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

Rethinking the "Nones" (ii)

The recent round-table discussion sponsored by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project on trends in religious research (transcript) focused most of its attention on the so-called "nones," a new religious category that includes those who state on sociological surveys that they are atheists, agnostics, or otherwise "not religious."  The number of "nones" has been growing, and it is clear from the discussion among the participants in the round-table that it is not exactly clear why.  It appears from the available data that what is actually happening is that people who never were involved in institutional religion used to mask that fact for researchers, but now they are more willing to state openly that they are "nones".  The absolute number of the religiously uninvolved as a percentage of the population has not risen much if at all.  The number who say they are uninvolved on questionnaires has risen.

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

Rethinking the "Nones"

In recent years, sociologists of religion and other academics have become increasingly aware of a new category of Americans, the so-called "nones".  They are the ones who choose "atheist," "agnostic," or "no religion" on questionnaires, and their numbers have been rising steadily for a couple of decades.  The general interpretation of the data has been the actual number of people who used to be religious but now aren't has been rising, but Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief, at Gallup has recently proposed a different take on the "nones."  In a round-table discussion sponsored by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project (transcript), he suggests that what has happened is not so much that there has been a conversion process going on—from religious to non-religious—as, rather, that for some reason it is becoming easier or more acceptable for people to say to pollsters that they are they are atheists, agnostics, or otherwise not religious.  He argues that the number of religious people has not been declining, at least not very much.  What has been happening, instead, is that the number of non-religious people willing to admit they are non-religious is what is rising.  What is being measured seems to be a social change in attitude about being publicly non-religious.

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

Jesus the Post-Exilic Messiah

The Gospel of Matthew opens, famously, with a genealogy (1:2-17), which is divided into three sets of generations with 14 generations to a set.  The first set of generations runs from Abraham to David, the second from David to the Babylonian Exile, and the last set from the Exile to Jesus.  In the whole genealogy only one historical event named (other than births) is the Exile.  Jesus was, that is, a post-exilic Jew living in post-exilic times.  While biblical scholars may generally understand the power and importance that the Exile had in the history of the Jewish people right down to the New Testament, that understanding has not for the most part reached the churches.  Out here in the real world of the church, we tend to divorce Jesus and earliest church history from its Jewish post-exilic historical context.  We shouldn't.  Again, as we saw in yesterday's post on Matthew 1:1, "Jesus the Messiah," the first verses of the first book in the New Testament highlight the fact that Jesus was situated in a real time and place.  Our faith is that he is God With Us in a unique way, that is that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  Matthew 1 drives home both the centrality and historicity of the Incarnation for us.

The text thus invites the historical investigation of the events recorded in the New Testament including most especially the life of Jesus himself.  That is to say that Matthew 1 and what follows in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament inspires both a theological and an academic response.  Theologically, it drives us in the direction of the Incarnation.  Academically, it invites us to engage in historiography.  In their own way, each of these intellectual responses to Matthew 1 and beyond are faithful to the text itself.  They each reflect the realities of the earliest church's faith in Jesus, namely that he was the "son of Abraham, the son of David" (Matthew 1:1) who was born fourteen generations after the Babylonian Captivity.  For Christian theologians, then, he was God's Son.  For the historians, he was a post-exilic rabbi and prophet.  From our pulpits and in our prayers, we need to pay attention to both of these faithful perspectives on Jesus of Nazareth.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Jesus the Messiah

The first verse of the first book of the New Testament, Matthew 1:1, reads, "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (NRSV)  We should not pass over the meaning of this passage as it takes it at once into the core of New Testament faith.  For the earliest generations of the faithful,  Jesus was the Jewish messiah, and this is the first spiritual "fact" asserted in the first verse of the New Testament.  Whatever else Jesus of Nazareth might have been, those who followed him were convinced that he was the one the Jewish people had long waited for—the one to lead them to safety.  The verse, furthermore, drives home the "fact" of Jesus' messiahship by noting that he was the "son of David, the son of Abraham."  He was, that is, heir to the royal power of King David and the powerful faith of Father Abraham, which meant that his messianic pedigree was legitimate and impressive.

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

Campfire Reflections

Campfires are good for a number of things: for cooking, for warmth, for entertainment (sitting around the fire just watching it or perhaps swapping stories), and as an opportunity to practice the craft of fire-making.  These are what we might term utilitarian uses of campfires.  There is, however, another aspect of campfires that is not utilitarian—moments when the crackling beauty of the dancing fire bringing a tiny bit of light to the deeper silence of the forest night transcends any utilitarian considerations.  We watch the fire and see the colors within the flames, and we're captivated by the contrast between the larger flames and the smaller ones at the edges of the fire.

