David Gushee on the project of Christian Social Ethics in the Age of Trump

Progressive American Christian social ethics always operated within the framework of a political system that they believed in, a culture in which there were at least a few agreed facts and even values, and an electoral system that produced leaders that were believable as presidents and generally attained the office without chicanery. And so they (we) would write our earnest articles and make our earnest treks to Washington within a system that was basically working and in which we wanted to participate to “make a difference.”

This situation is more apocalyptic. What is needed in America today goes far beyond what a bit of public-policy tinkering might be able to manage. Both our political system and our culture feel broken, and in this round have produced a president, and a presidency, seemingly broken from (before) the beginning. We are limping along, badly wounded. Yet another white paper on climate change hardly seems like the answer. But no one exactly knows what the answer is.

Read the whole piece here.

Reflections on seeing the Dalai Lama

I don’t know how many times the Dalai Lama has visited Madison in the years I’ve lived here–I’m guessing this is his third time that I know of, eleventh overall. I also recall his visiting Harvard when I was in grad school there. But when I learned he was coming again, and that there would be a public event at the Overture Center (just two blocks away from Grace), I decided to buy a ticket. More information about the event, the panel, and the Center for Healthy Minds is available here.

Several converging interests compelled me. First was simply the history. He’s over 80, not in particularly good health, and this might be my last opportunity. I have strong interests and sporadic practice in meditation; I’m fascinated by the work that Dr. Richard Davidson and his team are doing at the Center for Healthy Minds. While I was still in academics, I was becoming more and more interested in the role of the body and brain in creating what we humans call “religion” and the neuroscientific research into the effects of meditation and mindfulness have implications for the study of religious experience and mysticism. Perhaps most interesting for me is how the Dalai Lama is experienced in twenty-first century America–a profoundly religious figure who is embraced and revered by people who have no truck with organized religion.

I was not disappointed. The afternoon event was billed as a panel discussion, with brief statements by Dr. Davidson and other participants. I didn’t keep time (we were told to turn off our cellphones) so I wasn’t able to determine precisely how much the Dalai Lama himself spoke. He answered some questions and engaged in dialogue with the moderator Dan Harris of ABC News. As I told people who asked about it, he should have been a comedian. He was charming, funny, and delightful.

I noticed several things. First, an impression I’ve had from other events and presentations by Dr. Davidson and the Center for Healthy Minds was confirmed. For a myriad of reasons, they want to distinguish clearly and completely what they are doing and researching from the category of “religion.” Harris himself brought it up, alluding to controversy that has erupted in various places when mindfulness practices have been introduced into schools. Mindfulness is a range of techniques that have nothing to do with what we might call ritual or religious practice, at least according to the neuroscientists. I wonder whether scholars of religion would make the same judgment.

Second, the figure of the Dalai Lama himself. Whatever he said, however profound, what was more important, more meaningful to most of those in attendance was his presence–the sense of being in close proximity, seeing, someone of great religious and spiritual significance. The Dalai Lama has an aura. It was palpable in the theatre when he entered, and the response of those in attendance was equally palpable. Whatever assertions Dr. Davidson and the other panelists were making about “science” the Dalai Lama’s presence and our response undermined those claims.

In the course of the afternoon, I reached for comparisons and wondered whether the Dalai Lama’s presence, and the response his presence elicited from the audience could be compared to that of Pope Francis. On the one hand, the crowds Pope Francis attracted during his visit to the US were much larger than our gathering in Madison; on the other, I suspect that onlookers experienced both in somewhat similar terms and categories.

It is especially interesting to think about yesterday’s event in light of the current political and cultural climate in the US. With the current negative mood in our nation, divisive national politics, and violent rhetoric, the very premise of the panel that through mindfulness we might bring about a better world by 2030 seems tone-deaf. Given our political climate, with the loud anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s hard for me to imagine how a different world might be created by 2030. And for the most part, the deep racial and economic inequities that are a profound reality in our nation were not addressed. The demographics of the audience were overwhelmingly white, mostly middle-aged or older, in no way reflective of the diversity of our society.

