We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.
Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk
Saturday, August 31, 2013
Assuming that is really what is going on, the question is why? One intriguing possibility is that the rise of the religious right may have something to do with the willingness of the religiously uninvolved to be more open about their lack of involvement. The religious right has become a loud voice in American public discourse and appears more-and-more to be the dominant face of institutional religion. The "nones" are put off by the right and thus more willing to say so publicly—or so the theory goes. It is indisputable that the "nones" are generally more liberal than the over all population and many of them are Democrats, although apparently many do not vote and are as politically uninvolved as religiously. There may be a connection. That's the point of this thesis. Given the hard-right drift in both politics and religion, the "nones" may be drop-outs from both who are now inclined to say publicly that they are drop-outs.
The religious right generally is all about absolute boundaries between right and wrong, belief and unbelief. The "nones," so this thesis goes, accept the boundaries laid down by the right but self-consciously declare themselves to be on the other side of the line. There is a paradox here. The right wants to evangelize unbelievers and bring them back across the line and into the fold. The way they go about their evangelizing, however, actually makes it more difficult for the "unbelievers" to convert because those unbelievers find the right-wing dualism of the religious right objectionable.
It has to be emphasized that this thesis is not proven. From a progressive Christian perspective, however, it makes some sense. We also find right-wing ideological dualism disturbing and would only want to say to the "nones" that there are other ways to think about faith and God beside those that dominant our public discourse today.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Some thoughts. First, church people shouldn't get excited about this because what may be going on here is that our marginal folks, especially among the Protestant denominations and churches, may be finally coming out of the closet. They have sat limp and uninterested on our rolls for many long years and in the past said they were Presbyterians or Methodists or whatever but in fact weren't "religious" at all. The fact of mainline decline is a hard real fact. The fact that the decline is spreading to the Evangelicals is also clear. The rise of the "nones" is a reflection, possibly and in part, on us.
Second, we have to hedge all of this with "possiblies" and "maybes" because the academics involved don't know what is going on, at least not clearly. Newport's thesis makes that abundantly clear. What we know for sure is that the number of people who check the categories of "nones" (atheist, agnostic, no religion) on questionnaires is rising, and that is apparently about all we know for sure about them.
Finally, the point was made in the Pew round table that just because a person selects "no religion"on a questionnaire does not mean that they are actually not religious. It means that they do not identify themselves with any of the other choices offered on the questionnaire. They do not consider themselves "Buddhist" or "Christian" or anything else. The data shows that many of them still pray. They often believe in God or some kind of spiritual presence or force. It is thus even less clear that the number of people who are in one way or another religious is declining in the United States. It is not even clear that the profile of who are religious is changing, that is that they are shifting away from institutional religion to non-instituional religion. It looks as if they were previously non-institutional religious but not as likely to say so to pollsters—and maybe not willing to admit it to their neighbors.
There is a lot for us to think about here.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
In light of the Trinitarian faith that later developed, there are a couple of things worth noting here. First, in these stage-setting, theme-setting first words in the New Testament there is no hint of the divine Son of God who is the Second Person of the Trinity. If his generation had believed in these doctrines when Matthew was written, it seems likely that the author would have included something to indicate the divinity of Jesus, even something as simple as, "the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of God." At the heart of the New Testament message is Jesus the Messiah. It took the church centuries to read his divinity back into the record.
Second and in light of the doctrine of the Trinity, this simple verse points decisively to the incarnational nature of the Christian faith. The story of the divine Jesus begins with a genealogy tying him to a long list of what the people of Matthew's time took to be historical figures. He was Jesus of Nazareth, son of David and of Abraham. Historically down to the present, large segments of the church have virtually denied the Incarnation by their emphasis on the Perfect Son of God who shared and shares God's omnipotence and omniscience. They have also denied the historical reality of Jesus the Messiah by turning him into "Sweet Jesus," the one who offends no one, never has an unkind word or thought. The Jesus of Matthew 1:1 has long been buried under the weight of our philosophies and ideologies to the point that it has become impossible to see how God was actually in an actual person in the real world of the first century.
