Category Archives: Spiritual But Not Religious

The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation

semper-reformanda1About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. –
                                                            Bishop Mark Dyer

Change is happening within American Christianity. New ways of being church are springing up all around. Unlike the “worship wars” of previous decades, which pitted traditional and contemporary proponents against one another, the movement today is not so easy to classify. Terms such as “emergent,” “post-denominational,” “post-modern” and “progressive” attempt to describe the Christian scene and the movements going on within it. Each of these categorizations contains within itself a wide variety of interpretations of what it really means.

All of these are taking part in a “giant rummage sale,” as Bishop Dyer so brilliantly describes it. However, it’s clear that we’re not all in agreement about what we should keep and what we should give away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we’re in the process of getting ready for the sale. If you’ve ever held a yard, garage or rummage sale, you know the work that goes into putting it together. The first thing you have to do is look over all of your stuff with a critical eye. As you look at each cherished possession, you ask: Do I want to keep this? Is it still useful? Does it still fit? Does it still work? If the answer is ‘yes,’ the decision is easy; it’s a keeper. And if ‘no,’ to the sale it goes.

It gets a bit more complicated when you have an item that is tarnished, worn or outdated but you think there just might be some life left in it. You have to ask yourself if maybe, if it were cleaned up, restored or reworked, it could still be of value to you. A dusty old heirloom might just turn out to be a new treasure.

So it is in present-day Christianity. We’re looking with critical eyes at social issues, liturgical forms, biblical interpretations, theological teachings and the use of language. However not all churches necessarily deal with all of these, nor would they all agree. For example, a few years ago I attended, along with some members of my current congregation, a conference on the emerging church. First United considers itself to be a progressive congregation, committed to the use of inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God. At First United’s rummage sale, we had examined patriarchal language and decided that it had to go. So we were quite surprised by the lack of inclusive language used at the conference. We realized that we are all making different value judgment about our treasures. This is the reformation that is happening all around us. Old ideas are being reexamined, transformed or rejected; new ones are emerging.

Why is all this change happening now? Taking her cue from Bishop Dyer, the late Phyllis Tickle posited that we are in this current “giant rummage sale” simply because it’s time for one. In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, she outlined the upheaval that has occurred every five hundred years since the time of Jesus.

The Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century. The 11th century saw the Great Schism, which split the Eastern and Western Churches. In the 6th century, the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages. All of these upheavals included  both societal shifts and theological issues, just like we are experiencing now in the 21st century.

What I find most helpful about Tickle’s theory is that what we’re going through is normal. That means we can go about being creative and hopeful, rather than hidebound and anxious. This is good news because the church has been anxiety-driven for quite a while. Our outreach efforts have been fueled by the decline in membership in Christian congregations. Pundits have been writing ad nauseam about the reasons for this. The latest trend is expounding on the characteristics of the Millennial generation and how the church can reach out and reel them in. Some of these same “experts” also tell us how to appeal to those who are “spiritually independent” (a more positive way of saying “spiritual but not religious” or “none”) all around us.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 1990s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. The experts told us then that we had to adapt to the needs of Gen X and  if we’d just follow their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We actually bought a program like this in my former congregation.

We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant! We envisioned our little congregation in a Northeast rustbelt city grow1381770_10201458045106340_670873635_ning by 200-400%. Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the laws and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot. Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our preschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighborhood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some twenty years after our venture into church growth. The congregation is still small, but they’ve partnered with a congregation in the suburbs and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration last year, one of the things I enjoyed most was the cookout held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree. Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of doing ministry in different settings.

Issues may change. Culture may change. The task of the church is to live out “ecclesia semper reformanda est” (“the church is always to be reformed”). In reaching out to Millenials, spiritual independents, the “church alumni society*,” we must take up the challenge in our own time. The inclusion of interfaith and intrafaith is an essential part of living out this challenge.

Imagine my delight in arriving at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley to work on my doctorate in this area and discovering a course called “Martin Luther and Buddhism”! In the class I became immersed in a fascinating convergence of Lutheran and Buddhist teaching. I was mainly interested in learning about a tradition other than mine. After all, I knew about Lutheranism. But to my surprise, the primary benefit of the course for me was an invigorating renewal of Luther’s theology of the cross. Through study of the Buddhist concept of dukka (suffering), I was able to reimagine the central symbol of Christianity that I had not been sure I could espouse any longer. My rummage sale item could still be a keeper.

• What is an aspect of the Church that you would like to give away?

• What do you definitely want to keep?

• What are some components that you think might be redeemable with some work?

 

*Phrase coined by Bishop John Shelby Spong to describe those who have left the church

 

(excerpted from The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?_

 

 

Pluralism Summer: Weeks 5 & 6

165763_489522519437_2022599_nI first met Dolores White back in 2002 when I had just arrived in Berkeley. I’d met Paul Chaffee from the Interfaith Center at the Presidio and was invited to a board meeting. Somehow I found my way from the East Bay to the far side of San Francisco (the Presidio is not easy to get to on public transportation and my car was still back in Buffalo).  I’ve gotten much more savvy about navigating the streets of San Francisco, but back then I wasn’t sure how I’d ever find my way back home.

Dolores, a member of the Baha’i faith, was one of the board members who welcomed me that day and the first to offer me a ride to the nearest BART station. I was so grateful. Since then I’ve learned that that’s just Dolores: graciousness personified.

She was one of our speakers two summers ago, when our theme was the environment, and I’m so glad she agreed to come back for Week 5 to address the question of how her Baha’i faith informs how she thinks about politics.

