Here is a follow up video for the blog post (2 weeks ago)
You can read the full blog at [this link] and either comment here or there. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Next up: There is no neutral anymore
Here is a follow up video for the blog post (2 weeks ago)
You can read the full blog at [this link] and either comment here or there. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
Next up: There is no neutral anymore
This week I want to offer a 4-part series that addresses some issues behind the current state of affairs.
People are concerned about what they see happening right now. There are geographic divisions that seem increasingly pronounced. There are generational, political, and racial division that are inflamed at troubling levels. The news cycle, social media, and institutional corruption (banks, schools, churches, government, hospitals, Hollywood, Washington, etc.) provide a constant string of crisis and controversy.
Things seem to have escalated quite a bit in the past couple of years. Some people will say ‘every generation thinks things are chaotic and out of control’ and there is some evidence of that. However, we live in a unique era when there are the some distinct factors causing an intensification that is notable.
Change is a constant, we know that. Change at this rate, is not. We live in a time of exponential (not just incremental) change. It is no wonder that this environment breeds so much conflict and chaos.
One of the things that I would like to explore is the way that following 3 factors come together in a troubling way:
The connection between those three might not seem clear initially, but it is the way that they come together in the 21st century that is relevant for our conversation.
Consumerism is so assumed that it often goes unnamed. It is as if we are on automatic pilot. Buying things has become second nature. I know people who claim to be Christians who can go a whole day (or days) without praying but can’t go a day without making a purchase. Capitalism is the real religion of the West. 
Consumerism makes us individuals – or is it that individualism makes us consumers? … either way, we have exposed the root of the problem. Speaking a language, participating in an economy, procreating and raising the next generation, and nearly every other human activity is a communal enterprise that requires cooperation and mutuality. Individualism is a mental fiction we have been sold that fails us at nearly every turn.
Globalization has brought our communities into closer proximity than ever before. We have never had this much access to or contact with one-an-other. It almost doesn’t matter where you live anymore, you have access to goods from all over the world. In fact, you do business with, go to school with, and stand in line with people from all over the world. You may all have different religions, worldviews, or notions of community and belonging. We live in age of radical connection and proximity …. but maybe not overlap. And therein lies the problem for our concern this week.
Pluralism is then a relevant factor that completes our trio. As individuals whose communities are in great proximity to each other, we have to develop an approach to one-an-other. Some of us feel like we have does this well. Which is why it is so baffling why it cause some of our fellow citizens so much agitation and even anger. ‘Difference doesn’t need to lead to division’ we say, and if attitude or acceptance was the only issue we might be right. The problem is that the first two ingredients to trio are the wood and gasoline that make our current environment so flammable. Attitude (or our approach) is just the spark that makes that situation combustible.
Here is the most important thing to understanding our current culture:
Our society is a set of fragments – leftover remainders – of previous expression that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions.
Again – our society is a set of fragments, leftover remainders, of previous expressions that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions. More on this tomorrow. The examples of this phenomenon are endless once you know what you are looking at. Think about religion, Christian denominations, theories of educations, economics, politics, nationality and race, pre-1975 military, for-profit prisons, policing strategies, parenting styles, marriage equality, even grammar and texting language.
Here is a picture that I want to utilize for this 4-part series. It is a piece by my neighbor Jeff and it really speaks to me.
Our circles (communities) have diversity and differentiation within them. Those circles are in close proximity to each other and are even connected … but without overlapping. They are not integrated. They do not bleed into each other. They are distinct from one-an-other.
What makes this proximity profound is that the newer circles are smaller and bolder but are foregrounded on other circles that are faded but still present. Those larger circles are older and not as pronounced but influential. They haunt the work. They are ghosts and shadows to the primary feature. They are echoes of the past who still exert their voice. Their influence has faded but their effect still remains. The current configuration and focus wouldn’t make sense without them.
Tomorrow we talk about the nature of these remaining fragments and how people who think about such things differ on the subject.
 There are so many great books on this, including For The Common Good by Daly and Cobb and What Money Can’t Buy by Sandel. I would also recommend the non-academic book The Suburban Christian by Hsu.
 I find this way of writing it helpful. It may seem clumsy at first but it will bear fruit later in the series.
I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed either to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything.
It was much funnier back then… but there is something to it.
Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.
We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.
Grenz defines it this way – but pay attention to how he does so:
Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327). Kindle Edition.
Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, there is put forward some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.
This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.
Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions and world-views bump up against each other everyday, the conversation changes immensely.
There are really 2 distinct universalisms:
If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.
Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.
Classic universalism is concerned with with work of Christ for every-one [thus Grenz’s concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.
Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.
I could write (and have written) massive papers on contemporary approaches to universalism – specifically within the context of inter-religious dialogue and postmodern approaches to pluralism.
The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.
Which leads us to another important U word.
Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320). Kindle Edition.
Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.
Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?
Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.
*If I were not in the field of Practical Theology, I would write on Tillich. His notion of correlation and his approach to ‘the ground of being’ fascinate me. If it were not for the linguist turn that happened in continental philosophy after his time, I think that he would have been the most significant theologian of the 20th century. Alas, the world changed.
Prothero’s innovative non-academic take
Knitter’s Theologies of Religion
a christian take on multiple versions of ‘salvations’
Catherine Cornille on the impossibility of this whole thing
the best new work on the subject
Three things have been rattling around in by cranium while I was away this Spring.
1. The cicada’s came back. Every 17 years the Periodical Cicada Brood II emerges to rollick in the Eastern half of the U.S. for a brief but frenzied round of sex and gluttony. We will not see them again for 17 years. It is a phenomenon that always garners it’s fair share of bewilderment and awe.
It is appropriate that this baffles most of us. We are set to think in perennial terms and oddities like this don’t fit that narrative. Underneath the soil right now is a massive swarm that we will not hear a peep from until 2030.
2. I was listening to an episode of Smiley and West’s weekly radio show while I was fixing up my parent’s house. The guests were Maceo Parker and Bill Ayers (interesting mix eh?). It was pointed out that sometimes, things just take time. Ayers’ example: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was not until 1963 that the march in Birmingham took place.
Ayers points out that not everything happens in quick succession. He said this in reference to the Occupy flare-up last year and why it appears that not much has come out of them.
3. Tony Jones had the response to Jack Caputo’s address at the Subverting the Norm conference. Point 2 of Tony’s 13 points was :
Process theology had its chance. If process theology couldn’t get traction in the American church under the auspices of John Cobb in the 1970s, I doubt that it will gain traction with his acolytes. Outside of Claremont (and Homebrewed Christianity), I hear little about process theology. I am not saying that popular theology = good theology; that would make Joel Osteen a theological genius. What I’m saying is that process theology did not capture the imagination of a critical mass of clergy and laypeople in its heyday, so I doubt that it will today. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Cobb was ahead of his time, and the church is only now ready for process.
I know that Process thought will always be on the periphery. It will never be mainstream… and I am o.k. with that. Some things just work better as ‘catchers’ on the outside of the whirlwind.
Here is the thing: many Mainline, progressive or emergent church expressions don’t make that many converts. Some may even think that evangelism is wrong/trite/passé/ or coercive.
You know who does make a lot of converts? The evangelical-charismatic branch of the family. They do.
But not all of their kids or converts find the theological answer persuasive or satisfying after a while. So there is always a large supply of folks cycling out of the evangelical spin-cycle looking for better frameworks and answers … and it just so happens that Process thought can provide that.
Process thought interacts with both Biblical Scholarship and Science with flying colors.
Process even has a built-in interface for engaging other religions. It’s perfect for the pluralism that our world and time are calling for.
Yes – you have to learn some new words and it is admittedly clumsy to transition into from a classical approach. We all acknowledge that. But … and I can not overstate this … if your unhappy with the frameworks that you inherited, what have you got to lose? Your faith?
If the alternatives are to either:
A) close your eyes and choke-down the medicine
B) walk away from the faith altogether
Then what is the harm is picking up some new vocabulary and concepts that allows you to navigate the tricky waters of the 21st century?
I mean, what else are you going to do for the next 17 years while we wait for the cicada’s return?
I have been enjoying 2 big books while I was away:
Modern Christian Thought (the twentieth century) and Essentials of Christian Theology – both have significant sections of Process influence.
Cicada Picture: H. Scott Hoffman/News & Record, via Associated Press
Over the past two months we have been having a lot of fun talking about John 14:6. The release of Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World and our subsequent live event with him at Wild Goose West (audio here) got us started.
Then Jericho Books gave us some copies to give away so we put out the John 14:6 Challenge. People stepped up with posts and used the speakpipe to leave us messages.
