Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

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Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Are Natural Scientists Smarter and Therefore, Less Religious?

 

According to one study, the answer is yes.

In a survey of IQ measures in “elite” institutions, researchers argue that physical scientists (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.) have overall higher IQ’s than their social scientist counterparts. They then argue that the kind of reasoning in physical science is superior because of its reduced emotional influence.

“[Physical] scientists are overwhelmingly atheist,” Dutton said. “This is predicted by their high IQ, which allows you to rise above emotion and see through the fallacious, emotional arguments.” Arguments about God are all emotional arguments, he added.

There are very obvious problems in the research. First, it focuses on a particular sample of scholars where even if the data is true, science demands the method be tested to see if the conclusions are even valid. Second, the use of IQ as a measure of intelligence is suspect. Numerous papers have been published arguing the validity of IQ as a measure of intelligence or aptitude.

Finally, the claim that arguments about God are all emotional is made with no evidence to support it. It is hard to imagine that massive works of logic and reasoning about God such as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, or the centuries of theological thinking are all emotional in nature. In fact, at one point theology was called “the mother of all sciences.” Therefore, this assumption perhaps reveals a hidden agenda that is ironically rooted in emotion. Similarly, Richard Dawkins likens theology to the study of leprechauns and that it has no business as a university discipline.

Research probes the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. It may be true that scholars of physical science have high IQ’s. However, it is an unscientific stretch to say that their reasoning is superior and such superior reasoning is why they are correlated with atheism. Good science means that we cannot confuse a correlation with causation. Thus, the research conducted here is unscientific and shoddy at best.

Lent Isn’t Depressing, Anymore

As one who has life-long issues with depression I resonate with the sentiment that Lent can be a time to feel even worse. As a Catholic and then a Presbyterian, Lent was a time to feel guilty. Guilty for consuming too much, loving too little, giving not enough, and reinforcing the idea that I am a bad person by some mysterious genetic seed given to me by God through the curse of Adam. It’s enough to drive the clinically depressed to madness – or defiant agnosticism. The latter was exactly what happened.

The reward was a ceremony to remember that God is angry with me for sins I have no real say in eradicating. Nothing I do is actually all that pleasing to God because none of it meets up to His standards. In fact, God can’t even look on me without some disdain for abusing the body and mind that are supposed to be in His image, but are so broken that it’s impossible to reflect it. The Good News is that Jesus stands in the way so that God can’t see me at all. Jesus is my protector from the Bully.

Now whether this is good theology or bad, it was what was the logical place that made sense with what I heard in the teaching I had been given. Jesus substituted his life and received the punishment I deserved for my sinful nature. It’s only because he rose from the dead that God is able to love me at all. Lent was about dwelling in that space of guilt that I cannot do anything to relieve since it is only my faith that Jesus is standing there between me and God that gives me hope I can get to heaven. So I prayed and crossed my fingers.

I entered the communion of the Eastern church a couple of years ago. For the first Lent in which I participated there, I learned that this was not a season to feel guilty, but a season to heal. It is true that I am broken. I have depression, I have been a hopeless drunk, I have a fantastic list of sins that could rival Martin Luther’s. I am imperfect and often feel an unbridgeable gap between my sometimes sordid state of mind and the source of my being in God.

Lent is now about accepting that I have these issues, but these issues are not me. Lent is about focus. It is about honesty and confession. It is about making my life transparent before God and practicing love, justice, and mercy in the world. It is a time to focus on being compassionate and patient towards even those I resent. In fact, it is a time to heal those resentments and apologize to those I may have harmed in the past year. All of these actions are actions of healing myself, my relationships with others, and my relationship with God. My work means something now. I participate in my salvation, rather than close my eyes and cross my fingers that I am not one of those predestined to hell.

The point is that I have a choice to squeeze through the briar patches of life to meet a God who continuously walks through them to meet me in the middle where there is a garden of life.

Lent is about life, not death.

As Monica Coleman writes in her reflection that inspired this post:

Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities.  It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there.  It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.

I Don’t Want Your Sex in a Religious College

No place is too sacred for sex not to be a point of controversy and contention. It is one of the most acute areas of tension among people with differing ideas about who ought to have sex, who ought to have sex with who, when and where people ought to have sex, using prophylactics, and so on. Part of this has to do with the two outcomes of unprotected sex that are likely: pregnancy and disease.

