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The 5 Pillars of Religious Reform

Updated on July 15, 2016
Jeffrey Borup profile image

Jeffrey Borup is a prosecuting attorney practicing law in the District of Arizona. The views he expresses are solely in a private capacity.

Background: A Conflict Between Tradition and Modernity

On the global stage, most calls for religious reform stem from a confrontation between traditional thought or practices and the values and demands of a modernizing state, society, and culture. Increasing urbanization over the course of time, for example, inevitably leads to growing exposure to values that may be viewed as being in conflict with traditional norms.

In light of this, two major ideals remain at war:

  1. The need to return to an ideology's original intention and inspiration through biblical (or textual) literalism
  2. The need to re-make existing religious institutions by contextualizing, repudiating, or re-defining specific problematic language so as to allow for a more modern application of those inconvenient areas within doctrine (perhaps, for example, rendering evolution, homosexuality, and the ordination of women no longer controversial).

Example: Abraham Kohn and the Struggle for Reformation

One example of the struggle between traditionalism and reformation in light of modernity is that of Abraham Kohn (1806–1848). Kohn was a Rabbi in what is now West Ukraine who advocated for what were, back then, alarming reforms within the Jewish faith. At the time, the custom of married women was to cut off all their hair. Kohn's wife did not. Indeed, Kohn condemned many of these customs as superstitions that were contrary to the spirit of Judaism, including those performed during the High Holiday ceremonies of tashlikh and kaparot. Such practices entailed getting rid of one’s sins by casting them into a body of water and transferring them symbolically to a chicken, all the while twirling the chicken over one’s head.

"An Act Tantamount to Apostasy"

Prior to Kohn's martyrdom (by poison), he also encouraged the altering of medieval prayers that called for vengeance against gentiles and, notably, introduced a confirmation ceremony for both boys and girls, an act his opponents regarded as tantamount to apostasy. Many rejected these ideological changes and believed in retaining the old ways, including the expression of national aspirations contained within.

Abraham Kohn was the Liberal Chief Rabbi of Lemberg, Galicia, Known Today as Lviv

The Ideology of Change

All attempts at religious transformation involve two basic concepts:

  1. Contested conceptions of religion that are thought to be more in harmony with idealistic philosophy, and
  2. Individual liturgical reforms/re-interpretations motivated by both aesthetic and ideological considerations.

Each attempt at transformation, no matter the position taken and method chosen, has invariably led to the creation of thousands of competing denominations and factions, the disagreements of which have unmistakably penetrated and plagued nearly all aspects of social and political life today.

How Religious Belief Evolves: 5 Steps

The intrigue that persists from all past and present efforts at religious transformation is not necessarily why our religious views tend to exist on a continuum, or how our subjective and collective beliefs have shifted over the centuries, but what are the specific and fundamental prerequisites that allow for a religion to adapt/evolve/devolve in the first place? What barriers inhibit progressive reform at a grassroots level? What exactly prevents either members or spiritual leaders to contextualize scripture in light of modern advancements? What power structures must exist for a strict literalism to take hold in the face of a sufficiently evolved populace?

The answer to these questions rests upon five basic precepts:

  1. Freedom of thought
  2. Access to "holy" text
  3. A desire to change
  4. Assertion of interpretive authority
  5. Application of an accepted interpretive method

Step 1: Freedom of Thought

The first hurdle to overcome on the path to religious reform is that of thought crime. Some religious laws in their current form prescribe severe punishment for willful desecration of a holy text. Some impose death for blasphemy against the church or a specific spiritual leader. But should they go so far as depriving an individual of free thought entirely?

If religious laws governing the thoughts in one's own head are dominated by a rigid and reductive interpretation of religious texts, the path to reformation is unbearably difficult for its practitioners, perhaps even dangerous.

In order for the seed of reform to take hold, the religious among us must be afforded diversity in thought and the ability to reach their own conclusions. This is especially important in those instances where membership comes about at a very early age. No such individual should be forced to endure threats of punishment by God/clergy/community for privately entertaining thoughts contrary to mainstream belief.

Step 2: Access to "Holy" Text

A seemingly simple requirement. Unfortunately, such an easy principle is not always tenable in certain cultures. The only true means to alter the course of religious belief is to first understand its precepts. The best way for this to occur is to come to know the doctrine at its source, via the text itself. All religious practitioners, as a prerequisite to joining any religion, should be afforded a base level education in preparation for such. The ability to read, process, and comprehend "holy" text in one's own native language is the single means by which an individual may reach their own independent conclusions and render cogent opinions that are grounded in fact.

