Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Infidel and the Indifferent -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

To quote Richard Dawson:  "Survey Says . . ."  (I know Steve Harvey is the current host of the long running game show, I just like Newkirk!).  Surveys tell us that a growing number of Americans, especially younger Americans, are "religiously unaffiliated."  Martin Marty, who wrote a book long ago entitled The Infidel:  Free Thought and American Religion, seeks to better understand what all of this means.  When we dig deeper we find that this category has some complexity to it.  But, at least as I read the posting, is there not another category we need to be looking at -- those who are "Indifferent."  It's a good question.  I expect there might be many folks populating pews that are "indifferent" when it comes to matters theological and religious.  In any case, I invite you to read and offer your response.


The Infidel and the Indifferent
by Martin E. Marty
Monday |  April 29 2013
Fifty-two years ago—can it be?—I published The Infidel: Freethought and American Religion, and have been tracking “the infidel” ever since. Whether he or she was dubbed “free-thinker,” “agnostic,’ “atheist,” “secularist” or many things more, the infidel thrived on the reaction of the “religious” majority. By publishing date in 1961, the infidel had gone off center stage, and scholarly colleagues and I had to ponder what “the religiofication” (as scholar Eric Hoffer called it) of American culture would mean. Infidels not only “went,” from time to time, they “came.” Again.

In recent years opinion surveys, pop culture, and scholarly literature have discovered the unmistakable presence of the current round of “infidels.” The term of choice currently is “the religiously unaffiliated,” a very relaxed term which suggests that “religion”=”affiliation.” Unsatisfied with that big-tent designation, opinion surveyors have helpfully studied and redefined sub-groups in the category. One of the most popular sources finds and names three sub-categories. The American Values Survey (see source at end of this column) looked at the 19% of the population which was “unaffiliated” and found that almost one-fourth of these were “unattached believers,” over one-third were “self-identified atheists and agnostics,” and almost forty percent were simply (well, sometimes maybe complexly) “unaffiliated secular Americans,” not “secularists.”

Columnists like authors of Sightings mine these surveys and use their findings to assess spiritual life in today’s America, often as a step in comparing these to other situations around the globe, especially in the southern world—Africa, Latin America, and the Asian sub-continent—where religious affiliation grows. The most recent mining was by Daniel Cox in the Huffington Post (April 24, see source). Cox and others turned the question into one of class, and dozens of posts were written by people who took it from there.
Needless to say, connecting “class” with affiliation or religious involvement/non-involvement is difficult, as Cox himself recognizes. He and other surveyors and commentators have to make guesses or pursue correlations to other surveys to do some identifying, especially of the “atheist and agnostic” minority. Many private post-ers, as is often the case on the internet, are not given to nuance or dialogue. They blast. Some are sure that the number of agnostics and atheists has grown because the population of the higher-educated camp has grown, and—doesn’t everyone know?—higher education purges ignorance. Thus the ranks of the unbelievers grow. Cox and the authors of the American Values Survey do share the understanding that higher education, as now pursued, does cut into the ranks of believers. But they and others do not find simple and consistent correlations, and they adduce other evidences for- and against- religious belief and practice in a complex culture. In our current cultural episode, debates will increase.

Were I an opinion surveyor, I’d try to assess the degree to which something as simple as “indifference” to theological, religious, philosophical, and communal claims and commitments prevails. Thoughtful religious leaders have to work to promote affiliation and commitment as they seek and sometimes find company among the non-religious who would stir interest in the deeper things of life. This is a mission for them in a time of when gloss is favored in many sub-cultures.


2012 American Values Survey. “’Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation,” http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx, (accessed 27 April 2013).

Cox, Daniel. “Is Atheism Only for the Upper Class? Socioeconomic Differences Among the Religiously Unaffiliated." Huffington Post, April 24, 2013.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-cox/is-atheism-only-for-the-upper-class-socioeconomic-differences-among-the-religiously-unaffiliated_b_3146894.html?utm_hp_ref=religion.

Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

Editor Myriam Renaud is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

Email DivSightings@gmail.com 

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Rule of Taize -- A Review

THE RULE OF TAIZE: Bilingual Edition: English and French.  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press, 2013.  Xii + 131 pages.

                Down through the ages monastic movements, from the Benedictines to the Jesuits, have drafted or adopted monastic rules.  These rules guide community life, from worship to work, and they’re essential to the harmony of community life.  As I understand it, looking from outside, to live in community can be a blessing, but it can also be a challenge.  To live in community requires one to relinquish a great deal of individuality for the common good of the community.  This is often expressed in commitments to share one’s goods with the community, and live in obedience to the prior or prioress. 

Monastic rules provide guidance to a community, but they also help inquirers know what is expected of them before entering the community.  Since most monastic communities involve vows of chastity (celibacy) and poverty (community of goods), such rules resolve many possible rifts before they ever occur.    

                The Taizé Community of France has its own rule, drawn up by its founding prior, Brother Roger Schutz.  This community is similar too, but different from traditional monastic orders, in that it is ecumenical in nature.  That is, its brothers are drawn from both Catholic and Protestant Confessions.  There is, therefore, no denominational oversight, making it an independent venture in spirituality.  Perhaps that is why it has been so influential since its founding in 1940, just as World War II began.   From 1940 until he was shot to death in 2005 at the age of 90, the community had only one leader, its founder.   Brother Roger was the son of a Lutheran pastor who studied theology at the University of Lausanne, during which time he became interested in Catholic spiritual writings, and decided that the cause of Christian unity needed a monastic center to bear witness to the task.  He chose to move to France rather than enjoy safety of Switzerland, and there he found a house, and over time gathered together a community.  Today there are some 100 brothers living in community at Taizé, together with the thousands that visit every year to share in the life of this community.       

