Envisioning the Next Religion (1996)

A sermon presented by Doug Muder at First Parish in Bedford on 7 January 1996. (1995 version)

Opening Words

It is the day after Epiphany.

For those of you who aren’t up on your Christian holidays, Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem.

And so our opening words come from the poem “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.

Most of the poem describes how difficult the journey was, and it concludes like this:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.


From The Politics at God’s Funeral by Michael Harrington

God, one of the most important political figures in Western history, is dying.

The event, then, is not simply theological. With a few lapses into liberalism, or even radicalism, God has been a leading conservative in Judeo-Christian society. His death not only means empty churches and bereft individuals but also marks the rending of the social fabric. This insight is corroborated, not contradicted, by the recent revival of a fundamentalism whose desperate orthodoxy tries to will the departing deity back into existence. . .

The new religions that the social scientists are so fond of are, almost without exception, personal rather than social. They are part of what Daniel Bell has called a “retreat to the private world where religions have authority only over their followers and not over any other section of the polity or society.” That is the definition of the abyss which lies between religion as the expression of the values of a community and religion as a matter of private belief. The latter may well be profound and even holy, but it is not the organizing principle of a civilization. That is what Judeo-Christianity was for several millennia. That is why it is so sorely missed now.

From A History of God by Karen Armstrong

The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it at various points of time. The idea of God formed in one generation by one set of human beings could be meaningless in another. Indeed, the statement “I believe in God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular community. … When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. A fundamentalist would deny this, since fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses and the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as people do today. Yet if we look at our religions, it becomes clear that there is no objective view of “God”: each generation has to create the image of God that works for it. The same is true of atheism. The statement “I do not believe in God” has meant something slightly different at each period of history. . .

Despite its otherworldliness, religion is highly pragmatic. We shall see that it is far more important for a particular idea of God to work than for it to be logically or scientifically sound. As soon as it ceases to be effective it will be changed–sometimes for something radically different.

The Offering

Cynthia Kane: Doug, I know you’ve been thinking a lot about the religion of the future, but have you thought about the church of the future?

Doug Muder: As a matter of fact I have. And I think that it might be very different from the kind of churches we have today.

CK: How so?

DM: Well, for one thing it might be a lot cheaper to operate.

CK: Why would that be?

DM: (Puts on wrap-around sunglasses, pretending they are VR glasses.) The church of the future might be able to put its meeting house out in virtual reality. No real estate costs. You never need to paint, or rebuild the steeple.

CK: They’d still have to pay a minister.

DM: Maybe not. (Takes out a computer disk.) The minister of the future might be an artificial intelligence program. It could live on a disk somewhere. It wouldn’t have to raise a family, or eat, or do any of those expensive things that ministers do.
So you see, with future technology, it might be possible for a church to get by on almost no money at all. What do you think?

CK: (pause) I think we’d better collect the offering.


When two gay men promise to spend their lives together, is that a marriage? If they adopt a child, is that a family? When an unmarried girl has a baby, are the two of them a family? If she doesn’t have the baby, but has an abortion instead, is that murder? Is it murder if someone shoots a doctor to prevent him from performing the abortion? If the community then executes the shooter, is that murder? If a group of people discuss their deepest secrets several times a week on the internet, but never meet, are they a community? If a group a people live in the same apartment building, but never learn each other’s names, are they a community? Does belonging to a community give you any special rights? Does the community have the right to make demands on you? What kind of demands?

Now, if you’ll all exchange papers with the person next to you, we can start grading.

So what’s my point in asking all those questions? My point is that in America today, questions about our most basic concepts have no obvious answers. We know that we are in favor of families and against murder. We know that we approve of marriage and support community. We just can’t agree on what those words mean. Words like marriage, family, community, and murder still have a great deal of private meaning. But they are losing their public meaning.

In societies prior to ours–and even here half a century ago-the questions I started with would not have been political questions; they would have been religious questions. Throughout history one of religion’s most important jobs has been to give meaning to the words and concepts of political discourse. If it fails in that mission-as the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is failing now-a nation’s vocabulary starts to lose its meaning.As words lose their meaning, people lose the ability to talk through their differences. Or to talk to anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. And at some point, they start shooting up abortion clinics or blowing up federal office buildings.

If you’ve ever watched the TV evangelists, you know that they talk about these issues all the time. They call it “our spiritual crisis”. And if I were a TV evangelist, you know exactly where this sermon would go from here: I’d tell you that we have to go back. Back to the old time religion, which, as the song says, is good enough for me.

I’m not going to do that sermon.

For a couple of reasons. First, that old time religion really isn’t good enough for me. Like the Magi in Eliot’s poem, I am no longer at ease in the old dispensation. And second, I don’t think history works that way. Societies in spiritual crisis don’t go back to the old religion, at least not for very long. They go ahead to the new one.
Looking forward is scarier than looking backwards. You never know exactly where you’re going, and you can’t be sure that you’ll like it when you get there. But that’s what I want to do today: I want to invite you to imagine that we come out the other side of this period, and that a new religion arises, one that is capable of being, in Harrington’s words, the organizing principle of a civilization.

