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The Deep, Difficult And Joyous Spiritual Journey Of Sister Joan

Sister Joan Chittister has spent her life speaking up for women in the church.

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop=COURTESY OF BENEDICTINE SISTERS OF ERIE, PENNSYLVANIASister Joan Chittister, center, with Native women in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1998.


Veteran Catholic writer Tom Roberts thought he knew Sister Joan Chittister – the maverick Benedictine nun who dares speak her mind to her church.

He didn’t.

When Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter went to interview her three years ago in Erie, Pa., at the community where she entered religious life at age 16, a secret she’s held for a lifetime came to light.

In the peculiar journalism tradition of preparing obituaries of prominent people while they’re still alive, Roberts was there to update an obituary on Sister Joan.

As they sat to talk, she leaned forward, blue eyes downcast, voice slow, and poured out a story she had never told anyone before about her early life as a terrified child of an abused woman, trapped by her husband, her church and her society.

Suddenly, instead of an updated obituary, Roberts was hearing a new story — the forces that shaped one of U.S. Catholicism’s most influential voices. That conversation begins the biography by Roberts published this month, Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith.

She told Roberts “it’s time” she opened the hidden door to her early life because both her valiant, devoutly Catholic mother and her abusive, alcoholic stepfather had died. She was free to speak of a childhood of poverty, insecurity and “ceaseless fear.”

<span class='image-component__caption' itemprop=COURTESY OF ORBIS BOOKSJoan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty to Faith book cover.

But Chittister — now 79 and very much alive, thank you — has another reason why the time has come.

“All my professional life, I have spoken my heart out for the role of women all over the world. It’s a theological thing, a deeply moral thing, the determining issue for the integrity of the church and the advancement of any state,” she told Religion News Service in an interview about the book.

“It’s time to acknowledge that this material is not just theological and rhetorical. It’s real. I’m not just talking from compassion, from a world I don’t know anything about. I’m talking about myself — and all social classes, all kinds of people,”

“I saw it as maybe my last major presentation on behalf of women who are trapped by circumstances of religion, law, custom and culture,” said Chittister.

In the book and in interviews, she tells of joining the Erie Benedictine community “not as a refuge or escape from life, but for the kind of life I thought was possible — a Christian community as a model of peace.”

Little did she — or her sisters — know.

It started simply. Within months of moving from the upheaval of her parents’ home to the Benedictine community house, Chittister was struck with polio. The same relentless determination and fierce focus that helped her survive her family, strengthened her through years of therapy until she could walk again.

She took her veiled final vows and became a teacher while studying for her undergraduate and graduate university degrees on nights and weekends.

Roberts described those years as a time when Catholics were certain their church had all the answers — until many, like Chittister, discovered it did not. That’s why the book is subtitled “Her Journey from Certainty to Faith.”

Then came the ’60s and the Second Vatican Council reforms that gave a fresh charge to women religious (as nuns and sisters are known) to find new ways to live out their calling. Chittister moved into two decades of leadership roles within her community, her order, and the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the group that represents about 80 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters. During a decade of upheaval, she traveled the nation giving talks with titles such as “Self-understanding through change.”

And change they did. The Erie Benedictine community transformed from a teaching order to a social justice force with education, workforce training and child development programs in the poorest corners of Erie. Her explanation of how this happened was deceptively simple: “I didn’t start anything. I allowed our sisters to start what needs to be done.”

Through every step, Chittister told Roberts, the Rule of St. Benedict guided her. It begins with a command to “listen” — to each other and to those they served.

“Listen” is the crux of the book, the crux of her life in a church that, she says, still refuses to listen to women.

“I came to feminism through faith,” Chittister told Roberts. And herein likes the central conflict of Chittister life in a church controlled by men who think they alone can define Jesus and God’s plan.

Roberts’ book walks readers through contemporary Catholic conversations on women’s ordination. The neat summary of the Vatican view is “No.” Not only “no” but, as pope after pope has said, the subject is closed.

In 2001, the Vatican forbade her to speak on discipleship at a women’s ordination conference in Ireland. Chittister spoke anyway.

“You cannot order Catholics not to think,” she said in an interview recalling that confrontation with church authority. “I remember thinking then, ‘You can’t scare me. You have no idea where I’ve been.’”

For Chittister, the role of women raises “theological, scientific, sociological and human questions that you cannot stop thinking about. You have to open the door to the conversation in the name of the integrity of your theology.”

But even these conversations yielded yet another surprise for Roberts — “how much of a traditionalist she is.

“Because she has the label of dissenter and maverick, you think she would be wildly innovative and experimental, but what I found out is that she is so respectful of tradition that she approaches change slowly, and with enormous intellect,” he said.

Today, said Roberts, Pope Francis has been calling for a deeper theology of women, and women such as Chittister are saying, back to him, “It’s done already! Stop telling us who we should be. Let us tell YOU who we are!”

Women’s ordination has never been her focus, Roberts writes and Chittister confirms. Other issues take precedence for her: education; economic opportunity; health care; civil rights and the right to self-determination. For the past 20 years she’s been writing, speaking and traveling to places of conflict with the Global Peace Initiative of Women, including days in Iran during the nuclear pact negotiations.

Even that is not enough, to her mind.

There are more books. Published in October: “In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics” and “Two Dogs and a Parrot: What Our Animal Friends Can Teach Us About Life.”

She’s recently launched a new website, Monasteries of the, to offer Benedictine spirituality and online community to people who may never reach a church.

And Chittister, once a lonely only child in an isolated family, has one more ministry. She writes thousands and thousands of letters, answering the people who write to her.

“I see my sisters do the most beautiful things every day of their lives. I never hear them complain,” said Chittister. “I said to myself, ‘What do I do?’ And this is what I can do.”

Remembering Marcus Borg | March 11, 1942 – January 21, 2015


Marcus J. Borg, beloved husband and father, renowned teacher, author and leading scholar of the historical Jesus, New Testament and contemporary Christianity, died on January 21, 2015, following a battle with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. He was 72 years of age.

Marcus Borg was an internationally revered speaker and scholar who authored or co‐authored 21 books, some which were New York Times and national bestsellers. His books have won multiple awards and been translated into twelve languages. The New York Times called him, “a leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars.”

Marcus Borg earned his doctorate degree from Oxford University. He was a professor at Oregon State University for 28 years where he held the Hundere Chair of Religion and Culture at the time of his retirement in 2007. His long career has included appointment as Canon Theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and co‐chair of its International New Testament Program Committee, president of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars, and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He was a greatly sought‐after speaker and lecturer domestically and internationally at universities, colleges, churches, retreat centers and museums, including both The Chautauqua and The Smithsonian institutions.

Mark Tauber, SVP and Publisher of HarperOne, says, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of our author and our friend Marcus Borg. His life and his work have been a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to literally millions of readers and students over the years. Marcus was unafraid to follow the scholarly evidence where it led him while both communicating complexity fluently and remaining a man of faith. In these times when writing and speaking (and illustrating) messages and stories that seek truth are dangerous, Marcus Borg was a hero and a beacon.”

Marcus Borg was known for teaching that a deep understanding of the historical Jesus and the New Testament can lead to a more authentic life—one not rooted in dogma, but spiritual challenge, compassion, community and justice. He was often quoted and re‐taught, among many things, for his work on the meaning of Easter and resurrection. He wrote, “Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and future for us beyond death. Rather Easter stories in the gospels and the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection in the rest of the New Testament are much more significant. Moreover, their meanings are not dependent upon whether a spectacular miracle happened to the physical body of Jesus.”

Marcus is survived by his wife Marianne, son Dane, son‐in‐law Benjamin, daughter Julie, grandson Carter, and terriers Henry and Abbey. A public memorial of celebration and remembrance will be held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland OR on Sunday, March 22, at 2 pm.

Marcus J. Borg

“Christianity’s goal is not escape from this world. It loves this world and seeks to change it for the better.”

“So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”

“More than half described Christians as literalistic, anti-intellectual, judgmental, self-righteous, and bigoted.”

“But Christian illiteracy is only the first part of the crisis. Even more seriously, even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted by many to whom it is seemingly very familiar. They think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood, but what they mean by the words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor.”

“This book might also be seen as “a Christian primer.” A primer teaches us how to read. Reading is not just about learning to recognize and pronounce words, but also about how to hear and understand them. This book’s purpose is to help us to read, hear, and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way.”

“The heaven-and-hell framework has four central elements: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing.”

“When we read Paul, we are reading somebody else’s mail—and unless we know the situation being addressed, his letters can be quite opaque…It is wise to remember that when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.”
“To see Paul positively does not mean endorsing everything he ever wrote.”

Marcus J. Borg, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

“Our images of God matter. Just as how we conceptualize God affects what we think the Christian life is about, so do our images of God.”
“How can women be in the image of God if God cannot be imaged in female form?”
“Our central problem is not sin and guilt, as it is within the monarchical model. For the Spirit model, our central problem is “estrangement,” whose specific meaning of “separated from that to which one belongs” is most appropriate. … For the monarchical model, sin is primarily disloyalty to the king, seen especially as disobedience to his laws. The metaphors used to express the Spirit model suggest something else. For the metaphor of God as lover, sin is unfaithfulness—that is, sin is going after other lovers.”
“When tradition is thought to state the way things really are, it becomes the director and judge of our lives; we are, in effect, imprisoned by it. On the other hand, tradition can be understood as a pointer to that which is beyond tradition: the sacred. Then it functions not as a prison but as a lens.”
“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).  Rather, his teachings and behavior reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself.”
“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
“God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being—not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”
“The spoken word has come to dominate many Protestant forms of worship: the words of prayers, responsive readings, Scripture, the sermon, and so forth. Yet the spoken word is perhaps the least effective way of reaching the heart; one must constantly pay attention with one’s mind. The spoken word tends to go to our heads, not our hearts.”
“In a number of workshops, I have asked people whether they have had one or more experiences that they would identify as an experience of God and, if so, to share them in small groups. On average, 80 percent of the participants identify one or more and are eager to talk about them. They also frequently report that they had never before been asked that question in a church setting or given an opportunity to talk about it.”
“How we think about God matters. It affects the credibility of religion in general and of Christianity in particular. Our concept of God can make God seem real or unreal, just as it can also make God seem remote or near.”
“The political vision of the religious right is for the most part an individualistic politics of righteousness, not a communal politics of compassion.”

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

Convictions, my newest book, is a bit of a memoir, even as it is not an autobiography.

Rather, it combines the triad of memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories – of growing up Christian and American more than half a century ago and what I absorbed then. Conversions – major changes in those understandings that have happened in my adult life. Convictions –foundational ways of seeing and living that are more or less settled and not easily shaken (but are neither dogmatic nor closed to change).

The book was birthed in my experience of turning 70.

What was then my home congregation, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, where my wife Marianne had been a priest and canon for eighteen years and I a member for the same period of time, invited me to preach on the Sunday of my 70th birthday.

I had taught there frequently and had been bestowed with the title “canon theologian.” The title does not mean that I am a priest. I am not. Ordination is not a requirement for becoming a “canon.” Rather, Marianne tells me, “canon” means “big shot.”

Preaching on the occasion of my 70th birthday to a congregation in which I was known emboldened me. Though for many years, I have not been especially timid, that occasion led me to think, “What are the convictions that my life has led me to that I most want to speak as I turn 70?” If we don’t share those at 70, when will we?

My convictions are about the past and the present. Beginning fifty or more years ago, my intellectual passion became the study of the Bible, Jesus, Christian origins, Christian history, and to a lesser but substantial extent, other religions.

From that study – convictions about the past – has emerged a set of convictions about what it should mean to be Christian today. And to be Christian and American today, the cultural context that has shaped me and that I know best.

My working title for this book was “what I wish every American Christian knew.” I am convinced – convicted – that if American Christians knew and embraced what is in this book that it would change American Christianity – and American society, culture, and politics.

“But “having dominion over” meant something very different from what it has often been understood to mean. It refers to the relationship between shepherd and sheep.”

“The book of Proverbs makes the same point: Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him. (14.31)”

“the Bible is a human product: it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.”

“But believing something to be true has nothing to do with whether it is true.”

“Salvation Is More About This Life than an Afterlife”

“Because modern critical thinking is corrosive of conventional religious beliefs, some Christians reject applying it to the Bible and Christianity. The result is fundamentalism and much of conservative Christianity, which holds that regardless of the claims of modern knowledge, the Bible and Christianity are true—and not just true, but factually true.”

“Its meanings include: The risen Christ journeys with us, is with us, whether we know it or not. Sometimes there are moments when we do recognize this.”

“The notion that there was one “right” way of seeing things disappeared. This was enormously liberating, even if a bit alarming. But my curiosity was greater than my fear.”

“We learned, in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, that God is “in heaven.” But we also learned that God is everywhere—that is, omnipresent. When one combines the two, the result is panentheism. It is orthodox Christian theology.”

Marcus J. Borg, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most

“Myth is stories about the way things never were, but always are.”

“Part of the scandal of American Christianity is that statistically the U.S. is the most Christian country in the world, and yet as a country we have the greatest income inequality in the world. And as a country we are uncritically committed, not simply to being the most powerful nation in the world militarily, but to being as militarily powerful as the rest of the world combined.We Christians live in a tradition that is passionate about issues of economic justice and peace and yet at least half of American Christians, probably even more, think it’s really important that we be as powerful as the rest of the world put together.”

Marcus J. Borg

“Other prophets, other messiahs, came and went in Jesus’ day. Routinely, they died violently at the hands of the pagan enemy. Their movements either died with them, sometimes literally, or transformed themselves into a new movement around a new leader. Jesus’ movement did neither. Within days of his execution it found a new lease of life; within weeks it was announcing that he was indeed the messiah; within a year or two it was proclaiming him to pagans as their rightful Lord. How can a historian explain this astonishing transformation?”

“Jesus died for our sins” has been understood. Among some Christians, it is seen as an essential doctrinal element in the Christian belief system. Seen this way, it becomes a doctrinal requirement: we are made right with God by believing that Jesus is the sacrifice. The system of requirements remains, and believing in Jesus is the new requirement. Seeing it as a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God leads to a very different understanding. “Jesus died for our sins” means the abolition of the system of requirements, not the establishment of a new system of requirements.”

Marcus J. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus

“By the time I began college, anxiety about hell had disappeared—not because I was confident that I was “saved,” but because the whole package had become sufficiently uncertain that I didn’t worry about it.”

“a worldwide flood destroyed all life on earth about five thousand years ago requires denying an immense amount of generally accepted knowledge—from astronomy, physics, geology, paleontology, anthropology, archaeology, biology, cave paintings, and more.”

“The way of Jesus is thus not a set of beliefs about Jesus. That people ever thought it was is strange, when we think about it — as if one entered new life by believing certain things to be true, or as if the only people who can be saved are those who know the word “Jesus”. Thinking that way virtually amounts to salvation by syllables.Rather, the way of Jesus is the way of death and resurrection — the path of transition and transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. To use the language of incarnation that is so central to John, Jesus incarnates the way. Incarnation means embodiment. Jesus is what the way embodied in a human life looks like.”

“The word “sacrament” also has a broader meaning. In the study of religion, a sacrament is commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced.”

Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally

“To believe in a person is quite different from believing that a series of statements about the person are true.”

“I conclude this section with a possibly puzzling postscript on the meaning of the word “literal.” What is the literal meaning of a parable? Its literal meaning is its parabolic meaning. What is the literal meaning of a poem? Its literal meaning is its poetic meaning. What is the literal meaning of a symbolic or metaphorical narrative? Its literal meaning is its symbolic or metaphorical meaning. But in modern Western culture over the last few centuries, “literal” has most often been confused with “factual,” and factuality has been elevated over the metaphorical. Hence when people say they take stories in the Bible and the gospels “literally,” they most often mean “factually.” Thus the difference is not ultimately a literal versus a metaphorical reading, but a factual versus a metaphorical reading. And to read a story factually rather than metaphorically often involves a misjudgment about the literary genre of a story. When the metaphorical is understood factually, the result is a story hard to believe. But when a metaphorical narrative is understood metaphorically, it may indeed be powerfully and challengingly true.”

“One scenario begins by imagining that Jesus heals somebody in a village. What is the likely response, beyond amazement and gratitude? He (and those with him) would be invited to a meal. It is the classic ancient way of expressing gratitude and hospitality.”

“When I was a young college teacher in my mid-twenties, an older colleague delighted in characterizing post-Enlightenment theology as “flat-tire theology”—“All the pneuma has gone out of it.”

“In function, Jesus’s aphorisms are very much like his parables—provocative and invitational forms of speech. They provoke thought, lead people to reconsider their taken-for-granted assumptions, and invite them to see life differently.”

“When somebody says to me, “I don’t believe in God,” my first response is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Almost always, it’s the God of supernatural theism.”

Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary

“Even more striking and revealing is how he interweaves “sons of God” twice in Romans 8:14, 19 with “children of God” twice in Romans 8:16, 21—and again in Romans 9:8. It is, for Paul, all about family values—but divine family values, and that is what makes him very, very radical.”

“Humanity’s universal sin is far, far worse than those traditional vice lists cited for Greeks and Jews by Paul in Romans 1–3. It is this: we have accepted violence as civilization’s drug of choice, and our addiction now threatens creation itself.”

“Finally, then, I conclude with an iconic image of that foundational reconciliation from the later fourth century. It is a bronze hanging lamp from the villa of the aristocratic Valerii on the Celian Hill in Rome, now preserved in the National Archaeological Museum in Florence. The lamp is shaped like a boat. Peter is seated in the stern at the tiller. Paul is standing in the prow looking forward. Peter steers. Paul guides. And the boat sails full before the wind.”

“But “redemption” in the Bible and in Paul is not about the forgiveness of sins. Rather, it is a metaphor of liberation from bondage—from life in Egypt, from a life of slavery. “The redemption that is in Christ Jesus” would be better translated “the liberation that is in Christ Jesus.” We are liberated through him.”

“Rather, the language of divine agency here emphasizes the theme of God’s grace: God provided the sacrifice.”

“When one of the Jewish Sibylline Oracles imagines what God’s perfect world will look like on its arrival, it claims: “The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls or fences…. Lives will be in common and wealth will have no division. For there will be no poor man there, no rich, and no tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings, no leaders. All will be on a par together” (2:313–38). So we moderns should not think we invented everything.”

Marcus J. Borg, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

“Faithfulness leads us to pay attention to our relationship to God—through such attention, we become even more deeply centered in God. Trust is the fruit of that deeper centering. It grows as we center more and more in God.”

“These questions can be used by individual readers and also in reading groups in which participants are invited to share their memories and thoughts. Many of them invite reflection on previous or current understandings and are best used before treating the content of the relevant chapter. Some invite reflection about material in a particular chapter.”

“As an epiphany of God, Jesus discloses that at the center of everything is a reality that is in love with us and wills our well-being, both as individuals and as individuals within society. As an image of God, Jesus challenges the most widespread image of reality in both the ancient and modern world, countering conventional wisdom’s understanding of God as one with demands that must be met by the anxious self in search of its own security. In its place is an image of God as the compassionate one who invites people into a relationship which is the source of transformation of human life in both its individual and social aspects.”

“Images of Jesus give content to what loyalty to him means. The popular picture of Jesus as one whose purpose was to proclaim truths about himself most often construes loyalty to him as insistence on the truth of those claims. Loyalty becomes belief in the historical truthfulness of all the statements in the gospels. Discipleship is then easily confused with dogmatism or doctrinal orthodoxy.

The absence of an image – the most common fruit of biblical scholarship in this century – leaves us with no clear notion of what it means to take Jesus seriously, no notion of what loyalty might entail, no direction for the life of discipleship. But the vision of Jesus as a person of Spirit, deeply involved in the historical crisis of his own time, can shape the church’s discipleship today. For us, as for the world in which he lived, he can be the light in our darkness.”

Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship

“God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth.”
Marcus J. Borg, The First Christmas

Responding to a Critic: Misunderstanding or Misrepresentation?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

To write about religion is to court controversy, conflict, and criticism. It confirms the counsel of conventional etiquette that it is best in polite conversation to avoid two subjects: religion and politics.

So I know that conflict and criticism are part of writing blogs for Patheos. Indeed, that’s what makes it worthwhile doing. If my blogs got no responses, generated no conversation, why would I want to spend time writing them? Life is too short.

But it is not as clear what I should do when perhaps the most frequent responder to my blogs at least seriously misunderstands and certainly misrepresents things I have said.

Graciousness might suggest that I simply let him have his say and not respond. Rhetorical wisdom might suggest that I not give more air time to his comments by responding to them. But either or both of those might also be condescending.

Moreover, not responding might convey the impression for other readers that he is accurately reporting things I have said. And so I have decided to respond, even as doing so risks descending into a tedious dispute of “He said I said” but “That’s not what I said.”