Nonetheless, I found the afternoon fascinating and moving. On both a spiritual and an academic level, I encountered the sacred. The Dalai Lama spoke about the importance of compassion and asserted that selfishness, the right sort of selfishness, was the way forward. More on the day from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

How to interpret the Pew Survey results

This week’s publication of the latest Pew Survey of the Religious Landscape has provided bloggers, pundits, and religious leaders much to ponder, opportunities to engage in conversation and debate, and voluble commentary seldom seen outside of national sporting events like the Super Bowl.

The survey reports a precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “mainline Protestant” has declined 3.4%, from 18.1% to 14.7%. Roman Catholics have seen a similar decline, from 23.9% to 20.8%; while self-identified Evangelicals have decreased from 26.3% to 25.4% of the population.

The only group that has increased significantly is the percentage of those who identify with no religious tradition, the group commonly referred to as “nones.” That percentage has increased from 16.1% to 22.7%, growing by over a 1/3. The growth in the latter group is overwhelmingly driven by “millennials”, people born since 1981. 78% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian; the percentage of millennials who do hovers in the mid 50s. 36% of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated according the Pew Study.

I came across a piece by a former colleague, Steve Ramey, who now teaches at the University of Alabama. Ramey points out the limitations of surveys like the Pew:

All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

Ramey is pointing to something very important. People have reasons for answering survey questions in particular ways. They also have reasons for identifying themselves in certain ways. We have long known the tendency of people to over-report their church attendance. What the Pew Survey, and others like it, show, is that there’s no longer any social incentive to self-identify as Christian. For younger people, for millennials, there may even be disincentives to self-identify as Christian.

These facts do have a significant impact on the future of mainline Christianity (and perhaps also Evangelical), but from the answers to these questions, it’s important not to draw the wrong conclusions. It would be interesting to follow up, to ask of those millennial “nones,” whether they still attend services from time to time, whether they think about God, ponder questions of ultimate meaning, and explore those questions using religious language. I’m always struck, on Christmas Eve, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter, by the numbers of young adults who come to services at Grace. I don’t know their names; I don’t know anything about them, except that they choose to come to church on those days. Surely that’s a sign of some religious “practice” or “tendency” in them.

Sociologists and survey creators want clarity. They offer limited options; they don’t often delve deeper into behavior, practice, beliefs (and doubts). Surveys that offer a limited range of possible responses can’t account for the ambiguity and plurality of religious practice and belief. My academic background has given me a helpful perspective on those who would understand contemporary trends in religious practice and belief. As a scholar of Religion in Early Modern Europe, I was especially interested in all the ways in which men and women sought to create meaningful religious lives for themselves. They often did it in resistance to the dominant religious and political authorities. They lived on boundaries between Catholic and Protestant, and sometimes Anabaptist or heretic. They might have been confirmed Lutheran, but when in need, they sought out the shrine of a Catholic saint, or holy water, or an amulet. They might have been Catholic, but also been attracted to Lutheran preaching. Whatever confession, they might have been reluctant to attend services except when absolutely necessary. Whatever the case, such behavior was regarded as irreligious by the authorities. Even as I read the religious and political authorities’ criticism of such behavior, I was moved by these people’s efforts to construct meaningful religious lives for themselves over against the official line. Sometimes, it cost them their lives.

What we have today is something analogous. With no social, economic, or political benefits to identifying as religious, and with a wide range of religious options legitimized by our culture, there is no longer any stigma attached to identifying oneself as “religiously unaffiliated.” Similarly, there are no cultural or social benefits attached to attendance at religious services, no stigma if one stays home on Sunday. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are now cultural and social disincentives to identifying (and practicing( religion.

That’s what the Pew Survey tells us. It’s significant, of course, because we in the religion business can no longer count on a captive audience. But it doesn’t mean that people no longer have religious lives, or that they seek deeper meaning in their lives. It’s just that they don’t automatically look for it in a place of worship or a community of faith. They find it in lots of different places and ways. We’re now competing in a marketplace of ideas and practices, and we will never be able to command the kind of allegiance we were able to command a generation or two ago. People are as likely to find meaning and meaningful spiritual practice in a coffee shop, on a bike trail, at a yoga studio, or with a group of friends, as they are in a place of worship. We can’t compete by becoming those things. We can only compete if we’re able to provide places where they can explore their questions with authenticity and where they can encounter God in Jesus Christ.

