A little bit of this, a touch of that

Anyone who speaks to real people about religion knows that individual faith is much more complicated than what tradition one belongs to.

People who officially belong to a given denomination often have beliefs that go beyond the boundaries of their identified religion. This has become especially true in recent decades, as people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds have become influenced by eastern spirituality.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life confirms that many people dabble in several different faiths at once or at least add “foreign” practices to their own traditions.

The Pew people say:

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Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

image002Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).

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USA TODAY’s Cathy Lynn Grossman explores this spiritual terrain very well. She writes:

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And, according to the survey’s other major finding, devotion to one clear faith is fading.

Of the 72% of Americans who attend religious services at least once a year (excluding holidays, weddings and funerals), 35% say they attend in multiple places, often hop-scotching across denominations.

They are like President Obama, who currently has no home church. He has worshiped at a Baptist church, an Episcopal one, and the non-denominational chapel at Camp David.

“Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is as much the norm as it is the exception,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman says. “Are they grazing, sampling, just curious? We really don’t know.”

Even so, says Pew researcher Greg Smith, “these findings all point toward a spiritual and religious openness — not necessarily a lack of seriousness.”

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Many religious leaders and seminary types, especially those from conservative or traditional camps, will gnash their teeth over these findings. They’ll see this “One from column A, two from column B” approach to spirituality as inauthentic, weak, and a diversion from the practice of their true religion.

But how can they stop it?

The cover story in the December issue of the evangelical monthly Christianity Today is headlined: “Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life: More people than ever doubt that anyone has a corner on truth. So why do Christians keep insisting on the incomparable uniqueness of Christ?”

The author, John Franke, of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Penn., writes: “Denial of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Life ends up compromising the distinctive Christian teaching that God is triune. Doing so cuts the heart out of Christian witness in the world.”

He concludes:

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As we try to witness to our relativistic world about the uniqueness of Christ, we have to abandon the idea that this is something we can demonstrate with definitive proof, particularly to those who are predisposed to deny this. It is beyond the scope of human ability to produce in others the faith to see Jesus as he is. But it is the church’s calling to continue to bear witness to Jesus and demonstrate the significance of his person for the whole fabric of Christian faith.

The belief that Jesus Christ is none other than God come in the flesh shapes our understanding of every point of distinctive Christian teaching. I’ve argued in a recent book that the diversity of the church is not a problem to be solved but is, in fact, the blessing of God. Indeed, the proper expression of orthodox, biblical faith can only be characterized by plurality. But in the midst of our diversity, we must remain unified on this point—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we fail to stand fast here everything else will be in vain and the Christian church will lose its bearings. We will fail in our missional vocation to be the image of God and the body of Christ in the world.

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Chart: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

‘Humanitarian veteran’ gets top evangelical post

Remember when Richard Cizik, the “moderate” head of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, resigned some six months ago?

He had acknowledged changing his feelings about same-sex marriage and was subsequently booted.

Well, the NAE has named his replacement, Galen Carey, a fellow with a long history of fighting poverty and AIDS.

According to an introduction in Christianity Today:

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The new director’s résumé spans four continents and numerous job descriptions. Carey spent 26 years working for World Relief, three of them in Washington as director of World Relief’s advocacy and policy. Most recently, Carey built a church network to combat HIV/AIDS in Burundi, Africa.

Carey will be responsible for representing the NAE and its constituents — which include 45,000 churches from more than 50 denominations — to lawmakers and advocacy groups.

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Carey acknowledges the much-publicized broadening of the evangelical agenda in the U.S. He says it’s been going on for a long time: “Evangelicals have been more apt to be directly engaged in addressing issues like poverty or HIV/AIDS on the community level. As a result, we recognize a public policy dimension, which leads us into more political engagement. It’s probably people in the mainstream belatedly discovering that evangelicals do have quite a variety of interests.”

An evangelical Presbyterian in New York

I continue to be fascinated by how New Yorkers see all those evangelical Christians out there and by how Christians of the Heartland look at all those heathen New Yorkers.

It’s a staredown of sorts, based on some real truths, assumptions and myths on both sides.

The June issue of Christianity Today has a cover story on Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which is widely known outside of New York for bringing a lot of New Yorkers to…you won’t believe it… church.

The article explains that Keller was teaching and preaching in Philadelphia — not exactly cow country — when he wound up accepting a call to start a new church in the Ungodly Apple.

He got started 20 years ago, in 1989.

The article explains:

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Tim found Manhattan non-Christians amazingly, sometimes naïvely, curious. Though the borough’s 1.6 million people were used to religious diversity, many had never talked to an evangelical. Tim’s interest in art and music was an indispensable gift in communicating. His omnivorous reading also helped. New York is a city of high achievers to whom, Keller says, it made sense that a minister should be a scholar of ancient texts, exposing them to ideas and information beyond their experience. They needed someone who spoke their language, though, and Keller was a quick learner.

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Today, Redeemer sees about 5,000 people on Sundays at five services at three locations.

And Redeemer is planting churches around the New York area — including Trinity Presbyterian in Rye.

Keller insists that for 20 years, he has tried to preach to non-Christians. The idea is that many New Yorkers who come to his church, maybe with a friend, are not Christians. So he needs to meet them where they are, spiritually:

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The Kellers (note: meaning Time and wife Kathy) stick to a few rules. They never talk about politics. Tim always preaches with a non-Christian audience in mind, not merely avoiding offense, but exploring the text to find its good news for unbelievers as well as believers. The church emphasizes excellence in music and art, to the point of paying their musicians well (though not union scale). And it calls people to love and bless the city. It isn’t an appeal based on guilt toward a poor, lost community.

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The article makes a case that Keller changed the way that Christians look at New York and even cities in general. In fact, a Christianity Today editor named Andy Crouch is quoted as saying “Redeemer was the first to lead this change of posture to the city.”

A Redeemer elder named Charles Osewalt, a high school principal in the Bronx, explains why a change in viewpoint was needed: “Most churches look at New York as a cesspool.”

Rick Warren, with plenty to say

“Purpose Driven” pastor Rick Warren has been quiet lately.

He’s declined interviews since President Obama chose him to give the benediction at the inauguration.

But he talked yesterday with Christianity Today’s Sarah Pulliam and covered a lot of ground: California’s Prop. 8; political involvement; Obama’s views; his new magazine; interfaith relations; and — get this — his recent baptism of 800 people in one day.

About the mega-baptism, he said: “I was in the water for over five hours. I had webbed feet. It had to be a record. You know, it says in Acts that at the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized and added to the church that day. We had 2,400 added to the church that day. The world belongs to Saddleback. When we started Saddleback, it was a white suburban church. We speak 65 different languages. It’s the United Nations. I baptized an Egyptian General; I baptized probably 50 or 60 nationalities.”

Imagine, 2,400 people added to the church in one day. Around here, a lot of mainline churches would throw a party if they could add 24 new members in one year.

About the president, he said: “Barack Obama knows we disagree on a number of issues. I talked to him about it before he decided to run for President, and I told him that I think his views on abortion are wrong. You can like somebody without agreeing with all of their policies. Most people know that I was a friend of President Bush. I didn’t agree with everything President Bush did.”

About those who opposed his role in the inaugeration because he opposes same-sex marriage, Warren said: “The truth is, Proposition 8 was a two-year campaign in the state, and during those two years, I never said a word about it until the eight days before the election, and then I did make a video for my own people when they asked, “How should we vote on this?” It was a pastor talking to his own people. I’ve never said anything about it since. I don’t know how you take one video newsletter to your own church and turn that into, all of a sudden I’m the poster boy for anti-gay marriage.”

Photo: Associated Press