In one of his most recent responses to my previous blog, he wrote:

Here, on this blog, you have Mr. Borg saying that not only is Jesus not God and the Resurrection not a physical historical (and ongoing) reality…that, also, to hold to that is to be “uncritical” and “pre-critical”. So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option. One would hope, for the sake of peace, that there should at least be the position that they are valid options for a faithful Christian.

More than one thing to say. First, my position on Jesus and God and on the resurrection is more nuanced than he suggests, and he should know that from previous blogs of mine that he has read. I have said very clearly that the post-Easter Jesus is one with God, and thus part of the Trinity; and that the pre-Easter Jesus is the decisive revelation of God – the Word become flesh, embodied in a human life. But to think of the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, as if he were God (what does it mean to say that?) diminishes his grandeur as a human being. Second, I have said that though I do not think the resurrection of Jesus was physical and bodily, I strongly affirm that Jesus continued to be experienced by many of his followers after his death and that such experiences continue to this day. The risen Jesus, the post-Easter Jesus, is an ongoing reality.

Third – and perhaps the most important misunderstanding or misrepresentation of my position and where it leads – he says: So, in effect…in a Progressive administration of Christianity, those historic core faith positions are held just point blank to be not an option.

I have never said that believing that Jesus was/is God is and that believing in a physical-bodily resurrection are not Christian options. Indeed, about such issues as the stories of the virgin birth, the spectacular miracles, the empty tomb, appearances of the risen Jesus in bodily form, I have said again and again, in blogs and books, I have said again and again, “Believe whatever you want about whether the stories happened this way – now let’s talk about what they mean.” That’s what matters most – what do these stories mean?

His response continued with a suggestion that I agree with:

Let Mr. Borg explain why, at the very least, he would not allow the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection as bodily (and spiritually) to go forward in the Reformation’s tradition of allowing “adiaphora”…that is, those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.

I would be happy to view these issues as “adiaphora” in the sense in which he uses the word: “those things which should not be counted as weighty enough to fight over.” But in my experience, it is not progressive Christians who refuse to see them as adiaphora. It is, to use shorthand, the majority of conservative Christians, at least half of American Christians. For them, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus even as a human being, and the physical-bodily resurrection are not adiaphora. They are non-negotiable. And often accompanied by non-negotiable teachings about an inerrant Bible, Genesis versus modern science, a future literal second coming of Jesus, “traditional” marriage, and so forth. Progressive Christians generally do not define being Christian as believing a correct list of teachings.

My critic’s response concluded with advocacy of a Christian middle:

Many more things could be said about what a “middle” is about. But, here, I can think of no other central icon of the matter than the chief Christian historic faith positions of Jesus as God and the Resurrection. There ought to be a way for a dude with a PhD to not call people of basic faith in the pew stupid.

Now it sounds as if “Jesus as God” and “the Resurrection” (presumably meaning physical and bodily) are not adiaphora but essential. And even more importantly, I have never called folks who affirm both “stupid.” I have written about “pre-critical” or “uncritical” ways of seeing the Bible. But that is not the same as being “stupid.” My own parents I am quite sure lived in a state of a pre-critical understanding of the Bible all of their lives – by which I mean a taken-for-granted acceptance that whatever the Bible says is true. But they were not stupid people. They simply had not been exposed to constructive critical thinking about the Bible, Christianity, and religion. And they were good Christian people.

Critical thinking about the Bible is not a prerequisite for being Christian, even though I think it is helpful and important for understanding the Bible and what it means to be Christian. Especially in our time, when many Christian understandings that were commonly taken for granted a half century and more ago have become unpersuasive to a growing percentage of the Western world.

And not just among the “nones” but also among many who remain within churches. To these people, I seek to be an evangelist: there is a way of being Christian other than the form that you have rejected as less than compelling, perhaps even as reprehensible and repulsive. And I seek to be an evangelist to those in the Christian middle – people who are still in churches but who are troubled by some and perhaps many of conventional Christian beliefs that were taken for granted not so long ago.

I conclude on an irenic note. My most frequent critic and I may yearn for the same thing: for the day when the theological and cultural wars of our time are over with, when pastors can be pastors again without being involved in conflict and taking theological sides, when the church can be the church again, united in a common understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Indeed, I hope that what I have emphasized in much of my writing – today’s conflict between two very different visions of what it means to be Christian – will soon be irrelevant. But that time is not yet.

A few years ago, I spoke at an event sponsored by a group called “The Foundation for Contemporary Theology.” They placed an ad in the local newspaper that contained an error, probably a typo. Instead of the word “contemporary,” the ad printed “temporary.” And so the ad read, “The Foundation for Temporary Theology.” I thought the mistake was perfect. All theology, if it is related to cultural context – which means time and place – is temporary. Yet it has a foundation.

Ending the conflict between progressive and conservative Christianity – again to use inadequate but generally understood shorthand – would require some agreement about what is adiaphora and what is foundational, what is essential. I do not imagine that can happen through any “official” gathering or resolution. If a consensus about what is foundational and what is adiaphora ever happens, it will happen over time, perhaps and probably a century or more.

But in the meantime: is it possible to talk about different understandings of Christianity without misrepresenting what we disagree with?


Postscript to A Letter About Jesus

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:
This is my third installment about a letter about Jesus and the issue, “Was Jesus God?” If you have not read the first two installments, this may not make much sense to you.

To emphasize: as a Christian, I affirm that Jesus is “the Word of God” and “the Word become flesh,” that is, the Word incarnate, the Word embodied in a human life. In Jesus, we see what can be seen of God in a human life. This affirmation goes back to the first Christian century and is orthodox Christianity.

For those who want to say more than “Jesus is the Word embodied in a human being,” namely that “Jesus was God,” a challenge. What do you mean? Do you mean that Jesus as a historical person had the mind and power of God – that he was omniscient as God is commonly thought to be?   And that he had divine powers – that like God he was omnipotent and could do anything? And if you don’t mean that, what do you mean?

If what you mean is that Jesus as the Word of God embodied in a human life is the decisive revelation of what can be seen of God in a human life (namely, God’s character and what God is passionate about), then our disagreement may be about words rather than substance. But if you mean more than that, what do you mean?

Finally, I recognize that for some Christians, Jesus has become one of the names of God. People praise and pray to Jesus. I have no problem with that – unless that is projected back on the historical Jesus so that he becomes a super-human and thus not one of us.   The Word become flesh – the incarnation – means that he was one of us.


Further Thoughts on a Letter about Jesus

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

My previous blog – “A Letter about Jesus” – drew a much larger response than I expected. In this blog, I continue that conversation with a clarification and some additional comments.

Clarification – even as I think this was pretty clear in my previous blog. One of my major claims was that the New Testament does not simply identify and equate Jesus and God. It never says, “Jesus is God” or “God is Jesus.”

Of course, it does affirm, in phrases from John’s gospel, that Jesus is “the Word of God” and “one with God.” But that does not mean that Jesus was God. Rather, in John’s language, he was “the Word become flesh.” He revealed what can be seen of God in a human life – and that means within the limitations of human life.

To affirm that Jesus is the Word become flesh, the Word incarnate, means what another New Testament verse does: he is “the image (ikon) of the invisible God” (Col. 1.15). He shows us what God is like – reveals God’s character and passion.

But none of this means that the New Testament teaches that Jesus was God – as if all of God was in Jesus during his historical life. To use the language of the Trinity, God the father did not cease to be while Jesus was alive. Jesus was “God’s son,” not God the father. Was the son like the father? Yes. Was the son the father during the life of Jesus? No. Are they in an important and complex sense one? Yes. But to equate God and Jesus during his historical lifetime is bad history and bad theology. It is the product of pre-critical conventional and uncritical dogmatic Christian thinking. Sounds harsh. But think about it.

An additional comment. The conflict among Christians about whether or not Jesus was God is grounded in two different understandings of the gospels – and the New Testament and the Bible as a whole.

One view – generally embraced by “conservative” Christians – sees the Bible and the gospels as “divine information.” That is shorthand for the view that the Bible and the gospels are the direct revelation of God and thus have a divine guarantee to be true. For them, divine inspiration means divine inerrancy.

A second view sees the gospels as the product of a historical process, written in a particular time and setting. Time: the earliest was probably written around 70, the last perhaps as late as the early second century. Setting: they are the product of early Christian communities, written from within and to those communities. As such, they combine early Christian memory of Jesus and testimony about Jesus. Their memories of what he was like – of what he taught and did. And their testimony to what he had become in their experience and lives – his significance for them.

To illustrate the difference generated by these two ways of seeing the gospels, reflect upon the series of “I am” statements attributed to Jesus in John (and only John). In them, Jesus refers to himself as “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Door,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the Resurrection and the Life,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “the Vine.” For the first view, this is “divine information” – the direct revelation of God about who Jesus is. And because John says Jesus said this about himself, that means that he did.

The second way of seeing the gospels understands this language as early Christian testimony to Jesus and not as memory of what Jesus said about himself. A major reason for this verdict is that the first three gospels (the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not report that Jesus said anything like this about himself. Within this way of seeing the gospels, the “I am” statements in John are best understood if we turn them into third-person statements about Jesus: Jesus is “the Light of the World,” “the Bread of Life,” “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and so forth. This is the testimony of the Christian community within which and for which John was written.

As a concluding illustration of the difference made by the interconnected issues of whether we think Jesus was God and how we see the gospels, I suggest the miracles stories of Jesus and the sea. They share in common that the disciples are in mortal peril in a boat on a stormy sea. Jesus rescues them by stilling the tempest. He comes to them walking on the sea.

Those who think of Jesus as God and the gospels as divine information hear these stories literally and evidentially. Anybody who can still a storm at sea and walk on the water must have divine power, indeed be divine, for no mere human could do that. This hearing of the stories sees them as reports of spectacular events that happened in the distant past, long ago and far away. They matter because of what they demonstrate, prove: that Jesus had divine powers, was more than human.

Just as the first way of hearing these stories combines a way of seeing Jesus with a way of seeing the gospels, so does the second. It takes seriously that as a human being, as an incarnate being, Jesus did not have supernatural powers during his historical lifetime. Was he “filled with the Spirit”? Yes. Was he a healer? Yes. But could he change water into wine? Multiply food so that he could feed a multitude of 5000 (or more) with a few loaves and fishes? For this way of seeing Jesus, he was a vulnerable human being living within the conditions of finitude, incarnation. He was born and could be (and was) killed. He was not God, but the revelation of what can be seen of God in a human life.

Within this framework, the miracles on the sea are not historical data proving that Jesus was God. They are about what trust in Jesus and God produce. Jesus stills the storms that threaten us. He makes it possible to walk on the water, the void, the abyss, without sinking.

Within the gospels, this metaphorical – more-than-literal – meaning is clearly intended. As Matthew takes over the story from Mark of Jesus walking on the water, he adds an episode: Peter also walks on the water. Successfully. But then he becomes afraid and begins to sink (Matt. 14.22-33). The story identifies Peter’s fear with “little faith.” With faith, we can walk on water. Literally? No. The story is about the importance of trusting in Jesus. It is about faith as trust, the opposite of fear. It is about the significance of Jesus, not about something he once did.

A final reflection question: what is added to the story of Jesus by thinking that he was God – and therefore could do spectacular deeds that no one else could or can? Does his story gain meaning? Or is something lost? Was Jesus extraordinary because he was God? Or was he extraordinary because he was an utterly remarkable human being, one of us?


From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

A very few days ago, I received by e-mail a letter about Jesus from a person who is reading one of my books. His thoughts and questions struck me as being of interest to many people. I quote the letter at length and then share my response.

The Letter

Your book has persuaded me that much of the language of the Bible and theology is metaphorical and should not be taken literally. Granted that, at what point do you think one reaches a gray area as to whether Jesus was even divine?

I believe I’m getting a better sense of your views as I read, but please correct me if I’m misinterpreting. You essentially say that many of the gospel stories should be taken metaphorically. This, you argue, doesn’t imply that they can’t have a rich meaning or even be divinely inspired (?) In fact, we may derive more meaning from it by taking a metaphorical/historical approach.

But it does mean that Jesus didn’t really do x, y, or z. Clearly you must believe Jesus was divine. Otherwise why would you be a “Christian”? I think you said something along the lines of Jesus being the perfect embodiment of what God is like in human form. That’s different from saying that he WAS God, or God incarnate.

So, do you believe he was God? And if so, what has convinced you? I mean if the miracle stories are metaphorical (you say he must have been a great healer, but I think you believe there have been other great healers/mystics), what are we left with as evidence that he was more than a man?

He clearly was a revolutionary and a wisdom teacher, but that doesn’t make him more than a man. You are not convinced that he rose in bodily form, which is fine. But is it not just a small step to go from saying that he was “experienced” in some way after his death to saying he didn’t appear at all?

Are we placing the idea of his divinity solely on these “experiences”

of him, if we aren’t taking the miracle stories or the bodily resurrection literally? As a side note, what if it’s possible for other people’s spirits to appear after death – ordinary people who pass onto a spirit world and aren’t divine but perhaps in very rare occasions can be seen again? Doesn’t it leave open the possibility that Jesus was just one of these and not God incarnate?

What has convinced you that he is worthy of being worshiped? Is it the stories of the unshakable belief and devotion by the apostles after his death? And are many of these even credible? (I haven’t read enough to know.) Sorry for the length of my epistle.

My Response

To say the obvious, the core of your letter concerns the divinity of Jesus. About that there’s more than one thing to say.

1. Was Jesus God? No. Not even the New Testament says that. It speaks of him as the Word of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth, but never simply identifies him with or equates him with God. As John’s gospel puts it, he is the Word become flesh – that is, he reveals what can be seen of God in a finite human life. To say, “I believe Jesus was God” (as some Christians do, or think they are supposed to) goes beyond what the New Testament affirms and is thus more than biblical. He is the Word incarnate – not the disembodied Word

2. Did some of his followers experience Jesus as a divine reality after his death, and have some Christians had such experiences in the centuries since, including into the present? Yes. These experiences led to the conviction that Jesus was “one with God,” “at the right hand of God,” and ultimately to the doctrine of the Trinity: that God is one (monotheism) and yet known/experienced in three primary ways (as God, the Son, and the Spirit). This is the context in which it makes sense to praise and pray to Jesus. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus during his historical life, was “God.”

3. Jesus of Nazareth was completely human. He did not have a divine component that made him different in kind from the rest of us. That’s what it means to say he was “true man,” “fully human.” He didn’t have a divine supercharger.

4. Does that make him ordinary? No. I think he is one of the two most remarkable human beings who ever lived. I don’t really care who the other one was – my point is that what we see in Jesus is a human possibility. That’s what makes him so remarkable. If he was also divine, then he’s not all that remarkable. If he had the knowledge and power of God, he could have done so much more.

5. Christian language about the exalted status of Jesus – as the Word of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth, is testimony, witness: this is who Jesus became and who he is in Christian experience, life, and thought. This is who he is for those of us who are Christians.

Best wishes,
Marcus Borg


Does the Bible Matter? Progressive Christians and Scripture

Progressive Christians are often better known for what we don’t believe than for what we do affirm. I say “we” because I am one of them.

There is an obvious reason: we disagree with much of the most publicly visible form of contemporary Christianity. Commonly called “conservative” Christianity, its political form is “the Christian right.” Thus we tend to define ourselves with a series of negations that differentiate “us” from “them.” We don’t believe what they do.  We’re not like them.

At the heart of the disagreement is the Bible. For conservative Christians, two claims about the Bible are foundational. First, it is inerrant and/or infallible. Though some argue that inerrancy and infallibility are not identical, the differences are at most subtle. Functionally, they have the same effect: if the Bible says something, it’s true. That settles it.

Second, the Bible is to be interpreted literally. The most obvious example: about half of American Protestants believe that creation happened less than 10,000 years ago.

Given the overwhelming evidence that the earth and life and the universe are much older than that – from geology, astronomy, physics, paleontology, biology, archeology, anthropology, and more – why do they think that? Because they belong to churches that teach biblical literalism, mostly independent Protestant churches (that is, those that are not part of “mainline” denominations – though a “soft” form of literalism is somewhat common among “mainline” Christians as well).

Together, affirming biblical inerrancy and biblical literalism are a litmus test for most conservative Christians, distinguishing “true believers” from those who are not. In many conservative Christian colleges and seminaries, faculty are required to sign a statement affirming both.

For this view, the Bible is divine truth. If it says something is wrong, it’s wrong. If it says something happened, it happened. Its truth is grounded in its claimed origin: it is a divine product, nothing less than God’s revelation. And God would not mislead or deceive us.

Progressive Christians reject biblical inerrancy. A major reason is the Bible itself. In both the Old and New Testaments, God sometimes wills and even commands the killing of men, women and children. Was indiscriminate slaughter ever the will of God?  Passages in both Testaments condone and regulate slavery. Was slavery ever consistent with the will of God? And was patriarchy and the subordination of women ever the will of God? The progressive Christian view of the Bible affirms: sometimes the Bible is wrong.

Often this is implicit rather than explicit. It would be salutary if it became boldly explicit. If more Christians – and ideally all – were candidly to acknowledge that sometimes the Bible is wrong, it would change the discussion of biblical authority.

So also there are compelling reasons for rejecting biblical literalism. There is, of course, the conflict with generally accepted modern knowledge. Beyond that, why should we imagine that God speaks only in literal-factual language? Is God a literalist? Why cannot God speak in the language of poetry, metaphor, and myth?

To use specific examples, why should we interpret the Genesis stories of origins literally when they are far more powerful and truthful as metaphorical narratives? Or what would it mean to take a phrase like “the right hand of God” literally? Does God have hands? And a right side and a left side? Literal interpretation of the Bible as a whole is literally impossible.

But it is often less clear what progressive Christians do affirm about the Bible. There is, so far as I know, no “official” statement. So I share my affirmations.

I begin with a favorite hymn about the Bible that goes back to my Lutheran childhood. Written by a progressive Danish Lutheran pastor in 1817 and sung to the tune of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the first line affirms: God’s Word is our great heritage, and shall be ours forever. Then:

To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure.
Throughout all generations.

To all of that, in my senior adulthood, I say Amen.

The Bible is “God’s Word.”  As such, it is Christian sacred scripture.  So our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity declared this collection of books to be. But this does not mean that it is “the words of God.” The equation of “the Word of God” with “the words of God” is not only linguistic legerdemain but a serious theological error. It is also recent, primarily the product of a particular stream of Protestantism.

The Bible is our “great heritage.” It is for Christians our inheritance, passed down to us from our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. In it, we hear their voices: their stories and wisdom, their praise and prayer, their grief and lamentation, their convictions and hopes. It also contains their limited understandings, their acceptance of cultural conventions, their desire for triumph over enemies and revenge against oppressors. That is why it is sometimes wrong.

The Bible is “treasure in earthen vessels.” The phrase is from II Cor. 4.7, written by Paul in the 50s. In context, the treasure is “the gospel” (the message about Jesus) and the earthen vessels are the messengers of the gospel, including Paul. Imperfect, fragile, and finite, they and their words are “clay jars,” not the treasure itself. So it is with the Bible: the treasure is “God’s Word,” God’s revelation, in the earthen vessels of our spiritual ancestors.

The Bible is foundational to Christian understanding and identity. To be Christian means to be shaped by in a continuing conversation with this collection of texts. If that conversation ceases, then we cease to be Christian.

The Bible is about the dream of God. Its overarching narrative is about God’s dream, God’s passion, for transformation – of ourselves and of the world.  Its primary stories are about liberation from the powers that rule this world, return from exile under those powers, restoration of sight to the blind (including those who have eyes but do not see), life to the dead (including those who are living and yet dead), and a new way of life marked by compassion, justice and peace. It is also about the nightmare of God – the way the world most commonly is.

The Bible’s norm is Jesus.Christians refer to both the Bible and Jesus as “the Word of God.” The Bible is God’s Word in a book – God’s revealing, disclosure, epiphany in the words of our spiritual ancestors, earthen vessels and clay jars. Jesus is God’s Word in a person, the Word become flesh, incarnate, embodied in a human life. When the Word in the book and the Word in Jesus conflict with each other, as they sometimes do, the Word incarnate trumps the Word in words.

That “Jesus trumps the Bible” is not a modern notion. It has been so from the beginning of Christianity. To elevate the Bible as “the Word of God” so that it is equal to and perhaps even superior to “the Word of God” in Jesus is to betray one of the foundations – perhaps the foundation – of Christianity: what we see in Jesus is the decisive (and thus normative) revelation of God.

His passion – and thus for his followers should be ours – was the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. That was the heart of his message, God’s dream. It was embodied, incarnated, in his life, death, and resurrection. What we see in Jesus is God’s passion for the transformation of ourselves and the world

So, does the Bible matter? Absolutely. Without it, the foundation of Christianity crumbles. Do most progressive Christians affirm that? Perhaps not. Many have fled from an understanding of the Bible that was often incredible and sometimes oppressive and hurtful.

But to neglect the Bible because of the negative associations generated by the common Christianity of the recent past and present would be to abandon our heritage and to deprive ourselves of its riches and power as one of the world’s great wisdom traditions.

