Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

The Christian tradition has, like other religious traditions, succumb to a temptation.  The temptation is to provide proof texts and answers in defense of itself.  In fact, what gave rise to the Christian faith were, I think, powerful holding environments (to borrow a term from Ronald Heifetz) where questions could be imagined, discussed and celebrated.  Whether they were Jesus’ questions, the questions of disciples or questions from the crowd, it makes little difference.  The questions of the gospel rarely get a straight or simple answer and those who pursue answers are often characterized as rigid fools.    The gospel response to questions is often more mysterious and there is some sort of invitation to understanding.  It is portrayed as frustrating and confusing to those within the gospel narrative and we know how they feel.

What is the difference between understanding and answers?   It may be helpful to return to the etymology of the word understanding.  To understand has been confused with “knowing” something or someone.  The etymology of understand indicates “a standing between or in the midst of”.  This suggests that understanding is an act.  Understanding holds a tension between  things.   Perhaps in it we are held between our past experiences and our future hopes.   Perhaps understanding puts us between significant individuals of our lives.  But to just be between things seems a pansy-sort of stance.  Why do I want to just stand between, in the midst of.   Isn’t it more powerful to decide and stand on one side o or another?  Aren’t we declared “willy-nilly” or worse, “non-committal” with such a definition of understanding?  “I understand” can be such an impotent response to those in crisis, after all.

The spiritual discipline of asking questions seems to shed new light on understanding.  Questioning moves understanding from a passive observation toward and active engagement with the world.  In our questions to one another, we assist in the exploration of life.  Offering our questions into our relationship with God, according to the gospel record, illumines the human being’s journey.    Too often, I have been out of touch with the most significant questions of my life.  I think this happens to me because those original questions have given rise to very meaningful relationships and experiences that define my life and its purpose.  I don’t want to insult life’s meaning, my experiences, God’s gifts to me by seeming to second guess what has already been considered….at least in part.

As I consider John 3:1-10, this week’s lectionary text, it occurs to me that to return to significant questions (like “Who am i?”) does not mean that I don’t value the experiences that have risen from that question thus far.  On the contrary, returning to the essential questions may be  something like a miner who returns to a stable and robust mine.  This mine promises so many gems, they cannot be carried out in one journey.  And if the mine is the question….each gem is not a complete answer but part of what built the question.  The question is the joy and the purpose and each portion of the question catches a divine light….that light illumines a chosen path.

When Nicodemus asks his question, “How can one be born again?” it seems to me that he is trying to understand his desire to return to questions without shame.  He wants to keep their adventure at the fore front of his living.  And Jesus, for his part, responds with understanding.  He offers not another question nor an answer, but he offers modes of investigation for the adventure.  After all, water and wind have always been masterful at finding their way into the spacious depths of earth and humanity’s geography.


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The Barna Group‘s latest research reveal indicates that most Americans want a customized religious experiencehttp://www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2011-09-13-If-World-War-IIera-warbler-Kate_ST_U.htm   The research, as summarized in the USA Today article,  suggests that Americans shop for their religious believes like accessories to the self.  That is, Leslie’s religion reflects her preferences and is absent of the convictions or statements that make her uncomfortable.  For example, the article cites that there is an increased belief among individuals in Jesus as their personal savior as well as the conviction that they are going to heaven however none have attended church in the last 6 months other than for a special event such as wedding or funeral.

While their contribution to the conversation is helpful, it may be true that the Barna research is playing a tired chord within an over-played song.  That chord is that people are mindless without the church; clergy have lost their persuasive abilities and that the church is fractured because of both the previous points.    What if the chord was transposed just a note or two higher?   It might sound like this, people are still striving to be found faithful in an increasingly complex world;  Clergy have never been persuasive apart from their care to people by which their study of the gospel is fully informed; and the church has never been of one mind or expression about anything.  Such a higher note might allow us to honor gospel fundamentals without grasping at trendy straws in order to solve what is uncomfortable about the church’s life.  After all being the church means being fundamentally uncomfortable.

Quite contrary to Barna’s concerns, religious experience is fundamentally customized (that is the essence of believing in a personal God).   Customization is not something that people do artificially because clergy and the church have lost control.

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) we believe in the aggregate of experience that informs the entire Body of Christ.  So, my customized religious experience is put alongside others who have a distinct customized experience.  If there is the right spirit between us, I am interested not only in my experience but in the experience of my fellow worshiper and church-goer.  The shared life, then is a creative mix of the customized.

Research like Barna’s is the most recent arrival  in a long line of laments that mainline Christianity is on the way down and out.  This anxious cry is becoming increasingly impotent.  This is the cry that would have us all trying harder to keep up with insatiable expectations for the church.  Some of our expectations for Christianity in the United Stated of American cannot be satisfied.  We expect more and more.   Increasing demands include more attendance, more income, more members, more successful programs.    Perhaps these insatiable demands are what drive people from organized religion to find some relief.  It seems to me that there is a natural ebb and flow in the organized life of the church.   If we are truly in an ebb, perhaps it is a good time to dig down and serve those gathered with greater personal attention to their customized experience so that it can inform our shared life in creative ways that contribute to the next flow from an abundant God.

After all the fundamental expectation for Christ‘s church is not just rapid appeal and growth.  There is also the relational work that serves as scaffolding to the Body of Christ.  In this relational work, we taken on tough questions as we figure out the customized experience of “the other” person….specifically the person who seems miles from our own experience.    This work is not for those who believe they are going to heaven because they prefer to….this is the work of those who are wondering, hoping and working ….doubting that their customized faith is all there is.     This has always been the work of an inner circle of customized individuals who prepare to interact intensely with God’s wider world.

