Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sinking Seminaries

General Theological Seminary
A couple weeks ago an op-ed piece appeared in The Washington Post titled “The rise and fall of the American seminary.” It was written in response to the ongoing upheaval at one of the premier Episcopal seminaries, General Theological Seminary in New York City. Basically the school has imploded in financial distress and internal strife. Recently most of the faculty quit or were fired, depending on which side you listen to.

The gist of this article by Tom Ehrich (an Episcopal priest and “church consultant”) is that GTS’s embarrassingly public meltdown is symptomatic of a crisis spreading throughout the world of denominational seminaries.  From my experience, his analysis is right on the money and certainly applies to the seminaries of my own Lutheran denomination (ELCA).

For years I have participated in meetings and conversations on the impossibility of sustaining our church's theological schools as they have been constituted. They cost too much and we have too many of them have been the most obvious problems. Pastor salaries are too low for seminary graduates to pay off their student loans. Dropping enrollments make the individual schools (financially stressed in my day) impossible to maintain. Yet the can has just kept being kicked down the road. Now a crisis state is forcing schools into shotgun mergers and consolidations, or outright closure.

As Ehrich goes on to say, the crisis of the seminaries is paralleled by the crisis of congregations. Together they are facing shrinking resources and confusion about their purpose. Culture has changed and drastically so when it comes to religion. Most of these institutions have resisted the changes as long as possible, until now when many are simply being swept away.

What Ehrich doesn’t say, however, is that the seminaries bear a special responsibility for the crisis of the church, especially the decline of US mainline denominations. For decades these generally liberal schools taught their ministry students contemporary theology and critical biblical studies which together exposed much of traditional Christianity as irrelevant to, or in denial of, the modern world. Yet apart from the classroom and student lounge debates, this information fell lifeless to the floor. Rarely were students encouraged to actually apply this knowledge in their future congregational ministries. In fact, usually the message was quite the reverse: keep this to yourself lest you upset the folks in the pews. Seminaries have stood out uniquely as institutions of professional training by giving students information they aren’t actually supposed to use.

The result has been clergy by the thousands handicapped from the start in not having the tools to respond creatively to a rapidly changing world. While using more adult language, their preaching essentially repackages ideas they learned in Sunday school. The Bible continues to be interpreted with a naïve realism, even when they are aware of alternative modern critical understandings. Ancient church creeds and doctrines continue to be propounded, however irrational or meaningless they have become.

Amazingly, and tragically, even now nothing has really changed. In the midst of crisis, churches and seminaries look only for ways to trim and adapt their operations to new fiscal realities. Rarely, if ever, do they consider whether in these times fundamental change might actually be called for. Seminaries have been in possession of the ideas that could have ignited a transformation of the church into relevant and dynamic social institutions. They didn’t use them and now are paying the price for remaining aboard a sinking ship.

Afterword: Here is a related blog post I wrote almost five years ago. As I say above, this conversation has been going on a long time: Re-cutting the Seminary Pie.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Creating Jesus

A recent Salon essay described in simple terms the case for what is arguably the most controversial idea in Christianity today: that Jesus of Nazareth is not a historical figure. He never existed. He is a fictional character, not a real person.

As the essay explains in its opening paragraphs, for at least a couple centuries, scholars have said that Jesus was a historical person whose story had been mythologized. He was a real person but layers of fantastic tradition surrounded him in the Biblical accounts. The task of scholars has been to strip off those layers, or “de-mythologize” him, in order to discover who Jesus really was. For a long time this view had been considered radical and controversial.

The position described in the Salon article is different. In this view, centuries of mythical tradition, from a variety of cultures, was drawn upon in the literary and cultic creation of the figure of Jesus. This would be a case of “mythology historicized.” In other words, Jesus was created as a literary character from a variety of mythological figures and archetypes (which explains why in the Bible he seems to have a variety of personalities and agenda).

The arguments for such a notion are summarized pretty well in the essay and I won’t repeat them here. I have written about this topic previously (here and here, for example) and have come down somewhere in the middle on the question. What seems to me to be the central problem is summarized in the article’s conclusion:

In a soon-to-be-released follow up to Nailed, entitled Jesus: Mything in Action, [David] Fitzgerald argues that the many competing versions proposed by secular scholars are just as problematic as any “Jesus of Faith.” Even if one accepts that there was a real Jesus of Nazareth, the question has little practical meaning: Regardless of whether or not a first century rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef lived, the “historical Jesus” figures so patiently excavated and re-assembled by secular scholars are themselves fictions. We may never know for certain what put Christian history in motion. Only time (or perhaps time travel) will tell.

