Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Chicago’s downtown Lutheran church, Christ the King, is closing after more than a half-century of existence. CTK was never large and has been housed in a variety of locations over the years. The irony is that just as the Loop and surrounding neighborhoods became a viable residential area, the ELCA’s one church there dies.

The story of Christ the King is long and convoluted and I certainly don’t know all its details. Let’s just say, “Mistakes were made.” Nonetheless, as with the announced closing last spring of Wilmette Lutheran Church in Chicago's wealthy north suburban lakefront, here is another congregation in a healthy and thriving community that couldn’t make it. Whatever the explanations or excuses, that simple fact can’t be denied and it is yet another sign of the church's anemic state.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jesus plain and simple

In the preface to his recent book The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Western Christianity(2008), Donald Cupitt makes this almost off-hand yet remarkable statement:

"The original Jesus remains historically controversial, but there is at least a case for saying that he was a Jewish teacher in the tradition of prophets like Jeremiah. He was critical of organized religion and tradition, and seems to have had little fresh to say either about God, or about sin and redemption. Instead, his chief concern was to convey a utopian vision of what human life could, should, and perhaps soon would, be." (emphasis added)

The bold honesty and simplicity of this observation is just so refreshing and liberating. What a burden the church could set down if it at last admitted that Jesus’ significance was not his theology but his ethics and cultural critique.

We could be done with all the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin dogmatics, christology and soteriology. We could be done once and for all with anti-Semitism by finally admitting Jesus came from and lived wholly in the Hebrew tradition and worshiped the God of the Hebrews. And we could be done with religious competition and sectarianism by saying Christianity’s contribution and purpose is not the Church as salvation machine, but the gospel as a translation of Hebrew ethical monotheism for the gentile world. The God of Abraham is, in fact, the God of all, who loves all. We are all indeed sisters and brothers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Competing with ourselves

Last spring our bishop announced a new plan to reverse the decline of congregations in our synod, roughly two-thirds of which are losing members. It was never clear what methods were supposedly going to affect this change, given that churches around the country and in most denominations have been declining for decades. Frankly, I can’t imagine how the “Turnaround Synod Initiative” (as it’s called) has any chance of succeeding or even coming close to its goal of reversing the decline of half of our shrinking congregations.

At this past week’s clergy conference, TSI was again plugged and brochures distributed. During one session, the synod staff member responsible for evangelism told of statistical research he had done on the minority of congregations in the synod that were growing. By far the single largest source of their new members is people transferring from other Lutheran churches. In other words, our congregations are competing with each other and the synod is cannibalizing itself. From other reports, this seems to be very typical.

Successful congregations are often lifted up as examples for others to follow but obviously that can’t work here. The picture this presents is of a limited pool of Lutheran church members (and other denominations are experiencing the same) who are gradually moving to the congregations they find most appealing. It’s survival of the fittest. The Chicago area has a dense network of Lutheran congregations, many in close proximity to each other. When one has problems or begins to decline for demographic reasons, it’s easy for members to relocate to a new church more to their liking.

The challenge is not to find methods to get congregations to grow. In the current situation, some will adopt these but many more will simply be unable to. The real issue is the much larger question of how to increase the size of the pool. By focusing on the micro level of congregations we are ignoring the crucial and more difficult macro problem of how to make church more appealing to the population at large. In other words, we would have to ask the more fundamental question: Why don’t people want to be Christians, or at least church members, anymore? Right now, it seems, that’s not a rock we want to pick up and look underneath.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wandering in the wilderness (Sunday Reflections for September 27, 2009)

I attended our annual synod pastors’ conference this week and, as most of these have been in the past, its focus was on revitalizing the church. Mainline Christianity reached its peak in size and influence sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, so its decline was well underway when I was ordained in 1983. That slide has only accelerated in the years since. Just about every formal gathering of clergy that I have attended has dealt with this issue one way or another. That’s a lot of handwringing.

The two speakers for this conference couldn’t have been more different. One was a semi-retired Methodist minister. His last full-time position was as pastor of the Chicago Temple, the famous Methodist church housed in an office building in the Loop and believed to be the oldest congregation in the city. The other speaker was a female ELCA pastor developing a new congregation in central Denver, following an Emerging church model. Its members tend to have a lot of tattoos and piercings—just as she does!

While Gene grew up in the church and has been a minister his whole adult life, he clearly recognizes how much has changed and how many ministry practices no longer work. The church is now in the wilderness, he says, like the Israelites who escaped from Egypt. We’re about half-way through the journey, he thinks, so the church has about another twenty years yet to go before it gets to the Promised Land.

What is important about this image is that it recognizes the wilderness to be a condition that needs to be lived with and adjusted to—not a problem that can be solved. Unfortunately, as Gene said, too many churches are wearing themselves out trying to come up with schemes to “solve” Christianity’s current state of decline. It can’t be done. For now, we just gotta live with it.

Of course, the key point of the Exodus story it that the Israelites didn’t go back to Egypt—and neither will the church go back to where it was. When Gene was asked what he thought the “Promised Land” would look like, there was a long silence. He didn’t know—no one does. Except we know it won’t look like where we’ve come from.

It’s often observed by commentators and preachers that the forty years of wandering in the wilderness was the time it took for the generation that remembered life in Egypt to die off. No more pining and whining for the leeks and cucumbers (Numbers 11:5). Life is going to be different now—get over it. And on into Palestine they marched.

But we haven’t gotten to the Promised Land yet. We’re still wandering around in the wilderness, still remembering how good life was in Egypt, still wondering how we might get back there. It was kind of amusing that as the conference went on it was obvious not many had really heard what Gene had said. Most of the questions and discussions were still about “fixing” the church’s problems, still wondering who had the map that could show us the way back to Egypt, back to the church of the past that we remembered and loved.

