Can Religions Change Yet Maintain Their Core Identity?

We live in a world where the only constant is change. Everything changes. It may change quickly, slowly, or at a glacial pace. The fact is that no matter how loudly we howl, scream, and try to hold it back, change is inevitable.

Unfortunately, most religions and spiritual paths seem to be ill-equipped to handle this law of constant change. This seems especially true about religions of the book. Once a religion is committed to written format, it solidifies, calcifies, and very little can be done to change it.

The only avenue that appears to be open for religions of the book is to apply reinterpretation after reinterpretation to the text. This is done more widely than people realize, even among those who say that they live by the word of said book.

No Built-In Process

Is it possible to bridge this gap between constant change, on the one hand, and solidified dogma, on the other? The answer is, of course it’s possible, but, at what cost?

If a process, for how to change with the times without sacrificing core values or diluting the essence, isn’t written into a religion from the start, then it is up to the clergy, the interpreters of the text, to decide how to proceed. As a result, if there is no supreme authority that has the power to change the text or dogma, religions will likely break into sects of interpreters ad infinitum until they become unrecognizable to themselves.

This is happening to religions and spiritual traditions all around the world. It seems that few, if any, of the founders foresaw this need for change.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama

The most notable exceptions are the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Both, each in their own way, have decided to allow their respective religions to change in certain areas. They can only do this because both of them are considered supreme leaders with the authority to improve things, even if their powers are limited.

What To Change?

In his remarkable book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Ken Wilber proposes that religion should allow itself to change in areas of verifiable science. If, for example, creation myths bump up against new information, they should be updated to reflect that. The same would be true about health, geography, historical accuracy, and so on. Moral values and spiritual practices, on the other hand, especially those who are verifiable in a group of practitioners, should be cornerstones that are reluctant to change.

Wilber’s educated suggestions (please, read his book for details) are worth exploring. Whether or not his approach is right for everyone is in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the hands of the interpreters.

At some point, though, each religion will have to grapple with the fact that everything changes. Some things are worth holding onto, while holding onto others may create a credibility gap between said religion and the outside world, forcing believers to function in silos of cognitive dissonance.

Maintaining a Core Identity

The title of this column refers to a tricky balance. Those who want to introduce a process for change need to somehow make a distinction between core identity and peripheral elements. No outside forces can make these distinctions for them.

Without amendments, the process of change through sectarian interpretation, which I briefly described above, is likely to keep happening worldwide due to an absence of a supreme authority that is authorized to make those changes. Only a worldwide conference or parliament of all sects within the said religion can take the place of that supreme authority and allow for changes without the loss of core identity.

Change is Inevitable

Here is the cold hard truth. Change is inevitable. Without a process for how to handle it, religions will diverge and become unknown to themselves. Only by implementing a built-in process for how to handle change will it become possible to maintain a core identity and allow for changes to happen gradually.

This is worth repeating one more time: Change is inevitable! Either work with the law of change or suffer the consequences of not taking it into account.

Gudjon Bergmann
Interfaith Minister, Author, and Speaker
Founder of Harmony Interfaith Initiative

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  • John Purssey

    Your article could spark off a wide range of discussions.

    I think there will be many differing views of what a faith tradition’s core identity is. The many varieties of a major faith tradition are to some extent the result of a group deciding that the tradition that is being split from does not keep to a core tradition. ISTM that this is true for some of the Christian denominations and some offshoots of Christianity. It seems likely to be true for the branches of Islam.

    Judaism is of special interest as it has the longest history of maintaining a core identity in the face of the threat of assimilation and persecution, even though it has three major expressions of Judaism and many who do not see themselves as Jews religiously, still consider themselves to have a Jewish Identity.
    Under Roman rule some Jewish sects disappeared and current rabbinic Judaism is heir to pharisaic Judaism which survived the destruction of the 2nd Temple, as did the Christian sect which morphed into a new religion.

    Islam sees itself as the true heir to Abraham and sees Judaism and Christianity as being corrupt forms (of the core) (this expression be found in some expressions of Islam).

    It will be hard to appeal to an authority. There are many dissenters to the popes within Roman Catholicism, and certainly the Catholics I know are independent thinkers and use the statements of the Church as only one source of information on which to make (moral) decisions. Maybe this is the result of the modern culture and educational systems which teaches independent thinking and questioning, or maybe this has always been the case. The Dalai Lama seems to be more of a role model and spiritual inspiration than the source of dogma as core values.

    I could make more points about literalism and interpretation of religious texts, or propositional theology vs experiential,narrative, and practical theology. But I will wait to see if anyone wishes to enter into discussion.

  • John Purssey

    Gudjon Bergmann,
    I briefly saw a response from you, but then it disappeared.

  • Sorry about that. Here it is again: Thanks for your observation, John. I am glad to hear that you think this is an important conversation. I don’t have the answers when it comes to deciding what to change and what to keep. Those discussions need to be had within the religions and spiritual traditions themselves, and I have always been an outsider. I am merely pointing out a fact; that change is the only constant. It seems like most (if not all) of the wisdom traditions are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable. My guess is that if they had a built-in process for how to handle change, a clear sense of the core elements, they would be less likely to succumb to dilution and sectarianism. But, then again, maybe we are just dealing with a part of the ‘change paradigm’ and all of it, even the changes to essential teachings, are unavoidable.