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Worship Often: Approve Torture

The more often you attend church the more likely you are to approve torture. As startling as it sounds, if we are to believe the latest Pew research on religious  attitudes, that’s the case.

This is just breath-taking. That a religious community would be favorable to torture, much less approve it, is so paradoxical it strains credulity. But there it is.

Susan Brooks Thistlewaite looks at why she thinks some Christians accept behavior that is, for some of us, beyond the pale. She believes it’s theological. If she’s correct, the amalgam of culture, politics and religion that she says is behind this view illustrates how differently Christians view both the social context of faith and how they interpret the teachings of the faith.

Thistlewaite notes that Jesus told Peter to put away his sword after Peter drew it and cut off the ear of one who had come to take him to trial. (Matt 26:51,52) His rejection of violence at that moment makes a case for not engaging in violence against one’s accusers, or enemies, she says.

It would take a volume to distill the different approaches to faith that lead to this wide discrepancy. But the Pew finding adds urgency to the need for education about what Jesus did teach and how he practiced his teachings, and in neither did he advocate torturing human beings.

Atheists Out of the Closet

Athiests are coming out of the closet. And in South Carolina, no less; a place noted for the strength of its religious and political values, strongly conservative and deeply held. That’s the gist of the NY Times piece on "emerging" athiests and secular humanists.

A Pew study on religious attitudes across the country provides context. Four in ten in the Pew survey say they abandoned the faith they were taught as children. In this fluid situation the largest group is people who disconnect from faith. Pew calls them unaffiliated. Roman Catholics lead the dropouts followed by the general category of "Protestants." The majority of those who move from their childhood faith do so before age 24 and are likely to change more than once. Religious churning.

A study like this provides a snapshot but it doesn’t get at the deeper emotional, psychological or spiritual issues that are at work. I wonder what people are turning away from, or giving up. Dogma? Belief in the transcendent? A sense of the sacred in life? The community in which they were nurtured?

And I wonder about what is being taught, and not sticking, in religious education. What is happening in our interior life that leads to this turn? More pertinent, how does secularization occur in the internal spiritual landscape that includes our rational thinking and emotions?

And how is that interior churning affected by the exterior, existential circumstances in which we live? As we become urbanized and disconnected from the natural order must we rediscover our place in the universe?  Does it signify the end of the Enlightenment and the dawning of a New Awareness, as some say? Is it the final stages of deconstruction or the ongoing work of empowered individualism that has been underway for the last several years in Western culture?

I am most interested in what leads us to define ourselves apart from the sacred, to devalue the transcendent and holy, and put ourselves in its place. And I wonder how faith becomes irrelevant to those who are nurtured in faith communities? Or, how faith communities fail in the nurturing?

And, finally, I ask if people are turning away from religious answers that no longer make sense, or are they discovering new questions for which old religious teachings don’t work? Is this an existential quest, and if it is, why is that not understood as the essence of faith, a search for meaning?

The Times article surmizes many causes, one of which is the embrace by the Bush Administration of the religious right. Thinking, caring people were put off by these extremists who made news and attempted to force their narrow values onto the rest of us. I suspect the damage done in this era will be long-lasting. But I also suspect that’s not the most significant issue. This churning is not merely reactive. Among those I know who have given up religion, it’s a thoughtful struggle to understand life in a more authentic and consistent way. It is reflective beyond merely rejecting right wing ideology.

I recall a thoroughly enjoyable conversation on a flight across the Atlantic with a Dutch pyschotherapist who made a point, in a kind way, to let me know he was not a religious believer. He is never the less a humanist and a remarkable person. He was returning from a volunteer mission to Peru that doubled as a vacation. The values he described and how they integrate into his life were impressive. I was in a better mood after our conversation than before.

I’m also intrigued by the desire for community that the Times article identifies. We need to be connected with people of like mind regardless of our religious sensibilities, it seems.

I take away from this religious churning and the emerging rejection of religion a challenge to listen and understand (in so far as that is possible). As we move into a new century and face unprecedented change, our humanity is being redefined. So too, is our relationship to the world and the whole of creation. The challenge to theology is to take us far beyond the bumper stickers and attention-drawing rhetoric and help us in the search for meaning and purpose. For me, that is a function of faith.