Nadia’s presentation certainly gave us a glimpse of a very different church. Was this what the Promised Land would look like? Starting with just nine people two years ago, “House for All Sinners and Saints” has grown to—well, about three dozen. She was remarkably honest about the trials and tribulations of her congregation. Would the church ever get big? Oh no, she admitted. Would it ever be financially self-supporting? Probably not. As earnest and enthusiastic as her band of urban, post-moderns is, they nonetheless have the frustrating characteristics of most young adults: they’re over-committed, not entirely reliable, and move a lot. Planning and execution is a real challenge.

We all seemed to realize that not a lot of her church experience could transfer to ours (nor did she encourage us to try). And the irony did not escape us that this new way of doing church was only possible because it was being underwritten by a bunch of traditional churches. So it left the problem solvers in the group kind of frustrated. While Nadia’s presentation was appealing, it didn’t leave us with much we could “try back home.” And besides, was this the outcome pastors were looking for: a congregation smaller, poorer and even more erratic than what they already had?

In its own way, then, Nadia’s story reinforced the point Gene had made earlier. Whatever Christianity is going to look like when we get out of the wilderness, it’s not going to be what we knew before. “House” is a ministry to the population most disconnected from the church. To reach them, this experiment indicates, means doing church very differently—and even then the results may be numerically pretty meager.

All of this reinforces my growing suspicion that it is the formula “Christianity = Church” which is really at issue here. Nadia is still trying to do church in some conventional ways. Their worship is very innovative yet it follows the church calendar and a liturgical format. Her church is looking for members who will join and support it with time and money. It’s appealing, but only to a few.

A study was released this week of the 15% of the population (double what it was less than twenty years) that claims no religious affiliation—the “Nones” as they are called. (This group makes up 22% of those under 30.) What is noteworthy about this group is that a majority of them still claims a belief in God or higher power. What they apparently don’t believe in is religious organizations. And those numbers would swell significantly if we include those who still claim a religious or denominational identity but haven’t darkened the door of a church in years.

Christianity without church? Can we even imagine such a thing? To church members it’s like talking about a square circle. Yet it is the reality more and more people know. People no longer need church as a social outlet. Traditional religious activities are replaced by personal prayer, meditation, yoga, psychotherapy, 12-step groups, books, the arts, and TV and radio programs. Thousands of local, national and international nonprofit service organizations function with little or no religious involvement or affiliation, yet are often guided and inspired by religious teaching and tradition.

Will churches—and the Church—just disappear? I doubt that. Yet—rather obviously since it’s already happening—there are going to be a lot fewer of them. But instead of fighting this trend and exhausting ourselves (trying to “fix the problem” as Gene said), I am wondering if in some way we shouldn’t just be rolling with it. Perhaps we should be watching it, thinking about where it’s going, and wondering how we can be a part of it. One model—and an ancient one, at that—that some have said we should consider is Buddhism. It has almost no formal organizational structure and relatively few congregations, yet it has existed as long as the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Or perhaps what will evolve will be something completely different and unprecedented. To allay our anxiety, however, we need to seriously consider that, while what follows the wilderness won’t be Egypt, it could be just fine. It’s happened before, and when the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land they said, “It is God who has led us here.” It was his idea all along.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ditch the religion? (continued)

I am attending our regional church professional leaders’ conference. Like most of these events the past ten or twenty years, the focus of this one is on church renewal. In this case the buzz word is “reimaging” the church. I’ll have a fuller post later in the week when I’m home.

The speakers and conversation have made me think more about my earlier post about branding Buddhism. Overall, church membership is declining rapidly. Congregational innovation (of whatever kind) is leading some churches to succeed but only at the expense of others. It’s simply the case that fewer people are interested in belonging to a religious organization, whatever its size, shape or flavor. Yet surveys, reports and personal experience show that interest in spirituality and some traditional religious activities remain.

So, as I asked in the earlier post, is religionless Christianity a possibility? Is this the “new thing” that we need to be looking at or is it in fact already beginning to happen? For traditional Christians, of course, this is practically beyond comprehension. Whatever could it mean?

Here are some quick “back of the envelope” thoughts and fantasies. In particular I am wondering about existing congregations transitioning into something new, something other. So here is an outline for church reimaged as a non-sectarian provider of spiritual services. Feedback is welcome and appreciated.
  • Churches become community spirituality centers. The existing congregation would be one user of the space. Other congregations could also meet there. This takes advantage of existing church buildings, many grossly underutilized. It could also facilitate the preservation of architecturally or historically significant buildings.
  • The center could be incorporated as a separate nonprofit organization. The congregation could donate its building to the center in exchange for free and priority use of space for a set number of years.
  • A variety of services and programs are offered, open to anyone, on a fee-for-service basis.
  • These could include: counseling services, yoga and meditation classes, 12-step and support groups, book and arts groups, studio and gallery space, rehearsal and performance space, youth activities and groups, community service activities (food pantry, basic health needs, tutoring, etc).
  • Worship/assembly space would be available to the public for weddings, funerals and other rites and worship services. These could be led by on-staff clergy or others.
  • Rites of passage would be available to all. These could be combined with preparation programs. Such rites could include baptism and confirmation or similar but renamed events. Other rites could be developed, including community services of blessing for pets, beginning of school, graduation, deployment, and activities or events of local interest. Regular services of healing, memorial services, and services for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter could be held.
  • Such centers could exist without any resident congregation at all. Membership could be offered in the center, as with a health club. Center activities and services would be free or discounted for members. Center members would be encouraged to take leadership in programs. A sense of community would likely develop for some but not all.
  • Such centers could be branded and franchised. Training of leaders and a consistent quality of programming would be supported and promoted. Certain programs would be available at all centers but local needs would also be acknowledged and met.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dying, we live (Sunday Reflections for September 20, 2009)

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you are aware we are in the midst of a national argument about health care. I wish I could say it is a national conversation but it rarely has risen to that level—lots of shouting, not much listening. Our health, and our loss of it, is certainly as personal an issue as you’ll find. It’s not surprising we get emotional when the subject comes up, especially when we are talking about what others are going to do to or for us.

