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


Thursday, February 27, 2014

What the Church Has Going For It

Sometimes churches with strong budgets, professional music programs, well-equipped buildings, and the admiration of their civic communities can miss a deep truth: there is no real social justification for the church.  It proclaims a word that is often not welcome, with a love that is easily scorned, to a world that is quick to be cynical  in the name of a Christ who was rejected and despised.  Congregations with frail reources, meager programs, struggling ministries, sagging buildings, and not enough people to fill up the choir loft may more quickly understand that, finally, all the church has going for it is Jesus.


Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (1997), p.  48

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Religion Declines in New Zealand

As widely reported in New Zealand and elsewhere, recent census data confirms the continuing decline of organized religion.  In a news posting entitled, "Census points to non-religious NZ," Ben Heather summarizes some of the findings of the 2013 Census:

  • 40% of New Zealanders report themselves to be "non-religious"
  • Those who reported themselves as Christians declined by over 100,000 compared to 2006
  • Anglicans alone lost nearly 100,000 in that period
  • Catholicism, although declining as well, has become the largest single religious group in New Zealand
  • Some smaller Christian groups and several other minority religions have grown to varying degrees
New Zealand has become, thus, the most secular nation in the English-speaking world.  One other finding that is noted is that religious decline there has become generational, that is parents who were raised in nominally Christian homes but didn't go to church much themselves don't go to church at all, and their children are not going to church either.  If these trends continue, eventually the church in New Zealand will find itself returning to the state of the early church, that is composed of small groups of followers of Jesus worshipping in house churches.  In our time, alternative forms of being the church will also emerge.  The question is whether these house churches and other kinds of churches, if it comes to that, can regain the sense of being a movement that attracts others by its faith and love is the central one, of course.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Culture & the Bible: A Relationship of Power

"Woman Preacher of the AME Church"
Over the last 150 years, gave or take, the United States has gradually but increasingly accepted the full and equal role of women in American society.  The process goes on and is not complete, but the direction seems clear and persistent: the attainment of full civil rights in all of its aspects is going to happen.  One of the strongest bastions of resistance to this change has been the "Bible-believing" churches, which have stood firm on their insistence that the Bible commands that women be chained to a secondary, subservient place in a "godly" society.  Mainline churches have progressively opened leadership roles and fuller participation in church life to women in a process that in the Presbyterian Church goes back to the early 19th century (see here).

The point is that societies, like individuals, gain wisdom.  The full and equal role of women in society, which now seems like a no-brainer, is a case in point.  We are learning that it is wise as well as just for society to cease to discriminate against women just as it is wise to cease to discriminate against individuals on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation.

The transforming power of social wisdom, as it swells, progressively opens minds and hearts that have long been mired in ideological or theological resistance to social change.  A case in point: the pastoral leadership of Grace Church, Noblesville, Indiana, now advocates the full inclusion of women in all of the leadership roles of this large evangelical church, which previously excluded women from most leadership positions.  The church's clergy engaged in an intensive study of the Bible and found that the scriptures demand the full inclusion of women rather than the opposite.  Teaching Pastor Tim Ayers makes the case in a remarkable sermon entitled, "Our Approach to Women in Leadership," which he preached on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  But for Ayers continued affirmation of a literal approach to the Bible, one would think that he was a mainline exegete.  He makes all of the points they have been arguing for many decades concerning the biblical mandate for equal rights in the church.

In a news posting entitled, "Grace Church in Indiana in Spotlight for Reversal on Women Leaders; Theologian Lauds Shift on 'Massive Misreading' of Scripture," Christian Post reporter, Nicola Menzie cites recent studies by the Barna Group and by the Pew Religion & Public Life Project that indicate a significant shift among evangelicals concerning the role of women.  The Pew study, for example, found that 75% of evangelicals believe that women should be allowed to be pastors.

While Ayers and the other pastors of Grace Church insist that they are not caving in to culture and that it has been their careful, Spirit-guided study of the Bible alone that has led them to change their minds about the role of women in the church, such a change could not have taken in a society that was not itself changing.  It is the larger hard-won wisdom of our society that created a social climate in which such a change becomes possible.  Mainline churches in the 1950s and 1960s were no less Spirit-led, no less intent in their study of the scriptures when they removed their barriers to full inclusion.

