Fishing for post-Christians & post-moderns

It’s one of the BIG QUESTIONS that all religious groups wrestle with: How do you hold to fundamental beliefs and bedrock traditions — while adapting to cultural change and expectations?

fisherman.jpgBishop David Olson, the acting bishop of the New York Metro Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, opens his column this week like this: “What will Lutherans of the next generations believe? Belief, doctrine, even theology seem to be waning.”

Seem to be waning. Hmmm.

Instead of summarizing the rest, I’m going to give you the whole thing:

Seminaries have added practical—stewardship, administration, staff work, finance—and contextual courses, partly due to the frustration of laity and many pastors that they weren’t equipped for some essential ministries. One result is less attention to the Bible and historical theology.

Then there’s worship. Many congregations experiment with praise songs, alternative prayers, contemporary music, less scripture, and new styles of preaching. The accepted liturgies of our denomination reflect our beliefs, but when these beliefs are not learned, Lutheran theology is thin or absent. Of course, the publication of ELW with one liturgy in ten settings hardly straps us in. Bach is not God, and music has always reflected the times.

Similarly, key teachings and formulas are being modestly made gender-neutral or more inclusive. Is it as orthodox to say, “Blessed be the Holy Trinity, one God, the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation”? Or must we say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”?

Those who use such alternatives are not unthinking or unorthodox. They are reading their audience and encountering barriers to receiving the Word. They perceive that many are biblically illiterate and spiritually impoverished. They would like to bridge a growing gap, especially to the young, to the post-Christians or post-moderns who simply discard any kind of religious thought. They are indeed fishing for men and women.

The study of human sexuality is a particular case. The current draft does not presume marriage as an order of creation, as Lutherans have for centuries. It proposes incarnation and justification instead of natural law as an acceptable, Lutheran basis for an ethic to guide us in matters of sexuality. Carl Braaten writes that this confuses Law and Gospel, a fundamental Lutheran lens for reading Scripture and guiding Christian living. Are orders of creation or Law and Gospel absolutes and the core of our faith? Are alternative Lutheran themes as valid? To pose this one high-voltage dilemma succinctly: Will a whole generation of young adults—most of whom accept homosexuality as a given—be alienated? Or must we better persuade and teach them our tradition in this matter?

And how important in preserving our traditions are our ecumenical partners? We are intentionally growing closer to them, accepting and reconciling teachings our ancestors rejected. If we can make such ecumenical agreements for unity, can we not adapt Lutheranism for a mission to redeem and reclaim all peoples? If we reconcile with the Presbyterians our fathers in faith disavowed, we must be able to reconcile our faith in changing modern times. After all, we are the Reforming church.

Again, I invite you to consider not the merits of new or old liturgies, formulas of our faith, or current ethical topics, but simply how do we hold to the faith handed down to us—what we call Lutheranism? Should we? And if so, what parts must not be changed?

Our poll, back in 2000, also asked about ‘other’ religions

Following up the Pew Forum’s finding that 70 percent of Americans agree that “Many religions can lead to eternal life…”

Way, way back in 2000, the Journal News/LoHud commissioned the Zogby folks to do a pretty major religion poll for us (focusing, of course, on the Lower Hudson Valley). There was a lot of religious talk at the turn of the millennium, so I convinced the powers that be (or were) to spend some money and get a handle on our religious communities.

One of the questions our poll asked was this: Do you believe that your religion is the only true religion?

At the time, 20.9% said yes, 74.6% no. Another 4.4 percent were not sure.

Christians, by the way, hardly varied. 23% said yes and 72.8 percent said no.

How will Bruno’s retirement affect gay-marriage debate?

I had an article in Sunday’s Journal News/LoHud about religious lobbyists taking a keen interest in Gov. Paterson’s call for state agencies to recognize gay marriages from other states.

I wrote that the New York State Catholic Conference and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical group, are each aiming to make voters aware of how candidates for Senate feel about same-sex marriage. The Republican-controlled Senate has not passed a gay marriage bill — as the Democrat-led Assembly has.

