The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted an appeal from a religion that you probably never heard of until it hit the news yesterday. Summum is rooted in gnostic Christianity (or, at least modern understandings of gnosticism) and ancient Egyptian religion (or, at least contemporary understandings of ancient Egyptian religion). It was founded in 1975 and has its headquarters in (of all places) Utah. You can get more information at the official Summum web site.

The case before the Supreme Court is based on the fact that the small town in Utah has a large, stone monument in the city park of the Ten Commandments. The believers in Summum petitioned the city council to add another monument with their seven principles of good behavior. The city council refused, thereby establishing the religions of the Ten Commandments (Judaism and Christianity) over the little sect of Summum. The small religion has raised enough funds to hire attorneys and appeal their case all the way to the top court in America.

There are serious constitutional issues about religious liberty in this case even if you have a hard time taking Summum seriously. But, I want to focus on something else: The way new religions are being invented and why so many people are moving away from the large, historic faiths.

U.S. society today is dominated by three social realities: (1) a free market, (2) individualism and (3) access to information (unconfirmed and well-proven, but with no easy way to tell the two apart). In this context everyone has the freedom to make their own decision (unfettered by real logic and facts, among other things) about what to believe. Because faith is clearly a fundamental part of what it means to be human, this does not mean that religion simply shrivels and fades away (as sociologists of religion generally believed when I first studied the discipline in the 1960s). It means that people who find existing religions unsatisfying are free to create their own custom-built spiritualities. If they have any capacity for being influential or their creation appeals to others, then any of these custom spiritualities can become a religion. Consequently we live in a time when more new religions are being created than any time in about 2,000 years.

[The Supreme Court has no option, in my opinion, but to tell the city council of that little town in Utah that they cannot allow one religion or set of religions to have a public monument in the city park while denying the same to other religions, no matter the relative numbers of adherents. Of course, they could take down all religious monuments from the public land and let each religion purchase its own land for its displays. Or, they could provide a space where all religions that come forward with a memorial that meets minimum standards of size, etc., are allowed to place such displays. There are those who do not like any religion who will argue that the second solution discriminates against those who believe in nothing. But, if we were to apply the same logic to freedom of speech, then there could be no public speech because it discriminates against those who oppose all speech. Either way, such logic ends up doing away with the right that the Bill of Rights is supposed to protect.]

For those of us who are believers, there are a couple of lessons here that are even more important:

One, we must respect all expressions of religion and spirituality. Each represents at least one person trying to relate to the divine, reaching out to God, in their own way. If we look down on their attempts, we certainly will not be able to provide any assistance in guiding them along the way closer to, or at least in the direction of, "the God that is there."

Two, We must take seriously the religious/spiritual expressions of others, no matter how ridiculous they seem to us. These are real people who are really trying to relate to divinity, to make sense out of the larger realities in the universe. Unless we take them seriously, listen to them, we cannot enter into dialog with them. If we cannot dialog, then we cannot follow the commands of Christ to share His good news.

The time is gone when we can go through the long-established routines and well-known arguments on various doctrines, using the logic that is familiar to us. That seals off the truth from discovery by most Americans; it makes the faith non-accessible.

It is also true, I think, that the large numbers of Americans who are not active in religion (about six in ten) are, most of them, in a kind of neutral place between leaving behind the established religions and embracing or creating a new faith. The Nov. 14 issue of The Week has a small piece about Sally Quinn, the well-known journalist, and her journey with religion, which is quite instructive. I quote key passages in the summary below.

Quinn was "forced to go to Sunday school" as a child, but at age 13 declared herself an atheist. "When her first son … was born with a hole in his heart, Quinn found herself praying fervently for his life. 'Nothing happened. I didn't feel anything. No sense of comfort, no feeling of being embraced. I didn't try praying again.' For the next decade" she ignored spirituality all together while struggling with the severe medical problems of her son. "But in 1992, at a California spa, she became fascinated by a huge labyrinth that was traced on the ground. She was told to walk it focusing on something important to her. 'I entered the labyrinth and walked very deliberately toward the center, holding an image of a normal healthy [son].' Surrounded by soaring oaks, bathed in the sun's warmth, Quinn had a revelation. 'The tears came streaming down my face as I saw my gorgeous little boy, smiling, his arms outstretched, reassuring me that he was going to be just fine.' [Her son] has since grown to manhood and Quinn herself now sees divinity in the everyday world. 'My image of God may not be the personal God so many pray to. But, yes, I do believe in the everyday preciousness of life. That is what I call God.'" (Page 12)

Quinn's experience is an honest personal experience with faith, no matter how unorthodox or heterodox her theology may be. If we cannot accept it has such, then there is no hope for dialog and we are denying, in practice, our own, orthodox Christian faith.

From: Faith in Context – commentary by Monte Sahlin on religion, values and contemporary issues

Used by permission.

——

Monte Sahlin has worked to understand contemporary trends in our society and to help congregations and faith-based organizations make innovations since he organized ACT while in college at La Sierra University, Riverside, California, in the 1960s. ACT was a student volunteer organization that served in inner city neighborhoods and with suburban teenagers.

He is currently chairman of the board for the Center for Creative Ministry, a research organization and resource center helping pastors, congregations and other organizations understand new generations and how to engage with them. He is also chairman of the executive committee of the Center for Metropolitan Ministry, a "think tank" and training organization based on the campus of Columbia Union College in Washington, DC, as well as an adjunct faculty member at the Campolo School for Social Change at Eastern University in Philadelphia and in the DMin program at Andrews University. In addition, he serves on the steering committee of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a coalition of researchers from more than 40 denominations and faiths who produce the Faith Community Today (FACT) research.