We are not witnessing the end of Christianity, or the end of religion, in the United States. We are witnesses to a transformation. There will be some people who will find ways of being religious, Christian, in ways that might not look that much different than religious patterns in the past, creating close communities in which all of life is shaped by the gospel. But there will be others, probably many more, who will create religious lives for themselves that make space for Christian practice but place that practice alongside other practices. They will fashion lives for themselves that are authentic and help them make sense of themselves and their world, but may not fit comfortably into institutional Christianity. The challenge for us on the inside of the institution will be how to remake the institutions in light of the very different ways in which people relate to them. If we can get that (and alongside of that figure out how to create sustainable communities), we will ensure that our particular witness to good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be proclaimed in a new context.

So, who’s going to church?

A Pew Survey entitled “I know what you did last Sunday”
got a lot of attention last week. In separate telephone and on-line polling, the survey shows that more people claim to attend religious services when asked by a person (36%) than online (31%).
Mark Silk looks more closely at the numbers. First, he points out that the Pew survey seems to over-report attendance. A number of studies in the 1990s that used polling, self-reporting, and actual counting of people in the seats, showed actual attendance to be in the 20s. In other words, unless attendance has increased in the last twenty years, Pew is still getting results that suggest people exaggerate their religious involvement.

Second, Silk makes another very interesting observation. The same gap between phone and online responses exists for atheists, agnostics, and nones that exists for religious people. That is to say, they feel guilty about not attending services and over-report their involvement when responding to a telephone interview.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is this: “more respondents told the telephone interviewers that they had no religion than said so online.”

His conclusion:

What it suggests it that, as of today, Americans believe there is nothing socially undesirable about saying you don’t have a religion. To the contrary, we may be entering an era when identifying oneself as having a religion is less desirable than identifying oneself as belonging to one. And that’s true even as it remains socially desirable to go to church and believe in God.

In other words, there are more people out there there who are Catholics and Southern Baptists and Episcopalians than are prepared to admit it to someone on the telephone.

Interesting indeed!

Handwringing (or not) over Millennials and “the church”

Rachel Held Evans has started another conversation about millennials and “the church” (whatever “the church” may be).

The debate interests me because of the participants. There are progressive Christians (Episcopalians) who read stories like Rachel Held Evans and see an opening for us to gain new members. Then there are the Evangelicals (who are largely her audience). And finally, there are the atheists, or permanently unaffiliated. Held Evans has written eloquently about the pain caused her by evangelical Christianity, and that pain is expressed by many of the comments in this piece: Why we left the Church:

We are an entire generation with the broken pieces of our religion scattered on the floor around us.

We are the children who learned fake smiles too early, who found all the right answers dissatisfying, who know what it’s like to sit in a pew with our hearts a thousand miles away. For us, Sunday morning is the loneliest hour of the week.

When I think of “Millennials leaving the church”, these are the voices I hear. If you haven’t left the church, please just listen. Listen closely.

Cole Carnesacca sees a problem in how Held Evans frames her argument:

This statement is at once true and not true. It’s true in that there is obviously much that churches can do to better engage with Christ, with the fullness of who he was and what his message required. But it also reflects the astounding arrogance of individualism. The assumption underlying that statement is that the individual is the arbiter of truth in the world. It implies that millennials would know Jesus when they saw him, and the church needs to change itself until they can see him there.  What it leaves out is the idea that millennials need to conform themselves to the church to find Christ there—which is, after all, the point of the very liturgies RHE references.

Millennials, we are reminded, have children, too.

Meghan Florian has this to say:

The thing I find difficult in the slew of articles published recently is that they seem to be trying to talk quantitatively about something deeply personal: a human being’s relationship to the divine. Talking about an entire generation, the infamous “millennials,” holds people at an arm’s length by relying on broad generalizations, and while some of what has been written lately is useful, none of it will ever tell me why a particular someone left the church, just as it can never tell you fully why I stayed. Even my own reasons are barely the tip of the iceberg—a few tangible details that hint at a longer story.