Bono’s Search for the Soul

Rock Singer and humanitarian activist Bono asks about the state of our souls in this time of great change.

In a Sunday op-ed he recounts Easter worship on an unnamed island and discusses the need for new beginnings. He writes affectingly about his search in scripture and religion to discern the state of his soul and shares ever so briefly his need to experience redemption at the death of his father. He raises questions about capitalism and globalization and affirms the value of the debt forgiveness policy known as Jubilee.

But what piqued my curiousity most is his closing comment. He recalls the benevolence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr., both of whom he assumes are agnostic, and Nelson Mandela who doesn’t describe himself as religious. Recognizing their contributions to social good, Bono says not all soul music comes from the church.

His comments are perfect illustrations of a post-modern, post-religious commentary. His narrative is ambiguous enough that it can be interpreted in many ways. It’s positive toward worship and religion. It reveals experiential understanding. But his closing remark can also be taken as a jibe at the church. I don’t think it is. I think it’s more theological than critical.

He’s correct that not all the music of the soul originates in the church. If the source of the music is the Creator, and the Creation is being renewed and healed with or without the church, then Bono’s line reflects solid theology. What those who are believers call God is bigger than the human containers we construct to describe God. God is not limited to our containers, no matter how fervently we promote them.

An important function of faith is apprehending where God is at work in the world, with or without us. I think that’s what Bono is saying. What do you think?

Ending Victimization, Claiming Empowerment

The Taliban have exploited class differences to gain control over the Swat Valley in Pakistan. The Dalit people, known as the "untouchables" in India’s caste-based social system, are throwing off oppressive discrimination to claim liberation.

These seemingly unrelated stories are woven together by a single subject, a web of victimization. How people deal with victimization can be liberating or oppressive.

Claiming victimization reinforces victimization. Even when it’s true, focusing on  being a victim sets a course for more victimization and in a divided and dangerous world it’s a recipe for violence and death.

Class differences in Pakistan are stark. Children of the privileged attend private schools that are well-maintained and staffed with qualified instructors. They have books and materials necessary for learning. Less affluent children, if they go to school, may go to rundown, overcrowded classrooms lacking books, supplies and taught by less qualified instructors. The madrases for young boys are well-documented. They are the only schooling some young men receive. Education is only one example of the disparities of class.

This isn’t unique to Pakistan, of course. Unequal educational opportunity exists across the world, even in the United States, so it’s not a knock against Pakistan. But the situation there illustrates how the Taliban shrewdly used victimization rooted in class to frame the social reality and exploit it for their own ends.

It’s a reminder that social injustice is a breeding ground for exploitation and civil unrest. Thus, it’s not merely an issue to be left at the doorstep of political systems, it’s about human development and, in a deeper sense, it’s about spiritual values.

And that leads to the second story, a report by Maurice Malanes on the Dalit Panchayat Movement. The Dalit people are known as the "untouchables" in India’s caste-based social system. The name itself evolved from Hindi and means oppressed or crushed, according to Malanes.

Dalit theology is seeking to reverse an oppressed psyche that reinforces an inferiority complex. For more than three thousand years the Dalits have been exploited including being pressed into unpaid, forced labor.

Dalit theology "concentrates all its energy on the tremendous potentials that lay hidden within the Dalit community and were never allowed to come up," according to Dr. Jyothi Raj.

The Dalits are claiming strength, not victimization. They are creating social and cultural change through theology. The Dalit movement is supported by an ecumenical base including the Christian Conference of Asia, the World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation.

At its core the Christian gospel addresses the sacredness of human personality. When Jesus told people that not a sparrow falls that God does not know (Matt:10:29), he was speaking about human dignity. This remark was about disenfranchisement and lack of recognition. Sparrows were as common in Jesus’ day as today, and they are unremarkable, brown, small birds. His point was clear to those who heard him.

In that social context these were words of empowerment. In related narratives Jesus asked his followers to serve others and give to the poor. What’s interesting is that Jesus combined teaching about self-awareness with a call to service which is the capacity to act on your own on behalf of others.

