No Holds Barred: Religion’s summer of discontent

Humankind’s most powerful impulse, to approach the divine, is being undermined by the lack of direction of today’s great faiths.

dalai lama 311 (photo credit: AP)
dalai lama 311
(photo credit: AP)
Word on the street is that the bomb placed in Times Square, near the headquarters of Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, may have been in response to a South Park episode that portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a bear costume. If some fanatical Muslims believe people ought to die because of a couple of jokes on a TV show, then it’s another nail in the coffin of the public’s respect for religion.
Indeed, this is religion’s summer of discontent. Humankind’s most powerful impulse, to approach the divine, is being undermined by the lack of direction of today’s great faiths. From ongoing murder in the name of Islam, which is the most serious of all modern religious sins, to priestly pedophilia, to the evangelical fixation on gay marriage, to Judaism’s inability to purge materialism from its communities, mainstream religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern men and women.
THE MAIN reason for the deterioration of modern faith is not its sins of commission, but its sins of omission. People can forgive scandal in religion so long as religion guides and inspires them. But secular people today see religion’s main goal as self-perpetuation, as being more concerned with its institutions than with the pressing needs of its flock.
Last week I met with Pope Benedict in Rome, arranged by Gary Krupp of the Pave the Way Foundation. The meeting received significant media play because I pressed the pontiff to join in creating a global family-dinner night – something we have already begun with our “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night” initiative.
I presented the pope with a dual-time Phillip Stein watch, and told him it was set to the time zones of Rome and Jerusalem, signifying my desire to have him focus on Israel and the threat the Jewish people face from Iran, which openly seeks to wipe Israel off the map. And second, the dual clock face was symbolic of my request that he take the lead in our global campaign by calling on all the world’s parents to give their children two uninterrupted hours every Friday night, invite two guests and discuss two important subjects with their children.
He nodded his assent and repeated twice, “We will work together.”
When the papal meeting was over, we met with Cardinal Walter Casper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. I continued speaking of the importance of an international family-dinner night. The cardinal, a close friend of Pope Benedict for more than 40 years, strongly endorsed the idea and related his memories of family dinners with his own parents.
I made the case to the cardinal that the pedophile priest scandal had significantly undermined the Church’s standing as a champion of the family. Many influential American commentators are now skewering the Church for being an all-boys club, run by men who do not marry and who had, in the imagination of some, been prepared to sacrifice the welfare of children to protect the reputation of the Church. What better way to reverse this perception than to use the full power and reputation of the Church to address children’s core needs, namely, receiving the love and attention of parents.
Would this not be a new and positive narrative of the Catholic Church as a champion of family, giving productive and useful advice as to how to reinvigorate the parent-child bond?
THERE ARE two kinds of children: one who receives time and love from his/her parent as a gift, and the other who receives it, if at all, as something that must be earned. The former grows up steady and sturdy as a cedar, fortified by the ongoing validation given to him by doting parents. The other becomes a crowd-pleaser, riddled with insecurities, convinced that there is nothing especially worthy about him and that he needs to perform and produce to become special. I asked the cardinal to help us populate the world with the first kind of child.
Within the Vatican hierarchy, I encountered priests who were all too eager to discuss the current controversies facing the Church, and who understood the need to reemerge as a global champion of family. With the Church operating the world’s largest network of schools, hospitals and orphanages, it is crucial that it also reach everyday mothers and fathers who are struggling to raise purposeful children.
For many people, religion offers ritual but no wisdom, dogma but no self-help. All the splendors of the Vatican will not save the Church from being merely a wonderful tourist destination if it doesn’t help teach people to master life.
The irrelevance of modern religion is something being felt worldwide. Europeans especially have no time for it. Secular Israelis feel the same. Religion for them is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, forever concerned with meaningless minutiae while life’s larger issues remain unaddressed.
In Israel, the strictly religious are viewed as parasites, living off the hard work of the secular people who built the state. Religion is the yeshiva which teaches apparently meaningless texts while  encouraging refusal to serve in the army.
BUT IF religion is destined for extinction, why are highly educatedpeople turning in their tens of millions to the Dalai Lama? It remainsa striking phenomenon that people who work on Wall Street or go toHarvard believe in a man who believes he is the reincarnation ofearlier spiritual teachers. The reason: The Dalai Lama addressesmodernity’s greatest problem. We’re sinking in a morass of materialismthat is suffocating our spirit, and he shows us a way out.
The pope has the largest microphone, and with it the greatestopportunity to heal marriages which are floundering and children whoare in pain over lovelessness and neglect. An internationalfamily-dinner night would be a huge step toward helping religion becomevital again, and toward the Catholic Church being seen in its truelight as a faith focused on protecting children and cherishing family.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network. OnMay 14 he will publish Renewal: A Guide to the Values-FilledLife.