Monday, February 19, 2018

Seeking Caring Community

I laid out the highlights of my not religious journey a few weeks ago, and it got me thinking about details along the way.

Some people have specific events that made them quit religion, but I’m not one of those. If anything, there were a few things I can remember that kept me hoping that I could get continued value from that community. One of those was meeting Rabbi Michael Lerner. He had written some books on applying his Jewish traditions to liberal politics and for a few years had been an advisor to the Clintons who were Methodists, just like me. Ideas like the Jubilee year where debts are forgiven or the Sabbath where you unplug all your electronic devices for a weekend. This was before smart phones. A lot a people talk about this as a good idea now.
A community formed around these and other ideas and that work continues. It’s good stuff, but the Biblical connections were not that direct. His work is a good response to fundamentalism. It shows you can go to church or synagogue or mosque and be inspired to work for justice and peace and equality. But if you’re looking to make a case that the Biblical narrative leans more to the left, I didn’t find that there.

For more detailed Bible study that does look for modern messages in the text, there was the Jesus Seminar. This group of authors was active the 1990’s. Dominic Crossan is still writing and speaking. Marcus Borg died recently. Robert Price has since become atheist, but he still studies the Bible. In the first book I read from that group, they put the gospels side by side and showed how they are irreconcilable. I have since come to see these things like this more cynically. They are things you can learn, but really not apply. It’s an anti-fundamentalist statement, but doesn’t tell you much about what the gospel authors were trying to say.

They are a way a church can show it is progressive and opening up to new scholarship, but they don’t integrate the study into the full mission. I read that book as part of an adult study class. That’s where this kind of study usually ends up, relegated to the basement with a small group. They are a spoon full of progressivism for those who are asking for it, but they are still feeding the same old buckets of liturgy every Sunday.

So, that’s my cynical view, but I have to admit that some of this education included the political messages of the narratives. These are stories of an oppressed people under the rule of a conquering empire that had co-opted their religious leaders by sharing some of their riches with them in exchange for keeping the populous in line. That’s a universal story that repeats itself throughout history up to this day. What the Bible offers are stories about how they dealt with it.

For example, when Jesus says, “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. He doesn’t mean, pay your taxes and shut up. Before he says that, he gets a Pharisee to pull a Roman coin out of his pocket. That coin has Caesar’s face on it, and he is considered a god. This is idle worship, and without saying it directly, Jesus just pointed out how the leaders of his religion are corrupted. We do this today by calling out Joel Osteen for not helping people during Hurricane Harvey.

So going down to the basement was one way to find deeper discussion about interpreting scripture, the other direction is up the leadership chain. There are a variety of seminars available to help potential leaders grow, and although you are again meeting in smaller groups, at least there is a sense this is the direction of the national organization, not just some pastor who found a book he liked. One of those classes I attended talked about something called the “Rule of Christ”. If you Google that you will get a ton of hits about Christ being the ruler of the kingdom. That’s not the one I mean.

The one I’m talking about is found in Matthew 18:15-20. It’s about how you handle a member of your group who is not on board with the mission. You speak to him privately then bring in more people if more understanding of the situation is needed. Then if needed go to whatever decision making body you have. If the situation still can’t be worked out, it may be the person has to go.  Now, there’s some danger of this being used to enforce “group think”, so 5 verses isn’t enough to cover that, but it’s a good start. It’s better than letting rumors fly or of letting one disruptive person poison every meeting.

That kind of study was going well for a few years then I thought it would be a great idea to become a lay speaker. A lay speaker can fill in for a pastor on Sunday and usually has some other leadership duties. I went to an all day event where we talked about what it was about and what the United Methodist Church was up to. One of their programs was called “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”. Sounds pretty self descriptive, and from the diverse group of people attending the class, it seemed like openness was the direction we were all headed. The church that was hosting the event had an entire set displaying the idea with doors and banners.

Then one of the speakers gets up and a few minutes into his talk, picks up one of the brochures for that “open” program and says, “we don’t need to worry about open doors, we need to get back to the miracles in the Old Testament.” A little later at lunch, he floated this idea again, asking rhetorically, “what would happen if we all got up in front of our churches and started saying that miracles were real.” No one said a word, probably a pretty common response to someone saying something like that. He tried answering it himself, saying it would cause miracles to happen or something.

I wrote the district Bishop about it and received no response. I talked to a couple pastors and got sympathy, but not much else. One of the other leaders at the event said she wasn’t happy about it either, but there wasn’t much she could do. What I saw was, the church leaders believe they need to keep as much of the old ways as possible even as they try to move forward. This is obviously about keeping butts in pews but it is also simply a lack of vision.

There are people like me who want to be part of an organization that is serving those who want to work for a better world. We can, if we want, find groups that address specific topics and volunteer our time doing something we consider worthwhile. It’s harder to find a place that addresses our need for community, our need for places where we celebrate our accomplishments and counsel each other on our failures, where we discuss the foundations of our values. You can see the numbers by looking at the declining church going population. There are polls showing many of those people left because the church is not open to new ideas. But churches are not good at addressing that population. They are experts at welcoming the fallen back into the fold, but when someone is going through serious doubts, they are almost silent.

When I tell stories like this, I often hear the response, “that’s not my church. We’re not like that.” I’ll address that next time.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Humanize Me

Two former pastors talk about how to reach understandings with people who are different from us.

If you are unfamiliar with Bart or uninterested in his whole story, you can skip to about minute 15 for the part I’m highlighting here. The movie he is talking about is about him and his dad and their religious differences. Bart left his dad’s ministry work and became an atheist. He was a Humanist Chaplain at USC up until recently and is interviewing Ryan Bell who just took over that job. Ryan is also a former pastor. 

The story Bart wants to tell is how people seeing the movie were not so interested in the reasons for choosing or not choosing religion, rather they enjoyed how a father and son worked to understand each other and discussed their shared values. He maps this on to the work they both do with young people.

In the secular groups they work with, people with different foundations come together and they aren’t interested in taking away their foundations, instead they want to know how that foundation generates their values. He lists three layers; the values, then the worldviews that generates them, then the reasons you adopt that worldview. The lowest of these is the reasons. It’s the least interesting and we often aren’t aware of why we believe what we believe, yet we spend a lot of time there.

Ryan points out it’s interesting to explore the reasons if you have the time and interest in philosophy and psychology, but that’s not essential to living a good a life. “You don’t need a master’s degree in philosophy to be a good person, thankfully, otherwise we’d all be a bunch of jerks.”

For many people, beliefs and identity are wrapped up, hard to separate.If you question why they believe something, they react as if you are attacking them, as if you are attacking who they see themselves as. This comes up when a value comes up, like how we treat children or should teens have sex or who should own what kind of gun.If instead of asking how they came to hold that opinion or why they hold it, ask, “how does your belief generate your value?” Like, what does Christianity make you want to do? Or, how does belief in some principle inform your political decisions? People can talk about that. They want to say how their beliefs function, not their validity or some logical explanation for them.
As Ryan says, we want people to explain their reasons when we are critical of their beliefs or actions. But when someone criticizes us, we find it hard to separate the reasons from our identity.
It may not be satisfying to hear their story, and by definition, not logical, but it’s more likely you will find common ground with the values. When we meet someone we don’t know much about we find more success if we don’t go looking for foundational differences. We talk about kids and grand-kids and how we want to see them grow up healthy with an honest view of the world and to be able to explore choices and to apply their talents to maintaining and improving an open society so they can pass it along to another generation. You will eventually bump into those differences and some people can’t get past them, but this approach Bart and Ryan discussed seems more likely to lead to continued relationships with a wider range of people.

Ryan sums it up by thinking about his goal for life, how he will look back and judge himself. His goal isn’t to get people to have his same philosophical underpinnings. He’s not going to judge his accomplishments based on getting 87 people to adopt his beliefs. But he will think about the lives he’s touched and how that expanded into the world. He hopes his being alive will make some small improvement on the overall well-being of others.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

My not religious journey

I haven’t done a “spiritual journey” post in a long time, not since I was a church-goer, so it’s about time.

My early years are not that significant, other than to point out that I was not indoctrinated into any particular tradition. My mother left a very religious family when she married my father and my father’s family was more about business than church. My Dad’s brother did get involved with church after he had kids, so most of my church going and church family experiences happened when we visited relatives. I grew up in Mid-West America, so obviously I know about church, but more as an observer.

It was when I was 33 and bought a house that I really started to think about community and church was a natural extension of that. I had some Unitarian and Buddhist friends and a nice young pastor knocked on my door one day and gave me a video tape about the book of Luke. I eventually found a liberal United Methodist church populated by people who had grown up in the 60’s and who were now involved in their inner city neighborhood. We talked about and acted on the social justice aspects of the New Testament.

