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May 10 , 2005:

Five of the Most Influential People in Religion Today
(an alternative to Time magazine's recent list)
by Jon M. Sweeney

May 10, 2005

In its April 18 special issue, the editors at Time magazine offered their list of “the world’s 100 most influential people.” Some names on the list shouldn’t surprise anyone: Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code; President George W. Bush; filmmaker Michael Moore. In fact, in the selecting of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger Time was absolutely prescient. (The April 18 issue was published before the conclave to select the next pope began.)

But other names on Time’s list were downright shocking, at least to some of us. For instance: Actress Hilary Swank? Basketball player LeBron James? Musician Melissa Etheridge? Are these really three of the world’s 100 most influential people?

Also disappointing about Time’s list is the scant attention that it gives to religion. Aside from Ratzinger, the only explicitly religious figures among Time’s 100 are H. H. the Dalai Lama, whose influence over worldwide Buddhism and in world politics is probably as low now as it has been in the last twenty years, and two Christian evangelicals: Pastor Rick Warren, because his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, has sold a mind-boggling 22 million copies, and John Stott, an 84-year-old conservative Anglican who appears to have made the list because Billy Graham offered to write something about him. (However, someone at Time clearly has a passion for Stott, because the magazine even more inexplicably included the quiet Englishman in its earlier list of “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” (Feb. 7, 2005 issue.)

A few of the other luminaries in Time’s list are also people with strong, religious or spiritual underpinnings, as well as powerful influence over the thoughts and minds of religious people everywhere. Witness spirituality guru Oprah Winfrey, President George W. Bush (the world’s most influential evangelical?), and less so today, Dr. Andrew Weil (he should have made the list ten or fifteen years ago).

But, where in Time’s list are the progressive religious leaders who are daily working to change our institutions, communities—even religions—for the better? Where are the next generation of those who follow in the footsteps of Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ram Dass, and Georgia Harkness?

We have these dynamic people among us. Let me introduce you to five.

Marcus Borg describes himself as both a historical Jesus scholar and a Christian. He is Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, but that does not really describe how he has become one of the five most influential people in religion today. Borg has probably had more influence than any other person in the last generation over the ways that Christians understand the life and death of Jesus and how Christians read the Bible. Every month, Borg is giving talks in churches explaining how we all read scriptures with particular lenses, and how the Jesus of history is not the same Jesus as we encounter in the Gospels. He is the author of many accessibly-written books, including Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Jesus: A New Vision.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is the founder of the Aleph network, and the spiritual inspiration for the Jewish Renewal Movement of the last forty years. Born in Poland, Schachter-Shalomi fled Nazi-occupied Vienna with his family in 1939. Eventually settling in New York, he studied in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva and was ordained a Lubavitch rabbi in 1947. But, his outreach to Jews of all backgrounds, his broad ecumenism, and his exploration of how Eastern religions relate to Western, has put him in a position to re-energize modern Judaism. He has shown Orthodox Jews how to add spirit to their practices, and he has shown liberal Jews how to blend a critical approach to truth and tradition with a faithfulness to spiritual practice. He is not known as a writer of many books, but rather, as a personal, spiritual teacher. He is most often referred to as Reb Zalman, honoring him as one who carries on the rich tradition of the Hasidic rebbes. He is still on the faculty of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives.

Jim Wallis was a founder of Sojourners—Christians for Justice and Peace in the early 1970s and continues to serve as the editor of Sojourners magazine, one of the most important forums today for progressive critique of politics and culture. In 1995, Wallis organized “Call to Renewal,” a national association of churches, denominations, and faith-based organizations from across the theological and political spectrum (bringing together evangelicals and liberals) working to fight poverty. He also walks his talk, living with his wife and two children in the inner-city of Washington, D.C. I asked a progressive, Catholic friend in London why he admires Jim Wallis and he said: “He’s very evangelical, but still on the left. I always like that—like Dorothy Day: old religion, the rosary and the nine first Fridays, plus anarchism and pacifism. People like Wallis and Day make it clear that you don't have to play off belief against social radicalism. You can have both at once.”

Sister Joan Chittister is the author of many books, and one of the most popular speakers on the subject of visionary and spiritual change today. She is the executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she lives in a community of nuns. Deeply informed by her Catholic spirituality and practice, Sister Joan is nevertheless profoundly ecumenical in her outreach and ministries, traveling all over the world and speaking to groups of all backgrounds. With an earned Ph.D. from Penn State University and thirty years of experience in teaching, she is full of penetrating insight on subjects as diverse as gender bias in religion, theological conflicts between the left and the right, and moral issues that should be of concern to all people everywhere.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has lived in exile, primarily in France, since the time of his protests of the Vietnam War. He was a personal friend of American Catholic monk Thomas Merton and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. He is the second-most recognized Buddhist teacher in the world today, after the Dalai Lama, and leads retreats and lectures all over the world each year. Through quiet determinism, his eminently practical teachings have brought Buddhist spiritual practices to people of all religious backgrounds. His commitment to peace through personal transformation is so practical that in 2004, he led a week-long workshop in Madison, Wisconsin for police officers called, “Protecting and Serving without Stress or Fear.”

We should acknowledge each of these five influential people. Surely they are more important for our future than actresses, basketball players, and musicians.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of The St. Francis Prayer Book, and the editor of Paul Sabatier’s biography of St. Francis, The Road to Assisi. His new book is THE LURE OF SAINTS: A PROTESTANT EXPERIENCE OF CATHOLIC TRADITION.
More by Jon Sweeney

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