Tag Archives: Christianity

Welcome to the club, Christians

In an article in Christianity Today titled “The Leavers,” author Drew Dyck informs the fairly conservative Christian readers of that periodical that young Christians are leaving religion behind:

At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace, released last month. They reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”

There has been a corresponding drop in church involvement. According to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29….

This is not a new trend for us Unitarian Universalists — at a rough estimate, only 15% of the people raised as Unitarian Universalists stay with it as adults. Welcome to the club, conservative Christians! (Oh, and by the way, could you please send the folks who leave your churches our way? — some of our best Unitarian Universalists are people who were born into conservative Christian churches, and left as young adults.)

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

Not monotheistic

April DeConick, a scholar specializing in early Christian texts, has this to say about the first two centuries of Christianity:

“Then there are all the polemics among late first and second century Christians about who is worshiping angels, who is asking angels for intercessory favors. Christians or Jews? Then we add to this all the polemics that developed in the late second and third centuries among the rabbis about the TWO POWERS heresy and how authentic Jews only worship YAHWEH. Then we find poor Arius caught in a ferocious battle over whether or not it is desirable to continue to call Jesus an angel and worship him as second in command.

I could go on and on. My point is this. Early Judaism and Christianity were not monotheistic religions, but were at best monolatrous (=worshiped one god but allowed for the existence of other gods). It was because of this that Christianity was able to be born out of Judaism as a Jewish expression of a new form of Yahwehism, and Gnosticism could become the fancy of Jewish intellectuals living in first-century Alexandria. This must mean that the program of some of the post-exilic priests to make Judaism a monotheistic religion DID NOT WORK, as in fact the wisdom literature and Sophia traditions prove in my opinion. This had to wait until the rabbis came along and created what many consider the basis for modern Judaism, and insisted that all forms of worship other than YAHWEH be banned. Whether or not the bishops and church theologians ever really made Christianity monotheistic depends on how well one thinks that the Nicaea decision and later the doctrine of the Trinity really worked.”

Link to post. The comments are definitely worth reading. DeConick also has a follow-up post.

I found this discussion interesting because the general principles can be applied to the history of the Unitarianism that originated in North America. As a child I learned that Unitarianism was all about monotheism, but historically that’s not true — it’s probably more accurate to call the early “Unitarians” here in New England “Arminians” — and in the 19th C., “Unitarian” theology was all over the map, with some “Unitarian” Transcendentalists heading off into various pantheisms, a few spiritualist “Unitarians” taking polytheistic positions, and some Western “Unitarians” headed into non-theistic positions. Presently, individuals in congregations which are the inheritors of this “Unitarian” tradition might hold theological positions that range from extremely polytheistic to radically non-theistic, with only a few genuine unitarians somewhere in the bunch. At this point, our “Unitarian” label is little more than a name, theologically speaking.

Post-Christian congregations in post-Christendom

“Post-Christendom” is a term used by a small group of theologians (primarily European Anabaptist theologians, from what I can see) to describe society after the death of the 1700-year-old concept of “Christendom.” The Roman emperor Constantine linked Christianity and Empire, and in Europe and European-dominated lands they’ve been linked ever since — until recently.

Here in the United States, with an avowed Christian in the White House and Christians dominating Congress and the courts, it may sometime feel as if we are becoming a more Christian country. But even here, church attendance has been dropping slowly for decades, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of persons affiliated with non-Christian religions, as well as seeing increasing numbers of persons with no religious affiliation at all. Now when someone offers a prayer at a graduation, it’s no longer unremarkable; instead, it has become an act of defiance. At the moment, Christendom in the United States appears to be dying.

So where does that leave those of us in post-Christian congregations? For some post-Christian congregations, the death of Christendom has probably helped somewhat, because now it is more socially acceptable to join a post-Christian congregation.

