Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Pew Forum's Cat of Religious Uncertainty

Religion in the United States is more robust, stable, and healthy than ever before.

There is no decline. There are only a variety of apocalyptic mis-interpretations of polls.

Many self-defined "nones" attend church every Sunday.

Surveys don't measure what we think they measure.

As one friend writes, "If we don't have studies, how can we have panicked overreactions to things?"

In most surveys, respondents have to fit into the specific categories and methodologies of the survey.

In the recent Pew study, respondents were required to report just one religion. But many people are multi-religious.

Many of us complete surveys aspirationally, describing ourselves as how we hope to be.

Many of us complete surveys strategically, describing ourselves the way we want to be perceived.

Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors.

“The facts are that the world is probably much more religious than it was a century ago,” Stark stated. “It may in fact be more religious than it ever was.”
The number of "nones" in our culture has been dramatically inflated.
We like to describe religion in America in apocalyptic terms. Voltaire thought religion would be dead by the end of the 19th century. This is the story we are still telling. Over and over. Ad nauseum.

In point of fact, religion in America is quite stable.

The "state" of religion is always super positional and only becomes known when the observer measures the "state" and defines positions. Like the famous cat in the box. In some ways, though different, like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

In other words, much of the press on the Pew religious life survey may create heat, generate click-throughs, gather attention and benefit advertising revenue.

It just won't be true.

For more, and theological reflections on polls, see
 Most people want to know what is going on in their societies, communities, and cultures.  The worst way to do this is a poll.  Polls, unless crafted very carefully and subjected to considerable interpretation, make remarkable assumptions about the way that human beings perceive themselves.  First, polls (as opposed to extended interviews and observations) presume that I, when taking a poll, am transparent to myself.  We hardly are aware of all of our motivations and the various ways in which our self-reflective observations are self-deceptions and half-truths.  We need help to understand ourselves and our families and situations.  The short account we give of ourselves in a poll does not disclose much. 
Second, polls threaten religious claims directly because they skew what people think is true based upon their situation, no matter whether they are conscious of it or not.  Polls are sometimes thought to generate or reveal what is generally plausible or believable in a society.  They are thought to present to us what are called "plausibility structures."  A person usually appeals to what is plausible by appealing to a general sense of what a society accepts as true.  For instance, many Americans can imagine environmental disaster.  What they cannot imagine is a world governed otherwise than by a free-market capitalist economy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Texting the Faith | Salvation and Christianity Explained

Yes, this whole conversation occurred via text messaging. Yes, it is the best conversation on the Christian faith I've ever had.

Zelda: What if it really does all boil down to biology? Sometimes I think my sister got the religious gene and I got the atheist gene... but I want the religious gene, so I settled for agnostic theism instead.

Me: "I believe Lord... help my unbelief." Desire is a form of faith. Even the desire for faith itself. And of course biology plays a role. We were created with biological bodies after all.

Zelda: I agree with that. But that still doesn't mean I believe in Jesus... What makes a person a Christian? What makes someone a Christian, per se?

Me: Jesus' belief in you. :)

Zelda: So if Jesus believes in everyone, are we all Christians? Is a Muslim extremist a Christian?

Me: Hmmm... well, what makes you a Christian is baptism, sermons, receiving faith as a gift, from outside ourselves. Which is why you should come to church more... ;)

Zelda: I try... sometimes. I really struggle with the social aspect of it. I don't have social anxiety but being social is exhausting to me--I'm an extreme introvert. And weekends are when I rest and try to pull myself together for the coming week. I do like church, and am there in spirit quite a bit.

Me: I do understand. You are not alone in your need to be alone.

Zelda: It's an odd thing sometimes... I go to church online a lot--I love your ministry that way. I wasn't trying to be a smarts with the Muslim extremist question. But I did think it was funny... but also serious question at the same time. There's an interesting book Anatomy of Violence that is about the neurobiology behind the criminal mind. It asks a lot of great questions about the roles of biology and personal responsibility.

What if I did believe but was never baptized? Christian or no?

Me: What if you are asking the wrong question?

Zelda: There are no wrong questions.

Me: Yes, there are. For example: "Why are you such an asshole?" :) What I mean though is this... What if trying to define what makes you a Christian is coming at the topic from a less optimal direction.

Zelda: BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHA!!!! I have to get to work. I've been at the DMV all morning. I will chew on that and get back to you. This is awesome... :)

Just got off work, so I'm just now getting back to this:

I'm not necessary trying to define Christianity only for myself but also as a whole. It seems to me like a Christian--as a definition--would have to be someone who has at least some belief in, relationship with, or allegiance to, Jesus/the Christ. If Jesus/Christ is not a part of it, it doesn't seem much like "Christianity" to me Does that make sense?

To me, honesty is incredibly important. Trying to say/pretend one is a Christian when there is no real belief in Jesus seems deceitful to me. However, I may be wrong, but I think most people equate Christianity with some semblance (or internal belief) of being a follower of Christ--now, what that 'follower of Christ' looks like can vary widely (from Fred Phelps to Pope Benedict to Barak Obama to ...)... but all of them claim to be Christians/Christ followers. So, then is the Lutheran belief of faith as a gift baffles the shit out of me from a former/recovering-Baptist perspective. I understand Lutherans believe that it's faith and not works, but you either stand for something/believe in Jesus or you don't. And if it's Jesus believing in us, then we are all automatically Christians (this rings vaguely of Rob Bell... pun intended.)

