Category: The Great Emergence

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,

This week’s resource: Marcus Borg

I think Ernie named Marcus Borg (1942-2015) as an important resource and my Friday brain trust (a Fullness of Loving group) all agreed. Like us, Borg was a US citizen and roughly our contemporary in chronology. Borg was a teacher of theology. We are students of theology. Our Friday group resonates with Borg’s thought, though as my friend Don says, “I don’t agree with anyone about everything.” Borg’s 2003 book, The Heart of Christianity, will be the focus of this week’s posts.

The subtitle is “Rediscovering a Life of Faith.” The cover jacket proclaims, “How we can be passionate believers today.” I think today Borg might speak about being a “follower” (of Jesus) rather than a “believer.” Like our Friday group, Borg grew up in a world dominated by memories of World War II and the realities of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He pointed out (in 2003) how much the world had changed since Will Herberg’s 1953 book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

Borg noted (in 2003): The religious landscape in America is rapidly changing…. In the last thirty-five years, we have become the most religious diverse nation in the world.” He experienced an escalation of this diversity in his remaining dozen years, and since Borg’s death this diversity has intensified. Today, we have an unprecedented ability to learn from each other, but diversity meets resistance from those uncomfortable with change, including extreme opposition by xenophobic tribalism.

Though he is deceased, Borg’s wisdom is still available to us through The Heart of Christianity and his other writings and presentations. He can help us see diversity as a gift. That’s my goal for this week.

From The Marcus J. Borg Foundation

Processing…stand by

Yesterday’s post included more internecine Methodist data than I usually share, but it was clarifying and therapeutic for me to tell the story and to connect the dots with our larger landscape.

I need time to process what’s going on externally (war in Europe, political craziness in the US, church secessions) and internally (family and friends’ medical situations, new opportunities to give and serve, deciding among some attractive dividend stocks, planning a camping trip). So, for today:

Three question-prompting, yet-to-be-processed notes from a men’s retreat last weekend:

“I heard this love story (of God’s unconditional grace) in a transactional time (when Christianity focused on saying and doing things considered correct by the prevailing culture).”

“We’re all in recovery from things that don’t work anymore.”

“Sanctification isn’t a status to be achieved, but rather the process of being made whole.”

From “Sen. Mike Lee’s tweets against ‘democracy,’ explained,” by Zack Beauchamp, Vox, October 8, 2020

A canary in the coal mine?

In the mid-1800s, Methodists were a greater force in US society than now. The Methodist Episcopal Church provided more Union soldiers than any other religious body. The M.E. Church, South lost 20% of its members during the Civil War. Might the Civil War been averted if Methodists had stayed together?

Ben Chamness (1940-2018) was a retired United Methodist bishop when I heard him say in 2012 that the basic organizing unit in the Wesleyan tradition is not the local church but the Annual Conference, a regional body. Annual conferences are accountable to a larger body of elected lay and clergy delegates, the General Conference, which is the only group that can speak for the entire Connection.

There’s a process for local churches to disaffiliate from an annual conference. Some are in that process now. There may be efforts for entire annual conferences to disaffiliate from the UMC and join the newly forming Global Methodist Church. In 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War, the southern conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church left to form the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

In March, the UMC Council of Bishops asked for a declaratory decision by the UMC Judicial Council whether an annual conference may disaffiliate from the UMC, and if so, what is the procedure? Yesterday, the Judicial Council issued its decision, saying there’s no provision for a conference to leave unilaterally and only the General Conference (not the Judicial Council) can determine disaffiliation procedures.

All this is arcane but relevant to what’s happening more broadly in the US today. Connectional thinking is being replaced with dualistic, us-versus-them thinking that is polarizing and splintering not just the UMC but our political institutions at the national, state and local level. Is the UMC a “canary in the coal mine“?

From “Political polarization and its echo chambers: Surprising new, cross-disciplinary perspectives from Princeton,” Morgan Kelly, High Meadows Environmental Institute, Princeton News, December 9, 2021 (artwork by Egan Jimenez)

Buckle up!

Disillusionment is sad, although in the long run it is good to be dis-illusioned. It’s sadder to live with illusion, a pretense that isn’t reality. Many of us have lived with the illusion that the difficult abortion issue was settled by Roe v. Wade. In reality, it seemed settled for many people, as in stare decisis. But, determined dissenters have been working for five decades to overturn Roe.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization won’t settle anything. If something like the Alito draft opinion prevails, even more of the population will be sad than with Roe. The Red and Blue map will become more distinct, a fresh version of cultural differences dating before the Civil War and revisited time and again, such as the debate over Prohibition and Civil Rights.

State legislatures busily draft new rules. Louisiana’s HB813 would make abortion homicide (from fertilization), even if Roe v. Wade isn’t overturned. Opponents of contraception, same-sex marriage, and trans-gender rights have fresh energy. This is part of a long debate between the insistence on cultural conformity and the toleration of competing ethical perspectives. Buckle up!