Properly understood, the Bible is a potent ally in the progressive Christian passion for transformation, of ourselves and the world. It is our great heritage. Along with Jesus, to whom it is subordinate, it is our great treasure. To allow conservative Christians to have a monopoly on the Bible and Jesus is to lose the struggle for the heart and soul of Christianity.  We need to reclaim our tradition.


Easter Again

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I sympathize with clergy who preach about Easter to the same congregation for several years. Of course, you say what you think is most important the first time.

So what do you say the second time and the third time and more? Do you avoid saying what you said the first time so that you don’t repeat yourself? But wouldn’t that mean leaving out what you think is most important because you’ve already said it? Or do you proclaim it again, even if in somewhat different words?

I am in a similar situation as I write this blog. I have blogged on Easter more than once on Patheos.

My understanding of Easter has not changed in any significant way since those blogs. So there will be some repetition.

I am sometimes accused of not believing in Easter because it does not matter to me whether Jesus’s tomb was actually empty and whether something utterly miraculous happened to his corpse –what is commonly called a “physical bodily resurrection.”

For many people, that is what Easter is about and the meaning of the question, “Did it really happen?” Some believe it did, some don’t, and some are in a conundrum, uncertain whether things like that ever happen, even within a Christian framework.

If you are uncertain about or doubt the physical-bodily resurrection of Jesus, can you be a Christian, a “real” Christian? Can you whole-heartedly embrace Easter?

For me, the answer is “yes.” Explaining why will take the rest of this blog, and even that will be insufficient.

For me, the truth of Easter is grounded in the religious experience of Jesus’s followers and in a particularly important instance an enemy, namely Paul. I regard it as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past. That is the unanimous testimony of early Christianity as we know it from the New Testament.

It begins with the earliest documents, the genuine letters of Paul, written in the 50s. Paul’s testimony is especially striking because he had been a strident opponent of the Jesus movement in the first few years after Jesus’s execution. In his first letter to his Christ-community in Corinth, written about 20 years before the first gospel, Paul tells us that Jesus “appeared” to him and radically changed his life (15.3-8).

In the same passage, he provides a list of others to whom Jesus “appeared” after his death: Cephas (Peter), the twelve, 500 at one time, James, and all the apostles. Paul’s repeated us of the verb “appeared” for their experience and his suggests a vision. That had been his experience, as the later book of Acts narrates three times (9, 22, and 26).

So did Paul believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead? Absolutely. He had experienced Jesus after his death. Did he say, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain?” (I Cor. 15.14). Yes.

But did he think of the resurrection of Jesus as physical? That is much less clear. His experience of Jesus after his death was not only a few years after what Acts narrates as the Ascension” of Jesus but also a “vision.” And near the end of I Corinthians 15, he explicitly says that the resurrection “body” is not a “physical” body but a “spiritual” body, a “glorified” body. What that means is not transparently clear, but, as Paul says, it is not a flesh and blood body.

Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he was passionate about. What Jesus was passionate about was God and the kingdom of God.

God was the central reality of his life and the kingdom of God was the center of his message. The kingdom of God was not about heaven, not about life after death, but about the transformation of life on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer affirms. It is not about “Take us to heaven when we die,” but about “Your kingdom come on earth” – as already in heaven. The kingdom of God on earth was about God’s passion – and Jesus’s passion – for the transformation of “this world”: the humanly created world of injustice and violence into a world of justice and nonviolence.

That’s why the powers that ruled the world of Jesus killed him. They were not unknowingly doing the will of God by playing their part in God’s plan of salvation to provide a sinless sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. No. They killed him because he was a radical critic of the way they had put the world together and he was attracting a following. So they snuffed him out.

In this context, Easter is about God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to the powers that killed him. That, I suggest, is the primary meaning not only of Pau’s testimony and affirmation, but also of the Easter stories in the gospels.

The earliest of these is the story of the empty tomb in Mark, written around 70. Reflect about what the story says, and set aside for a moment whether it’s meant to be read/heard literally and physically.

Its meanings are clear. You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. Don’t look for him in a tomb. He is not there – “why do you seek the living among the dead?” Imperial execution and a rich man’s tomb couldn’t stop him, hold him. It’s not over. He’s still here, still loose in the world, a figure of the present, continuing to recruit for the kingdom of God.

That is the central meaning of Easter. God has said “yes” to Jesus and what he was about.

What would Christianity be like if Christians took Jesus, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter seriously? What if Good Friday isn’t about Jesus dying to pay for our sins? What then is our Holy Week about?


“Holy Monday”: Public Protest in the Temple

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

On Monday in Holy Week, Jesus performed the second of two provocative public protests in Jerusalem. The first, as described in my previous blog, occurred on what has come to be called “Palm Sunday.”

Two processions entered Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover that year. One happened every year while Judea was ruled by Roman governors, the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate. Imperial cavalry and troops, displaying the pomp and power of empire, entered the city to reinforce the garrison permanently stationed there. Passover – which remembered and celebrated ancient Israel’s liberation from imperial Egypt – was a politically volatile time.

The other procession happened only once: Jesus entered the city riding on a young donkey that symbolized a king of peace who would bring an end to war. The contrast to imperial power and violence was intentional and obvious.

On Monday, Jesus performed another provocative public act, this time in the courtyard of the temple. As Mark (and Matthew and Luke) tells the story, he overturned the tables of some money-changers. Though often called “the purification of the temple,” the gospels do not call it that. Moreover, the name is misleading – as if the issue were that the temple had become impure because it mixed “business” with worship.

Rather, his act was an indictment, a public protest, against what the temple had become. In words that echo Jeremiah 7.11, it had become “a den of robbers,” a robber’s cave, a center of injustice and complacent affirmation of God, as the fuller context of Jeremiah 7.1-11 makes clear.

So it was in the time of Jesus: the Roman governor ruled Judea through the temple authorities whom he appointed. So long as they collaborated with Roman authority, they remained in office.

That is what had turned the temple into “a den of robbers.” Because of the collaboration of temple authorities with Roman rule, it had become the center of an economically exploitative domination system and thus a center of injustice, as in the time of Jeremiah six centuries earlier. That was not what it was meant to be.

The authorities understood that Jesus’s protest and indictment were directed against them. It was too much. As Mark tells the story, it was the last straw. They decide that Jesus must be killed: “When the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” Before the end of the week, they and the Roman governor find a way to do so.

Why did Good Friday happen? Because it was the will of God? Or because Jesus in the name of God publicly denounced and defied the domination system of his day? The historical answer is clear.


Holy Week: Palm Sunday

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I wish that all Christians knew the story of Holy Week. Indeed, I wish everybody, Christian or not, did. But Christians especially. It is the story that should shape our understanding of Jesus and thus our understanding of what it means to be Christian – of what it means to follow him, to follow “the way” that he revealed and embodied.

What most Christians know about Holy Week centers on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus’s death and resurrection. The former is commonly understood as payment for our sins. The latter is most often understood as the proclamation of life beyond death – that God not only raised Jesus from the dead, but will someday also raise us, or at least those who believe.

But there is so much more to the story of Holy Week. Not only is there more, but the more challenges and indeed negates the common understanding of Good Friday and Easter.

In this blog, I focus on what Christians call “Palm Sunday.” The story is familiar: as the week of Passover begins, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and people cheer him, shouting “Hosanna – blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Less well-known is the historical fact that a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem for Passover from the other side of the city. It happened every year: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be present in the city in case there were riots at Passover, the most politically volatile of the annual Jewish festivals. With him came soldiers and cavalry to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.

It is clear what Pilate’s procession was about. By proclaiming the pomp and power of empire, its purpose was to intimidate. But what about Jesus’s procession, his entry into the city?

As Mark, the first gospel to be written, tells the story, Jesus planned it in advance. It was not a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better.

And – this is the crucial connection – riding a donkey into Jerusalem echoes a passage from the prophet Zechariah.

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9.9).

That king, the passage continues, will be a king of peace:

“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9.10).

Thus for Passover that year, two very different processions entered Jerusalem. They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world
The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation.

On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.

Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. In words from St. Paul, the rulers of this world crucified the Lord of glory. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.


Lent and the Cross

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

A few blogs ago, I wrote about a persistent theme of my thinking in my middle and late adult life: memories, conversions, and convictions. Memories of what I absorbed as I grew up Christian more than half a century ago; major changes in my understanding since then; and the convictions that have emerged from those changes.

And as I wrote many blogs ago, those changes include a different understanding of Lent with its climax in Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. If this blog repeats some things you’ve read before, I apologize. But this season brings up thoughts that seem to me to be of annual- and thus perennial – importance.

If you had asked me at the end of childhood, at age 12 or so, what this season was about, I am quite sure I would have said: Lent is about becoming intensely aware of our sinfulness and need for forgiveness, and Holy Week is about Jesus dying to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven.

In shorthand, the above is the payment understanding of Jesus’s death. Also known as the substitutionary or satisfaction understanding of the cross, it means that Jesus died in our place in order to satisfy the debt that we all owe to God.

I have become convinced that the payment understanding of the cross is a serious distortion of its meaning. Of course, having a conviction is no guarantee of truth. Convictions can be wrong. The deficiencies of the payment understanding are both theological and historical. At stake is not primarily having “right beliefs.” At stake is what Christianity is about.

Theologically, the payment understanding intrinsically implies that the death of Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation – that it had to happen, indeed was foreordained and even predicted. The debt for our disobedience to God had to be satisfied, and Jesus as God’s sinless son paid the price that we all deserve to pay.

Thus the payment understanding sees the death of Jesus as ultimately God’s will. But one must ask: really? Was it God’s will that this remarkably good person, centered in God to an extraordinary degree, be killed? If so, what does that say about what God is like?

The payment understanding is also historically flawed. A major problem is that it was first fully articulated less than a thousand years ago by Anselm in 1098. In the first thousand years of Christianity, including the New Testament, the payment understanding is at most a minor metaphor, and in the judgment of some scholars, not there at all. I am inclined to agree with them.

Another historical problem: in the first three gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke, together known as the synoptic gospels), Jesus three times warns his followers of what will happen in Jerusalem: the authorities – the temple and imperial figures at the top of the domination system in the Jewish homeland – will kill him.

The texts do not say that he is going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. No. Rather, he will be killed there. He will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8.31). He will “be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (Mark 9.31). In the most detailed warning, he “will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10.3-34).

None of these is about Jesus dying to pay for our sins. All are about Jesus being killed by the powers that ruled his world. I add that a majority of mainstream New Testament scholars do not think that these warnings go back to Jesus himself, but are the post-Easter testimony of the early Christian movement. For me, that makes them even more impressive as testimonies to his death. Forty years after his crucifixion, Mark, the earliest gospel, still speaks of the cross as an execution by the powers that ruled that world, not as a payment required by God.

Though Jesus’s death was more than a martyrdom, it was not less. The Greek root of “martyr” means “witness.” A martyr, “witness,” is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.

Imagine: what if Lent and Holy Week are not about Jesus as a divinely-ordained payment for sin but about protest against a world that makes martyrs of the prophets? And imagine: what if Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and what he stood for and “no” to the powers that killed him?

Imagine that Christianity is not about an afterlife for those whose sins are forgiven. Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of “this world” into a world of justice and peace. Imagine that it’s about a passion to change “this world.” What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian – and to be an American Christian?


Ash Wednesday: Death and Repentance

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

Ash Wednesday (this year, March 5th) is the first day of the season of Lent. In liturgical churches, it begins with a vivid reminder of death. As the words “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return” are said, Christians are marked on their foreheads with ashes in the shape of the cross. The words echo language from the funeral liturgy, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

Death is one of the primary themes of Lent. Each of us will die. None of us gets out of here alive. A friend told me that he thinks Ash Wednesday is the most honest service of the church year. My wife has talked about the difference between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. During the former, we indulge, party, cavort and sometimes even wear masks. At the latter, we take our masks off as we are reminded of – indeed confronted with – the fact that we are dust.

A second primary theme of Lent is repentance, commonly understood to mean repenting of our sins. The reality of death and the need for repentance go hand-in-hand for many Christians, especially those who believe in a post-death judgment and separation into heaven or hell or purgatory. None of us knows when we will die. Could even happen later today. Or tomorrow. Or maybe not for many years. We don’t know. Thus it is wise, prudent and necessary to repent. Death and post-mortem judgment might be near.

The themes of death and repentance and their linkage are powerful forces in the collective Christian psyche. They have been for a long time. Imagine the many centuries in which our spiritual ancestors took it for granted that heaven and hell (and perhaps purgatory) were real. That at death we would go to heaven or be condemned to punishment, eternal or time-limited (purgatory). Imagine what death and the imperative to repent would have meant. They were ominous, threatening, fearful. It’s important to be right with God when we die – for we risk divine and maybe eternal punishment.

I grew up with that understanding, even as I did not grow up in a hellfire and brimstone church. The threat of hell was not emphasized. But it was clear to me that Christianity was about going to heaven – and thus avoiding the alternative of postmortem divine punishment.

Death and repentance as themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent now mean something very different to me. I no longer think that the heart of Christianity is about our eternal fate in heaven or hell (or purgatory). And I do not think that repentance is primarily about contrition for our sins and the resolve to be good, or at least better, so that our postmortem state might be better.

Yet I also affirm that the themes of death and repentance are central to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Christianity. But they are not about where we will spend eternity but about our lives here and now. And if some want to say, “Why is that an either-or? How about a both-and?” I am willing to say, “Fine – so long as we don’t ignore the here and now.”

Ash Wednesday, Lent. Holy Week and Christianity itself are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. They are about dying and rising with Christ. We are to follow him to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. That is what the journey of Lent is about.

That journey intrinsically involves repentance. But repentance is not primarily about feeling guilty about our sins, or about doing penance (think of the common practice of “giving up” something during Lent – whether meat or chocolate or alcohol or shopping, and so forth). The biblical meanings of repenting are primarily twofold. On the one hand, it means to “return” to God, to “reconnect” with God. On the other hand, it means “to go beyond the mind that we have” – minds shaped by our socialization and enculturation.

The result: dying to an old way of seeing and being and living and identity, and being born, raised, into a new way of seeing and being and living and identity. Ash Wednesday, as we are marked for death, is the annual ritual enactment of the beginning of that journey.


Amos Continued

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

This blog supplements my previous “Amos and American Christianity.” If you read that first, this blog will make more sense to you.

Amos’s radical criticism of the way the powerful and wealthy of his time and place had structured their social world in their own self-interest got him in trouble with the powers that ruled his world.

Amos 7.10-17 contains one of the Bible’s most vivid encounters between the ruling elites of the ancient world and “the Word of the Lord.” Only the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah and the kings of their time, and, especially, Jesus and the powers of his time are serious rivals.

The encounter begins with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, one of the two major temples in the northern kingdom, sending a message to King Jeroboam charging Amos with conspiracy against the king and the kingdom, including threatening the king with death.

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” (7.10-11).

Then Amaziah threatened Amos and ordered him to leave the Northern Kingdom:

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer [a term of contempt] go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (7.12-13).

Amos defiantly responded with a further indictment, perhaps against Amaziah but equally as likely against the king. Amaziah had sent a message to the king about Amos. What follows in 7.16-17 may be Amos’s message back to the king:

Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the LORD: “Your wife [the queen?] shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters [the princes and princesses?] shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself [the king?] shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”

A Jewish biblical scholar, Julius Morgenstern, suggested in his book on Amos published in 1941 that the authorities then killed him. We do not know that. There is no historical evidence for the martyrdom of Amos. But Morgenstern’s suggestion accurately reflects the danger that faced Amos. Imagine the courage that it took to be Amos. Imagine his passion for God and God’s passion for a different kind of world.

So far as we know, Amos is about “words.” We do not know whether he also did “deeds of compassion” – did he feed the poor, take care of lepers, minister to those with other diseases and infirmities? But I do imagine that Amos was not simply about anger but also about compassion.

Words are not unimportant. They can change the world. Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, he was a man of action. His campaigns of active non-violent resistance were instrumental in bringing about civil rights for African-Americans. If he had simply written books instead, we probably wouldn’t even know his name. But it was also his words that changed this country. Without his words, how much would have changed?

It is important not to reduce the passion of the prophets to being compassionate, important as that is. Mother Teresa is a classic example of devoting one’s life to compassionate care of those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.” She is much to be admired. But she was not a prophet. We need Mother Teresas. And we need prophets who criticize systems that intensify human suffering.


Amos and American Christianity

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I wish every Christian knew. On my list: I wish all Christians, especially American Christians, knew the book of Amos.

My reasons are both personal and more than personal. Amos was responsible for one of the three major conversions in my life. Two were intellectual and religious: a conversion to the study of religion and an experiential conversion to the conviction that God is real. The third was political: from the conservative political orientation I absorbed while I was growing up to what I have learned from the Bible and Jesus.

Amos was the trigger. In my junior year in college in a political philosophy course, we spent a week on Amos. The encounter stunned me. Speaking in the name of God, he passionately indicted the powerful and wealthy of his time because they had created an economic system that privileged them and inflicted misery and suffering on most of the population.

Prior to that class, I had no idea that there was anything like this in the Bible. Yet I had grown up with the Bible and had memorized more verses than anybody I knew. But nobody had ever asked me to read Amos or any of the prophets. I knew of them primarily through isolated verses that we understood to be prophecies of the coming of Jesus. The prophets were “predictors” of events centuries in the future from their point in time. It had not occurred to me that Amos and the prophets in general might have had a message for their own time and place.

The effect of Amos is best experienced by reading the whole book thoughtfully and slowly and with several awarenesses. He was speaking, not writing; his speeches (commonly called “oracles”) are short, seldom exceeding six verses or so; they have a poetic structure and use language designed to be memorable in an oral culture. A few more: he spoke in the time of the monarchy in ancient Israel; his oracles contain both indictments (the reasons for his condemnation of the wealthy and powerful in the name of God) and threats (what will happen to them as a result – not condemnation to an afterlife in hell, but loss of their privilege and exile.

Within the space limitation of a blog, I can only provide a few examples.

Amos paints a vivid picture of the leisurely life-style of the wealthy and powerful and their indifference to the impoverishment of the many: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph [the ruin of the many]!” (6.4-6).

“They sell the righteous [the innocent, those who have done no wrong] for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the … poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” (2.6-7).

“Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins [note what they are]— [ you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” (5.11-12).

Perhaps the best-known text from Amos indicts the worship of the wealthy and powerful. As often in the prophets, the “I” is God, for the prophet speaks in the name of God. “I hate, I despise your [religious] festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (5.21-24). Note what God does want: justice and righteousness. They are not two different things, but synonyms. The last verse is a classic example of Hebrew synonymous parallelism: the second half says the same thing as the first half.

Amos also challenged the nation’s notion that they were especially chosen by God and especially blessed by God. “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? …. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (9.7).

Amos is not a solitary voice in the Bible. It is the voice of the exodus story of liberation from bondage to Pharaoh, of the laws in the Old Testament about land and debt, of Jesus’s passion for the Kingdom of God on earth. And of Paul’s proclamation of the lordship of Jesus over against the lordship of Caesar: a new creation, a way of being and living in this world brought about through life in Christ that is radically different from the lordship of Caesar, the lordship of domination.

For Christians, Amos and all of these voices are part of our sacred scripture. If we, especially American Christians, were to take them seriously, how would that affect our understanding, our vision, of what it means to be Christian?

They challenge much that is central to American Christianity and American politics today, especially our ethos, our ideologies, of individualism and exceptionalism.

Politically and economically, individualism is based on the conviction that the degree of our material well-being is primarily the product of how much we have applied ourselves and how hard we have worked.

But is that really true? Or is the decisive influence the way the powerful and wealthy have put the world together in their own self-interest? Is the cause of human misery and suffering primarily individual irresponsibility – or is it systemic? Have the powers that be, in the ancient world and our world, organized the system to create, enhance, and preserve their privilege? Is the cause of poverty in America and the rest of the world primarily individual failure – or is it systemic?

Amos and other voices in the Bible also challenge the notion of American exceptionalism – that we have been and are not only blessed by God but also chosen and favored by God. Polls indicate that more than a majority of Americans affirm that. So do a majority of American Christians, including those who are fearful that we might lose that status because of our deviation from God’s ways (fill in the blank as to what our sins are). The notion of exceptionalism means more than one thing, including that we are the best country in the world and that we would never use our power for anything other than legitimate purposes.

But, to use words from Amos, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” We as a nation are not chosen, not exceptional. Like every nation, every society, our future depends upon our present and how we shape our life together here and now.


The Bible and Mysticism

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I am very much enjoying and valuing the conversation about my recent blog about the Bible and what it is and is not. I am especially interested in the comments about mystical experiences and how they (or the lack of them) affect understandings of the Bible.

Mysticism and mystical experiences can be defined in a very narrow or broader sense of the word. In the narrow sense, they are relatively few and might be dismissed, by religious and non-religious people alike, as aberrations and not very important. In the broad sense, to use a medieval Christian definition, mysticism is about “the experiential knowledge of God.”

