XXIII. Religion and Social Change

Given the increased pressures for change in modern society, it would be surprising if any major social institution had proved immune from the consequences of the process. Although firmly entrenched in the voluntary sphere of social activity, religion has certainly responded, emerging in increasingly varied forms and with changing preoccupations. As the general populace of the western world has become more educated, modern religions have tended to emphasize less the concrete aspects of the literal historical episodes of religious history, and if invoking them at all, have done so as poetic or symbolic metaphors. There has been a diminishing emphasis, even within mainstream Christian traditions, on doctrines concerning God, creation, sin, incarnation, redemption or damnation, and a greater stress on a variety of different concerns. At the practical level, and particularly in the major Christian denominations these issues are anchored in the growth in pastoral care which developed from mid nineteenth century onwards, which is now manifested in many new forms of specialized pastoral ministry. Industrial chaplaincy (including the aborted worker-priest movement); ministry in hospitals and prisons; specialized counselling in marriage guidance; Christian therapy and healing; drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation; sexual problems; and attitudes to work are all every-day indicators of the diverse practical concerns that stimulate contemporary religious and spiritual endeavour. At the more theoretical level they have been complemented by renewed encouragement of an ethic of personal responsibility; concern for social justice; the search for personal fulfillment and empowerment; and the application of religion as a source of positive thinking.

These new orientations have found expression in both orthodox and dissenting expressions within Christianity, but what has also occurred in western society has been the diffusion not only of some of the major faiths of the Orient, carried in large part initially by immigrants, but also of movements derivative from those religions, some of them specifically modified in form and expression to appeal to a western constituency. There are, additional to these, movements which draw on purportedly ancient paganism; others which invoke an eclectic range of mystical traditions as the inspirational sources on which they draw. Yet other movements seek to revive and disseminate the practice of occult arts. To all of this variety must be added new religions which share something of the scientific orientation of contemporary society, and which use their science for ends that can only be described as spiritual. In the background, there are also those more traditional Christian sects, some of which once excited anxiety among orthodox Christians, and at times the hostility of the authorities, but which today have increasingly, and necessarily, come to be tolerated and accepted as part of the religious mosaic of contemporary society. That they are no longer so keenly the focus of attention or anxiety reflects the fact that, in the context of present-day religious diversity, they no longer appear as strange or as deviant as once they did.

XXIV. Traditional Sects