From “What to Know About the Mississippi Abortion Law Challenging Roe v. Wade,” by Adeel Hassan, The New York Times, May 3, 2022


Israeli actor Chaim Topol, 86, gave us his 1971 interpretation of Tevye, embodying the mystery of tradition and renewal. As I deal with the secession of people and congregations from the United Methodist Church, Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof helps me bless those who leave or stay.

Christianity is a “do this in remembrance” faith, but also part of a more ancient balance that remembers some old things and forgets some old things. It’s never either/or. It’s always both/and. We remember the meaningful past as we welcome the hopeful future. We differ in what we choose to remember and how we choose to hope.

Some of my favorite traditions are relatively new blends of the familiar and the nostalgic. Many Southerners seceded from the Union in 1861 in the name of a tradition that was brought to America in 1619 (or 1565). It was contrary to an older tradition that still sounds astonishingly new: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”

As Methodists discern what traditions are most vital, I respect everyone’s sadness about what’s being lost and everyone’s hope about what’s being gained–confident that what’s now familiar and preferential will change with time, while the most meaningful and most life-giving traditions will long endure.

John Wesley (1703-1791), from Biography Online; and Chaim Topol (born 1935), from IMDb

Autonomous congregations re-emerge

Phyllis Tickle said the Great Emergence will be as earth-shaking as the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, impacting social, political and religious institutions. This far-reaching, multi-faceted change has various overlapping crosscurrents, including a new spirit of congregational autonomy.

Some congregations that vote to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church will join the Global Methodist Church. It’s not a binary choice. Disaffiliating churches will have other options. Frazer Church in Montgomery plans to affiliate with the Free Methodist Church, which was founded in 1860.

Yesterday’s post cited a large local church whose leaders have unanimously recommended disaffiliation from the UMC to “join a network of like-minded Wesleyan large churches.” It’s a move toward homogeneity and congregational autonomy within an easy-to-exit network.

As a way of solidifying his rule and unifying his subjects, Emperor Constantine gathered autonomous Christian leaders to agree on basic beliefs and practices for a religious hierarchy within a “Christian” empire. Monastic movements brought alternative structures, as did the Protestant Reformation.

This is a new chapter in the long search for religious freedom within a unity of meaningful identity. It’s difficult for political parties, Christian communities, and amusement park operators. As people “choose sides,” an increasing number of people are choosing “none of the above.”

From “The Rise of the ‘Umns’,” by Mike Moore, Christianity Today, March 29, 2022

The Great Emergence

Phyllis Tickle put the term in our vocabulary. She gave us the context for the social, political and religious events that are unfolding around us. Faith is now less connectional and more congregational. Most local parishes are increasingly more socially homogeneous and more politically predictable.

When “red states” and “blue states” became widely used, a friend said, “I hope we don’t have “red churches” and “blue churches.” It’s happening. In the short term, faith tends to mirror society, but in the long term, faith ultimately bends the arc of history toward grace (inclusiveness) and love (justice).

It’s painful short term, but clarifying long term. On Sunday, a large congregation will “vote on a proposal … to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church.” Their “Executive Team, Executive Board, and Administrative Board have all voted unanimously to move forward with the separation.” Now, “every professing member will now have that same opportunity” to vote.

“If the disaffiliation vote is passed” they “will then begin the next steps to officially separate from the UMC and join a network of like-minded Wesleyan large churches.” They will “uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline … for the next six months, or until (they) can develop (their) our own document of Faith and Practices.”

From Phyllis Tickle’s website

Put love first

Richard Rohr invites us to move from “fear and contraction” to “love and expansion.”

Vladimir Putin’s war has added a new dimension to the fossil fuel/renewable energy conversation.

Heather Cox Richardson unpacks recent developments in the January 6 insurrection investigation.

I hear in many of Gretta Vosper’s words echoes of Jesus: “…put living a virtuous life—one guided by love, justice, and compassion—before whatever your religious tradition might tell you to do. If it happens to be exactly what your tradition would tell you to do, fantastic! But if it isn’t, think twice and put love first.”

A recent Liam Adams article in the Tennessean describes the soon-to-be-launched Global Methodist Church. I will not be part of the new group, but I wish them well. May we all put love first.

From “Why Do So Many Russians Say They Support the War in Ukraine?” by Joshua Yaffa, The New Yorker, March 29, 2022

Waiting for John-John

Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot premiered in 1953. He won the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature and helped popularize “the theater of the absurd” literary genre.

Some of the more radical QAnon folks gathered Tuesday at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, waiting for John-John. They believed that John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960-1999) did not die in a plane crash and would re-appear at the site of his dad’s assassination.

Some of the absurdists who gathered on that rainy day in Dallas expected Kennedy to announce at Dealey Plaza that he would be Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate in 2024. Some said Trump would step down after winning and the new President Kennedy would name Michael Flynn as his vice president.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) “abandoned conventional dramatic form to portray the futility of human struggle in a senseless world.” It reminds me of biblical apocalyptic imagery, as found in parts of Daniel, Ezekiel, Mark 13, and Revelation. Apocalyptic writing flourishes when people lose hope in society’s structures and institutions.

The photo below is from an article in the Dallas Morning News. Other coverage can be found at the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Hill. etc.