Robert Price, one of the scholars mentioned here and who I have read, describes the problem of modern scholarship as discovering/creating “too many Jesuses.” He is quoted here saying, “The historical Jesus (if there was one) might well have been a messianic king, or a progressive Pharisee, or a Galilean shaman, or a magus, or a Hellenistic sage.  But he cannot very well have been all of them at the same time.” John Dominic Crossan is quoted to add his verdict on the discovery of multiple Jesus figures, saying “the stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment.”

Who was the real Jesus? Does the question even have any meaning? Or if it is a real question, is it one that we have a realistic chance of ever answering? Just asking these questions makes clear that we are in very different territory than traditional Christianity ever found itself in—and that is the main point. We live in a different world than that of even our recent ancestors. Fundamentalism is the attempt to deny such a change, with all the schizophrenic contradictions inherent in such a stance. Liberal churches claim to embrace the transition to modernity but wander in confusion trying to decide what it really means.

Over the centuries having different Jesus figures has been something the church could put to advantage. An applicable Jesus has been found to comfort and inspire average folks in the pews, guide barons and business leaders, and support monarchs and politicians. The shallowness of it all, however, is evident when in World War I, for example, clergy blessed their nations’ armies as “Christian soldiers” as they marched off to slaughter each other.

Today the label “Christian” has become so ambiguous as to be nearly meaningless. There is almost no limit to the range of political and economic philosophies and personal lifestyles that can be justified as being true to the teachings of Jesus. Christians squabble among themselves, shouting Bible verses at each other in an endless struggle to prove one side right and the other wrong.

Does it matter if Jesus really existed or not? For orthodox Christianity it certainly does. If nothing else, a real flesh-and-blood Jesus needs to really die and really be raised for the whole “mystery of salvation” to make any sense. Yet it is just this “Jesus the Savior” which has less and less appeal or meaning today, for those outside the church certainly but even for many still active in church life. And even though Fundamentalists especially hang on to him, this Jesus now gets relatively little attention in their worship and preaching, particularly in megachurches with their emphasis on biblical principles for “successful living.”

Our knowledge about any ancient figure is murky at best. Even the most famous of Roman emperors or Egyptian pharaohs are generally known to us via highly prejudiced reports, often second or third hand. It’s hardly surprising that the life of someone as obscure as Jesus own followers acknowledged him to be would have left little in the way of a tangible record, including from anyone who actually knew him. What is perhaps the strangest aspect of the Jesus story, however, is Paul’s account. Though he is the closest in time to him, Paul seems to know virtually nothing about Jesus’ actual life. Nor does he ever unambiguously say “I talked to X who knew Jesus.” Paul’s ignorance of Jesus is, to my mind, the oddest part of the story and the strongest element of the case for a non-historical Jesus.

In the end, and as has always been the case, the only Jesus figure we have to work with is the one we meet in the New Testament, as confusing and contradictory as he may be. Scholars will continue to try to sort through this biblical material to try and find a “real” Jesus. Those efforts are not without value. The artistry and creativity of such work has to be to be recognized, however, and not to demean it. Throughout its history, the church has woven the Jesus material, selectively and in various ways, to create images of Jesus for different times and purposes. 

Why not? And why not continue doing so? We are at a point where the dogma surrounding Jesus has nearly lost its grip on him. Certainly the penalties for coloring outside the lines of official Jesus doctrine are of little or no consequence. On the contrary, to breathe new life into the person of Jesus, writers and other artists along with scholars should be encouraged to imagine a Jesus that speaks to our world. The critical community will judge their efforts as well or better than any contemporary Inquisition or other ecclesiastical review panel.

Recent literary efforts like Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago generated loud protests when published (or released as a film). Yet they are the types of work which help us connect Jesus to our present world and consider him from different, non-traditional perspectives. In fact, an eruption of genuinely creative and critical books and movies focused on Jesus could be one of the best things that happened to him, despite the inevitable shock and horror sure to come from Fundamentalists and other traditionalists. For most today the “historical Jesus” sits on a shelf: bland, safe, predictable, and often simply an object of kitsch. Scholars and artists alike need to bring to life a Jesus at least as shocking and challenging as the one that inspired the first century church, whether they ever knew him in the flesh or not.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sam Harris: Exploring the Territory "Between Godliness and Godlessness"

In his Sunday New York Times column "Between Godliness and Godlessness", Frank Bruni relates his conversation with author Sam Harris about his forthcoming book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. In responce to the religious motivation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens began a a public debate on what they perceived to be the inherent dangers of religious belief. Harris' The End of Faith (2004) was a New York Times best-seller and he has continued to speak and write on the conflict between religion and modern Western values.