As experiences, they have been categorized in a number of ways. Some are “eyes open” experiences in which a one sees what one would ordinarily see, but it looks different: transfigured, suffused with light, filled with radiant luminosity (which is what the word “glory” most often means in the Bible. Moses saw a bush that burned without being consumed; a text in Isaiah proclaims that the whole earth is filled with the glory of God; a psalm declares that the firmament, the sky, proclaims the glory of God.

Some are “eyes closed” experiences. These include visions (of angels, Jesus, Mary, saints – and in other traditions, Kirishna and the Buddha and more). They also include experiences of union/communion in meditative and contemplative states of consciousness.

Some are experiences of the whole of creation suffused with God, the sacred. Some are experiences of God, the sacred, “within.” Mystical theology – in Christian forms and other forms – affirms both. Such experiences change the meaning, the referent, of the word “God” and “the sacred.” Instead of these words referring to a person-like supernatural being who may or may not exist, they refer to a presence, a glory, sometimes experienced – that is, known.

For skeptics as well as for dogmatic Christians, such experiences do not prove anything. The former dismiss them as weird states of consciousness that lead to unwarranted inferences. The latter distrust them because they seem to lead to conclusions incompatible with dogmatic understandings of Christianity. For them, only the Bible (and/or the teaching authority of the church) matters. Indeed, some conservative Christians think of mystical experiences as diabolic.

For me, because of several such experiences, and because of my study of mystical experiences in multiple religions, they are the reason that I continue to be Christian. And that I continue to think that the religions of the world at their best are sacraments of the sacred and vehicles of good.

Not all mystical experiences lead to good. It seems clear that many Germans at the Nurnberg rallies in the late 1930s entered a state of mystical ecstasy as they listened to Hitler in the midst of flags and goose-steeping troops and stirring music. So also it is easy to imagine that one or more of the 9/11 attackers were in a mystical state as the planes they had hijacked approached their targets. Ecstatic absorption in something beyond oneself is no guarantee of goodness.

The test, the criterion of discernment, as William James wrote more than a century ago, quoting a saying of Jesus from Matthew, is, “By their fruits, you shall know them.” If the result, the consequence of mystical experience, is compassion and growth in compassion, then it is of God, from the sacred.

To bring this back to the Bible: for me, the power and the authority of the Bible is not grounded in an alleged divine origin, as if God inspired the Bible as God has never inspired anything else.

How bizarre that would be – that the creator of the whole universe, the sacred that is present everywhere, chose to be revealed only in the Bible, and only in the religion that venerates the Bible – which just fortunately happens to be our own tradition. That notion is the product of Christian provinciality – easy to believe if one has never encountered anything else, but impossible to believe for those who have. Does Christian faith mean absolutizing the truth of Christian provinciality?

Rather, the power and authority of the Bible for me is that is the story and testimony of people in ancient Israel and early Christianity for whom God was an experiential reality – the sacred as disclosed, revealed, in the stories of the exodus from the land of bondage; in the prophetic protest against oppression within Israel itself; in the centuries of exile filled with longing for a world of justice and peace; in the passion of Jesus for the kingdom of God on earth; in Paul’s proclamation of “Christ crucified” (by the powers that ruled his world), “Jesus is Lord” (and thus the powers are not), and life “in Christ” (challenging the conventions of “this world”).

The central figures of the Bible – from Abraham through Moses and the prophets and Jesus and Paul and more – are all portrayed as people for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. Without a grounding in such experiences, Christianity and all the religions of the world are “hypotheses.” And not very persuasive hypotheses.

Why should one take seriously the religious writings and thoughts of people who lived thousands of years ago? Only if they are speaking about experiences and not simply beliefs.

What the Bible Is

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

An alert to readers of the “Progressive Christian” Faith Stream who do not often read the “Evangelical” Faith Stream: if you are interested in Christian conflict about the Bible (what it is, and whether it is inerrant and to be interpreted literally), you should regularly visit Peter Enns’ blog.

From within the evangelical stream of Christianity, he often challenges both inerrancy and literalism. His blogs consistently draw a large number of responses that provide a window into how many conservative Christians think of the Bible.

A fine recent example is his blog “Conservative Baptist Leaders Defend Inerrancy at ETS: Is This a Parody?” It summarizes the remarks of a panel of conservative Baptist leaders at last year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. For them, biblical inerrancy is not one doctrine among many, but the foundation of all doctrines and thus of the truth of Christianity. In their minds, Christianity stands or falls on whether the Bible is inerrant. Many of the one hundred plus responses (maybe more than two hundred by now) illustrate the passion this issue arouses.

In one sense, biblical inerrancy is not an issue for progressive Christians. Not affirming biblical inerrancy is one of the defining characteristics of progressive Christianity. In another sense, it is an issue. Many of us grew up with an understanding of Christianity that implicitly or explicitly affirmed that the Bible is always right. We took it for granted that that’s what it meant to call the Bible “the Word of God” and to say that it was “inspired by God.” Many of us have had to deal with this issue in our own journeys. For some of us, it continues to be a source of conflict with family members, friends, and acquaintances who think of the Bible as inerrant. Moreover biblical inerrancy is a central issue dividing American Christianity, as well as elsewhere in the world.

The controversy about biblical inerrancy is ultimately a question about what the Bible is. Christians affirm that it is “the Word of God” and “inspired by God.” But do those phrases mean that it is inerrant and/or infallible? Some conservative Christians argue that there are important differences between “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” But functionally, the two terms are synonymous: for those who affirm either, the result is that the Bible has a divine guarantee to be true about everything that matters. As “the Word of God” and “inspired by God,” it is a divine product.

Within this framework, one of the common responses to the challenge to biblical inerrancy goes like this: if all of the Bible isn’t inerrant, how do we decide what parts are inerrant and what parts are not? If it’s not all “inspired by God,” how do we decide what parts are?

The question assumes the impossibility of a satisfactory answer. If the Bible as “the Word of God” and “inspired by God” isn’t completely inerrant, then some human authority is being elevated above the Bible, whether the teaching of the church, the verdicts of scholarship, or the preferences of individuals. Within this point of view, the authority of the Bible disappears, subjected to human authority.

But what if the options for Christians aren’t “All of the Bible is inerrant” or “Some of it is, and some of it isn’t”? There is another option. All of the Bible is a human product – it’s not that some of it is a divine product and some of it isn’t. Rather, all of it, Old Testament and New Testament alike, contains the voices of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. It tells us about their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness and testimony. And their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, their desires for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.

My Christian journey has led me to the conviction that the Bible is, to use a phrase from Paul, “treasure in earthen vessels” (II Cor. 4.7). Paul was not referring to the Bible, but to the messengers of the gospel, including himself. The gospel, the good news of Jesus, comes to us in earthen vessels, “clay jars” to us the language of a recent translation. Earthen vessels, clay jars, are finite products, human products. It applies to the Bible as a whole.

So it’s not that the Bible is inerrant, or parts of it are and parts of it aren’t. It is all a human product. And yet it is “treasure” in an earthen vessel. It is the witness and testimony of our spiritual ancestors.


Memories, Conversions, and Convictions

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

The triad named in the title of this blog has been illuminating as I have reflected about the stages of my life as a Christian. The meaning of memories is obvious, especially our memories of growing up, going back to childhood and continuing into young adulthood and beyond.

Conversions are about major changes in our orientation toward life. Not just changes like a new job or geographical move or marriage or divorce or retirement. Those can leave us unchanged, even as they sometimes become the occasion for conversion. Rather, conversions are about fundamental changes in how we see things – our lives, what is real, and what matters most to us.

Convictions are settled and foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. They are more than “opinions.” Ideally, they are open to change, even as they are not easily changed.

My memories of growing up more than half a century ago include an understanding of Christianity that I had absorbed by the end of childhood. If somebody had asked me at age 10 or 12 to state in a sentence what I thought the heart of the Christian message was, I would have said something like the following: Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, provided that we believe in him.

Note what it emphasized: the afterlife; our problem as sin and our need for forgiveness; Jesus as the means whereby we can be forgiven; and the importance of believing. It also included the belief that Jesus and Christianity were “the only way.” My understanding was not idiosyncratic to my family or church but might be called “the common Christianity” of the recent past – what most Protestants and Catholics took for granted then and many still do. I took it for granted too.

My major conversions have been intellectual, political, and religious. The first two happened in college, the third in my early 30s. They have led to a very different understanding of Christianity and to the convictions that have shaped my life in the decades since.

My intellectual and political conversions were also religious in the sense that they changed my thinking about Christianity and the Bible. The first happened in a required religion course on the history of Christian thought. I had no idea how diverse it was and that there was no one universally accepted understanding of what it meant to be Christian. What I had absorbed as a child became one of many ways of understanding Christianity.

My political conversion occurred in a political philosophy course. We spent a week on the prophet Amos and his strident indictment of the wealthy and powerful of his time who had created a society radically unfair to the majority of the population. I was stunned. I had had no idea that the Bible had such passion for economic justice and fairness. The politics of my childhood changed.

My religious conversion happened in my 30s. It was much more experiential than the first two, both of which happened in academic settings. It was the product of a series of experiences that I have learned to call mystical experiences. They did not change me from being non-religious to religious or from one religious tradition to another. I have been Christian all of my life, even as my understanding of what that means has gone through changes.

Rather, they made God real to me. And they changed my understanding of the referent of the word “God.” Until then, I had thought that the word referred
to a supernatural person-like being who had created the world a long time ago as something separate from God. And as an authoritarian figure being who allegedly had revealed how we must live, the requirements (of belief or behavior or both) that we must meet in order to be saved (which had meant for me, to go to heaven). By my teenage years, I had begun to have doubts about whether God was real. By my 20s, I had become a closet agnostic.

The experiences of my 30s changed all of that. “God” no longer referred to a being who may or may not exist, but to a radiant presence, a glorious “more” that pervades everything that is and that in extraordinary moments is sometimes experienced. God became, in words attributed to Paul in Acts 17.28, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Not a being separate from the universe who may or may not exist, but a reality all around us, everywhere present, and sometimes experienced, known.

The religious conversion of my 30s led to the convictions that have shaped my understanding of Christianity and religions and life ever since. These include not only that the word “God” refers to a reality, but also that no religion (including Christianity) has a monopoly on God. It has also shaped my understanding of major religious figures within Christianity (including the Bible) and within other religions: many of them were people for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. From their experiences flowed their passion, insight, and courage.

Nothing in this blog is meant to imply that only people who have had mystical experiences are “really” or “truly” religious. There are many who have not who are not only devout but also transformed by their religious lives. But for me, experiences of “the sacred” have made all the difference.


Postscript to “Christmas, Jesus and Caesar”

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I just posted a reply to some comments made in response to one of Peter Enns’ recent blogs on Patheos’s evangelical faith channel ( I believe it was called “Forgotten Jesus” – but I have not checked). For those of you who don’t know his blog, I commend it highly.

Because my reply is also relevant to the discussion of Jesus and Caesar that is happening on my blog-site, I post it here as well:

A brief response to those who have raised the question whether Jesus was “really divine,” “actually divine,” in contrast to Caesar who was not really or actually divine.

A respectful question: what do you mean when you say Jesus was “actually” and really divine? Does that mean really biologically conceived by God – whereas the story of Augustus’s divine conception is fiction? Do you mean that Jesus had a divine mind and divine powers like no human being has ever had? Or what do you mean? I am genuinely interested.

One more comment: is the conflict between Jesus and Caesar a conflict about “our guy is really divine and your guy isn’t”? Or is it a conflict about where to see the decisive revelation of God, the Word become flesh and embodied in a human life? Do we see that revelation, that Word, that embodiment in Jesus? Or in the powers that killed him? We can debate the sense in which Jesus was or was not actually divine, But isn’t the more important question – or at least equally important question – the competing visions that we see in Jesus as decisive revelation of God and in Caesar (and thus empire and domination) as the decisive revelation of God?


Christmas: Jesus, Caesar and Us

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

The conflict between “Jesus and Caesar” is a major even if most often overlooked theme of the Christmas stories in the Bible. In Matthew, King Herod the Rome-appointed ruler of the Jewish homeland seeks to kill the new-born Jesus. Luke emphasizes – especially but not only in Mary’s “Magnificat” – that what is happening in the advent of Jesus is the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones and the wealthy from their place of privilege.

Both stories announce the conflict that continues throughout the gospels and climaxes in Jesus’s execution by Caesar, that is, by Roman authority. Good Friday was Caesar’s “no” to Jesus – and Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and God’s “no” to Caesar.

Thus Advent and Christmas should be for Christians a time of reflection about the relationship between loyalty to Jesus and loyalty to Caesar.

To say the obvious, “Caesar” has a particular historical meaning: it referred to the emperor of Rome. Think of the most famous: Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. But even psychopaths like the emperor Caligula bore the title. And it has become a more universal term. In some languages, it continued to refer to emperors for more than a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire – for example, Kaiser and Czar as recently as a hundred years ago.

In its more than specific ancient Roman meaning, “Caesar” refers to domination systems, large or small. In the pre-modern world, they ranged in size from empires to small kingdoms and at the micro-level the family. All are about people of privilege- the powerful and wealthy and, at the micro-level of the family, men being in charge.

The Bible is a sustained conversation – indeed opposition – between those who challenged Caesar (and Pharaoh and the monarchy and the empires that followed) and those who accommodated themselves to Caesar and his ways.

For Christians, Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh, to use language from the magnificent prologue to John, one of the two gospels that do not have a birth story. And yet John does. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” is his one verse story of Jesus’s birth. Jesus enfleshes, embodies, incarnates, God’s Word, God’s revelation, God’s character and passion in a human life.

Christmas means that for Christians, Jesus is and should be decisive. What we see in him, the Word made flesh, is our revelation, our light in the darkness. And that revelation, that light, that embodiment, led to conflict with Caesar, Jesus’s execution by Caesar, and Jesus’s vindication by God.

Finally: in addition to referring to domination systems, “Caesar” for many Christians and others shaped by Christian language has become a symbol, a metaphor, for “government” – as if government, a central power, locally or nationally, were the problem. But the conflict between Caesar and Jesus (and other major voices in the Bible) is not about government being intrinsically bad. Government by itself is not the problem. We cannot live in ungoverned societies.

The issue is what kind of government. The record of Christians is not particularly impressive. Most Christians for 1500 years or so have supported the powers that be. In the last hundred years, more than a majority of German Christians supported the Third Reich in the time of Hitler. In the United States in the first decade of this century, the demographic group giving the largest support to our initiating – starting – the war in Iraq were white evangelicals who attended church once or more a week.

Neither uncritical support nor uncritical rejection of government is the answer. There are important differences between the powers that be. Some are more humane – and thus more consistent with “the Word become flesh” in Jesus, the passion of God revealed in a human life. And some are about the endorsement and preservation of power for the privileged.

So: Christmas – like Good Friday and Easter – is a time of reflection about Jesus and Caesar. How do we see the passion of God as revealed in Jesus? What should “this world” – our humanly constructed world – be like?

That is what Christmas is about. Of course it is also about light in the darkness, reconnection with God by returning from our exile, and the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings. But those yearnings, according to the Old Testament and the birth stories and the gospels are not primarily about life beyond death. They are about a different kind of world, here below, here and now.

Why are many Christians – probably more than half of American Christians -unwilling to embrace that? The reason might be Caesar or Jesus. To whom does our loyalty lie?


Two Christmas Pageants

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

Most – perhaps all – Christmas pageants combine the stories of Jesus’s birth in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. From Luke: the announcement to Mary that she will conceive a son through the Holy Spirit, the journey to Bethlehem where there is no room in the inn so that Jesus is born in a stable, the angelic message to shepherds who then visit the new-born Jesus. From Matthew, wise men (typically portrayed as kings) following the star and bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. So also Christmas crèches typically combine the two stories in a static tableau: a stable, Jesus in a manger, shepherds, and wise men.

But what if we were to do two Christmas pageants, one based on Matthew and one based on Luke?

The two stories are very different in both length and content. Matthew’s is much shorter. Without the genealogy of Jesus with which he begins his gospel, his story is 31 verses long. Luke’s is 130 verses, four times as long.

Their content is also very different. Matthew’s is dominated by King Herod’s effort to kill the new-born Jesus. The story of the wise men following the star is part of that plot. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they visit Herod who asks them to tell him when and where they have found the new-born king of the Jews so that he might also worship him. Not what he intends. They decide not to, and so Herod orders the killing of infants under the age of two in and near Bethlehem.

Matthew’s story echoes Pharaoh’s decree of death for infants born to the Hebrew slaves in bondage in the time of the exodus. Joseph, warned by an angel, flees with Mary and the infant Jesus to escape Herod’s murderous decree.

Imagine a Christmas pageant based on Matthew alone. Dominated by Herod’s plot, it would be ominous, threatening. Imagine what kind of music might appropriately accompany it – perhaps the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars” or the theme from “Jaws.” Matthew’s story anticipates the end of Jesus’s life when another Pharaoh, the Roman governor of Judea, would succeed where Herod had failed.

Imagine a Christmas pageant based on Luke alone. The content and mood are very different. There is nothing about Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, and no wise men who tell Herod that they have seen a star that heralds the birth of a new king of the Jews.

Instead, an angel appears to Mary and tells her she will become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke also narrates the story of the birth of John the Baptizer to aged and barren parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. That story climaxes in “the Benedictus,” a hymn of celebration. Then, when Mary visits Elizabeth, she sings “the Magnificat,” another hymn of rejoicing. When Jesus is born, angels sing in the night sky to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Finally, when Mary and Joseph bring the 40 day old Jesus to the temple, the aged prophet Simeon sings “the Nunc Dimittis.”

The mood of Luke’s story is not ominous but filled with joy. If we were to imagine appropriate accompanying music, neither Darth Vader’s theme nor “Jaws” would work. Instead, Handel’s “Messiah” might be perfect.

Imagine a Christmas pageant that did each story separately rather than combining them. Imagine the observance of Christmas if we took each story separately and seriously. From Matthew, we would learn that the rulers of this world always seek to destroy the one who proclaims a world in which the Pharaohs and domination systems are no longer lords. From Luke, we would learn that God’s passion is for a very different kind of world and that hope and confidence in God are to replace resigned acceptance of the way things are.

Both stories are true, even as I do not imagine that the purpose of either is to report what happened. Christmas is cause for celebration, even as we recognize that the conflict between the kingdoms of Pharaoh and the kingdom of God continues. Christmas and Jesus are not just about the past.


The Real War on Christmas

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

There is a lot of silliness in the contemporary (and now perennial) and largely conservative complaint that there is a “war on Christmas.” Often cited as evidence is the common replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and the use of “Xmas” instead of “Christmas.”

The former is a recognition that Christmas has become more than a Christian holiday in increasingly pluralistic and secular Western societies. The latter should not bother Christians: “X” has been a Christian abbreviation for Christ from at least the third and fourth centuries (see Ben Corey’s recent blog, “Keeping the X in Xmas”).

More seriously, today’s lamentation about the war on Christmas misses the real war on Christmas. Its subversive and revolutionary meanings have been co-opted for many centuries by the Christian emphasis on sin and our need for a savior who will pay for our sins. More recently, it has been co-opted by commercialization.

To begin with the latter: for many people, including many Christians, Christmas and the weeks leading up to it (Advent, for Christians) have become the most frantic and harried and busy time of the year.

Consider the two most common contemporary Christmas customs: sending Christmas cards and buying Christmas gifts. So it was in my family until about fifteen years ago when my wife and I decided to cease sending cards and shopping for Christmas gifts. But until then, the weeks before Christmas were dominated by the need to get our Christmas cards sent (often with a Christmas letter) and to figure out what to purchase for those on our gift list. The decision to stop giving gifts was made easier by the fact that our children had become adults. If they had still been children, we would have continued buying gifts for them.

Both of these customs are recent innovations. The first commercially-produced Christmas cards appeared in 1873. So also buying Christmas gifts is a product of the late 1800s and took awhile to become widespread. Until then, Christmas gifts were simple and largely homemade. Imagine for a moment the weeks before Christmas without the need to send cards and buy gifts.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the co-optation of Christmas by commercial culture is “Black Friday,” which has now invaded Thanksgiving. People lining up to get bargains. Even violence among shoppers. And consider: for the most part, it is relatively poor people competing with each other, but all driven by the cultural convention and compulsion to buy Christmas gifts.

To continue with the former: the co-optation of Advent and Christmas by Christianity itself. For many centuries – now almost a thousand years – the most common forms of Western Christianity have emphasized that Jesus’s primary significance is that he died to pay for our sins. This notion affects the meaning of Christmas: Christmas is the birth of the one who will save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven. It results in a radical domestication and individualization of the story of Jesus and Christmas.