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

Summer Reading (ii)

Before his biography of Jesus stirred the waters a bit, Reza Aslan's introduction to Islam, No god but God (updated ed., Random House, 2011) has been his best know work.  Itself somewhat controversial among a smaller audience, the book seeks to introduce Aslan's readers to an Islam that is diverse, vibrant, and beautiful.  Written in the shadow of 9/11, he also wants his Western audience to understand that the Islam of the Prophet was far more tolerant and accepting of others than its fundamentalist versions of today.  The problems of Islam began with Muhammad's successors.  Aslan captures both the spirituality and the politics of Islam as seen from a moderate (read "progressive") perspective, and he is honest about the issues facing Muslims and the darker side of their religion while remaining positive and upbeat about Islam itself.  The book is well-written, well-researched, and it moves along at a good pace.  If you are interested in world faiths in general and/or Islam in particular, this is a book well worth reading.  It provides something of an antidote to the mindless anti-Islamic, anti-Arab prejudices of many in the West today.

As a footnote, one thing I found interesting is that the State of Israel is hardly mentioned at all and nothing is said about its part in radicalizing  certain segments of the Muslim Arab peoples.  One wonders why.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summer Reading

Good history, whatever the subject, invariably raises profound moral and ethical questions.  Look behind any field of historical study, and you will discover injustice, failure, fallibility, and suffering of one kind of another.  That is the story of our race—not the whole story, of course, but a central part of it.  The history of war is a case in point, only more so than almost any other field.  Rick Atkinson's recently released, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 (Henry Holt, 2013), is an outstanding example of this same point.  The book is a magisterial, well-written, well-sourced study of the last year of World War II on the Western Front.  The text runs to 641 pages, the end notes another 170, and together they describe virtually every aspect of the war from D-Day to the fall of Berlin and slightly beyond.  The courage of the soldiers is here, as is the seamier side of their lives.  The generals for the most part don't do very well in this book as Atkinson devotes painful detail to documenting the many ways they mismanaged their way to victory (or defeat, for the Germans).  The death camps are here also, as is the unnecessary suffering of civilians at the hands of military establishments quick to pull triggers for their own ends.  God, too, makes a couple of brief appearances as Atkinson's sources try to make some sense out of it all.

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

Starting in the Wild

Sigurd Olson (1899-1982)
As is the case in most intellectual endeavors, where we begin our theology pretty much determines our direction and destiny.  By and large, theologians begin in one of two places, some with God and some with humanity.  The 20th century naturalist and amateur philosopher-theologian, Sigurd Olson, started in a third place, the wilderness.  According to Olson, our race was born in the wild and retains a deep connection to it, which connection modern society is severing to our vast detriment.  In the wild, we experience serenity, silence, and peace.  We discover wisdom.  The wilderness is a place where mystical experiences are always possible; when we go there our spirits are renewed and we touch God. Olson's God is an emerging deity embedded in the course of evolution.  (See, David Beackes, "The Land Beyond the Rim: Sigurd Olson's Wilderness Theology").

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

A New Book Review at RPKR

I have just posted a review of Sigurd Olson's, Reflections from the North Country, at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  Olson was a well-known naturalist and author of a series of books on the northern wildernesses of North America.  In this book, he brings together his thoughts in a book that is at once philosophical, spiritual, and theological—and a good read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A North Country Metaphor

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.

So, I was picking away at one particularly berry-laden spot working up the patch, getting all the berries that I could reach.  Blackberry plants have these nasty thorns, and the ground was rough, uneven, and the plant growth fairly thick.  Soon I had picked my way around to the back side of the original spot, and lo and behold looking back through the growth I could see that there were more berries back there, which I didn't see first time around.  Pushing my way toward the backside of that spot, I picked several more hands full of berries that I would have missed otherwise.

When picking blackberries, perspective is everything, but it is always limited.  It is never absolute.  There is always another side to it.  And if one insists that they've seen and picked all the berries there are without changing their perspective, chances are they haven't seen and picked all the berries.  Out in the woods of the North Country, perspective is everything.  You can canoe up to a lovely little bit of quiet water or hike to an equally beautiful place in the forest and look around carefully seeing as much as you can, but if you come back tomorrow it will be different because in the North Country perspective is always changing.  Amen.

It All Makes Sense

Reality makes sense to us in at least three ways.  First, reality makes sense to us in an everyday, which is for us common sense.  We sense the world, physical and cultural, and these ordinary, everyday things make sense to us.  Only philosophers wonder if they are real.  For the rest of us, the common world of our physical and cultural senses is real.  Second, we have a moral sense, which helps us navigate our social world.  It is a sense composed of values, attitudes, and ethical principles and behaviors.  It is, to be sure, related to our common sense, but it is also something universal across human cultures.  Finally, we have a spiritual sense, which again is culturally bound in many ways yet universal across human cultures.  With it, we sense a realm of metaphysical realities, such as the human spirit, awe, wonder, mystery, and the mystical.  For people of religious faith, it is with this sense that we sense the Presence of God or the reality of the Dharma.

