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    Entries in Christianity (92)


    The Body and Sex. We Need a Better Discourse.

    Mark Regnerus, in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers, directs these remarks at religious conservatives:

    The majority of religious interviewees with whom we spoke, the ones who might possibly own some sort of religious ethic concerning human sexuality, could articulate nothing more about what their faith has to say about sex than a simple no-sex-before-marriage rule.  For most of them, this is the sum total of Christian teaching on sex.  For the most part, congregations are doing a terrible job of fashioning distinctively Christian sexual ethics.  Abstinence organizations seem primarily interested in pragmatically doing whatever it takes to stop adolescents from having sex.  In fact, despite its numeric successes, the movement is hamstrung and self-limited because of American Christians' disinterest in taking a firmer position on marriage and the family.  If family formation is best postponed, and any given marriage can be undone without consequence, why should young people wait to enjoy the benefits of sex within an unstable and temporary arrangement (marriage)?



    How Open Are You to Changing Your Theological Convictions (or lack thereof)?

    A provocative question?

    As I reflect on my own thinking, sometimes I wonder how open I would be to changing certain convictions.  I wonder if some of the assumptions I hold rest on shaky foundations.  I wonder where I'm too proud to see the flaws in my own thinking.  I wonder how those things about which I claim to have knowledge might breed arrogance, or superiority, toward those who lay claim to knowledge that stands in opposition to my own claims.

    I also wonder how open my friends, enemies, and casual acquaintances are to change.  If a good argument is presented, will they consider it?  Or would they brush it aside if it does not affirm existing convictions?  With regard to theology, might the fruits of a particular stream of the Christian tradition cause someone to rethink their thinking (this can apply obviously to fundamentalists and liberals, but to moderates as well!)?

    More often than we like to think, we think we are right.  And we want everyone to agree with us.

    Many of us are reluctant to admit to others that we believe our opinions are right and that the world would be better off if everyone would agree with us.  This even includes those who are open and tolerant to all types of beliefs systems, embracing a live-and-let live relativism that ironically is not "conversion neutral."  Everyone who I have ever spoken to who believes that all belief systems are existentially and morally equal, as long as the convictions that constitute that system are true for that particular person and have been embraced apart from coercion has suggested to me that the world would be better off if everyone would likewise embrace this foundational belief.  If people would only be converted to this way of thinking, it is suggested, then all would be better off.  Strangely enough, inclusivity can breed exclusivity.

    I often tell students and friends with whom I converse that there are certain beliefs that I hold that I believe to be true, and that I would be deceiving them, and myself, if I were not to admit that I would like them to view certain things in the same light that I do.  This will not always happen, and this does not surprise me.  It may be the case that my friends and dialogue partners hold convictions that are rationally and existentially valid, and that their reasons for holding such beliefs are well justified.  Regardless of whether or not our conversation concerning the Christian gospel, American politics, or any other subject results in consensus, there will always be an undergirding theological truth that will lead me not to coerce, not to be angered, but, by God's grace, to love.  It is possible to disagree with people on essential and important matters and remain in relationship, to offer one's life for service, and to continue on in the bonds of friendship.  And that is always my goal, not simply because I hope to be altruistic, but because I am commanded to love my neighbor, even if my neighbor is also my enemy.

    I began this post with a question.  There are many reasons to change one's convictions, theological or otherwise.  Rational argument is but one avenue by which one may transition from one belief to another, existential or emotive arguments are yet another.  But for rational, existential, or emotive arguments to even begin to lead you in to new territory, one's heart and mind must be open to the possibility of change.  To quote the great sage Charles Barkley, it may be the case that when you are challenged you remark, "I may be wrong, but I doubt it."  But at least the doubt, the possibility, must be there, if there will even be a possibility for you to be moved.  Such a posture requires a humility of mind, an openness and softness of heart, and the conviction that there may be others who possess knowledge you do not.


    What Counts as Religious Knowledge?


    Twitter has been abuzz in recent days following the Pew Forum's release of a study finding that Protestants and Catholics know less about religion than do Jews, Mormon, atheists, and agnostics.  The response has generally been, "Gee, Christians are dumb."  A friend of mine responded to this question with the observation that among PhDs, not a few are atheists and agnostics, therefore helping to bolster the religious knowledge of those speaking and writing from that vantage point.  In response, I posed the deeper question, "And why do you suppose that is?"  Why would those who are atheists and agnostics pursue a PhD in religious studies or other advanced fields that address "religion," (philosophy, sociology, etc.), or, what is it about PhD courses of study (or, you could say training, or perhaps moral formation) that might yield a higher propensity towards atheist or agnostic convictions?

    While that is an interesting question, the more I considered the concerns expressed by Christian people in light of Pew's research, the more I found myself returning to the question of what counts as "religious knowledge."  You can take Pew's Religious Knowledge Quiz here.  The quiz consists of questions about religion and American public life, basic beliefs associated with the "major" world religions (there is a problem with the idea of "major world religions"), and a few questions concerning biblical characters.  I scored a 13 of 15, but my misses were due to my skipping one question accidentally, and then misreading another question.  Both questions dealt with religion and public life.

    The quiz itself does answer some questions, such as whether one has paid attention in survey courses on religion, or if one has read widely enough to encounter and understand the fundamental beliefs of religious systems practiced by the majority of persons on the planet (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.).  But the questions themselves can be misleading, insinuating that "religious knowledge" is constituted by certain facts one possesses regarding religious traditions, and is limited to those domains, as such.

