The Return of God

Even when secular life provides great benefits, as they do for the upper classes in the West, there is one value that only religion can provide - the sense of sanctity.

The images of the millions of people thronging Rome to attend the pope's funeral joins some other events in recent memory: the flood of religious attributes given to the tsunami disaster, the popularity of "The Da Vinci Code," the revival of Islamic fundamentalism, and Christian evangelism. All can be summed up with the headline: God returned (which is also the title of Avraham Burg's new book, which deals precisely with these issues). Indeed, God, who had been eulogized in the modern age since the days of Nietzsche, has returned to center stage, and big time.

The reason for the alienation from God, in parts of Israel as in the rest of the world, was not religious coercion or the appropriation of God by a religious establishment, as claimed in these pages by Meron Rapoport on April 8. The reason was a deep feeling that God was no longer "relevant."

On the one hand, in the name of God endless wars were fought, and on the other hand, new, secular ideologies - with science and education, nationalism and social justice as their centerpieces - promised the world the redemption and salvation that religion failed to provide. Proof that it wasn't coercion that distanced people from religion is precisely the current phenomenon of the return to God: It is happening despite religious coercion, and the tendency of religious establishments to appropriate God and religious ceremony.

The return to God happens because the secular messianic ideals have been terribly disappointed. In the name of science, nationalism and communism, terrible injustices have also been committed - in many ways worse than what preceded them. Moreover, even when secular life provides great benefits, as it does for the upper classes in the West, there is one value that only religion can provide - the sense of sanctity. And thus, increasing numbers of people are returning to the discovery of God, but in a different way than in the past: they aren't seeking in God some universal salvation that would be achieved by imposing God's commandments on the world. They want a private salvation. Many simply choose to disconnect God from the establishments that claim to speak for God, and seek to connect to God directly.

That's the background to the success of the various New Age phenomena: personal redemption through a route that bypasses the existing religious institutions. And if secular Westerners are connecting to existing religions, it is, amazingly enough, mostly to eastern religions, of idols and a multiplicity of gods that in the West people were taught to regard as "primitive" compared to the "advanced" monotheism. There they find the personal, longed-for "nirvana" after escaping the "violent progress" offered to them by monotheism.

It is precisely at this point where the great challenge now facing all the monotheistic faiths is to be found. Humanity cannot make do with only the personal, private redemption of people, even if many reach it. The overall challenges facing humanity are too many, and if it cannot meet them, even those who have achieved "personal redemption" will suffer.

Therefore, the tendency on the part of the monotheistic religions to express a public message is very important, but it must undergo an essential transformation, learning the lessons of the past. What turned Islam and Christianity violent toward non-believers in the past and turned Judaism inwardly brutal was the interpretation given to the term "one God": an interpretation of uniformity and not unity.

Instead of the unity of God being expressed by the inclusion of all reality (in all its various forms), it was expressed in hostility and a struggle against all that was exterior to it, including that which only appeared to be so. That does not mean religions must give up their perspectives and customs, but they must present the positive, internalizing the good and just to be found in the values of the world, including in the secular world, and not conduct a violent struggle against the "heretics."

From a historical perspective, the Catholic church was the worst of the monotheistic religions that fought the "heretics." Maybe that is why the transformation it went through, particularly in John Paul II's era, to a positive, non-violent mission was a major reason for the adoration of the pope who just went to meet his maker. John Paul II proved that humanity does not reject the values of religion as such, but the violence and the brutality that were imposed by it. That should be a lesson to all the monotheistic religions.