Category: The Great Emergence

“Christian” freedom

Historian Diana Butler Bass provides a sequel to yesterday’s post about “Christian” as adjective. Her latest blog post comes from The Cottage, where she wrote about Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis: “The Freedom State or the State of Freedom?

Her first three sentences: “DeSantis calls it the Freedom State,” a friend from Florida recently moaned to me, “but that’s Orwellian. He’s taking freedoms away. It is frightening.”

Bass says freedom is “DeSantis’ slogan, a key part of his political brand. And in the final ad of the campaign season, his campaign specially linked ‘freedom’ to white Christian nationalism.

DeSantis’ efforts to control higher education are troubling, such as “a new state list of every teacher or class that mentions diversity or racism.” Bass cites a Florida statute that defines state universities as “agencies of the state which belong to and are part of the executive branch of state government.”

From the DeSantis campaign ad linked above from the Diana Butler Bass blog post.

Welcome to a tea party

Issues of faith and ethics are central to our conversation about rapid technological change (see previous posts). A related issue is the way faith itself is impacted by the technology of mass communication (particularly the “silo” effect of social media). I’d like to invite Diana Butler Bass into this conversation.

DBB writes an occasional blog called The Cottage. Point 4 of her January 11 post is: “The internal tensions and divisions of American Christianity will continue to dominate our political life, both overtly and more surreptitiously.” She writes that Kevin McCarthy, Matt Gaetz, and Hakeem Jeffries are all Baptists, a reality worthy of “an entire dissertation in American religious history.”

DBB invites conversation about “what it means to be Christian in a less-Christianized world. … humility and hospitality” to “embody a beautiful biblical faith that contributes to a flourishing, fairer world.” … “Ignoring religion and politics won’t spare us from divisions, anger, and pain. Ignoring them ensures that even more extremist and more dangerous forms of Christian politics will arise to the detriment of not only American politics but to Christianity itself.”

I left a comment for DBB at her blog: I try to have a virtual cup of tea each day with Phyllis Tickle and John Lewis, simply to ask them, “What should we do now?” At tea today, we’ll discuss this post. Thank you!

From “Congress and the Religion Imbalance,” by Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, January 11, 2023

ноги глины

I try to give people of faith the benefit of the doubt, as I try to give people of doubt the benefit of faith. I don’t speak Russian. Context and nuance do not always translate, so I try to be doubly slow to criticize other-tongued faith leaders. Patience is warranted since we all have “feet of clay” (ноги глины in Russian). However …

Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyaev, aka Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is widely known as a supporter of Vladimir Putin. This allegiance itself puts the Patriarch’s judgment in a bad light and (in my opinion) degrades the witness of his office. I, and all “people of the cloth” have erred in our allegiances. We all live in glass houses. Still …

The herder Amos reminds all who speak of, or for, faith not to profane what we seek to proclaim. I fear Kirill has moved from profanity (meaningless talk about God) to prostitution, equating participation in Russian military aggression with grace, the central theme of Christianity. He’s charging a high price for a free gift.

See Russian soldiers who die in battle will be absolved of their sins, Patriarch says and Dying for your country brings you to heaven, says Russian Patriarch. Sometimes the best response to bad theology is good humor and an honest look at one’s feet:

A different connection

A third and final excerpt from Phyllis Tickle’s 2008 book, The Great Emergence:

The computer and cyberspace …. have connected each of us to all the rest of us. … In our connectedness, of course, we also experience with immediacy the pain and agony, incongruities and horrors, of life as it is lived globally. …

The Reformation’s cry of sola scriptura was accompanied and supported by the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The computer, opening up as it does, the whole of humankind’s bank of collective information, enables the priesthood of all believers in ways the Reformation could never have envisioned. It also, however, opens up all the information to anybody, but without he traditional restraints of vetting or jurying; without the controls of informed, credentialed access; and without the accompaniment or grace of mentoring. It even opens up with equal elan the world’s bank of dis-information. … (with) huge implications for the Great Emergence and for what it will decide to do about factuality in a wiki world.

