Friday, February 05, 2016

Should the Institutional Church Dissolve?

This week in my Wednesday Study Group we discussed chapter four of my book Freedom in Covenant: Reflections on the Distinctive Values and Practices of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (Wipf and Stock, 2015). Chapter four focuses on the Disciples vocation as agents of wholeness or unity.  I brought into our conversation one of the founding documents of the Disciples tradition: the "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery" (1804). The document is linked to Barton W. Stone, one of the progenitors of the movement that gave birth to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). 

This is what I had to say in the book about this document: 
From the earliest days of the movement of which the Disciples are but one branch, we have tried to bear witness to the importance of Christian unity. But what is the purpose of this unity? If we shouldn’t compete with other Christian brands for customers, why do we exist as a separate entity? It is a question that was raised by Barton Stone and his colleagues who dissolved the Springfield Presbytery: “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”8 This act of dissolving into the body of Christ at large didn’t last long, as Stone joined in the creation of another entity designed to connect local congregations for ministry. Nonetheless, the “Last Will and Testament” is an important reminder that our denominational brands do not have ultimate significance. [p. 38].

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Religious Exclusivism & Political Pluralism - Compatible?

Is it possible for someone to be a religious exclusivist and also believe in political pluralism? That is, can you believe that your religious tradition is the correct one and still affirm a form of political pluralism that allows others to believe the same? Can you allow others to offer their own vision of what it means to flourish?

There is a conceit in our culture that religious and political exclusivism go together but is this true? Miroslav Volf, in his book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, begs to differ. He demonstrates pretty convincingly that they are not inherently related. He gives us as a prime example Roger Williams. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, was a religious exclusivist. But, unlike his friend John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ("city set on a hill"), he didn't believe that it was appropriate for the state to force a person to affirm a particular religious position or obey a religious law. Although he had been offered a prime pastorate in the colony on his arrival in 1634, he would later be run out of town. Why?  Volf writes:

What was his unpardonable offense? He advocated the seditious doctrine that the magistrates had no right to enforce obedience to the First Table of the Law, the portion of the Ten Commandments that regulated human duties to God. On this, he collided also with Winthrop, a man he considered his friend.  [Flourishing, p. 153].
Volf notes that no one before Williams had argued for such a radical freedom of conscience as did he in response to his exile. Not even John Locke, whose ideas influenced the development of our political system, went as far as did he. Indeed, Volf writes: "Williams insisted that compulsion in matters of religion is utterly incompatible with the Christian faith" (p, 154).  It is not good for Christianity to force a person to affirm the Christian faith or live by its tenets. That vision became the foundation for the colony and later state of Rhode Island.  A strong faith thus requires political pluralism!  

So, when we hear rhetoric, especially from certain politicians, suggesting they are representing the Christian community, that they will fight for Christian values, and turn back those who differ, we need to question whether they are being true to the faith. That's not to say that our values are not rooted in our faith, it's just that we can't force others to join our religious tradition!  So yes, religion, even exclusive forms, can thrive in a politically pluralistic context. It's okay to believe that you have come to the truth, but it's not okay to enforce that truth. Or, as Volf puts it: "Religious exclusivists who advocate political exlusivism are bad for today's world" (p. 159). 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

What Makes ‘Religion’ News? -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

What makes religion newsworthy? That is the question Martin Marty asks this first week in February. Lots of stuff happens that is religious, but not all makes it into the news. So what does appear? Marty gives a few tidbits of what he's been finding as he scours the papers and journals. He gives a few links to follow as well, so take a read!

What Makes Religion News?
By MARTIN E. MARTY   FEB. 1, 2016
Buddhist temple in Kaifeng, China.                                                                         Credit: Lain / flickr
January ended with a fifth Sunday, a calendar item that occasionally prompts an appraisal of what gets covered and what public-media assessors of the scene assume their publics will find of interest.

While Monday’s Sightings pay close attention to four daily newspapers and numerous magazines, this week we’ll note only what reaches us in a fair sample of on-line releases and stories. Since our calling is to relate religion to public life, we writers take pains to avoid fusing ‘religion in public life’ with ‘religion in politics.’

Readers may note that our columns avoid all mention of political candidates, campaigns, and media coverers of the same. The reasons for this choice are multiple. Here let it be said that we do not feel at all guilty by our acts of avoidance. Religion-in-politics and political news and opinion do get noticed in an election year.

So, to start, no surprise, over half of all media mentions of ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ in late January deal with candidates and their use of religion and religionists’ use of candidates. We move on.

What does get mentioned? The Pope and the Vatican attract considerable attention over public issues, including nuclear armament, stewardship of natural resources, and other topics that are not simply in-house Catholic concerns—though some of these also do get covered.

Beyond that, most Christian news-making derives from the media’s and the public’s global concerns. This is covered quite fairly.

In the last week of January there was attention to Christian controversies and controversial activities in African nations such as Nigeria.

A couple of stories dealt with Christian expressions in China.

Almost entirely missing was news from the old homelands of Christendom, Western Europe and, newer homelands, North America. An article about Catholic conservative leadership in Poland was an exception. In many recent weeks Anglicanism received notice because of its burgeoning in the global South, shrinking in the North, and conflict as North and South meet, or don’t meet.

Our quick and impressionistic survey turned up virtually no news of Western Christian denominations, including in this past week, not even Southern Baptists and evangelical domains. The grand exception is the one we chose to bypass this time: the overt, aggressive, partisan, and complicating involvement of  ‘evangelicals’ in the American presidential campaign. Other traces? A discussion of ‘tithing,’ and the now-standard debates on sexual and familial themes, several of which engross denominations and parishes.