It’s helped the cause that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno had pledged not to allow a vote on gay-marriage to come to his floor.

amd_bruno.jpgBut now Bruno is hanging it up. And everything changes. This fall’s Senate elections will be even more closely watched.

You have to figure that Sen. Dean Skelos, who is expected to take over as Senate majority leader, possibly today, will seek to calm the nerves of those who don’t want to see the definition of marriage in New York changed in any way.

But he’s not Joe Bruno, who had rock-solid control over a big hunk of New York state government.

How long before Skelos says something about Paterson’s directive on recognizing same-sex marriages from elsewhere?

Hey Pew, who believes in what?

There is so much food for thought in the new Pew Forum report — part II of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey — that it’s hard to know where to begin.

The initial breakdowns /summaries/analyses have focused on what Pew describes as a lack of dogmatism among Americans.

Here are Pew’s findings:


So what stands out?

Only majorities of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses doubt that other religions can lead to salvation. It’s not at all surprising that high numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and mainline Protestants believe that there are many paths.

What about 57% of evangelicals? It’s hard to know what to think because we’re talking about such a large, diverse group. But 57% doesn’t strike me as being outside the range of what could be expected.

I would say the same thing about Catholics, who came in at 79% for “many paths.” Vatican II certainly laid the groundwork here, even if the Catholic Church continues to insist that it is the surest and fullest path to salvation.

Then comes Pew’s fascinating findings on what different religious groups believe about God. Here they are:


Okay, so 92% of Americans believe in God. We hear that all the time. But what does that mean? Not everyone believes the same thing.

By and large, most Christians believe in a personal God, which makes sense since Christians believe that God walked among us and that Jesus makes possible individual salvation. Non-Christians are much less likely to see God as looking out for them. We already knew this, but it’s interesting to see the numbers.

Large percentages of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelicals believe in a personal God. I’m a little surprised that the numbers aren’t a little higher for Catholics (60%) and Orthodox Christians (49%), but these groups don’t talk in the same way as evangelicals about a personal God. The words may mean something different to them.

I’m not surprised that 50% of Jews see God as an “impersonal force,” but am a little surprised that 42% of Muslims do. Again, though, the very question of whether God is personal or impersonal may have little meaning to non-Christians.

Okay, how can 21% of self-described atheists believe in God? Maybe they are really agnostic, but think it’s kind of hip to claim to be an atheist.

But what about the 6% of atheists who believe in a personal God? That just doesn’t make any sense. George Carlin would get a joke out of it, I bet…

To remove or not remove an Hasidic woman’s wig

There have been several interesting court cases in recent years over whether Muslim women can wear the hijab (head covering) when having a picture taken for their driver’s license.

Now a police officer here in Ramapo is taking some heat for forcing an Hasidic Jewish woman to remove her wig for a head-shot after her arrest.

Many Hasidic women who are married wear a wig to cover their hair, which is to be seen only by their husbands.

Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence apologized for the officer’s conduct, saying that a female officer should have processed the woman. He said that police officers will be given a new round of sensitivity training.

Americans are religious (as you thought), but diverse in beliefs

Americans are religious, alright, but not dogmatic.

That’s a main finding of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s second report, released today, on the U.S. Religious Landscape. The study is based on interviews with 35,000 adults.