That was great, until I moved to a small town and found it a lot harder to find that type of community. There were a few people like that but you have to mix with a lot of other personalities if you want to have any kind of social life when there are so few people. This is really more typical of how churches work. Sermons have to appeal to range of politics and personalities. It was happening in my church in the city, but I just didn’t notice it as much since I was in the majority. Now it was very clear, they preach to what the people want to hear.

The church I found was so small, there was no children’s program, until one day a couple kids showed up, and something came over me and I volunteered to be the Sunday School teacher. It turned out to be quite a challenge to find a curriculum that wasn’t all about preparing little souls for the afterlife. 10 year old boys are also the best for asking the tough questions of why they need to go to church. This led me to the internet where I thought I might find some good arguments for the existence of God but instead I found these YouTubes of what began as a cable call-in TV show in Austin TX, The Austin Atheist experience. In my attempt to formulate an argument to call in, I talked myself out of belief.

There were other things going on. I was considering becoming a lay speaker and I found that the education they wanted me to have for that was very different than what those old hippies at the inner city church were talking about. I was also discovering liberal former Bishops like John Shebly Spong and reading their books. And there was this movie Zeitgeist. It had a strange logic against religion that I couldn’t quite refute, so I had to develop my own ability to research and think critically to decide if it was valid or not. In that process, I realized that movie was wrong, but the Christian narrative was also seriously flawed. All my bad reasoning dominoes fell.

So now I found myself in an almost alien world. I needed to figure out how it got that way and where I fit in. I had always lived a little less than a straight and narrow existence, but now I’d let go of the moral system I’d been living with for 17 years. I knew science and the philosophical enlightenment had led to the democratic system I lived in but I knew that system had some major problems. Studying the history of how those things came about has turned out to be much more valuable than reading the Bible and listening to sermons.

Also interesting though is how the two worlds of science and religion have evolved together. I never had the simple anti-evolution thinking of the fundamentalist, but when I started hanging out with atheists, I wasn’t too comfortable with the simplistic notions that Christianity was a barrier to science either. Questions like, why do people still believe in supernatural powers, are much more interesting than simple answers like, religion is all about power. Narrow minded thinking does not require religion. I felt that instead of shutting ourselves off from each other, we need to be asking how to promote open dialog and encourage the generation of new ideas.

So that brings me up to where we are now. I’ve learned from people like Bart Ehrmann that the seminaries are teaching the accurate history of the Bible; that it was written by men, often for political reasons, and it was compiled by fairly random decisions made by just a few people. Also, it is full of misinterpretations, some by accident and some deliberately inserted centuries after the original texts; in other words outright forgeries. Meanwhile, at those seminaries, they are teaching how to preach as if the ancient narratives are still true. There are some updated variations, but basically the same ideas.

You can find some of this out you go to the mid-week adult Bible studies but most of it I’ve learned from non-believers or Jewish if scholars or retired theologians. The sad thing, and believers and non-believers are both missing out on this; the real stories are much more interesting. The Bible is a rare collection of historical documents written by the slaves instead of the masters. How they dealt with being conquered and oppressed as well as their own internal struggles provides us with insight into us.

That pastors aren’t preaching this is all pretty well known if you just pull the curtain back slightly. Pastors I’ve known have tried to keep me at their church by agreeing with me and handing me books but then telling me that the rest of the church was not ready for it. What the rest of the church thinks is a lot harder to tell. They can’t have an opinion on what they don’t know, and I can’t make them read and listen to everything I do. It’s hard enough to get them to read along with the Lectionary on Sunday morning. You can find people who left their parent’s church for a more modern alternative, but they still enjoy the same hymns about the blood of Christ.

Still, I believe a lot of people sitting in pews are closer to what you would call a humanist than they are to being a Christian. They are there because they want to spend at least a couple hours a week talking about something that matters, something that might contribute to a better world. Most of them aren’t keeping track of the questions they have like I did and pursuing them when they can, rather they are having their doubts then just letting them go. Some will probably have the experience that Ryan Bell describes, of trying to fit his modern view of the world into the box he had created for God, until the box had expanded so much that he realized it was his whole view of the world and he didn’t need to call it God anymore.

Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for ways to bring the history and insights to light and hopefully keep some of them moving in that direction.