Still, as we all know, when important decisions are based on emotion, disaster is usually right around the corner. In this case, the disaster awaiting us is primarily financial. Health care is on course to bankrupt us as a country in the near future if nothing changes. As it is, it is directly or indirectly bankrupting individuals and businesses with increasing frequency. Yet based on the experience of other advanced countries, we know we could be spending a lot less and getting as good and possibly even better care.

The need for medical care can happen at any point in life (my son spent his first three weeks of life in neo-natal intensive care). Not surprising, however, in general our medical needs increase as we grow older. What has become harder to explain, or afford, is the enormous amount of money being spent at life’s end. On average, 80% of medical expenses occur in a person’s last year—much of that often in the last months or even weeks.

This summer there was a great hue-and-cry over the possible creation of “death panels,” government boards that allegedly would decide when people should die. Hopefully we’ve awakened from that nightmare and returned to reality. What was lost in the hysteria, however, is the real topic of how and by whom decisions should be made as a person nears death. What the hysteria did point to was that this is a topic not many of us are ready to talk about, but talk about it is exactly what we need to do.

I am now “middle aged” and so jokingly I can be said to be over-the-hill. The description I like better is one I read a few years ago. At this point in life I am at the top of the hill and can now look down the other side. I’ve done a little mountain climbing and I think that description fits. When you’re going up that’s all you’re aware of—the path just keeps going on and on. When you finally get to the top, however, your perspective suddenly changes. Now you can appreciate the mountain as a whole. You can see where you’ve been and where you’re now about to go.

Being at the summit of life’s mountain makes you somewhat more sober, more reflective but primarily, I think, just more realistic. You are aware that this journey will have an end and you can see it, even if it’s off in the distance. Okay, enough gawking, you say to yourself. Time to move on.

People who reach old age, or younger people who contract a serious and potentially terminal illness, inevitably think about dying. With modern medicine we know that in most such situations there will be a variety of treatments and procedures to decide upon. People have thoughts and opinions about what they want done. None of that will matter, however, if they aren’t shared with family members, friends, and doctors. Everyone, including the patient, has to get over their squeamishness or embarrassment to talk frankly and honestly with one another. It is simply the loving thing to do.

When Gail, a member of my congregation, was diagnosed with cancer, she began a treatment regimen but ended it fairly soon. The prognosis was not good and the treatments were difficult. She decided to opt for quality of life over quantity. What was remarkable was not so much her decision but how straight forward and open she was about it. On more than one visit with her she greeted me saying, “I’m still here. The doctors thought I would be dead by now.” While she lived her last months in a care facility, the life she established there was so “normal” it was almost a surprise when she did finally die.

Gail had difficulties through much of her life, so perhaps she viewed her cancer as just another bump in the road. Perhaps she had been preparing for death for a long time. Yet why should any of us be any different? For better or for worse, doctors will not make end-of-life decisions for us. Their training is to keep people alive. This is fine, normally, except that dying is an inevitable part of life. At that point it is the patient, and the patient’s family and friends, who have to take responsibility and decide what is to be done, and what is not to be done.

Living wills and powers of attorney are very helpful documents to have in such situations. They cannot substitute, however, for open communication and clear verbal statements of our desires and intent. Doctors are human, too, and they need to know we are ready and willing to talk about such matters. They need us to give them the direction in which we want to proceed. Only then can pointless procedures be avoided, our control be maintained, and a dignified ending be assured.

All of this assumes, of course, that we have at some level come to grips with dying. We’re never fully prepared; there’s too much about it that is unknown and unpredictable. Yet, sooner or later, it will happen, it is inevitable. Christianity, like all religions, goes out of its way to make that clear.

The religious response to that reality is also nearly universal, I think, but Jesus gives us one of the best expressions of it: we live by dying. We lose our life to find it. We let go of our life in order to truly live it. We realize nothing belongs to us because the whole world is ours. Paradoxically, we both live each day like it’s our last and like it’s the first day of the rest of our life. We let go of the past and make no assumptions about the future. “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.”

British theologian and author, Don Cupitt, has created an updated metaphor for such a life. He calls it solar living. We live like the sun, which by burning is at the same time burning itself out. We live by using whatever abilities and resources we have, fully and without hesitation, until they are gone. Dying, we live, Paul says. In giving, we receive. It’s only in letting go that we find the happiness we all want.

Our health care dilemma is to a large extent about money. It is also about knowing what we want and what we need, and our being willing to talk frankly about them. And, perhaps most important, it’s about recognizing that our life, whatever its length or quality, is ultimately a gift which we use best by simply giving back and saying, “Thank you.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ditch the religion?

From two very different places on the religious spectrum come similar ideas: maybe we should just ditch the religion part.

Over on Beliefnet’s Buddhism blog, "One City," Jerry Kolber has created a bit of a stir by suggesting American Buddhism really needs to consider its branding. Specifically, it needs to pare down all the stuff that shouts EASTERN RELIGION, which can turn off Westerners. By its own teaching, much of this is just accessories to Buddhism: the robes, bells and even Buddha statues. The essential core is meditation practice, which he believes can be promoted in a way to appeal to anyone.

With the right branding and advertising Buddhism can be the iPod of philosophies, cool first then available at Walmart three years later.

From another corner comes Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of evangelist Billy Graham. She is promoting her new book which, among other things, recounts her many frustrating experiences with churches. In interviews with both TIME and Newsweek she frankly says that religion is one of the greatest impediments to finding God.

