Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Absurdities of the 'New' Religious Right

[I'm venting about politics here. I don't usually do politics on this site, but I really just need to get this out of my system.]

I'm not ready for election season.  Doesn't it feel like we just got through the last one?  It was just so much work trying to convince people on the right that Obama is not a socialist and a Muslim, and that he is a citizen of the US.  It was also exhausting having to argue what seems to most reasonable people to be an obvious truth: Sarah Palin is arguably the least intelligent high-level politician in the country, and nobody in their right mind should be anywhere near a ticket with her name on it.

Now, a few years later, we have an angry, fanatical, anti-intellectual, right-wing political movement that is deeply disturbing to many Americans, myself included.  It's not that this group of extreme conservatives weren't a part of the last election cycle - it's that they have so much more influence in this one.  And they're even angrier now because president Obama is (supposedly) "wrecking" the country with his so-called "socialist" policies and "anti-Christian" views. This is of course crazy.  Obama is most definitely a Christian (who happens to dig American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr), he is obviously not a socialist (nobody seems to know what socialism is in this country!), and while he hasn't exactly thrilled me with his economic policies, they are far from being the reason that this country's economy is struggling today.

But I recognize that not all Republicans are with this extremist movement.  If I were a fiscal conservative who was moderate and 'balanced' on other issues, I would be considering a third party if someone like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, or Rick Santorum became Obama's 2012 challenger.  These three candidates in particular hold the most radically right-wing views. Without a doubt, they are contributing to the resurrection of the religious right - and THAT is scary, folks.

Let's review some of the absurd views of Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum:

1) They don't believe in evolution: Whether young earth creationism or intelligent design, these three have affirmed a conservative religious view about science that is in no way scientific.  Not "believing" in evolution sounds about as ridiculous as saying one doesn't believe in the moon.  Scientists are about as sure of evolution as anything, yet these candidates want public schools to teach their pseudo-science alongside Darwinian evolution.

2) They don't believe in global warming: (Perry, Bachmann [comment towards the end], Santorum)
I long for the day when America wakes from their slumber on this issue. Recent polls have shown that most Americans aren't worried about global warming, and many don't "believe" it at all. So I guess these candidates are representative of the majority of this country, unfortunately. Yet something like 98% of climatologists continue to tell us that humans are causing global warming. To continue down the road away from an environmentally sustainable society will result in apocalyptic scenarios for life on this planet, within the next century.  We need a president who realizes this (Bill McKibben 2016, anyone???).

3) They believe God causes hurricanes and earthquakes in order to make people realize that 'big government' is evil: Really? REALLY!?!?!  No further comment needed I guess (except that John Cobb has a healthier perspective on God and natural disasters).

4) They are manipulatively using & abusing Christianity to get into power: When Rick Perry said at his prayer rally that Jesus wasn't political at all but was only interested in spiritual issues of salvation, I almost lost it.  Few reputable biblical scholars would agree with such an absurd statement (read this book, for example).  It's typical though of theo-capitalists to filter out the political Jesus, since he in no way lends support to the global capitalist system. But the entire event was just as disturbing: watching thousands of gullible evangelicals getting scooped up and manipulated by Perry's appropriation of Christianity for his right-wing political cause, hearing him talk about being 'called by God' to run for leadership of this country...ugh.  And now, Bachmann is visiting Christian music festivals doing similarly: supposedly just sharing her love of Jesus Christ, but transparently aiming to gain converts to her campaign.

I could list other things, such as their Islamophobic and heterosexist rhetoric.  But you get the point I think.