To say the obvious: Christmas matters for Christians because Jesus matters for Christians. And what was Jesus about? His message, his passion, was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was about the transformation of this world into a different kind of world. It was about the downfall of domination systems and the birth of a world of justice and peace. Of course, the Kingdom of God is also about our individual transformation through loving the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength. It is about our transformation and the transformation of the world.

The muting of this message by common Christianity and by the commercialization of Christmas is the real war on Christmas. Imagine that Christians were once again to realize that Christmas – the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God – are pervasively subversive and revolutionary. Christmas and Jesus are about God’s passion, God’s dream, for a different kind of world here below, here and now.


Thinking about Advent

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

I begin with the obvious: Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of Jesus. For many centuries in Western liturgical churches, it has (like Lent) been a penitential season. Though it is about remembering his first coming 2000 years ago, it has also been about his second coming at the last judgment and the need for us to be prepared through earnest repentance.

Thus, like Lent, the liturgical colors for Advent have been (and for the most part still are) violet or purple, the color of penitence. Recently, in some churches, the liturgical color of Advent has become blue, reflecting a change in emphasis.

Seeing Advent as a penitential season strikes me as unfortunate. It is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness (commonly understood as disobedience and/or failing to measure up to what God requires from us) and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness. Within this framework, that’s the reason Jesus was born. As the divinely-conceived Son of God, he was sent by God to be the perfect sacrifice, the payment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Provided, of course, that we believe in him.

That is a serious impoverishment of Christianity and Advent. Christianity and Advent are about so much more. The central themes of the stories of Jesus’s birth (about which I will say more in my blogs about Advent in the next few weeks) are hardly at all about sin and our need for forgiveness.

Rather, they and the texts from the Old Testament that they echo are about a much more robust, attractive, and compelling vision of what Christianity, Advent and Christmas are about. Their themes, which will be explored more fully in future blogs, include:

*Liberation from bondage – from the Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and the world. These include oppressive political and economic systems and also psychological-spiritual agents of oppression.

*Return from exile – from life in Babylon. As a biblical metaphor, Babylon has political and economic meanings as well as psychological- spiritual meanings. The latter refer to the separation and estrangement that most often mark our lives. “Estrangement” is an especially resonant word: it means to be separated from that to which we belong. Return from exile is about re-connection to that from which we have become estranged.

*Light in the darkness – the stories of Jesus’s birth are full of light imagery. In Matthew, the star in the night sky that leads the wise men to Jesus; in Luke, angels singing to shepherds in the middle of the night. Like liberation from bondage and return from exile, light in the darkness is an archetypal image of human yearning. It is no accident that when Christians in the fourth century formally decided on the date of Jesus’s birth, they chose the winter solstice: the time when light begins to vanquish the darkness.

*Yearning and fulfillment –not so much a separate theme, but built into the previous themes. We yearn for liberation from bondage in Egypt, for return from exile in Babylon, for the coming of the light. But it deserves to be named as a major theme because of the way that the birth stories (and the gospels and the New Testament as a whole) emphasize that what happened in Jesus is the fulfillment of our deepest longings.

Advent should be about all of this. It is a season of anticipation, yearning and longing for a different kind of life and a different kind of world. To reduce it to a penitential season of preparing for the second coming of Jesus, or a season of remembering that Jesus was born so that he could pay for our sins, is a tragic travesty of Advent, Christmas, and Christianity.


Gratitude: One of the Most Important Virtues

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

Perhaps the most striking sentence I have read in the last few years is in Huston Smith’s most recent book, And Live Rejoicing. Published in 2012 when he was 93, I call it his “most recent book” rather than his “last book” because he is still with us. Who knows if this is his last?

Smith may be the best-known religion scholar of the past half century. Not only is he the author of the best-selling book in the history of American academic religious publishing, but well-known for more than one public television series. For me personally, he habeen a mentor, friend, and a bit of a guru. I read the book with joy.

The sentence that struck me was almost at the end. Right before “last words,” he said, “the two categorical, unconditional virtues… are gratitude and empathy.”

Naming “empathy” as one of the two categorical virtues (with its synonym “compassion” and close relative “love”) is not particularly surprising. But naming gratitude as a virtue of equal importance is. And as I thought about it, it made complete sense to me.

This season is a fruitful time to reflect about the relationship between gratitude and thanksgiving. Sometimes they are the same, but not always.

One of the best-known prayers of thanksgiving is in a parable of Jesus (Luke 18.9-14). A devoutly religious person prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” His thanksgiving was about his difference from others.

Less well-known is the table grace prayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1965 movie Shenandoah. For almost fifty years, it has remained with me (you can look it up on the Internet):

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.
A thanksgiving prayer? I suppose so. But it’s mostly about self-reliance and deservedness.
Gratitude is very different. It is both a feeling and an awareness. As a feeling, it is often accompanied by a sensation that is at least metaphorically physical: a virtual breaking open of the ribcage, an opening of the heart, a flooding of the self with sheer gratefulness.

As an awareness that persists beyond the feeling, it is the realization that life, all of life, our lives, are a gift. Indeed, the words “gratitude” and “grace” have the same root. None of us created ourselves. None of us is self-made.

If our lives have turned out well, how much of that is the product of our own individual achievement? And how much is the product of the genes with which we were born that gave us a level of physical vitality, intelligence, health and longevity? How much is the product of the family we were born into, with its values and economic level? How much is the product of the country and time in which we were born?

Yes, individual responsibility and achievement matter, and there are people whose lives are triumphs over adversity. But how much of our lives have depended upon circumstances that we did not create? The notion of “self-made persons” who deserve all the success and wealth they’ve received is simply wrong. Indeed, “deservedness” is the opposite of gratitude, even if it occasionally produces prayers of thanksgiving.

As both a feeling and an awareness, gratitude is a virtue with ethical consequences. When we feel most grateful, it is impossible to be cruel or callous, brutal or indifferent. And gratitude as the awareness that life is a gift precludes the hard-heartedness that often accompanies the ideology of “the self-made person.” The latter often leads to, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Gratitude and transformation go together. Sometimes it is the experience of deep gratitude that changes us. Sometimes gratitude is the product of transformation. Thanksgiving can leave us unchanged. Gratitude does not – it changes us.

Finally, gratitude and doxology – the exclamation, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” – go together. There are also secular forms of doxology. Not only theists can sing doxologies. But grateful people, whether religious or secular, understand that our lives, and all that is, are a gift. Life is not about tenaciously holding on to and justifying what we have. It is about living as grateful people, aware that all that we are and have is a gift.


The Cultural Captivity of Christianity: The Poisoning of the Church

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

In the first third of the 300s, as the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and then became its patron, Pope Sylvester, the bishop of Rome from 314-335, had a dream. He understood it to mean, “Now is poison poured into the church.”

I owe my awareness of Sylvester’s dream to a lecture by Douglas John Hall, one of the most important theologians of our time. Delivered at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto in October of this year, its title was “The Future of the Church.” The story, Hall notes, is a later Christian legend. Sylvester may never have had such a dream. But it reflects a realization on the part of whoever created the legend and those who repeated it that something poisonous began to happen to Christianity when it became allied with dominant culture.

The image of a poisoned church, a poisoned Christianity, is striking. It refers to what might be called “the cultural captivity of the church” – namely, Christianity co-opted by and conformed to the conventions of culture, which most often have been about dominance, power, and wealth.

The conformity of Christianity with the values of dominant culture in much of its history since the 300s and into the present is obvious. When slavery was a cultural convention, most Christians accepted it – in the United States, as recently as 150 years ago, even in the North. So long as patriarchy was a cultural convention, most Christians were patriarchal as well. Indeed, it was less than 50 years ago that most mainline denominations began to ordain women.

When cultural convention condemned same-sex relationships, most Christians also did, and many still do. And when Christian countries went to war and proclaimed that God was on their side, most Christians did too. The wars of Europe for a thousand years have been fought between Christian countries.

The cultural captivity of Christianity – the poison of Sylvester’s dream –continues to shape American Christians (and Christians in many other countries). We cannot avoid being shaped by the culture in which we grow up and live. But we can be more or less conscious of the way we have been shaped by our time and place, and more or less conscious of how Christianity’s vision of the way things should be may be quite different.

In the rest of this blog, I name a major American cultural value that has pervasively affected American Christianity: the ethos and ideology of individualism. We are, according to many studies, the most individualistic country in the world.

Individualism as an ideology should not be confused with the value of individuals. Individuals matter. It is a central affirmation of the Bible and Christianity: we all matter to God. Individuals and progress in individual rights, human rights, matter.

But individualism as an ideology is quite different. It is the notion that how our lives turn out is primarily the product of our individual achievement. Those who do well do so because they have made the most of their opportunities. It is the notion of the “self-made” person.

This ideology generates a politics and economics that privileges the successful: they deserve the fruits of their achievement. It dominates the political right, Christian and non-Christian alike. Most often absent or minimized is a concern for “the common good,” except perhaps when it is alleged to be the product of maximizing individual opportunities.

The effects of American individualism on American Christianity go beyond politics. For many Christians, morality is understood primarily to be about personal behavior. In comparison, what might be called “social morality” (economic fairness and a concern for the common good) receives short shrift.

So also Christian understandings of salvation are often individualistic. When Christians identify salvation with a blessed afterlife, with going to heaven, salvation becomes about the salvation of individuals. In a crude and clichéd phrase, Christianity becomes the ultimate life insurance policy – for those individuals who believe and/or behave in the right way.

Perhaps the most blatant even if not the most widespread example of Christianity co-opted by the ideology of individualism is the prosperity gospel. At its center is the promise of “doing well” in this life if only we as individuals believe and act accordingly.

All of this is very different from “the dream of God” as we encounter it in the major voices of the Bible and earliest Christianity. Of course, Christianity is about individuals and our relationship to God as individuals. But when it is most authentic, it is also about God’s dream for a world of fairness (justice) and peace. It is about “the common good” and not just my individual good.


What is the Gospel?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

For a number of years I have asked Christian groups what they think the Christian gospel – the “good news” – is. I ask them to begin with memory – to think back to how they would have answered that question at the end of childhood, at age twelve or so – and in not more than a sentence. What had they absorbed by then? I give them a few minutes to think about that, and then put them in small groups of four or five for about fifteen minutes to share what they came up with.

Sometimes I then ask how they would answer that question now (also in not more than a sentence) and how much continuity or discontinuity there is with their end-of-childhood answer.

This blog is about my responses, then and now, to that question. At the end of childhood, I would have said that the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven if we believe in him. That was the impression that I received growing up in a “mainline” Protestant denomination.

Note what it emphasized. The afterlife: if you had been able to convince me at age twelve or so that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be Christian. The afterlife was what it was about. Note also that it emphasizes sin as the primary issue in our life with God and thus our need for forgiveness. That is why Jesus was necessary: he died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven. And believing that Jesus did that for us was what mattered. Indeed, believing was what would save us.

Not every Christian internalized this while growing up. But many – Protestants and Catholics alike – did. So widespread is this understanding of the Christian message that it can be called the “common Christianity” of our time, shared not only by many Christians but also by many who reject Christianity.

I turn to “now.” Beginning many decades ago, I have come to understand the gospel, the heart of Christianity, very differently. The rest of this blog describes how I see it and why and why it matters. It involves both history and imagination.

History. Back to the first century. How did the first followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself, answer the question, “What is the gospel, the good news?” The historical answer is clear: it is about the coming of “the kingdom of God.”

In Mark, the first gospel to be written, Jesus’s first words are about the coming of “the kingdom of God” (1.15). The verses is Mark’s advance summary of what the gospel and story of Jesus are about. A virtually universal consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars agrees: at the heart of Jesus’s message and passion was “the kingdom of God.”

The phrase combines religious and political language, as so much of the Bible does. Religious: it is about God and God’s kingship, lordship. It is about “the Great Commandment”: to love the Lord our God with all heart, soul, mind, and might. Political: in the first century, “kingdom” was a political term. Jesus’s hearers knew about the kingdoms of Herod and Rome (in eastern parts of the Roman Empire, Rome referred to itself as a “kingdom” and not as an empire). If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political connotations of “kingdom” language, he could have spoken of the family of God or the community of God or the people of God. But he didn’t. He used “kingdom” language.

Importantly, “the kingdom of God” was not about life in the next world, not about heaven, but life on earth. Though Christians have not always recognized this, they should not be surprised by it. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. To use one of Dom Crossan’s great one-liners: heaven’s in great shape – earth is where the problems are.

The coming of the kingdom of God on earth was about justice and peace. Justice: that everybody should have enough (“daily bread”) of the material basis of life. Peace: the end of war and violence. Jesus’s passion – what he was passionate about – was God and the kingdom of God. It involves a twofold transformation: of ourselves and of “this world.”

Imagination. Imagine that most Christians thought this. Imagine how Christianity today would be different. Imagine how American Christianity would be different. Imagine how America might be different.

Imagine that we no longer thought that Christianity was about heaven or hell. Imagine that we no longer thought that it was about prospering in this life. Imagine that it is not about God taking care of us and protecting us, in this life or the next.

Imagine instead that Christianity is about transformation – of ourselves as individuals (that it is about being born again by dying and rising with Christ to a life centered in Christ and moved by compassion). And that it is about transforming the humanly-constructed world of unjust and violent systems (that it is about the kingdom of God on earth).

The latter is, of course, a utopian ideal, impossible for us to achieve. But we can work for greater approximations of it. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century and known as an advocate of “Christian realism” nevertheless spoke of the political relevance of an impossible ideal: it is the goal toward which Christians are called to shape political systems..

So, having described how I see the Christian gospel, I invite conversation: what is the Christian gospel, the Christian good news? Is it primarily about what we must believe and/or do in order to go to heaven? Or is it about transformation – being transformed into the likeness of Christ, to use language from Paul, here and now? Both? If so, in what proportions? Or?

What Is a Christian?

From Dr. Borg’s blog on Patheos:

What does it mean to be Christian? What makes a person a Christian? An important prologue: my purpose in this blog is not to provide criteria for deciding who is and who is not a Christian, not to separate sheep from goats, not to suggest who is in and who is out. Rather, it is a series of reflections about what is at the heart of being Christian. What matters most in seeing what being Christian is about?

I begin with a negative. Being Christian is not very much about believing in the sense of believing the right things, even though the notion that it is about believing a set of teachings or doctrines is widespread. That is a relatively recent distortion of Christianity.

It began with the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1600s and continues today. Protestants distinguished themselves from Catholics by what they believed compared to what Catholics believed. Then Protestantism divided into many churches, each distinguishing themselves from others by what they believed.

So also the Enlightenment heightened the emphasis on believing. Characterized by the birth of modern science and scientific ways of knowing, the Enlightenment called into question many conventional Christian ideas: the earth as the center of the universe, creation as having happened in six days and not all that long ago, a world-wide flood that killed every land creature even more recently, and more generally that miraculous supernatural interventions sometimes occur.

With those notions challenged, the response in much of Western Christianity was to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. This was the birth of modern biblical literalism with its emphasis on the literal-factuality of biblical narratives: from creation through the exodus from Egypt to the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus. Add to that popular Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife, and being Christian became believing the right things now for the sake of heaven later.

Of course, the language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.

Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.” Of course, both creeds include a list of central Christian convictions. But saying the creed does not mean, “I believe the following affirmations to be literally true.” Rather, it means “I give my heart to God” – and who’s that? The creator of heaven and earth, of all that is. “I give my heart to Jesus – and who’s that? The one we say these things about.

Moreover, believing as “believing the right things” does not intrinsically lead to a changed life. It is possible to have strongly-held beliefs, even more or less right beliefs, and still be unchanged: fearful, self-preoccupied and self-concerned, angry, judgmental, mean, even brutal and violent. Christian history and the history of other religions are filled with examples. Believing has little transformative power.

But Christianity is not about “right beliefs.” It is about a change of heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty, allegiance), and our values (how we live).

At the center of being Christian are:

*A yearning and passion for God. About 1600 years ago, Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their home in God. Yearning and passion are closely-related, even though the former can mean seeking without yet having found.

*A passion for Jesus. Jesus is for Christians the decisive revelation of God – the decisive epiphany, disclosure, of the character and passion of God embodied in a human life. The centrality of Jesus is what makes Christians Christian. To explain by comparison: Jews find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, Muslims in the Quran. Christians find it in Jesus – in a person, not in a book. That is not about superiority, but about definitional difference. For Christians to affirm that we find it in Jesus does not require denying that God is known elsewhere. Of course, a book, the Bible, is also revelation for Christians. But for Christians, Jesus trumps the Bible.

*Compassion. Compassion is the central virtue of a life centered in God as known in Jesus. When Jesus in a few words summarized theology and ethics, the character of God and how we should live, he said, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Luke 6.36; most English translations read “Be merciful as God is merciful,” but that is misleading given the common modern English meaning of “merciful”).

Compassion and love in the Bible often mean the same thing (for example, when Paul names the greatest of the spiritual gifts as “love”), but compassion has a richer metaphorical meaning. In Hebrew and Aramaic, it is related to the word for “womb.” God is “womb-like,” giving birth to us, nourishing us, and feels for us (and the whole of creation) as a mother feels for the children of her womb: willing our well-being, and sometimes becoming fierce when our well-being (and the well-being of creation) is threatened. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. Importantly, compassion is not only a feeling but a doing. The imperative is not simply to feel compassion but to “be compassionate”- to act in accord with the feeling.

*A passion for the transformation of this world. Compassion – love – in the Bible has a social form. It is about participating in God’s passion for a world of justice and peace. Together, they are “the dream of God,” God’s dream for what the humanly-constructed worlds of societies and nations and cultures should be like. Justice is not about punitive or criminal justice, but about the fair distribution of God’s earth, for the earth belongs to God (Psalm 24). It is about economics: everybody should have enough of the material necessities of life, not simply through charity but as the product of the way the social system is put together. Peace is about the end of violence and war.

Being Christian is about being captivated by these passions. They are not beliefs as much as they are convictions and commitments. That’s what being Christian is about. It is about the heart and its convictions and commitments.

So, what do you think? What might you want to challenge? What might you want to add? Looking forward to the conversation.

Reflections on Easter

Today I read a poll of American Christians about the resurrection of Jesus. It reported that more than 90% of American Christians say that the resurrection of Jesus matters greatly to them. I agree – without the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity makes no important sense.

But I was disappointed because the poll reported that these Christians responded with “Yes” to the question whether Jesus’ resurrection was “physical” and “bodily.” I think that way of understanding Easter is a distraction.

To think that Easter intrinsically involves the transformation of Jesus’ corpse turns it into an utterly spectacular event that happened once upon a time long ago. This emphasis most often goes with the message that death is not the end for us, at least for those of us who believe in Jesus. As commonly understood, Easter it is about the promise of an afterlife.

But Easter is not primarily about Jesus’ triumph over death and a future for us beyond death. Rather, the meanings of the Easter stories in the gospels and the affirmation of Jesus’ resurrection in the rest of the New Testament are much more significant. Moreover, their meanings are not dependent upon whether a spectacular miracle happened to the physical body of Jesus.

In the gospels and the New Testament as a whole, the meaning of Easter is twofold. First, Jesus lives; and second, Jesus is Lord. Both convictions flow out of his followers’ experiences of him after his death.

I begin with the first. Some of his followers had experiences him as a living reality of the present, not just as a figure of the past. Some of these experiences were visions. The best-known is Paul’s vision on “the road to Damascus.” It happened a few years after the traditional Christian chronology of forty days of appearances between Easter and Ascension Day, often understood as the day that Jesus’ body ascended into heaven, thus ending his bodily appearances. Paul experienced Jesus, though not as a physical bodily reality. It happened in a vision. And in I Corinthians 15.3-8, his language is most naturally understood to mean that the experiences of Peter and Jesus’ other disciples, and others as well, were visions. He uses the same language to refer to their experience as he does for his own: Jesus “appeared” to them – and to Paul.

To those who might say, “You mean these were only visions?”, I respond: anybody who has ever had a vision would not say “It was no big deal – it was only a vision.” Of course, some visions are hallucinations, an encounter with something that is not real. When this is the case, they are most often dysfunctional. But some visions carry a deep sense of an encounter with reality, and they are life-changing and not dysfunctional at all. For Jesus’ followers, their visions led to the conviction: Jesus lives – he is a present reality, not just a much-beloved figure of the past.

In addition to visions, I think his followers experienced him after his death in other ways. They continued to experience the same Spirit – the Spirit of God – they had known in and around him during his historical lifetime. This is the central meaning of Pentecost: the Spirit that had been present in Jesus returned to his community of followers. They also continued to experience the same power they had known in Jesus: the power to heal, change lives, and create a new form of community. They spoke of life “in Christ,” in the living Jesus.

That’s the first conviction: “Jesus lives.” He is not simply dead and gone. The second conviction is equally important: not just “Jesus lives,” but also “Jesus is Lord.” Experiences of Jesus after his death were not the same kind of experience that a good number of people have of somebody who has died. Surveys suggest that about half of surviving spouses have at least one vivid experience of their deceased spouse. And, of course, there have been many Elvis sightings. But these experiences do not lead to the conviction that the deceased spouse (or Elvis) is “Lord.”