Yet as Bruni writes, over the past ten years Harris has softened his criticism of religion and refocused his attention on the question of what attracts people to religion in the first place. In doing so, Harris does seem to be riding a cultural wave. Based on the subtitle of this new book, he is addressing the fastest growing segment of the population, recently dubbed "the nones." These are people who claim a sincere religious or spiritual interest yet have no membership or interest in any specific religion. Their most common self-description is "I'm spiritual but not religious."

This designation often drives clergy crazy; I've heard the disparagement many times. It's dismissed as another example of the "me generation" wanting feelings and experiences while avoiding genuine human involvement or commitment. No doubt there is some truth to this but it isn't the whole story. The drift away from religion has been going on for too long a time, and involves too diverse a population, to be dismissed as a symptom of the latest cultural quirk.

What Bruni likes is that Harris is attempting to start a conversation on a topic that is too often ignored or dismissed by religious people:
The question is this: Which comes first, the faith or the feeling of transcendence? Is the former really a rococo attempt to explain and romanticize the latter, rather than a bridge to it? Mightn’t religion be piggybacking on the pre-existing condition of spirituality, a lexicon grafted onto it, a narrative constructed to explain states of consciousness that have nothing to do with any covenant or creed?

Bruni goes on to relate this observation by Harris:
“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

The questions Harris is asking, and Bruni is encouraging, are ones that often make religious people squirm and get angry. Even more liberal religious traditions retain the notion that they are somehow unique and "true." The notion that spiritual experience is generically human irrespective of a person's religious tradition, or of having any religious tradition at all, is not one religious leaders, especially, want to entertain. Yet this is genuinely new ground that needs to be explored, "the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety," as Bruni describes it. It will only be religion's loss to ignore it, for such new territory can't just be wished away. The church's experience with Galileo certainly showed that.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Problems at the Plate

Progressive Presbyterian minister and Facebook friend, John Shuck, recently shared this blog post link: Why More New Members Won't Fix Church Budgets. His introductory comment was, "One of the issues that keeps clergy up at night." It's no secret that church and denominational budgets are tight and have been for quite awhile. And while the 2008 recession and continuing economic sluggishness haven't helped, church financial problems go beyond economic cycles.

The blogger writes from a somewhat conservative Protestant perspective and doesn't say anything especially new or profound. Her concerns are legitimate, however. It is indeed becoming questionable whether "congregations as we know them [are] financially sustainable" and for many of the reasons she cites. Here is my perspective which differs somewhat from hers.

Denominational finances have been under stress for decades, primarily due to shrinking congregational memberships. Another factor is that congregations are keeping more of their money at home. Some of this is due to distrust and/or disinterest in denominational programs, but the larger factor is simply that parish ministry costs have risen faster than their income. The cost of clergy salaries and benefits especially have become difficult to support.

As a result, most denominations have gone through major restructuring and downsizing after multiple rounds of painful budget cuts. It seems that things have stabilized but I suspect this is a calm before the next storm. As this blogger says, and most church people know, congregational memberships have aged considerably. Ironically this has actually been a short-term financial blessing.

Retiring Baby Boomers now dominate most congregations and they are relatively well-off, even in retirement. They are now the primary source of many congregations' volunteer time and budget support. But their commitment is not the same as their "greatest generation" parents; they like their toys and vacations. A continuing sluggish economy is also putting new demands on their resources, including helping out their children and grandchildren. Still, they will support congregational ministries for some time, including perhaps with generous bequests at the end.

Yet, as this blogger indicates, even Baby Boomer time and money aren't enough to keep churches afloat in their current form. There are simply too many buildings and staff to be sustainable. As one of the comments says, the church is over-franchised. In addition, it's true that the under-65 population is more discriminating in its support than previous generations. They do tend to support causes over institutions. Church loyalty is getting weaker all the time. Churches treading water are actually going to sink pretty quickly as active and engaged members get frustrated and leave for other places (not necessarily other churches) and remaining members are unable to provide the necessary organizational time and money. It's become common to hear members of struggling congregations refer to themselves as "too few, too old, and too tired."