Seriously folks - what the hell is going on with this country?! 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The (Post) Evangelical™ Identity Crisis

There’s been a lot of interesting talk going around the Christian blogosphere recently about labels, especially evangelical, emergent, liberal, and progressive.  Heated debates are going on, and big questions are being asked: "Who gets to be an evangelical? If we don't, then what should we call ourselves? How flexible is the label 'evangelical' and how is it related to 'emergent'? What makes one progressive vs. liberal?"  A lot of this talk is coming from folks who either are themselves or are closely connected to post-evangelicals, fringe-leftist evangelicals, and emergent Christians. I don’t quite know how to classify myself properly, so I have something like "emergent/progressive" on my facebook profile.  I could label myself 'post-evangelical', which in my case means one who has cultural roots in evangelicalism (I’m definitely not a devoted mainliner, and struggle to feel at home in mainline churches), but more theologically influenced by progressive theology.  But post-evangelical is a slippery, largely useless term outside certain conversations.  I happen to like 'emergent' as a label, as it remains diverse enough to include folks from a lot of traditions, and it remains in my mind distinct from liberal Christianity.

As I have continued to reflect on these things over the last week, I decided that I needed to write a blog to contribute to the conversation.  My thoughts here are loosely structured around the difficulty of defining evangelicalism and how this connects to the post-evangelical identity crisis that seems to be rather widespread at the moment.

Along with Carol Howard Merritt, I too want to clarify my position as my good friend Deacon Bo Sanders presented it over at Homebrewed Christianity in his very interesting, thoughtful post (go read it!). What I originally claimed about evangelicalism to Bo a couple of weeks ago is that 'evangelical' seems to me to be most useful today primarily as a descriptive sociological label. At the same time, I do think that it carries theological weight as well, if what we mean by ‘theological’ is that the word ‘evangelical’ has a meaningful theological history that can help define the movement itself, and that it has a theological referent imbedded within it: 'gospel'. But as I figured out rather quickly as a religious studies major in college, history transforms religious movements over time in the deepest possible ways, and Christians express the 'gospel' quite a bit differently depending on which ‘team’ you’re on – as well as which historical period you happen to participate in. So 'evangelical' may eventually refer to another group than it currently does.  Like any religious movement itself, I understand evangelicalism as a historical movement subject to change.  The boundaries of such movements dynamically expand and contract in history, so pinning down the true 'essence' of any religious movement, including evangelicalism, is extremely difficult.  When religious studies scholars are seeking to describe a religious movement to a class, they often throw out the caveat that all religions are wildly diverse and are largely relativized by history, but we can still generalize pretty well about their most common, visible forms.  That said, evangelicalism has a recent enough history that one might argue that it's a little bit easier to define in a coherent fashion.

[If you have time, read the following discussion about defining evangelicalism - if not, jump to the bold underlined part and read from there for my concluding thoughts]

In Douglas Sweeney's book "American Evangelical Story", he has an interesting survey of current evangelical definitions. He argues that perhaps the two most famous definitions of David Bebbington and Alister McGrath are not in fact very helpful.  They are much too broad.  Critics of the two, such as Sweeney himself, point out that most Christians throughout history have in fact defined themselves along basically the same lines as the Bebbington and McGrath definitions of evangelicalism.  He also argues that those who resist the propositional method of defining evangelicalism like Randall Balmer and Robert Webber are not able to really define anything in doing so, thus leaving ‘evangelical’ as a loose, confusing term that denotes a ‘family resemblance’ - a kind of vague 'you know when you see it' understanding of evangelicalism.

Billy Graham
So maybe we should just follow the scholar Donald Dayton’s call for a moratorium on the label evangelical.  He argues that it is “theologically incoherent, sociologically confusing, and ecumenically harmful.” Similarly, the conservative Calvinist theologian David Hart argues that “evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist.” Yet another Calvinist Michael Horton states that “quarrels about the evangelical trademark are probably a profound waste of time and precious energy.” Or maybe we should just give up with George Marsden and say that an evangelical is someone who admires Billy Graham!

I'd like to point out Sweeney's own interesting definition as an alternative to these other options, based primarily on a study of evangelical history:

“Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist.” 

