American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.

The “medium chill” and keeping Sabbath

Grist’s David Roberts has written a follow-up to his “medium chill” post of about two years ago that expands on the idea and its social and political implications. In the original post, Roberts argued, based in part on “happiness research” and in part on personal experience, that it’s more fulfilling to work less to allow more time for enjoying life’s intangible goods–even if that means making less money.

In the follow-up post, he concedes that research he cited in the previous post that seemed to show that happiness levels off after a certain income level (about $75,000) may have been wrong; nevertheless, the relationship between wealth and happiness does seem to be “logarithmic”–that is the increase in happiness you get from each additional dollar is less than the previous one, even if it isn’t zero. The basic point seems to stand: after you’ve reached a certain level, adding more income isn’t going to increase your happiness or life-satisfaction much, if at all.

But if you have reached that level–if you even have the option of “chilling”– you are likely among the richest 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Which means that access to a life with possibilities for fulfillment beyond the struggle for material security is severely maldistributed, to put it mildly.

And if you are so fortunately situated, it’s due to luck far more than hard work, pluck, or anything else that you could plausibly claim to have merited. Where you were born, who your parents are, and your genetic make-up have a lot more to do with your success in life than anything you contribute (assuming there’s some irreducible element that can’t be chalked up to any of these other factors).

Because those of us with more have it not mainly by dint of the sweat of our brow, but because of circumstances well beyond our control, there is no justification for hoarding all that good fortune. (“You didn’t build that,” as President Obama might say.) We need policies–liberal policies essentially–that distribute access to the world’s goods more equitably in order to allow everyone a shot at a flourishing human life.

He goes on to speculate a bit about the possibilities for human life freed from the necessity of working more to earn more. Life should not be about being a fitter, more productive worker bee; it should be about cultivating our innate capabilities for creativity and self-expression in community with others. The seemingly laid-back medium chill turns out to have a rather radical, utopian streak.

All, or nearly all, of this resonates with the Christian view of life as I understand it. In his recent book A Public Faith, theologian Miroslav Volf argues that Christianity’s contribution to the common good is a more substantive and appealing vision of human flourishing than the one that has gained much ground in the modern West. According to Volf, this is the view that the good life consists primarily in the satisfaction of individual desire or preference.

Not surprisingly, he considers this to be a deeply impoverished view of human life. Not only has it lost sight of the love of God, but by focusing on individual satisfaction it is opposed to any robust idea of human solidarity. By contrast, for Christians,

[w]e lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. Life goes well for us when our basic needs are met and when we experience that we are loved by God and by our neighbors–when we are loved as who we are, with our own specific character and history, notwithstanding our fragility and failures. (p. 72)

This account is clearly incompatible with a society in which everyone has to scramble endlessly to “get ahead” in material terms–e.g., Thomas Friedman’s horrifying “401(k) world.” Christians should want a world in which people are free from the pressure to constantly “invest in themselves” to please some boss or keep up with the Joneses.

In the Christian view, we aren’t made for working ourselves to death or for endless accumulation, but for lives “rich with relationships and experiences,” as Roberts puts it. In Biblical terms, we might think of the “medium chill” as a way of keeping Sabbath, as described by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann:

Sabbath, in the first instance, is not about worship. It is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. (Journey to the Common Good, p. 26)

This restful withdrawal from over-work and over-consumption is a precondition for genuine community and human flourishing. A good society would be one that made this a possibility for everyone.

Technology, love, and paying attention

I really enjoyed this post from Michael Sacasas at his blog “The Frailest Thing.” He argues that it’s not smartphones (or any other attention-grabbing gadget) per se that make it hard for us to pay attention to the people we encounter–it’s us.

It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

Even though this is a problem endemic to the human condition, technology can exacerbate it:

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

This made me think of a post I had recently read by Frank Schaeffer as part of his series of “12 commandments of happy parenting”:

Never give a child your divided attention once you’re playing with them, unless it’s an emergency. That doesn’t mean you should give them your attention all the time. Far from it.

Playing alone is good. But don’t be rude when you are being a hands-on parent.

Watching a young mother or father texting friends while his or her child is trying to talk to them is just plain cringe making. It’s teaching a lack of empathy and respect.

It’s also teaching all the wrong priorities about what is important in life. Don’t be surprised if you tune your child out and later your child tunes you out.