Monday, August 26, 2013
A modest, well-constructed, and clean campfire burning into the night can touch the human spirit in a deep way. Calm. Quiet. Healing. Meditation. Beauty. It's all there in the natural artistry and spirituality of the flames. Amen.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Good historians are good story-tellers, and Rick Atkinson is a good historian. He competently (almost wisely) and evenhandedly portrays the immense sadness of war. He also chisels out a monument to the human spirit, which somehow manages to find its way through war—scarred but also in a way transcendent in the face of all of the unimaginable horror and the depths of human suffering. The Guns at Last Light is going to win its share of prizes, and it should. It brings Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," which also includes An Army at Dawn (2002) and The Day of Battle (2007) to a fitting close. If you enjoy reading history and haven't read any of these books, start with An Army at Dawn and read through them all.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
|Sigurd Olson (1899-1982)|
In a sense, Olson began his nascent theology in what we might call a "third place," the wilderness. In another sense, however, he actually begins with both God and humanity at the same time because for him the wilderness is a revelation of both. By wilderness, Olson meant the North Country that stretches from northern Minnesota and western Ontario to the Atlantic and northward to the Arctic. It is a land of lakes and forests, loons and wolves. Those who travel into the great silence of this vast land will discover themselves and come closer to God. Thus the discovery of God and of self are not separated into compartments or chapters but are part of one spiritual process. The human spirit and divine spirit are not to entirely separate and distinct entities. They have a unity. Olson's starting point is thus both God and us, and his holiest book of revelation is the Wilderness, not just because it reveals God through the divine creation but also because it is the place where God emerges onto the human stage in the human spirit.
For Olson, there was much at stake in preserving the wild places of our planet. When (dare we anymore say, "if"?) they are gone, we will have lost both ourselves and God. It is hard to say, "amen," to that thought.
Friday, August 16, 2013
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
We recently went out to land owned by friends and picked wild blackberries. It was a wet spring and there has been plenty of rain all summer here in the North Country of New York, which means that the forests are especially green and verdant—and that there is a ton of blackberries out there just for the effort of picking them.
The boundaries between these realities are porous, but they all make sense to us—in different ways of course. Cultures define reality, up to a point. So, too, do our individual personalities define how we sense what is real. Experiences shape our senses and sometimes radically change what makes sense to us—what is real for us. We, nonetheless, all have common, moral, and spiritual sensibilities, which all make sense to us.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Sunday, August 11, 2013
Dr. House is proposing that 998 Methodist churches participate in the Benchmark Project, which seeks to increase each church's discretionary income to the end that it will experience increased statistical growth, beginning with worship attendance.
The ones who carry the burden for carrying out the Benchmark Project are local lay leaders and pastors. In effect, that is, the project puts more pressure and responsibility on congregational leadership without any effective support mechanism other than local advisory committees that are expected to meet only occasionally. There is no training involved or guidelines as to where the 998 churches are to come up with additional funding. Everything is left up to the local leadership. The truth is that mainline pastors and sessions are already struggling with a range of pressures and issues that are the root causes of decline. One has to wonder (and worry) whether adding further pressure and expectations to a leadership infrastructure that is already highly stressed is going to only make matters worse in the long run rather than better. At the very least, far more thought needs to be given to support for church leaders participating in the Benchmark Project than is reflected in Dr. House's proposal.
Beyond concern for the leaders is a more fundamental issue that continues to be largely ignored in the mainline struggle with decline, namely the issue of "followership". A couple of years ago, I posted two items on followership, (here) and (here), which make the point that in any community the health and well-being of the followers are just as important as that of the leaders, if not more so. The community needs good followers. The Benchmark Project stresses leadership while ignoring followership. It is a common oversight but also an all but fatal one when it comes to finding our way beyond decline.