Sahlin is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, currently serving as a vice president in the mid-Atlantic region of the denomination. He served for 12 years at the denomination's North American headquarters with responsibilites for church ministries, media projects, social needs and issues, and research and development. He has pastored small and large congregations in major metropolitan areas and Appalachia.

 
 

20 Comments

  1. Jake says:

    Really interesting article. I agree with your thoughts on what the Supreme Court has to do: it's absolutely ridiculous that one religion should be able to post things but not another.

    Though to be absolutely honest, I think the 10 Commandments should never have been up there in the first place. Religion is free to practice… In your private life, in my opinion.

  2. Jake says:

    Really interesting article. I agree with your thoughts on what the Supreme Court has to do: it's absolutely ridiculous that one religion should be able to post things but not another.

    Though to be absolutely honest, I think the 10 Commandments should never have been up there in the first place. Religion is free to practice… In your private life, in my opinion.

  3. Tom says:

    I agree that we need to be respectful of all faith traditions and experiences. It seems that the U.S. is moving, or has already moved, out of being a nation defined by orthodox doctrine of a few faiths and into a country of personal faith journeys based on feelings and experiences. Itís difficult to argue with experience because that is the individual truth that defines that personís spiritual outlook. Like this author writes, it appears that a lot of people who are not active in religion are still seeking a spiritual experience through which they can find their own personal truths.

  4. Tom says:

    I agree that we need to be respectful of all faith traditions and experiences. It seems that the U.S. is moving, or has already moved, out of being a nation defined by orthodox doctrine of a few faiths and into a country of personal faith journeys based on feelings and experiences. Itís difficult to argue with experience because that is the individual truth that defines that personís spiritual outlook. Like this author writes, it appears that a lot of people who are not active in religion are still seeking a spiritual experience through which they can find their own personal truths.

  5. This country supposedly is based on the freedom of religion. In fact, in my opinion there is little freedom. This story makes a case in point. Why should mainstream religion have the opportunity to put up a statue but yet the Summum can not. This in itself proves the "freedom" is just for the mainstream. The "new" religion is not new at all. The Cathors were whipped out after the Roman Catholics became a political and military might. Because of this article I will be contacting them. This is closest to the "pure" teaching of Christ. Any group that was put together after the Cathors is not a pure religion. Protestants were after the Catholics, both of these religions were put together for greed and political power.

  6. This country supposedly is based on the freedom of religion. In fact, in my opinion there is little freedom. This story makes a case in point. Why should mainstream religion have the opportunity to put up a statue but yet the Summum can not. This in itself proves the "freedom" is just for the mainstream. The "new" religion is not new at all. The Cathors were whipped out after the Roman Catholics became a political and military might. Because of this article I will be contacting them. This is closest to the "pure" teaching of Christ. Any group that was put together after the Cathors is not a pure religion. Protestants were after the Catholics, both of these religions were put together for greed and political power.

  7. Sam says:

    The development and adaptation of religion should come as no surprise. As people become more and more dissatisfied with modern religion they will seek alternatives.

  8. Sam says:

    The development and adaptation of religion should come as no surprise. As people become more and more dissatisfied with modern religion they will seek alternatives.

  9. Vine Like Mine says:

    This article brings up some very important points that I have found to be especially thought provoking. There is so much that we are able to learn from each other; we are sharing a world together, this is the opportunity of a life time!

  10. Vine Like Mine says:

    This article brings up some very important points that I have found to be especially thought provoking. There is so much that we are able to learn from each other; we are sharing a world together, this is the opportunity of a life time!

  11. Caro says:

    I was wondering, are the Ten Commandments relevant to the Mormon religion as well? I am surprised that a small religious sect demanded their own tennants be posted in the city park rather than tennants of Mormonism or any other religion. I suppose there aren't too many people who read the Koran in Utah, otherwise they would have to post their tennants as well. I still believe whole heartedly in separation of church and state and since the city park is state property, the monument should have never been there in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised if this victory by the Summums opens the floodgates for other relgions.

  12. Caro says:

    I was wondering, are the Ten Commandments relevant to the Mormon religion as well? I am surprised that a small religious sect demanded their own tennants be posted in the city park rather than tennants of Mormonism or any other religion. I suppose there aren't too many people who read the Koran in Utah, otherwise they would have to post their tennants as well. I still believe whole heartedly in separation of church and state and since the city park is state property, the monument should have never been there in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised if this victory by the Summums opens the floodgates for other relgions.

  13. nice says:

    In my opinion people should think before joining or believing in any new religion or sect. I strongly recommend people to adhere to the religions which have more truth and also which have more human values.

  14. nice says:

    In my opinion people should think before joining or believing in any new religion or sect. I strongly recommend people to adhere to the religions which have more truth and also which have more human values.

  15. Tim says:

    Good luck to the Summums in the interest of fair and equal but personally I think no group with a religious affiliation should be allowed to place religious symbols or teachings on municipal property.

  16. Tim says:

    Good luck to the Summums in the interest of fair and equal but personally I think no group with a religious affiliation should be allowed to place religious symbols or teachings on municipal property.

  17. GC says:

    People enter sects because they have lost faith in true religion, but those sects can`t help them, they can only destroy their souls.

  18. GC says:

    People enter sects because they have lost faith in true religion, but those sects can`t help them, they can only destroy their souls. Religion is good but sects are like cancer for religion.

  19. GC says:

    People enter sects because they have lost faith in true religion, but those sects can`t help them, they can only destroy their souls.

  20. GC says:

    People enter sects because they have lost faith in true religion, but those sects can`t help them, they can only destroy their souls. Religion is good but sects are like cancer for religion.

 
 
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