How Can Religion Partner with the Divine to Heal the World?
By Mason Mennenga
If religions don’t partner with one another, the world may be destroyed.
Religion is a universal human experience. Even before civilizations humans had rituals and thought of something beyond themselves. Perhaps this means religion is not just something universal to humans but that it is also natural. While humans create each religious tradition, the need to perform rituals and imagine something beyond ourselves is ingrained within us.
Some religions call the “something-beyond-us,” God. Others call it, Divine. Even others call it, Universe. Whatever we may call it (throughout this essay I will use the term ‘divine’), itseems to be an important part of religion.
The relationship people have with the divine influences their relationship with the world. Whether it’s to escape the world, heal it, dominate it, or something else, religion is preoccupied with how the people-divine relationship relates to the world. In light of this, many religions understand issues like climate change, white supremacy, homophobia, and others as threats that must be ended. Perhaps in relationship with the divine and in a partnership with one another, religions can help heal the world of these threats.
Religion as intrinsic to humanity combined with the relationship between humans and the divine matters to the world. Religions in partnership with the divine have the possibility of healing the world from planetary catastrophe. After all, religion is a natural part of humans and the divine is relational.
Why Are Humans Religious?
In this phase of history,religion may seem odd. Why do humans participate in something that has caused so much war? Why do they fast and pray? Why do humans believe in things like God and spirits? Despite how odd religion may seem, it has been around since the beginning of humans. If religion is something common to humans, perhaps the natural world can explain why humans are religious.
Where does religion begin? Let’s begin with the most widely accepted theory of the origin of the universe itself: the Big Bang. Immediately after the Big Bang, energy quickly cooled and formed protons and neutrons. For billions of years these protons and neutrons formed into atoms and those atoms into elements. As things became more complex, the speed at which things became more complex increased. From that, billions of galaxies quickly formed. Within one of these galaxies, the planet Earth had the right conditions to form a new thing in the universe: life. Millions of years of life evolved to form millions of different species–one of which developed into the complex life form, humans.
Humans are the product of this unfolding story of relationality and cosmic complexity. As things interact and relate, they become more complex, and something new emerges. Whether it was the moment a few particles interacted to form an atom or the moment a couple of apes formed the first human, relationship and complexity create novelty.
The cosmic story of relationality and complexity may not seem like it has anything to do with religion. In fact, it has everything to do with religion. At the core of all of existence is relationship. Whether it is the particles that make up atoms or humans working together in society, all of existence yearns for relationship. Therefore, something like religion makes sense if the entire universe is always moving towards relationship, organization, and complexity. Thus, with the unfolding story of the cosmos, it should be no surprise something as complex and relational as religion would emerge given the nature of this unfolding story of the cosmos.
Is the Divine Relational?
One of the core elements of religion is a sense of human relationship to the sacred. Regardless of how each religious tradition thinks of the divine, religions believe not only that there is something more to reality but that we relate with it in some way. Even a religion like Buddhism, which does not necessarily believe in gods, promises liberation based on a transcendent “character of reality.” And Buddhists have some sort of relationship with that reality.
Many religious traditions have thought of different ways to talk about relating to this transcendent reality. One such way is Madhyamaka, which is a part of the Buddhist tradition. Madhyamaka talks about the relational nature of reality as “emptiness.” When this tradition says everything is empty, they simply mean nothing can exist on its own. All things exist because they exist in relationship with one another.
Regardless of how a religion thinks the divine and the world relate to one another, religions tend to agree that the divine is in some relationship with the world. This truth may be twisted. When this occurs, much of what makes sense of reality is lost. Thus, it remains important that religions embrace this truth of relationality between the world and the divine. Whether it be the many Hindu deities, the triune God of Christianity, or even the atheism in some Buddhist traditions, the divine and the world relate to one another in some way–just like all the things that make up the world relate to one another.
The divine as relational does not mean the divine wants systems of oppression to be abolished and the planet healed. The divine is also just. While each religion may understand justice a bit differently, a divine that desires justice is important. The divine is concerned about oppression and destruction in the world and wills for justice to prevail so that the world flourishes.
How Can Religions and the Divine Partner to Heal the World?
With the effects of climate change, the relationships between ecology and religions that forms over the next few decades may be most crucial. This partnership has the chance to end oppression and heal the planet.
Foremost, religious people must work with the divine to care for healing and restoration for the world. Religions ought to portray the divine as desiring for planetary liberation. A view that says the divine wants the world restored is necessary to end systems of oppression and heal the planet.
Second, religions must partner with one another. Their differences may be significant, but only through collaborative relationships with each other can religions organize to end systems of oppression and reverse climate change. Religions grew out relationship. And only in relationships can the planet be healed.
Thirdly, religions must also look at the past. Religions create their own narratives and theologies about the world and how we should engage it. We need to take the best of these narratives and theologies and create new ones to lead us to end systems of oppression and heal the planet.
Healing the planet will require religions to repair their relationships with one another. This process is vulnerable and even painful at times, but it is absolutely necessary. Without it the chance of ending oppressive systems and healing the planet seems small. By embracing the truth that we and our religions have only come to where we are because of relationship, we may have a chance.
The combination of the divine desire for planetary liberation, the relationship between the world and the divine, and the partnerships between religions can create the possibility for systems of oppression to end and the planet healed.
Mason Mennenga is an aspiring theologian, podcast host of A People’s Theology, YouTuber, and the Internet’s youth pastor. He earned his Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. You can find more at masonmennenga.com.
How might your tradition partner with other traditions to save the world?
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.