The task of bringing reconciliation to the Christian community has been expressed in a variety of ways.  Consider that most modern hymnals have Taizé songs, which are usually contemplative in nature.  Many churches, Protestant and Catholic, have regular Taizé services utilizing the music and styles of worship present at the community.  And, many people, especially clergy, make pilgrimage to this site to enhance their own spirituality.  The fact that youth and young adults began to make their own pilgrimages to the community in the 1960s also contributes to this cause.

In this brief book, The Rule of Taizé, we have in both French and English the monastic rule written by Brother Roger to be used by this community.   This rule was written for the community in the winter of 1952-1953.  It was republished, with minor modifications that Brother Roger had wanted to make, after his death in 2005.  The preface to this edition is in English, but the remainder of the book is comprised of the rule printed with French and English versions on facing pages.  Since I don’t read French, I stayed with the English version.

In the introduction, after admonishing those who might think that a rule such is this might be burdensome, we’re told:
This rule contains the minimum necessary for a community to grow up on Christ and devote itself to a common service of God.  The resolve to set down only the essentials involves a risk:  your freedom could become a pretext for living according to your own impulses.   (p. 5). 
                As one might expect the rule gives directives for times of prayer, meals, celibacy, community of goods, and obedience to the prior.  It speaks to aspects of spiritual life including joy, simplicity, and mercy.  It offers guidance as to how one should receive a visitor.  It focuses on the essential items, leaving much room for variance and experimentation. 

As a nonmonastic person, this rule doesn’t appear to be overbearing.  Words of wisdom are offered in the conclusion, reminding the reader that the rule is not an end in itself, but simply a means to an end. To so see it as such, would lead to a dispensing with the search “to discover more of God’s plan, the love of Christ, the light of the Holy Spirit,” making the rule a useless burden, so that “it would be better never to have written it” (pp. 107-109).

The question that can be and should be raised concerns the role of the Prior.  I’m not overly familiar with this community, but Brother Roger did develop quite a reputation as a spiritual leader.  He was its only prior for nearly seven decades.  As I read somewhere a cult of personality developed around him.  Because this was an independent venture, there was even less oversight from outside.  I expect that some concerns were mitigated, but as we think about how the community formed itself, we should at least ask the question of accountability.  With regard to the prior, the Rule states:
Without unity, there is no hope for a bold and total service of Jesus Christ.  Individualism disintegrates the community and brings it to a halt. 
The prior fosters unity within the community. 
In matters of practical detail he points the way, but in all questions of importance he listens to the brothers before making a decision.  (pp. 85-87).                 
The prior is the unifying factor, though the community is consulted before major decisions are made. 

                The value of this little book depends on the interests of the reader.  For some, reading this book will give insight into the ministry of the Taizé Community.  What is it like?  What is its agenda?  For others, this book could provide guidance for creating a close knit spiritual community – with appropriate modification (if couples join in community, as is common practice, then the rule of celibacy needs to be looked at but modified in an appropriate way).  It could also serve as a guide to spiritual life, lifting up that which is important and helping alleviate areas that detract from the life of faith.   Since it is written ecumenically it can have a broader use within the Christian community at large.  And it is a brief and very fast read.                  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Barriers Breached -- A Sermon for Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18

Remember the night the Berlin Wall fell?  What a night of joy it was for the people of Berlin and Germany.  Or what about the wall of segregation breached by the Civil Rights Movement?  That too was a moment of joy, and yet dividing walls continue to exist. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. 

Not many of you remember 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote, but it was a great victory for women and for American democracy.  Unfortunately many Christian communities still refuse to ordain women and America has yet to elect a woman President.  

As we continue this sermon series focusing on transforming encounters with the Risen Christ, we’ve reached the climactic moment in the first half of the Book of Acts.  With Peter’s vision and his report to the Jerusalem Church, the focus of the story shifts to the Gentile mission.  What we see here is that change can be difficult, and barriers difficult to breach. But, with God all things are possible! 

The story begins in Acts 10 with Peter up on the roof top praying.  As he prays, he has a vision.  He sees a sheet descending from the heavens containing a variety of animals that he’s forbidden to eat.  When a voice from heaven calls out “Kill and Eat,” he resists the command.  But as he’s doing this, emissaries from the Roman Centurion Cornelius appear at the door.  They ask him to go with them to  Caesarea and share the message of Jesus with the Centurion’s household.  

Peter may have gone with them reluctantly, but he got to watch in amazement as the Spirit fell on them as on the Day of Pentecost.  He concluded that if God blessed them with the gift of the Spirit, he couldn’t refuse them baptism.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, he discovers that not everyone is happy with his visit to a Gentile home.  After all he’d eaten with the uncircumcized.  So, as we’ve heard in the reading from Acts 11, Peter tells them about his vision and how that it led him to go to preach at the house of Cornelius.  He shares with them how the Spirit gifted these Gentiles in the same way the Spirit gifted the believers on the day of Pentecost.  If the Spirit embraced them, then how could he refuse to give them baptism?  After all, whatever God declares clean must be clean!  So who was he to stand in the way of God?    

Peter learned something important about God that day.  He learned that God doesn’t make distinctions between people.  It’s not that God is indifferent.  It’s just that God is concerned about all of humanity.  After all, God is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).      

