Sometimes I like to check the numbers. I hear stories about the declining religiosity of Americans, mostly from parents who are concerned for their kids. Usually these worries come from a place of deep love and wanting the next generation to feel as connected to the parts of life that the older folks feel are sacred. Sometimes I like to read the statistics to punch through all the stories. Here’s is what I found: Even if we feel as though God is taking a back seat, America is one of the most religious countries in the world. According to Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Americans carry a deeply held belief in God, the vast majority of whom hold that belief with certainty. In my tradition, Judaism, which encourages doubt and questioning, the number is still quite high with 78 percent espousing a belief in God even if that belief bears uncertainty. While there is a decline generationally with younger folks carrying more doubt in their beliefs than their parents, the number of avowed atheists tops out at 26 percent. That’s only one quarter of young millenials who say they do not believe in God. The vast majority are believers in the sacred.
God is not the problem. Religion is the problem.
I’ve met too many young people who feel that religion comes with too much guilt. They want to live a spiritual life, but they feel judged by the community in which they grew up. How many times have you heard of someone feeling hurt by their church or temple because they just don’t live up to community expectations? Instead of lifting souls, how many times has religion crushed souls? When dogma takes precedence over thought and authority takes precedence over imagination, religion suffocates the space for the sacred right out of us.
They don’t walk away from their beliefs. They don’t walk away from God. They walk away from religion.
I’ve written many times that religion gets a bad rap because we put it in the wrong category of thinking. Religion is not science, nor is it simply a code of ethics, and most importantly religion should not be infused with the kind of power that leads to violence. Religion is a special form of art that uses the palette of the world to create a new one, infused with love and justice. If we want to recapture what religion means for the next generation then we must recapture the creative impulse inside each of us. Every piece of art, whether it’s on a canvas or in sculpture, whether it is an essay or film, violates the status quo.
Art itself is courageous disruption.
Every stroke from the artist’s brush is courageous, and so should every action of religious belief. Like the prophets of old, art takes the materials of the world as it is (oil, wood, stone, paper, etc.) and creates a place in space and time that expresses a previously unknowable truth. The courage of an artist is the same as the prophet, which is to share the world as it could be.
In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah we find exactly this kind of courage. The center of the story is the creation of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. It’s the portable home for God and the people through the desert. It is a large tent made of wood, fabric and precious metals. The Torah goes to great lengths describing the materials used in the construction from gold, silver, and copper to blue, crimson, and white fabrics. (Ex. 25:18) The Tabernacle is full of color and texture, and once assembled it is meant to create space for the sacred. Imagine the kind of courage it took for a nation of slaves deprived of everything, to be handed a brush or a spindle and told to create. Imagine the tranformative moment where a slave mason is given a hammer and an anvil and told to work not for a pharaoh, but for world they had not yet known, a world where they can partner with God and create together. When slave workers become artisans, we glimmer prophecy.
It’s religion at its best. It’s a work of art.
The ancient rabbis took this one step further. They saw in the creation of the Mishkan a mirror of the creation of the universe itself. Over and over again the language of creation is deployed in craftsmanship of the Tabernacle. The Hebrew word melacha, which denotes our creative and transformative work within the world parallels God’s work in creating the world. (Bershit Rabba, 1:4; Shemot Rabba 48:4; Pesikta Rabbati 6) The thinking is that just as God created the world for us to live and to flourish, it is in our religious/creative actions, where we create a world for God.
God is the Artist, and you are too. We can tap into the hearts of those who’ve walked away by helping them express their belief in God in an infinite number of ways. Religion needs to find again its forgotten courage to be bold and to unleash the creative impulses that infused the ancient Israelites to create a home for the sacred. We can build again. We can lift up the world again. We can use all the materials at our disposal to do our work, our melacha, and transform lives, bring healing, and move from what is known to the unknown. This is what art does, and this is what religion must do. All it takes is the courage to create.