Victimization focuses on pathology, not strength, and lays responsibility for behavior on "the other." It detracts from the strengths and capacities of the victimized which is all a disadvantaged individual or group can change.

Self-determination and self-differentiation are the end results of self-awareness and self-assertion. To end victimization people must claim empowerment.

Post-modern Religious Sensibility

Referring back to the earlier discussion about a Post-Christian America, I found this commentary by Judith Warner relevant. Giving her first-person views of a mixed religious childhood, she quotes Charles Darwin who said if the brain is impressed early with a belief it holds onto it with an almost instinctive quality. It remains independent of reason. Paradoxically, however, it isn’t determinative.

Warner, who is Jewish, recounts her early childhood impressions attending an Episcopal school. She says on a good day her mind fills with hymns and she can see sunshine streaming through stained glass windows.

However, she describes a religious sensibility, not acceptance of a belief system. She writes that she and many of her friends are defined by bits and pieces of experience that don’t fit into traditional categories. This mosaic is sufficiently coherent for them. "Some of us just can’t find a home for ourselves in the categories of identity that make sense for other people."

Thus, to call these self-differentiated individuals religious seekers is to misconstrue their religious makeup, a point made by a commentator to my post. It presents a dilemma for religious groups who see their mission to evangelize from within a coherent belief system.

For example, Warner describes her daughter’s rejection of her invitation to attend a Unitarian church. “Enough harm has been done in the name of religion . . . I don’t want to be a part of it,” her daughter replies.

It seems to me Warner’s comments underscore the complexity of the human religious terrain today. She provides insight into how religious sensibility is formed, how it recedes and how it is rejected. The individuals she writes about respond with emotion and reason and are secure in their responses.

Her daughter’s views are consistent with research that reveals outright rejection of religion by many young adults today. Others are skeptical of religion and religious groups.

Warner is characteristic of what researcher George Barna dubs the “mosaic generation.” He applies the description to teens born 1984 and later but it applies more broadly in a secularizing culture. Among other things, they are comfortable with contradiction, eclectic with regard to faith, open-minded toward the beliefs of others and morally pragmatic.

This is a new religious landscape.

Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

Social Ethics, Global Trade and Christian Faith

A few years ago I said in a meeting of colleagues I thought my denomination needs a global trade specialist. My remarks were met with a chuckle by one person and fell into the bottomless silence of rejection without words.

Now we’re in the midst of a global economic crisis that demands more of theologians than the balm of words. It demands structural change to address accountability, responsibility, equity and justice through specific actions.

Churches are good at offering words of comfort and hope. Words of hope and comfort are necessary and important. We need to be reminded that meaning and purpose in life are not defined by the bottom line of balance sheets. In Christian teaching, the core of faith is hope.

However, sometimes we need to be reminded that quality of life is also about our relationships to each other individually and collectively in communities of people, some of whom we know and some we don’t. Another core teaching of the faith is that we exist in community.

We need social policies and laws that at least attempt to ensure equity and justice in the economic system for all people. That’s why I thought we needed a global trade expert who could operate deftly in both social ethics and global economic policy. Mohammad Yunus is already offering insights that provide a different lens through which to view economic policy with his social business models, for example.

For the past several years religious faith in the public conversation has been narrowly defined by conservative politics and a culture war agenda. Morality was framed as individual behavior. Corporate accountability was ignored. While these debates raged, the world got its pockets picked by those who gamed the system. This is a theological issue and it’s about more than individual behavior, or even good personal intentions. It’s about our responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to God.

William Sloane Coffin said "Given human goodness, voluntary contributions are possible, but given human sinfulness, legislation is indispensable. Charity, yes always, but never as a substitute for justice. What we keep forgetting in this country is that people have rights, basic rights; the right to food, the right to decent housing, the right to medical care, the right to education." (Credo , William Sloane Coffin, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 55-56)

Thomas Freidman writes that the world has reached a point of historic change. He refers to Paul Gilding’s phrase, the "great disruption." We’ve hit a wall. The whole growth model we created over the last 50 years, Freidman writes, is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically.

That behavior has led to the collapse we’re all struggling through just now, but it will return. And when it does, we as a society must ensure justice and collective responsibility are more than promises. They must be expressed in social policies that protect human rights and look after our communal responsibilities on a global scale.