We celebrate the changes at Grace Church.  We celebrate still more the movement of the Spirit in our society that has opened all of our eyes to the importance of ending discrimination in all of its forms.  Christ taught no less.  Amen.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Stewards of Yellowstone

According to the Book of Genesis, at the time of creation, God placed dominion over the world in human hands.  The final judgment on how well we've handled things since is still out, but so far we don't seem to be doing all that well.  There are moments, however, where we get it right, and a recent example of "getting it right" comes from Yellowstone National Park.  A BBC posting entitled, "How reintroducing wolves helped save a famous park," contains a four-minute video clip describing the way in which Yellowstone has benefitted from the re-introduction of wolves into the park.  Reintroduced nearly twenty years ago, wolves have reduced the elk herds that were over-grazing the park, which in turn has allowed the forest to grow back and other woodland species to return to the park—a kind of reverse self-deportation if you will.  Beaver, for example, have returned and with them the reemergence of important habitats that are managed by them.  The wolves also suppressed the coyote population in the park, which again has allowed other species, such as foxes, to regain their place in the ecosystems of Yellowstone Park.

A brochure produced by the Wyoming Sierra Club sums up the changes in Yellowstone this way,
The return of the wolf to Wyoming has had significant ecological benefits in a relatively short period of time. Ecological concerns contributed to the decision to return wolves and should play a role in how states manage this keystone species. Although it is easy to focus on the perceived negative impacts of wolves, it is important to recognize the actual benefits they provide to our ecosystem. By regulating wildlife herds and reducing the prevalence of diseases, revitalizing riparian areas, reducing coyote densities, providing food for scavengers, and indirectly improving conditions for a host of other species, wolves play an essential role in maintaining the ecological health and integrity of the landscape.
A series of postings by the National Science Foundation (here) make the point that beavers also play a stewardship role in the park.

Perhaps it is time that we put a footnote to the Genesis story, reminding us we exercise our stewardship of this planet best when we do it with God's other stewards within the systems of checks and balances built into the order of Creation.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Faith


Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.


Or, again:

Faith is the capacity to put all your eggs in the one basket, when even the existence of the basket must be taken on trust and hope. It was the ability to take decisive action based on faith alone that made our forebears such memorable heroes. Even our belief that the universe came into existence on God’s say-so is based solely on faith. The existence of material things might be provable, but the belief that their origins lie in something that is not accessible to scientific observation can only be grounded in faith.


Hebrews 11:1-3 (Laughing Bird Paraphrase)


Monday, February 17, 2014

Church Growth



Donald McGavran (1897-1990) is widely credited with founding the "church growth movement," which in its day profoundly influenced more evangelical and conservative international Christian missions with a vision of a more effective approach to evangelism.  In these latter days of declining churches, the spotlight of church growth has shifted to Europe and the English-speaking world.  The challenge is no longer to ignite church growth in places like Africa and Asia but, rather, to save the church from extinction in its old homeland.  One of the central issues concerning the church growth movement, however, is what is meant by "church growth" in the first place.  It was historically often perceived as being mostly about statistics, that is generating large numbers of converts and increasing the number of believers.  Church growth advocates frequently drew on various forms of statistical analysis in their search for the best techniques for increasing conversion rates among targeted populations.  It is widely recognized today that statistical growth alone does not necessarily lead to growing churches in a larger sense.

The Church Growth Research Programme of Anglican Church in Great Britain has recently released a report, "From Anecdote to Evidence," that addresses the issues and questions facing British Anglicans concerning church growth.  It begins (p. 5) with a brief but helpful consideration of the meaning of the concept of church growth that places statistical growth in a larger context, which also includes growth in "holiness, transformation and commitment of [church] members (growth in depth)," and "the fruit of social righteousness and a transformed society (growth in the outworking of our discipleship)," as well as an "increased number of disciples of Jesus Christ (growth in numbers)."  Church growth, that is, involves growth in spiritual depth, numbers, and outreach in ministry.

The real question is, "To what end?"  What is the goal of church growth? The report summarizes the answer to this question by noting that,
It is God alone who gives the growth in the church (1 Corinthians 3: 5-9). So growth is not to be fulfilled for its own sake. It is only good growth when it comes through faithfulness to the gospel. Sometimes, in history, the Church has been faithful and not grown; and at other times, it has been unfaithful, but also proved to be relatively popular.
Growth, then, is not an end in itself, as it often seemed to be in the old church growth movement.  The point is not bigger churches but more faithful ones.  The point is not more spiritual churches either.  Nor is it  more fruitful ministries.  The point is discovering that deeper sense of trust in God in Christ that underlies all forms of growth.  How do we growth in faith?  That is the first and primary question.  Church growth grows from faith and is reflected in such things as a deeper spirituality, larger churches, and effective ministries of service and outreach.