There was something about the post-death experiences of Jesus that did lead to this conviction. In language from the New Testament, God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, has raised Jesus to God’s right hand, has made Jesus one with God. This meaning is expressed in John’s gospel when the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. Thomas does not simply say, “You’re alive,” but exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

So it was for early Christians. “Jesus is Lord” is the constant affirmation of the New Testament. It has even been called the earliest Christian creed. “Jesus is Lord” – and the lords of this world are not. Indeed, the lords of this world crucified him, publicly executed him to make a statement: “This is what we do to those who oppose us.” But God has vindicated Jesus, said “Yes” to Jesus and “No” to the powers that killed him.

Consider the earliest story of Easter in the New Testament. Though Paul’s seven genuine letters from the 50s are earlier than the gospels and refer to the resurrection, he does not tell the story of Easter. The first Easter narrative is the climax and end of Mark’s gospel, written around the year 70, forty years after the end of Jesus’ historical life.

In Mark’s story of the first Easter, three women followers of Jesus go to his tomb on Easter morning in order to anoint his body. They expect his body to be there. Instead, they discover that the tomb was empty. Then an angel asks them why they seek the living among the dead and proclaims that he is not here – he is risen. The risen Jesus does not appear in Mark’s gospel. Instead, the angel promises the women that they will see him in Galilee – where the story began.

What does this story mean? Is it meant to report a spectacular miracle, maybe the most spectacular miracle ever? That God literally raised Jesus from the dead in physical bodily form? And if so, what does that mean for us? That death is not the end, and that God has shown us through Jesus the way to everlasting life?

Or does it mean something else and more? Set aside the question of whether the tomb was really empty. Believe whatever you want about that. And hear Mark’s Easter story as a parable of the resurrection. Think about what parables are.

Parables are meaningful, meaning-filled, truthful and truth-filled, independently of their literal factuality. I don’t know any Christian who insists that there really had to be a good Samaritan who acted the way he did, or else that story is false. So also I don’t know any Christian who insists that there must have been a father who received his prodigal son in the way narrated in that parable, or else the story isn’t truth-filled. Parables are about meaning. To confuse them with factual reporting is to miss their point.

As a parable of the resurrection, what does Mark’s story of the empty tomb mean? And the story of the empty tomb is found not only in Mark, but in the later gospels in the New Testament.

You won’t find Jesus in the land of the dead. He is still with us.

The powers killed him – but they couldn’t stop him. They crucified him and buried him in a rich man’s tomb. But imperial execution and a tomb couldn’t hold him.

He’s still loose in the world. He’s still out there, still here, still recruiting people to share his passion for the Kingdom of God – a transformed world here and now. It’s not over.

Easter is about all of this. To reduce it to a spectacular miracle a long time ago and a hope for an afterlife is to diminish it and domesticate it. It is not about heaven. It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s “Yes” to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus. Crucifixion and the tomb didn’t stop him. Easter is about saying “Yes” to the passion of Jesus. He’s still here, still recruiting.

“every time God forgives us, God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.”
“Until we learn to love others as ourselves, it’s difficult to blame broken people who desperately try to affirm themselves when no one else will.”
“People who know how to creatively break the rules also know why the rules were there in the first place.”
“Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”
“When you get your,’Who am I?’, question right, all of your,’What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves”
“The most common one-liner in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Someone counted, and it occurs 365 times.”
“Change is not what we expect from religious people. They tend to love the past more than the present or the future.”
“Much of the work of midlife is to tell the difference between those who are dealing with their issues through you and those who are really dealing with you.”
“In the second half of life, people have less power to infatuate you. But they also have much less power to control you or hurt you.”
“I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”
“We all become well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while. Most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot.”
“I do not think you should get rid of your sin until you have learned what it has to teach you.”
“The cross solved our problem by first revealing our real problem, our universal pattern of scapegoating and sacrificing others. The cross exposes forever the scene of our crime.”
“Those who are not true leaders will just affirm people at their own immature level.”
“If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage as if it were God.”
“Most people confuse their life situation with their actual life, which is an underlying flow beneath the everyday events.”
“Church practice has been more influenced by Plato than by Jesus. We invariably prefer the universal synthesis, the answer that settles all the dust and resolves every question even when it is not entirely true over the mercy and grace of God.”
“The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future.”
“Whatever good, true, or perfect things we can say about humanity or creation, we can say of God exponentially. God is the beauty of creation and humanity multiplied to the infinite power.”
“If we seek spiritual heroism ourselves, the old ego is just back in control under a new name. There would not really be any change at all, but only disguise, just bogus self-improvement on our own terms.”

Transcript for Diana Butler Bass on “Christianity after Religion”


Jim Fleming: Anne Rice’s defection from the Catholic Church is a perfect example of what Dianna Butler Bass calls our “post-Christian culture”. Bass is a religious scholar with a new book called “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” She says “organized religion is losing ground fast even in some of the big Evangelical denominations. What’s surprising is how many people are abandoning church, but not God”.

Diana Bass: Over the course of the last decade in North America we have seen the greatest decline in the number of Americans who want to identify with particular religious traditions, with the number of Americans who attend weekly religious services, and this decline is happening across the board. It used to be that when we talked about religious decline typically we were talking about liberal, mainline, Protestant denominations, but in the last ten years the decline has registered in Evangelical Protestant denominations. Two, excuse me, three, of the denominations that are experiencing huge declines right now are the gigantic Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, which is the conservative and Evangelical alternative to the more liberal, mainline Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and those three denominations all very conservative, long Evangelical heritage, and they are showing very substantial membership declines, and uh-

Fleming: You know what’s so hard to understand about this is that we hear so much all the time about America’s great religiosity. I mean, the politicians are certainly talking about it. They’re calling to Evangelical voters. But what you’re saying is that America’s not really as religious as it was, and not maybe as religious as we say it is.

Bass: Well, I think the fine, sort of, distinction is that America is not as conventionally religious as it was. But, you know, when you look at polls, uh, ninety-one or ninety-two percent, depending on the polls, of Americans still say they believe in God, but people are unwilling to even refer to it as religiosity any longer. They call it spirituality, or they call it something else, experience.

Fleming: Yeah.

Bass: But they don’t want to use the word religion. Religion has, in the last ten years, been identified in the popular imagination at least, with something that is negative, or hurtful, or boring, and people are still spiritual and they still talk about the Bible. They still care about things related to God and ethics and prayer and religious experience, but they’re unwilling to link that with conventional denominations.

Fleming: A lot of people talk about themselves, as, as spiritual but not religious these days. And I suspect that is a phrase that might resonate with you.

Bass: Well, it does resonate in the sense that it’s a large group in the United States. It’s about thirty percent of the population who use that identifier. What spiritual but not religious tends to mean is that they are hurt by or weary of traditional constructions of dogma and doctrine and that they still want to connect with God.

Fleming: This is something that you’ve experienced yourself, isn’t it? You’ve done a lot of searching of your own spirituality and, I guess it’s fair to say, of religion.

Bass: Yeah, it is. Where I would place myself though, I’m actually much more part of the forty-eight percent. Right now, in the United States, forty-eight percent of Americans identify themselves as spiritual and religious. My own life is shaped very much by, uh, three religious traditions. That is, I was born and raised a United Methodist, and, uh, as a teenager I joined a rather conservative Evangelical church, and then went on to an Evangelical college and Evangelical seminary, so I know that conservative, Evangelical world very, very well. As a young adult though, I became an Episcopalian. I still am an Episcopalian and I participate in a local parish. I have a daughter who is a teenager and she was just confirmed last year. But for us, the primary thing that we are concerned about is do we live lives that have been transformed by an encounter with God, and do we live with passion, in order to help with the problems of the world, relieving poverty, making sure those who are oppressed have voice.

Fleming: Your path is fascinating, but it, it is also pretty clearly within a tradition, a Christian tradition. And that’s interesting in part, because there were so many choices in, in the 70s and maybe there are now, which may be why a lot of serious religious thinkers look at this spiritual but not religious business and say “Ugh. That’s cafeteria spirituality, or you’re jumping from one spiritual fad to the next.”

Bass: You, you know, I, I think in any kind of movement or trend, there’s always going to, you know, be the dabblers. And so, when I do hear the religious leaders criticizing the spiritual but not religious as being, kind of, lightweight, I’m not gonna go there. I do not think that most people leave a faith tradition lightly, and yet, we have, quite literally, millions of Americans right now, who are moving around, because they have found religion of their childhood unsatisfying.

Fleming: So, what are churches doing wrong, or not doing that is, is sending people wandering away out the door?

Bass: It’s a combination of things, and, and a lot of it depends on which religious tradition you, you’re talking about. I think that the mainline churches, like the Methodism of my childhood, they kind of hit the wall a while ago, thirty or forty years ago. They were almost victims of their own success. They had been hugely successful. So mainly Protestants were complacent when the seventies opened up and they were thinking that they could continue to do what they always, always had done. For Evangelicals, the problem, has, has been the massive identification of religion in politics in their churches, and, what has happened over the course of the last decade in particular, and there are many studies and articles, things I could cite about this, Evangelicals who are under thirty do not agree with the politics of the religious right. They have different political pains about uh, gay, lesbian rights and marriage, and whether or not gay and lesbian people should be ordained in the ministry. They’re very different from older Evangelicals. Young Evangelicals are deeply committed to environmentalist causes and their parents are not. Young Evangelicals care about world poverty and global issues. Their parents are not interested in those things as political concerns. The only place where younger and older Evangelicals agree is around issues of abortion.

Fleming: But doesn’t this mean a kind of overthrow of religious authority? What does it mean for the pastors? For the priests? What does it mean for theories of morality and religious authority?

Bass: Well, the turn away from institutions doesn’t mean there, there’s a turn away from God or a completely chaotic sense of where all this is gonna go. What people are turning towards is lived experience as being the place from which faith should spring. With that shift, it can be threatening to clergy who think that being a clergy person is about being the guardians of an institution. But if clergy understand that their essential call, that their job, is not to be a guardian of institution, but instead to be a gatherer of a faith-filled community of exploration, experience, questions, and wonder, well, then there’s plenty of space for clergy. A lot of people say that actually, that this is a reformation, or a re-formation of Christian faith and faith more generally. You could look Judaism as going through a similar kind of stress. I think that Islam as it encounters being a really, truly global religion for the first time, and having a lot of adherents in the West, it’s going to have to reorient itself around some of these questions too. And so that, to me, is the Reformation, it’s, it’s a whole new way of doing things, and I think that it’s going to happen. I really am quite convinced of that actually.

Fleming: That’s religious scholar Diana Butler Bass. Her book is called “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.”

Bad Religion vs Christianity After Religion: Diana Butler Bass and Ross Douthat Video and Transcript

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. To download this audio, click here. Scroll down to read the transcript. To hear the entire August 18, 2012 State of Belief Radio program, click here.INTERFAITH ALLIANCE STATE OF BELIEF RADIO AUGUST 18, 2012


RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass

[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: From Interfaith Alliance, this is State of Belief Radio. I’m your host, Rev. Welton Gaddy. This week, we’re broadcasting from the Center for American Progress studios in Washington, DC.

Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New SpiritualAwakening. On February 14th, Harper One published a book by that title, written by Diana Butler Bass, and that book continues to rank highly on religion and spirituality best-seller lists.

On April 17, the Free Press released the latest book by Ross Douthat. The title is BadReligion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, and that book also continues to rank highly on religion and spirituality best-seller lists.

The remarkable thing is, each of these well-received books starts with a similar acknowledgement that traditional religion, specifically mainstream Christianity, is facing giant challenges in 2012 America. Both authors acknowledge the vast influence of organized religion on our culture and society. And then, at that point, these authors diverge wildly on both their analyses of how we got to where we are, as well as on what needs to happen next.

But taken together, these books help us get a fascinating, if unplanned, cumulative look at two very divergent perspectives on a single issue that is vitally important to many millions of the American people.

Earlier this summer, a dialogue began between the two authors involved. On July 14th in the pages of The New York Times, where he’s the youngest op-ed writer in history, Mr. Douthat stated bluntly, that “Liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.”

Dr. Bass quickly responded in the Huffington Post, where she comments regularly on culture and religion. Her column was headlined “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat.”

It wasn’t long – you got it – before Mr. Douthat took to his New York Times blog to craft his response to Dr. Bass.

Well, the exchange makes for fascinating reading – here are two sharp minds with divergent viewpoints but each author is sincere and studied in the author’s knowledge of the issue. And that’s why, in following this public correspondence, we felt it could be both interesting and important to bring these minds together for a face-to-face conversation – there’s a lot to be learned – and that’s precisely what we’ve done.

So with me in the studio right now is Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion. And joining me also is Dr. Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion. I have locked the door. And so I welcome both of you to State of Belief Radio! Thanks for being here.

[DR. DIANA BUTLER BASS, GUEST]: It’s great; I’m glad that it’s not just my mind but my body too that’s here.

[WG]: That’s right.

[ROSS DOUTHAT, GUEST]: The power of prayer can unlock any door, though, so just keep that in mind. Thanks so much for having us.

[WG]: That’s great. Look, I’m fascinated with the similarities of how each of you view organized Christianity’s current state in this country – and then with such unanimity of voice, you go off in opposite directions when it comes to what you say this means for the future. So I want to start, as you would expect, with an overview of where are we headed from each of your perspectives, and I’d like for you just to describe succinctly what your perspective on this is. It doesn’t matter who goes first because I want to hear from each of you, so one of you pick that up if you will.

[RD]: Sure, I can start. I’ll try and be quick, and I’ll just try and cover, I think, some points that we agree on. Basically I think the central place that both of our books start from is the fact that over the last 10 years, especially, but really over the last couple of generations, there has been a, what you might call, a deinstitutionalization of American Christianity, in which institutional Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have gotten weaker overall. Even though if you ask Americans questions like: “Do you believe in God? Do you pray?” and so on, America looks roughly as religious in that sense as ever. So we’re less a churched country, but still a very religious country.

So there’s this broader trend, and then there is, I think, an acceleration of the trend in the last decade. And I think Dr. Bass refers to a “religious recession,” right? To sort of describe, to link it to our current economic troubles, but I think, really, dating it rightly back to either the first part of the third millennium or even the 1990’s. And that shows up in the rise of what a couple of sociologists have called “the nones” – not n-u-n-s, but n-o-n-e-s – Americans who say they have no religious affiliation: they aren’t Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – and this is one of the new and striking religious trends in American life. So overall, we’re looking at a landscape where the traditional Christian Churches are having a harder and harder time reaching people, and this phenomenon exists across the spectrum. And we can discuss the Liberal Christianity versus conservative Christianity divide, but I think we agree that it’s a challenge facing everyone, from the most conservative Evangelical to the most progressive-minded Episcopalian.

[DB]: Yeah. I agree with everything you’ve said, and I can tell you’ve spent some time reading some things I’ve written and I’ve certainly have read some things you’ve written. And I was really surprised when I opened up your book and found pretty much the same diagnosis of the culture in the first several pages that I do in my book too, because we’ve never met before; I had no idea you were writing the book you wrote, I don’t think you had any idea I was writing…

[RD]: Well, I had spies, actually, reporting to me, and every PDF you downloaded I downloaded as well. But yeah, I think it suggests, at least in terms of the data, this underlying trend is hard to argue with.

[DB]: Yeah, and it’s been very striking that in the last five or six years what’s come out are some of the best surveys probably ever done by sociologists about American religion. And across the board, they’re revealing the same thing: that there’s this slow motion collapse of institutional Christianity that’s been going on since the 1970’s, and then what I call the Great Religious Recession – the acceleration, really, since the beginning of the millennium. And that has profound consequences on American society, as a whole, consequences that I’m actually quite worried about, as I know that you are too. And this is a changing moment of the way that Americans are thinking about their religious lives, are gathering in community, and will be exploring how you generate communities of practice that create spiritual and social capital that are related to larger issues about poverty and how we get along as a country, politics… And so I think that this is a really important subject. And I’m really glad that you have tackled it as well.

[WG]: So are we at a crisis moment or an opportunity moment?

[RD]: Well, I think that the language of slow motion that you just used, I think, it’s very useful because it is a crisis moment, but it’s a slow-burning crisis. You know, we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and find that the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has suddenly disappeared, or anything like that. And you aren’t seeing some… You know, there was a poll that just came out today showing that the number of self-professed Atheists in the United States has gone way up over the last, I think ten years, five years, I’m not sure. And that’s true – but it’s going up from a very, very low threshold. It’s something like four or five percent of Americans now identify as Atheist – which means that we’re still living in a country that has very significant institutional Churches, where institutional religion is still very influential notwithstanding its decline. So I think it’s important to see this for what it is: it’s not that the house is on fire in every room or something, it’s more that the house is slowly sinking into quicksand or something, if I can mix metaphors a little.

[DB]: Nice biblical analogy. You’ve got to look out for that sand.

I think that a part of the question about is this a crisis or is it an opportunity – I always think that those two things are very closely related. But I also think that it depends on what quarter of Christianity in the United States you’re looking at. I think that for legacy Protestantism, or ecumenical Protestantism, or liberal Protestantism or whatever you want to call it – the thing that we used to call mainline Churches – I think it actually is a crisis over there and, you know, I am one: I’m an Episcopalian, and known as a progressive or liberal Episcopalian. These are Churches I love; I work with them all the time. But I am also willing to say: “Hey, I think this house is on fire” – and you could see that this summer, as you wrote about, in the conventions that were held. Once every twelve years the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians all meet in the same summer in their big national meetings. And that was this past summer; and it was interesting to watch the three meetings of the three denominations. You wrote about the Episcopal Church; but in some ways, their meeting was the most promising and optimistic of the three meetings. The Episcopal Church actually voted… Once you move away from the, sort of, the hot button issues of sexuality – especially the things about transgender ordination and homosexual marriage – and you look at the broader scope of what the Episcopal Church tackled, it was very interesting. One of their set of resolutions was actually to take themselves completely apart as a denomination, and to try to figure out what it would mean to restructure the entire institution of the Episcopal Church based on a vision of mission rather than simply a vision of how are we going to maintain this big, big organization. And so they very seriously understand the crisis that they’re in and are taking measured steps – I don’t think it’s… They should probably be moving a little faster, but it’s a big organization, it’s an old one – but they are taking measured steps to try to think about some of the issues, I think that you actually raise, about what does a healthy Christian institution look like for the 21st century. But the Methodists and Presbyterians did not do that. They are in a muddle.

[WG]: You all are on the same page as to where we are, with some very little delineations in the severity of it. So you diverge –  and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but want each of you, if you, will to speak about the divergence for a second, because I want us to be able to talk about those. So, Mr. Douthat, why don’t you go first. I think both of you are talking about a kind of next step recovery – where do we need to be going – and you say one thing Mr. Douthat, you say another Diana; and so would you, Mr. Douthat, care to describe where you see it going, and then we’ll begin to pick into all of this.

[RD]: Sure. I mean, I think that, you know, we both see a crisis and we both see opportunities; and I tend to lean more towards the crisis side and she tends to lean more towards the opportunity side – and that reflects, I think, some pretty significant theological disagreements.

I think that, ultimately, any kind of sustainable Christian revival has to be what I describe in my book as an “orthodox” revival. And I’m using the term, sort of, small “o” orthodox – meaning a kind of ecumenical orthodoxy that encompasses the Eastern Orthodox Churches, my own Catholic Church, and most of the historic Protestant denominations as well – but that’s ultimately rooted in the idea that there is a kind of unchanging core of Christian faith, right? That dates back to the first century AD, dates back to the great ecumenical councils of the Church in the fourth century, finds expression in the canon of scriptures and the Nicene Creed and so on. And then also I think finds expression in certain basic moral commitments, having to do with a skepticism of materialism and great wealth, a strong emphasis on chastity in sexual matters, and so on. And I think that, one: that constitutes the core of Christian faith, and two: that I don’t think that there is a sort of correlation where the most orthodox Churches are necessarily the most thriving ones. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite: a lot of what we describe as quote-unquote “conservative religion” in the United States is conservative in the sense of being politically conservative, on the conservative side of culture war issues to some extent, but I think departs from Christian orthodoxy in profound ways. And if you think about a figure like Joel Osteen in sort of the influence of the prosperity gospel in Christianity in the US I think you can see an example of that. So I don’t think, I’m not coming forward with a blueprint that says “Be more orthodox” and, you know, “and you will grow.” Instead I’m sort of arguing that, you know, that orthodoxy is the truest form of Christian faith and that a Christianity that sort of seeks self consciously to move beyond that core will, you know, one: eventually sort of seize to have any kind of Christian identity at all, and two: as that’s already happened in American life it’s produce overall fairly negative results. And so my sense is that you can already see what a Christianity after religion, a Christianity after church looks like in the US today and it’s visible in sort of polls, in sort of the younger generation and their views about God and morality and so on and it is overall not a positive picture, it’s a more narcissistic picture, a more sort of self absorbed picture and so on. So, I’d say that sort of, that’s my overview. And how about yours?

