This year I have attended conferences on religion and peace, religion and ecology, religion and the social order. It is great for meeting nice people, but hugely frustrating. Why?
Because let's face it, religion has nothing really constructive to offer on these issues.
One can find forced references and recondite interpretations or re-interpretations of classical sources. Theologians desperately struggle to show how religions have a specific contribution to make. But, in reality, they can't even cope with internal disputes of the most abstract, or petty, nature.
Nowadays, governments, quangos and non-governmental organisations have taken upon themselves the burden of these challenges. Occasionally politicians, if they think these issues will garner them votes, actually try to do something, too. But the power has shifted from the clerics. When politicians want faith communities to do more, this is as much to do with sharing the cost as reflecting a religious dimension.
Once, religions controlled the world of knowledge. Once, they gave confident answers to all the questions we now direct to scientists, doctors, psychologists, and sociologists. We no longer agree with Sir Francis Bacon that theological inspiration helps us solve the scientific problems of the universe.
What can religion achieve? The major challenge faced by all humans, whether they are poor or rich, is how to live a valuable--or to use the classical phrase, a "considered"--life. Materialists will value income. Spiritual people will look for an inner serenity that has nothing to do with the size of a bank balance.
Of course, the developed world needs to try to raise standards of living, to provide clean water, protect people from AIDS. But a priority should be to save them from cruel régimes, in the Gemara's words, "shibbud malchuyot". Yet in general these days, we do not interfere in the internal affairs of a country--unless it imperils our oil supplies. Where is the emphasis on how a person lives, on making the best of something, on relying on inner resources to cope? Money talks only to those who don't speak any other language.
What people in our age want from religion is guidance rather than the solution to the problems of the world.
The primary role of religion is, as the Christians would put it, "salvation" and, as we Jews would say, "geulah", redemption. Redemption in Judaism is very down-to-earth. It means getting rid of the forces that prevent us from fulfilling our potential--to marry the physical world with the spiritual and to bring God into our lives, so that we can experience self-fulfilment as something more than mere self-gratification.
This is precisely what the New Age agenda is marketing more successfully than traditional religion, and why a comic-book version of Kabbalah can be popular in some circles.
We have all heard the idea attributed to thinkers as wide as Nachman of Bratslav and Gandhi: "Cure yourself first."
Marxism used to argue that first you put society right and then the individuals will be cured (even if it means killing those who resist). Torah insists we start at home, start small and then begin to look for a wider impact.
The penny donated by each individual helps increase charitable giving, not the millions from government. The message of religion is that if you can't elevate yourself, how can you possibly hope to help the world?
Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web at: www.jeremyrosen.com