In our Disciple tradition we don’t have creeds.  That’s because our founders believed that even though creeds can be useful, they can also become barriers to fellowship and service.  Still, what we believe about God, Jesus, the world, is important.   Our beliefs can become barriers to the work of God in the world.   

The good news is that the Holy Spirit is very adept at breaching even the highest and strongest barriers.  In telling his story about his visit to Cornelius, Peter reminds us that God decides what’s essential, what’s clean, and what’s unclean.  So, if God declares something or someone to be clean, then who are we to stand in the way?

One of the important threads running through the Book of Acts is the breaching of barriers.  It starts with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples on the day of his ascension.  He tells them that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NRSV).  When we come to Acts 10 and 11, we find that the last barrier to fulfilling this calling – the barrier of ethnicity – has been breached. 

But if there are other barriers needing to be breached, are we ready to let the Spirit breach them?  

Peter knew what the Scriptures and Tradition said about Gentiles.  While there were provisions for conversion, dispensing with circumcision wasn’t part of the deal. But here it seems that God is about to do a new thing.  It took time and a push from the Spirit to get Peter across the line.  But, cross the line – he did!  

Although I believe that Scripture and Tradition are essential to our faith journey, I’m in agreement with Russell Pregeant who writes that “when considering issues of inclusiveness the church needs to look beyond Scripture and Tradition to human experience for signs of the Spirit’s guidance.”   It takes a great deal of spiritual discernment if we’re going to do this. It also takes a lot of trust in God.   

I know that most of us like things done decently and in order. That’s why the church has a constitution and a personnel handbook.  We need these human documents to help us discern wise courses of action.  Scripture and Tradition help us with this process, but sometimes we need a Pentecost moment to help us move forward in a new direction.  And that’s what Peter and Cornelius’ household experienced.  In the moment that the Spirit gifted this household with the power of Pentecost things changed!  Barriers were breached.  And barriers continue to be breached!        

As I’ve come to learn, it wasn’t that long ago that this church selected Mary Lou as our first woman Elder.  And that didn’t happen until after we moved to Troy.  I was there, the day that the General Assembly elected Sharon Watkins as the first woman to lead a Mainline denomination.  Women still struggle to find places of ministry in our churches – but the barrier has been breached.

So what’s next?  Could it be the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church?  Could this be a Cornelius moment?  If so, then what does that mean for us as a congregation? 

Some of us have been studying Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?  In bringing up this topic he points out that the church at large isn’t of one opinion when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation. He outlines three basic positions present in the church today.  The first group neither welcomes nor affirms gays and lesbians.  Instead, they build walls and post no trespassing signs on them.  I don’t think that’s who we are.

The two other positions include: “Welcoming but not Affirming” and “Welcoming and Affirming.”  Like many denominations and congregations, I believe that both positions are present in this congregation.  Although I believe we are moving toward a Welcoming and Affirming position, we’re not there yet.  The question is – is this change simply a matter of letting our culture determine our beliefs and practices, or is this a movement of the Holy Spirit?  Personally, I believe that it’s the latter.  I believe that God has poured out the Spirit on gay and lesbian Christians, welcoming them into the fold.  By doing this, the Spirit is breaching another barrier. 

Now, what does it mean to be “Welcoming and Affirming,” or to use Disciples language, “Open and Affirming?”  I like the way John McCauslin put it in our first study session:  “‘Affirming’ means that we accept you as one of us, just as you are.”  

Even as we wrestle with this question as a congregation, so is our denomination.  We’ll be voting on a resolution at the General Assembly calling on us to be a welcoming and hospitable community.  This resolution directly addresses the question of sexual orientation.  If passed, and I believe it will, the General Assembly will call on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to:    
affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but we celebrate that all are part of God’s good creation.  
This resolution calls on the church to be a people of grace and welcome, offering hospitality to all.  So how will we offer welcome and hospitality to persons no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is?  

As I’ve shared before, my views are influenced by the lives and the stories of gay and lesbian Christians, including my brother.  I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced in finding their place in the church.  Not only do many feel excluded, but many gays and lesbians have been brutalized – sometimes physically and often verbally – by the church at large.  As I’ve listened to their stories, I’ve discovered that not only does our society force people to live in closets, but too often not even the church is a safe haven.  But, I believe that things are changing.  The Spirit is breaching another barrier.  So, as followers of the Risen Christ, are we ready for another Cornelius moment?  Are we ready to love one another, as Christ has loved us – so that the world might know that we are his disciples?  

Audio:  https://soundcloud.com/robert-cornwall/barriers-breached-4-28-2013

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 28, 2013
5th Sunday of Easter    

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Faith and Creeds by Alister McGrath (Review)

FAITH AND CREEDS: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith) By Alister E. McGrath.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.  X +115 pages.

What is faith?  Is it assent to doctrine or is it putting your trust in God?  Diana Butler Bass has suggested that the Latin word credo, which we usually translate as “I believe”, should be understood as “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to” (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakeningp. 117).  It has less to do with doctrinal formulations and more to do with relationships.  I’m attracted to this idea.  At the same time, this embrace of another is not ephemeral.  There is substance – not perhaps an abstract scholastic version, but substance nonetheless.  Peter Rollins in a recent book speaks of  “the idolatry of God," and raises questions about seeking certainty or satisfaction in our conception of God.  Although Rollins and Bass come from different angles, both speak from a more postmodern perspective.  Alister McGrath, on the other hand, offers a more traditional evangelical take on matters of faith.  Affirmation of substantive doctrines is important.  Creeds offer definitive, if incomplete, statements about the object of faith.

