Religious life in the future

This story appears in the Crisis in the Church feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: In her column last week, Ilia Delio considered death and the possibility of new life in the church. It is a companion piece to this week's column.

I recently spent a week on the Jersey shore with 137 sisters from various congregations.

Each year, the Redemptorists' retreat house in Long Branch, New Jersey, holds several sisters' retreats that accommodate a wide variety of religious women. This year, the theme was "Living from the Heart," with a morning talk on the theme and an afternoon sacramental celebration of living from the heart. The retreat followed a daily "convent" schedule: Matins, Vespers, Mass and afternoon adoration.

It was easy to feel young in this setting since many of the sisters were between 70 and 95 years old, some dependent on canes and walkers, others moving at a leisurely pace down the main hallway. There were a few younger sisters in modified habits from India, Africa and the Philippines.

For me this weeklong retreat with consecrated women provided a bridge to my past as I continue to explore a new type of religious life for the future. Participating in the modified convent routine reminded me of my formative years as a Franciscan, the interactions of community life, the devotional routine of communal prayer and, overall, the Catholic culture of institutional life.

Yet I could not help reflect on my experience the week before the retreat, when we held our first Omega Center conference in Kansas City, Missouri. The conference focused on Teilhard de Chardin's notion that we need a new religion of the earth.

He came to this insight through his deep reflections on consciousness, spiritual energy and evolution. Our God has become too small, he said, too puny to nourish any kind of zest for life. We need a new understanding of God that reflects our new understanding of the cosmos.

Teilhard realized that we humans are in evolution and that evolution entails a rise in consciousness; that is, consciousness constantly reformats itself to fit the new contours of the universe, giving rise to a new type of person. I got a hint of this new type of person emerging in the 21st century at the Omega Center conference.

I invited two millennial spirituality leaders to speak at the Omega conference. One of the speakers was Matthew Wright, an Episcopal priest, who spoke on the rise of "second axial consciousness" and the emergence of a new type of global interspirituality.

Following Ewert Cousins' Christ of the Twenty-First Century, Matthew outlined the features of second axial religion as global, ecological, communal and interspiritual. The Christ is symbolic of a new type of religious person emerging through the deepening of love and compassion across religious traditions.

Matthew's own involvement in Sufism and Centering prayer is reflective of this new type of religious person; one who is at home in a religious tradition, yet open to the wisdom of other traditions and can move freely and unencumbered across traditions in the pursuit of unity and love.

The next speaker was Brie Stoner, a divorced millennial mother of two young boys; she currently works for Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation. Brie spoke on Teilhard's "harnessing the energies of love," by focusing on the Augustinian notions of memory and will.

Looking to Augustine's notion of memory as the field of awareness which is past, present and future, she spoke of memory as being "membered to" — reflecting on the experiences of her own life, including a traumatic experience of sexual assault and the pain and joy of single motherhood.

Both Matthew and Brie are disciples of Cynthia Bourgeault's Wisdom School and represent a new type of religious person emerging in the 21st century. The new religious person is grounded in practices of meditation and is earth-centered, scientifically literate, interspiritual, communally oriented, open to emerging forms of religion and, while open to religious traditions and committed to them, they are not constrained by tradition (as in "we've always done it this way!")

The physicists David Bohm and David Peat in their book Science, Order and Creativity discuss the constraints of rigidity in science and I think the same could be said of the church and religious life. Bohm used the term "tacit infrastructures of ideas" to connote established ways of knowing and doing things (26, 31). These tacit ideas form a paradigm and become habit and custom so that change becomes burdensome, if not threatening, to the established paradigm.

The 21st-century religious seeker is not bound to a rigid paradigm of ideas but is just that, a seeker or a quester, one in search of meaning, community, identity, wholeness: essentially, God.

The sheer nature of the search requires a journey on the edge of chaos, which means being open to new forms and ideas that flow through relationships. The well-known phrase "spiritual but not religious" captures this emerging second axial consciousness of religion where religion is not a closed system, but an open system that flows into and out of other systems such as science, ecology, socialization and politics; that is, religion flows through relationships.

In this respect, the new religious person arising in the 21st century is horizontally transcendent and by this I mean that the search for God is not oriented above but in the other.

Horizontal transcendence means being drawn out of oneself and into the other by way of vision. Horizontal transcendence is deeply incarnational, reflecting the hidden presence of God in our world.

The world is no longer an obstacle to God (as we were taught in the novitiate!), but the very place of God's self-becoming. Relationships are important, community is important, creativity is important, engagement is important and spontaneity is important: the new emerging religious person requires new levels of creative freedom.

For the new religious person may or may not be celibate, may or may not belong to a religious tradition, may or may not be gay or straight, may or may not be married, may or may not be of the East or of the West.

