Growing numbers of people in the Western world no longer believe so. And for good reasons, even if not decisive ones.

There is a distressing sameness about the history of most religious institutions. Typically, they begin with exquisite sensitivity to rapidly changing circumstances. New visions abound of a more adequate theology and a more vital spirituality appearing on the horizon.

But tossed to and fro by “what we have always believed and done,” visionaries lose focus. The more energetically faith seeks relevance, the more desperately its institutions cling to sameness. By way of examples:

The ordering of societies, nations, and institutions by means of hierarchical structures and inequitable distributions of power and resources is a strategy long past its prime. Yet religious institutions remain clergy-dominated, patriarchal, and paranoid about lay involvement’s getting out of hand.

The real strength of religious institutions lies in their ability to mobilize massive resources for serving people in need — the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the homeless and hopeless of the earth. Yet religious institutions pour incalculable amounts of spiritual energy into self-serving projects and enforcement of unquestioning loyalty.

The fact of religious pluralism and the value of religious freedom should inspire religious institutions to be more respectful of each other and more peace-seeking in the world. Yet religious institutions still mock people of other faiths, promote conversion by coercion, and enshrine a false view of human history as unending strife, divinely ordained.

Must personal faith, then, be left to its own resources in order to become a growing faith? Can its vitality be sustained only in spite of, and not with the help of, the institutions which purport to serve its development?

For members of some religious institutions, the answers to these questions may have to be yes, at least for as long as their leaders allow self-interest to subvert their own best insights into sacred truths. But the power these same institutions can marshal, in the interest of resisting change fearfully, is also power to embrace change gladly.

Close to the heart of my own hope for religious institutions is the Protestant Christian idea of the church as always reformed and always reforming (ecclesia semper reformana, semper reformanda). In every religion, the actuality of institutional life falls far short of the “always” in this formula. But “never” isn’t an accurate way of putting it either.

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