McGrath is a rather well known evangelical academic and author.  He might agree that faith is trust, but it must be an informed trust.  His patron saint in this might be Anselm, who spoke of “faith seeking understanding.”  Creeds aren’t mere checklists of beliefs; they are sketch maps of the theological terrain or skeletons that “support the life giving organs of faith” (p. 62).  Although I hail from a non-creedal tradition (the Disciples, in good Enlightenment, have entrusted to the believer the task of discerning what to believe from their reading of and engagement with Scripture), I find McGrath’s idea attractive.  Creeds needn’t be tests of fellowship to provide a starting point for conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. 

In this brief book, written with the lay person in mind, McGrath the professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education and head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture, at King’s College, University of London, sets the parameters for having an intelligent theological conversation.  This is the first of five volumes that are designed to address core principles of the Christian faith.  His concern is with helping Christians develop an intelligent world view by which they can look at the world and life.  His conversation partners in this effort are all lay persons – C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers – who dug deeply into the wells of the theology and sought to offer a helpful perspective for living the Christian life in a world that was and is less and less defined by the Christian religion.  It should be noted that all three were British.  None were prototypical evangelicals, though each has embraced by evangelicalism.

In many ways, McGrath, who is much better educated in theology than any of the other three, seeks to write in their vein, to do for the contemporary reader, what they did for an earlier generation.  Why is this important?  For McGrath, behavior follows belief, not the reverse.   What he seeks to offer then is that set of lenses by which one can view the world and see God’s place in it.  He writes:
Christianity is about bringing things into focus. For many people, life seems to have no meaning.  It appears to be random, meaningless and chaotic, without any underlying order or significance.  We are born, we die.  And what lies in between in nothing but a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  But perhaps there are other ways of reflecting on things.  Perhaps they seem meaningless because they are out of focus?  (p. 32). 
Instead of seeing the human person as the meaning maker, McGrath believes that God is the meaning maker and that God has provided meaningful and authoritative guidance for viewing life, to give it meaning.  In other words, Rollins and McGrath view the issues of the day from very different perspectives.  You could say that McGrath is more traditional.  But perhaps he offers another way of looking at things that even we who are attracted to postmodern ideas need engage with. 

One of the reasons why McGrath believes we need to attend to these questions is that there is a significant movement that is challenging Christian ideas and beliefs.  He has been an outspoken respondent to the New Atheists.  He has sought to take them on directly, challenging their efforts to belittle the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith.  His is, therefore, a prime mover in the field of apologetics.  His is a response different from that of a Rollins or a Borg, but his concerns need to be taken seriously.     
If we assume that the upcoming volumes form a similar pattern, then we will have an updated version of "mere Christianity."  But while there’s similarity between their projects, perhaps the person we might better compare him to is William Barclay.  Barclay largely focused on the biblical text, and one might suggest that Barclay lay to the left of where McGrath finds himself, but like Barclay, McGrath has found a way to write intellectually credible books that are also understandable to the general reader.  I expect that these books will be ideal for group study and personal devotion, but if you’re left of center remember – he’s an evangelical, though of a British sort (and they tend to be less narrow than many of their American counterparts – especially on matters of faith and science).  

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Pope and the Poor -- Sightings (Joshua Connor)

Many of us have been fascinated by the demeanor and attitude of the new Pope.  Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air with his humility and openness.  He's not a liberal (he supports the crackdown on the American nuns), but he exudes hope.  He has made the poor a focus of his attention, but not all are convinced.  He has critics, especially in South America, where some see him as unwilling to take the more radical systemic steps necessary to change the way things work.  In other words, he is not a liberationist.  That is true.  But then it's unlikely that one would be a Cardinal in the contemporary church if one were of that mind.  The more liberal Cardinals like Dom Helder Camara are either retired or have passed on.  He won't be encouraging radical political experiments, but personally, as one who has studied Liberation Theology, I take it as a good sign that Leonardo Boff hailed his election.  In this posting from Sightings Joshua Connor takes a look at the conversation/controversy.  I invite you to check in yourselves.  What do you think?


The Pope and the Poor
by Joshua Connor
Thursday |  April 25 2013
In an article that appeared in The Guardian a few days after the March 13, 2013, election of Francis, the first Pope from South America, the British environmental activist, George Monbiot, railed against depictions of the new Pope as a defender of the poor. Monbiot testified to his personal experience of working with Catholic priests in Brazil in the 1980s. Inspired by liberation theology, the priests resisted the oligarchs’ efforts to drive the poor off their land. Eventually, however, the priests were forced to stand down by the oligarchs' hired guns and by their own Church hierarchy. According to Monbiot, Pope Francis, the then-Cardinal Bergoglio, supported the Church's reprimand of liberation theology, placing him on the wrong side of a “great fissure” between defenders of the poor and the Vatican.

By contrast, much of the news coverage following the Argentinian Pope’s election consisted of stories about his work in the slums of Buenos Aires and about his personal lifestyle: washing and kissing the feet of AIDS patients, turning down the Bishop’s palace for a modest apartment, nearly giving the operator of a Buenos Aires kiosk a heart attack by placing a personal call after his election to cancel his newspaper subscription (“Seriously, it’s Jorge Bergoglio.”).