And by "religion," I don't mean "faith." I mean rituals, creeds, traditions, and often leaders--all of our means of trying to connect with God.

Lotz somewhat confusingly still thinks Christians should belong to a church. It’s better that way, anyway, but often just not going to work out. In some ways this echoes the ambiguous message of her father. While he encouraged those who came to his revivals to join a church, his own ministry was intentionally unrelated to any denomination and he avoided sectarian doctrine in his preaching and teaching (something which fundamentalists in particular criticized him for).

Can you be religious without being part of a religion? That paradoxical state is increasingly true for many people, often without their even recognizing it. In addition to avoiding sectarian labels, people often have no interest in being part of an organization with buildings and staff to pay for, organizational structures to maintain and meetings to attend, and cranky and neurotic members to endure.

American churches especially are missing this challenge. Their evangelism and outreach efforts try to connect people with God and with Jesus. The case that isn’t being made, though, is what that has to do with belonging to a local congregation. Indeed, as Graham Lotz shows, many have found church life to actually be a detriment to their faith.

Christianity without the church? It may be the fastest growing religion around.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jesus, we hardly knew ye

One of the more ironic stories of the Bible (and the Bible has lots of irony) was in this past Sunday’s lectionary reading from Mark. In it Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It seems like such a modern question, echoing our constant concern for appearance and others’ opinion of us.

After hearing various responses, Jesus then puts the question directly to his disciples and Peter makes his famous declaration, “You are the messiah.” The story is oddly ambiguous, however. In Mark’s version (the earliest of the gospels), Jesus responds by telling the disciples to say nothing about this. (He does not, actually, even affirm Peter’s verdict.) Luke pretty much copies Mark. Matthew, however, puts a ringing endorsement of Peter on Jesus’ lips, saying that Peter did not figure this out on his own but it was a revelation from God himself.

Who was/is Jesus? The confusion is present right from the start, as the gospel writers clearly realized. This truth is now readily acknowledged by biblical scholars and church historians. Officially, at least, churches try to maintain that Jesus has an essentially singular and consistent identity but it’s a tough stance to defend. It doesn’t take much effort to see that the New Testament is largely a collection of polemical writings arguing with each other, or with opponents off stage, about the nature and meaning of Jesus. It’s hard to imagine how the Jesus of the synoptic gospels and the Jesus of John were inspired by a single person. And the Jesus(es) of the gospels seems virtually unknown to the New Testament’s earliest writer, Paul.

Moving from the biblical period into the first centuries of the church, the divisions became deeper and more numerous. When the empire decided Christianity would be the new glue to hold itself together, it demanded that the church acquire a more unified doctrine and self-understanding. The result was a series of majority-vote decisions by assembled bishops. Many of the meetings were highly contentious and sizable dissenting minorities left unpersuaded that their viewpoints were in error. They tended to be concentrated in the Near East and North Africa, and subsequent persecutions and heavy-handed attempts at enforcing doctrinal unity left them demoralized and ripe for the Islamic tidal wave that swept in a short time later.

The official Jesus promoted by the church is Jesus the Savior, Lord of Heaven and Earth. This Jesus arrives like Superman from a world beyond to fight the forces of evil and rescue humans of good will. The comparisons were hardly hidden in the movies starring the late Christopher Reeve. The story line included his mysterious arrival as an infant, a god-like father (played by Marlon Brando who keeps speaking to him sotto voce), adoptive human parents, battles with evil, frequent experiences of being misunderstood and rejected, and even death and resurrection with a return to his heavenly home planet in between.

The movies demonstrate what Jesus as Savior has become: a cartoon figure or matinee hero. Jesus has even been turned into a toy action figure, alongside G.I. Joe. And for adults, heilsgeschichte, the church’s dramatic story of salvation, has become farce. For this is the only thing you can do with a character and a story that have become irrelevant or, to say the same thing, boring.

Who was Jesus? That, of course, is the modern question, for it asks not about an object of faith but a person of history. After two centuries of study and analysis, the main thing to say is that we know a whole lot less about him than we thought we did. There is simply not much evidence to draw from. It is now doubted that any of the New Testament writers ever actually knew him. Jesus himself left no written record. And being the obscure Galilean the gospels admit him to be, it’s totally unsurprising that there is no contemporary corroboration of his existence. Nor is it surprising, then, that some scholars now argue that Jesus, in fact, did not actually exist. Or that others say he is a composite of ancient characters, real and mythical. Or that there are those who, while not convinced of this, nonetheless concede the possibility.

Who is Jesus in the biblical record? Here the problem is not lack of material but, as biblical scholar Robert Price demonstrates in Deconstructing Jesus, an embarrassment of riches. We have too many Jesuses, Price says. As a result, the church and its theologians have been able to spin out new Jesuses like car makers design new models. For most of the church’s life these were Jesuses of proclamation but in the modern era scholars began creating “biographies” of Jesus in trying to create the Jesus of history.

Albert Schweitzer is the one who exposed this charade when he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus in 1906. Why, he asked, did each theologian’s Jesus look so much like, well, that theologian? The answer was that the abundance of Jesus material allowed each of them to pick what they liked and produce a character that said and did the things they approved of. The irony is that in his conclusion, Schweitzer confirms his own theory by constructing a Jesus he likes. Not long after, though, he dropped theology to become a doctor and headed off to Africa. In the century since Schweitzer’s book, biblical scholars and theologians have continued trying to assemble a definitive Jesus figure but each time end up only reconfirming Schweitzer’s judgment.

Who was Jesus? Without some dramatic Dead Sea Scrolls type discovery, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we simply will never know. Who was the Jesus of the early church’s proclamation? Studying the New Testament harder will never bring all of its Jesus figures into focus. The ongoing extra-biblical research into the early church and the religious life of the ancient world is making Jesus only murkier. Or, more positively, it is revealing a far greater diversity of understandings of Jesus than had ever been imagined.