Far out-shining the spotlights on Christianity this week and most weeks in recent years, was coverage of Islam and Muslim institutions around the globe and locally.

Judaism ‘up close’ in the United States was noticed in several studies, while Israel was spotlit regularly.

Chinese religion turned up in two or three stories.

Domestic public life, in accounts which inevitably merged ‘public’ with ‘political’ concerns, received attention in court cases and controversies over ‘religious freedom’ issues.

Not without interest were the several stories about religion and sports, at a time when churches and ethicists under religious influence in general discuss the obsession with faith-and-athletics and the moral issues code-named “concussions” are up front.

And, stories about celebrities, entertainers, pop-cultural figures, and athletes, not a few of whom inspire debates about morals—usually tinged with and shadowed by religion—have their place.

The bottom line after a month of five Sundays and all the days between them is: Religion shows up constantly, globally, and often, locally.


Holy See discusses migrants, environment, gender at OSCE.” Vatican Radio, January 15, 2016, Vatican/Speeches.

Povoledo, Elisabetta. “Pope Francis and Hassan Rouhani of Iran Discuss Mideast Unrest.” New York Times, January 26, 2016, Middle East.

Sherwood, Harriet. “Christians flee growing persecution in Africa and Middle East.”The guardian, January 12, 2016, Christianity.

Wang, Ruth. “China Highest-Ranking Christian Pastor Gu Yuese Under Economic Investigation.” China Christian Daily, January 31, 2016, Church.

Beech, Hannah. “Expansion of Christian Church in the Birthplace of Confucius Creates Controversy in China.” Time, January 28, 2016, World.

Gera, Vanessa. “Poland’s conservative, pro-Catholic government says it plans to help finance a college founded by a controversial priest who also runs Radio Maryja, a station that has been reprimand [sic] by the Vatican for fomenting anti-Semitism.” U.S. News & World Report, January 29, 2016, News.

Winston, Kimberly. “Episcopal Church suspended from full participation in Anglican Communion.” Religion News Service, January 14, 2016.

Burke, Daniel. “7 types of evangelicals—and how they’ll affect the presidential race.”CNN, January 25, 2016, Politics.

Merritt, Jonathan. “Ted Cruz’s Tithing Problem.” The Atlantic, January 22, 2016, Politics. Editors. “Is a Suicide Epidemic Ravaging Gay Mormon Youth?, January 31, 2016, Religion.

Schmidt, Michael S. and Eric Schmitt. “U.S. Broadens Fight Against ISIS With Attacks in Afghanistan.” New York Times, January 31, 2016. Middle East.

Estrin, Daniel. “Israel’s Cabinet voted Sunday to allow non-Orthodox Jewish prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a move advocates said marked a historic show of government support for liberal streams of Judaism.” U.S. News & World Report, January 31, 2016, News.

Berman, Russell. “Bernie Sanders Bids for Jewish History.” The Atlantic, January 27, 2016, Politics.

Pratt, Timothy. “Georgia businesses assess costs of ‘religious freedom’ law.” Aljazeera America, January 26, 2016, U.S.

Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “Sports gambling gets a moral pass from most Americans.”Religion News Service, January 22, 2016.

Image: Buddhist Temple in the city of Kaifeng, Henan prefecture, China. Credit: Lain / flickr creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Moment of Unveiling -- Lectonary Reflection -- Transfiguration Sunday

Mount Shasta

Luke 9:28-36 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

                Epiphany is a season that allows us to reflect on and experience the unveiling the glory of God present in Jesus.  If we start the with Jesus’ baptism (I’m thinking of the Sundays of Epiphany here) and end with his Transfiguration, the circle is completed. In both stories God makes an appearance, even if only in the form of a cloud. In each case God declares Jesus to be God’s son. In Luke 3, in the moments after his baptism, as he is in prayer, God speaks. In this case only Jesus seems to hear this voice from heaven. It is a very personal, even private encounter. As the story proceeds through the season, we learn more about Jesus and his calling. We have a story from John 2 about a miracle—a sign—that reveals something of who Jesus is. In the two prior weeks, we have focused on Jesus’ visit to Nazareth, where he claims the mantle of the Spirit-empowered messiah. He comes to Nazareth and declares that he is the one who will ring in the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:14-30). Because Easter is early this year, the number of stories that can be told during Epiphany are fewer, but we get the picture. There’s something unique and powerful about this person.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Meeting God in Paul (Rowan Williams) -- A Review

MEETING GOD IN PAUL: Reflections for the Season of Lent. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xv + 96 pages.

The Apostle Paul is something of an enigma. His influence on the development of Christianity is profound. We look to his letters for all manner of guidance and information. He was the great missionary to the Gentile world. He established churches throughout what is Turkey, the Balkans, and Greece. His letters can be practical and deeply theological. He also has a tendency, probably because of the practical needs of the communities he established, to say things don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities. At the same time Paul says things that seem out of place in the first century. Even if he wasn’t fully aware of the consequences, he may have planted seeds that took millennia to bear fruit. There is a tendency, as well, in some quarters of the church to pit Paul against Jesus. As the title of a book by Daniel Kirk suggests: Jesus I Have Loved, but Paul? Paul is often seen as the corrupter of Jesus’ radical inclusive faith, turning into a narrow exclusive faith. The only problem with that assessment is chronology. Paul wrote his letters before the first Gospel (Mark) was ever written. So we might ask the question of whether Paul is getting raw deal?