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

Questioning: In Pursuit of God

The path between faith and understanding demands both obedience and inquiry. If Christianity is true, if it goes to the center of the universe and explains every stone and leaf the way we Christians think, then the more we search it out and explore it the more reasons we will have to be confident in that truth. Questioning isn’t simply an abstract academic exercise; it’s a form our pursuit of God takes, an expression of our desire and our love for him. It’s an act of submission, an expression of our desire to conform our mind to his. Such faithful obedience has a compounding effect; it grows even if we don’t feel like it.

Matthew Lee Anderson,
Interview, August 7, 2013.
With Jonathan Merritt, Faith & Culture Blog (here)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Turning the Church Around - What About the Followers?

In the last three postings, I've been working on a recent Methodist proposal aimed at turning around Methodist decline.  The proposal is entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church"  and was authored by Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.  In this posting, I would like to follow up with one last concern regarding this proposal.

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

Turning the Church Around - Who Benefits?

In the last two postings, I've been working on a recent Methodist proposal aimed at turning around Methodist decline.  The proposal is entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church"  and was authored by Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.  In this posting, I would like to follow up with another concern regarding this proposal.  It is a concern that grows out of my previous posting, "Turning the Church Around - Without the Spirit?"

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

Turning the Church Around - Without the Spirit?

In my last posting, "Turning the Church Around - Really?", I introduced a recent Methodist proposal aimed at turning around Methodist decline.  The proposal is entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church"  and was authored by Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee.  In this posting, I would like to follow up with another issue that this proposal could also do well to take into consideration, realizing that it may well be that its proponents are already aware of it.

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

Turning the Church Around - Really?

As described in a posting on the Christian Post website (here)," Dr. Ronald R. House, an economist who serves as a consultant with the United Methodist Church's South Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee, has recently release a paper entitled, "A Strategic Plan for Growth in the United Methodist Church."  The paper argues that the United Methodist Church (UMC) is facing a crisis of decline, which it must address urgently and strategically, and it proposes an ambitious plan to reverse Methodist decline by 2021, that is within eight years.  Marshaling an array of statistical data and analysis, Dr. House's plan calls for 998 Methodist churches to employ a program called the "Benchmark Project," which is designed to help churches increase giving to strategic causes on the premise that there is strong statistical evidence showing that when churches increase their budgets significantly in strategic ways statistical church growth will necessarily follow "on average".  According to his calculations, 998 church successfully taking part in the Benchmark Project will turn around UMC decline by 2021.

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

I'm on night duty with a hundred corpse-like patients, wrecks of humanity...Many have tuberculosis, enterocolitis (constant diarrhea) and huge bed sores...Patients wear just pajama shirts as they can't get the bottoms down fast enough to use commodes.

God, where are you?

Lt. June Wandrey,
Nurse, Seventh Army
Caring for Dachau Death Camp Survivors
From: Bedpan Commando: The Story of a Combat Nurse During World War II (Elmore, 1989)
Quoted in: Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light (Henry Holt, 2013), p.  614

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Defining Life

In the course of an argument calling for a reevaluation of Darwin's outmoded doctrine of evolution entitled, "Life after Darwin,"biologist Didier Raoult writes, "Life is primarily the expression of the information contained in genes."  His point is that Darwin's views on evolution were based on theological and philosophical currents of his day, which have proven inadequate to account for the way evolution works.

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

How (Some) People of Other Faiths View Christians

Back in June, Thom Rainer posted an article on his blog entitled, "What Do Non-Christians Really Think of Us?"  This week, he has posted a follow-up based on responses he received from people of other faith, which is entitled, "Four Thoughts from Non-Christians about Christians."  Both are worth looking at as are the comments that accompany them.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Wine is Good

Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale.  It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses.

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.

Frederick Buechner,
Listening to Your Life, page  201

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Reality of God

In the Age of Science, the question of the reality of God cannot be escaped.  Science defines reality as ultimately physical and argues that if God is real then God must have a physical presence of some kind.  The challenge is to discover the physical presence of God in the real world.

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.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

New Book Review Posted at RPKR

I have just posted a book review of Mitzi Minor, The Spirituality of Mark (Westminster John Knox, 1996) at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  This book is of particular interest because it bridges the gap between biblical scholarship and spirituality at least to a degree.