It’s now abundantly clear that the world is so interrelated that economic ripples in one region slosh into other parts and cause erosion, or worse. Much as some try to deny it and fall back into national parochialism, we are global citizens. The system in which we live is global. Sometimes we forget how interdependent we are. But everything from the fruit we buy to the clothing we wear is now a globalized product. Our churches and educational systems have not caught up to preparing us for global awareness and a few loud voices are actually opposed to it.

We need new models . And the models should be informed by our best ethical thinking in addition to new sustainable economic policies. As Coffin said, Christian faith teaches that we are connected to each other through a variety of bonds that include human rights and a fundamental belief in human dignity. Where these values have been overshadowed by the contentiousness of the past few years, we need to put it to rest and offer a more holistic definition of faith.

In the perceptions of many in the U.S. and globally, Christianity is viewed as intolerant, doctrinaire and anti-science. Among other things, faith leads to probing questions, inclusive thinking and a framework for ethical behavior individually and collectively. It’s a comfort in times of distress but it’s also a challenge to act, to question and to stand for universal values that affirm the goodness of Creation and the human community.

Further, as I understand it, Christian faith is ultimately about service and sacrifice, both values that are counter to the  culture of individualism and acquisition. As the world looks for new models of behavior individually and collectively perhaps adding these values to the discussion could benefit the global community. They need not be proposed in a sectarian way. They are shared values that permeate many of the world’s great religions and ethical systems. The tragedy of the past decade is that we forgot them, or they got out-shouted by fear and undermined by self-serving behavior.

If we are indeed at a hinge point in history, and if the cultural values by which we’ve lived these past decades must change, then the time has come for a new social ethic , or a review of the social ethic that got set aside and ignored as we fought about these other issues.

And that’s why I thought my denomination needs a specialist in both social ethics and global trade, and it still does.

Neglecting the Global Economic Crisis?

As the economy continues downward, attention narrows and becomes more local. Much of what I’ve been reading lately treats the financial crisis as a U.S. issue. In doing research recently I looked at several statements about the crisis by religious groups in the U.S. In each case they referred exclusively to conditions in the United States.

What strikes me about this is the absence of global perspective. The International Labor Organization says 50 million jobs will be lost in 2009, causing more people, especially in the developing world, to fall into poverty. The World Bank says 53 million will drop into poverty, of those 46 million will try to exist on less than $1.25 (U.S.) and 7 million will earn under $2 (U.S.). The Bank also estimates that 2000,000 to 400,000 more children will die if financial conditions continue at this pace into 2015.

To recognize this global reality does not minimize the pain of those in the U.S. who have lost jobs and homes and are facing their own experience of destitution.  But it does highlight the extreme conditions faced by those least able to absorb such an economic hit. These are people already living at risk of poverty in nations with shakey national economies.

It seems to me that religious folks must help frame the global reality so that we don’t ignore the horrible suffering around the world. We are interconnected globally and we in the affluent world cannot ignore the plight of those who by accident of birth were born into places of economic insecurity.

This is a global crisis and we’re all in it together, like it or not.

Wesley Study Bible

The United Methodist Publishing House has hit a home run with the publication of the new Wesley Study Bible . The Bible includes textual commentary and other resources in a well-designed layout. Commentary and the text to which it refers are arranged so they appear on the same page, making it functional and convenient for study.

Boxed sidebar entries provide additional information. Appearing under the title, "Wesleyan Core Term,"  one type of sidebar connects scriptural verses to key terms from commentaries, sermon texts or letters of John Wesley. Others connect to the hymns of his brother Charles. This material brings freshness and unique insight to the thoughts and theology of the Wesleys. The juxtaposition of scripture and original Wesleyan sources results in a compelling presentation.

The third resource is meditational sidebars under the title "Life Application Topic." These meditations refer to scriptural verses and relate them to contemporary life experience. They are not biblical exegesis; that is, the critical interpretation or explanation of the text. They extrapolate meaning from the scripture and relate it to everyday living (isegesis).

The Bible is bound in soft brown leather cut to form a semi-circle that merges into an attractive forest green leather  stitched with brown thread. The pages are edged in brown ink matching the cover. It’s a visually appealing package.