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Some theologians and faithful church members cry out,  “The World is increasingly secular….it should be more sacred!”

Having heard this cry and even been tempted to utter it myself, I would like to offer a more complex understanding of church, God and world.  I am joining with others in suggesting that there is often a false dichotomy (a separation of different or distinct things) cried out when people think about the church and the world. Some believe that the the world is what we call secular (that is,  something other than God) while the church is what we call sacred (that is, of God or related to God).   The church has surely contributed to an intensification of this dichotomy of secular and sacred.  Perhaps it is because the church’s job seems to be to safeguard and offer (as some sort of broker) the sacred to people who are abiding in the secular.  In other words, the dichotomy assures the church that it has an essential function to perform for the world.  Sound familiar?

I do believe the church has an essential function for the world, but I do not believe that we are the keepers of the sacred which is offered to the secular in order to save or enrich their lives.  Rather, I believe that the church is the institution that has a vision that all the world (every secular corner so to speak) has evidence of God working in it.  The church is the institution that refuses a simple dichotomized viewpoint.  Rather, we are to lead the world in integrating the so called secular and the sacred as mutually informing realities. 

Process theology realizes that distinct or different things are not to be separated from one another into false dichotomies.  Rather, constrasting experiences or realities when drawn together can contribute to a harmony in people’s lives.   When human beings reconcile the disparate sections of their lives, they have a story to tell.  There are many ways that individuals discovery a life harmony.  When drug addiction is drawn to recovery, there is a rich story to tell that is much more informative than “just say no”.  When financial folly is drawn to financial discipline and there is a rich identity to reveal that is far more interesting than than being a spend thrift or a credit card junkie.  Spouses or partners whose commitments hold together very different energies and talents, model a partnership that others observe and wonder about. 

There is a harmony between what is characterized as sacred and secular in life.      Moments in which we are not thinking overtly about God,  such as,  cleaning the house, pruning a tree, making a doctor’s appointment or running errands around the hours of our job are, perhaps ironcially, the moments that give us the greatest reason to ponder the meaning of life and God’s providence for us.  It is when we take these moments into our church experience or our prayer life, that we have interesting questions by which we investigate and grow in our understanding of God.   And as we struggle to understand our life may become increasingly harmonized by the things that did not seem to go together at all.   

The sacred and the secular are not separate they are means by which we are brought to the struggle to consider our lives as creations of God.  If the church feels like it lives in an increasingly secular age, perhaps it has not fully exercised the secular clues toward a sacred end.

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I have needed, for a long time, a formula by which to consider my opinion on religion in public schools.  The first chapter of Progressive Christians Speak:  A Different Voice on Faith and Politics has provided that formula…at least in part.  In addition to providing a rich legislative history of the issue in our nation, the authors provide at four perspectives on religion in public schools: 

School prayer

FACT:  Ceremonies of mandatory attendance invalidate the constitutionality of prayer.  In a document by the US Department of Education in 1995, teacher led prayer is unacceptable but student led prayer is allowed.  In the same document, school endorsement of religious activity is  forbidden. School officials are to remain neutral toward religion

Dilemma – The definition of neutrality usually means one of two things, either school officials shall have nothing to do with religion or officials shall do nothing to discriminate against religion.  How does moral education happen effectively without a  

Teaching about religion –

FACT:  Teachers are to express neutrality regarding religion but there is a conservative and progressive concern that this encourages human secularism as the mindset of the day.

DILEMMA: Issues such as posting of the Ten Commandments (House Bill “Defense Act” Sponsored by Robert Aderholt) and Creationism are dealt with only a surface knowledge of the complexities of each.  For example, which version of the Ten Commandments to post and how Creationism is as limited a choice as a mechanistic model of science.

Use of facilities

FACT and no DILEMMA:  By law, all religious groups are given equal access to school facilities and that poses no dilemma for the authors of this book.

Financial aid and vouchers

FACT: State support of public and private schools is determined by a child benefit theory. 

DILEMMA:  Voucher system promises to bring political battles over concerns of racism, perceived complacency in the public school system. 

Over each of the four points they characterize conservative and progressive Christian response to these issues. The  characterization is that Conservatives are typically interested in hemegony while Progressives are typically more interested in diversity.     

Hegemony is my habit…diversity is my desired destination.  At this time of year, I cannot help but think of the Christmas story as a movement toward diverse community.  Within that simple and familiar story, there is a radical reality of pluralism as represented by the Wise Men‘s world view as foreign to the Isrealites.  There are audacious breaks from tradition in the decisions of Mary and Joseph. There is risk as Shepherds change direction for we know their routes were set in advance through political alliances and contract agreements.   There is a cosmology at work as the heavens and the earth are in conversation.  All characters within the story arise with a specificity of circumstance to comingle as a great concert that is remembered as harmonious.

 It seems to me that religion in schools within a democratic nation is a tool for diversity rather than hegemony.  Consideration of religion as a subject and as a subjective reality at its best is a tool to help a child understand the specificity of others not with a competitive eye but each trusting in God as if a conductor of humanity’s orchestra.   The schools surely need local churches to be mobilized toward such an open end.  Churches must be interested in learning about different sections of the spiritual orchestra.  Even within our sections, congregations would do well to resist sorting themselves as either conservative or progressive congregations.  Only when both types of individuals abide within the same congregation can a church receive the necessary fodder for spiritual growth out of cultural context.  Ultimately, churches must make an important switch.  We must become servants of the spiritual journey rather than keepers of denominational destinations. 

 And yes, my metaphor of an orchestra is a blatant plug for increased spending on arts within the school.

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