The blog post and some of the responses make a few proposals for righting the ship. While possibly helpful they all accept that the church's future will be about (as one ELCA denominational official said a few years ago) "doing less with less." This path may lead to churches achieving a new equilibrium but I suspect it will be at a level far lower than many expect.

Ultimately, the church's problem is not finances. Lack of money is a symptom of a much larger issue, namely the church's declining importance in people's lives and in the culture generally. This trend actually has been underway for a long time, since the Enlightenment at least. Until now the church has been able to hide itself from this reality but it's becoming harder to do, though this blog post basically is an attempt to do just that. Ultimately the only answer is a dramatic transformation of the church into something genuinely new, which most current church leaders and members likely won't recognize.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

In Search of a Cosmic Christianity

“What’s wrong with these people?”  It’s a common reaction to a range of people we might call “The Deniers.” Currently the group most discussed is the climate change deniers. Yet there are a number of other examples of people rejecting assertions widely accepted by the scientific community. Those asserting a causal connection between childhood vaccinations and autism deny the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of such treatments.

One group that has long been involved in scientific denial is conservative Christians. The recent history of science TV series Cosmos both highlighted past instances of rejecting science (including, of course, Galileo and Darwin) and stirred up its own share of hostility from religious groups. Astronomer host Neil deGrasse Tyson asserted without hesitation or qualification numerous scientific facts questioned or rejected by those believing they contradicted religious teachings.

The acceptance of modern science is often pointed to as one of the differences between Christian fundamentalists and Christian moderates and liberals. Most members of mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian, UCC, ELCA Lutheran, etc.) will say they hold a scientific worldview, even when it contradicts stories and assertions found in the ancient writings of the Bible. In doing so, there is often a smug sense of superiority, or at least sophistication, projected by liberal Christians in relation to their fundamentalist cousins. The Christianity of these moderate denominations, they believe, is modern and adjusts with the times while conservatives are stuck in the past and, frankly, not very bright.

In reality, however, liberal Christians rarely look very closely at the relationship between the contemporary scientific world view and Christianity’s basic tenets. Beyond recognizing the obvious instances of ancient biblical ignorance and superstition, the real implications of contemporary science’s “Cosmos” have little impact on even the most liberal churches’ preaching or teaching. Even if such topics were discussed in seminary, formally or informally, most pastors will continue to assert basic Christian beliefs with little if any modification.

The reason for this caution is because science challenges far more than individual passages from the Bible. In reality all the fundamental teachings of Christianity presume an ancient pre-scientific worldview. Most liberal clergy and many lay people know this at some level but just don’t want to go there. They fear that if they pull on this thread the whole sweater will unravel, so better to just leave it alone. Trying to fit God, the Trinity, heaven, hell, sin and salvation, eternal life, and a resurrected Jesus into Neil deGrasse Tyson’s cosmos can be a quick path to a throbbing headache.

If confronted with this, many clergy will speadily backpedal and talk of the Bible and Christian fundamentals in terms of symbol, narrative, metaphor, and mythology. In other words, yes we know all this but (wink wink) we have to keep up appearances, keep telling “the old, old story,” so that the folks who still want it all to be “true” won’t get upset. Catering to this aging and shrinking group can only be a formula for irrelevance and decline, which of course has been the experience of all these denominations for over a generation.

Mainline churches are attempting an impossible balancing act. Reasonably and appropriately, they want to be taken seriously and speak with authority on complex modern problems impacting society at all levels. They want to positively impact people’s individual lives and the communities in which they live. At its best, it is religion's purpose. 

At the same time, however, even liberal Christianity exists in a murky world of ancient images and ideas that simply can’t be reconciled with the ever clearer cosmos of modern science. Fundamentalists are dismissed as irrational for denying climate change and evolution, or reading global events as signs of a coming divine apocalypse. Yet with little if any qualification, liberal Christians continue to seek divine intervention through prayer, assert the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and promise believers an after-death existence in a place called Heaven. How any of this fits with the world taught at even a high school level of science is not explained or discussed.

Fundamentalist literalism is rejected as simple minded while the scientifically indefensible beliefs and practices of Liberal Christians are defended as mysteries of faith. It's hardly a surprise that educated people around the world, especially the growing number with little or no church background, find traditional Christianity in any form hard to take seriously. In reality Christianity across the theological spectrum exists in a schizophrenic bubble trying to reconcile the Middle Ages with Modernity. Which world are we in? We can’t have it both ways.

