The power of habit

Increasingly, I’ve come to be convinced that one of the chief reasons many people stay with a congregation is habit. Human beings really are creatures of habit. This is why weekly services, and annual holidays, are so important:— If you are in the habit of attending a weekly service, you will be more likely to stay with a congregation in spite of dissatisfaction and annoyance. If you are in the habit of attending an annual holiday observance (e.g., Christmas eve candlelight service, etc.), you will likely attend year after year in spite of the quality of the service or theology of the congregation.

This implies that anything that might cause people to break their habits will lead to some people drifting away from a congregation. If you have no Sunday services during the summer, at least a few people will get out of the habit of showing up, and they will drift away from the congregation. If you have two worship services during most of the year, but only one during the summer, you will lose at least a few people over the summer (I watched that happen at the Palo Alto church over the past summer — we lost at least a couple of newcomers). If your minister disappears for two months during the summer, and instead you have guest preachers or lay leaders, I would be willing to bet that at least a few people will drift away from your congregation, for you have broken their habit.

It seems to me that if we are looking for ways to get newcomers to stick with our congregations, one of the main things to do is not to get people to think about theology, but rather it’s to get people to develop the habit of congregational life.

Down with Rome!

I’ve been reading apocalypses recently: Revelation, an ancient Christian apocalypse, and Joel, an ancient Hebrew apocalypse, to be specific. As a Transcendentalist, I have a soft spot in my heart for Joel’s insistence that everyone is going to have transcendent visions: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.” (Joel 2.28-29)

Politically, however, I’m more interested in Revelation, which rails against the oppression of the Romans, and longs for the destruction of the Roman Empire. It’s the vivid expression of an oppressed people’s longing for the destruction of their foreign oppressors, filled with extravagant imagery. I know conventional Christians see Revelation as the coming of the End Times when they all will get raptured up to heaven; but to me it reads more like political hate mail for the Roman overlords.

To better understand Revelation, I’ve been reading bits of a non-canonical apocalyptic book, the Sibylline Oracles, written somewhere around the same time as Revelation, give or take a century or two. This passage from Book VIII makes the political content quite clear:

God’s declarations of great wrath to come
In the last age upon the faithless world
I make known, prophesying to all men
According to their cities. From the time
When the great tower fell and the tongues of men
Were parted into many languages
Of mortals, first was Egypt’s royal power
Established, that of Persians and of Medes
And also of the Ethiopians
And of Assyria and Babylon,
Then the great pride of boasting Macedon,
Then, fifth, the famous lawless kingdom last
Of the Italians shall show many evils
Unto all mortals and shall spend the toils
Of men of every land….
There shall come to thee sometime from above
A heavenly stroke deserved, O haughty Rome.
And thou shalt be the first to bend thy neck
And be razed to the ground, and thee shall fire
Destructive utterly consume, cast down
Upon thy pavements, and thy wealth shall perish,
And wolves and foxes dwell in thy foundations.
And then shalt thou be wholly desolate,
As if not born….
The Sibylline Oracles, trans. Milton S. Terry, 1899, Book VIII, ll. 1-15, 47-55; pp. 161-163.

Nothing about the Rapture here, just straightforward hate mail for Rome. In my reading, Revelation is also hate mail for Rome; it makes more sense that way. Yes, it is a lot less straightforward than the above passage from the Sibylline Oracles; yes, it is filled with bizarre imagery; but it makes a lot more sense as an ancient religio-political tract predicting the downfall of Rome than as a onto-theological text predicting — um, from a theological point of view, I’m not sure exactly what Revelation is supposed to predict.


There was just enough rain for Carol to keep her umbrella up. It was dark and cool and quiet as we walked along, the only sound coming from the occasional car hissing by along the wet pavement. We walked through a place where some plants hung low and dark over the sidewalk, and suddenly we were enveloped in the heavy perfume of some unseen blossoms. In two steps we were past it, and in another step it was gone and I couldn’t smell it any more.

What kind of online religion do you do?

I’ll be spending the coming week exploring Web-based religious participation, and I’m hoping that you, my readers, will be willing to help me out by answering one or more of the questions below.

(A) Which of the following do you consider yourself:

  1. Digital Native (you don’t remember a time before the Internet)
  2. Digital Immigrant (you feel fully at home in the Internet)
  3. Digital Alien (you have your green card, but you don’t feel fluent in the language and customs)
  4. Digital Tourist (the Internet is a place you visit, but you don’t live here)

(B) Aside from reading (this blog)(my Facebook feed), which of the following ways do you access religious content online online? (I also ask for specific examples of each kind of content, but if you don’t have the time to get specific, I’d still love to know which types of content, if any, you access.)

  1. Looking at a congregation’s Web site, or a denomination’s Web site (please list one or more)
  2. Reading sacred texts (Bible, Qu’ran, etc.) online (please specify which ones)
  3. Reading religious blogs online (please name some)
  4. Watching videos with religious content online (please describe one you remember)
  5. Listening to sermon podcasts online (please say who was preaching)
  6. Listening to religious music, broadly defined, online (please name some performers, composers, and/or songs/works)
  7. Taking classes in religion or religious topics online (please describe one or more)
  8. Looking at religious content online with your children (please specify)
  9. Other (please specify)

(C) Any general comments about online religious content?

If you’ve never commented before, I’d really love to hear your answers to one or more of the above questions. Even if you don’t access any other online religious content, I’d still love to know that. Thanks in advance for your assistance!

Peter J. Gomes is dead

Peter J. Gomes, minister at Memorial Church of Harvard University, died Monday, February 28. New York Times obituary here, and Harvard Gazette obituary here.

Gomes is probably best known in popular culture for coming as gay in 1991. It was much more difficult to come out as a gay man twenty years ago; and Gomes was then identified with conservative politics (he gave the benediction at one of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations) which in those days must have made it even more difficult to come out.

But when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who had the reputation of being one of our living American preachers. I never heard him preach in person, but I heard him on the radio, and he really was fabulous — a gorgeous voice under perfect control, backed up by a sharp intellect.

When I think of Gomes, I also think of his Cape Verdean background. His father was born in the tiny African nation of Cape Verde, and came to the United States to work in the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts. This is an unusual family history for an African American: a family that chose to emigrate, rather than being enslaved and forced to go America.

And finally, when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who can be considered a religious liberal. In his books, Gomes presented contemporary Biblical scholarship to a popular audience, and sometimes it feels as though he takes great joy in puncturing the pretensions of Biblical literalists:

Jesus came preaching — we are told this in all the Gospels — but nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity. It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian, that he did not know “our” Bible, and that what he preached was substantially at odds with his biblical culture, and with ours as well. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 2007, p. 14.

I get the distinct impression that Gomes took just a little bit of pleasure in shocking “some Christians” who weren’t smart enough to know that Jesus was not a Christian. Even though I felt Gomes could be a little bit pompous in his writing, I like him for taking that little bit of pleasure in shocking the literalists.

If I asked

If I asked
what you thought
about God,

would you try
to tell me
there’s no God?

would you try
to save me
from some hell?

like most: an
axe to grind.

All I want
is to talk,
just to talk,

nothing more.

Online summary of distributed cognition

Joe sent me a link to an excellent online summary of distributed cognition some time ago, and I have been meaning to post the link on my blog. Here it is:

“Distributed Cognition” by Edwin Hutchins of the University of California, San Diego

In this ten page paper, Hutchins gives a good concise introduction to distributed cognition. He points out the close relation between Vygotksy’s theories and distributed cognition. Hutchins provides a nice division of distributed cognition into three types: cognition “may be distributed across the members of a social group,” cognition may involve an interaction between internal processes and the material environment, and cognition may be distributed through time.

I’ve been finding that the concepts of distributed cognition are extremely useful in understanding how congregations work. I’ve found this paper to be very helpful as I continue to deepen my understanding of distributed cognition, so I thought I’d share it here.

Reluctantly re-examining personal sin

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.

I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.

What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sixth anniversary

Six years ago, I posted my first entry on this blog, using AOL’s old blogging service. Within a year, I had moved the blog to my own Web site. And now that I’ve just had a complete meltdown of that blog installation, I’m rebuilding the whole blog once again. I was planning a complete rebuild anyway, so this has been a great way to force me to buckle down and actually do it.

You’ll notice that I’ve changed the look of this blog, with a new design. The header photo is a photograph I took from a steep hillside in redwood country, in Camp Meeker, California. Over the next few days, I’ll be moving posts from the past two months into this blog, reinstalling the blogroll, and refining the internal navigation. As I fine-tune this rebuild, your comments and ideas, as always, will be gratefully accepted.

Some things won’t change — I’ll still be writing six or seven times a week, I’ll still be focusing on liberal religion and all the topics I’ve always focused on. But I hope you enjoy this sixth anniversary blog makeover.

Welcome aboard

Sometime on 24 February 2011, my blog located at melted down; cause remains unknown, but it may have been due to files that were damaged by a malicious hacker earlier in the week. Long story short: I had to create a whole new blog, which is what you’re now reading.

I placed a redirect on the old blog’s address, so your old bookmarks will still work. If you subscribed to the old blog via RSS feed, you may have to resubscribe. And if you ever linked to a post within this blog, that link will no longer work.

At some point, I will restore most of the old blog posts and comments somewhere on this Web site; but my first priority will be to get this new blog up and running.