Step 3: A Desire to Change

In order for change to take hold, there has to first be a desire for it to happen. Whether the intention is for a stricter adherence to traditional principles, or a shift brought about through empathy towards new ideas and value systems, the social and political environment must be such that:

  • a general awareness of the others' feelings, needs and concerns are made accessible to all, and
  • the consequences of a diversion from tradition and/or group-thinking are clearly understood.

Be it trepidation of long-term departure from traditional norms, or a new-found empathy towards more modern values and ideals, any desire for change must be rooted in fact, and to be lasting, entail a proper weighing of both tradition and progress.

Step 4: Assertion of Interpretive Authority

The assignment of meanings to religious concepts and ideas is most certainly the primary cause for dispute among sects. The assertion of interpretive authority can not only be the deciding factor in favor of religious progression, but also the paramount limitation on departure from traditional lines of thinking.

For example, one of the first steps in engaging Muslims under Islam is done through fatwas (rulings by authorities on a point of Islamic law). In a general sense, fatwas are decisions governing the parameters of Islamic law and its prescribed penalties. They are procured from local and international religious clergy members. The rulings are then disseminated to the masses through sermons at mosques and are also sent to parliamentarians, the Council of Islamic Ideology, advocates, and judges. This chain of command, if recognized by its members as such, places an important restraint on an individual's own conception of Islam.

Restrictions on religious affiliation, consolation of interpretive power, and the lack of alternative voices, especially in an environment of intimidation, are inhibitors to change. Absent the individual ability to assert personal interpretive authority over ancient text, religious followers will remain subject to the whims of their spiritual leaders, be it the Pope, Rabbi, Bishop, Prophet, or otherwise. Thus, in today's reality, in order to modify religious discourse, or direct the conversation in such a way that it may be adaptable to a modern society, it is likely the case that local religious scholars, clerics, and prayer leaders must be at the forefront of such an endeavor.

Step 5: Application of an Accepted Interpretive Method

Once a desire for change is present, and the entity empowered to actually interpret the text at issue is appointed or recognized, what happens next?

Absent spiritual guidance from on high, there are literally dozens of methods one may employ to give meaning to scripture. Whether the literary analysis is contextual, teleological, historical-critical, a plain-meaning reading, traditional, fundamental, or even employs the use of human sciences, there are thousands of ways one verse alone may be read. The primary battle is between those who take a literal approach to translation and those who view the ancient scriptures more as living words, subject to interpretive change as society grows and adapts.

No matter the method, so long as it is employed carefully, by the right practitioner, and is generally accepted by its community of followers, subtle changes to the doctrine will unfold as intended. And, upon application of this new textual significance, what we are left with is a religious populace acquiescent to, and even subservient of, what is now a bona fide reformed faith.

Alternatives to Reform

Are there other means by which religions and religious members can change without necessarily needing to reform, per se?

The King James version of the Bible contains both a New and Old Testament. Two completely different tales, both of which serve as the bedrock for numerous Christian faiths who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. But why two books? Luke 5:33-39 suggests that Jesus, in the New Testament, did not come to remodel or patch up the old way of doing things (Old Testament). Rather, he claimed to be a new messenger with what he asserted was an entirely new message. Some suggest that Jesus was actually a Rabbi, who in fact, practiced, observed, and obeyed Jewish law. Notably, however, what Jesus brought was not reformation, but a brand new way of doing things altogether. One many assert was built upon grace, love, and forgiveness.

Is it possible for such a thing to happen again? Has another Enlightenment type of scenario come to pass without us even knowing it? Another new way of doing things - one built, perhaps, upon science, exploration, and the survival of life?


Such bold revelations about organized faith are bound to receive marks of disapproval based on perceived faults or mistakes. Please let us know the considerations we failed to acknowledge in the comments below. In the meantime, consider some additional questions:

  • Are some religions easier to reform than others?
  • Is there an intolerable difference in the way certain zealots respond to criticism of their own religion?
  • Is it permissible that similar observations about faith often lead to charges of racism/bigotry/bullying?

Some feel that technically there has never been a real reformation of [their] religion because interpretation arises mainly out of political and social situation, yet the "holy" text remains unchanged.

  • Are we being intellectually honest in this regard?

It's a Question of Faith

Do You Feel You Have the Power to Reform Your Own Religion?

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3 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of The Bible

© 2016 Jeffrey

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 12 months ago from The Caribbean

      Freedom of thought often leads to numerous debates in matters of reform, so "interpretive authorities" usually discourage individual interpretation. The result is that the interpretation handed down will be accepted in varying degrees by some of the followers--some fully, some less fully etc. Eventually, reforms will continue to happen.

      The idea of educating individuals in preparation for accessing is brilliant (though it should be just common sense).

      Altogether you propose a reasonable process.