Friday, February 17, 2012

Christianity After Religion - Part II - Congregations and Spirit

A friend asked “Where are you going with this?” in regard to my last post. I have two goals: First, to address the question of the utility and fate of congregations in our increasingly post-Christian society. Second, to address what I think Diana Butler Bass is concluding about the subject that is the title of her book, Religion After Christianity. Alas, I cannot review it until I have received and read it, so I reflect only on her lecture last Sunday on the web.

John Shuck had raised the question of the authority of scripture in very stark terms. John and I long ago abandoned such authority (literal and revealed) in favor of a much broader concept: We may look to all of the religious and wisdom traditions of the world as sources for our own meaning-making. John and I and others will make our meanings without reliance on the supernatural. [Digression: The issue of religion as supernatural wasn’t 100% clear to me until I saw the wonderfully fun 1999 Roman Polanski film, The Ninth Gate, staring Johnny Depp and Frank Langella. Langella asks Depp, the very rational scholar, “Are you religious?” Depp looks puzzled so Langella asks him, “Do you believe in the supernatural?” Instantly I realized that I did not believe in the supernatural but that I had been proclaiming a lot of it until then.]

I said to John that my question was whether community fellowship and activities are enough to sustain congregations without magic and scriptural authority to support them. He agreed that it is a question to be asked every day.

I think congregations are very important for sociological reasons. Wade Clark Roof wrote a little piece in the '80's on mediating institutions in society. Churches figured very large. "Mediating institutions" are places where people can practice parliamentary procedure and other facets of public life, with less intimidation than city council or Congress. Democracy needs the participation in public life that churches have provided. As churches and the Moose and other lodges and clubs expire, I think that we are experimenting with social media as the model for mediating institutions that are to replace the old ones.

Tom Parker (can’t find a photo), my theology prof from McCormick Seminary, was working on a book for understanding the formative factors of theology for various religious groups: It is a circle with three pie shaped wedges, one each for “tradition,” “experience,” and “culture.”  (I think his book was sidelined when James D. And Evelyn Whitehead published Method in Ministry, which expounds a very similar theory.) In this scheme, e.g., Catholics have tradition as the largest piece of the pie, Pentecostals eat large from experience, and Unitarians prefer culture for dessert. This explains how traditions developed in relation to different worldviews and personality types.

What does this model say about revelation, which is the medium for knowledge about the supernatural, divinity, and the spiritual? Tradition is about revelation that took place in the past. Experience is about present, personal revelation. Culture uses and tolerates revelation from the past but lives mostly without reference to it. Culture tolerates personal revelation but puts you on meds if your revelation gets too specific.

As I have said elsewhere, I treasure some of the symbols of Christianity, perhaps most importantly the centrality of the table (no altars, please). When I was teaching stewardship and promoting mission in Chicago Presbytery, I attended Lincoln Park Presbyterian, which I had attended just before and during my time in seminary. I realized that the reason I contributed to that congregation was the totality of the life and ethos of the congregation. The people and my history there had partly formed my identity, so that I had “ownership” of the place and was a “stakeholder” in its future.

The UUA congregation I have attended in my area this past year is looking for a new minister and going through all the studies that congregations do in the interim period. When I leave there on Sundays after our gathering and fellowship time (can’t really call it worship) I feel good. I feel that all of the values I have developed in my lifetime have been affirmed. We share a basic trust in reason and science. Love and respect are elevated. I see that the glue that holds us together is our reliance on each other, our dependence on and participation in the life and ethos of the congregation, and the positive emotional force and relief that arises from being accepted despite our individual eccentric opinions and beliefs, behaviors, and life situations.  We acknowledge the many strong and weak secular and religious traditions from which we come and to which we turn for wisdom. The only authority that the congregation has comes from these powers that each of us gives and receives. John is right on that “one task of religion might be (is!) to encourage one another to create, refine, and trust an internal moral compass.”

Diana says that people are fleeing religion for direct experience of the spiritual or sacred. I agree and I want to see what she has written about that. I have problems with experience as a source for theology and the spiritual as a category of experience. What the hell is “spirituality” anyway? I think I need to write on it to figure it out. So for 24 hours I have been nibbling on William James, Daniel Day Williams, John Caputo, Derrida, Julian Jaynes, Froese and Bader, and another book with a title that relates to Diana’s: After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950's by Robert Wuthnow. And maybe her book will arrive in a few days.

I told Tom Parker ten or 15 years ago that the questions Christianity tried to answer were not sufficient for the present. He was visibly shaken that I would say such a thing.

Jack Stotts was my ethics prof, then president of McCormick and later Austin Seminary. In 1991 he led the writing team for the “Brief Statement of Faith” that he had helped develop for the new PCUSA (after reunion of the UPCUSA and Southern PCUS). I asked him if he didn't think that the Bible was becoming “too old” to have the impact on future generations that it had possessed for past generations. He was aghast. Scripture was the authoritative basis for his faith and ethics in a way that it could no longer be for me. But he captured some new thinking in the Statement. After affirming the Trinity (a nod to the past and the supernatural), it began with Jesus, spoke of who God was in terms of Jesus’ teachings, and affirmed the Holy Spirit as “giver and renewer of life.” Scripture then enters the statement:
"The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles 
     rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, 
     engages us through the Word proclaimed, 
     claims us in the waters of baptism, 
     feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, 
     and calls women and men to all ministries of the church." 

Does this Spirit rule our faith and life through scripture? There is a lot of supernatural in this poetry. When I was little we spoke of the “Holy Ghost.” Then it became “Spirit.” More on this spooky character and fuzzy thing in the next post. I think most folk talking about spirituality and experience do so as a way of talking about the supernatural.

Diana is absolutely right about how the questions that religion is supposed to answer have changed in the past 50 years. We don’t care so much “what we believe.” We have moved to “how we believe,” and “what we do,” she says, and returned to existential questions such as “who am I,” and “whose am I.” (Hope she isn’t going supernatural on the last one.)

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