Rather than seeing all this as a problem, however, there is actually a great opportunity here. Unfortunately, Jesus as savior is rapidly becoming the only Jesus many know. It is, of course, the Jesus promoted by evangelicalism but it is also still clung to by virtually all of the more moderate churches, as well. However much these churches might deny it, they still see Jesus as their meal ticket. He and the salvation he has to give are the candy to get people into their pews. Even as the diminished power of such an image becomes obvious, churches are reluctant to let it go since it’s all they’ve known.

Yet that is what they need to do. The obvious question for Jesus the savior has become unanswerable for modern people: Saved from what, for what? The stick of hell is no longer taken seriously and the carrot of heaven has become a distant blur. As modern study has demonstrated, however, Jesus is a much richer and more complex figure than this. Yet Jesus the savior crowds all this out and takes over any room he enters.

So, as the late Robert Funk says in Honest to Jesus,it’s time to give Jesus a demotion. “He deserves it.” It’s time to get Jesus out of heaven and off his throne. The universe doesn’t need a lord, king or savior. As his earthly representative and embassy, the church may feel suddenly irrelevant. Too bad. If it has a role, it can only be to tell the story of the Jesus who had no place to lay his head, who travelled not on angels’ wings but by foot or on a donkey, who sought no political power but died like a criminal, a victim of injustice.

In short, Jesus needs to be rediscovered as the compassionate, inspiring, challenging, and infuriating character the gospels present him to be. A human Jesus still has something to say to our now distant world. A Jesus reigning in heaven is only of interest to religious and art historians. Only by keeping Jesus in the past can he be of any value to us in the present.

Friday, September 11, 2009

UK gives post-mortem apology to persecuted WW II hero and computer genius, Alan Turing

Prime Minister Gordon Brown today issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government for the “appalling” treatment of World War II hero Alan Turing. Turing was the mathematical, computer and encryption genius who, while working at Bletchley Park, broke the famous Enigma code of Nazi Germany.

Several years after the war’s end he was convicted of “gross indecency” for being homosexual and endured an experimental chemical castration “treatment” rather than go to prison. He committed suicide two years later in 1954 at age 41. Brown recognized Turing as "one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia.... I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better." As Andrew Sullivan said in his tribute this morning:
Every now and again, we should remember how brutal the persecution of homosexuals was for so long, how counter-productive, how many lives were ruined, and how a great man like Turing could be reduced to suicide by the oppression he lived with on a daily basis.

One of the great milestones of artificial intelligence—yet to be reached—is to pass the Turing Test. In this test, a person interacts blindly, but with natural language, with another person and a computer simultaneously and is unable to tell them apart. Turing first proposed such a test in 1950. To honor his many groundbreaking accomplishments in computing and artificial intelligence, the American award for achievement in computer science is named the Turing Prize.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The authority of community (Sunday Reflections for September 13, 2009)

Following the ELCA’s vote last month to permit gay clergy, Charleston, WV Pastor Richard Mahan said, “I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns.”

How does he know?

This is the question the ELCA stumbled over in trying to resolve this issue: How do we know what God thinks? Pastor Mahan thinks he knows, but does he? For Mahan the answer is simple. What God thinks is in the Bible. Yet anyone who has read even a small portion of the Bible knows it’s not that simple. Or at least, if what God thinks is in the Bible, it isn’t easy to clearly identify it.

It’s understandable that we may want the Bible to be an answer book. “What should I do in this situation?” You check the Bible’s index and find that the answer is on page 317. Some evangelical publishers have come out with Bibles in which you nearly can do this. Of course then you have to decide if you trust the editors who have connected the questions with the “answer” verses. In any case, by itself the Bible certainly isn’t set up that way.

Since the Reformation, the church has been in an unending search for an objective, reliable authority for its life and teaching. Prior to that, the church simply was its own authority. But then along came Martin Luther who said, “The church is wrong.” How could it be decided who was right: the pope or Martin Luther?

Such conflicts had occurred before, of course. Those that became serious enough were resolved by calling a council of bishops where the issue was ultimately put to a vote. This time, however, church authorities decided to treat it as an internal rebellion and just squash it. Of course, it didn’t work. Luther had too many powerful allies who had grown tired of Rome’s corruption and political meddling. As a result, the church split without ever answering the question of who was right or, more importantly, of how to decide who was right.

At about the same time (and not coincidently) there began the intellectual movement that led to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. It’s radical assumption was that ancient authorities could no longer simply be trusted or assumed to be right. Truth was to be determined by human reason and observation, epitomized by what every junior high student learns as the scientific method. This became the foundation of the modern world.

Having just come through the debacle of the Reformation, suddenly the church found itself on the defensive again, threatened by a completely new source: science. While most scientists at this time considered themselves faithful Christians, the church found their discoveries to constitute yet another threat to church authority. The classic case, of course, was that of Galileo.

Galileo’s error was to take Copernicus’ theory of a sun-centered planetary system and claim to have proven it by observations made with his newly invented telescope. Church authorities claimed this contradicted biblical teaching that the sun moved around the earth and Galileo must, therefore, be wrong. But is that what the Bible says?

Here, of course, is where we enter the arena of biblical interpretation and the issue that has vexed the church ever since. In Galileo’s case, the key passage was the story of Joshua stopping the sun. Joshua did this in order to have longer daylight so he could win a battle with the Amorites. Based on this and other texts, the church concluded that the Bible teaches that it’s the sun that moves, not the earth.

There was nothing wrong with the church’s logic. The problem was with its understanding of the Bible. Did the Bible “teach” that the sun moves? No, the authors of the Bible wrote stories, poems, etc which included the common assumptions of the time; in this case that the sun moved around the earth. So how do we know when something the Bible says is a possibly erroneous assumption of the ancient world and when is it “the truth”?