With his usual disarming candor, the Pope spoke freely with the press about his unprecedented choice of Francis as his Papal name; as the votes were tallied during the papal conclave and it became clear that he was headed for the Room of Tears, the Pope’s old friend, Cardinal Hummes, clasped him and admonished him not to forget the poor. It was then, he said, that his thoughts turned toward Francis of Assisi, that “man of poverty,” and toward a desire for a Church that is “poor and that is for the poor.”

Somewhere between these dueling snapshots lies the complicated history of liberation theology in Latin America, and what the new Pope means “by and for the poor.”

The “preferential option for the poor” – the principle, broadly defined, that Christians must demonstrate a special concern for the welfare of the poor, the marginal and the weak – is a core commitment of both liberation theology and official Catholic social teaching.

The 1968 Latin American Bishops' Conference held in Medellín, Columbia, a founding moment for liberation theology, first referred to a “preference for the poorest and most needy,” framing this preference in light of the “deafening cry that pours from the throats of millions” afflicted by institutionalized violence and structural inequities. The Bishops also explored merging traditional hierarchical models of the church with so-called “ecclesial base communities,” grassroots Christian communities that had sprung up among the poor and were suspected of Marxist associations. It was, however, the Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s landmark, A Theology of Liberation (1971), that minted the preferential option and offered a new theology from the standpoint of the oppressed, one that demanded revolutionary and prophetic protest against social structures that perpetuate deadening forms of material and spiritual poverty.

The row between the Vatican and liberation theology crested in the mid-1980’s, with rounds of inquiries into the work of Gutiérrez and others, and the official silencing of figures like the Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. The 1984 “Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” issued by the Vatican condemned what it saw as dangerous deviations in liberation theology, most notably, the reduction of the Gospel’s message of liberation from personal sin through Christ’s death into a Marxist message of earthly liberation from poverty through class struggle.

Still, if the 1984 "Instruction" seemed to condemn liberation theology en bloc, and far too readily, the preferential option for the poor was, from the start, embraced by Pope John Paul II. Articulating the preferential option in the language of human dignity and universal rights, John Paul II's opening address to the 1979 Latin American Bishops' Conference in Puebla, Mexico, decried “mechanisms that...produce on the international level rich people ever more rich at the expense of poor people ever more poor" while also insisting that only moral and spiritual liberation could truly relieve material poverty.

Monbiot’s Manicheanism oversimplifies the fissure between the poor and the Vatican, though his protest is an important reminder that the work of solidarity with the poor and of social justice demands real risk. It remains to be seen how Pope Francis will live out the name of a man who washed lepers and slept on the hard earth.


George Monbiot, "In the war on the poor, Francis is on the wrong side," The Guardian, March 18, 2013.

John Paul II. Address to the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate. January 28, 1979.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instruction of Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation". August 6, 1984.

Hennelly, Alfred T., S.J., ed. Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990.

Author Joshua Connor is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently at work on a dissertation on neuroscience and the concept of the soul.
Editor Myriam Renaud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

Email DivSightings@gmail.com 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Love's New Day -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

Love’s New Day

            A bombing at the Boston Marathon, letters laced with ricin, news of torture and death from around the globe, news like this leaves us wanting a new day that’s free of such things. We seek news of a day when life will be different and love shall prevail.  Such a vision seems far from realistic.  We may fall into despair when contemplating such a vision, but for people of the Christian faith this is part of vision of God.  It may be an eschatological vision, but there is no reason why the blessings of the eschaton cannot be felt now in this time and place.  It is as Jurgen Moltmann puts it – “In the community of Christ we experience foretastes and anticipations of God’s coming kingdom” ( In the End-The Beginning: The Life of Hopep. 91).     

The realities of this life often complicate our ability to see the fullness of God’s promise, but if we we’re open then we can begin to see signs of hope streaming into our lives.  Dreams of a new day, however, are complicated by the fact that we continue to live behind fences, separating ourselves out from those who are different in belief, in politics, in gender, in sexual orientation, in economic standing, and in ethnicity.  Even in the “developed” West, forms of tribalism continue to define relationships.  But, if we live in hope, then there is room for the message of inclusion.    

            In the vision outlined in Revelation 21, we hear of a new heaven and a new earth where the promise of peace is fulfilled.  But are we ready to receive this vision for today?  Or do we feel the need to relegate it to some other realm, where it has no impact on our current realities?  If we’re willing to allow God to build such a realm in our midst, then are we willing to join with God in this activity?  Are we ready to embrace a message that is defined by love, not just for those closest to us, but for all persons?  Indeed, are we ready to allow God to break down the barriers that we’ve so carefully built, but which continue to separate us from one another?

            The question of barriers is raised in Acts 10-11.  The lectionary reading comes from Acts 11, but it’s a continuation of a story that begins a chapter earlier.  The story begins with Peter receiving a vision that leads him to enter the household of a Gentile and preach the gospel.  The vision prepares Peter to see Cornelius and his household in a different way – as ones whom God loves and embraces.  Whereas Peter once viewed Gentiles as being unclean and unfit for fellowship, now he’s ready to share with them the message of Jesus.  But it’ll take another step on the part of God, before he truly understands that God is doing a new thing.  He must still receive confirmation from God that he’s on the right path, before he shares baptism with this household.  In the end the Spirit falls and Cornelius’ household receives the same giftedness as the first community did on the day of Pentecost.

            In the reading from Acts 11, we find Peter having returned to Jerusalem.  Upon return he faces criticism from the community.  They’re enthralled by news that he’d eaten with the uncircumcised.  Note that it’s eating patterns that come into play as the gospel moves forward into new communities.  It’s clear from this that the early church continued its kosher eating practices, so by eating with Cornelius, Peter is assumed to have broken that rule.  Ultimately, the issue will be circumcision rather than food, but food is the current issue at hand.  Now, it’s not as if Judaism didn’t provide for conversion or even honored ones we call God-fearers, but barriers were still erected that protected the tribe.  In this moment in time, those barriers are torn down. 