Other areas of controversy come from religious sources. Once religion enters the picture moral imperatives are not simply part of the social consequence of sex, but come from a divine source that defines the very source and purpose of human life itself. You can’t up the ante on sex any greater than eternal perfection.

Enter Pacific Union College where psychology professor Aubyn S. Fulton taught taught ideas about intercourse and homosexuality that were on the edge of, if not fully outside of, the church’s teaching. This teaching has led to discussions between Fulton and the administration about losing his job. Pacific Union is a Seventh Day Adventist sponsored college that offers “an excellent Christ-centered education.” The Seventh-Day Adventist position on same-sex unions is uncompromisingly clear: “Homosexuality is a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world.” The position on pre-marital sex is just as clear: “Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is immoral and harmful.” Thus, the problem stems from Fulton’s personal position as confused with making student aware of the church’s position. The church here takes precedence over the individual given the mission of the college is one that builds awareness of the Seventh-Day Adventist understanding of a “Christ-centered education.”

There will always be a tension regarding religious doctrine and the academic freedom of the faculty in religiously affiliated colleges and universities. I argue that if there is no tension, then there can be no religiously affiliated college. In my dissertation I examined this tension both in the history of higher education and in the correlation of religious college mission statements, faculty handbooks, student handbooks, statements of faith, social contracts, etc. The interesting finding is that in almost all cases the religious college cited the tension with secularization as part of its mission. Further, the tension is also a source of identity for these colleges. Incidents such as these continue to make this tension apparent.

A private institution can circumscribe the boundaries of academic freedom as long as it is consistent with the institutional mission and the curriculum. Hence, accreditation is not an issue. Even colleges that are more strict in doctrine and faculty contracts than Pacific Union are accredited.

Maybe the prevailing question is at what point the religious college passes delivering a quality education to forming nothing but an indoctrination program. It is evident that the latter is falling out of its usefulness if religious education is to maintain any value at all in the world.

Church: I Know How You Will Die

GravestonesCongratulations on the new organ. I think it is wonderful that you have an old building with lots of history. You have a legacy and have had a physical fixture in town for a century. These are important parts of your saga and it is good to remember them. You have a long memory and a wonderful tradition as a critical member of the town.

But you are dying.

I saw the wonderful people of your community aging and holding on to that legacy as they should. They have the longest memories of your house and its tradition to pass down to the younger generations. It is they who will take their place as the elders of the community. But as I sat in your pews, I saw one young person for at least every three of your elders. A legacy cannot be passed on if there are no recipients of your memory.

Who will hear your stories to tell their children and grandchildren?

Sociologists have been telling us that church attendance is decreasing due to a simple demographic fact. If a society does not replace itself by about 2.1 persons for each generation, it will die out. Some factors that affect mainline denominations is that families produce fewer children if at all. Their evangelical counterparts do a much better job of making babies and raising them in the church.

You don’t have enough people to sustain your beautiful physical architecture. More importantly, you don’t have enough people to receive your spiritual wisdom and witness to the Good News.

If the population is unsustainable because you don’t have enough kids who have been brought up in your church, you must have more immigrants from other cities, religions, and people who are longing for something greater than themselves.

There are people all over the world yearning for a spiritual experience. There are people who want to be part of something bigger and more magical than the mundanities of life. People are isolated in jobs they are unhappy with, stressed from too much homework and after school activities, going through divorce, recovering from addictions, facing bankruptcy, and struggling immigrants literally looking for a place to call home.

Many people have this yearning totally unaware of the message that we are healed, we will be OK, and we can help each other make it through what seem to be unmanageable conditions in life. People truly do desire spiritual healing and a sense of the divine. People are seeking purpose and how to make all of life more meaningful.

Even if the media shows how nasty people can be, and they certainly can, the goodness we see from ordinary people is astounding. Running up into burning buildings, serving soup to the homeless, driving drunk and high people home to keep them safe, spending time with disabled kids or those without families are common actions by the people of this society. Deep down people want to be good and want to be part of a society that helps them to be good and helpful to others. But for those who struggle to help themselves manage their own lives, helping others seems like too much to ask.

