(Reblog) Belief Is the Least Part of Faith

Once again, T.M. Luhrmann has managed to fascinate the imagination and highlight the complicated nature of our postmodern religious landscape.

Reblogged from the NY Times:

Not all members of deeply theologically conservative churches — churches that seem to have such clear-cut rules about how people should behave and what they should believe — have made up their minds about whether God exists or how God exists. In a charismatic evangelical church I studied, people often made comments that suggested they had complicated ideas about God’s realness. One devout woman said in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

It was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, but also a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real. She chose to foreground the practical issue of how to experience the world as if she was loved by a loving God and to put to one side her intellectual puzzling over whether and in what way the invisible agent was really there.

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

Click here to read the full article

Why Liberal? The Confession of a Recovering Evangelical

Several months ago, I put up a post on Common Sense Liberalism, where I intentionally began an effort to reclaim the term ‘liberal’ from its pejorative captors in the political and religious realms.  It’s all part of my personal effort to explore what it means to be a ‘liberal’ Christian in ways that transcend the polarizing animosity that is currently ripping our churches and state capitols apart.

If that’s the case, one might argue, then why not abandon the dualistic liberal/conservative language altogether?  There may well be a valid point in that.  However, I’ve chosen to self-apply this particular moniker, instead of the more current buzzword ‘progressive Christian,’ for three reasons.  First of all, it is used an insult.  Commonly accepted group labels like Quaker, Methodist, Unitarian, and Christian had similar origins as insults.  Personally, I don’t mind plucking this term from the landfill of language and bringing it back to life.  I’m a liberal Christian.  Double insult.  “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  (Jesus, John 15:18)

Second, I don’t think working toward peace, unity, and purity in church and society necessitates the elimination of all distinctions.  I think it involves holding those distinctions differently.  I don’t want to be a watered-down, lukewarm, non-committal, middle-of-the-roader.  I want to be a liberal Christian who understands what respect, decency, and amicable compromise mean in the midst of controversy.

Finally, I’ve chosen to retain the word liberal for personal reasons related to my own journey.  I wrote a Facebook post recently where I compared my relationship to evangelicalism to the relationship between a recovering alcoholic and social drinking.  Some people can be evangelical Christians and live sane, healthy, and balanced lives.  But, for whatever reasons, I cannot.  I’ve spent many years blaming evangelicalism itself for the spiritual wounds I obtained in my late teens and early twenties.  But I think it’s time that I also take responsibility for the ways in which I intentionally chose to sustain an unhealthy relationship with my theology.  I tend to give myself wholly to the things I care about, sometimes pushing past the point of reason.  In a subculture that supported biblical literalism, I pushed it to the extreme.  My friends and pastors supported me in this because they thought I was just “on fire for Jesus.”  They probably had no clue that I was actually nursing a pathological obsession that eventually bordered on the psychotic.  I still think there are many aspects of evangelical culture and theology that are worth criticizing.  However, it’s time that I stop casting them as villains and myself as victim in this story.  It’s time that I own my part in it.  I’m a recovering evangelical, not because evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.

Why I’m (not) a Heretic

This post is a follow-up to my previous one (see ‘Internet Heretic Superstar‘).  A former seminary classmate asked me over Facebook why I chose to use the term ‘heretic’ in describing myself in that post.  This is my response to her question.  Many thanks to Ahna Phillips for getting me to explore interesting questions!

I use the term heretic in a (somewhat) sarcastic way.  Do I really think of myself as a heretic?  No and yes.  No, I don’t think that I’ve been deceived by lies and led away from the truth to the peril of my soul.  On the other hand, the word ‘heretic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘choice’.  As you know, it initially referred to those who embraced their own ‘chosen’ faith rather than orthodox tradition.  In that sense, one could say there is a ‘heretical’ element to all Liberal, Evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, and Christian faith.  Each of these broke with its mother tradition at some point in order to pursue a new vision of faithfulness.  Jesus himself was once branded as an insane and demon-possessed terrorist/heretic.  One could argue that being called a heretic is indeed a badge of honor insofar as it puts one in a position of solidarity with the Christ.

As for me personally, I use the term ‘heretic’ intentionally in order to describe a theological shift that’s been happening in me this past year.  For the last decade or so, I’ve hovered on the very edge of the Evangelical world (in the territory generally occupied by the so-called ‘Emergent’ types).  Over the last twelve months, certain events have transpired that lead me to realize that I cannot authentically or conscientiously continue to identify myself as an ‘Evangelical’ (even in the ‘Emergent’ sense).

I’ll discuss two of these events here:

First, I resigned from the priesthood in the Free Episcopal Church for various ethical, professional, and personal reasons.  An unfortunate side-effect of this move is that I was cut-off from the more catholic expression of my faith, which had been a kind of anchor for me.  Without that particular expression of worship, there was apparently little to keep me in conformity with traditional doctrine.  I’ve continued my ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA), where the liturgical/sacramental aspect is not emphasized as much.  There is considerable theological diversity in the PC(USA), ranging from conservative/evangelical to progressive/liberal.  The colleagues with whom I associate and the presbytery in which I serve (Utica) are generally representative of the latter.  Iron sharpens iron, as they say.

Second, I came under intense fire last summer when I went on local TV as a pastor in support of my state’s new same-sex marriage legislation.  While many of my committed Evangelical friends and family were extremely understanding, respectful, and supportive of me, the backlash from the broader community was astounding.  The Rescue Mission of Utica, where I had worked and volunteered for over five years banned me from preaching in their chapel services.  An Orthodox priest I know is no longer on speaking terms with me because I supposedly “blasphemed the Holy Spirit” by supporting this legislation.  Violent hate mail directed toward me poured in through newspapers and the TV station.  I realized then that the Christianity they practice bears little resemblance to the Christianity I practice.  Self-identifying as Evangelical would be both inaccurate and disrespectful to Evangelicals and to me.

On the other hand, I’m finding that personal distance from the term ‘Evangelical’ is allowing me to appreciate certain things about their tradition that I would otherwise miss because I was too busy trying to fight back and prove myself as ‘one of them’.  For example, I’m finding that I respect the Evangelical commitment to studying the Bible, personal spirituality, and engaging in mission.  These are gifts from which the larger Christian community can reap blessings.  Too many folks in the progressive/liberal mainline are stuck in old patterns of institutional maintenance, dry rote, and biblical illiteracy.  Evangelicals have something to teach me, even if I can no longer count myself as one of them.