Local churches now disaffiliating from the United Methodist connection are trending toward a non-denominational, congregational model that “networks” with like-minded people. One of my former churches recently voted to disaffiliate, with some supporters of exodus sporting “Independent Strong” buttons leading up to the vote. But, even the most “independent” congregations are connected with other faith communities, personally and via cyberspace through social media. It’s just a different connection.

From “Why are disaffiliating churches choosing to go solo rather than joining the GMC?” Jeremy Smith, Hacking Christianity, August 10, 2022 (photo screenshot from “The Matrix,” 1999)

Negotiating Authority

A section of Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence deals with an issue of the Protestant Reformation that is freshly alive during this season of “disaffiliation” by various congregations seceding from the United Methodist Church. It’s the issue of authority:

Always without fail, the thing that gets lost early in the process of a reconfiguration is any clear and general understanding of who or what is to be used as the arbitrator of correct belief, action, and control. The Reformation … (answered) the question almost immediately, Sola scriptura, scriptura sola. Only the Scripture and the Scriptures only. ... No more Pope … only the Good Book.

The obvious … benefit … was that once a new source of unimpeachable authority has been duly constituted and established, things always begin to wind back down from chaos to relative stability again. … Sola scriptura required absolute and universal literacy if it were going to work.

The most obvious problem of universal literacy is … different interpretations …. We may laugh and say that divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity, ours is a somber joke. Denominationalism is a disunity in the body of Christ….

Denominations have problems. Congregations have problems. Negotiating authority and accountability can be as difficult within an independent congregation’s four walls as in a culturally diverse denomination.

From a review of Cathleen Falsani’s Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice.

Phyllis was right

Phyllis Tickle said there would be days like this. She spoke at our Jackson, Tennessee congregation about the time her 2008 book, The Great Emergence, was published. An excerpt:

…Mark Dyer, an Anglican bishop, (said) that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale (and) history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of is former self. As a result of this usually energetic but rarely benign process, the Church actually ends up with two new creatures where once there had been only one. In … birthing a brand new expression of its faith and praxis, the Church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one. The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance, though. That is, every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread–and been spread–dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.

From “The Great Emergence,” a daily meditation by the Center for Action and Contemplation, November 26, 2017

Mountain Politics

A chapter in Donald Kraybill’s The Upside-Down Kingdom is “Mountain Politics.” This refers to one of three temptations experienced by Jesus in the wilderness. In the story, The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.  If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

One aspect of the reality we face today is the temptation of Christian nationalism, which seeks to impose a rules-based theocracy upon the entire nation (or world). This is contrary to the grace-based “Kingdom of God” theme that is central to Jesus’ teaching. Kraybill helped me reflect on the political movements by the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Kraybill said, “This was Jesus’ chance to be a new Alexander the Great.” But, Jesus rejected the opportunity to be “Jesus the Great.” This wasn’t the kind of kingdom he was about. The mountain in the temptation story symbolizes divine power. Many of Jesus’ early followers hoped he would lead a revolt against Roman colonial rule. But, Kraybill said, “Jesus redefined the meaning of power when he refused to use violent force. Kraybill concludes his “Mountain Politics” chapter by saying that Jesus’ “revolution was upside-down. It touted acts of compassion, no daggers. Love was the new Torah, the standard of his upside-down kingdom.”

From “Book Review, The Upside-Down Kingdom,: by Habitat for Humanity Colorado

Navigation tools

Sometimes the various layers of reality come at us fast and furious. Change can be difficult and confusing. Change also can be liberating and clarifying. In every case, it helps to have a sense of one’s bearings, a means of navigation through the swirling events of our lives.

Some people called Elijah Cummings (1951-2019) a “north star.” As Mark Meadows became mired deeper and deeper in Trump world, I thought about his odd friendship with Cummings. Meadows would have benefited from a few more years of Cummings’ friendship and counsel.