[DB]: I think that some of the difference we have certainly is theological. And I’m very excited about that. I would’ve responded to your last response to me, except I got the flu; and so I was down for ten days…

[RD]: But here we are today!

[DB]: …And so I was sitting in my bed, thinking, I want to write a thing, and it would’ve been engaging more theologically. But I also do think that it’s a difference about where we’re looking; and one of the things that I’ve done over the last decade – and you may or may not be aware of that – is that I’ve spent a lot of time with the microclimate, as it were, of Protestant congregations. And so I know all the research you’re referring to about young adults, mostly conducted by Chris Smith out of North Carolina; and so I’m aware of this kind of thin gruel of a picture of what Christianity looks like that does show up in the national polls. But what I’m also very aware of is that sort of off of everybody’s radar screens there has been developing, over the course of the same period of collapse, what I would call sort of isolated congregations that are demonstrating a whole different kind of vision that arises out of the old liberal tradition, but is also something different. And those congregations are congregations that are not necessarily interested in saying: “We are orthodox.” They don’t start with that kind of language or that kind of doctrine test. But they do start with the story of Jesus, and who Jesus was, and what Jesus intended for human life. There’s been a huge recovery, in many congregations in the mainline tradition, of understanding Jesus’ great command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and to try to stitch together a congregational or communal life that’s really based out of this deepest core teaching of Jesus himself.

So it’s not necessarily a return to the core teaching in the sense of the Creeds; but a core teaching of looking at the life and ministry and work of Jesus, and saying: “Well, what was that all about?” And what is really the center point of being a follower of God as Jesus himself taught and lived when he was here on earth? And so there’s been this passionate sort of recovery of biblical reading in many liberal congregations, of really searching out the stories and ancient texts of Christian tradition, and asking what those things have to do with living a contemporary life. There’s a deep and renewed commitment in some of these Churches towards practices that come out of the Christian monastic tradition. You’re as likely, in some mainline congregations today, to find people who are familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict as you are to find people who are voting for President Obama in November. And that’s something that the media doesn’t actually know: that there is this very committed, serious – not necessarily creedal in the sense that you’re talking about creedal – but a group of people who are deeply aware of the ancient traditions of Christianity, and are trying to take those traditions and make them make sense in a contemporary context.

So that’s the sort of microclimate that I’ve spent time with; and indeed, the first several years of the decade, of the last decade, I actually had a big grant from the Lilly Endowment where I went out and researched those kinds of churches and wrote a whole book about that. So it’s not, from my perspective, kind of anecdotal congregations here and there, but you can actually track what I would call a renewing or a sort of a microtrend in the larger picture of liberal Protestantism that is incredibly promising, and actually follows through on a new passion for Christian story, Christian narrative, the biblical texts themselves and a sincere life of practice. And it’s changing things on the grassroots level.

[RD]: You’re going to have to press us to disagree with each other, because of course I’m going to spring in and say that I think that that’s a wonderful thing. I’m a political conservative, obviously, sort of in a professional capacity. And I’m also obviously a theological conservative; but I think – as I’ve said in the original column and would say today – that American Christianity needs a Liberal Christianity, in the sense of that it need a Christianity that is identified with social reform in some sense, the idea that Christianity should manifest itself in political concerns, and struggle against injustice, and so on. You cannot have a vibrant American Christianity that only appeals to people who are members of the Republican Party. And to the extent that what you’re describing is a real phenomenon within liberal Churches and congregations, I think it’s a wonderful thing – and I think it is exactly what Liberal Christianity needs. It needs not to give up on its commitment to social justice writ large, the language of the social gospel and so on. It just needs to reroute that language and those commitments in a biblical and more ancient Christian faith. So, and I think there is interesting overlap, listening to you talk, between the way, among more sort of self-consciously conservative believers who find themselves sort of weary of the culture war as embodied by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and so on – there’s also a focus on these sort of grassroots initiatives and small churches and what I describe at the end of my book as quote-unquote “the Benedict option,” right? You mentioned the Rule of St. Benedict, and there are a lot of, sort of, what you might call “crunchy conservatives,” in a way, who see the way to built a future for conservative Christianity in United States is to be mainly about building, similarly, communities of practice that model Christianity to the culture as a whole. So there, I think, we’re in agreement – so you should press us to disagree.

[WG]: Well, let me tell you what I hear as criticisms of each of your positions, because I’d like to hear you respond to that. There are a lot of people who say, for example, that Mr. Douthat, when you talk about a core of Christianity that has to be protected and has to endure for the integrity of the religion – that you’re wanting to simply retreat into the old hierarchical Christianity in which there was privilege, and in which there was security, and in which you basically didn’t mix it up in the social process. You just stayed with: “Well, I’m going to be a doctrinaire Christian.”

On the other hand, Dr. Bass, with you, I hear people saying: “Well, you know, she and her kind have just given up on the gospel. They rightly want Christianity to be relevant, but in service to making Christianity relevant, they have weakened it to the point that it’s a kind of Christianity lite, doing social policy that is stronger than Christianity itself.” So I’d like for both of you to respond to those respective criticisms, because I think it will help people understand better where each of you is.

[DB]: You know, I appreciate the criticism, actually, because one of the things that I take from the liberal Christian traditions is that there are self-correcting mechanisms within it. One part I liked best about your book, Ross, was the really great discussions of Neo-orthodoxy. And when I look at Christian history, I see Neo-orthodoxy as one of those self-corrective moments of Protestant Liberalism, where people like Bart and Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. and other folks who are in the Neo-orthodox tradition looked back and said: “Well, Liberalism got this stuff right about social justice, but it also became too full of its own self,” it was full of hubris, and that it was not full enough of God, nor was it full enough of…

[RD]: An awareness of human sin and the imperfect ways of human nature.

[DB]: …Yeah, right, of human sin. And so you get this whole, then, generation of people who try to take sin seriously, doctrinally, and also the idea of humility seriously, doctrinally, and they remake Liberalism on it. And you can actually, I think, argue successfully that the energy and the growth of a lot of mainline Churches after World War II are directly the result of that theological self-correction of Liberalism. So to take that kind of vision about what the Liberal tradition can do is when it goes off the rails. It does have the capacity to correct itself, and I think that in the last 15 to 20 years there’s been a whole new generation of young liberal theologians and Church leaders who have been involved in that project.

It started around 1980 with the theological voices out of Yale of Hans Frey and George Limbeck articulating, for the first time, something that was called post-liberal theology; and that group of students, who were in mainline seminaries in the 1980’s, took some of that insight from the post-liberal project, as it were, and began to apply it in congregations. And I think that’s what you see today in those pockets of vitality – where I was talking about mainline Churches that are doing well – it’s really sort of taking the emphasis from post-liberalism, which was to go back and reexamine tradition, and was to go back and to recommit ourselves to the stories of ancient Christianity, and also to base life around the idea of sustained practices in community. It took those three insights out of the post-liberal tradition and began applying them in congregations.

And so now we’ve had about 15 or 20 years of this on-the-ground, very mealy sort of self-correction of the Liberal tradition going on; and so to me – yes, I think that the Liberalism I grew up with in the 1960’s in my Methodist church in Maryland – it stunk. It was boring, it was irrelevant, it offered no possibility of a young person like myself who was passionate to live a life in God to connect in any meaningful way with scripture or with Jesus; but that kind of Liberalism is now just kind of a stereotype of what Liberalism used to be, and what it has become in some of its quarters is this very alternative, extremely demanding, different way of living one’s life in congregations. It’s not every congregation. It’s a small percentage of congregations – the people at Hartford Seminary who do all this number-crunching stuff, I’ve had them try to run their numbers on this, and they think that maybe 8 to 10% of mainline congregations demonstrate some level of this commitment to, sort of, postmodern or post-liberal sort of stuff – so it’s by no means everybody. But it’s a lot of people.

[RD]: So, two points, right? First – a quick one to your objection to my point of view, or to your phrasing of the objection to my point of view. I mean, in general, I would say – and I think the examples she was just citing helped to make this point – I think people often tend to underestimate the extent to which dogma sustains practice and even sustains activism – or especially sustains activism – and that if you look at, in American history, certainly, the great social reformers who were influenced by Christianity – they tended to be, in certain ways, extremely biblical in their faith, extremely dogmatic in their faith, often fairly supernatural in their faith. And this is a line that runs back from Martin Luther King through William Jennings Bryan back to the abolitionists And so to the claim that a more dogmatic faith just serves to, sort of, reinforce existing social hierarchies – look: obviously, sometimes that’s true. And I’m Catholic, and the Catholic Church has a long history of complicity with existing power structures. But then again, if you look around the world today, you see parts of the world, like Latin America, where the Catholic Church was a force for reaction, and sided with military dictatorships against Communists and Socialists and so on; but then you see other parts of the world like Korea, East Asia and often Africa as well, and again, these are places where the Church is less embedded in the existing social hierarchies, and it becomes an agent of reform: Catholic bishops and cardinals and so on. So I think it can run both ways, but I think dogma does not have to be an impediment to reform, and can even assist it.

And then second, to your point about whether we’re living through a kind of equivalent of the Neo-orthodox moment, where Liberal Christianity is finding a way to self-correct: what I see as missing – and this is maybe where we can get some real disagreement going – is, I think that if there were a kind of, you know, a Reinhold Neibuhr of Liberal Christianity today, right, somebody who was sort of within the Liberal tradition but was really focused on where Liberal Christianity was getting things wrong – he would be focused on sex. I think that Liberal Christianity has a sex problem, and I think it’s an understandable sex problem, because I think liberal Christians, rightly, during the era of the Feminist revolution in the 60’s and 70’s, and then also, to a certain extent, with the gay rights revolution, had a deep and appropriate desire to overcome elements of bigotry within the Christian tradition; elements of sexism and so on. But I think that commitment has tended to carry Liberal Christianity to a point where it ends up effacing or ignoring what I think is the pretty plain message – and again, we’re getting back to that question of a core – but the pretty plain message of the New Testament, Jesus himself, the witness of the early Church and so on which is a – Philip Rieff had this, you know, he describes it as a rejection of sexual individualism; and I think if you look at American society today, I think it’s fair to at least submit the possibility that we’re living through an era where sexual individualism has kind of run amok. And I think that the Liberal Churches, again, for reasons having to do with a desire to defend the movement towards female equality and to sort of avoid the tendency towards homophobia, have failed to maintain a language that speaks to those issues. And bracketing the question of homosexuality have failed to develop a language that speaks to issues like premarital sex, divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing and so on. And if I were sitting here with a Republican Christian and so on, I think I’d be talking about money instead of sex; because, you know, that core has some pretty strong things to say about money. But I think in the case of the Liberal tradition right now – and again, maybe it’s different in these particular communities you’re talking about – but I think there isn’t a real confrontation with the gulf between what the New Testament says about sex and the way we live now.

[DB]: I think that Americans have a sex problem, and…

[RD]: Maybe humanity has a sex problem.

[DB]: I think that that might be part of the sin, Genesis has something to say about that. But, you know, I appreciate what you’re talking about; and I spent a good part of my life in Conservative Evangelical churches, mostly when I was a teenager and a young adult, and was educated at an Evangelical seminary. And there were huge problems related to sex there, too, and they were actually problems of individualism. I can remember probably about 20 years ago, Leadership magazine, which is one of the publications of Christianity Today, conservative publication in America, they published an expose by a major Evangelical Protestant pastor, who would not put his name on the article, about sex addiction among Evangelical pastors. And boy, that article – it came out right as I was at the end of seminary, so it might be even as much as 30 years ago now, which I hate to say – but that article was Xeroxed off and passed person to person to person among young Evangelical leaders at the time, because everybody in the community knew it was true. And that same kind of individualism that you can see express itself in some of the more radical parts of the mainline around homosexuality or some forms of sexual expression that are outside of the tradition is also happening within Conservative Christian circles – but it’s happening not publicly. It’s happening privately; and it is happening to the point where it’s destroying marriages of Conservative pastors; where it’s undermining the mission and ministry of Conservative Churches and seminaries, and it’s been very much a secret phenomenon. There have been, in more recent years, a few studies about that, and so I think that this tendency towards a whatever-makes-us-feel-good kind of sexuality is just a tendency of human nature; it’s a tendency of sin and it riddles its way through religious institutions depending upon the languages and theologies and practices and structures.

[RD]: And I’m Roman Catholic, right, so we have…

[DB]: I wasn’t going to throw any stones.

[RD]: …No, no, we should go there, because obviously, you know, the American Catholic Church – and to some extent the global Catholic Church as well – has had a huge sex abuse problem that everybody listening or watching this show is very well aware of; and I think that the phenomenon you’re describing is exactly right. There isn’t some Conservative Christian cure for, you know, the way sex and sexual sin manifest itself. But what tends to happen in debates within the Catholic Church, which is obviously the area I’m most familiar with, is: something like the sex abuse crisis happens, and then the more, sort of, theologically liberal voices within the Church will say: “Well, this proves that priestly celibacy is a mistake,” right? You know, this proves that the Catholic Church is too hung up on sex, and needs to get over those hang-ups and, you know, move into the 21st century and so on. And it’s that point that I think is just – I think it’s pretty much flat wrong, because I think it is the reality of sexual sin makes it all the more important for Christian institutions to offer some kind of countersign, some kind of manifestation – whether it is the call for priestly celibacy, the emphasis on chastity before marriage and continence within marriage and so on, you know, a sort of – if not a prohibition – at least a strong disapproval of divorce. That countersign is made more important by the reality of sin, rather than being necessarily undercut by it. And that, I think, is what I tend to see as missing from Liberal Christianity – sort of a way of manifesting that countersign.

[DB]: And that language and some of the theology that’s been developing around that has been part of the discussion, say, in the Episcopal Church about homosexuality, but is not the piece of the discussion that makes the front page of the paper. And the way in which some Liberal Protestants are discussing these kinds of issues now and trying to teach our children – I have a 14-year-old daughter! Believe me, these things matter to me deeply, and…

[RD]: I have an 18-month-old daughter. I’m already dreading…

[DB]: Give me a call in a few more years. One of the things that we talk about in our family, and certainly in traditions that I’m familiar with, are practices like: what does it mean to honor one’s body? And that comes out of scripture; comes out of the ancient tradition; it comes out of the idea that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; that God occupies, as it were, our bodies – and to teach that to our children is not just to teach them a bible verse to memorize, or some sort of ancient belief, but instead is to say: this is really what the community, over time, thinks about our bodies, and that this needs to be honored. It needs to be honored in us, and so sexuality becomes part of a more holistic discussion – particularly with daughters – about things like eating disorders, how far you go with your boyfriend, whether you stay celibate before marriage, how you relate to people who have different perspectives of this, who are in middle school with you – yeah, that’s where it starts – and so, honoring one’s body is a place that Liberals, really, can start with this. And also, I know you know Andrew Sullivan, I don’t know him personally, but I certainly have read him on this, and his whole argument for same-sex marriage, marriage equality, is honoring the traditions of monogamy and chastity and beauty that the Christian tradition teaches when two people commit themselves to a life of faithfulness. So I think there are ways to do it from a Liberal perspective, and that are really theologically rich and are in line with the tradition – not woodenly – but in an open sense, where it’s not just about rampant sexual freedom in mainline churches. You really can’t go to most mainline churches and expect an orgy on the altar, you know, it’s just not happening. People are a lot more conservative than that, in some senses.

[WG]: I’ve got to interrupt, because it’s interesting to me that I hear – in your language and in your presentation on this – I hear more of the difference between you than I’ve heard on anything else that you’ve answered. You’re talking about honoring the body. You’re saying no divorce, no sexual promiscuity – and that’s more the core traditional language; this is more the relevance, try-to-relate language. OK. What does each of you most disagree with in the argument of the other?

[DB]: Well, the conversation that we were just having actually points to it – and Ross had said it, actually, earlier – and that is, he says he wants to begin with dogma and move toward moral formation; and actually, that’s exactly the opposite way that I move. And I think that that…

[WG]: Say how you move.

[DB]: Well, the example that I just gave of starting with a practice: honoring one’s body, and then moving toward belief or doctrine or dogma is the way that Liberals – and Post-Liberals, if we’re talking about that tradition, of that renewing tradition – the way that we move. We start in practice, we start in sort of the lived experience of the community over time – because we include the longer historic experience of the Church – but it’s out of practice that we come to form belief in doctrine, rather than the idea that there is an unchanging core of faith that you give your life to, and then out of that develop a set of practices. So I actually hear that as exactly the opposite.

[RD]: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a little blurrier than exactly the opposite, but we can, I mean for the sake of the argument, I think it is sort of the nub of the disagreement. I think that you would agree that dogma isn’t inconsequential; and I would agree that experience and life in community isn’t inconsequential. But the relative weight that we give to dogma, I think, is the biggest difference between us; and the relative weight we give to the importance of specificity in commandments, you might say, or the authority. To what extent does authority reside in the bible, the Church, and the historical deposit of faith; and to what extent does it reside in the experience of the community right now. And this really is, I think, the biggest sort of Liberal-Conservative, Progressive-Orthodox, you know, whatever division you want to make – that’s the biggest divide, and it is sort of a chicken and the egg, you know, dogma and practice kind of question.

[WG]: But it has consequences for which comes first.

[RD]: Right. And it has consequences for how – I mean, to get back to sort of where you were saying that Liberal Protestant communities were trying to begin gets back to, you know, how do you think about the words of Jesus? How do you think about the function of the New Testament message in the life of faith and so on, and how do you think about the authority of that message – and how far are you willing to go in revising that message depending on personal experience and contemporary realities? And my view is that the temptation in Liberal circles is to go so far that you end up unraveling, you know, you pull the thread out so far and suddenly you’ve unraveled the place you began – and then it’s, sort of, well, why are we Christians, again, anyway, if we think that Jesus got this wrong, and Paul got that wrong, and it was the first century and they didn’t know what we know now, if you see what I mean. I think that’s the danger: that you follow the thread so far that you look back to the beginning and say, well, you know, Jesus, nice guy, got a lot of things right, got a bunch of things wrong; you know, Buddha, same way. We’re sort of mixing and matching, and then you aren’t really, you know, there isn’t any there there anymore. That’s the apocalyptic view.

[DB]: I was going to say, that’s the stereotype.

[RD]: It’s stereotypical.

[WG]: You have a quick comment on that?

[DB]: Well that, about 40 years ago an Episcopal theologian, who unfortunately died far too young, named Urban Holmes, wrote an incredible essay called “Praying Shapes Believing” – and I think that that essay has had sort of a seminal impact on, certainly me, but I think also a lot of what’s going on in mainline: is that our beliefs really do spring out of the life of liturgy and prayer, out of how the community lives together in those places. And so it is a big disagreement about the order of these things – although there are, as you nicely say, there’s a lot of nuance there that you can walk into.

[RD]: Right, well, I mean, Conservative Catholicism is not exactly an anti-liturgical community.

[DB]: Right, and Liberal Episcopalianism, with its recitation of the Creed every week, is not exactly an anti-orthodox community.

[RD]: No, no, you wll hear the Creed recited more often in certain Liberal congregations than you will in notionally Conservative mega-churches and so on. That’s absolutely the case.

[DB]: So I just, that whole sense of practice preceding belief, I think is really important – and what you say about belief preceding practice – you can run to the edges of those and find the stereotypes, or you can have a really good discussion that we’re having, that begins to sort of understand the nuances of that, and how that works together for what could be the good of Christianity in America for the future. Because for the stereotype of Liberal Christianity – you know, the stereotype of Conservative Christianity isn’t very good either. If you put belief before all this other stuff, before community, you wind up with witch hunts, and all kinds of oppression of people, and that is not pretty. As a matter of fact, there are probably more people right now who are leaving Christian Churches because they think that Christians are narrow and bigoted and dangerous than there are people who are leaving because they think Christians are kind of goofy and, you know, maybe theologically sloppy.

[RD]: That’s because the people who left the Churches for those reasons left over the last 30 years – but, yeah.

[DB]: Those people are already out. But you know, there is more of a stereotype right now about this sort of, you know, hyper-orthodoxy leading to a kind of a Fundamentalism that is hurtful to democracy and hurtful to individuals who are seeking to have a meaningful life.

[WG]: I’ve got to jump in, because I’ve got two questions I want to ask while we’re still on the air. One: for each of you, what if you’re wrong? What if your position’s wrong?

[DB]: Hey, you’re talking to a girl who grew up in Evangelicalism. If I’m wrong, I go to hell.

[RD]: I wouldn’t say that. You know, we Catholics believe in invincible ignorance. Everybody can get in, you know.

[WG]: But it’s a serious question. I mean, what are the consequences if you’re wrong?

[RD]: Well, what’s the context of my wrongness? We’re right that there is a God and so forth? I mean, because if there’s no God, that changes a lot of things!