George Whitefield
He argues that they are best defined by their adherence to “(1) beliefs most clearly stated during the Protestant Reformation and (2) practices shaped by the revivals of the so-called Great Awakening.” He unpacks three key terms here: first, movement – not a church or denomination, but a totally voluntary and diverse coalition working to pursue a single common goal: gospel witness. Second, orthodox Protestant – creedal orthodoxy and gospel centrality, especially as these were expressed by the Protestant Reformers. Though not all evangelicals are Protestants, at the center of the movement is justification by faith alone apart from the law, or "salvation through faith alone by grace alone."  And right doctrine comes only through scripture – all evangelicals affirm this, Sweeney states. Third, eighteenth-century twist – modern evangelicals, as opposed to those who share the label ‘evangelical’, are heirs of the Great Awakening. At minimum, this means a sense of gospel urgency, conversion-oriented missions, and an emphasis on devotional bible reading.  That first point is what was emphasized to me by my  professor of American Religion in a secular religious studies department.  Although her definition was more complex, she argued that all evangelicals have "the urge to convert."

Just because I was curious, I checked out a couple of extra loose definitions from non-evangelical religious studies scholars.  Karen Armstrong emphasizes that evangelicals are primarily defined over against fundamentalists.  At the center of their movement is an ecumenical approach to witnessing and missions, that is, evangelicals believe that in order to save souls most efficiently, broader cooperation amongst Christians is more essential than fundamentalists are willing to concede.  UC Santa Barbara scholar of American religion, Catherine Albanese points out that virtually all evangelicals emphasize moral holiness, expect the second (and final) coming of Jesus, affirm biblical inerrancy or infallibility, and talk about “getting saved”, “coming to Jesus”, and the “sinners prayer.”

In conclusion, here are my scattered thoughts about the label ‘evangelical’:
a) If it is to be useful at all, it needs to be more narrowly defined than the vast majority of emergent-type theology aligns with. While our best evangelical scholars can’t completely agree on what evangelicalism is, there are some overlapping emphases - and while I see some common ground, most of the emergent movement today seems to have shifted to the left of evangelicalism (even if they are still to the right of 'liberal').  I see room for many types of evangelicals, and while the movement’s diversity and lack of structure or hierarchy allows for almost any Christian to label themselves ‘evangelical’ and get away with it, I don’t think that’s the most helpful route.

b) While still distinct from fundamentalists, with Tony Jones and Carol Howard Merritt, I think it’s a label largely dominated by conservatives and moderate-conservatives, primarily theologically – and while some so-called progressive evangelicals might want to still work for their space in the movement, it’s probably time for most emergent-types to just realize this and give up the fight over a label that isn’t ours anymore. And - while this seems obvious, it's worth pointing out - for those emergents who embrace some combination of liberation/feminist/post-colonial/queer theologies, existentialism, process theology, theological religious pluralism, and post-structuralism, evangelicalism never was ours to begin with. You're probably a liberal or a progressive if you have really appropriated those types of theologies (and not just 'taken notes' from them, or 'heard their critique').  Or you can call yourself prophetic, emergent, kerygmatic...just not evangelical (well, actually, you can do whatever you want - I'm just not sure it really means very much in a wider conversation at this point).  Some of us either need to come up with a new label, stop caring about labels so much, or take on previously existing ones.  Then again, because being able to call yourself an evangelical provides more employment opportunities in churches, seminaries, etc, I'm sure there will always be a fringe-left evangelical group who cling to the label.  And that's honestly a dilemma I  sympathize with.  Those of us in higher theological/religious education sometimes feel like there are only two live options for us at the end of the road in an age where the mainline seminaries are struggling to survive: secular religious studies department or evangelical seminary.