What would such a religion look like? And where might we find it gestating today? When I was starting to write this sermon, I was tempted to launch right into all my ideas about the next religion. But then it dawned on me how un-Unitarian that would be: to raise an interesting question and then start giving answers. I also realized that I don’t have all the answers, and I would really like to get more people thinking about this question. I decided that it would be a better use of our time together if I invited you to start envisioning the next religion for yourself, and gave a few pointers to get you off on the right foot.

As our second reading pointed out, religions change all the time. Usually it is a gradual evolution, like Unitarians evolving from Puritans. Once in a great while the change is more drastic, like the conversion of Rome to Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment. The possibility of that drastic kind of change is what I want to get you thinking about. And I’d like to illustrate my pointers by considering one of those examples in more detail: the birth of Christianity.

If we were to go on a tour of the pre-Christian Roman Empire, and look at the local religious beliefs, we would (with the benefit of hindsight) see the pieces of Christianity everywhere.
Take monotheism for example. Monotheism in Rome came in three very different flavors: Jewish, Greek, and Persian. The Jews had a very worldly God, who made empires rise and fall. He caused floods and decided who would survive them.
By contrast Greek monotheism presented an abstract, impersonal, other-worldly God. You couldn’t see this God working in history, but your invisible, immortal soul could, at times, know God’s presence. This soul was imprisoned inside your physical body until death, and after death it would be free to perceive God more clearly.
The Persian flavor wasn’t really monotheism at all, it was dualism: In this version, all of history is a build-up to the ultimate battle between Light and Darkness. Ultimately Light will be victorious, and God will reward those of us who chose the right side.
To a Roman, these three flavors of monotheism were distinct, complete, and mutually contradictory. But in hindsight, we can see that Christian monotheism adopted them all simultaneously.

In addition to the various flavors of monotheism, there were a number of savior cults in Rome. Your savior could be a great healer, like Asclepius the son of Zeus. He could be a human hero who had traveled to the underworld and returned, like Orpheus. He could have instituted a communal meal, like Mithras, who was born on December 25. He could have been a Son of God who had died and been resurrected, like Dionysus. There is very little in the Jesus mythos that you couldn’t find somewhere in one of the savior cults of Rome.

There was even a syncretic movement, which held that pieces of the different religions needed to be assembled somehow into a greater whole.

So the first pointer I would like to give you on envisioning the next religion is this: You don’t need to invent much. The pieces are all here someplace.

Now, so far it sounds like I’m running Christianity down, saying that it was unoriginal. But I want to say more than that: Christianity was brilliantly unoriginal. We can see those pieces in hindsight, but to see with foresight how they would be assembled–or even that they could be assembled–would have been almost impossible. If you want to claim that it took divine inspiration, I can’t argue with you. Because at the time all those pieces were in opposition to each other.
Imagine how difficult it would be to tell a Roman what the new religion was going to look like. You’d say “monotheism” and he’d say, “Wait, do you mean Jewish or Greek or Persian?” And you’d say “Yes.”
He’d say, “Will the religion focus on God, or on a savior?” And you’d say, “Yes.”
“Will it be a personal religion or a state religion?” “Yes.”
“This savior, will he be human, or divine?” “Yes.”

So the second pointer is this: Don’t see opposites, see complements. Any time you find yourself picking sides, you’re going the wrong way. The next religion won’t come about because one side of a controversy defeats the other. It will come about because a new point of view legitimizes both sides of a controversy.
So, will the new religion be rational or mystical? Yes.
Will it be based on history or on myth? Yes.
Will it be intellectual or experiential? Yes.
Personal or social? Yes. Religious or scientific? Yes.

In fact, whenever you find one of these apparent contradictions, one of these pairs of strong opposites–that’s not a problem, that’s a clue. It tells you that both of these ideas are too important to get rid of. Each has survived, even in the face of strong opposition from the other. The next religion has got to respect that.

The third pointer is this: Recognize that the whole culture is working with you. Looking back on Rome, it is very tempting to anthropomorphize, to say that somehow, unconsciously, the Roman culture knew what it needed and worked very hard to come up with it. There were thousands, perhaps millions of people who worked on the ideas, the myths, and the rituals that ultimately became Christianity. Most of them probably had no idea they were working together on a new religion, and many of them probably wouldn’t even have liked the result. But it couldn’t have happened without them.
Likewise in America today, I believe the culture is working on something. We’re importing religions and pieces of religions from all over the world. Take a walk through the bookstores. We’re paying attention to Indian gurus, Japanese Zen masters, African and Native American shamen. We’re trying to revive pre-Christian paganism. We’re trying to find the Jewish goddesses who didn’t make it into the Bible. We’re listening to our guardian angels. We’re trying to channel teachings from 10,000 year old warriors, or from extra-terrestrials, or from wherever we can get them. Millions of people are involved in the digestion process, in the working through of all that material. Most are motivated by personal spiritual quests, and never really intended to work together. But I think hindsight will say that those millions did work together, and that the next religion couldn’t have happened without them.