But it may beyond the expertise and power of religious institutions to reach millennials (and later generations. More and more Americans are being raised in religiously unaffiliated households, and remain unaffiliated as they age.

Along that line, Hollis Phelps suggests:

Rather, it seems to me that “authenticity” itself is the problem; the assumption that the churches know and can provide what millennials really want and need. That’s what I’ve observed among my students, many of whom aren’t criticizing an inauthentic faith set against an authentic faith but the notion of faith itself and its Christian articulation.

But it’s not just millennials leaving the church! Empty nesters are doing it, too!

Some musings on the Reza Aslan controversy

No, I haven’t read the book, nor even watched the infamous interview. It’s much more fun simply to watch the outrage (on all sides). There are a few voices of reason, however, though mine is unlikely to be one of them.

First off, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask an author why he wrote a book, and why as a Muslim, he was interested in writing about Jesus. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes the case for the question’s appropriateness:

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

Aslan’s personal history is relevant to how he tells the story, a convert to Christianity who becomes disillusioned and eventually converts to Islam. His background is relevant just as Bart Ehrman’s personal history helps to explain his scholarly prejudices.

Did Aslan respond in the way he did because he suspected it might contribute to book sales? It’s curious that he was willing to talk about his religious background with Terry Gross of NPR, and not with Fox.

Second, the book is largely a rehash of recent New Testament scholarship. Alan Jacobs points out Aslan’s dependence on Crossan, and also several places where Aslan makes much bolder claims than most (trained) biblical scholars would, and much bolder than the slim evidence warrants. Huffington Post has the book’s introduction, which shows his debt to contemporary Jesus scholarship.

Adam Kirsch offers a sober, even-handed review of Aslan’s book.

Why would largely second-hand scholarship arouse such interest and passion? Precisely because Aslan is Muslim and probably at least in part because of his desire to create publicity. In fact, I wonder whether he would have found a publisher for this work if he were not a Muslim.

I’m curious about the way progressive Christians have responded. I was surprised to see that he was booked for All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena (one of the flagship progressive parishes in the Episcopal Church) for a Sunday adult forum within days of his book’s publication. And his schedule also includes appearances at Protestant churches across the country.

Now, I’ll grant that the interview on Fox News was appalling. It was also great theater, giving people on both sides (conservative and progressive) just what they want–controversy to stoke the flames of anger and outrage. And Aslan will take it all to the bank.

 

The rose-colored glasses of progressive Christians

Earlier this week, my twitter and facebook feeds were awash with likes, shares, and retweets of an article in which the author urged mainline churches (especially, presumably, Episcopalians) not to abandon traditional forms of worship to accommodate young adults. She urged us to change wisely.

Towards the end of the week, there was a similar response to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute that claims there are more religious progressives (23%) among the millennial generation than religious conservatives (17%, with 22% unaffiliated). Of those aged 67-88, only 12% are progressive while 47% are conservative.

In the midst of a dominant narrative of long-term decline among mainline Christianity, such stories reassure us that we’re on the right track. We don’t have to do anything about our liturgy or worship to adapt to the tastes of a changing culture. In fact, the culture is changing in our direction–if the trend continues, in a few decades there will be more progressive Christians than conservative Christians!

But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Among those classified in the survey as “religious progressives” are people “who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition but claim religion is at least somewhat important in their lives” (18% of the overall total) as well as non-Christians (13%). Both of the latter are no doubt going to continue to grow in the coming decades as the number of affiliated Christians continues to drop. If the designers of the survey had divided things up a little differently and defined the religiously unaffiliated as non-religious, the percentages would have been quite different.

And the same is true of the lovely piece proclaiming the appeal of traditional liturgy to young adults. For every article that makes such claims, there are probably a thousand or ten thousand stories of young people who find our liturgy and institutional life stultifying and meaningless. And Dilley herself pointed to what is a distinct possibility:

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

Grasping at straws isn’t the answer. Facing the future and creatively responding to its possibilities and challenges, is.