Is the Benchmark Project, then, of no value at all? While it does not seem likely that it will actually reverse the decline of the Methodist Church, it does serve one important purpose. It reminds us that financial planning is one aspect of bringing vital new life to local mainline churches. It is not the key to renewal, but it is an aspect of renewal. And, whatever else is involved, Dr. House deserves credit for seeking realistic approaches to decline. He, at least, has not buried his head in the sand, which is the usual response across the mainline churches to decline.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
In that posting, I observe that Dr. House's proposal is primarily institutional rather than spiritual. It could spark spiritual growth, but that is left up to the individual churches that participate in his proposed Benchmark Project. The project's core concern is to save the United Methodist Church (UMC), to turn it around by getting 998 of its churches to reverse statistical decline by increasing their discretionary income. The ways of achieving increased income are left to the "experts" on the ground, the lay and pastoral leaders of the churches. One key measure for participation in the project is local leadership sufficiently capable to achieve that income.
Dr. House's paper leaves the impression that the Benchmark Project's purpose is to save the denomination. The goal is not local growth. It does not propose to bring at risk churches back from the brink. In fact, churches lacking leadership or financial potential are entirely excluded from the project. One hesitates to call this, "exploitation," because the churches involved are expected to benefit from their higher income, but it does seem to reflect a mentality fairly typical in connectional churches, which is that most of the "connection" flows upward toward the higher "councils". Local churches are expected to give their strength to support the district, the conference, the association, or the presbytery; but often enough little in the way of effective support flows back "down" to the churches. One reason that the mainline denominations are not solving decline is because they continue to exhibit a mentality and set of habits that put the concerns of the hierarchy above the needs of the local churches. The Benchmark Project only encourages and piggy backs on that mentality and those habits.
The ones who carry the burden for carrying out the Benchmark Project, furthermore, are local lay leaders and pastors. More pressure. More responsibility. And without any effective support mechanism other than local advisory committees that are expected to meet only occasionally. There is no training involved or guidelines as to where the 998 churches are to come up with additional funding. Everything is left up to the local leadership. This, too, seems to reflect a mentality that is not actually working out at all, which is that the hope of the churches is in their pastors, first, and then in the lay leadership of the churches, second. All too many pastors are simply not able to respond creatively to the challenges of congregational decline. The same goes for lay leaders. The Benchmark Project does not address this concern in an effective way.
Friday, August 9, 2013
At the heart of the matter, it has become increasingly clear that mainline decline has been as much about the Holy Spirit as anything else. Mainline churches were able to chug along for many decades as social clubs—akin to other service organizations—drawing on a superficial "do good - God is love" theology and a meager spirituality. In the head winds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, that sort of chugging along still works in some places some of the time, especially if a church has a charismatic-type pastor. But, on the whole people are less-and-less willing to commit themselves to religious institutions that takes more out of them in time demands than they give back in spiritual growth. What the statistics of decline that Dr. House's paper so aptly marshal point to is a failure in the spiritual life of churches. The central challenge of our time is spiritual renewal, which his paper does not address at all. The benchmarks it sets are fiscal ones. The focus is on institutional concerns, especially the fear that the United Methodist Church (UMC) will fall apart as a religious organization before mid-century. The mentality reflected in the paper is a fix-it one that tends to look at symptoms and superficial solutions rather than at root causes.
Now, admittedly, in the 998 churches that are expected to take part in the paper's Benchmark Project, the additional funding they are to collect could be used for spiritual renewal programs. The paper, however, does not mention that possibility or recommend it. It leaves to the churches and their pastors to decide where the additional funding is to be used, although apparently one important possibility is for additional staff. There is, House observes, a statistical correlation between adding staff and increases in worship attendance. But what it sounds like is that the Benchmark Project's goal is actually to restore churches to their former condition of the 1950s when statistical growth was a reality for most churches.
One has to ask, even if the Benchmark Project reverses UMC decline by 2021 as proposed, what kind of churches will it have? Will they be churches experiencing spiritual renewal, which grow the lives of their members as much as they grow their budget? Or will they be the spiritually shallow churches of the post-World War II boom years? And if there is not a deeper experience with the Spirit, would the UMC be able to sustain its projected turnaround for any length of time? The answer almost certainly is, "no".
