I no longer think that this is possible.
I've come to this conclusion because I've changed my opinion about what it means to be a religious "believer" and to live in a religious "congregation". By way of an explanation, I have to explain where my interest in religion comes from.
I was raised by a totally non-religious family. I don't mean that they were atheists who had consciously rejected the Christian church (or any other religion, for that matter.) Instead, they were people who simply didn't think about anything that would be considered "spiritual", "philosophical" or "high-fallutin". They were simple country folk who did not bend their minds towards anything except the daily grind for existence.
I learned from their example the wisdom of Socrates dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living". People who do not think "ultimate thoughts" end up with minds that are little more than jumbled-up attics filled with the rubbish that they have been exposed to during the random events of their life. People who do not develop the habit of self-introspection, and who have never learned to separate a good argument from a bad one ultimately have only one option: just "follow along and do what you are told". This makes you tremendously vulnerable to any sort of social disruption. It also takes away any sort of brakes over strong emotions. People who aren't terribly thoughtful tend to be "drama queens", which makes life incredibly miserable for anyone who has to live either with them or is at their mercy in any shape or form.
Living around very emotional, not terribly thoughtful people for most of my childhood awakened a strong urge to try and emulate the character "Spock" from Star Trek. The great thing about Spock was that he was not only committed to being logical, he obviously had real problems doing so. For example, he lost his marbles over sex, as in the episode where he dragged the crew to Vulcan and ended up fighting Kirk over a woman. As an adolescent boy, I certainly understood the conflict between instincts and rationality, and how no matter how much I tried not to, I would end up "losing it" in one of several ways that still bring waves of embarrassment and shame to this day. If Spock had really been the sort of "soul-less robot" that people referred to him in the television series, he wouldn't have had any appeal for viewers. It was the fact that he was a passionate man with real problems who still tried very hard to live up to a specific ideal that made him a hero to so many people.
And working through the logic of the situation (please, no pun intended), the series writers had to develop a rationale that would explain exactly where this character's "love of logic" came from. I their decisions through various episodes and movies ended up building up the edifice of a Vulcan "religion" based on logic. This makes a sort of sense in that it is only reasonable to assume that any sort of cultural norm requires some sort of institution to pass it on to future generations. In my own case, this is how I began to view religion, as an institutional framework for passing on the ethical and social teachings of some great teachers of the past.
As a result, the values of the institution are inexorably drawn towards points of view that strengthen the hold that the church has over the individual believer. Consider, if you will, a point that I have raised before in this blog: Mother Teresa versus Oscar Romero. Teresa supported an extremely conservative point of view that maximized the power of the Church and voiced the "party line" over the importance of regulating human sexuality (e.g. when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she said that the greatest threat to world peace was "abortion".) In contrast, Oscar Romero took the line that the church should be on the side of the poor and oppressed. His "prize" wasn't universal acclaim, television documentaries, etc----instead, he was gunned down while saying mass in a cathedral. Teresa was fast-tracked into sainthood, whereas Romero will probably never be made a saint---or at least won't until people totally forget exactly what it was that he got killed for. My read of the Bible says that Romero was by far the most in line with the teachings of Jesus, yet his life doesn't teach Catholics to "shut up and do what they are told", whereas Teresa's does---which is why she is a saint and he isn't.
Another example has to deal with the sex abuse scandals plaguing the church. People often fixate on the behaviour of individual priests and argue that celibacy is what is to blame. This is a misread of the facts. The problem isn't the individual offender----the odd person in all walks of life has problems controlling their sexual urges. The real issue is that the institution protects priests whereas other parts of society---such as school boards---are designed to protect the child. And priests are protected for the very real reason that if people start to see priests as ordinary humans instead of as exalted beings who are better than ordinary church goers, the whole religious hierarchy starts to fall apart. If a priest can't be trusted around the choir boys, then why should we accept their interpretation of the scripture? And if the priest is suspect, then what about the Bishop? Or the Pope?
Exactly the same sort of statements can be made about every church that I ever looked into. Each one ultimately has some sort of leadership that controls things, and theology invariably ends up warping itself to supporting the political structure.
Confronted by this fact, I investigated other religions, most notably Buddhism and Daoism. At first I found myself very attracted to both of them. Neither has the sort of centralized structure of Christian churches and both have a theology that has a greater emphasis on personal study and investigation---through things like meditation. But as I learned more about Buddhism, I found out that there are as many abuses by Dharma teachers as there are by Christian priests, many of which are documented in this excellent blog: "Down the Crooked Path". Daoism is too new in the West for many abuses to exist, but I certainly could see the potential during my involvement with the Taoist Tai Chi Association---which is why I left the group.
I went through a real phase of being upset about this state of affairs. I think that we do need a way of handing over values to future generations. Moreover, I feel that there is a real need to have institutions around that do good work for the poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that there simply is no way we could reform religious groups to be able to do this. Moreover, I think that I know why.