c) Just to add to all of these definitions, I want to note some of the most popular "test-cases" for evangelical orthodoxy today.  The examples might seem a bit random, but I assure you that these are some of the hot-button issues for evangelicals (plus, their other big issues already were touched on above).  These may change in time, and are not absolute.  Rather, they are a few solid generalizations of what the vast majority of self-identified evangelicals believe (and have always believed): affirming that at least homosexual practice is a sin (even if one is ok with legalizing gay marriage); believing that angels and demons are at least quasi-personal, real, created beings (I doubt more than 1% of all self-identified evangelicals demythologize supernatural beings to psychological projections or mental illnesses); and affirming at least one substitutionary atonement theory to be at the core of the gospel (according to Mark Baker, Joel Green & C. Norman Kraus, this is an umbrella term for ransom, recapitulation, christus victor, satisfaction, and penal theories - it excludes moral exemplar).  So yes, you can still be an evangelical if you don't pass these evangelical orthodoxy tests (so don't take this too seriously!).  But, it puts you on the far left edge of the movement in a tiny minority position.  And you will just have to live with the fact that when scholars, media, and normal people talk about 'evangelicals', you most likely aren't what they mean by the term.  For some that will be fine, and they will be helpfully stretching the boundaries of evangelicalism.  But I bet that unless they're employed by evangelicals, most will get tired of living in that kind of tension and just spring for a new label instead (like me). Then again, who knows whether any of this will matter in 20 years.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trinitarian Panentheism of Joseph Bracken

Joseph Bracken S.J.
This is a followup to my recent post on the relational theologies of Jurgen Moltmann and John Cobb.  In that post, I stated my belief that Moltmann and Cobb are essential dialogue partners for the emergent church, even if some of their positions can be challenged.  I'm writing my master's thesis on these two theologians, and a final section of the paper will put forward Jesuit theologian Joseph Bracken's relational theology as an interesting synthesis of the best insights of Moltmann and Cobb.  My argument is that if one wanted to bring together the better insights of Moltmann and Cobb into a single system of thought, Bracken represents one of a few excellent options.  I could also point to Philip Clayton and John Haught who, in their own ways, also provide some kind of synthesis (intentionally or not).   But here I wanted to just concentrate on Bracken.  His work is often philosophically complex and challenging to read, although you can get a pretty good understanding of his thinking in his more accessible book, "Christianity and Process Thought."  Like Cobb and Moltmann, Bracken is a church theologian, a constructive postmodernist, a panentheist, and Christocentric.

I will illustrate the way I see Bracken as a synthesis of Cobb and Moltmann in a few ways (although there is much more to be said, this is enough for a blog post): 

Eschatology and Futurity: While Cobb is really only concerned with affirming objective immortality (we live on in the memory of God, though not as individual subjects of experience), Moltmann thinks that subjective immortality and an eventual bodily resurrection is absolutely necessary.  In terms of the whole universe, Cobb has a God who everlastingly creates a physical world, even after this universe goes out of existence.  There is no final and perfected state of the cosmos, but an ongoing adventure of creation sustained and initiated by God.  For Moltmann, the "coming of God" brings the created universe to its completion - the new creation of all things, the resurrection of nature and humanity since the beginning of the cosmos.  Bracken brings these together by affirming subjective immortality and the 'physical' resurrection/transformation of the cosmos - but there is no waiting for the end of time for any of this to happen.  In his panentheistic model of the God-world relationship, everything in the cosmos are always being incorporated into the divine life at every moment of history.  For humans, at the moment of death, Bracken argues that they will become fully aware of the truth that they (both body and soul) have always already been within the life of God.  So the 'Last Judgment' happens all the time, not at the end of history.  This is possible in a Neo-Whiteheadian framework because the final real things in the universe are 'actual occasions of experience', or something like spiritual atoms; human bodies are 'fields of activity' that provide the environment for these spiritual atoms that constantly come and go, in and out of existence - but even these are not as 'physical' as they seem.  In other words, there is no dichotomy between physical and spiritual, so there is no need for a decisive single act at the end of history.  Resurrection happens at every moment of history, and when the universe ends (as physicists predict it will), nothing will be lost.  Everything will have been saved and transformed for ongoing life within God.  One final issue I want to note is that Bracken is able to partially affirm (with reference to process theologian Roland Faber) Moltmann's argument that God is adventus/'the power of the future': God 'comes' out of the future to creation, in that God is the source of future possibilities that could not have simply developed out of the past.  God gives creatures direction out of the still indeterminate future, as Bracken explains: "The future simply as an abstraction could not determine the present.  Only a God who is already in the future in terms of a vision of possibilities for the future can give a created subject of experience both the direction for the future that it needs and the power actually to make that decision."  So there is actually a time reversal in this view, and the future advances towards the present rather than merely developing out of the past.  God's future constantly confronts the present, felt sometimes as a near contradiction to the past, but never without taking account and including the past to be creatively transformed (to use Cobb's favorite phrase).  But Bracken argues that Moltmann's neo-apocalyptic understanding of this concept is unnecessary and philosophically unpersuasive.   

The Trinity, Pluralism, and Creation: While Cobb thinks the Trinity is ultimately of secondary importance for Christians, Moltmann places it at the center of Christian theology.  Bracken is, with Moltmann, a panentheistic social trinitarian, but he provides a unique Neo-Whiteheadian philosophical framework for talking about the Trinity.  He does this by revising Cobb's process metaphysics and appropriating the powerful social/relational vision of the Trinity that Moltmann so persuasively argues for.  Like Moltmann, Bracken sees in the Trinity a model for human relationships at every level of society, as well as a holistic ecological paradigm.  But like Cobb (and unlike Moltmann), Bracken affirms a 'deep' religious pluralism, and while Cobb utilizes Whitehead's notion of 'creativity' for his theology of religions, Bracken creatively uses the social Trinity to ground this same belief.  Finally, Bracken is able to modify Cobb's metaphysics in order to affirm creation ex nihilo with Moltmann.  He is concerned to preserve this for a number of reasons, including scientific understandings that seem hard to reconcile with the process understanding of some physical world that eternally co-exists with God, as well as God's freedom to choose to create out of love.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    On My Pentecostal Roots (and Why They Still Matter to Me)

    [This is a brief reflection on my years in evangelical Pentecostal circles.  The moral of the story is: even though I've moved on to be a progressive, I'm generally thankful for my experiences in the Pentecostal church and even remain fascinated by much that goes on in those circles.  I really know it's difficult for some - maybe impossible - but I do hope more post-evangelical progressives are able to recognize the good that they received from their evangelical upbringing, even if they need to criticize the foundations of evangelical theology.]

    William Seymour, initiator of Azusa St.
    I was raised an evangelical - more specifically, I was raised in the Assembly of God denomination until I was 16.  If you aren't familiar with the AG, it's one of the earliest and largest Pentecostal denominations that was formed in the wake of the Azusa Street revival in the early 20th century.  Even after leaving the AG church my family was a part of (and my dad was on staff at), I found myself in and out of other Pentecostal and charismatic churches until I was 22: first, I attended a Foursquare denomination church for one year (Foursquare was founded by Pentecostal televangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1927); next, I attended a charismatic Baptist church for a few years; after my wife and I got married, we attended another AG church for a year until finding ourselves in an emergent church five years ago (we are currently attending a UMC next door to my school).  It's due to my work in philosophy and religious studies in college, combined with the emergent church (plus some long-held deep doubts about evangelical theology) that led me away from my conservative Pentecostal roots.