    Why is this a problem?  First, "religious knowledge" in many ways can take the form of "tacit knowledge," realities that are apprehended and assumed apart from an ability to articulate how or why one knows what one knows or does what one does.  There are many dimensions of Christian practice, such as hospitality, service, love of neighbor, or generosity, that adherents to Christianity perform not because they can cite specific stories, name specific characters, or quote chapter and verse to support their action, but because "that is what Christians do."  The knowledge itself has become embodied through the telling of stories and the practice of rituals, such as the "pot luck," possession of which cannot be measured by a survey or quiz.

    Secondly, there is the question of what can be assumed as "knowledge."  Christians claim to "know" that Jesus was raised from the dead, and through faith in him they too "know" the hope of resurrection.  But in the study of religion, such knowledge has often been relegated to the realm of opinion, rather than being construed as a type of knowledge by which Christians might act in accordance with a view of reality and a moral vision that can be claimed as "true."  Granted, the Pew Forum on Religion is not necessarily concerned with this type of knowledge.  Spiritual knowledge, however, may be a form of knowledge that Christians know best, particularly with regard to themselves.  And because this type of knowledge is excluded from consideration, the range of knowledge we might say Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, "possess" is therefore limited.

    With all this being said, I happen to think that knowledge of various religious traditions can be nothing but helpful, for it may lead to tolerance and understanding.  It also leads to meaningful discussions of truth, and spirited dialogue concerning the significance of the differences that exist between various traditions.  And I also think that this study reveals that Christians have work to do with regard to how they narrate their own practices and their own lives, so that they might be able to witness to biblical and theological realities with greater coherence.  I've long been a vocal proponent of the need for Christian people to better understand the Bible and sound theology.

    It may be the case that many Christians are embarrassed by our lack of knowledge of religion, whether it be of our own discourse or the beliefs of others.  There are many avenues that can be traversed in response.  But first and foremost, Christian leaders should learn to tell a better story, or to tell the Story better, so that all the people might be better equipped in the re-telling, and in evidencing their degree of religious knowledge, whether theological, factual, biblical, practical, or otherwise.


    Longevity and Communtiy

    We all long for a place called home.

    But we seldom stay in one place long enough to let any such place become the reality for which we long.

    This past week I finished reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.  It is a fascinating meditation, full of wisdom from the monastic tradition, solid biblical reflection, and vivid storytelling.  Pursued throughout is the idea of community in a world that fosters rootlessness.

    Wilson-Hartgrove relays this story, illustrating both the longing for community, and the investment required to find it:

    We find the stability we were made for as we come home to life with God in community with other people.  This is our true home.  But settling in isn't easy.

    Will told me the story of relocating his family to be part of a church that takes community seriously.  After a year in a new location, he met with one of his pastors to talk about how things were going.  Life was good, Will reflected, and he was grateful for the welcome that he and his family had received at the new church.  But he wasn't sure that he was experiencing the community he had expected.  Frankly, Will had hoped for more.

    The pastor listened to his misgivings, then asked how long Will and his family had been there.  "About a year," he replied.

    "Then I guess you've got a year's worth of community," his pastor said matter-of-factly.  "Stay another year and you'll have two years' worth.  Stay thirty and you might find some of what you're looking for."

    This story has a great deal of power.  There is a great deal of longing for community.  This seems to be a common cry from my generation.  But there seems to be little desire to invest oneself in the work that is community.  The patience required to cultivate such a life together is notably absent.  And community is perceived as something one exclusively receives, rather than something one participates in over time.  Community is equal part gift that one gives as well as gift that one receives.

    I've lived now for over five years in Kansas.  I am not a native.  It has taken time to establish friends.  It has taken time to adjust to the ecclesial and theological communities of which I am part.  The seasons, the land, the pace, and the ethos of this area has taken time to seep into my pores.  But the longer I am here, the stronger my ties become to church, to people, to geography.

    Community takes time, and patience.


    Wisdom From Wesley

    4. And it is as impossible to satisfy such a soul, a soul that is athirst for God, the living God, with what the world accounts religion, as with what they account happiness. The religion of the world implies three things: (1.) The doing no harm, the abstaining from outward sin; at least from such as is scandalous, as robbery, theft, common swearing, drunkenness: (2.) The doing good, the relieving the poor; the being charitable, as it is called: (3.) The using the means of grace; at least the going to church and to the Lord's Supper. He in whom these three marks are found is termed by the world a religious man. But will this satisfy him who hungers after God? No: It is not food for his soul. He wants a religion of a nobler kind, a religion higher and deeper than this. He can no more feed on this poor, shallow, formal thing, than he can "fill his belly with the east wind." True, he is careful to abstain from the very appearance of evil; he is zealous of good works; he attends all the ordinances of God: But all this is not what he longs for. This is only the outside of that religion, which he insatiably hungers after. The knowledge of God in Christ Jesus; "the life which is hid with Christ in God;" the being "joined unto the Lord in one Spirit;" the having "fellowship with the Father and the Son;" the "walking in the light as God is in the light;" the being "purified even as He is pure;" -- this is the religion, the righteousness, he thirsts after: Nor can he rest, till he thus rests in God.

    -John Wesley, Sermon on the Mount -- II