The message that Peter brings to his community in Jerusalem is that God is impartial.   It’s not that God is indifferent or doesn’t care; it’s just that God’s vision is broader than we may be prepared for.  Beverly Gaventa writes that “God’s concern specifically meant that Israel could not neglect the widow and orphan in the midst of the people.  Here, however, the claim emerges in a way that encompasses not Israel alone but all humanity” (Abingdon New Testament Commentary - Actsp. 174).  Going back to Acts 10:36, the word is this – “He is Lord of all.”  God chooses to make this message known to the community through Peter, so that they can understand God’s decision to bring down the walls of division.  The closing verses of the passage demonstrate that they get the message, though it appears that not all of them did so with joy.  They “calmed down” (CEB) and they gave praise to God, but did they fully understand?  Do we fully understand the implications?  Right now the U.S. Senate is deliberating on a bipartisan immigration bill.  Not everyone is happy.  Not everyone wants to open the doors.  There remains this “us vs. them” mentality in our own country, which means it’s there in our churches.  So maybe we haven’t gotten it yet.  After all, 11 AM on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.   

            The word revealed in Revelation 21 offers us a promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  In this new reality suffering and grief are no more.  This is an eschatological vision in which God dwells with humankind, bringing to us a new vision of life.  This eschatological vision is intended to draw us forward, to allow God to do this new thing in our world.  It’s a now/not yet vision.  Therefore, we can expect that the realities of the eschaton will make themselves felt in our own world – now. 

To understand this vision we need to understand the Johannine vision of the realm of God.  As Lee Hanson points out, in Revelation there is no promise that God will take us all to heaven, but rather that God will come to earth and dwell among us (John's Gospel; The Way It Happenedp. 304).  The promise in John 14 of the Paraclete is a reminder that this promise is already in place.  God is already dwelling in our midst.  It’s a promise made at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  Although the realm of God isn’t fully present among us, or at least it hasn’t taken full effect, God is not absent.  So, as we contemplate the stories of bombings in Boston, wars in the Congo and Syria, and divisions present in our own communities, perhaps we can see them as expressions of this now/not yet reality.  While we still see signs of resistance to the realm of God, if we’re willing to broaden our vision, then we’ll see signs that the realm of God is present among us – that the New Jerusalem has descended in Christ.  The process of transformation is underway.  Without giving in to the idea that molded Enlightenment/Modernist visions of human progress, it’s possible to find signs of God’s presence molding a new form of life.  God is offering us living water, so that we might drink from it.  Until the day in which the fullness of God’s realm is revealed, we are agents of hope. 

            The Gospel reading takes us back to the final meal Jesus shares with his disciples.  Judas has departed, and Jesus prepares them for what will transpire.  The Son of Man or the Human One “has been glorified.”  What appears to us as defeat, Jesus envisions as triumph.  He will go away, and they can’t follow, but he doesn’t leave them without instructions.  He offers them a new commandment – to love one another.  This command is similar to, but different from the two great commands.  It even appears as if it is a rather exclusive command – love one another, not your neighbor, not your enemy, just one another.  Is this a limiting factor, or is it the foundation for a larger call to love?  The key is found in the statement that we are to love as Jesus loves us.  This is a good reminder that we can’t do this outside divine help.  Simone Sunghae Kim gets this right, writing:
Our inability to love one another as Jesus mandates should drive us to humbly and thoroughly rely on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Any act or employment of Jesus’ love we perform is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and thus the Lord alone must be given the credit and be glorified.   (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C,p. 226.)
Given the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is for us the seal of the eschatological promise of the New Jerusalem, we can live out of this love that is God and the world will know, as a result, that we are Jesus’ disciples by the love we show each other.  After all, if we can’t love each other, then how can we hope to love those outside the community of faith?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents -- A Review

THE FAITHS OF THE POSTWAR PRESIDENTS: From Truman to Obama (George H. Shriver Lecture Series in Religion in American History).  By David L. Holmes.  Athens, GA:  University of Georgia Press, 2012.  Xiii +396 pages. 

            Americans take great interest in the religious affiliations and views of their presidential candidates.  When I was only two, Americans wondered whether a Roman Catholic could be safely elected President.  They breathed easier after John Kennedy was elected and Rome didn’t take control.  I cast my first presidential vote for Gerald Ford in 1976, while many of my Christian friends chose Jimmy Carter, because he was “Born Again.”  My claims that Ford was a good Christian fell on deaf ears.  Ironically, four years later most of my friends abandoned Carter for Ronald Reagan, apparently because they didn’t think his politics matched his faith.  So, what should we make of our seeming obsession with the religious beliefs of our Presidents, even though the U.S. Constitution specifically rules out religious tests for holders of Federal offices? 

The task of sorting out these questions has fallen to historian David L. Holmes, the Walter G. Mason Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. Holmes is an Episcopalian, who grew up Congregationalist – the two denominational traditions preferred by many of the nation’s founders.   In an earlier book, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, (Oxford University Press, 2006), Holmes explores the faiths of six founders – the first five Presidents and Benjamin Franklin.  He argues that these leaders highly valued religion, but tended toward deism on a personal level.  Although they weren’t radical deists, neither were they theologically orthodox.  (See my review here). 

