Tag Archives: History

The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.

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We Need a Better Story!

A small group in my congregation is working through Rob Bell’s newest book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” Bell is a great speaker. He has a gift for communication and teaching. The book itself is an attempt to open theology to the mysteries of talking about God. A noble task that Bell does in his own way and voice. You can’t miss that you are reading a Rob Bell book when you open the cover.

As I read the opening chapters, especially around his engagement with science and language, I found myself nodding and writing down a list of ancient christian writers who had said just as much. I realized rather quickly that the story we have told ourselves about being Christian today is woefully thin. Those of us in traditions shaped in the reformation- especially radical traditions that fall under the umbrella of evangelical- need a better story.

We just finished Bell’s discussion of the mystery opened within the studies of quantum physics. I could not help but think of the genre of literature in antiquity that explored the 6 days of creation (here is a link to one noted example from Basil of Caesarea). Called Hexaemeron, these sermons or treatises on the first chapters of Genesis, made significant use of the current science of the day. These theologians were unafraid to weave together theology and science, metaphysics and physics.

Only we modern Protestants have an allergy to such exegesis. Thanks to the modernist debates between liberals and fundamentalists we are continually circling around the debates between evolution and creation. So we have dogmatic atheists jumping up and down that Christians are luddites and neanderthal-like in our thinking while Christian fundamentalist are waging a culture war to reclaim a rigid theology, seeking to make it part of secular education.

We are also the recipients of the theology of Karl Barth whose allergy to “Natural Theology” has transferred to generations of theologians. Rejecting the classical depiction of the world as one book of theology and the scriptures as another, these theologians ignore the lived experience in the world- along with the sciences that shapes our way of understanding it.

By the end of the discussion, I came back to something Stanley Hauerwas said at our recent Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren. True to his style, Hauerwas spun a poignant phrase- it is a story we tell ourselves when we have no story. We Protestants are stuck in the modernist loop- the conflict between liberals and fundamentalists. So we tell ourselves that story, over and over again, because we have no better story to tell. We simply cannot narrate ourselves out of a very thin depiction of theology and faithfulness.

Honestly, I am weary of the ‘story we tell ourselves because we have no other story.’ I am tired of the accusations of apostasy thrown about by both liberals and fundamentalists.

Our heritage- that of the early church through Late Antiquity (the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries)- offers a richer, more robust way of thinking about faith and science, culture and discipleship. We need to recover the literature of Hexaemeron- of exploring the creation narratives in conversation with what we understand of the cosmos today.

We need a better story.

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A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?

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All about Desire

In a recent blog post over at “There is Power in the Blog” I argued that ascetic Christianity offers a helpful corrective to liberal forms of the faith, both progressive and conservative. In the comments Scott Holland, professor of theology and peace studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, asked a helpful question that some how slipped my awareness until recently.

I’m interested in your familiar refrain about “the re-ordering of desire.” Must desire always be re-ordered? Doesn’t this refrain imply that the desire of earthly delights is debased? There are spiritual traditions that insist the relationship with the divine is not a gnosis but rather an eros, a desire.

The question is intriguing and worth some extended reflections.

I often turn to Mary Margaret Funk when talking about asceticism. The general knowledge base regarding askesis is often formed by a medieval form of practice something akin to the penitential monks that frequently appear in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As these monks enter each scene they intone in flat Latin chant “Pie Jesu…” and bang their head with a board. This penitential, self abusing parody speaks volumes. Asceticism in this popular view is a process of self denial and even abuse that seeks to purge desire from the human person. Funk, on the other hand, in her book “Thoughts Matter” states very plainly that the monastic project was not the eradication of desire, but the “right ordering of desire.”

So the simple answer to the question is that no, earthly desires are not debased. Rather they are to be understood in their place and for their effects. John Cassian, my dissertation companion for the next two years, often speaks of desires wrongly engaged. Rather than reject them outright, Cassian often speaks of our desires for “earthly things” as a diagnostic for what is out of place within the heart. This is especially clear as he talks of sex and food. These two things are not categorized as evil but rather as desires that must be monitored. In fact, our hunger and lust are often signals within Cassian’s system that the heart is focused on other matters, mostly self gratifying in nature.

All this is to say that desire is not evil, rather the impact and telos of our desires must be discerned. Desire, un-ordered or grounded in self seeking, is to be shunned. Yet, desire for things as a windows into Divine wisdom is to be embraced. Thus, desire as a general category is neutral but the effects are not. To turn toward desire of “earthly pleasures” for the sake of our own self-centered consumption are evil. Yet, these desires and enjoyment for the sake of God and neighbor are to be celebrated and cultivated.

Of course this makes sense especially within the Neo-Platonic ontological system. That is to say, desire and its ordering is best understood in what is often called the hierarchy of being. All things that exist participate in God to varying degrees. The more material things around us fall at the lower end of the ladder while the more spiritual things towards the higher, God-end of the hierarchy. Augustine famously uses this frame work as he defines evil as the absence of the good- so far at the bottom of the hierarchy that it moves into death.

In this frame, sin is to look down the ladder towards death and away from God. Repentance, or metanoia, as a turning makes the most sense in that it is a literal turning of one’s gaze from down to up. Reordering of desire then, is what James K. A. Smith speaks of as aiming our desires toward God.

Two things emerge from this system and understanding. First, repentance and turning from evil is not a rejection of earthly things, but a re-understanding of them in light of their participation in God. To color our desires with evil is to see them as objects for our consumption and self-gratification. When we reorient our desires and pleasures they are all seen as joyous windows into God’s goodness and sustaining of life, not just our own self-centered life but for the whole of creation.

Second, desire in this frame is teleological. There is an end or object of desire. Put in plain english, we desire something or someone. When desire is disordered it seeks these objects as things to be consumed by us. Food or people get sucked into our obsession with self-gratification. When it is re-oriented by Christian practice our desire is set like an arrows toward God- increasing our understanding, our resolve, and the common good of all God’s creation. Thus, the objects of our desire in this way are partners in our shared ascent to God- not stepping stones or consumables- but companions on a journey.

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If we build it…

At a recent conference a Neo-Anabaptist friend of mine asked why the traditional Anabaptists in the room were so unaware of the missional, post-christendom nature of our faith. It was quite obvious that most of those in the room, especially those over forty, were steeped in the liberal and institutional nature of the Brethren and Mennonites. In fact, often the vocabulary of some of the presenters more often reflected the political perspectives of our wider culture.

The question helped name just why I was a bit disheartened. The answer, however, is neither comforting nor easy.

Like many Christian traditions, the years following World War II were significant for the Anabaptists. Church buildings were built to accommodate increasing attendance and organizational structures grew to reflect the surrounding secular institutions. To be fair, these structures were created in order to gather and expand the local ministries of the congregations. By gathering resources and energy, these denominations could leverage their energy and funds to greater effect than could a single congregation. The effect, however, was to institutionalize what had initially begun as a movement.

It was not long until these institutions began to look more and more like other mainline denominational structures. Endowments were created, office buildings were constructed, and governance soon took over the original intent of facilitation. The Christendom model of buildings and programs soon took firm root.

Entering the contentious years of the 60’s and 70’s these historical peace churches encountered a new phenomenon. Their witness for non-violence soon spoke to a whole segment of American culture. Rather like the building based model of church growth so common in Christendom, this was an ideological outreach, albeit more passive in form. As people began looking for faith communities that spoke of peace, they found the Mennonites and the Brethren. The denominations themselves needed to do very little to entice these seekers, or in more traditional language, to evangelize. Instead, the people found us.

With this influx, however, came the Enlightenment Liberalism that the early movements tried to counter. Instead of seeing peace-making as an outgrowth of Christian formation, it became the mode of conduct. Peace was in many ways unhinged from discipleship. Soon the language of liberalism began to co-opt what had been a unique vocabulary of the movement. Justice, peace-making, and mutual aid started to look a lot more like the pacifism and altruism of secularism. There soon was little to distinguish Anabaptist theology from the ideologies of the wider cultural of American Liberalism.

To be fair, this was not just a flip of the switch. We did not become like the culture or other Christendom traditions over night. It was a long process of engagement, conversation, and attempts to speak faithfully in a particular time.

The result however, is common across the other mainline traditions. Denominational structures are in significant decline. The numbers of people in the pews is shrinking and thus the capital to support such large bureaucracies is waning. And just like the rest of America, the church finds its language and practices increasingly defined by the partisan politics of the 24 hour news cycle. Our communities reflect more the political party of choice than the traditions from which they emerged.

Despite this dire portrait, there is something to be said for the Anabaptist traditions. At their very roots these churches were movements of discipleship, structures and institutions followed. Our mainline cousins, on the other hand were birthed in the magisterial days when bureaucracies, secular and ecclesial, intentionally looked very similar. The bishops and diocese were patterned after provinces and governors. Christendom shaped both civil and church practices for these denominations.

For us as Anabaptists we need not look very far into our tradition to readapt to a Post-Christendom culture. We don’t need to assume that people are attracted to our buildings but reclaim a way of life as our witness. We don’t need to passively speak of peace, but adopt the ways of reconciliation that were a part of a life of discipleship.

Though my Neo-Anabaptist friend and I were a bit dismayed at the remnants of Christendom Liberalism, we need not dwell there. As our institutions decline and as the fallacy of our wedding of the Enlightenment and tradition is revealed, the resources and practices are at finger’s length. Turning toward communal formation and expectations for individual discipleship provide us the tools to reclaim our movement and missional nature. If we live it, people will come.

 

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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A Place for Women, or Women in Their Place?

Two events took place in the last several weeks. First, an important blog post by Scott McKnight, with the provocative title “Don’t Ordain Women? Stop Baptizing Them!” circulated the blogosphere. By sharing this post recently a great conversation with a good theologian friend emerged regarding the role of the Holy Spirit and anointing. 

A week later I received a letter asking about a recent article of mine in our denominational magazine. The crux of the question revolved around a short sentence about men and women being raised up into leadership within the church. As you may guess, the writer wanted to make sure I was following the proper New Testament setting for women in the church. 

Having just had a helpful discussion on the topic I sat down to pen a response. As I finished I thought it would be a helpful summary to share with a wider audience. 

That said, let me be clear. I did not write this, nor do I wish, to “excommunicate” those parts of the Christian church which have defined ministry or priesthood as a vocation for men only. To be sure, I disagree with them. But I also have not “excommunicated” myself by sitting under women preachers in my life of faith. What is more, I believe that ordaining women is equally valid on Biblical grounds. 

What follows is my own brief outline to the question:

As I re-read your letter, it appears as though the deeper concern is about women in prophetic or leadership roles. While there is a stream in our tradition that has limited the roles of women on biblical grounds, there is also an equally demanding tradition in the scriptures themselves that points to women as significant leaders in the early church. First and foremost it is clear in Acts 2:17 as Peter invokes the book of Joel, that women will also prophesy along side men.

What is more, even Paul himself frequently recognizes women in closing greetings of his letters- most notably Phoebe, who is a deacon sent to the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2). She does not appear to have been a “table server” as the name of deacon implies from the early chapters of Acts, but was clearly one with the authority to make requests of the church. Even then in Romans 16, men do not show up in this greeting until the later verses, and only after several more women leaders have been named.

Something happens, then, between the pages of Acts and Romans and the First Letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:9-12). To claim that there is one ethic, or norm, regarding women in ministry is incorrect. Rather, the scriptures witness to a great many women who have had significant roles in the sharing of the gospel.

Our spiritual ancestors in 18th century Pietism took this to heart. Access to the Holy Spirit was not limited by gender. In fact, Pietist women were some of the greatest preachers and writers of the time. As the story of our own Sarah Righter Major points out, even an elder, who was sent to reprimand her for preaching in the company of men, returned saying that he could not do such a thing since her gift of preaching exceeded his own.

Even more to the point sister Anna Mouw once wrote that “The question is really not women with men in the ministry, or men only in the ministry; the question is, ‘Is the message from the Lord?’  and ‘Is the Lord represented?'” (Anna Mow, Brethren Life and Thought Spring 1967)

Brother, I do hope that this is part of a larger conversation Yet, I stand by my statement you quoted in the letter- the leaders and prophets of our tradition, men and women, are being raised up among us right now. And I do not think that such a conviction betrays the New Testament.

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The “Spiritual but Not Religious” Fallacy

Two books have recently been published that have made much of the moniker “Spiritual but Not Religious.” The idea, often highlighted in studies of religiosity in North America, is that persons find themselves to have spiritual components of their lives but have little desire to participate in so-called institutional religion. These two books, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler-Bass and “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat, seek to understand the recent and steep decline of American religious life. Of course, as the titles suggest, the two offer two very different takes on the statistical data. Butler-Bass seeks to embrace the rise of “Spiritual but Not Religious” by noting the critiques of Church as we have come to understand it. In a way, she indicts the churches of America saying that we have not fully lived into our current realities as a society. Douthat, on the other hand, indicts American culture, saying that these moves away from Church are more akin to heresies.

Both writers, in their own ways, are trying to understand and speak into the emerging realities of religion in America. In fact, these two work with similar sets of data which show that the Institution of the Church in its various forms is now a hurdle to faith rather than a road into a deepening an maturing spirituality. It has been no secret that Mainline Protestantism has declined steadily for decades. Yet, now into the second decade of the 21st century, even so-called the mega-churches of evangelicalism are seeing a drop in attendance and affinity. At the same time, the statistical category of “Nones”- those who do not identify with any institutional category- has doubled in just 10 years.

I must admit that I find myself drawn to the work of both Butler-Bass and Douthat. At the same time I am critical of both. First, I appreciate the exhortation to pay attention to the religious landscape data. I also find Douthat’s description of communal testing of inward revelation significant and right on. Yet, I have one thing to say in response to both writers and to American “Nones”- There is no such thing as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”

It may sound overly critical and limiting to some, but I am not a fan of the idea at all. In fact, the idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s religious practices can be distinguished and even dichotomized is a product of Modernity. To take Douthat’s language, it is the prime heresy of the American church. Rather, much of christian history has made pretty clear that what we DO is intrinsic to who we ARE and what we BELIEVE.

Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that we most often live ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of behaving. The modern way of thinking has so privileged the mind that we have completely overlooked how we are shaped by the things we say and do. It simply seems too coercive or authoritarian to say that our actions can somehow trump the heights of our reasoning capacities. It is just too much hocus-pocus to think that our sub or pre-conscious minds can be shaped and modeled without our conscious awareness.

Of course, I am saying this as  a white male church bureaucrat, and many readers will say that I am rejecting “Spiritual not Religious” from a position of power or influence. To be sure, I am not saying that the institutional church has the market on spirituality. The last think I am interested in is propping up another institution for its own sake. There is obviously enough to be changed or excised from the ways we have created “Church.” Rather, I am critiquing a naive characterization of religion in modern times.

Two myths of religion are prevalent in our time- one from the perspective of those within a religious tradition already and the second from those who are running away from the institution. The first is exemplified by the evangelical mantra “I am not religious, I just love Jesus.” The recent viral video, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, struck this chord and resonated with many church goers. The second perspective takes up a different perspective. From this point of view religion is not so much antiquated or irrelevant rituals but is an institutional hurdle to true spiritual connection. Here, the modern skepticism of powers and structures defines the ways we view any institution, including organized religion.

These two perspectives have similar problems. First, they privilege the individual to the point of a naive solipsism. That is to say that both forms of Spiritual but Not Religious collapse what is spiritual into the lowest common denominator- the individual. Thus, the individual becomes the sole arbiter of what it means to have a spiritual experience. “I have heard God and I know it, and I do not need another to tell me anything about it.” Or, more creatively, “I pick and choose the religious ideas from a variety of traditions so that they match my own preconceived ideas of what the world is and who I am within it.” Again, both of these positions assume that spirituality or faith is about ideas or concepts. What is more, they reject any claim other persons or communities might place on us by taking part fully in a traditioned community. It is easier to cherry pick what already makes sense without embodying the fullness of anyone religion. The common element in either case is that the individual is a kind of blank slate, untouched by religious ideas and practices and can thus better navigate the mystical side of life alone.

From this assessment we can see one other modern fallacy emerge- namely that what is spiritual is interior to the individual and what is religious is external. Again, we have the ideas/institutional and individual/communal dichotomies at work. But on top of this binaries the modern imaginary has assumed that what is “spiritual” is more emotional in nature and thus can only be a part of the individual person. This clearly overlooks the group emotivism, or effervescence that happens in corporate settings or in shared experiences. The result is an isolated sense of what it means to have a connection to some transcendent world, one that is ultimately lonely and without companionship to help understand and give language to what has been experienced.

The Christian tradition has often challenged such thin and individualistic conceptions of spirituality. The very incarnation of Jesus flies in the face of any kind of gnostic sensibility that our spiritual selves can be divorced from our bodies. In all the gospel narratives, healing and transformation comes through material actions- spit and mud applied to blind eyes, jugs of water transformed into good wine, and decades of infirmity over come with a touch. What is more, the Church has always tested individual experiences within the corporate understanding- Peter’s visions on the rooftop and experiences of the Spirit at Cornelius’ house, and Saul’s ecstatic vision of Christ on the road given meaning through the ministry of Ananias. In effect, there are very few times, if any, when someone has stepped up and said emphatically “God told me…”. In fact, for much of our history, such a statement of hubris and individualism was a sure way to be rebuked or denounced all together.

All of this is to say that faith and spirituality, at least from the Christian perspective, has been embodied, communal, and practiced. There is no distinction between outer and inner, and in fact the Christian logic seems to say that the interior work we do has dramatic material implications. What is more, faith is not something that happens in isolation. Hence no one person is an island, for it is in community that I learn the language to understand my experiences and have the occasion to test the inner movements of the Spirit. Lastly, the Christian logic has often revealed that the things we do matter. Whether it is in the sacraments, wherein actions and words effect transformation in the bread and wine or the waters of baptism, or that our way of living reflects our convictions and beliefs, the Christian tradition has equally balanced ethics and faith, doing and believing.

To be sure, the “Spiritual but Not Relgious” nomenclature is a cultural phenomenon. Douthat is right, however, when he uses the vocabulary of heresy, for this cultural phenomenon is making inroads into the Christian tradition. When Christians incorporate the idea into the ways of discipleship, the end result is an the incorporation of distinctly non-Christian concepts of individuality and interiority that are foreign to the faith. At the same time, Butler-Bass is right that religious “Nones” have something to teach us as members of the Body of Christ. These statistical categories reveal to us that we have failed. The cultural around us is increasingly saying that our ways of infighting, our power plays within the wider culture, and our hypocritical morality are enough to drive even the most sympathetic seeker away. We have much to learn from the data, yet we also have much to say to culture that encourages the fallacy of the “Spiritual but not Religious” logic.

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