When you start to take seriously the idea that we might all be working on this together, something happens to your perceptions. You find yourself listening to people who once would have made you boil over. And things that used to sound crazy start to sound like interesting experiments–sort of like Ben Franklin flying a kite in an electrical storm.

I’ll give you an example: There are people at Star Trek conventions who dress up like Klingons and hold Klingon rituals. What could be crazier than that? But when you work on the next religion, you constantly run into this question: What do we do with the old rituals and symbols? Can we still find meaning in them, even if we don’t believe in the stories or cosmologies they are based on? Just when you’re about to give up and say that we can’t, here comes this Klingon cult. If they’re finding meaning in symbols and rituals that are based on a work of pure fiction, that’s very, very interesting.

You may also find yourself treating popular culture with more respect, because it too is filled with interesting experiments. When we watch a popular TV show or read a popular book, we are making contact not just with the people involved in creating it, but also with all the people who have propelled it into popularity. Those millions of people making simple yes-or-no decisions about what to read, what to watch, and what to tell their neighbors about, are like the neurons of a giant brain. That brain occasionally has interesting things to tell us about the next religion.

For instance, if a religion had an impersonal force at the center of it, rather than an anthropomorphic God, is that necessarily boring and abstract, or could it inspire heroic action? We now know that it could, because George Lucas tested this idea in the Star Wars movies. Tens of millions of people have fantasized about heroic actions inspired by an abstract force.

Or if you want think about the role of eternal life in the next religion, I’d advise you to read one of Anne Rice’s vampire novels. Her vampires are immortal, and yet they struggle endlessly with essentially religious questions about the lack of meaning in their lives. They can live forever, but why should they? Every summer tens of thousands of people will read these novels on their vacations. What is that doing to the culture’s ideas about eternal life?

Some of the narrower niches of popular culture are places of incredible religious experimentation. And in general, the younger the audience, the more experimentation is going on. There is a cyberpunk novel called Snow Crash, whose plot revolves around a reinterpretation of Sumerian mythology. Comic books like Doom Patrol and Sandman are introducing their readers to concepts from Jewish Kabbalah. The four pagan elements are embodied in Saturday morning cartoons like Captain Planet or The Fantastic Four. And I could do a whole sermon on Power Rangers. Try not to be too highbrow: the next religion may show up in a video game before you see it in a theological journal.

So, those are my three pointers to keep in mind when you envision the next religion:

  1. You don’t have to invent much.
  2. See complements instead of opposites.
  3. Remember that the whole culture is working on this with you.

What might you do with those three pointers? Well, you can’t do a sermon about the future without making a few predictions, so I’ll close by making five of them:

First, I think that the metaphors of the next religion will come from biology. For centuries now, we’ve been talking about religion in Newtonian terms, as if the Universe were a big machine designed by God. Mechanistic ways of thinking have gotten so ingrained that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Biological metaphors would reshape our thinking in a number of ways. For instance: A mechanical system will tolerate diversity up to a point, but a biological system actually needs it to survive. People who thought about religion in biological terms would not want everyone to believe the same thing.

My second prediction is that intellectual religion and experiential religion are going to come back together. Currently they’re divorced, with Unitarianism being on the intellectual side. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: Go to coffee hour and tell people that you’ve been born again in Christ. Watch their reactions.

On the other hand, if you go to a Pentecostal church and start talking about modern Biblical scholarship, you’re going to upset a lot of people there. But there’s no reason why a UU couldn’t have a religious experience, or a Pentecostal couldn’t read modern scholarship. In the next religion, people will do both, and no one will think it is the least bit odd.

My third prediction is that polytheism is going to make a comeback. The current fascination with angels, I think, is the culture’s way of experimenting with polytheism. The One God of the Universe is just a little hard for us to relate to right now. Does the Ruler of All Creation really care whether I get that promotion, or whether my marriage stays together, or how my kids get raised? But at the same time, it’s very important to believe that somebody cares-like an angel, or a saint, or an ancestor. We won’t lose monotheism entirely; I think people will continue to believe in an ultimate unity, like the Tao or Luke Skywalker’s Force. But day-to-day, people will deal with only a small piece of divinity at any one time.

Fourth, suspension of disbelief will be an important concept. Many people have had life-changing experiences while reading novels or watching movies. They don’t have faith in those stories, but they suspend their disbelief, and this opens them up to new experiences. This, I think, is the lesson of the Klingon cult.

My last prediction is something that I think the next religion will learn from 12-step programs: A belief in the existence of transforming power. When Unitarians talk about self-improvement, it usually sounds like rolling a rock up a hill. You know what I mean. “I can’t get my laundry done, so where am I going to find the energy to transform my life?” When alcoholics talk about recovery, it sounds very different. Somewhere in the Universe is a power that would help you transform your life, if you would only ask. This is an idea that never seems to die. When established religions lose it, new religions spring up.

So, five predictions: Biological metaphors, intellect and experience get remarried, polytheism, suspension of disbelief, and a belief in transforming power. Good luck with your own envisioning, and if you come up with anything interesting let me know.

Closing Words

These words are from William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming”:

Surely some revelation is at hand.

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of the Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by the rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, it hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Read more sermons by Doug Muder