Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


I didn’t know I could believe that!

Such sentiments were often shared with me during my twenty-five year tenure as a parish pastor. Sometimes they came with a burst of enthusiasm in the midst of a Bible study or following a sermon, other times it was whispered in the privacy of my office, but always it was with a sense of incredulity from one more befuddled believer. Hadn’t they always been taught their religious tradition was certainly the best, if not the only, way to God? Hadn’t they always been taught that to diverge from the official teachings of the faith was to jeopardize the very eternal destination of their soul? Their amazement often centered on why such new and liberating religious insights had been, apparently, kept from them.

Sometimes this new wisdom came as we examined the similarities in ancient religious practices that revealed the universal nature of the religious quest. Or perhaps the discovery of the bevy of Biblical authors raised questions as to whether our own holy book was as divinely authoritative as we had once thought. But, over and over again, these faithful folk, reared in the church and educated in the faith, wondered if such new and exciting insights were officially permissible.

Now a systematic study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear, whether it is permissible or not, these often eagerly formed religious opinions are held by a growing number of believers. According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, the study reveals a significant trend: "Even though the country is highly religious, in terms of the importance of religion in their lives, the regularity of church attendance, etc., most Americans are, in fact, not dogmatic about their faith. They're very open. In terms of various paths to heaven, and even in terms of interpreting the teachings of their own faith, the majority tell us that there's not just one right way to do that.''

Information like this can make many a religious authority more than a little nervous. After all, most religions have a vested interest in making sure their adherents aren’t thinking about jumping the ecclesiastical ship. Considering that a previous Pew study revealed that more than 25% of respondents had left the religion of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, it is no wonder this new study is being met with a decided lack of enthusiasm by some. The largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptists, still claims "there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord." and Roman Catholicism continues to assert its primacy both within and without Christianity. But judging from this latest survey, there appears to be a growing gap between what is pronounced from the pulpit and what’s believed in the pews.

The survey provided additional evidence that religion, particularly conservative, evangelical Christianity, is…dare it be said?...evolving. There is a growing movement within this branch of the Christian tree that has younger adherents less concerned with the traditional emphasis on personal piety or social restrictions. These often well-educated and upwardly mobile evangelicals find caring for the environment and seeking adequate health-care for all just as spiritually important as following the Ten Commandments.

In a dramatic display of this changing direction, one of the most influential evangelicals, Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame, has been rallying like-minded believers to engage in some very non-traditional evangelical enterprises. His program to alleviate hunger, teach literacy and slow the spread of AIDS in Rwanda has raised more than a few eyebrows in evangelical circles. According to Francis Fitzgerald in this week’s New Yorker magazine, “At an international Baptist convention…(Warren) called for “a second Reformation,” one that would be about “deeds not creeds.”

When evangelical Christians make actions more important than beliefs, you can bet there is something new in the works (pun very much intended). This may be disconcerting talk for denominational leaders but it is surely a hopeful sign for the two-thirds of us who, according to the study, believe that “Many religions can lead to eternal life” and “There is more than one way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

The Pew Forum study reveals what many of us have known for a very long time. There is considerably more tolerance of religious diversity among the faithful than from the leaders of their faiths.

That you can believe.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

June 5, 2008

Barack and Michelle are church shopping.

The straw that sent them looking came via Father Michael Phleger’s recent pyrotechnic preaching display at Trinity United Church of Christ, the Obama’s now former church home. Phleger, a Roman Catholic priest and social activist, parodied Hillary Clinton during his homily causing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to tender his resignation in the congregation that has been his church home for twenty years.

I don’t suspect either of the Obamas will have a lot of time in the coming few months to visit many congregations in their search for a new permanent place of worship, so I thought it might be helpful if I offered a few suggestions and help pare down the plethora of congregational options that stretch out before them. Having spent a good part of my life in congregations both large and small, both as leader and leadered, I have a pretty good idea of what to look for and what to assiduously avoid.

First, I sure hope the potentially presidential couple hasn’t become too wary of aligning themselves with another provocative preacher. No question that their former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, occasionally stretched both credulity and credibility with his preaching but Wright’s passion for social justice and his commitment to his community were bound to make many folk mighty uncomfortable. It would be a great mistake, though, for the Obamas to limit their search for a congregational home to one whose pastor is unwilling to provoke the powers that be. In nearly all the religious traditions I’m familiar with, the religious leaders were expected to speak out against perceived injustices against the poor and oppressed. It is certainly not uncommon for the biblical prophets to rail against the secular authorities for their lack of compassion and justice. Wright’s damning of America, shocking as it was to many, was completely in character with his religion’s ancient traditions. It was only when religion began to assume power within secular society that preachers began to temper their provocative pronouncements. The reason Billy Graham kept getting re-invited to the White House had more to do with his silence over racial injustice and immoral wars and less to do with his oratorical skills or Baptist theology.

Second, although every church sign in America proclaims: “All are welcome!” precious few folk really are. I hope the Obamas look for a church that celebrates diversity rather than fears it. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is honored for associating with his society’s outcasts and rejects, so it is more than a little ironic that most of his current collaborators do precisely the opposite. Nearly every major religious organization puts restrictions on who is really welcome and who is really not. The scandal of many churches refusing to honor homosexual and lesbian relationships flies in the face of the life and teachings of Jesus. That women are still relegated to second-class status within Christianity defies both 21st century realities and the 1st century intentions of a rabbi from Nazareth.

Third, there is an old saying around churches that should serve as a guide for the Obamas’ search: “Our mission is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” A congregation on the south side of Chicago or the Katrina-ravaged bottomland of New Orleans may very appropriately spend much of its time offering solace and sanctuary to its members but a congregation within walking distance of the White House had better be spending its time stirring up a pot or two. I sure hope the Obamas have the courage to attend a church that isn’t afraid to make its members squirm on an occasional Sunday.

(There is a great story about an encounter between the late pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, Bill Coffin, and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. They happened to be attending the same soiree and Coffin cornered Kissinger to tell him in no uncertain terms his displeasure with the war in Vietnam and demanding that the Nixon administration bring the troops home. Finally, Kissinger had had enough and interrupted the preacher by retorting, “OK. How would you get the boys out of Vietnam?” Whereupon Coffin replied by quoting the prophet Amos, “"Mr. Kissinger, my job is to proclaim that 'justice must roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' Your job is to work out the details of the irrigation system!")

Finally, I would hope the Obamas would remember what it was that attracted them to Trinity United Church of Christ in the first place. From all accounts, that congregation has been instrumental in assisting thousands of people in the Chicago area and beyond in nurturing their spirituality while compelling their humanitarian actions, two elements that would serve any president well…and all the rest of us, for that matter.