I swung first with “Jesus wasn’t talking about Muslims in John 14:6” and followed it up with “an alternative to John 14:6” saying that one that famous passage is off the table for thinking about how to deal with other religions … where does one start? What are the alternatives?
Last week, Tripp and I recorded a TNT that will come out this afternoon where we listen to some of the calls and talk about some of the posts… in that midst of that conversation, (beginning in minute 15) we put out an idea that I thought should be in written form and not just audio. Here it goes:
Not only is John 14:6 not about other religions – since it is a disciple’s invitation – but it is not even about salvation. It is about relationship and not salvation.
I blame it on lazy reading that results in conflating subjects. I think that Jesus is inviting those who follow him to relate to ‘the Father’ (Abba) as he relates to Abba by:
Tripp implies that is has something to do with Calvinism and it’s histroical impact of making salvation:
A) transactional instead of relational
B) individual instead of communal
So I want to ask the question (you may want to listen to the TNT episode to hear the whole context):
What if John 14:6 is not only not about other religions – but isn’t even about salvation? How would that impact your use of that passage and where else would you turn in the Bible for an alternative?
Personally, I would go to Acts 4:12 “God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” Mainly because it has the word ‘saved’ in it AND sounds semi-exclusive … which is what people TRY to get John 14:6 to be – but simply isn’t. That is the conflation that I am talking about.
I had the chance to teach adult Sunday School this past weekend as we worked our way through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. We are up to Question 9 “the Pluralism Question”. I had looked forward to this all Summer.
Now unfortunately I did not have the time to cover some classics on the subject like:
What I was able to do is to build on the thought of folks like John Hick. In his famous works ,such as An Interpretation of Religions, Hick provides tour-de-force in the realm of comparative religion. He is not, however, simply reporting on religions – he is putting forward a theory about religions.
Many of Hick’s fans and critics alike end up saying the same two things when talking about him. The first is about the analogy of the mountain. The metaphor about many paths leading up the same mountain is a pluralistic classic. The second is about the blind men and the elephant. This is of course based on a Kantian dualism between the numenal and the phenomenological.
Religions are like blind men, each with their hand on a different part of the elephant and thus describing different aspects of the same reality. One has the trunk, one the ear and one the leg. They each talk as if they have grasped the whole but in reality, they have not. Though it may appear as if they are talking about very different things (a Christian from a Muslim or Hindu) they are actually all touching the same entity.
Then there a critics of Hick. Both Mark Heim in Salvations and Stephen Prothero in God Is Not One are post-Hickian.
Critics of Hick seem to have two main critiques (I am being very general here):
The first is that analogy of ‘paths up the mountain’ is flawed. Religions are like different paths up different mountains. The mountains may all be in a range together – in that they have some similarities and are in proximity to each other – but essentially they are not all leading to the same place. Being a good Hindu, which may have some ethic overlap with say the Christian sermon on the mount, is still not the ultimately after the same thing. Religions do not all lead to the same place and so just walking on road for long enough does not guarantee arriving at the same destination.
The second concern is about the Kantian blind men and elephant. When one takes on this enlightened view, one is placed in an elevated position above the religious traditions. They think that have a grasp on the whole but in reality it is only a part (ear, trunk, leg). The Katian-Hickian at that point is in the real seat of truth. The question then, is why would anyone ever participate in any particular religion? Why even be a Christian – for example – and only grasp the part? Why not be a generic ‘God-ian’ and recognize the whole? In this way, studying religion is a way to not actually participate in any actual religion! Ironic isn’t it?
Here was my main point on Sunday: the problem is comparative religion itself. The very discipline that we end up being unsatisfied with contains within it (from the very beginning) the inherent problem that we end up being frustrated with.
The problem is this – comparative religion is a product of a Western approach (with its intrinsic dualism) that first imports and them imposes it categorization upon other traditions and then looks within that compartmentalization for points of similarity and contrast. This will never work.
What I ended up doing was pointing folks toward an innovative concept called ‘Comparative Theology: deep learning across religions borders’ developed by Clooney in the book “Comparative Theology”.
His point is that each tradition tells its own story – in its own words. The art then is not in compartmentalization but in humble listening. Each learning to hear each tradition-religion bring forward its own stories, teachings, practices and values we remove ourselves from being ‘over’ the religion as a judge/reporter and humbly place ourselves at the feet as a learner/listener or at the table as friend/partner.
