Tag Archives: Modernity

Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.

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Filed under Ecclesiology, Politics and the Church

Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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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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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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What just happened?

Votes have been cast. I am sure tears have been shed just as there have been shouts of victory. Yet, we all woke up today- the world did not end either in the coming of a savior or in the first days of the anti-christ. So we really have to ask- What just happened?

Unfortunately, the politi-tainment machines are still in gear. Now the media will move into the post-mortem of an electoral season that their viewers were first hand observers of for over 18 months. While a retrospective is outside the norm for our 24 hour news cycle, it is an important move. Although I would go about it completely differently. Instead of looking to polls to interpret the meaning of the outcome, I think we should be asking ourselves a different question- “What just happened to us?”

From my experience, I can only say that we have been object of a systematic effort to co-opt our imagination.

In the late weeks of October a number of bloggers, from Catholic to Anabaptist, explored the ideas of “not voting.” In reading both the posts and the comments, it was evident that to even ask the question was enough to draw anxiety and out right anger. It used to be that the question of voting was framed as  “civic responsibility.” Even those who would object to war were voting as a way of participating in the range of American democracy. In using the goods of the civic system, the responsible thing to do was vote. Now, the logic of the Religious Right of the 1980’s, has taken significant hold across the religious spectrum. If one has convictions about the public good, whether related to abortion, poverty, or war, there is a spiritual mandate to contribute one’s voice through a  vote. In many ways, the cast vote is now a prophetic witness. Unfortunately, those who chose not to vote cast their abstinence in the same light- to not vote is to offer a public witness to the debacle of American governance. Both groups then, take the moral high road, invoking a long tradition of prophetic witness while conflating it with the act of voting and its negation.

The reality is that this very divide is a direct product of the political system. We can’t seem to think in shades or in nuance. It is either black or white, red or blue, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. The American experiment in democracy is precisely the outgrowth of the modern binary of either/or. To even think there is a range of reasons to not vote, or that one’s conscience to cast a ballot is based on a number of concerns or issues just passes by unnoticed. Either one votes, and is an upstanding Christian and true prophet or one is apostate and in danger of losing one’s soul for not. Never mind the equally judgmental rhetoric that is leveled at those who cast votes, albeit for a different party. Somehow we have arrived to the point where one’s faith and Christian walk is dependent not just on voting, but voting for one candidate or the other.

So what has happened to Christians in the midst of this polarized, binary culture? We fight amongst ourselves. We accuse one of not being for justice and another for not caring about the poor. We base our judgments of people’s faith based on their candidate signs in their yard. We look down the pew with disdain knowing our fellow worshiper has “that guy’s sticker”  on his or her car.” Meanwhile, we expend all our energy on the name calling and excommunicating as more people lose their homes, grow hungry and are killed by nation-state aggression.

What has happened to us in this electoral cycle? Easy. We have become more divided and easily conquered. The ways of the system have effectively neutralized any prophetic witness from the church for decades because we have conflated our faith, our vote, and our voice.

So now what? As I said recently- vote, don’t go vote. Discern your conscience. Then once the high holy day of American Democracy has passed, lets meet in the streets and sit with the poor, wash their feet, give them a meal. Let’s go to the VA and cry with the vets while we bandage their physical and emotional wounds. Let’s all take a single mother into our lives, helping to raise the child and let’s cry with the one who found no other option but to have an abortion. Then, once our whispered voices of votes and non-votes have faded we can embody a true prophetic shout together.

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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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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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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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