There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg quality to growth in faith and the other forms of growth.  Faith and a deeper spirituality, in particular, often have a reflexive relationship by which they reinforce each other.  The same is often true of ministry and faith as well, as one serves one's faith grows and as one's faith grows one's desire to serve grows.  This reflexive relationship is perhaps least clear with statistical growth.  It is less clear that "successful" churches (i.e. growing in numbers) are necessarily more faithful ones.  All you really need to build a big church is the right demographic situation and a dynamic personality who knows how to attract people.  One can say then that church growth, traditionally, has focused on that aspect of growth least likely to lead to growth in faith.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Bible Battle Goes On: Of Camels, Bones, & Patriarchs

The first in a series of online stories claiming that recent archaeological discoveries show that the Bible is wrong about camels, seems to have been a posting appearing on ScienceBlog on February 3rd entitled, "Archaeologists pinpoint date when domesticated camels arrived in Israel."  Relying on recent archaeological research, the introduction to this article states that,
Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.
 The report by the researchers themselves,"The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley," does not mention the Bible or Abraham at all, which means that the ScienceBlog has itself made the link between the research on the introduction of camels and Abraham.

Noted evangelical archaeologist, Alan Millard, quickly responded to the flurry of media attention to this story in a letter to The Telegraph, which the paper entitled, "Camel bones do not cast doubt on Bible stories: Archaeological discoveries don't negate biblical accounts."  Millard writes,
Rare references in Babylonian texts and representations from other parts of the Near East show that camels were known in the Age of the Patriarchs, about 2000-1500 BC. Such discoveries are rare because the camel was not at home in urban societies, but useful for long journeys across the steppe and desert. There is no good reason to suppose the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot reflect events long before the deaths of those camels, whose bones were left south of the Dead Sea in about 900 BC.
Millard does not address the point made by ScienceBlog that the biblical texts were assembled long after the events they describe, which is a given in mainline biblical scholarship.  The process by which Genesis, for example, was compiled and composed is extremely murky but seems to date in its final form from the exilic and post-exilic eras (6th century BCE), long, long after the Era of the Patriarchs.  However we view the Genesis stories, it is entirely possible that an inaccuracy concerning camels found its way into the text as those stories were copied, compiled, copied again, compiled with other material again, and so on over several centuries.  And Millard is correct is pointing out that there are credible explanations of the data that do not require us to "cast doubt on Bible stories."

The larger question here is the relationship of the Genesis stories to history and to the past.  They are not historiographical, that is they were not written by historians studying actual past events.  They are historical in the sense that they reflect the historical experience of the Hebrew-Jewish people and their historical identity.  That is not to say that the stories "really happened," which is a complex historiographical issue that will never be solved.  They do, however, reflect the world out of which they arose and, of far greater importance to those who acknowledge their significance for their faith, they reflect the Hebrew-Jewish experience with the divine.  They are a key resource for faith, an authoritative part of our faith tradition.  In them, we sense God's breaking into humanity's past our lives in a fashion that inspires us in our faith today.

In a cogent response to the camel tempest in a teapot, "Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?" Joel Baden writes, "What the camels in Genesis reveal, in fact, has nothing to do with the “truth” of the biblical story at all." That just about sums it up.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meditation

I breathe.
In the early hours of the morning, I breathe in.
In the silence of night's ending, I breathe out.
In a happy balance of receiving in and giving out.
Breathing,
To listen and give witness and to rest at days' dawn.
For in my breath gently flows God's Spirit giving life to my spirit,
A gift for a new day.

In the early hours of the morning when silence reigns, I breathe,
Thankful for the gift of life,
And the Giver.
In. And out. And in. And out.
A slow, deep, quiet rhythm of grace,
I breathe.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dueling Definitions

In a recent posting on The Christian Post, a guest contributor, Lisa Cherry, wrote an editorial entitled, "The Definition of Tolerance, which offers two competing definitions of "tolerance".  The first is the traditional definition of tolerance as being "being nice and kind and respectful." This is the definition the author prefers. The second is what she takes to be the contemporary meaning by which tolerance has become a politically correct "buzz word" that means "giving everyone and everything equal space to be right; acceptance of all views and actions as equally true; and lack of any judgment toward one another." Cherry observes, "Tolerance is no longer a sweet little character trait that promotes interpersonal peace. It has become monumental and powerful."

She then goes on to state that the real issue at stake regarding tolerance, however, is not tolerance at all.  It is, rather, the issues of the nature of the Bible and of truth.  She contends that the forces of "tolerance," so-called, are seeking to undermine the absolute truth and trustworthiness of the Bible.  In what appears to be an oblique reference to Satan, she suggests that the truth's "real enemy" has thrown up the values related to open-mindedness as a "smoke screen" to confuse and distract people.  Cherry concludes, "I don't know about you, but I am ready to shake off this dead-end notion of tolerance for a little while. I say we press past its emotional land mines. I'm thinking underneath its prickly facade is the truth that, when embraced, will set our families and our world on the path to spiritual healing."

As a progressive Christian, I can't help but note how powerful the concept of tolerance is becoming in our culture.  The long battles over civil rights are one key impetus for this change, and from the moment that the first proto-abolitionist called for the end of slavery, tolerance has been a divisive political issue and so it remains today.  Undoubtedly, some of those who promote tolerance have themselves behaved and spoken intolerantly, but that does not lessen the importance of tolerance as a core social value.  Each human being has a right to be treated fairly, without prejudice, for who they are.  For progressive Christians, Jesus is the very model of tolerance in teaching and in deed.

What remains troubling, however, is the manner in which she associates the Bible with intolerance and seems to celebrate intolerance as being godly.  An increasing number of Americans make that same association to the detriment of the Christian faith, and as intolerance recedes it drags our faith with it.  The growing majority of Americans who accept the rights of the LGBT community observe the resistance of the Christian Right to those rights and draw what is for them an obvious conclusion: Christianity is an intolerant religion.  Cherry's arguments only serve to confirm that conclusion—for a segment of American Christians, a sadly large and loud segment.

And one of the great puzzles for the rest of us is this: how does one practice tolerance with the intolerant?  Martin Luther King's answer was non-violent resistance—to not fight fire with fire.  Not easy.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Rethinking "God says"

The idea that God speaks to us is found in the Bible starting in Genesis and going right on through the New Testament.  In his commentary on the book of Hebrews, Hebrews (John Knox Press, 1997), Thomas G. Long makes the point that the idea that God speaks to us is a metaphor, and he then lists quite a number of ways in which God "speaks".  As one works through the list, it seems that God speaks primarily through human experiences—experiences of prayer, worship, an inner presence, hearing stories, in theological debate, in nature, even experiences in committee meetings.

That being the case, it may be helpful to those who wrestle with traditional conceptions of God to reframe the metaphor of a speaking deity into one that focuses on spiritual experiences, that is experiences in which the Holy Spirit touches us in the deeper places of our heart and gut.  This may be particularly helpful in a culture that is inundated with heaping mounds of media generated words that we have learned not to trust.  We simply do not share the biblical understanding of the power of the spoken word, which is that spoken words are themselves actions.  We are more apt to say that a picture is worth a thousand words or to disparage speeches or even books as "just so much verbiage."  "I've heard that before," we utter in boredom and disbelief.  And we would rather a person walk the walk than talk the talk.  We say, "talk is cheap."

In our culture, on the other hand, experiences matter.  They are valued.  So, for some and maybe many it just makes more sense that God the Spirit touches us than it does that God speaks to us.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Unity is Not That Simple

In a posting entitled, "Unity not Uniformity in Post-Christendom," blogger John Vest offers a solution to the ongoing decline of American churches and denominations, which is to discover a new mentality that values a deeper unity in our diversity.  As he sees it, all of our denominations continue to be infected with a Christendom mentality that is the legacy of our past.  When Christianity became the Empire's state religion, theological uniformity of belief became a driving concern  of the imperial government, and we have been infected by that concern ever since.  In the U.S., each denomination has continued to insist on uniformity within its fellowship, which has brought us to the era of decline that is our current state.

Writing as a Presbyterian, Vest suggests a denomination like the Presbyterian Church (USA), "could reinvent itself as a post-Christendom denomination by abandoning its insistence on uniformity. We could develop a polity that allowed conservative and progressive churches to coexist with different beliefs and practices. We could discover and articulate what unites us without having to impose uniformity. This would be a post-Christendom move."

There is a serious problem with Vest's suggestion.  For those who feel a deep concern for theological uniformity, which they would call "integrity" rather than "uniformity," the demand for an end to a shared commitment to a core set of theological principles is itself the imposition of a liberal uniformity on them.  It is liberals who want to "coexist," and from a traditional perspective that is exactly "the problem with liberals": they are seen by many traditionalists as constantly compromising those things that are most important and precious.  The call for non-conformity, then, is itself a demand for conformity.  Vest is exactly right when he notes that all of our American denominations have inherited the DNA of Christendom.  It is so deeply rooted in us that we can't escape its reality.

The "way out" is not unity.  We are different.  We will remain different.  The way out is for churches of all stripes to discover ways to reconnect themselves with the Spirit as best as they can and to pursue their ministries and fellowship in as Christ-like a manner as possible.  For progressive, we simply need to accept the reality that a large number of churches and denominations are going to continue to demand that we conform to their theologies.  Our "problem" of course is that even if we were to choose one of the more traditional theologies, a hundred other more traditionalist groups, churches, and denominations would still condemn us for not adhering to their theology.  Unity just isn't going to happen however we slice it.

Instead, we need to get on with the business of being the most faithful and spiritually alive churches that we can be and leave unity to that day when the Kingdom dawns.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"America the Beautiful" on Further Reflection

As most readers of this blog know, the Super Bowl commercial, "America the Beautiful," produced by Coca-Cola, stirred a great deal of ire in some circles.  The two main objections, both bogus so far as I personally am concerned, were that it was wrong to sing the song "America the Beautiful" in a mixture of eight languages.  "It should be in English."  The other criticism was that it included, briefly and not even that obviously, a gay family.

Now, I am not a fan of soft drinks in general and Coke in particular.  The commercial did not persuade me to drink it or to stop being critical of Coca-Cola's contribution to our nation's obesity epidemic.  Still, we should give credit where it is due, and the Coca-Cola folks deserve credit for what is an unusually sensitive and beautiful commercial message.  They also deserve credit for an expanded version that provides background and substance to the commercial.  I encourage you to take five minutes and watch it:


Monday, February 3, 2014

Einstein On Prayer

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
In 1936, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to a sixth grader named Phyllis who had written him on behalf of her class asking, "Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?"  In his reply (see here), dated January 24, 1936, Einstein wrote, "Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish." He went on to say, however, that, "everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive."

An appreciative thought: whether we capitalize it as Spirit or not as spirit, there is here a recognition of a higher "something."  Einstein avoids the word, God, but no matter.  "Something" lurks behind the physical world and its laws, dimly perceived in a corner of science's pursuit of knowledge.  In some vague sense, it seems to us to be a "phenomenon" parallel to the "phenomenon" of the human spirit, but vastly greater.  "Something" is there.  Science alone will never figure out what that something is.

A critical reflection: a couple of years ago, I shared with readers a series of four postings (beginning here) on the relationship of prayer to science, making the point that non-theistic scientists often dismiss prayer on the basis of their own theological bias against the idea of god rather than on the basis of the nature of prayer itself.  Einstein does precisely that here.  Since for him there is no personal god involved in the workings of nature, he reasons that prayer does not work.  The experience of people of faith across many faiths and over thousands of years finds that assertion itself to be na├»ve.  Always, always, always beware of non-theistic scientists when they write about matters of the Spirit and theology.  Their ignorance of what they write about is generally abysmal.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Religiosity is Complex, Church Decline Less So

Not really intending to, I seem to have gotten myself into another brief series of postings on the ever-pressing question of church decline.  There are three elements or aspects of this issue that need to be separated from each other: (1) organized religion; (2) religiosity more generally; and (3) spirituality.  While the distinction between religiosity and spirituality is a fuzzy one at best, there is a difference.  Spirituality has to do with an inner sense of non-material, meta-physical realities that somehow impinge on one's life.  A person can be spiritual without being religious.  Religion involves practicing certain activities, such as prayer or meditation, that seek to express spirituality overtly.  Religion usually involves others.  When this practice of religion becomes pro forma or selfishly self-serving, one can be religious without being spiritual.

This is complex stuff as can be seen by an Al Jazerra English posting by Ali Reza Eshraghi entitled, "Iranians under the Islamic regime: more or less religious?"  He argues that the current state of Islamic practice in Iran is complex and that both the nation's authorities and critics are not willing to acknowledge its true state, esp. among young people.  What evidence there is suggests that in the face of governmental pressure to practice Islam and resistance to that pressure by its critics, the nation has remained as religious as it was at the time of the Iranian Revolution, but young people in particular practice their religion in unconventional ways.  They mix lipstick with prayer and sexual petting with devotion.  Quoting an Iranian sociologist, Eshraghi claims that Iranians are becoming more secular, more modern but not losing their religiosity.  He concludes that the, "Iranian people are going their own way and are playing in a ring of so-called contradictions; they remember some things and forget others; they tightly cling to dogmas and easily let go of others. Instead of overemphasizing the internal homogeneity of religion, they have turned to communal conformity. And this has resulted in a new form of religiosity which one could even call functionalist."

So, let me come back to the thought that for all of the study that has gone into church decline in America things are still murky at best.  Decline is real.  But the implications of current trends for the future are unclear.  We are not Iran, but we are also not Europe.  In various places and ways, committed Christian folk are working on new, more functional forms of American church life.  Time will tell what it all means.