It’s going to take me a while to sort through the findings, so here are some highlights, according to Pew (in their words):

  • Although many Americans are highly religious, they are not dogmatic in their faith. Seventy percent of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Most also think there is more than one correct way to interpret the teachings of their own faith.
  • This does not mean, however, that Americans take religious matters lightly. Most, in fact, say they rank the importance of religion very highly in their lives, and a plurality wants to preserve the traditional beliefs and practices of their faith, while only a small minority wants to accommodate their religion to modern culture.
  • There is tremendous diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the U.S. Important religious differences exist between the major religious traditions, but there are also important differences within religious traditions.
  • While more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there are considerable differences in the nature of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four – including about half of Jews and Hindus – see God as an impersonal force. Similarly, seven-in-ten Americans say that they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, while roughly one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.
  • Three-quarters of Americans report praying at least once a week, with large majorities among most religious traditions saying they pray on at least a weekly basis. Even among the unaffiliated, roughly one-in-three pray on a weekly basis. At the same time, however, there are those among all faith groups who pray much less frequently; overall, one quarter of the public says they pray a few times a month or less often.
  • Almost two-fifths of Americans report meditating at least once a week. This practice is particularly common among Buddhists, but nearly half of evangelical Protestants and Muslims say they meditate at least weekly. About one-quarter of the unaffiliated report weekly meditation. These patterns may incorporate elements of both Christian and non-Christian traditions.
  • Politics and religion in the United States are intertwined, and religion is highly relevant to understanding politics in the U.S. Yet while the diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice translates into important differences on many social and political issues, differences on other issues are less pronounced.
  • Religion is closely linked to political ideology. The survey shows that Mormons are among the most politically conservative groups in the population. Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, by contrast, are among the most likely to describe their ideology as liberal.
  • People who regularly attend worship services and say religion is important in their lives are much more likely to identify as conservative, and this pattern extends to many religious traditions. For example, within the evangelical, mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Orthodox Christian traditions, those who attend church weekly are significantly more likely than those who attend less often to describe themselves as political conservatives. And among Jews, those who say religion is very important to them or pray every day are more likely than others to be politically conservative.
  • The connection between religious engagement and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to hot button social issues such as abortion or homosexuality. For instance, about six-in-ten Americans who attend religious services at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while only three-in-ten who attend less often share this view. This pattern holds across several religious traditions.
  • On other topics covered in the survey, such as views on the role and size of government and foreign policy attitudes, the role of religion is less clear and there appears to be greater consensus across and within religious traditions. For instance, a majority of nearly every religious group supports stricter environmental regulations and believes the government should do more to help Americans in need. Similarly, most Americans, including majorities of most faiths, say it is more important to focus on problems here at home than to be active in world affairs.

Hindu group: ‘Love Guru’ only vulgar

I’ve blogged a couple of times about Rajan Zed, a prominent Hindu leader from Nevada, going all Catholic League against the movie The Love Guru.

He and some others feel that the latest Mike Myers vehicle belittles Hindu customs.

lg01844_500.jpgThe Hindu American Foundation, though, which got a preview just before the move opened, is less bothered by the film. You have to love this headline from their press release:

“The Love Guru” is Vulgar but not Hinduphobic, Say Hindus Attending Special Preview

Aseem Shukla, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Director, said:

The film was vulgar, crude and, in the opinion of many of our attendees, too often tasteless in its puerile choice of humor. Very few of the Hindus viewing the film, however, found it overtly anti-Hindu or mean-spirited, indeed no Hindu or Sanskrit terms beyond ‘guru’ or ‘ashram’ are ever used in the film. But given the costumes and overall concept of the film, Paramount would have done well to issue a disclaimer in the opening sequence that the characters and events are not based on Hindu spiritual masters.

The foundation has set up an on-line survey for people who see the movie to weigh in.

I haven’t seen it and don’t know anyone who has…

Carlin meets his maker?

George Carlin is dead.

I bet he’s got a couple of good jokes about wherever he is right now.

No subject was more a staple of Carlin’s act than religion. He hated it.

carlin.jpgFew mainstream entertainers have been as openly, as blatantly, anti-religion as Carlin. He mocked the very idea of God and belittled everyone who believes.

In his famous “Religion is BS” riff, he said: “When it comes to big-time, major-league BS, you have to stand in awe, in awe, of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: religion. No contest, no contest.”

He goes on: “Religion has actually convinced people there is an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do…”

He made no real distinction between belief and institutional religion: “Religion takes in billions of dollars. They pay no taxes and always need a little more.”