Unfortunately, however, I won’t be there. I’ll be attending NAINConnect 2106 in Guadalajara. NAIN is the North American Interfaith Network, founded in 1990 as a way to build communication and mutual understanding among interfaith organizations and diverse religious groups throughout North America.

d4ba2c0967b317439c004019f5e18b66This will be the first gathering in Mexico and there will be an emphasis on Indigenous Peoples and their relationship to the land/struggle for land and water rights.  The theme of the conference this year is Sacred Space. According to the planners, we’ll be looking at sacred space in the widest sense possible – our inner sacred space, the space we create together in relationship, our worship spaces, holy places, the land and the earth and the universe as sacred. Also, my workshop proposal was accepted, so I’ll be leading my first interfaith intrafaith conversation!

WEEK 6 of Pluralism Summer will be completely different. Middle Circle will be taking over the entire time slot. Middle Circle is the “spiritual but not religious” community sponsored by First United. The theme’s question had to be a little different for this group: “How does your religious/ spiritual/ philosophical tradition inform how you think about politics?” Not only will Middle Circle give us their insights, they’ll also help those of us in the “traditional” church expand our ideas of what the interfaith community includes.

Pluralism Summer is an initiative of First United Lutheran Church, a progressive church, rooted in the Reformation tradition, which says that the church, our worship, and our music must always be re-forming. We believe that it’s more important to ask the questions than to know all the answers.

We believe that, as theologian Hans Kung wrote:
“There will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the religions.  There will be no peace among the religions until there is dialogue among the religions.”

We believe our wisdom will only be enhanced by continued conversation with all of our neighbors. Together we work for peace, justice, and the good of all people and all creation.

 

Pluralism Summer: Week 3

This past spring, peter_erlenweina colleague called me to ask if I knew a place where the author of a new book on interreligious spirituality might present a talk on this topic. Intrigued, I agreed to a virtual introduction and then went on to set up an in-person meeting.

When I met Dr. Peter Erlenwein at the Dolores Park Cafe, I knew we were talking the same language! And I was delighted that he accepted my invitation to be part of our Pluralism Summer series.  I didn’t know much about Dr. Erlenwein at the time of that first meeting, but I have since discovered the depth of his knowledge and experience. And while listening to him talk at that first meeting, I realized how relevant his research is for today’s explorations of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Peter Erlenwein, Ph.D., is a sociopsychologist and transpersonal therapist from Germany. His integral approach combines Jungian archetypal psychology, meditation and body mind work with dance, ritual and role-playing in the context of sacred text reflections of different religious traditions. His spiritual insight and life has been deeply inspired by his decades long travels to India, Southern Africa and now the US. As a radio journalist, author and intercultural researcher he has been publishing continuously on interreligious subjects. His latest book is titled: Und sah die Himmel offen. Spiritualität diesseits und jenseits von Religion (And saw the heaven open. Spirituality this side and beyond religion).

I’m looking foreward to hearing what Dr. Erlenwein will have to say this Sunday about the intersection of religion and politics!

 

New Voices in the Conversation Part 1: Spiritual Independents                                                                                         

droppedImage_2Those of us who are still in the church must accept the fact that for many people the old categories of Catholic/ Protestant, Episcopal/ Methodist, high church/ low church, contemporary/ traditional, etc. just do not matter. There are new voices contributing to the religious scene, although most of them would not like to be referred to as religious. These voices deserve to be heard. They may have left or never been part of the church, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot to say about spirituality, the meaning of life and how to make a difference in the world.

Spiritual Independents
A piece of accepted wisdom among many involved in interfaith dialogue is that one must first be grounded in one particular tradition. This is reflected in the quote by Mahatma Gandhi that . . . our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.” However, according to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under thirty – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

We often refer to these folks as the “spiritual but not religious” or “Nones.” But I agree with Rabbi Rami Shapiro, who has declared that these designations are too negative and has coined the more positive “spiritually independent.”  In Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent he says:

“Most of these so-called Nones are not dismissive of God or spirituality but simply find religious labels and affiliation too narrow and constraining. This is why I choose to call this segment of the population by the far more positive and accurate term spiritually independent.”

In another positive take on it, the Rev. Dr. Anne Benvenuti, a Board Trustee for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, writes in “The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”: “I know a lot of Nones and many of them are Alls. They celebrate the Winter Solstice, and Easter sunrise, they may do yoga or meditate, and they give thoughtfully to charities, all in no particular order, but depending on where they are, how they feel, what seems to be called for. They resist labels produced by media-saturated culture to represent certain predetermined sets of characteristics. They distrust such prepackaged beliefs, and also distrust religious institutions that are so often corrupt and hypocritical. Yet they value human spiritual heritage, often in great variety, and many of these people are more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one.”
“The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls”

In the new emerging community being formed by Mission Developer, Pastor Anders Peterson under the sponsorship of my congregation, First United Lutheran Church, we are finding the truth of these perspectives. Mission, defined as converting people to Christianity, does not work with this group. Openness to other religious traditions is essential. This is not to say that we deny or water down who we are; we do our work in the world as Christians. But we do it as Christians who have worked through the intrafaith questions that are raised by many as they are confronted with this population. According to the Rev. Bud Heckman, senior advisor to Religions for Peace USA in New York City:

“A couple of decades ago this category accounted for no more than a single-digit percentage of the population. Today it accounts for one of every five people in the States, and one in every three amongst those under 30 years of age. The numbers are even higher in Europe and China. This means there is a great deal of fluidity in identity that is socially permissible in ways that simply were not true before.”
“Five Things Changing the Way Religions Interact

We do not know what Mahatma Gandhi would make of our world today. However it is clear that, both within Christianity and on the interfaith scene, the spiritual independents must be part of the interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

  • Do you know someone who would be considered spiritually independent? If so, have you had or could you have a conversation with that person about what they believe?
  • Are you a spiritual independent? How would you describe your spirituality?