowman, 2013, p.55) from one or many religions to suit their particular needs; this example of vernacular religion in which ‘consumers either produce ritual objects themselves, re-purpose traditional religious props, or shop “off the shelf” from other religious traditions to use for their own inventive, often empowering, spiritual practices’ (Twitchell, cited in Scott and Maclaran, 2009, p.60). Such commercial opportunity creates a level of competition with each religion vying for custom and therefore creating a spiritual economy ‘which is leading to the establishment of an appropriate, sustainable and new Glastonbury economy’ (Ivakhiv, 2001, p.124), an economy fed by competition which traditional religions are not immune to. The consumer spiritual market place has encouraged the Abbey at Glastonbury to retain and recruit new adherents by ‘marketing their own brand of religion that resonates with dominant social values of individualism, empowerment and aspiration to affluence’ (Yip and Ainsworth, 2010, p. 702) indeed, the Glastonbury Abbey website not only describes the history of the Abbey but also displays a level of commercialism as it advertises entrance to the Abbey at £8.25 as well as an array of gifts including ‘Celtic designs, the Green Man, and church mice among other gift ideas’ (Glastonbury Abbey, 2017), many of which are not directly Christian in nature but are available as a commodity for tourists, spiritual or otherwise, thus demonstrating a recognition and an acceptance of change within a traditional religious setting. The commercialization of Glastonbury Abbey is not new, historically it has been a land owner and wool trader and as such ‘played a major part in developing market capitalism in Glastonbury’ (Bowman, 2012, p.15); however, the Abbey’s economic influence is no longer restricted to the physical world as the Abbey has adopted technology to create a website capitalises on e-commerce, trading on the provenance of Glastonbury as a sacred space, to allow people who may not have attended Glastonbury to purchase items in order to support the upkeep on the Abbey stating that ‘All profits from the shop are used to help to care for the abbey ruins as well as enhancing the experience for our visitors’ and that ‘Shop and ticket sales and donations are the abbey’s main source of income'(Glastonbury Abbey, 2017). Glastonbury therefore is an example of religious change in which a traditional religion has recognised that competition within the market and has adapted its offerings to retain custom.
Glastonbury Abbey is by no means unique in its willingness to adapt to the demands of its consumers; Luss Church in Scotland boasts ‘fifteen hundred years of continuous Christian presence’ and, despite a small population, and a smaller local congregation, attracts ‘seven hundred and fifty thousand visitors’ to Luss ‘many of them to our Church and Pilgrimage Centre’ (lusschurch.com, 2017) This represents a significant change from the church’s past in which a financially struggling church has adopted the availability of the internet in which ‘New technology has opened up alternative ways of making relationships with visitors real and profitable and our small congregation is enjoying discovering new ways of being the Church in a new century’ (Luss Church, 2017). This is clearly a development that has been embraced by a worldwide congregation of people who regularly access online services streamed over the internet, this technology also allows friends and relative to view the weddings of people ‘from over 40 countries’ (Bowman, 2013, p.79) express a desire to marry at the church. The exposure that Luss has received from the internet has enabled them to tap into a lucrative wedding industry, removing market share from local hotels who previously would have enjoyed the income from overseas couples wanting to marry in the picturesque setting of Luss. In return, the church adds to the local tourist economy as many friends and relatives will stay for prolonged periods after the wedding at local hotels. The adoption of new technologies has allowed Christianity to reach a larger audience of potential customers, as Pope John Paul II states ‘With the advent of computer telecommunications and what are known as computer participation systems, the Church is offered further means for fulfilling her mission’ (Pope John Paul II, cited in O’Leary, 1996, p.782), a sentiment that has been taken up in many churches. A survey by Elena Larson finds that the ‘Internet is being used being used by congregations to strengthen the faith and spiritual growth of their members, evangelize and perform missions in their communities and around the world’ (Larson, 2001, p.2) with the main use of technology being to encourage people to visit the church and become part of the local congregation. Regardless of the success of this mission religions are embracing the opportunity that change brings, indeed Larson’s survey suggests that ‘83% of those responding to our survey say that their use of the Internet has helped congregational life’ (Larson, 2001, p.2). The spirit of change lies not just with the church but also with by the congregation who, according to a job to vacancy for a new Minister are looking for someone ‘not bound to the past, who are open to change’ (Luss Church, 2017).
In conclusion, traditional religions are not averse to change, indeed, the adoption of different practices and ideas has long been part of religious traditions and a need to adapt to accommodate modernity is essential for a religion’s survival. Modernisation, and a shift from religiosity to spirituality, is not necessarily a prelude of the death of religion, or its ‘social extinction’, but its continuing relevance has required a ‘change in and transformation of its social forms’ (Adogame, 2014, p215). The continuation of traditional religion within an individualized spiritual market proves it to be a ‘constantly moving target’ (Beaman, 2016, p. 185) that consistently displays the elements of individualism, mutation and commercialism that enable it not only to survive, but ‘in its manifold manifestations thrives’ (Bainbridge, 2004). Indeed, the arrival of competition within the spiritual marketplace, rather than being detrimental to traditional religion has encouraged it to mutate into marketable entity that has increased its presence and market share of consumers worldwide.
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