The first point to understand is that real charity is inherently anarchic. That is to say, people do not "just" become poor. Invariably they do so because there are institutions or patterns to their existence that force or encourage them to be poor. In a society with significant inequality, there are economic and political forces that keep a fraction of the population from redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. These can be as simple and obvious as the rich paying off the police to "look the other way" when the nation's wealth is looted, or as subtle as lobbying Congress to write tax loopholes that allow someone to define their income in such a way that Warren Buffet pays taxes at a rate far less than his secretary. Either way, if we are genuinely attempting to help the poor, we are also going to be empowering them as well. And any institution that is engaged in really empowering the poor will not only be weakening the power of the leadership within that institution, they will also be encouraging other elements of that society to attack and weaken that institution within it. Church leaders---even with the best of intentions---always find themselves worrying about whether their actions are "prudent" enough to preserve the institution.
This is why whenever there is a movement towards making the lives of individual people better, it is inevitable that the overwhelming majority of organized religions will be opposed to it. The Church opposed trade unions, democracy, birth control, the end of slavery and just about everything else. That is why the leadership of most churches support reactionary political parties. It is also why when the relative influence of the Church gains ascendancy in a political party---as it currently does in the American Republican party---that party will invariably swing towards political extremism.
Not only does the structure of the church define whether or not it can honestly embrace the poor, it also means that it can never truly become a bearer of morality. To understand this point, however, we need to understand just exactly what morality consists in.
People of Conservative bent often complain bitterly against what they call "situational ethics" because they believe that once people are taught that they are able to "bend the rules" based on a specific situation, total chaos will inevitably result as people start to "make it up as they go along". As I see it, the problem with this analysis is that it reduces morality to doing what you are told. Moral behaviour is something very special, it is judging a specific behaviour based on a criteria that goes beyond mere utility and instead suggests that there is a code that someone is following because it is the right thing to do. Now the problem with reducing doing the right thing, to simply doing what you have been told comes from the fact that doing what you are told to do doesn't have a moral component. This is why the judges at Nuremburg refused to accept the "we were just following orders" defence offered up by the Nazi war criminals. Even under military discipline, it is believed that normal people have a moral sense that allows them to make a distinction between a lawful and an unlawful order. Indeed, Western military codes specifically make this distinction and suggest to soldiers that they have an obligation to ignore unlawful orders.
If a soldier is obligated to disobey an unjust order when he is under discipline during time of war, then surely an individual parishioner has an even greater obligation to ignore or disobey an unjust moral injunction laid upon him by the ecclesiastic hierarchy. If your Church says that homosexuals should be abused and discriminated against, that women should continue to be forced to carry pregnancies to birth even if the baby is unwanted and will cause great hardship, or, that women should never use birth control even if the resulting high number of children will be a catastrophe for both her family and nation----then the moral obligation to "do the right thing" would seem to suggest that people disobey the "unjust order".
This criticism of morality goes beyond the practical issue I raised earlier. Even if the Church were to miraculously stop being concerned about prudential issues such as whether a given teaching weakens the power of the institutional church, it still wouldn't be able to overcome the inherent problems that come from teaching morality as a set of eternal truths. That's because morality just isn't something that is revealed through some sort of objective discovery process. The revealed Ten Commandments simply do not have enough moral sophistication to cover all situations (which is why they and the other rules in Deuteronomy could never work as a legal code.) Instead, as people are confronted by a new situation, they have to analyse the key components and decide what they feel is the moral thing to do.
The point is that morality is not defined, it is discovered. And as such, we cannot teach people what the right thing to do is in each situation. What we can do, however, is teach people the right general way that they can approach an issue so that they can work out the best answer for themselves. Our legal system understands this point because it functions not just on the basis of regulations passed by politicians but also by having those laws modified through the rulings of case law.
The way to teach this discovery is through entering into a discussion or dialogue, either with others or within ourselves, in order to ascertain the which side of a given debate can marshal the best arguments in defence of their position. Again, unfortunately, any religious institution simply cannot allow for this sort of methodology because it will invariably undermine the authority of the institution. Church is not a grad seminar and parishioners simply cannot be allowed to debate scripture with the pastor, or else there soon will not be any authority left for either the local priest or the Pope in Rome. The same can be said about Buddhist monks and Daoist priests.
This leaves me on the horns of a dilemma that everyone with a religious bent has to face sooner or later. Will they learn to keep their mouth shut so they can carry on in the faith? Or will they take the harder, moral road and walk away from the church and stick it out on their own?
In a sense I made that decision a long time ago. I have called myself a "hermit" because I refused to make the compromises necessary to stay in a group. But between then and now I have kept a bit of a mental connection with the ideal of religious fraternity. Now I finally reject it. I think that if you really want to be a genuinely spiritual person you have to accept that each and every relationship you make has to be created on its own merits and cannot lean on the clap-trappery of church, robe, title or lineage. In the same way, every act of charity and benevolence has to justify itself. If you help the poor, do it because it genuinely helps the poor. Don't do it because Jesus said you should or because you are want to buy a place in heaven. (Certainly, don't do it because you think you can get a job out of it.)
Luckily the key texts of Daoism never really did have any sort of religious background. Instead, they were written by people who probably had never seen a religious Daoist in their life. (The Zhuangzi, Laozi and Liezi were written before the creation of an organized, Daoist religion.) This makes it easy to follow the teaching while ignoring the religion, as many people do. This includes me too from now on. Now I have to decide if I want to sell off my various statues, close down my altar and so on.
Decisions, decisions, decisions---.