I love Clooney’s approach. I find the epistemology and posture refreshing. I also think that in the inter-connected, trans-national, multi-religious 21st century it is going to be ever more critical to distance our selves from approaches of centuries past.
I have written before that I don’t want to apologize for being a Christian (I truly love it) but the time for apologetics is passing into the night of history. It’s a new day and a new approach is needed for the plurality and multiplicity that we increasingly live in. Many conservative christians hide behind exclusivism to guard against the threat of relativism. What I love about Clooney’s approach is that they are not asked to give up their internal belief as christians but are challenged to adjust their external posture toward those of other traditions.
Earlier this month I got to sit down with Diana Butler Bass and ask her about everything from her new book’s title Christianity After Religion to the Methodist tradition and why Evangelical young people are 30 years behind.
It was a blast! [you can hear the audio here]
At the end of the hour, the last question was put forward by Darcy who asked about something Diana had alluded to in the Methodist question. Butler Bass had said that the early Methodist had historically A) ministered to the fringes and B) gone to the frontiers.
It was the fringes and the frontiers that Darcy wanted to know about. Only, she was not asking about the past. She wanted to know about the present.
Who are on the fringes today and where is the frontier for us?
This is possibly the best question I have heard asked at one of our live events.
Diana didn’t flinch. She outlined three such scenarios that would qualify:
The first was in the realm of sexuality.
The second was in the realm of pluralism.
The third dealt with our environment.
In the two weeks since Diana’s answer I have had several conversation about her take and I have realized how much conversation has yet to be had. May God give us grace as we learn from each other.
I am always shocked at how much I don’t know and how much beauty there is within each tradition. May God give us grace as we learn from each other.
It should not have been surprising to me that with the release of the video of our conversation that she came under some suspicion by a group called IRB (Institute on Religion and Democracy) as well as others for her views on non-human animals.
From the blog Juicy Ecumenism here is the end of Diana’s answer and their commentary:
“Non-human animals and their experience of our environment of the divine are a place that human animals need to listen in order to create more full understanding of God’s creation. […] They don’t have voices like humans do, but isn’t that part of my prejudice?”
I don’t like to bring up the slippery slope, but the mud’s looking pretty slick from here.
What IS surprising to me is that – of her three answers about the fringes and frontiers – that seemed to be the least inflammatory of the three answers!
In my humble opinion, her pluralism answer and her sexuality answer were FAR more daring – and challenging! The only thing that I can figure is that some Christians have so bought into the Cartesian dualism regarding humans that both Transgendered and Hindu folks are completely off their radar screen … but don’t you DARE say what you said about listening to non-human animals.
I was prepared to defend Diana Butler Bass after our show – she said some daring things – I just didn’t think that it would be on the issue of creation-care over sexuality and pluralism.
This contemporary religious environment will never cease to surprise me.
Today the new University Project announced it’s official name – Claremont Lincoln University. You can read about the background story of the name here.
As a Claremont student, I am invested in the future of the project. I had desired to come to the School of Theology for a while but that was considerably amplified with the announcement of the project [read the Time Magazine article here] to train Imams, Rabbis and Pastors in close quarters and in close contact.
There are two things that I am especially excited about and a third that I am concerned about:
Imams in the U.S. are asked to provide services and play roles that are unique to the North American context. Imams are asked – not just to be experts in theology and textual interpretation – but serve as social workers, counselors, and all sorts of other roles that are not traditionally in the job description or accounted for in the training they may receive. The Islamic Center of Southern California and Claremont Lincoln University will address these concerns in a uniquely particular way.
Last weekend the LA Times had a review of Miroslav Volf’s upcoming book on Christian and Muslim theological concerns. It is well worth your 5 minutes to read. Volf is a renowned Christian thinker and is supremely well respected in my circles. For him to be addressing this topic is noteworthy in itself – regardless of what he says about it. But when one hears what he says about it… it is truly noteworthy.
For Miroslav Volf, an Episcopalian professor of theology at Yale’s Divinity School, (the name of God) is a direct route over the “chasm of misunderstanding” and hatred that has separated Christians and Muslims for centuries… In his thought-provoking new book, “Allah: A Christian Response,” Volf attempts to explain how the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are, essentially, one and the same.
Here are three things, from a uniquely Christian perspective, that I would like to see addressed: