Steven Rockefeller

In order to make the transition to a just, sustainable, and peaceful planetary civilization, the human species needs the inspiration and guidance of the world’s great moral and spiritual traditions. Regarding organized religion, its support for a Great Transition can make a critical difference. However, mobilizing widespread religious support will require ongoing reconstruction of religious thought, including acceptance of a new worldview that integrates spiritual and moral values with scientific understanding. Further, in the twenty-first century, the religions should be held to account regarding the consequences of their teachings and behavior, as Karlberg argues, just as corporations and governments are held accountable. How to do this effectively, however, is a complicated question. In considering the merits of Karlberg’s proposal for fostering and encouraging the “ongoing evolution and refinement of religion,” first of all, it is instructive to put his recommendations in historical perspective.

For over two hundred years, the liberal tradition in religious thought has endeavored to reconcile religion with reason, science, and modern culture, and liberals have often sought to make religion an instrument of progressive social change. Karlberg’s essay is to be understood as part of this tradition, which has had wide influence but which has also consistently met strong resistance from conservatives. Most liberals have focused on reconstructing the thought and practice of one tradition. Some religious liberal thinkers have argued that all the great religious traditions are different paths to the summit of one mountain, and at the summit the great mystics all find one Truth. In addition, there have been a number of liberals—G. W. F. Hegel, the nineteenth century German philosopher, being a prime example—who have argued for the view that the world’s religions are evolving toward an ideal form of religion. Hegel identified that form with his rationalized concept of Christianity. John Macquarrie, a twentieth century Protestant theologian, maintained that each religion in its own culturally distinct way is evolving toward one universal ideal form. Karlberg appears to be presenting a novel variation on the theme of pathways up one mountain and evolution toward one ideal form with special reference to a Great Transition to a global community.

Karlberg wants us to focus “for analytical purposes, on religion as a singular, universal, trans-historical phenomenon” rather than on the many, different, competing religions. He proposes that we conceptualize religion as one great “evolving system of knowledge and practice that, like science, entails a collective human endeavor to generate insights into reality and apply those insights to the betterment of the human condition.” In addition, he argues that what is needed is “a set of rational, cosmopolitan standards” for harmonizing religion in relation to the emergence of a just and sustainable global community. These normative standards, which provide a vision of the ideal form of religion, can, then be used to assess religious thought and practice and “hold religion to account.”

In what follows, I have the following comments, questions, and recommendations regarding Karlberg’s proposal:

1. Finding ways to foster and encourage the further evolution of the world’s religions is a necessary task if humanity is to find its way to a just, sustainable, and peaceful future. The formation of a planetary civilization is itself the major force driving the further evolution of religion today. The emergence of a world community and the new scientific understanding of the biosphere as a global ecosystem are generating a new global spiritual and ethical consciousness. This new global consciousness reflects increasing social and ecological interdependence and is a manifestation of the animating spirit of a just, sustainable, and peaceful world community. Many of the people affected by this development are not themselves involved in an institutional religion. If the world’s religions are to remain vital centers of spiritual and moral guidance in the twenty-first century, they must open themselves to be transformed by this new global spiritual awareness.

2. Karlberg’s conceptualization of the whole field of religion as one “evolving system of knowledge and practice” is a very general description of religion that requires clarification, and it does not provide an adequate definition of what lies at the heart of religion as a distinct dimension of human experience. One problem is that Karlberg’s formulation tends to blur the distinction between religion and science. He argues that they are similar in that they both involve a collective search for knowledge. Karlberg identifies religious knowledge with religious insight, and he acknowledges that religious insight is very different from scientific knowledge. This leaves the reader asking how he defines knowledge. How are scientific knowledge and religious insight related?

3. The religions are not really organized like the sciences, and they do not involve a search for knowledge in the scientific sense. What one can assert is that the world’s great religions are part of the human search for spiritual and moral wisdom and, at their best, offer culturally diverse pathways to healing, wholeness, right relationship, and inner peace. Insofar as they are faithful to their highest ideals, they are evolving systems of spiritual wisdom and practice.

4. Karlberg calls for a shift in how we understand religion that “requires us to start separating religion conceptually, from the cultural milieus in which specific religions emerged.” This may be an interesting intellectual exercise, but it raises some red flags. Respect for cultural diversity is a fundamental principle for building a just and peaceful global community. The idea of promoting a rational conception of religion in abstraction from the cultural contexts in which religion actually exists will sound to many religious leaders like a kind of liberal intellectual imperialism. Clarification is needed on how Karlberg understands the relevance and significance of cultural diversity in connection with his theory of religious evolution and refinement.

5. The conceptualization of the religious life as a search for knowledge, or more specifically and accurately, for moral and spiritual wisdom, is consistent with classical Greek, neo-platonic, Buddhist, and liberal perspectives among others. I support it, but it is important to recognize that, by and large, conservatives in traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam put more emphasis on faith in divine revelation than on the human search for wisdom. The difference between these two orientations cannot be overcome simply by asserting that faith in revelation is a form of religious insight or knowledge. Further, conservatives in the great theistic traditions, as a general rule, do not think of revelation as ongoing. They look to the past, to ancient scripture, and not to the future, for moral and spiritual inspiration and guidance. For this reason, it will be difficult to engage conservatives in Karlberg’s project as currently formulated.

6. There is some good news. An immense amount of scholarly work has been completed on what must be done to reconstruct the various religious traditions so that they become forces of progressive social change in the twenty-first century. For example, several hundred books have been written analyzing what must be done in the way of reconstructing the world’s great religions in order to fully integrate environmental values into their thinking and practice.

7. The most promising approach to advancing the reconstruction of religious thought and practice and the best way to go about holding religions accountable is to focus first and foremost on an appeal to ethical values, which involves a discourse that all the religions can identify with and readily understand. The religions can reasonably be called upon to act in ways consistent with high ethical standards. More specifically, in the twenty-first century the teachings and conduct of the religions should be assessed using the principles of the new emerging global ethic. The content of this ethic is already well developed. Three documents are of special significance in this connection: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter, and the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” drafted under the leadership of the Christian theologian, Hans Kung, and adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993. The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” is especially significant because it was drafted by a network of religious leaders and scholars and has been widely endorsed by religious leaders from many traditions. Awareness of the “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” should be promoted, and it could well be used to hold religious leaders and institutions to account. It provides a good description of what Karlberg calls “the progressive and constructive practice of religion.” If the world’s religions were to take the principles of this Declaration to heart together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Earth Charter, which both have been widely endorsed by religious organizations, they would become major forces for a Great Transition.

8. The idea of holding “religion to account” in the way that corporations and governments are held to account is an engaging one. External monitoring and pressure on the world’s religions applied by United Nations agencies and secular NGOs may have some impact, but real lasting change will only come with prophetic leadership from within the religions. Each tradition can benefit from an internal dialogue on global ethics and the Great Transition. Over the last four decades, interreligious dialogue has been expanding and deepening and it has great promise as an instrument for promoting the evolution of religious thinking and practice. The education and training being provided to the future leaders of the world’s religions is, of course, of vital importance.

Steven Rockefeller
Steven Rockefeller is a leading voice in linking environmentalism and spirituality and the former chair of the Earth Charter International Drafting Committee. He is also a Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College and a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. He is the author of John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism and numerous essays, as well as the co-editor of The Christ and the Bodhisattva and Spirit and Nature: Why the Environment is a Religious Issue.

Cite as Steven Rockefeller, "Commentary on 'Meaning, Religion, and a Great Transition,'" Great Transition Initiative (December 2014),

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