This is where you can step in. You don’t need a new program or ministry of outreach. You don’t need brochures or fancy websites. You don’t need door-to-door proselytizing. People don’t want more marketing. We have all been conditioned to associate marketing and advertising with lying. With the American legacy of televangelists and hateful messages delivered by so-called Christians, marketing will repel those you want to invite.

These are all just facts of our society you just can’t control. You cannot change any of this.

What you can change is to be a place where people can find help and healing from the travails of life. Listen to others and talk about how you found peace and healing in the church. Give people phone numbers and then call them. Call not to invite people to church, but just to see how they are doing. Send a note or two. Not a note with a mug, brochure, newsletter, and envelope for giving. But a note to acknowledge that you saw them, remember them, and are happy they are alive.

We are naturally attracted to both charisma and to those who we feel are responding to our needs.

I write this because I entered the doors of one of your churches this morning. I came in with my two boys. I fit the role of a single dad. My kids were restless. It was a new place and they may have been intimidated. I brought them there because the service would have been familiar to them. We were immigrants. We were looking for a room, a place to stay. No one said hello to me or them. I grabbed what I thought was a bulletin and the only words spoken to me were, “That’s the church history, this is the bulletin for today.”

I pulled my boys out of the church because they were making too much noise. You watched me have a “team meeting” with them in the foyer where the greeters ironically stand. I had come through a different entrance where no greeters stood. You didn’t even hold the door open for me as much as hold it so it did not make noise when it shut. I came back in and my boys started laughing before getting restless and cranky again. Quite a ruckus. You looked at me a couple of times and smiled. I was starting to get frustrated and realized I could not control the situation. I left the building with them. I may never come back.

The irony is that you were celebrating your 100th anniversary and rededication of the building. You shared a story or two of the church’s early days in 1913 and used the same order of worship from back then. Nicely done.

But you missed the point. I am not sure if you talked about looking forward at all because out of necessity, I missed most of what you had to say.

I am writing this to tell you that the future was in my arms. Those two restless boys are all you have left if you want another 100 years of life.

I may never come back. If I don’t, I am taking a part of your possible future with me.

A simple “Hello, I can help you with that” would have attracted me for another week. Instead I was invisible and felt only apathy.

Perhaps what you celebrated wasn’t a 100 year anniversary

I may have witnessed the beginning of a long and drawn out funeral.

Religious Colleges: Promise or Peril?

Center Church on the Green

Center Church on the Green – Yale
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/

Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities bear a distinctive trait in the higher education market: they are religious. These institutions are mainly small colleges with varying degrees of religiosity. Many of these schools have abandoned their religious roots from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Wake Forest. Some have a present but tense relationship with their religious denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and its schools. Some will be active participants in their religious heritage while others may only recognize it in the archives and “about” pages of their websites.

A problem that creates strain between a college’s religious identity and its educational mission is called “mission creep.” This is when the fundamental mission of an institution changes over time mostly to adapt to education market changes. As online education, part-time instruction, and pressure towards job preparation increase, mission creep places the religious roots of an institution in danger.

But as Gordon College professor Thomas Albert Howard notes:

For a brighter future, these schools will need to do more than look enviously at the Ivies or anxiously at their peers; they will have to look within and boldly and creatively articulate what sets them apart.

Maintaining a decidedly liberal arts centered curriculum and nourishing religious roots are two critical areas that will support institutional distinctiveness. The hazy spot is how distinctive an institution’s religious identity needs to be while maintaining viability in the higher education market. Over-distinctiveness can creep into sectarianism which relies on a niche of students who are willing to adhere to stricter faith and behavior requirements for matriculation. Under-distinctiveness can lead to a loss of that religious identity.

Yes, there is an opportunity to stand out as an alternative in the market. But the religious institution has to move ahead deliberately and with care in order to be successful. This is not a cheap education, either. As I concluded in my dissertation on this topic:

Diversity implies that institutions have to maintain boundaries in their mission in order to maintain an identity distinct from other colleges and universities. The line to tread is between diversity inside the walls of the evangelical college or university inviting the risk of secularization and raising the sectarian walls so high that fresh thinking can neither get in nor maintain enough intelligibility and coherence for the world outside to care.

Now more than ever, treading the tightrope between the high walls and narrow doors of sectarianism on one end and non-religious secular education on the other is the challenge these institutions will have to answer.