The church has never really resolved that question (which explains why Galileo wasn’t formally exonerated until just a few years ago). Fundamentalist Protestants responded with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. There simply is no problem, they say: the Bible is always right. Roman Catholics avoided the biblical question with the doctrine of papal infallibility. The Pope decides what the truth of the Bible is and the Pope is always right.

Christians between those poles have taken on the more difficult task of judging each case individually. So when the Bible says women should keep silent in church, this is dismissed as reflecting ancient gender roles. When the Bible says slaves should obey their masters, even abusive ones, this reflects that Bible’s acceptance of slavery as a part of ancient culture. People in biblical stories having fits weren’t really demon possessed but suffered from epilepsy or some similar medical disorder. And so on.

Of course this approach is open to the criticism that one simply picks and chooses the pieces of biblical teaching one likes and finds some excuse to toss whatever is inconvenient. This is exactly the accusation being made against ELCA supporters of gay clergy. Yet this isn’t how it works in practice.

Instead, the process involves a genuine wrestling with biblical texts, as well as with history, science, personal experience, and any other factors relevant to the issue in question. Further, this isn’t decided by any individual but involves as much of the church as wants to join in. The result, of course, is that there isn’t any one simple authority, be it a book, a pope, an ayatollah, or a “council of elders.” The authority rather is simply the process of thought, study, debate, and discernment, with the commitment of those involved to seek the truth and with a trust in the guidance of the Spirit. For those wanting quick and clear judgments this can be very frustrating.

What this process recognizes, however, is that life is not about “getting it right.” It’s not a game show or a class with a killer final exam. Life, as God has given it to us, is about learning and discovery within a community of love and faithfulness. It’s not about jumping through hoops but living freely and creatively under grace. Being right is important if life is about scoring points. Discovering the truth is important if life is about maturing and growing and becoming the people we have been created to be.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Creating ourselves: a theology of hobbies (Sunday Reflections for September 6, 2009)

Well, enough for now about sex and Lutherans. Or as they used to say on Monte Python: “And now for something completely different.”

A couple weeks ago I started taking a weaving class. I have dabbled in arts and crafts things over the years but not done anything recently. My experience with the arts scene on this last trip to Santa Fe (as I wrote about a few weeks ago) reawakened that interest. Through the Indian, and especially Navajo, communities weaving has a significant presence in New Mexico. In addition to the making of traditional rugs and blankets, people there pursue a variety of fabric and textile arts, both functional and decorative. For whatever reason, I’ve been drawn to weaving’s use of vivid color and pattern, the potential for abstract expression, and their textural qualities.

So far it’s going well. I have a great teacher and it’s a “work at your own pace” arrangement. The school is in a small storefront and there are only a few people there at any one time. It is relaxing and energizing at the same time and there is a Zen quality to it all. Like most new experiences weaving is, or can be, a lot more complicated than I realized. I have a lot to learn but it’s good to know this is an activity where there will always be something new to learn or try.

It will be awhile, though, before I can answer the primary question we always have with a new activity: Is it me? I was in a store in a small town between Santa Fe and Albuquerque that had hand woven items for sale. I asked the woman working there if she had made any of them. Oh no, she said. I paint and do other things and I tried weaving, but it just wasn’t me.

I knew what she meant and I think any of us would. “That’s not me.” We say it all the time. It can be in reference to an item of clothing, a potential new car, a cuisine, or some kind of hobby, recreational activity, or (perhaps especially) a job. Something about them doesn’t fit who we are. And we say “Now that’s me” when we find a connection, a comfort level, a familiarity.

I’m not sure we are aware of how new such experiences are, historically speaking. Of course, people have always had unique physical traits, personalities, and abilities. Until fairly recently, however, the options for “self-expression” were pretty limited. Indeed that term is a very modern one, rarely if ever used or thought of in the ancient world. For the vast majority of people, gender roles were rigidly fixed, vocations were passed on from one generation to the next, material possessions were very limited, there was little variety in clothing, and so forth.

In other words, people had relatively few choices to make and therefore few ways to really standout from everyone else. Indeed, “standing out” was usually not perceived as a good thing. Where it was accepted was in the quality of your work or the possession of a special talent. You could be faster or stronger, more skilled at some craft, or be able to play a musical instrument or tell good stories. In general, however, people had little sense that they needed to express themselves. They simply were who they were and most of that was determined for them, by chance and/or by God.

Enter the modern world. If there is anything that characterizes our world today it is “freedom of choice.” Children are hardly in school and they’re being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” an unimaginable question just a few generations ago (and for some yet today). It is what going to the “New World” was all about: freedom, opportunity, doing and being what you wanted. We forget what a radical notion America’s founders had, that all people are equal and born with a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And through the insights of modern psychology we have come to learn that an essential ingredient for being happy is possessing the freedom to discover and to be who we are. “I gotta be me.”

Freedom, of course, has its own challenges. We don’t always know what to do with our freedom. We don’t always have the courage to fully exercise it. “Who am I? What do I want to be?” We’ve come to think of these as the classic questions of adolescence, yet increasingly people find themselves confronted by them throughout their lives. Lifestyles come and go, jobs come and go, kids come and go, spouses come and go, physical abilities come and go. We are constantly given and confronted with new choices, new opportunities, new ways of “being me.”

Getting a handle on all of this is the challenge of modern living. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by seemingly having too many choices. Then choices are taken away as chance and circumstances throw unexpected curves at us. Plans and dreams are forced to change. We make bad choices or choices that don’t turn out the way we expected. “I guess this really isn’t me.”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we’re all pretty new at this. For thousands of years, humans had all they could do just to stay alive long enough to make more humans. Even as civilization developed most people’s lives were pretty basic—and pretty short (few worries about retirement). Our lives now are much fuller, and more complicated, but also—I think we have so say—more human.