I see this all the time. I’m also guilty of it. Though I don’t have a smartphone and I generally avoid text messaging, it can be a challenge to give my kids my undivided attention. Not always, mind you–there are times when I’m fully and effortlessly engaged in some game we’re playing, or reading a book with my daughter, or making my son laugh through various facial contortions. But often–too often–my mind and attention are (at least partially) somewhere else. Maybe I’m thinking about work or worrying about something that needs done around the house. Or maybe I’d rather be reading a book or surfing the Internet.

It may also be, as some have suggested, that our multi-media, information-saturated lives (for some values of “our” anyway) are actually changing the way our minds work, diminishing our ability to maintain focused attention on one thing at a time. If so, that’s an even deeper problem.

Regardless, it does seem that Sacasas is right that giving someone our attention requires an act of will or a kind of discipline. Maybe this is partly why so many spiritual traditions have cultivated practices that require people to focus their attention. I’m thinking especially of various forms of meditation and contemplative prayer. What these practices seem to have in common is an effort to focus on a reality beyond the self–to the extent that the ego recedes into the background.

And one of the “fruits” of such practice is–ideally at least–that we become the kind of people who can more easily set aside our own desires and be attentive to others and their needs. We can certainly invoke here the example of Jesus, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to make each person he encountered feel the full force of his loving attention. To love others–including especially our children–as Jesus loves us would seem to require, at a minimum, learning to give them our attention.

“Sexual complementarity”–important but not essential

The main “philosophical” argument against same-sex marriage/marriage equality seems to be that it denies that “sexual complementarity” is at the core of what marriage is.

Some versions of this argument take what I think is an implausible view of the metaphysical status of what they call the “conjugal union” of a man and woman, but that aside, I’m prepared to agree that there is a strong connection between marriage, sexual difference, and procreation. That is, a large part of the reason why marriage exists in the first place is because when men and women have sex, they sometimes produce babies. And society has an interest in ensuring that children enter the world and are raised in a relatively stable context. So in that sense, SSM opponents are right that there is a strong link between sexual difference, procreation, and the purpose of marriage.

So, let’s concede that the coupling of a man and a woman, with offspring to follow, is the “typical” instance of a marriage. I’m even willing to call it the “central” instance if you like. What doesn’t follow from this fact is that marriage can’t be extended “by analogy,” so to speak, to cover other instances that resemble but also differ from this typical one. And of course this is already the case. Couples who can’t or don’t choose to have kids are just as married as couples who do–and no one blinks at this. This doesn’t mean that “man-woman-kid(s)” isn’t still the characteristic form marriage tends to take; it just recognizes that not everyone’s circumstances are the same and that marriage performs functions that are important even without the presence of children. (My wife and I were just as married during the decade prior to having children as we are now.)

Similarly, then, with SSM. It represents another analogical extension of marriage to cover people who depart in some respects from the typical form. People who want the monogamy, fidelity, and permanence of marriage, but whose chosen partner is a member of the same sex, can comfortably fit under the broad umbrella of marriage. This doesn’t require us to deny that there is an important link between marriage and procreation, but rather to recognize that marriage serves multiple ends–not all of which will necessarily be realized in every relationship.

Anti-SSM activists, such as those profiled in today’s New York Times, argue that if we stop enforcing the “norm” of sexual complementarity, we will also undermine the norms of fidelity, monogamy, and permanence. Adam Serwer pointed out that this is an odd argument since these are the values that movement for marriage equality is trying to uphold. But it also strikes me as a kind of category mistake. Heterosexuals aren’t going to stop being attracted to members of the opposite sex because gay people can get married. This isn’t a “norm” that needs to be enforced.* It’s a reality that needs to be recognized and accommodated. But then so is homosexuality. The question is whether marriage is big enough to include both straight and gay couples who want to make lives together–lives that will in many, if not most, cases include the raising of children. I think it is.

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*I think it’s worth noting that there’s a case to be made that same-sex marriage could actually strengthen “opposite-sex” marriage, though not necessarily in ways that would make traditionalists happy. Consider this from theologian/biblical scholar L. William Countryman: “Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn . . . from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. . . . On a deeper level, the re-understanding of womanliness and manliness in our changed circumstances will make headway only if the conversation leading toward it includes both heterosexuals and homosexuals” (Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex, p. 260).

Atonement without violence?

