The three guys behind the counter at the tire store did not look like a panel on religion but as I sat there waiting for my winter tires to be changed they engaged in a deep and wide-ranging conversation that discussed Judaism, Islam, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and the problem with evangelism in any religion. These were three millennial males, one tatted up with long hair and a beard and the other two with buzz cuts and clean faces. The level of depth and comfort with which they spoke to one another was uncharacteristic of the male stereotype. I was captivated and tapped away at my laptop so they would not notice me listening in.
I kept expecting to discover that these men were adherents of some religious sect that would account for the apparent ease and relative sophistication marking their conversation. But as far as I could decipher they were critics of organized religion, standing outside looking in though with a certain regard for things spiritual. In other words, they were the “spiritual not religious” contingent but far from the New Age or Yoga brands often associated with it and decidedly macho.
What came through as a loud and certain consensus between them was high disregard for religious efforts to broadcast and disseminate particular belief systems. The door-to-door enterprise of Jehovahs and Mormons received belligerent scorn but so did the relatively passive versions by Roman Catholics and Protestants. I got the impression they would be okay discussing religion with anyone so long as there were not an inherent claim of singular truth to which one must adhere or risk divine rejection.
Perhaps because I was in a tire store I thought about shopping for a car.
No one needs to be ignorant when buying a car today. Between Edmunds and Kelly’s Blue Book the buyer knows how much is too much to pay for any particular vehicle old or new. Implicit in that reality is the notion of relative choice. One car is not so much better than all the rest that we would be stupid not to buy it. In any given price range there are multiple good choices, and the criteria for a good choice varies from person to person according to life-style, size, and income.
Every single one of us living in a Western economic culture (I can’t speak for other consumer cultures) has been trained to embrace the world we live in through such a consumer lens. That is not the primary lens all of us wear all the time but it is a primary lens with which we have all been fitted. It is a problem for organized religion in consumer culture.
The first problem is that traditional religious brands are not used to being seen as one choice among many. In the West, Christianity was the only Name Brand for centuries and those who didn’t choose it were either a curiosity or spurned as a dangerous outcast. Now, for even the most ardent adherents of Christianity, the awareness of choice and the widespread perception of religious pluralism are presumptive. This view of reality, by the way, is one of the great divisions between the West and Islamic cultures – and it is the problem of a modernist cultural divide more than an inherently religious problem.
Another problem for traditional religious brands is that in order for their claims of exclusivity regarding the truth they offer to make sense, they have to first convince consumers to adopt a different lens when thinking about religion. They have to convince us that there is one brand better than all the rest, and that what it offers is so singularly true and important, that no other brand is even a choice. There is no generic brand of religion that has what we need, and no other brand name that comes close to offering anything of value. Only one brand is a hard sell these days, even Apple couldn’t sustain that claim with so much cheaper competition teasing consumers to just try it.
So traditional religious brands have to see themselves as one choice among many – and with a product that people are actually choosing to live without – and adjust their behavior. Then they have to somehow convince large swaths of the public to take off their consumerist lens and replace it with one that shades the world in either/or with the consequences of that choice changing their very being not just their lifestyle.
But I would recommend another option: change. Embrace pluralism and get really clear about why the choice we want people to make matters to them and the world without threatening plagues, death, hellfire and damnation as the outcome if they don’t choose us. Get clear for ourselves that spiritual pluralism is a better and more apt lens for our time and place, and that it also had new and unexpected beauty to reveal.
For Christians it could mean finally coming to terms with the fact that Jesus was as Jew and would not have had an evangelical bone in his body. He was a reformer not a salesman, a teacher awakening those around him not a hawker convincing people to buy. How lovely it would be for Christianity to heal from the evangelical virus that came to infect it, and how much more attractive a choice it would be to those who already know it is only one choice among many.