“Be fruitful and multiply” God tells his new human creation in Genesis. Even there it meant more than just having babies. It meant grow, build, learn, create, discover. It’s what the Bible understood to be what set us apart from the rest of creation.

One aspect of modernity has been the proliferation of hobbies. Some historians date the beginning of the modern era to the day when a man climbed a mountain for the first time just for the view. While civilization tends to grow in its factories, offices and laboratories, increasingly individuals grow in their spare time, their play, since most find their work to be inadequate expressions of who they fully are.

As a result we look for other outlets, other means of self-expression, in an array of activities that is nearly uncountable and always growing. Some eventually transform their hobby into their work, achieving the goal advocated by most job counselors today: do what you love. Whether we accomplish that or not we are each pursuing the goal of discovering me and being me. Our family, our friendships, our work, and our hobbies together are the multi-faceted, complicated, and unique ways we each accomplish that task. In doing so we are, in fact, being fully human: doing what we are created to do and discovering who we truly are.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Prof Wengert and how to dig the ELCA's hole deeper

The ELCA website has posted a long and dense essay by Philadelphia seminary professor, Timothy Wengert. In my previous post I said all sides in the ELCA’s tempest need to lay their cards on the table. This is not an example of that but just the opposite. While well-meaning and a supporter of the CWA’s actions, I’m afraid Professor Wengert doesn’t get it.

In his piece, Wengert argues that the ELCA’s new policy is just as scriptural as the opposing view point. Significantly, Wengert is not a Bible scholar but a professor of Reformation church history. Step AWAY from the 16th century. That’s not where we’re going to find peace over this.

I'm not really sure what an essay like Wengert’s is trying to accomplish. The people who supported the decision think it’s wonderful, judging by reactions on Facebook (though I’m not sure how many of them could actually follow it). Over on a conservative forum, responders there weren’t buying Wengert’s exegesis.

The real problem, however, is that arguments like Wengert’s are just beside the point. No one comes to the conclusion that homosexual behavior is acceptable based on reading the Bible. They reach that conclusion based on their own experiences, perhaps with the insights and support of modern psychology. We need to say, out loud, three times (as least): “The Bible has nothing relevant to say about homosexuality”—just as it has nothing to say about evolution, cosmology, neurological disorders, and countless other modern day fields and discoveries.

Once we decide that homosexuality is as acceptable as heterosexuality, there is nothing more to be said—but the Bible can’t get us to that point. Essays like Wengert’s end up sounding like word games—theological casuistry—which are DOA with conservative traditionalists. They see through it immediately.

The issue is not the meaning of loving our neighbor (as Wengert argues) but the Bible: what is it, how do we read it, when do we ignore it. Wengert touches on that issue, and even has a Luther quote for it, but it’s buried in his essay (points 6 & 7) and he can’t really carry it to its full conclusion. When conservatives say our position is based on experience rather than scripture and tradition we have to stop arguing with them and just say, “Yes, you’re right. It is. And here’s why we think we’re justified in doing so.” Anything else and we just deepen the mistrust and miscommunication and dig the hole the ELCA’s now in even deeper.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

ELCA in crisis: time for everyone to put their cards on the table

Following the vote of the ELCA’s churchwide assembly to permit gay clergy, the big question now is what will be the reaction out in the pews. Already there are reports of congregation councils voting to withdraw, others deciding to withhold contributions, special synod meetings being called, and a surge of negative mail coming into churchwide headquarters in Chicago. So far I haven’t heard of any bishops encouraging this, though several were strongly opposed to the assembly’s actions. (Any that do should, of course, resign on the spot.)

Later this month Lutheran CORE will meet outside Indianapolis and plot strategy for “faithful Lutherans.” Their leaders have already encouraged “directing” contributions away from the ELCA. Missouri Synod President Gerald Kieschnick issued a statement expressing support for those opposing the ELCA action and saying, in effect, anyone wanting to leave, we’ll be happy to have you. There are, however, a number of those who worked against the task force recommendations who are urging patience and discouraging talk of withdrawal from the denomination. Needless to say, the Office of the Presiding Bishop is probably not a very happy place right now.

And yet, while the instantaneous call for withdrawal from the ELCA certainly is a kneejerk reaction, it’s hard not to see the similarly immediate expressed hope for ELCA unity in the same way. The divisions within the ELCA exposed last month are significant. If it is to continue intact, the ELCA is going to have to be a different church. What is not an option is simply continuing on as before.

Since this past spring, the mantra from the sexuality task force and ELCA leadership has been that the proposals were a compromise, respecting differences of belief. Compromise implies an agreement among opposing sides, however, and that was never the case here. Indeed, after their work was done, some task force members resigned and came out against what were supposedly their own recommendations (further evidence of what a strange pushme-pullyou creation the task force was). Any further doubts about this being a compromise were erased by the floor debate at the churchwide assembly. The opposition was energized not just by disagreeing with this particular compromise but by rejecting the notion that there could be a compromise.

In listening to the debate, people on both sides of the issue wondered aloud how the opposing groups could be in the same church. Carl Braaten made this observation about the point-counterpoint letters by retired bishop Herb Chilstrom and himself. Goodsoil convention blogger David Weiss listened to the alternating for-and-against speakers and first thought it was like they were on ships passing in the night. Then, on second thought, he decided it was more like they were in different oceans.

All this raises the question: Is there a common bond that holds the ELCA together? In fact, this is really a question that was left unanswered when the ELCA was formed over twenty years ago. Without that answer, the ELCA has never had a clear sense of itself: either its fundamental beliefs or its mission.

