The Power of Experiential Faith
So, religion's most committed adherents appear to have moved Kelley's argument to a global stage. Religion in Africa, South America, and parts of Asia is succeeding because it is generally of a conservative, fundamentalist, and "demanding" sort; whereas religion in Canada, Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand is collapsing because it is too inclusive, too open, and too liberal. Therefore, we have a "both-and" future for religion. We can expect an increase of various forms of conservative religion in a wide variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural forms, but there will be a corresponding loss of religious vitality in places where democratic post-modernism and post-Enlightenment inclusivism are strong.
Such arguments often seem sophisticated. Yet underneath echoes a softer thread of the old "noble savage" narrative -- that the civilized world will find its way back to God by following the paths of those untainted by Enlightenment philosophies, western guilt, and Anglo-European cultural weariness. Or, in a more overtly negative form, a kind of implicit racism taints the discussion by arguing that non-western religions are somehow less tolerant, less peaceable, less intellectually sophisticated, and theologically undeveloped and therefore can be expected to eventually "mature" or "moderate" like western religions. In other words, the current framework for thinking about the future of religion around the world is deeply inadequate and is still intertwined with (mostly) Christian theological and apologetic concerns.
So, what is the future of religion?
The global South might, indeed, hold some clues to a potential path, but those clues have little to do with primitive purity, conservative or liberal theology, or tensions between Christians and Muslims. Instead, the clues point to the power of experiential faith, where spirit-infused movements of personal transformation promise ways of re-ordering life and community that increase human flourishing. Indeed, when faith is an experience that challenges systems of oppression, corruption, and established power relationships, people gain a sense of worth, dignity, health, and control over their lives. This was, as many historians have noted, much of the genius behind the early Christian movement -- that it made life-on-earth better for its adherents through a spiritual encounter with God in Jesus. This combination of personal transformation, experience, and social empowerment seems the combustible fuel initiating most successful religions. Yet, sadly, these elements are often the first things lost when a religion gains too much political power, prestige, or money.
This pattern is more obvious, perhaps, in places where the "big" religions are displacing local and tribal ones. In these contemporary mission settings, people find their lives remade by an encounter with a global faith and new holy texts, whether it be an encounter with Pentecostalism or Sufi Islam, an Anglican prayer book or the Kabbalah. But a similar process is happening in the West where, for many centuries, Christianity has been the "local and tribal" religion of European peoples. Across the western world, the old religion seems worn. Particularly since the end of the 19th century, westerners have been discovering new religions -- in the form of eastern religions or new spiritualities -- as well as reworking new forms of Christianity and Judaism. Most of these new western faiths are experiential, not creedal, and take such forms as practicing yoga, learning meditation, lighting candles and reciting ancient prayers, telling one's story in a recovery group, rehearsing Latin-sounding chant, learning to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus, or doing the works of justice with one's own hands. Many formal religious institutions have been slow to embrace the experiential shift, and the slower they have been, the swifter their decline as people migrate toward new expressions of faith mostly found outside recognizably organized groups.