Some people called John Lewis (1940-2020) a “north star.” Who has been a “north star” for you?

Yesterday, John Draper, my Sunday School teacher, reminded me that Jesus can be for us a “north star” in a rapidly changing (and sometimes regressing) world. Yesterday’s lesson was from The Upside-Down Kingdom, by Donald B. Kraybill.

For Kraybill, Jesus’ focus on the “kingdom of God” invites us to ask why things are the way they are. That’s important because, as Kraybill says: “The values and norms of our society become so deeply ingrained in our minds that we find it difficult to imagine alternatives.”

From “Navigating by the Stars,” National Maritime Historical Society

A perennial tension

An old American tension is universal–the tension between federal and confederal attitudes. The colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776 and created Articles of Confederation to establish a national government. From the beginning there was a power struggle between the national, federal government and the individual colonies that were newly declared states.

Hamilton and others wanted a strong national government. Jefferson and others wanted more power to rest with the states. Years later, when the national, federal government moved toward abolishing slavery, southern states asserted their “sovereignty” by creating a confederacy. The struggle over sovereignty continues as Texas Republicans call for a vote on secession from the US.

A similar tension led to the Protestant Reformation as individual leaders challenged the leadership of the Roman Catholic Pope. It helps me understand an even more ancient tension between Sadducees, who exerted central (federal) power in the Jerusalem Temple and Pharisees who were a loose knit confederation of local synagogues. Today, Methodists are feeling this perennial tension.

Methodists formed around a strong central leader, John Wesley (1703-1791), with a conference (later regional conferences) to coordinate missionaries and the congregations they established. Some people are moving to “disaffiliate” from the central (federal) denomination, creating “independent” congregations or “networks” (confederations) of like-minded congregations. (Hint: Follow the money.)

Methodists–with a formerly strong central (federal) organization, are moving toward a congregational (confederal) model with stronger local control. Race once drove like-minded homogeneity. Now the stated issues are sexual orientation and reproductive rights. This is part of a broad, half-century trend toward a more congregational, less connectional, polity.

This article is somewhat dated, but it gives an accurate state of affairs as of April 2021, and it explains some of the tensions: “Churches across theological spectrum exiting,” by Heather Hahn, UM News, April 19, 2021

Secularizing the “sacred”

In his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, John Cobb discusses the process of secularizing. He wrote: Some secularizers are liberal, some conservative, some orthodox, some neoorthodox, some liberationist, and some progressive. I employ for myself the last of these labels. But if the best possibilities for secularization are now with progressives, it is only when progressives are defined as those who draw upon the best of liberalism, the best of conservatism, the best of orthodoxy, the best of neoorthodoxy, and, especially at present, the best of liberation theologies.

In my view, that’s an important paragraph because it seeks to affirm the best of these various traditions and it may help us get past today’s rampant polarization and tribalism. Like Cobb, I identify with the progressive “label,” but (like him), I try to avoid doing so in an us versus them kind of way.

Cobb says the word religion is problematic because it means many different things in different contexts. Cobb sees the process of secularizing as a way to highlight the best and most practical attributes of “the great traditions that have shaped the world in the past two or three millennia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Then, Cobb suggests that “instead of religions, we call these, and other smaller movements, Ways, or the traditional Ways of humankind.”

To begin to unpack some of Cobb’s points, I invite you to ask whether you self-identify as more secular or more religious. I grew up in a secular world and while matters of faith and theology are important to me, I served as a pastor for much of five decades with a secular self-consciousness. So, I’m very much at home with Cobb’s advocacy of the process of secularizing. Even as we respect the broad dimensions of the sacred, I agree with Cobb that one of our healthiest spiritual actions is to secularize (and thereby de-sacralize) aspects of religion that are today (as Cobb asserts) spiritually bankrupt.

Old Testament prophets did this in their day. Hence, Cobb’s subtitle: “A Prophetic Call to Action.”

From “John Cobb,” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery & Transformation,