Sunday, February 19, 2012

Christianity After Religion - Part III - Why the Churches Are Emptying and What Is This "Spirituality?"

I watched an interview with Diana Butler Bass on YouTube and read her article on Huffington Post. She revealed more of her book. I applaud her analysis of some causes for the across the board decline in church membership and attendance. I had spotted 911 as a breaking of the American “sacred covenant.” (We will be good and God will make us powerful and great, will always protect us.)[See Sept. 16 blog post.]

Diana has gone further and says (1.) that 911 connected religion to violence for many people in new ways. (2.) In 2002 the revelation that a large number of Roman Catholic priests had abused many children over many years, established a new connection of religion to sexual abuse. (3.) In 2003 the Episcopalians made a gay man a bishop! I think that this connection of gay orientation and behavior to religion goes two ways: For some it highlighted the prejudice and meanness against gays by churches and religious people; for others it was offensive that a church would accept gay leaders. (4.) The role of evangelicals in re-electing George Bush president showed the unholy connection of religion to political power, to military power unleashed in Iraq, and to empire. (FINALLY, someone said this out loud.) (5.) In 2008 the financial crisis revealed that we lived in a bubble. (I’m not sure what she will say about this.) I had not connected all of these things together as she has.

Another contribution that Diana makes to our understanding of churches in the 21st century is her description of how we have turned upside down our ways of thinking about religion. In the past we needed to belong and have identity as a member or part of an institution. From that flowed our sense of what we would do (vocation), the people who would be our companions in community, the actions we would take to make meaning of our lives. Today we take actions first, find our Facebook friends, build a life, and join institution if and when they fit what we have assembled. (This is a rough understanding of Bass’ theory.)

My very large problem is with discussions of “spirituality” as a way of being religious. It is a “fuzzy” term with multiple and not very clear definition. My first encounter in the church with this mushy stuff was when I returned to Chicago in ‘86 and went to a get acquainted group for new members at Lincoln Park Presbyterian. We went around the room and told about ourselves and our “journeys.” Then one woman pulled a large crystal from her purse and told us how this connnected her to the spirit of life. I wasn’t the only one in the room who became uncomfortable. I guess we just didn’t “get it,” in today’s parlance.

Diana defines spirituality.  "While 'religion' means institutional religion, ‘spirituality’ means an experience of faith. Large numbers of Americans are hankering for experiential faith whereby they can connect with God, the divine, or wonder as well as with their neighbors and that lead to a more profound sense of meaning in the world. Maybe Americans once called this "religion," but no more. Americans call it "spirituality."

My sister-in-law was ahead of the curve on this stuff, and said to me 20+ years ago, “The church doesn’t own God. Or Jesus. And not the Spirit.” Wow. Yes. Churches are all about mediating God, Jesus, and the Spirit to the people.
Dominic Crossan, in, e.g., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography continually speaks of the original Jesus movement as “unmediated” religion. (Even Jesus isn't a mediator!) Bultmann (I hope someone still reads Theology of the New Testament) explained how Jesus’ way was lost: “The proclaimer (of the Kingdom of God) became the proclaimed.” From there everything was downhill (or “developed,” depending on your point of view). Was Jerusalem the center or not? Were Christians Jews or could gentiles be Christians? Do we follow Paul or Thomas or John or Luke? A tremendous variety of Christian groups grew.

In 381 A.D.: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State, Charles Freeman tells how a tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance was common throughout the ancient world. Christianity was dynamic but bishops lumped all their enemies together into “gnostics” and “Arians” in the same way that enemies of the right wing today lump their enemies into the evil categories of “liberals” and “socialists” and liberals lump theirs into "fundamentalists." (All subordinationists were/are not Arians. Crystal gazers may be “Christian,” I suppose. Even I have limits.) It ended in 381 when Theodosius declared all but the Nicene faith to be “heresy” and the bishops like Ambrose of Milan went nuts with it. The church adopted the model of empire for its institutional organization.

My prof Tom Parker said that no one individual can go too wrong because the community will self-correct, and no single congregation can go too far “off” because the larger church is self-correcting. Hmm. Seems to me history is replete of instances where things didn’t “self-correct.”

Is there a “great transformation” or a new “axial age?” Darned if I know. I do know that many churches have too many people who are sticking with the old ways and will not change likely ever. (Clergy have always prayed for the right funerals.) So congratulations to congregations that have found a new way of being sort of non-institutional. More will follow. More and more people will stay away from the rest of them.

I am still researching “spirituality.” I have thoughts on how to organize a participatory congregation. Based on a comment made to Diana on Huff Post, I am thinking about whether or how much or why the political right wing avoids “spirituality.” Could it have to do with CHANGE? or ADVENTURE?

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