CORE has on its website the text of an address by retired theology professor (and CORE board member) Carl Braaten. The speech was delivered at a CORE event in Arizona last October and makes clear that the issues at stake go far beyond homosexuality. In it Braaten summarizes what he sees as the multiple ways the ELCA is going wrong. It’s a lengthy indictment and well worth the read. While he, of course, portrays one side positively and one negatively, I don’t think his overall assessment of the diverging viewpoints is too far off the mark. In others words, while I would reject his evaluation of it, of course, I basically identify with the side Braaten thinks is leading the ELCA to disaster. I think he sees the division pretty accurately.

The clarity that Braaten provides is what was lacking at the time of the ELCA’s formation and has been lacking in the run-up to the Minneapolis assembly. In the first instance, people were too polite and didn’t want to spoil the party. In this debate twenty years later, the strategy has been to emphasize what we hold in common for the sake of church unity. This has always been disingenuous, however, and now threatens to make a bad situation worse. As Braaten’s piece spells out and last month’s assembly actions demonstrate, there are in the ELCA real differences over significant questions of theology and mission. Any attempt to patch this over by getting everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbaya is only going to further antagonize the opposing sides.

The ELCA’s leadership has to get past the notion that their top priority is holding the ELCA together. Indeed, following such a strategy may well guarantee the ELCA’s breakup. Instead, there needs to be honest dialog expressing the diversity of beliefs present in the church. The position described by Braaten needs a response. There needs to be an honest and energetic push-back that says, “No, we think you’re wrong and here’s why.” Only then can it be determined if there are larger, transcending beliefs and values that will allow the ELCA to continue functioning effectively.

This may be more difficult that it sounds, however. There has been a tendency among those more liberally minded to “cloke” their beliefs with artificially orthodox and traditional language and concepts. There are a variety of reasons for this and it tends—with some justification—to drive conservatives nuts. It’s time for liberals to find the courage of their convictions. Instead of trying to squirm out of conservatives’ accusations (like those in Braaten’s essay) there needs to be some honest and bold acceptance of the differences that are now evident to everyone watching.

If it’s not already too late, the need is for genuine conversation. Perhaps the opposing sides really don’t understand each other. Perhaps minds can be changed. Perhaps differences are more tolerable than believed and accommodations can be found. Perhaps—but nothing will be accomplished without honesty and an end to past equivocation. We need to respect each other enough to at least do that. Celebrate where we come together, acknowledge where we part, and then decide if there is enough of the former to overcome the latter for the ELCA to remain intact. What we can’t do is presume ahead of time what the outcome of such a conversation will or ought to be.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

ELCA and gay clergy: some of the nitty-gritty

As with any major change, the ELCA's decision to allow non-celibate gay clergy and the blessing of gay relationships has many loose ends. One that will start getting clearer fairly quickly is the question of what opponents of this change will do. One meeting of such people, organized by CORE, happens soon in Indianapolis. As I've said before, my guess is that most dismayed by this action will nonetheless stay put. I'm predicting a loss of at most 10% of ELCA congregations. The drop in financial contributions to the ELCA will probably be greater, however.

There are also a number of practical implications left unclear by the actions of the ELCA's churchwide assembly (CWA). In states with gay marriage, will ELCA clergy be allowed to participate in them? It's hard to see how they could be stopped. First, the notion of prohibiting pastors from carrying out some ministerial function is a foreign one in the ELCA. Second, the Lutheran marriage rite for the past thirty years makes it clear that the couple marry each other by their vows. The minister does not have the "power" to marry anyone. Rather, he or she presides at the service and is the principle witness to the couple's promises. Apart from that, however, marriage is getting to be a murkier act in general which the church is going to need to look at sooner or later.

The changes in clergy policies, which were developed by the sexuality task force and adopted by the CWA, unintentionally highlight an unclear distinction in the role of synods and congregations in the call process. In theory, congregations seeking a new pastor are given one or more candidates to consider who have been screened by their synod office. It is becoming more common, however, especially for larger congregations, to occasionally "go recruiting" for pastoral candidates, especially if they are dissatisfied with names that have been submitted previously. It's just assumed the bishop will approve a candidate found this way.

While the emphasis has been on congregations now having the freedom to choose a gay pastor if they want to, the language of the resolution also speaks somewhat ambiguously of synods and bishops also having this freedom. The implication is that a bishop or synod could also choose to NOT have gay clergy. Would such a decision be binding on all congregations in such a synod? It's not hard imaging a liberal congregation (say in a college town) in a conservative synod wanting to call a gay pastor when the synod or bishop is opposed.

How such a conflict is resolved is not clear. In practice, it may not even occur. In the ELCA, when push comes to shove, congregations usually get what they want. Still, while all the talk at the CWA of "freedom of conscience" sounded good, it's unclear what it actually means beyond the individual or congregational level. After women's ordination was approved, it was well known that many congregations would not call a female pastor and that some bishops were not inclined to recommend them. Still, there was no formal provision for denying a woman a call or denying a congregation the right to extend a woman a call. It's hard to see how this situation will turn out any differently.

Beyond these issues is the ongoing one of to what extent synods or congregations want to be involved in monitoring the private lives of pastors. As I wrote in my previous post, the adoption of the new ministry practices puts new emphasis on sex only being appropriate in marriage or committed relationships. In general, however, pastors’ personal lives have become more private and both they and their congregations seem to like it that way. Will it be assumed that a pastoral candidate will disclose his or sexual orientation? That they’re dating or might in the future? Would the same expectations be applied to both gay and straight candidates?

Again, in practice this all may work itself out. If the CWA vote is at all indicative of the general attitude of the ELCA, and if national trends continue, it may not be long before most congregations just won’t care. Given how messy and goofy the alternative can be, I suspect the church will move to that stage faster than we might think.