It won’t be long before the commemorations and conferences begin observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. With much of Christianity in the industrial world at least on the ropes, there undoubtedly will be many calls for a new reformation. And they will be right, but probably not for the right reasons. English theologian Don Cupitt has said that what is needed is not, as in 1517, a reformation of the institutional church but a reformation of Christianity itself. Fundamentalists will condemn such a project as rank heresy.  Many liberal Christians also will fear it as an act of betrayal of history and tradition. Yet ironically, two centuries of historical biblical and theological study are making the strong case that the early “church fathers” got both Jesus and his mission badly wrong. The world here and now was his real concern, not personal salvation in some hypothetical world to come. Orthodox Christianity and the church supporting it, this scholarship says, have been on an over fifteen hundred year digression from what Jesus had intended. Oops.

We can’t know what the result of such a reformation would look like. It would be progress, however, if we start publicly discussing the questions we know many people, in and out of the pews, are already asking. Clergy, especially, need to stop being afraid of acknowledging the limits of traditional Christian teaching and the difficulty of reconciling many Christian concepts with our modern understanding of the world. We at least need to start the conversation and create a safe place for it. As happens often in the Bible, we need to become people on a journey, traveling in faith without a clear destination.

It’s common knowledge that Christendom has come to an end. What also needs to be recognized is that, not only have its social and political walls fallen, but its theological foundations have also crumbled away. For this world and its critical needs, it’s time for a new—perhaps radically new—beginning. From what we now know about Jesus, it’s seems pretty likely he would approve.

Monday, December 16, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Carrie?

A little over a week ago NBC provided the country with a source of extended water cooler and dinner table conversation. For reasons not entirely clear, it revived the venerable Broadway classic "The Sound of Music" in a live, 3-hour broadcast. The reviews were mixed, at best, yet clearly NBC hopes this will become a "holiday classic" (it's already been repeated once).

Most of the controversy swirled around the show's star, Carrie Underwood, who played Maria. Nearly everyone agreed, whether they thought the event a success or not, that while Underwood's singing was more than adequate her dramatic performance fell short. In fact, many of those at the negative end of the critical spectrum thought her acting was simply awful, and said so.

Well, performers get used to taking their critical lumps and move one--or they get out of performing. Except apparently for Ms Underwood. For her the issue wasn't one of dramatics and critical interpretation but theology and spirituality. After becoming aware of the harsh judgment many critics rendered on her performance, she responded on Twitter in a remarkably un-Hollywood fashion: "Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight... 1 Peter 2:1-25." Arts critics rarely get their positions by being nice and being called "mean" must certainly be one the the gentler words they hear. But Underwood's telling her critical detractors that they need to find Jesus is probably a first for most of them.

I hope that Underwood knows at some level how disingenuous such a response is. But whether she does or not, it remains yet another sad example of how conservative Christians now turn everything in their lives into theological platforms, if not battlegrounds. Her acting was mediocre at best and most critics called her out for it. As critics do, especially to keep an audience for their material, many used over-the-top language in saying so. Thus it has always been and thus it will always be.

In the piously distorted, self-important worldview of a Carrie Underwood, however, such an "attack" becomes another skirmish in her lifelong participation in the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. Sadly, this has become one of the primary appeals of evangelical Christianity. People's lives are not important or valued in and of themselves. It is not their relationships, their experiences, their talents, their accomplishments, their loves found and lost, their joys and sorrows, their lessons learned and taught that are to be valued and cherished. No, it is their role in the cosmic battle of the forces of God against the forces of Evil. Their own individual identity is of little or no account. It is only their identity as a soldier of Christ that truly matters.

I don't know which is the more significant factor here: Is this about a declining culture providing fewer and fewer people with a sense of personal significance and worth, or a declining religion desperately playing on people's inherent insecurities to attract and hold members? Whichever is greater, no doubt both realities are at play. However, the church is not yet so immobilized that it cannot call-out distortions of its message when they arise. 

Traditional, conservative Christianity is on the ropes and for good reason. But rather than confront its challengers honestly it has become brittle, defensive and paranoid, filling its adherents with that same spirit. This is not the joyful, liberating voice of the gospel but rather the fearful shrieks and shouts of an institution in decline and under siege.

So rather than being coddled, Ms Underwood needs to hear more bracing yet honest words: Your critics did not attack you because of your godliness and piety. They attacked you because it is their job to tell you that your acting sucked. Now quit complaining and get some acting lessons, or get back on the stage and just sing. And there is no shame in choosing the latter because then you doing what we are all called to do as human beings: utilize our marvelous, God-given talents for the benefit of our neighbor. It is all that God asks.