Anabaptist theologian J. Denny Weaver’s much-discussed book The Nonviolent Atonement is the most thorough treatment I’ve read of the problem of violence in traditional theories of the Atonement. According to Weaver, these theories–which include both satisfaction and moral influence types–rely on divinely sanctioned violence to achieve reconciliation between God and humanity. More specifically, in both cases, Jesus’ violent death is “engineered” by God to fill a slot in the divine economy, whether it’s satisfying the divine justice or bringing about the repentance of sinful human beings. Satisfaction atonement in particular, Weaver contends, is linked with a retributive theory of punishment and an image of God that is at odds with the Christian gospel.

Coming from a peace-church perspective, Weaver argues that the idea that God was the agent, or the object, of Jesus’ death is inconsistent with the character of Jesus (and by implication God) presented in the gospels. Jesus was nonviolent, and he revealed a nonviolent God. Weaver denies that Jesus’ death was willed by God, except in the sense that God foresaw that Jesus would inevitably be killed as a consequence of his mission. He concedes that there are passages in the New Testament that seem to support the notion of divinely sanctioned violence, but he offers some (admittedly non-consensus) interpretations to show that they can also be understood through a lens of nonviolence.

In place of satisfaction or penal substitutionary atonement, Weaver offers a theory he dubs “narrative Christus Victor.” According to this account, Jesus’ entire life and ministry was a manifestation or drawing near of the reign of God. Jesus showed, in the flesh, what it looks like to live under God’s reign. It is characterized by forgiveness, compassion, and nonviolent confrontation with injustice. This brought Jesus into conflict with the “powers” of evil–the forces of sin and violence that hold sway over both the human heart and human institutions. It was these powers–not God–that orchestrated Jesus’ death. This is what makes Weaver’s view a variant of the “Christus Victor” model identified by Gustaf Aulén in his book of that name: Jesus triumphs over the powers in that (1) they are unable to deflect him from fidelity to his mission to incarnate God’s reign and (2) God vindicates him and his message through the Resurrection. In Weaver’s scheme, the Resurrection, not the cross, is the pivotal salvific moment–it reveals and establishes that God’s reign as manifested in Jesus is the ultimate power in the cosmos. Salvation for human beings is “switching sides” from slavery to sin and violence to participation in God’s reign.

Weaver tries to show that his view is consistent with the concerns raised by black, feminist, and womanist theologians about the ways in which traditional atonement motifs have allegedly licensed abuse and passivity in the face of oppression. He also interacts with Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and some of the more recent defenders of satisfaction theory to show that, however it may be qualified or softened, any version of satisfaction atonement (emphatically including the penal substitution theory of contemporary conservative Protestantism) ultimately means that Jesus’ violent death is necessary to accomplish salvation. “It can be kept and defended,” Weaver concludes, “only if one is willing to defend the compatibility of violence and retribution with the gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 12).

However one answers that question, Weaver has put his finger on a crucial (pardon the expression) issue between defenders and critics of satisfaction-based atonement theories. The question is whether Jesus’ death, as such, is part of the divinely willed means to our salvation (rather than a consequence of Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission, as Weaver claims). And if God did will Jesus’ death, doesn’t that implicate God in the violence of that death? And is this consistent with the character of God that Christians believe has been revealed in Jesus?

Weaver observes that traditional atonement theories have often portrayed salvation as an ahistorical “transaction” within the Godhead. In this regard, they have often been driven more by abstract ideas of deity and justice than by the concrete biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To reflect the character of God as Christians understand it, theology needs to be thoroughly rooted in that narrative. And if Weaver is right that the NT portrays a Jesus (and by implication a God) who is fundamentally nonviolent, then how can divine-human reconciliation depend on violence?

You can read a summary of Weaver’s argument here.

Support for same-sex marriage from unexpected quarters

High-profile U.K. evangelical minister Steve Chalke describes how he came to an “affirming” position on same-sex relationships. Folks familiar with these arguments won’t find much new here, but Chalke provides a lucid overview of the bibilcal issues, and he frames the debate in a sensitive and sensible way.

Meanwhile, farmer-poet-novelist-essayist Wendell Berry, who’s always been difficult to classify politically but has been embraced by some religious conservatives, expands here on his support for civil marriage equality.

I’ve long thought that same-sex marriage could be seen as conservative in a “small-c” sense. Insisting that gay people, simply in virtue of their sexual orientation, remain celibate is pointlessly cruel. Far better to include them in an institution that provides for stability and fidelity and which can facilitate both their flourishing and ability to contribute to the well-being of the wider community.