I can’t speak for all post-Christian congregations, and really I can only talk about what I’ve seen in a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations that have become post-Christian. Mostly what I have seen Unitarian Universalist post-Christians who seem pleased that Christendom is dying, but who forget the extent to which Unitarian Universalism has been supported by Christendom.

And yes, we have been supported by Christendom. Here’s one example: Up until very recently, most of our best new members were “come-outers,” those who had “come out” to us from Christian churches. They found it easy to enter Unitarian Universalist worship services, because our worship services felt very familiar — we have hymnals and sermons and things like that, and the come-outers knew how to do hymnals and sermons and things like that. But as Christendom slowly dies around us, more and more of our new members have never set foot in a church before, so that our worship services may feel a little strange or uncomfortable. Yet we are not good about trying to integrate these newcomers into a Unitarian Universalist worship subculture that is increasingly divergent from mainstream culture.

Take another example: Sixty years ago, such a large percentage of the population went to church that it was easy for Unitarian Universalist congregations to get new members. Tons of people just walked in our doors to check us out, and we barely had to advertise. It was as if dump trucks full of potential new members backed up to our doors each Sunday, and unloaded more people. Sure, we didn’t have a great retention rate and we lost a lot of these visitors, but who cared? –the dump trucks would be back next Sunday to dump more through our doors. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice that those dump trucks stopped running between 1960 and 1970, and we have few ideas about how to integrate the kinds of newcomers we now get.

And one more example: In the 1950’s, at the height of what has come to be called “civic religion,” children had prayers and Bible readings in public schools, families read the Bible and prayed together at home, and there was a rich ecology of religious education throughout society. So when children came to Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, they had lots of knowledge about religion and all we had to do was teach them that Jesus isn’t God, the Bible isn’t literally true, and that there are other religions out there besides Christianity. Today, typically the only time children learn anything about religion is when they come to Sunday school — which means most kids get about 20 hours of religious instruction a year. Yet we still run our post-Christian Sunday schools as if it’s the 1950’s.

So you can see that on a pragmatic level, we continue to act as if Christendom is in place, and we continue to act as if our place in Christendom is to offer an alternative to Christendom. Even though we think we are post-Christians (and in our hearts, many of us are post-Christians), we run our congregations as if we were still in 1950’s congregations, in a land dominated by the civic religion of Christendom.

So what do we do about this? On Wednesday, I’ll offer some suggestions for post-Christian congregations in a post-Chrsitendom world.

Heaven or hell?

The writer Eileen Chang (also known as Zhang Ailing, birth name Zhang Ying) was born in Shanghai, and emigrated to the United States in 1955. At some point after she left China, she wrote an essay to explain Chinese religion to English-speaking foreigners. David Pollard translated portions of this essay in his book The Chinese Essay (New York: Columbia University, 2000) under the English title “The Religion of the Chinese.” I offer the following excerpts from Pollard’s somehwat clumsy translation:

The Chinese have a Taoist heaven and a Buddhist hell. On death all souls go to hell to receive judgement, so in contrast to the Christian subterranean fiery pits, where only bad people go to suffer for their sins, our underworld is a comparatively well ventilated place. By rights ‘The Shades’ ought to be in everlasting twilight, but sometimes they are like a perfectly normal city, the focus of interest for tourists being the eighteen levels of dungeons. When living souls escape through an aperture and drift down to hell, it is quite routine for deceased relatives and friends whom they meet there to take them around sight-seeing.

Actually the Chinese heaven is superfluous. Hell is good enough for most people. Provided their conduct is not too bad, they can look forward to a limitless succession of similar lives, in which they work out predestiny and unknowingly sow the seeds of future relationships, conclude old feuds and incur new enmities — cause and effect are woven closely together, like a mat made of thin bamboo strips; you get dizzy trying to pick out the pattern.

…the greatest obstacle to Chinese people being converted to Christianity is rather that the life to come that it depicts does not appeal to Chinese tastes. We can leave aside the old-style Christian heaven, where there is perpetual playing of golden harps and singing to the glory of God. The more progressive view of the earth as a kind of moral gymnasium where we limber up in order to go on to display our prowess in a nebulous other world, is also unacceptable to the self-satisfied and conservative Chinese, who regard human life as the center of the universe. As for the saying that a human life is but an ephemeral bubble in the tidal flow of the Great Self, such a promise of eternal life without individuality is not very meaningful either. Christianity gives us very little comfort, so our native folklore can still stand up to the high-pressure proselytizing of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, though it has not counter-attacked, though is hasn’t the support of big capital, has no propaganda literature, no splendid peaceful sets, not even a bible — for since almost nobody understands the Buddhist sutras, it is as if they do not exist.

Actually, Chang’s description of the Chinese hell does sound better than the perpetual playing of golden harps.

Hijacking Jesus

Just went to hear Dan Wakefield talk on his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. I had to arrive late to the talk because I was meeting with a wedding couple, but what I heard was fascinating. One small sample: Dan Wakefield attended a worship service at one of the big evangelical mega-churches. He said he found “nothing offensive” about the sermon or most of the worship service — until it came to be time for communion. Then the minister said, “Normally we like everyone to participate in every part of the worship service, but not when it comes to communion.” Only those who had been “born-again” were allowed to participate, and then the minister told a story about someone who had not been born again but had taken communion, and then (drumroll please) died. Dan Wakefield reported that the minister finished the story by adding, “Graveyards are filled with those who took communion without being born again.”

Another small excerpt from the talk: the religious right group who call themselves “dispensationalists” believe in different “dispensations” during different historical eras. In practice, this means that in certain historical eras, parts of the Bible may be (should be) ignored. In the current historical era, they tell us to ignore the “Sermon on the Mount” — you know, where Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Dan Wakefield also told us about the progressive evangelicals, and he told us that just recently progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis have split from the main body of evangelical Christians in the United States, the National Evangelical Association, to form a new evangelical group called “Red Letter Christians.” They call themselves “Red Letter Christians” because in many Bibles, the words of Jesus are printed in red. They say they would like to get back to those teachings of Jesus — you know, teachings like “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

During the question and answer period, I asked Dan Wakefield if his research for this book had changed his own religious or devotional life. Yes, he said. He found himself going back to re-read parts of the Bible that he hadn’t looked at in years, particularly the words of Jesus. And he also found himself attracted to the passion of evangelical Christianity. Although he himself is a liberal Christian (who has belonged to both Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches), he said that much of mainline Protestant Christianity is not longer exactly passionate about religion. He also mentioned his attraction to the emergent church — and since he must be getting close to 70 now, this shows that the emergent church is not just for twenty-somethings.

He pointed out that during the Civil Rights era, white northern mainline Prostestants could go down South and participate in passionate worship services led by Martin Luther King and others, worship where you sang and prayed filled with emotion — but, says Dan Wakefield with dry sarcasm, this was somehow acceptable because these worship services were in the South and led by this charismatic African American man; and once they got back north, it was back to the usual.

Once I read the book, perhaps I’ll have some more to say about it. In the mean time, it’s worth buying the book just for the title alone. It will be displayed prominently in my office at church, I can assure you.

Dan Wakefield will be speaking on his new book on April 27, 7 p.m. at First and Second Church, Boston. For the rest of his schedule: link.

Thinking out loud

Still working on this week’s sermon, even though in general Friday serves as a my sabbath day. The title this week is “The Garden.” One of the texts is Genesis 1.27-28: “[27] So God created humankind in his image,/ in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them. [28] God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'” And my topic, as you might have guessed, is ecotheology.

One of the theologians I have been consulting on this topic is Rosemary Radford Reuther, in her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes [my reading notes in square brackets]:

…I assume that there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience. [I.e., Ruether appears to admit the necessity of allowing ongoing revelation to humanity.] This does not mean that humans have not devestated their environment before. But as long as populations remained small and human technology weak, these devestations were remediable by migration, retreat from to-heavy urban centers, or adaptation of new techniques. [This challenges God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” in gen. 1.28.] Nature appeared a huge inexhaustible source of life, and humans small…. The radical nature of this new face of ecological devestation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist in, for example, Native American or Taoist thought, must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible.

So one of the challenges of an ecotheology is that we’re going to have to completely rework religious traditions. I’d say this is a task that we Unitarian Universalists should be able to handle, as a non-creedal people who have been pretty willing to rework religious tradition (at least in small ways). Ruether goes on:

…Each tradition is best explored by those who claim community in that tradition [and she means “tradition” more broadly than the narrow confines of, say, Unitarian Universalism]. This does not preclude conversions into other traditions or communication between them…. But the plumbing of each tradition, and its reinterpretation for today’s crises, is a profound task that needs to begin in the context of communities of accountability. Those people for whom Taoism or Pueblo Indian spirituality are their native traditions are those best suited to dig those roots and offer their fruits to the rest of us. Those without these roots should be cautious in claiming plants not our own, respectful of those who speak from within.

So which tradition does Unitarian Universalism belong to? –and no, we aren’t deep or rich enough to claim to be our own tradition. It’s probably best to say we’re a post-Christian tradition, and while we might be post-Christian, we are post-Christian. But although Christianity is often equated with Western religion, that’s not at all true: we can’t forget the Jews; the neo-pagans have been helping us find the remnants of indigenous European traditions; there’s also a small but important secularist tradition that has to be included. Obviously most of our spiritual root system is in Protestant Christianity. But as a post-Christian spirituality, with individual members who are deeply embedded in Christian, Jewish, neo-pagan, and humanist spiritualities, we’re willing to acknowledge that our root system spreads a little more widely. We might be well-placed to mediate the conversation that will inevitably ensue between the different reinterpretations of Western spirituality.

I still don’t have a sermon, though, so I guess I better go back to Genesis 1.27-28 and see what I can do with it.

If not belief then what?

Sometimes when people ask me if Unitarian Universalism is Christian, I’ll reply: No, it’s post-Christian. It’s a good way to describe us, partly because it’s so ill-defined, and let’s face it we are an ill-defined religious group. But recently I’ve been thinking that maybe I should start saying that Unitarian Universalism is a post-believing religion; not that we believe nothing, but that for us belief is not the way we define ourselves.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, by Shane J. D. Cohen (1987), part of the “Library of Early Christianity” published by Westminster John Knox. Cohen examines the side-by-side emergence of early Christianity and rabbinical Judaism. In a chapter titled “Sectarian and Normative,” Cohen writes:

Christianity is a creedal religion, and Christian sectarianism too is creedal. The vast majority of the sectarian debates of early Christianity centered on theological questions, especially the nature and interrelationship of the first two persons of the Trinity. Judaism, however, was not (and, in large measure, is not) a creedal religion. The ‘cutting edge’ of ancient Jewish sectarianism was not theology but law. Abundant evidence makes this point clear… [Cohen gives a number of examples]. All this material emphasizes the legal character of the debates among the sects and ignores or slights philosophical and theological matters. [p. 128]

Obviously, we Unitarian Universalists are not concerned with correct behavior in terms of laws set forth by religious authorities (thus our ministers do not have to learn some Unitarian Universalist equivalent of the Mishnah and Talmud, a body of law). As a non-creedal religion — as post-Christian religion — Unitarian Universalism certainly doesn’t concern itself much with correct belief.

Indeed, as someone who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, I find that I have basically no interest in knowing what someone merely believes;I want to know who they are as a religious person including where they fit into a covenantal community. I find myself talking about theology a lot, but the branches of theology that interest me are ecclesiology (i.e., how people come into religious community together) and theological anthropology/sociology (i.e., who persons/peoples are religiously speaking).