For me, Carlin was often hysterical (his baseball vs. football bit, of course). But he often crossed over into hyper-cynicism, like when he made fun of the very idea of voting.

But he was one of a kind.

Here’s the whole “Religion is BS” bit (if you can take it):

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Sunday is ‘Day of Prayer’ for Episcopalians as Lambeth Conference nears

Next month, Anglican bishops from around the world will gather for the once-every-10-years Lambeth Conference.

Well, most of them.

Five of the 38 Anglican primates have announced they will not attend to protest the inclusion of bishops from the gay-friendly Episcopal Church.

We’ll be hearing tons about this over the next month.

060618_episcopalians_vmed_4pwidec.jpgEpiscopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (that’s her) has asked Episcopalians to participate in a Day of Prayer this Sunday (June 22). Here’s her letter:

To the people of The Episcopal Church:

As we move toward a great gathering of bishops from across the Anglican Communion, I call this whole Church to a Day of Prayer on 22 June. The Lambeth Conference represents one important way of building connections and relationships between churches in vastly different contexts, and reminding us of the varied nature of the Body of Christ. I would bid your prayers for openness of spirit, vulnerability of heart, and eagerness of mind, that we might all learn to see the Spirit at work in the other. I bid your prayers for a peaceful spirit, a lessening of tension, and a real willingness to work together for the good of God’s whole creation.

As many of you know, the Anglican Communion is one of the largest networks of human connection in the world. Churches are to be found beyond the ends of paved or dirt roads, ministering to and with people in isolated and difficult situations. That far-flung network is the result, in part, of seeds planted by a colonial missionary history. The fruit that has resulted is diverse and local, and indeed, unpalatable to some in other parts of the world. Our task at the Lambeth Conference is to engage that diverse harvest, discover its blessings and challenges, and commit ourselves to the future of this network. We must begin to examine the fruit of our colonial history, in a transparent way and with great humility, if we are ever going to heal the wounds of the past, which continue into the present. With God’s help, that is possible. I ask your prayers. I can think of no better starting place than the prayer for the Church (BCP p 515):

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

I remain
Your servant in Christ,

+Katharine Jefferts Schori

What now for the Legion of Christ?

Catholic analyst John Allen writes today about the fall-out from his explosive interview with Archbishop Edwin O’Brien about the Legionaries of Christ. O’Brien talked about asking the Legion to reveal all its activities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and to stop offering spiritual counseling to minors.

Allen writes:

Since my interview with O’Brien appeared, I’ve had a high volume of responses, much of it from people who long ago made up their minds about the Legionaries. There were, however, a number of other reactions that weren’t quite so according-to-script. One prominent American Catholic commentator, for example, who has a number of friends in the Legion of Christ, called to say that he hopes the O’Brien interview will “jar loose” what he sees as a taboo within the group concerning discussion of charges of sexual abuse leveled against the late founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.

For the record, those charges were widely publicized in the 1990s, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened an investigation in 1998. In 2006, the Vatican released a communiqué stating that on the basis of that inquest, it had decided to invite Maciel “to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.” Many observers took the decision as tantamount to a finding of guilt.

060519_maciel_hmed_530ahmedium.jpgAs I wrote a few days ago, the Legion — a fast-growing and generally conservative Catholic order of priests — has a strong presence here in the Burbs. It owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but the order’s development plans have run into lots of community opposition.

Allen writes extensively about how the Legion has dealt with/is dealing with the allegations against its founder (that’s him with JPII). Allen summarizes things well here:

The identity and spirituality of a religious order is deeply tied to the personality of its founder, and there aren’t many ready examples of orders which have flourished despite compelling evidence of moral corruption on the part of the founder. To acknowledge merit to the charges against Maciel, at least in the eyes of some, would therefore be tantamount to jeopardizing the viability of the communities he founded. It could also, of course, jeopardize the vocations of Legionaries intensely devoted to the figure of Maciel.