Although we tend to see modern America as becoming increasingly secular, many of our most recent Presidents have been relatively orthodox in their beliefs and practices.  America may seem more secular, but its Presidents appear to be more openly religious than ever before, including the current holder of that office, Barack Obama. 

Holmes examines the religious backgrounds and faith expressions of the twelve post-World War II Presidents, from Truman to Obama, giving each President a chapter of his own.  Martin Marty writes the Introduction.  Holmes provides us with a broad personal and historical narrative that brings into the conversation family, social, cultural, and political dynamics.  What we learn about some figures might surprise us, especially those whose presidencies have faded into the recesses of our memories.  But, as we read this excellent book, we can gain a better understanding of who these men were or are, not just religiously, but as human beings.  One of the things we learn is that it's not easy being President and a person of faith!  Often Presidents make decisions that may conflict with the views of their faith communities. 

Some of these men were, to quote from Harry Truman, “lightfooted” in their religious views.  That is, they believed in God, had a religious heritage, but were not exactly fully observant.  Truman, for instance, was Southern Baptist, but not a hard-edged one.  Some Presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower, had to distance themselves from the religious views of their upbringing and adopt something more mainstream as they entered politics.  Eisenhower grew up River Brethren and Jehovah’s Witness – two extremely sectarian faith communities -- but left them behind as he entered the Military Academy and took up a distinguished military career.  Unattached to any faith community, he chose to be baptized as a Presbyterians just days prior to his inauguration.  He seems to have concluded that the President should be connected to a religious community – as an example to the people.  Although not hard-edged in his beliefs, he joined many Americans in seeing religion as an essential bulwark against godless communism.    If Truman and Eisenhower were “lightfooted,” John Kennedy, the lone Roman Catholic, could be best described as a religious skeptic.  Though there was considerable worry at the time about his loyalties, there was need to fear.  His brother Bobby was much more committed to the family’s faith than was he.  Then there was Lyndon Johnson, who joined the Disciples of Christ as a youth, and then married an Episcopalian.  He enjoyed going to church, but he wasn’t especially observant.

In many ways the first post-war Presidents to be truly engaged spiritually was Gerald Ford.  As Holmes shows, the 1976 election pitted two very devout evangelically-inclined candidates against each other.  One was an Episcopalian and the other was a Southern Baptist.  Carter was more overt in his faith, but both were genuinely faithful Christians, so apparently I was correct.  Turning to Ronald Reagan, we find a more complicated figure.  Raised Disciples of Christ, he went to a Disciples college, and was a member of a Disciples church for much of his life.  In his later years, after his marriage to Nancy, who was not nearly as observant as he had been, he generally worshipped in Presbyterian churches.  While his convictions were genuine, mixed in was a degree of superstition and even attraction to astrology, something he shared with Nancy.  Then there are the two Presidents named George Bush.  The father grew up in a rather formal Episcopal Church setting, and remains strongly committed to that church.  The son, however, would become a United Methodist, but of a very evangelical sort.  Although George W. was in many ways a fun-loving, hard drinking good old boy, he eventually embraced a conservative evangelical version of the Christian faith.  As he ran for President and as he served as President, he saw himself called of God to this post.  Holmes writes that George W. Bush in many ways became the leader of the Religious Right, and his sense of divine calling hardened his positions on a variety of issues. 

The two Bush presidencies alternated with those of two Democrats – one being Southern Baptist (Bill Clinton) and the other one who grew up in a religiously unaffiliated family.  Only as an adult did Barack Obama become a Christian, and that was after he became a community organizer and saw the value of faith to social justice.  Being of mixed heritage, Obama ultimately joined a large Afro-centric congregation affiliated with the United of Christ, a choice that benefited him spiritually, but would prove politically toxic when he ran for President. 

There are several threads that run through the book.  One is the role of family in one’s religious understandings.  Some, like Eisenhower, left behind his family’s faith.  Others, including Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, made their own choice of a church.  Johnson joined the Disciples because it was the most rational, least emotional, faith community in his town.  Clinton looked to the church to provide a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic family life.  Then there are people like the elder Bush, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Kennedy, and Reagan, whose formative religious experiences were shared with their families.  And then there’s Obama, who had no real religious background.  His father and step father were Muslims by background, but not by practice, while his anthropologist mother was a free spirit who introduced him to a variety of religious expressions.

Another thread is the role that Billy Graham plays in these stories.  When Harry Truman became President in the midst of World War II, Billy Graham was just getting started.  He approached Truman, seeking to be a spiritual advisor, but Truman saw him as a phony.  But with the exception of John Kennedy and to a degree Jimmy Carter, Billy Graham was a rather constant participant in the lives and presidencies of these men.  For some, like Richard Nixon, he was a close friend, and to others he was more a distant but visible advisor.  As time went on Graham’s rise in stature could provide religious cover for Presidents, while he gained a certain power from his connection to figures of such importance.  Sometimes this worked well for him, but at other points, especially with Nixon, it could back to haunt him.  Graham is fading from the scene as he no longer is active in ministry, but he has been a rather constant presence.

A third thread has to do with the way in which each President has tried to balance their religious activity with the Presidency.  As President Obama may have discovered, there is a desire by the populace to see the President go to church.  Attendance is important to many.  But attending church can be problematic.  Some have found ways of navigating this problem better than others.  Jimmy Carter, for instance, would teach Sunday school as President, while Lyndon Johnson loved to fool the press corps by changing regularly his places of attendance.  Richard Nixon, who grew up Quaker, but who was far from being a Quaker, decided to set up “church” in the East Room, and invite safe preachers.  Clinton and George W. regularly attended church, while Barack Obama has yet to find a church home. 