What marks the new religious person is being locally communal, globally aware, scientifically open, earth-centered, planetary-minded, less bound by laws and dogmas but attracted to authenticity and meaningful rituals. As a new religion of the earth emerges (and given our present collapse of systems, it will emerge), I anticipate that religious life in the 21st century will be more provisional and local rather than institutional and permanent.

Surprisingly, I could not have come to this realization of human evolution without engaging artificial intelligence on a deeper level. As I have studied and reflected on what constitutes artificial intelligence, I have begun to realize just how disconnected we are from nature and how addicted we are to substance thinking.

"Nature" is a polyvalent term that basically describes the existence of things. It is as much defined by computations and algorithms as it is by physics, chemistry and biology. In his 1989 book Artificial Life, Christopher Langton suggests that nature itself is computational whereby large numbers of simple processors are locally connected.

Other scientists postulate that the physical universe is based on the continuous process of information. If indeed "nature" includes algorithms and computation, then nature and artificial intelligence are not so much opposing terms but descriptive of the same reality — which means your computer may be closer to you than you are to yourself.

We do not think of ourselves as informational patterns or algorithms, but to do so may be more apt than thinking of ourselves as solid concrete pillars or, in Boethian terms, an "incommunicable substance of rational nature."

Artificial intelligence (and the fact that technology is the extension of nature's evolution) impels a new understanding of the human person. Instead of using language of "individual" or even "person" we might begin to think of ourselves as "life systems."

To consider the human person as a life-system is to say that personhood is emergent and capable of hybridization, aspects of personhood that are subsumed or lost in the more substantial notion of personhood. A person is not a substance or an entity that we perceive as a thing.

A person is like an eddy in a stream, a vital locus of centering in the flow of all that engages a human's system. Beatrice Bruteau in her book The Grand Option said that a person is "not spatialized substance that has some volume or weight to it, but the creative activity of life as it projects itself to the next instant" (141).

To be human is "to be there," to be thrown into a world, as Karl Rahner wrote, to be that part of this intensely physical place that has the role of questioning both itself and its place.

Thus, personhood is defined in and through relationships rather than in substantive being. Being itself is relational and the particularity of personhood or rather the particularity of the human life system reflects the core flow of dynamic relationships.

Of course conceiving ourselves as human life-systems helps us realize that we are part of other life-systems; that the flow of blood in our bodies depends on the flow of elements in the stars and in the waters and in the mountains.

We are wholes within wholes and until we begin to understand our personal existence as interdependent co-arising systems, we are on a downward spiral. We are not fixed things, little atoms bumping into one another. We are like drops of water in the ocean in which what we are distinctively cannot be separated from what we are collectively.

To reconceive our lives as life-systems would require a change in our understanding of all systems — ecclesial, political, social, economic — that impact our lives and in which our lives are embedded. We are not there yet but I do see a shift in the religious terrain.

In Teilhard's view "people are looking for a religion of humankind and of the earth which gives meaning to human achievements … a religion that will kindle cosmic and human evolution and a deep sense of commitment to the earth" (The Future of Man).

We got a glimpse of this new religious earth at the Omega conference with 96 live-streamers from around the world, including Australia, Ireland, Italy, Singapore, Canada and across the U.S. who joined with the 210 conference attendees. This new religion of the earth means new mutual relationships between Science and Religion and Eastern and Western religious traditions.

The lines of division must be transcended to embrace new lines of unity. Teilhard said that the purpose of religion is to give form to the free energies of the earth. Religion is primarily on the level of human consciousness and human action rather than in institutions or belief systems, except insofar as these manifest and give direction to the former.

How far we have strayed from the embeddedness of religious consciousness in the cosmos! We have made religion into institutions and ourselves into institutional structures — and in doing so we have left nature out of the picture.

But nature cannot be pinned down and controlled; rather, nature is elusive and much more creative than we could ever imagine. Hence our human nature is slipping out from under our grasp and becoming something new, and the prime mover of this new nature is technology because nature is techne. And by techne I mean that nature is a standing reserve of infinite potential and has the capacity to reveal; techne is the art of bringing forth.

Teilhard intuited something of the intrinsic creative powers of nature. He believed said that we must develop within ourselves "the exceptionally strong unifying powers exerted by inter-human sympathy and religious forces," as Ursula King writes in Teilhard and Eastern Religions (193).

Perhaps this is a new way to consider religious life: developing within ourselves the unifying powers of inter-cosmic sympathy in union with the power of divine Love. What form shall this new type of religious life take? Many forms, for love and compassion know no bounds.

Our challenge is to make a radical shift in our thinking about ourselves, which means finding within ourselves a radical freedom and trust in the creative power of love. As Erich Jantsch wrote in The Self-Organizing Universe: "To live with an evolutionary spirit is to let go when the right time comes and to engage in new structures of relationships."

Religious life with its daily routines and structured spiritual life is giving way to something new. Up ahead there is a new horizon of religious consciousness awakening, a new type of religious person is forming, and thus a new type of church will eventually appear with a new zest for life.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]