The Changing Face of Religion in Northern California

Last week (September 6), over 60 people from around the Bay Area gathered for the first time ever as “Northern California Religious Leaders in Conversation.” St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco was host to representatives from religious groups, para-religious organizations, interfaith councils, and academic institutions. It seems odd, in a way, that people who spend all their time building bridges among diverse groups in their own communities seldom have opportunities to meet one another and talk about issues of common concern. However, all too often, as we focus on the pressing needs of those with whom we live and work, it’s hard to find the time to make connections.

This was a day for connections. Professor Jerome Baggett of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley set the theme as he spoke about his in-depth research among Catholics in Oakland and San Francisco and outlined how religious traditions change over time. Key elements in the development of religious traditions include revival (renewed commitment to the received tradition); negotiation (finding how my tradition works for me or reframing traditional symbols into new contexts and new understandings); and importation (incorporating elements from other religious traditions or cultures).

In the Bay Area, all of these processes are at work in our traditions. Particularly, we have many opportunities for importation as differing religious traditions have more and more opportunity to rub up against one another and we borrow insights, inspiration, and practices from one another. As Baggett pointed out, people do not consume a religious tradition, the way they consume goods or programs or entertainment. Each religious expression is in itself a new production, a new creation of the interaction of the individual with his or her heritage.

Participants had opportunity to reflect more deeply on how the reshaping of religious identity and meaning affects their own communities. While there is a greater sense of freedom and individual practice, the popular declaration “I’m spiritual, not religious” is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of the American sense of independence. It may express an unwillingness to acknowledge any authority outside one’s own self– no community, hierarchy, or even God is going to determine my choices. The challenge, we agreed, was how to honor freedom and innovation within traditions while preserving the “core” of the tradition. Identifying the core is, certainly, one of the great challenges facing religious leaders and shaping how we should be training the next generation.

More to come…

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