Our current President came into the Presidency having had to leave his home church – the only faith community in which he’d ever really found a home – because his pastor had become a liability.  Finding a home church has proven difficult, in part because as he tried to establish himself as President of all Americans the theology and the politics of the Black church have proven controversial.  Most White Americans fail to understand the liberationist aspects of Black theology and view it as subversive.  But even before this, Barack Obama wasn’t regular in his attendance.  While a deep reader of theology – especially Reinhold Niebuhr – Obama is in many ways part of the modern American context that moves in and out of faith communities.  He values community, but in many ways he’s closer to the “spiritual but not religious” expression of faith than his predecessors.   All of this has kept him from finding that home, and likely will keep him from finding one, at least as long as he is President.

Holmes’s book is a fascinating read.  It’s insightful, authoritative, and revealing of the spiritual dimensions of American political life.  We may try to separate church and state, but faith and office are less easily separated.  If one seeks to understand the complexities of these relationships, there is no better guide, in my mind that David Holmes.  He is fair, judicious, and as a person of faith himself, he understands the dynamics involved.  Too often these complexities are missed by historians who lack a faith involvement.  Perhaps by reading this book, one will discover that simple profession or even attendance doesn’t mean one is devout or that one’s faith influences one’s actions.  It did for Jimmy Carter, but in no way influenced the practices of John Kennedy or Richard Nixon.    

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Confidence in Religion Drops -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Would you be surprised to learn that there has been a drop in confidence for organized religion and religious leaders?   Survey after survey tells us that more and more people are dropping out.  Many find religious folk to be hypocrites, if not worse.  Some of the charges leveled against the religious community are spot on, others not so much.  Religious communities are no monolithic, so we must be careful that we don't paint with too wide of brushes.  

In this edition of Sightings, Martin Marty visits recent "measurers of opinion," which tell us that the military comes out on top -- and that despite recent scandals at the top.  We're not as bad as Congress, but not where we once were.  We could suggest that this is all an anti-religious (read anti-Christian) animus on the part of media, etc., but I don't think that would help our cause.  But the key point that Dr. Marty wants us to hear is that the public is paying attention! I invite you to read Marty's post and offer your thoughts.  

By the way, I received a nice note from Professor Marty giving permission for me to share these postings with you!


Confidence in Religion Drops
by Martin E. Marty
Monday |  April 22 2013
Three “War College” scholars, in the Spring 2013 issue of Daedalus (see reference), discuss some of the reasons why the military wins more confidence than other American institutions. The military is not our subject; those authors may be biased because of their vocation and location, and we may lack full confidence in Harris and Gallup and Pew and other measurers of opinion. Still, even if statistics strung out in editorials can weary the eye, they do tell us something. In our case, the "War College" authors drew on a Harris poll conducted two years ago.  Let's look at what this poll turned up about “Organized Religion” to see if there are insights or lessons for those who care about religion in American life.

In the Harris poll, 57% of those questioned had “a great deal of confidence” in the military, and only 10% had hardly any. “Small business” came in second, while “major companies,” “Law firms,” “The press,” “Wall Street” and “Congress” evoked least confidence; they came in twelfth to fifteenth. We keep our eye on “Organized Religion” which came in sixth. As for “leaders in institutions,” the military rated highest, while religious leaders attracted “a great deal of confidence” among 22%. But here’s a slide: in 1966 religious institutions inspired high confidence among 41% of the people, that “high” figure dropped to 22% by 1980, near where it still hovers today.

These instruments are not sufficiently fine-tuned to be used to ascertain what factors contributed to declines in confidence shown the favored or the unfavored. So one cannot find here what the usually highlighted features in each decline were. Look elsewhere to see what “clergy abuse” has done to inspire loss of confidence. We can speculate about other contributors: mass media focus on frailty, some financial criminality or sloppiness, sharpening suspicion among “nones” and “secularists” and “drop-outs,” distorted vision among the cultured observers, etc.

What religious leaders and members should take from surveys like this is a renewed awareness of the fact that publics are watching. True, some people are remote from the exercises of life in religious institutions and thus their conclusions are born of ignorance. Some may want to find reasons to distance themselves from the efforts and effects of “organized religion.” View it negatively, or draw only on the observations and conclusions of those who focus on the weaknesses and wrongs of religious institutions, and your case is made. The much-noticed “social media” certainly contribute, because images mediated through them are unmonitored, unfiltered, undisciplined, and thus, in their “raw” form they can spread negative images more readily than they can positives.

It is much more difficult to project images of what goes on among serious seekers, sacrificial givers and workers, agents of charity or quiet care for others, than it is to feature scandalous public expressions. All this does not mean that religious institutions simply have to do better jobs of public relations, though most of them could certainly do better then they characteristically do now. The point of these comparisons is this: there is no place to hide. Religious institutions cannot be at home in the public sphere to serve in it and expect to be given special treatment, if they ever could. There is no reason to expect that they can run for cover now and go unnoticed. Christians among them cite words of Jesus: “Woe to you if all speak well of you.” They evidently don’t have to worry as much about “woe” as do military leaders, because so few people these years speak well of them and their institutions.


Andrew Hill, Leonard Wong, and Stephen Gerras, “The Origins & Lessons of Public Confidence in the Military,” Daedalus:  Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Spring 2013.

Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

Editor Myriam Renaud is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. She is also a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

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