The idea of religious experience has changed over the years. In the earlier part of the 20th century, we witnessed an era in which the structure of a worship house invigorated new levels of religious feeling. Synagogues and churches alike invested heavily in creating buildings that would harbor inspirational worship. Vast expanses of space furnished with columns, stained glass and intricate moldings enabled the American worshiper to feel God's greatness, majesty and holiness, while at the same time making him or her feel like a speck of dust. I am beginning to sense that this mode of worship no longer may reach most American religionists.
I believe that American religion is shifting toward valuing religious relationship more than the buildings in which communities gather. In the Jewish community in particular, we have witnessed a strong resurgence of the relational theology of Martin Buber. Buber wrote about the power of encountering our fellow men and women and finding God in these profound meetings. When two individuals connect with one another, according to Buber, they meet in what he calls an "I and Thou moment." God emanates from the "I and Thou moments" that we find in our lives. The synagogue and the church cultivate these connections between individuals by creating opportunities for interaction beyond small talk. In praying, learning and performing acts of social action and social justice together, communities connect souls to each other and to God.
In seeing God as an integral relational partner, we might consider changing how we talk about connecting to God. We often express the idea of divinity in terms of belief. People ask each other whether or not they believe in God. Yet in the emerging culture of relational religion, people long for more than simply knowing whether or not God exists. Within the synagogues and churches of this country, we are discovering a compassionate, caring and comforting God through the power of building a community of relationships.
Relational religion emerges out of a society in which the majority of our interactions are through Facebook, email, text or on a cellphone. We never have been so connected to others, yet bereft of meaningful interaction. Our cyberworld deprives us of bonding with others in truly profound ways, causing us to crave relationships (not the kind that are created by having 1,000 friends on Facebook). Within religious institutions, we are beginning to see the reclaiming of the face-to-face encounter, and it is through these meetings that people are rediscovering God. What brings people into synagogues and churches might be a kitschy program or an interesting learning opportunity, but the relationships that they form with others will bring them back through our doors in the future.
- Franklin, is a student rabbi at Temple Beth Ha Sholom, 425 Center St.