The long list of contributors is also impressive, ranging from Wesleyan biblical scholars from across the Methodist movement to well-known pastors and writers with Wesleyan knowledge.

I’ve had a copy for only two days but the more I work with it the more excited I become about it.  Knowing what it takes to produce a project of this magnitude adds to my appreciation of the team who worked on this Bible. It’s a great tool for any reader who seeks to understand the roots of the Methodist movement and how scripture informs it.

A Facebook group for the Wesley Study Bible can be found here .

To Volunteer or Advocate?

How can a concerned, caring individual bring about change? Is it better to volunteer and help one-to-one or to advocate for change in a way that benefits whole groups of people?

Is it enough, for example, to volunteer at a food pantry that meets the needs of one person at a time, or to advocate for changing the food stamp program which serves millions, or better yet, funding job training, or education to equip people to become self-supporting?

Immediate relief vs. systemic change.

It’s a question that requires honest self-critique. I’ve observed for a number of years how individuals and organizations work to bring about change and I don’t see an easy resolution to the question. And it’s not a false dichotomy, though I wish it were. Individuals who volunteer to build a school in a remote village in Africa don’t necessarily move from individual engagement to support foreign assistance that addresses regional economic development. It’s a leap too far.

In my early years of working in this arena I thought it was possible to do exactly this, move people along a continuum from individual involvement on the ground to engaging in policy change. At the very least, I thought, it should be possible to get those who have seen with their own eyes how damaging poverty is to write a letter to request more funds for health care for the poor, or for economically strapped schools, or for foreign assistance for development initiatives. Not so.

It’s a jump some can’t make, or don’t want to, for a long list of reasons. It’s a move from the concrete to the complex, from one to many, from the personal to the impersonal. Some want to see immediate change as a result of a direct, hands-on relationship while others see policy change as the most effective means to create long-term change for whole groups of people.

I heard a polite but pointedly uncomfortable debate about this recently. One person who is ardently committed to advocacy claimed that some volunteers enjoy being in a superior position to those they help. They set up a donor-recipient relationship that is threatened when the "receiving" person becomes self-sufficient. Another, from an economically depressed community, said he wanted people from outside his community to stay away. They try to impose behaviors and solutions upon his community without understanding the obstacles they face nor the culture in which they live. Can’t even speak their language, he said. Better to stay away.

And so it went. Strongly felt opinions shot through the air like lightning bolts, landing with force and exploding preconceptions around the room. And they fell unresolved.

In fact, it’s not a new debate. It’s been around for years. The positions are predictable and more than a little tiresome after decades-long repetition. Worse, this is only an elementary starting point. When the debate takes form as competition for solutions pitting one against another, it becomes destructive. HIV/AIDS vs. malaria. Water development vs. education. Agriculture vs. economic empowerment. Thinking in polarities. Thinking small.

But there is value in the discussion, I think, because we’re at a hinge point in history and this dialogue is likely to shape both public policy and the fabric of our social community into the future. It’s more important now that people of goodwill find accommodation to many methods of change and to comprehensive solutions than to assert the correctness of a single way or a single problem.

The political dialogue we’ve had for the past several years hasn’t modeled a constructive approach to problem-solving. Rather, it’s demonstrated that a polarized, divided community isn’t healthy. If we learn anything from this, it’s that polarizing rhetoric and critical characterizations don’t yield constructive results. I don’t think creating divisions between people of good will about how they can best help bring about change is healthy either.

It should be possible for those with a common desire to make life better to agree that there are many pathways to the good.

In a commentary on the need for a strategic consensus on foreign assistance, Carol Peasley, President of the Center for Development and Population Activities, identifies how differences in priorities have fragmented approaches to health. The result is several "stovepipes" which result in a "mish-mash of vertical programs" that have actually had a negative effect on health systems in a variety of ways.

Peasley calls for bringing the stovepipes together and creating a truly global health approach to health. And she says it’s not enough for development organizations to provide direct services, they must also develop local capacity, yet another issue in this long line of change-making concerns.

What will be needed going forward is a give and take conversation among many actors and a spirit of concern that gives support for holistic, comprehensive problem-solving.

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