[WG]: No, no, no. I am presuming that both of you are concerned about contemporary Christianity. Its integrity, its vitality, its relevance, how it’s going to survive – and each of you has a conviction about what needs to happen for organized Christianity to realize its potential. So, what if your perspective is wrong?

[RD]: Well I guess I’ll start. If my perspective is wrong, then I and people who agree with me will be remembered – I mean, there’s always a tension between doctrine and contemporary reality, right? And there’s always an entanglement, you know, we live in a fallen world. There’s always an entanglement between the Church and the culture, between the Church and existing biases and power structures and so forth, and there are times when people – Christians making the Conservative argument – end up becoming too attached to those power structures, those habits, those biases and bigotries, and not recognizing that the core of Christian faith is pointing in a different direction. And so in that sense, if I’m wrong, I’ll be remembered as one of those Christians, right, as somebody who just didn’t see that it actually, you know, didn’t compromise Christianity to shift significantly on sexual ethics, and that actually that was as necessary a shift as the Catholic Church’s shift on religious liberty, right? So, the Catholic Church had one view of religious liberty in the 19th century, and a different one post-Vatican II; and there were continuities between the two views, but there had been a shift. And I think that was a positive shift, and I could list other positive shifts; so in that sense, there’s always the possibility that as a Conservative you’re privileging your Conservatism over your Christianity, and that’s something that anybody on my side of these debates has to keep in mind.

[WG]: What about you, Diana?

[DB]: Feel the flames! No, I think it’s interesting, because as a person who does understand myself as Liberal or Progressive, I kind of always assume I am wrong – and so I spend a lot of time ruminating on where I might be wrong, and where I need to be more humble, and think through what I’m saying, and make sure that the advice and the passions that I’m communicating to people who trust me and look to me for leadership are not being seriously led down a garden path. So I think that when you ask a question about what happens if I’m wrong – it’s not so much a personal thing, even though I did make the joke about going to hell – it’s that I worry about folks who take me seriously as a leader, and I think, well, if I’m wrong and I say something that they embrace and begin to practice in their communities and it winds up hurting the fabric of community – that becomes a huge and terrible burden to bear. And so I am thinking more about the impact of what I say in that larger cultural arena than I would be about my own opinions.

[WG]: Second question is: what in contemporary Christianity most excites you? What are you vibrant about because it’s happening?

[DB]: The crisis is actually the thing that excites me the most. When I was little and growing up in the Methodist Church in Baltimore – I mean, you could say that there was crisis in the air, certainly there was a big cultural crisis at that time in the 1960’s – but my Methodist church was so dull that it was almost unspeakable. And now you go to church, and some of them are dull – you know, good for dull – but an awful lot of them aren’t. The people are engaged in some really interesting discussions in the ground level, people are having really fascinating arguments. The institutions are really struggling right now to pay their bills and think about what the ministry is going to look like for the future and who should be ordained and, you know, can we marry these people and not these people, and what happens if we pray for this in public prayers… And so the whole level of energy and fervor and even argument is, to me, the place of enthusiasm – because it opens up a possibility that people are ready to change. And that people do actually still love these old institutions, and see them as valuable, and want them to continue in some fashion for the future. But they don’t really know how to do it – so it’s a great time for imagination and creativity.

[WG]: Mr. Douthat.

[RD]: Yeah, I think to come to somewhere where we agree again, I think that in decline there is the possibility and the reality that Christianity becomes countercultural in a stronger way than it’s been at certain points in the American past, and Christianity is supposed to be a countercultural religion. It’s a religion that was founded on the crucifixion of somebody we believe to be the Son of God alongside two common criminals. You can’t really get much more, sort of, counter the institutions of the age than that. And I think you can take that line too far – I mean, I’ll have people say to me, you know, well because Christianity is more countercultural today, that shows we haven’t really lost anything and so on. I don’t think that’s right; I think we have lost a lot of things over the last 50 years, but it’s still the case that a crisis is an opportunity, and it’s a particular opportunity for a faith like Christianity that isn’t supposed to get too comfortable in any particular culture, any particular time and place. And it’s true for the mainline and their struggles, it’s true for more theologically conservative Christians who feel sort of marginalized. You know, you’re supposed to be the salt of the earth and all that, and there’re real chances to do that in a society that is a little more hostile to your faith than it used to be.

[WG]: What about the discussion that we’ve just had? Any surprises, any new insights, any sense of where the next stage or step of your ongoing dialogue, debate will be?

[RD]: I mean, I sometimes like to think – and I go back and forth on this, depending on which blog post I’ve read in a particular day – but we’ve lived through an era of incredible polarization and real culture war and so on, that was driven, I think, by these deep tectonic shifts in the 1960’s and 70’s. And so in my own Catholic Church, the previous generation of Catholics is just completely polarized between Liberal Catholics who are like, you know, it’s the spirit of Vatican II and we need to keep pushing that ahead; and Conservative Catholics who are all about John Paul II and sort of shifting the direction of the Church. And in my generation, I do at least see a possibility – and you can see this in some of the common ground we found in this conversation – that at least some of that polarization can become less important, and that certain forms of common ground can be rediscovered by people who aren’t personally invested in something that happened in 1968. So that’s sort of my hope.

On the downside, you know, with my own book I would sort of go up and down on that, depending on which review I was reading, right? And sometimes I’d read more liberal Christians saying: “Oh, Douthat is really saying some interesting things,” and I’d be like, “Yes, there’s some common ground there!” And then I read what I thought was a viciously unfair attack from someone on the liberal side, and I’d say: “Oh, to the barricades, Sarah Palin for president.” So, you know, you go back and forth depending on the day.

[WG]: And what about you Diana?

[DB]: Well, I actually, part of the reason I do what I do in working with these institutions and writing these books and all is certainly not because you get rich doing it. You know, hey yeah, I get paid by mainline Churches, you know, it’s a great income stream! But part of the reason I do what I do is because I really honestly and deeply understand that religious life in the United States is the underpinning of our democratic life. And anybody that cares about our life as community and the common good over the last 20 or 30 years really, truly has to be heartbroken. By the way, religion has been sort of forced into boxes to serve agendas that wind up breaking us apart and not allowing us to really try to create a different kind of America for the future: a good America, that picks up all the things that we love the most about what it means to be American. And so I care about religion, and I do care about finding these kinds of conversations and creating some theological understanding. And I think that the only way that common ground can begin to be achieved in religion – so that it functions as a seedbed for a larger common ground across the culture – is that when we address these issues in public, as we’re both responsible to do, that we don’t start with stereotypes and straw men and women of each other’s positions. It’s interesting – I can tell them this on air – my publisher, when your book came out, they wanted me to write an editorial attacking your book so I could sell my book. And I…

[RD]: My publisher wanted me on the nasty reviews I mentioned; of course they want you to respond immediately and so on.

[DB]: Right. And so you know…

[RD]: It’s though times for the book business, so it’s all hands on deck – if you had done so, I would not have been offended. Well, I would’ve tried not.

[DB]: Well I do understand that – but I’ve read your book, and I actually tried to write something that would be edgy and negative and mean to get attention to my work – and I literally sat at my computer, and I couldn’t do it. And my publisher was standing there going: “Where is that editorial? Where is that editorial, we want to send it to the New York Times” – and I finally said to them after the longest time, I said there is not going to be any editorial. And I said, you know, he has a perspective on this; I disagree with it, I think he’s missing some of the point, and that he stereotyped some of the things that I am deeply passionate about, but I don’t think that it helps for me to come out and attack this person who I’ve never met just in the sheer commercial enterprise of selling books.

[RD]: And she just guarantees herself entrance into heaven right there.

[WG]: Well let me tell you I…

[DB]: When you did write the thing about the Episcopal Church, it was a natural opening to engage in a real discussion – and so, well, that’s the answer for me, is that I want a real discussion with people who are truly open to not just stereotype, but to have conversations about the importance of religion in American society so that we can be a better America.

[WG]: I really appreciate both of you coming to the studio. I appreciate the kind of conversation we’ve had. One of my hopes, always, for State of Belief Radio is that we can model in some way the kind of conversation that needs to go on in America – whether the issue is religion or politics or some other item – and I think you all have done that well. I want to say in closing – and I’ll give you an opportunity to rebut if you don’t like my closing – it occurs to me that for a person concerned about authentic Christianity, that whether you start with where Ross is or whether you start with where Diana is, if you’re going to be thorough in your thought, you have to give attention to what each one of you has said in order to keep the whole thing together – because there is a tension in religion, always, that requires both an interest in the core and an interest in the relevance, and those two have to be held in some kind of tension – whether the application comes first, the practice comes first as Diana says or whether the core comes first as Ross says. Thank you all very much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio.


Now this is a GREAT interview….

Diana Butler Bass:  On the Vitality of “re-traditioned” mainline Protestant Churches



Interviewer: Tracy Schier

Diana Butler Bass is currently a senior research fellow at Virginia Theological Seminary where she directs the Lilly
Endowment funded Project on Congregations of Intentional Practice: A Study of Mainline Vitality (see the website: She also is an adjunct faculty member at the seminary, teaching courses on
Religion, Race, and Gender; Religion and Public Life; History of the Episcopal Church; Religion in America; and
American Congregations among others. Her Ph.D. from Duke University is in the field of American religious history
with additional emphases in American social and intellectual history, 17th-19th century English religious history, and
historical theology. She holds her M.A.T.S. from Gordon Conwell and her B.A. from Westmont College.

From 1997 to 2000 Bass was an associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College. Prior to that she taught at Macalester College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Westmont College. She has had a number of grants and fellowships including a research grants from the Louisville Institute and a dissertation grant from Duke University.   Bass is the author of Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community (Jossey-Bass, 2002) which received numerous “best book” and “recommended reading” notices. For her 1995 book, Standing Against the Whirlwind: Evangelical Episcopalians in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press), she was awarded the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History. She currently has three books slated for publication between 2004 and 2006.

Q. Before we talk about the essence of your study of congregations of intentional practice, please give us some details about the denominations you are looking at and also the numbers and size of congregations.

A. As of right now we are studying 45 congregations, but that number may go as high as 70. That includes mostly Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian congregations, a few UCC churches, two Disciples congregations and one Reformed Church in America. The group is geographically and racially diverse. We have attempted to cover a wide spectrum of mainline churches: working class, upper middle class, inner city, suburban, a church in a mining town, rural. The smallest congregation has an average Sunday attendance of 75, the largest, over 2,500.

Q. Your project is looking at “intentional practices that foster vitality” in mainline Protestant congregations. How are you defining intentional practices?

A. Our understanding of practices draws from two bodies of literature: those who, like Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra, define practices as theological or ethical; and those who, like some Anglican and Catholic theologians, define practices as classical spiritual disciplines. But the basic definition — practices are things that Christian people do together that connect them to God and one another, and that address fundamental human needs, thus forming a way of life — leans on the definition found in Practicing Our Faith.

In the congregations we are studying there exists an enormous range of practices — those that are primarily devotional such as centering prayer or following a daily rule of life, and those that arise out of the desire for moral meaning such as forgiveness and hospitality. In addition to practices that are within the rubric of “moral” or “ascetic,” we see some churches being purposeful about leadership or administrative practices, that is, they are thinking of leadership as discipleship in areas of preaching, decision making, discernment, and even congregational budgets and elections. Ultimately, however, this project is trying to work from congregational practices up; not definitions down. Thus, we intend to explore practices-as-lived. This approach, I suspect, may enrich or enlarge the theological definitions of Christian practices.

Regarding intentionality: there is a difference between accidental practices and purposeful ones. Accidental practices are, as novelist Anne Tyler suggests, ancient “grooves of habit and neighborhood,” that provide comfort and continuity in life. Such “grooves of habit” exist everywhere in churches — caring for the sick, assisting the
bereaved, giving money to the poor, following inherited forms of worship — but people do not typically reflect on received habits. Intentional practices, on the other hand, are consciously chosen in reflective and reflexive ways — they shape the lives of those who are doing them and there is a purposefulness and clarity about them. In a sense,
intentional Christian practices are new habits, habits born in baptism, strengthened in eucharist, “mastered” through discipleship. They are not “grooves of habit,” but they are like an art of habit. Because they are chosen, people have to know why they have embraced a particular way of life, to articulate it, and to be able to teach and share the
practices that have been meaningful to them.

Q. Can you talk about the “vitality” you are looking for in congregations—how do you recognize it?

A. We are not looking primarily at numbers. Neither size nor budget necessarily translates into congregational vitality. Instead, the project has identified three qualitative markers, or touchstones, that we believe communicate congregational vitality:  coherence, authenticity, and transformation.

First, we are looking for coherence: does a particular practice cohere across a congregation? When you walk through the door of a congregation that has coherence this is visible in their use of language, in their symbols, in architecture, in the bulletin, in mission statements. Coherence among such things shows that these churches are really serious about hospitality or forgiveness or whatever practices they have embraced. Through these things, they introduce newcomers to the practice – teaching and forming others in faith in verbal and non-verbal ways.

Second, we are looking for authenticity. Is a particular practice connected to the life of the congregation as lived experience and not just the hope of a board of elders or the person who wrote the mission statement? In such churches the congregational history is important — the people know how they arrived at where they are. Also, the stories of the members of these congregations are important because these stories witness or testify to its faith practices. The practices are authentic to the congregation’s fundamental identity.

A third marker is transformation. Have the practices changed the lives of the people who are participating? Have the structures of the church, the way things are done, changed in relation to the practices? Has the community around the congregation changed in some way by the church’s practice of faith? And finally, we look at how the
congregation connects its stories to biblical stories. Are people articulate about the connection between what they are doing and the larger Christian story?

Q. You also use the term “neo traditional” to describe the churches you are studying. Can you talk about the nuances of that term?

A. Actually we are moving away from that term and substituting “retraditioning” which is more of a sociological term. Some theorists talk about how Western culture has gone through “detraditioning” and broken away from its religious moorings. But this really is not the whole story. There are many places, in the churches we are studying for
example, where people are re-looking at tradition and re-fashioning it in meaningful ways for today. These congregations are reaching back to the past, identifying practices that were an important part of that past, and bringing them to the present where they can reshape contemporary life. One simple example of this is walking a
labyrinth, a devotional discipline that combines practices of silence, pilgrimage, healing, and prayer. Walking prayer is a tool from the past. When borrowing the labyrinth as  a contemporary discipline, Christians engage in an act of retraditioning and invest an ancient practice with new meaning.

Another example comes from a Methodist church we are studying. That congregation is attempting to emphasize the apostolic core of faith in everything that they do. They have chosen Acts 2:41-43 as the place where they can see themselves and model their behavior accordingly. It is more than a mission statement. It has become the guiding
principle of discipleship in community for them. This is clear in their worship, in their practice of hospitality and in the ways that the church members relate to one another and to others outside of the congregation. Again, they have taken an ancient pattern, in this case one found in the New Testament, and reinterpreted it for contemporary people
as an ordering point of Christian way of life. That is retraditioning.

Unlike the churches we are studying, most mainline Protestants didn’t talk about tradition a few decades ago — they tended to be more interested in contemporary issues, problems, and theologies. Congregations disengaged from or muted tradition.

But now some mainline Protestants appear to be asking new questions of the old traditions — often in the context of important changes in our praxis. Our concerns with things like social justice and women’s ordination, for example, changed the way mainliners understood the Gospel, ministry, and discipleship. In this study we are looking at churches that honor the recent past of Protestant experience — the justice and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s — and are fusing those concerns with a developing appreciation of older patterns of practice. In a very real sense, American mainline Protestantism was “detraditioned” in the 1960s, and appears to be engaged in “retraditioning” itself now. It is in these “retraditioning” churches that we are discovering new patterns of vitality.

Q. What is the catalysis that turns an existing congregation into a church that would fit the definitions of those in your study?

A. It often develops as a result of some kind of crisis in the congregation, a precipitating event that teaches the leadership and the membership that the church cannot continue in its received ways of doing things. These crises are varied — some are financial, some have to do with declining membership, or a leadership crisis. We are studying one church that was burned to the ground in a lightening strike, another where the deaths of teen-aged members shook the congregation to its core. But in all of the instances, the people had to consider what it means to be Christian, why it matters to live faithfully, and why their church should even continue to exist. We have a small number of churches where charismatic leadership sparked change, and a couple where there was no definitive, precipitating event. Rather, congregants had a collective spiritual hunger to go deeper.

Theologically, I would like to say the catalyst appears to be the Holy Spirit!

Q. You have been fascinated by Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra’s description of practicing congregations as being like monastic communities with porous boundaries. Please talk about that.

A. That is an important observation — and a deeply Protestant hope for serious spirituality to shape the life of Christian communities in the world. One of the churches that we are studying calls itself an “urban abbey.” They have developed a congregational “rule of life” that is given to all members, including newcomers, and the members adopt at varying levels. It consists of things like reading scripture, daily prayer, working with the poor. This church was in a state of decline in a rapidly urbanizing neighborhood and is now experiencing new life through this vision.
Intentional and practicing congregations have an earnestness about them and a sense of discipline that applies to their individual lives as well as to their lives in community. That, in turn, makes them vital places, attractive to others seeking meaning in life.

Q. What have you learned about the relationship between “spirituality” and “religion” in studying these churches?

A. I believe that the dichotomy between spirituality and religion in our culture is a false one. People who discover meaning through some sort of spirituality or spiritual practice usually look for others with the same experience and, if several spiritual practitioners gather to share insights and their craft, it becomes “formalized,” usually in the form of religion. The churches participating in this study are influenced by the culture of spiritual seeking. These congregations have intuited the need for connecting people to God and to others, and they are doing it within received theology and the reexamining of old traditions. Spiritual hunger and cultural restlessness are changing the mainline.  Churches are responding to that. And in doing so, they defy all the current categorizations we have for American Protestantism. They are not really “liberal” or “conservative,” “progressive” or evangelical.” They are something else altogether.

Q. What differences are there between the churches you are studying and other mainline churches?

A. We definitely see more hands-on service. The members of the churches we are studying are not just writing checks. These people are getting into the messiness of going on mission, not just sending money to the mission. What we term “charity” and “policy advocacy” are seen as the old way of doing social justice and as being
disconnected from the people. The congregations we are looking at would rather do justice work than pay for someone else to do it. One of the Methodist churches we are studying is helping its people to develop a commitment to a life of service by sponsoring a one-week mission to urban areas or Appalachia. Of course, not all people can do this — but those who can are deeply affected — both in their prayer life and in the way that they understand their commitment to God and to other people in and out of their congregation.

Q. Are there aspects of contemporary American culture that are helpful to the development of the congregations you are looking at?

A. There are four trends I believe are helpful. First is the detraditioning I spoke of earlier. That has forced people to ask, “what have we done and what can we do with tradition?”

Second, what scholars call the “third disestablishment of religion,” that shift from external to internal authority, has been influential. Sometimes church leaders bemoan the decline of religious authority in our culture, but that same “decline” has forced people to be more pro-active in making religious choices and moral decisions. The switch to personal autonomy gives congregants a bigger stake in their religious commitments and promotes seriousness in congregational involvement.

Third, the development of post-liberalism, which is a profound trend both religiously and politically, has helped many people to evaluate both the blessings and the banes of the old liberal culture — a cultural worldview that was tied to the mainline tradition — in relation to the Gospel. Mainline Protestants are learning to distinguish between the church and the world more clearly.

And fourth, there is a real interest in developing mastery of practice. There is a whole cultural stream looking at practice and communities of practice and seeing how that can be incorporated into daily life. This is translating into congregational life.

Q. What aspects of contemporary American culture might you see as a hindrance to developing congregations of intentional practice?

A. We really are a materialistic society, and we are numbers driven. If the mainline gets caught up in the numbers game — whoever has the most members is the winner — then we are in trouble. The emphasis has to be on God and neighbor and loving people. There are so many distractions in the U.S. that it is hard for people to keep
their attention on that.

Q. If a congregation is intentional about being a practicing congregation, how does it know when it is successful?

A. These congregations don’t use the language of success. They use words like process and journey. They have come to understand that the Christian life is an incomplete project, and they are constantly open and wanting to learn new things. They are not closed to new ways, and they would not ever say that they have “arrived.” And  certainly, these are not the biggest churches or the churches with the biggest budgets.  The people in these churches are concerned with how they relate to the Christian tradition in their lived, congregational life. These congregations are intent on finding out what God is calling them to do and how they can respond to that call through their prayer lives and through their practices. They are concerned with being faithful Christians rather than being successful ones.

Q. As you look at your study of these churches so far, what surprises have you had?

A. One of the biggest is the response of pastors and lay leaders when we call them to ask  if we can spend time with them. We are greeted with surprise—a kind of “Really? Us?” reaction.

I would also say that I am surprised by the aggregate of the stories we hear from these congregations. We are not really talking about any new programs here — no magic bullets. It is all about these congregations finding their own way of being church. This is not a program. It is a way of life. This is something that cannot be planned. It cannot
be charted. It is about adventure and risk taking, accepting the funny and accepting the tragic, all the while being open to the Holy Spirit.

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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January 2022



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory