Friday, September 16, 2011

Less words (Sunday Reflections for September 18, 2011) is a network of people and organizations promoting an alternative to conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. Started in 1994 by an Episcopal rector in Washington, D.C., it now includes individuals and congregations from 17 denominations, as well as various independent and ecumenical groups.
Among the resources it provides is a summary statement of “8 Points of Progressive Christianity.” I thought you might find interesting their recently revised version of that statement.
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who . . .
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an experience and of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to: conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
 5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth; and
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
This is certainly not the most elegant statement of belief or principles I have seen. It reads like it was written by a committee, which it probably was. Nor is it written “for the ages”—I’m sure it will be revised again. Yet I think that is one of its other points. Over the centuries, Christianity has become notorious for its endless production of doctrines, creeds and statements of belief. Theologians have then written millions more words interpreting those statements. (And Lutherans have been at the forefront of those efforts.)
A statement like The 8 Points is really an attempt to step away from all that. It is not systematic theology nor does it claim to summarize “The Truth” (in fact, it almost denies such a thing exists). It is more about behavior and attitudes than about intellectual ideas or beliefs.
My intellectual guru, English theologian Don Cupitt, has said that systematic theology basically stopped being written after about 1970, and I think he is right. The last two great Christian theologians were the German-American Lutheran Paul Tillich (who died in Chicago in 1965) and Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (d. 1968). They were the last to write “grand theology” that genuinely broke new ground or said anything original.
The few attempts made after Tillich and Barth have not really said anything new. Most theologians haven’t tried, however, because they have understood Cupitt’s point that the world has changed. Christianity, and religion generally, has run itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac. In other words, theology really just doesn’t have any new insight to offer about the world or human life in that world. That baton has been passed to the natural and behavioral sciences.
Unfortunately, it has been very hard for theologically-oriented churches to recognize or accept this new reality. Such churches are predominantly mainline denominations, like Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. We continue to insist on the importance of getting all our theological and doctrinal ducks in a row, when most people, including most of our own church members, don’t really care about such things or even understand them. Denominational offices and gatherings continue to talk and talk, and write and write. Yet fewer and fewer pay any attention to such efforts, which look more esoteric and antiquarian with each passing year.
A simple and kind of unrefined statement like The 8 Points is really an effort to say, “Let’s be done with all that.” It is an attempt to redirect the church away from an obsession with getting its thinking right and refocus on values and behavior. Of course, this is nothing but a scandal and a horror to those convinced that being a Christian is all about what you think or believe. Yet in my experience, while such people tend to very vocal, they are a shrinking minority.
I think the real weight behind a statement like The 8 Points is that it is not only more true to our times, but it is also more true to the biblical tradition. There is actually very little explicit theology in the Bible, and what theology there is certainly isn’t systematic. Only in the latter stages of the New Testament do we begin to see a fixation on “getting it right” in our thinking. Prior to that, and certainly in the life and teachings of Jesus, “getting it right” is all about our behavior, individually and as a community.
Apart from its specific statements, The 8 Points says that in the 21st century Christianity’s value is to cause people to ask “How shall we live?” not “What do we think?” In doing so, progressive Christians aren’t charting a new path but getting us back to an ancient one.

9-11 plus ten (Sunday Reflections for September 11, 2011)

I’ve had a hard time knowing what to make of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The New York and Washington media have been telling us this is a big deal. Since many of those in the industry experienced it personally, this isn’t surprising. Yet their perspective is inevitably skewed by the huge impact it had on those cities. If my experience is at all representative, I suspect the thoughts and feelings of much of the rest of the country are more conflicted.
There is no question the 9/11 attacks were stunning and horrific. Yet ten years later, “What did it all mean?” is a question we still wonder and argue about. 9/11 set off a dramatic chain of events for the country and the world: wars, economic upheaval, new security measures, and increased anxiety, to name some of the most obvious. Here again, however, the meaning and necessity of all these are still debated.
In evaluating important events, ten years is much too short a time to have genuine perspective. Yet I will hazard a guess that 50 or 100 years from now, the 9/11 attacks, even acknowledging their horror, will not be seen to have been history changing events. Rather, I suspect 9/11 will be seen as one example or symptom (though perhaps the most dramatic) of an extended period of global instability—a period that is probably still far from over.
Historians often disagree about which events are the actual turning points for some period. History rarely turns on a dime. Change comes gradually, yet often there are events where that change becomes obvious and inevitable. In this case, I suspect our most recent historical turning point will be seen to have been, not 9/11, but the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the time the Cold War ended, there were a number of observers who said we would soon come to miss it. Subsequent events have demonstrated the insight of their prophecy. As bad as it was, the Cold War did provide a power balance which drew in nearly every country on the planet. Nuclear weapons kept the US and USSR apart but it was the broader dynamics of Cold War politics which kept conflicts between all other countries from getting out of control.
With the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika all that came to an end. Decades long power balances were thrown out of kilter and nations new and old went spinning out in all directions. Perhaps the region most constrained by Cold War politics was the Muslim world of North Africa, the Middle East, and South-central Asia.
This area, more than any other, has demonstrated how many authoritarian regimes were kept in power by playing off the US and Soviet Union against each other. This year’s Arab Spring uprising is the most recent example of the region’s upheaval. A much earlier instance, of course, was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, whose original goal was the overthrow of the corrupt and US-allied monarchy ruling Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Islam.
Yet what the Soviet Union’s end really represents is not just new, head-spinning geopolitics but a whole cascade of social changes sweeping the globe. From modern cities to primitive villages, people everywhere are experiencing cultural upheaval unlike anything the world has known. Much of it is driven by an avalanche of new technologies, especially in information management, agriculture, communication, transportation, and health care. Many people are literally finding themselves being propelled from the 19th century (or even earlier) into the 21st century, with the trauma such rapid change inevitably causes.
The media has drawn attention to the role of cell phones and social networking in the Arab Spring. Ironically these youth-inspired revolts also demonstrated how far behind Al Qaida had fallen in appreciating the social changes underway in the Muslim world. That, as well as the destruction of most its leadership, is quickly making Al Qaida into a historical footnote and casting doubt on whether it will really have any lasting impact on the world.
Contemporary terrorist organizations and revolutionary movements, like Al Qaida, have drawn their strength from the fear and anxiety caused by the cultural changes in less-developed countries. 9/11 may come to be seen as the moment when people in the West were finally confronted by the dark side of our technological and economic transformation.
One reaction throughout the world has been the rise of fundamentalist and jihadist-type religion. This has been driven by a turn-back-the-clock desire to reverse traumatic cultural changes. The impossibility and irrationality of this is often ironically demonstrated by the use of modern technology by these “traditionalist” movements.
In any case, social upheaval is almost certain to continue for the indefinite future, whether inspired by religion, politics or economics. Even the most beneficial technological changes are going to continue to cause unpredictable, ricocheting consequences. We have much more to learn about how to manage those changes and minimize their unintended consequences.
Yet the answer to technology’s problems can’t simply be more technology. The greatest challenge we face is how to integrate technological developments with a moral perspective. While not yet officially acknowledged, it is becoming increasingly clear that the recent financial meltdown was the result of technologies used to hide the risky and even felonious nature of countless financial transactions.
Others point to the growing use of technology and its complexity to mask fraud and deceit in nearly every field and institution. Lying and cheating, of course, are as old as history itself. It is also true that they have tended to rise and fall in waves and that they are kept in check only by the intentional efforts of society. Al Qaida has essentially been eliminated but, if anything, the social upheaval and injustice which spawned it have only grown. We are, however, more aware of it, even if we feel helpless to do anything about it.
Yet we are never helpless. History and all the world’s religions testify that a commitment to genuine community, and the fairness and equality it requires, does make a difference and ultimately wins out. Our values do get out of kilter and we often succumb to looking out only for our own interests. Yet the voices of our consciences and our prophets challenge us to do better, and we know we can. Ultimately controlling technology is not our greatest challenge. Rather, it is the age-old task of controlling our egos and emotions with a commitment to justice and compassion for all.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