    Oral Roberts
    But let me back up a bit.  I have a lot of Pentecostal "cred": I spoke in tongues many times, probably saw some people healed of illnesses (a couple of which I honestly can't explain away, try as I have), participated in 24-hour prayer rooms, and once even had a startling experience of being 'slain in the Spirit' (as Pentecostals call it).   My great grandfather was a Pentecostal missionary and pastor on Native American reservations in the early-mid 20th century (I'm Native American from my dad's side); my grandparents are lifelong Pentecostals to this day (mostly the AG); my dad graduated from Oral Roberts University in the 1970's (the largest Charismatic Christian university in the world) and pastored in the AG for over 20 years, leading worship, teaching, and pastoring youth.  I learned to play music largely because of the Pentecostal church's love of unhinged, loud, creative, vibrant music (to this day, I can't stand liberal mainline hymnal/organ music!).  I helped lead youth groups for years and played on worship teams from the age of 12 on, mostly in Pentecostal churches.  I was even a part of a charismatic 'revival' in the 1990's-2002, stemming from such charismatic epicenters as Toronto, the UK, and Redding, CA.  I also worked in Nashville for a year with a good friend who is a very well-known worship leader and songwriter in charismatic circles.  Even before Nashville, he and I played together for almost four years, traveling around the west coast and the south, even a bit in Europe, playing charismatic conferences and churches.  I've seen some crazy stuff, and met some major figures in contemporary Pentecostal/charismatic circles.  There are some amazing people who I remain friends with in those same circles, and even when they are suspicious of my progressive-turn, they are generally equally gracious.  Looking back, I must admit that I have very few bruises from my years in Pentecostal circles.  I'm not one of those bitter ex-evangelicals, even if I often get frustrated at some evangelicals today for their conservative theological and political stances.  It was actually in Pentecostal churches that I learned to love theology - somewhat
    Pinnock's classic Pneumatology
    'edgy' evangelical theology actually: C.S. Lewis (who spared me from ever really being a young earth creationist), open theist Clark Pinnock, and even the evangelical universalist Thomas Talbott (ok, that one generally got me into some trouble with evangelicals).  We Pentecostals certainly weren't as strict as, say, the Southern Baptists - for instance, my church ordained women as pastors, and many tended to move towards gender egalitarianism in the home.  It was in those same churches that I learned to appreciate artistic creativity, and even value the mystical side of faith through
    exposure to Celtic Christian spirituality.  Even so, by the time I was 20, I knew I was more-or-less done with identifying as a Pentecostal/charismatic.  It was time to move on.  It took me a long time to wiggle out though.  To this day, I still get invited on occasion to play music for Pentecostal churches, which I actually appreciate.  If and when I participate in Pentecostal church services as a musician, my motivation is first and foremost friendship.

    Sufi "Whirling Dervishes
    So how do I reconcile some of these experiences in the Pentecostal church with where I am at now?  Furthermore, even for those who aren't a part of the Pentecostal church, how should one respond to the quickly growing Pentecostal movement around the world (especially Asia, Africa, and Latin America)?  If sociological projections are right, we will have a billion charismatic/Pentecostals by 2050.  Even now, the numbers are staggering: half-a-billion of the world's 2 billion Christians are charismatic/Pentecostal.  Should we just dismiss this large group of Christians as totally delusional, like Richard Dawkins and even some progressive Christians do?  I, for one, cannot make that kind of reductive move.  Even if I ultimately think Pentecostalism in general is built on a flimsy foundation, and the way they interpret their religious experiences in narrow ways are not so good, ecstatic religious experiences are all too real to me, and I think materialistic atheism is profoundly mistaken to think otherwise (yes, even considering modern science and psychology - I see no reason to be so reductive at this point).  Personally, I've really found process theology extremely helpful, as it leaves a lot of space for the mystical and extraordinary experiences with its non-interventionist, non-reductive metaphysic.  And after studying religion, spending a good deal of time in a Buddhist monastery and zendo learning meditation, participating in a dozen Sufi dances, observing Native American rituals, and participating in a weekend of Jewish mysticism at a local synagogue, I also needed something like process theology to make sense of religious pluralism while remaining a Christian.  It is extremely obvious to me that it is not only Pentecostals who have what seem to be authentic, often intense religious experiences of an extraordinary nature.  Process theology is generally able to affirm the complexity and authenticity of religious experiences from a variety of perspectives, including Pentecostalism.  I recommend Bruce Epperly's latest book, "Process Theology: Guide for the Perplexed" if you are interested in exploring these ideas further.