Thursday, August 8, 2013
It is an ambitious proposal to be sure. And as is the case with any such proposal it raises a number of questions, which those involved in carrying out the Benchmark Project will want to consider—if they have not already. The first concern, frankly, is cynicism. The mainline has been in decline for two full generations. That decline has generated a huge literature, countless proposals, projects, and plans. There is a mountain of research and data one can sift through. The very first feeling one has in picking up Dr. House's Benchmark proposal is, "Really? Again?" The paper itself does little to allay this initial cynicism. What it actually proposes is rather meagre in the face of the dire picture it paints of the current state of the UMC. Churches are charged with raising additional funds in amounts significant enough to improve the fiscal state of the church. Advisory committees are to be formed. The church hierarchy is to pick participating churches where the leadership is strong enough to carry out the project successfully. There's not much more to it than that, actually. The rest of the report either describes the need for a project or presents the data that proves that increasing a church's funding will lead "on average" to increased worship attendance. "Really?"
Now, Dr. House, responds, "Yes, really!" He has statistical data, carefully researched, demonstrating his point. Let us grant his point, but one has to wonder if there 998 churches out there that undertake the Benchmark Project and how many of them can do so successfully. On the face of it, it seems too easy, to certain, and somehow too superficial to really be successful in solving a problem that has only grown worse over the last 50 years and has begun to engulf even evangelical churches previously known for their growth.
Perhaps the Benchmark Project proposed in Dr. House's paper is the solution the Methodists have been looking for. But, it is going to take a good deal more "show me" to overcome the initial sense of skepticism it will certainly face.
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
God, where are you?
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
The quoted sentence, however, requires reflection and serious reconsideration. Is life, in fact, primarily the "expression of the information contained in genes"? While the sentence may make sense in the context of Raoult's article, it is not stated as having either context or condition. It is stated as an absolute matter of fact. If he had written that "life is an expression of the information contained in the genes" there would be no reason to argue his point. As best we know today, that is true. But when he claims that life is "primarily the" expression of genetic information without qualification, he reduces not some forms of life, but all of life to its genetic attributes.
It is fair to ask whether or not human life, which is a significant form of life, is primarily the expression of its genetic information. Are all other aspects of human life secondary to our genetic code? Is there, in fact, a hierarchy of humanness? On the face of it, Raoult's statement seems rather imperial in its inmplied assumption that biology is the primary field of study when it comes to life, including human life—making biology the "queen of the sciences." Is the leap from non-life to life a matter of the genes? Is that where the miracle and the mystery of life is located in us? We don't know. Raoult doesn't know.
The statement that life is an expression of the information contained in the genes is a scientific statement based on what we know today about life. We might better expand the statement by saying that the forms life takes as we understand them biologically are expressions of their genetic information. In this more modest light, Raoult's statement is not a scientific statement. It is an ideological claim stated as an absolute truth. It is an imperial claim that assigns all other aspects of life, such as the human spirit, to a secondary status. As I've written before, thus far science can't even study the nature of the human spirit let alone either discredit its existence entirely or assign it a secondary status.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.
Friday, August 2, 2013
The question is whose challenge is this?
There is such a thing as the human spirit, which clearly manifests itself in the real world. Science, however, is hard pressed to explain what it is. There is not a physical measure for it. There is such a thing as love, and science is again hard pressed to explain love or measure it even though it is a powerful reality in our lives. How does one quantify or measure the power of music to move us? Where precisely in the real world does that power lie? Even convinced atheists claim to feel a sense of awe in the face of the reality of the universe. What is "awe"? How does one quantify it? Quantum physics stands as a warning that even in the physical world "reality" is an increasingly difficult thing to quantify and capture in mathematical formulas.
If science cannot account for orders of reality that lie beyond the physical then it cannot account for God. If it cannot account for the fact that a mystical experience is something more than the sum of what goes on in the brain then it cannot even begin to speak about God let alone to assert the un-reality of the divine. When science is eventually able to measure love and account for the human spirit, it will no longer be science as we know it today. When it can account for awe then it will stand on the verge of being able to account for God, but it will no longer be science.
Future science will be something like poetry...like a form of theology that also does not yet exist...or, maybe, it will be both meta-physical and meta-theological. Just as science proves that our pre-scientific theologies are inadequate in the face of reality so will we find that scientific reality is also inadequate to define the true reality of what is really true.
The challenge of God then belongs to us all. It is not likely to go away anytime soon...if ever. Amen.