He even associates with SNRs! (Sunday Reflections for September 4, 2011)

In recent years I’ve come to expect whining and complaining about the decline of Christianity from religious conservatives and fundamentalists. I was stunned—frankly—to hear it this week coming from a minister of a denomination that usually epitomizes acceptance and accommodation with modern culture, the United Church of Christ (UCC).
Two pastoral colleagues shared on Facebook a short “devotional” piece by Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, IL. These two friends liked it (as did many of their friends in reply). I was appalled. The essay was titled, “Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” Rev. Daniel apparently does a lot of traveling and gets stuck with a lot of annoying seatmates:
On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.
Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?
Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? 
Yikes! I pity the next person who sits next to Rev. Daniel on a plane, especially if they’re not an active church member. Perhaps she just needs a vacation.
I quoted most of her piece so you could get its tone, because that’s what I think is important. The content is primarily sweeping and unsupported generalizations, both about “spiritual but not religious” people (hereafter “SNR”) and about the church. On the Facebook forum where it first appeared, most comments were supportive but a number were from people taken aback as I was. These echoed my thought that many are not religious specifically because of negative experiences with churches.
In her essay, Daniel presents an idealized, and even romanticized, conception of the church, especially as it’s expressed in actual congregations. The ongoing exposure of clergy sex scandals, the screeching judgmentalism of fundamentalists, and the stories any Christian can tell of congregational fights and schisms (to name just a few prominent ones) surely provide ample explanations of why people could be alienated from organized religion.
I also can only dismiss as nonsense Daniel’s assertion that there is no challenge to “having deep thoughts all by oneself.” Oh that more people would have such experiences! I hardly think we are over-supplied with deep thought. Nor can I accept her implication that the church is the only community where one can genuinely put spiritual thought to work. In fact, I think most spiritual work is hammered out in the crucibles of the family, the work place, government assemblies, and the countless informal “non-religious” communities of which we are all apart.
I think most of this is so obvious it hardly needs explanation. That’s why I am left wondering what is really going on with Rev. Daniel, who ought to be aware of all this. While I joked about her needing a vacation, I do hear burnout, frustration and discouragement in her rant. She is not alone in this in the church, especially among clergy.
While fundamentalists have been complaining for decades about the decline of Christianity and the rise of secularism, it is the mainline churches that have really taken it on the chin. I guess it’s not surprising that this would occasionally lead to the kind of venting Daniel engages in here. She’s picked the wrong target, though.
Of course, SNR folks can be superficial and shallow in their thinking and behavior. Yet they are hardly unique in that, even when compared with religious people! The SNRs I meet are a mixed bag but many are as sincere, thoughtful and socially engaged as the religious people I know. The reality which Daniel ignores is that the nature of religion is changing around the world. For those committed to traditional religious organizations and religious activity, this can be very hard to understand or accept.
Yet understand and accept is exactly what we must do, even and perhaps especially if we are in the church. Nothing in the world stands still, including religion. Recent scholarship has emphasized that Jesus lived in just such a cultural moment, with ancient religions increasingly unsatisfactory and ineffective.
Jesus accepted the religion of his time but was hardly committed to it. Indeed some scholars believe he actually anticipated the end of traditional religion, believing there was no need for religious institutions acting as go-betweens for God and humanity. Indeed it’s hard to make the case that the church which was created centuries after him is not something he also would have railed against.
The Bible shows again and again that it’s the religious outsiders who usually have the best insight into spiritual truth, not the folks invested in the success of religious institutions. For that reasons alone, rather than lecturing the SNRs we need to be listening to them.