God/Creator makes sense to me. Science and reason make sense to me.

Bible? No.
Jesus? Not a clue.

Just because I have faith in a greater power doesn't mean I'm a Christian. It could just mean I'm a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

By the way, I'm not trying to be difficult or confrontational--that is never my intention--so please don't take it that way. These are just truly the things that roll around my mind in the quiet evenings... And sometimes I take them out and bounce them against the walls and see if they change.

I sometimes wonder, as I gaze out those beautiful windows I sit close to at church, if all of this isn't just something humans constructed to appease our fear of death. The cremains we now have out there in the garden only added to that line of thought... My mother and grandmother follow a religion of guilt that is tempered with a fear of death, served with a side of claiming to be followers of Jesus. And sometimes I wonder if that's really all they have... and what is that, exactly?

Me: Here is what I think. There are two separate questions. One is, "Am I a Christian?" Meaning, "Am I saved?"

Zelda: I can't wait to hear this... I was hoping you'd say something [note this entire correspondence takes place over the course of three days]

Me: The other question is, "Am I a Christian?" Meaning, "Do I follow Jesus?" When you asked what makes the minimum for a Christian I thought you meant for salvation. Then my answer is the thing about Jesus believing in you.

But if it is about following Jesus then I have a different answer. Then you either are or you aren't... That's Kierkegaardian I think... The Muslim extremist can be saved but may not be following Jesus.

Zelda: Let me make sure I understand: You're saying salvation equates to Jesus believing in us... so does that mean everyone is "saved"? Even the Muslim extremist? But secondly you're saying that doesn't mean everyone is following Jesus...

Me: I am a universalist. So yea I'd say you have summarized my position well.

Zelda: Okay. I'm in the realm of universalist as well. Very much so...

To be honest, I've watched and listened to you closely for a long time. By the standards of many so-called Christians I have met, they'd say you aren't a Christian... and I've thought that for a very long time. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's just a neutral observation I've made coming from a fundamentalist/legalistic point of view.

Me: Because of my morals?

Zelda: No, because of the way you think. I've stayed at GSLC because of the way you lead seems Universalist... and yes, even though I'm not frequently there, I consider myself at GSLC.

Me: I'm not surprised they don't think I'm Christian. What's funny, though, is I actually think I'm more orthodox than they are.

Zelda: Well, the robes definitely suit you. :) You're very much into orthodoxy. Did you know you are the first pastor who hasn't condemned me to hell, put me down, belittled or basically called me a heathen or trouble maker for what I said earlier? My intention has never been to stir the pot. My intention has always been seeking Truth, the Divine and asking lots of questions. The previous have all been offended or intimidated when neither has ever been my intent. Thank you... even though you did call me an asshole this morning... ;)


So is Jesus a requirement for salvation? But it's his belief in us that is the requirement, not our belief in him?

Me: Yes. We are saved by the faith OF Christ. His faith in us.

Zelda: Okay. That is interesting, but makes sense. I struggled with the 'help me with my unbelief thing' for years. Never worked for me... I still don't believe.

However, I see now more what the Lutheran position on faith from God is. I just thought he was holding out on me and making me wait around for some reason. I was hoping I wouldn't die in the interim. I will save these texts to refer back to and think on.

I'm saved, you're saved, my atheist friends is saved, the Muslim extremist is saved... but then the next--but very separate thing--is whether we are following: Clint is trying to follow. I'm spinning in circles. My atheist friend is just standing there. The Muslim extremist is running the other way... but can't outrun the grace of God. Is that what you meant?

Actually, my atheist friend is also running the other way, but not with weapons.

All of this makes more sense (well, as much as Christianity can)--and put the pieces together in a more complete way than I have ever heard.

What you are talking about makes the true 'freedom in Christ' that Paul talks about actually make sense. Previously, that always seemed to wildly contradict what other professing Christians today say with their rules, petty splitting of hairs, and condemnation.

It is also a different Jesus. I don't think I've met that one... but that one seems to line up more with the God I hope to meet.

God is a shackled birthing mother

A Review of Wearing God by Lauren F. Winner

Winner promises to surprise us with "overlooked" ways of meeting God, and she does not disappoint. In fact, she goes one step further, and surprises us with new ways to actually understanding God. It's really remarkable. A couple of chapters approach metaphors in a way somewhat common among liturgical faith communities, on clothes, bread, and wine. These chapters are still very rich.

But what really stand out are chapters on "Laboring Women," "Smell," "Flame," and a concluding postscript on her ministry in a women's prison. In these chapters, I found myself reading about God and encountering God in ways I literally hadn't before, not because they had been unavailable to me (they are, after all, in my personal experience and in theological literature) but because I had overlooked them. Literally.

As just one example, Winner spends much of the chapter on "Laboring Women" actually describing the birth process, and recognizing the shift that has occurred in our culture where more men than ever are present at births, but also more women than ever don't know the personal experience of birthing because, for a variety of reasons, they aren't having children. But then Winner goes on to look at Trinitarian language for God, offering one such image--Mother, Baby, Midwife--I had never considered, even though one is able to find language for this analogy in Scripture itself, and all over the patristic and medieval writings.

This is the other surprise of Winner's book, all the wonderful short quotes she pulls from throughout Christian history. Her book is already powerful enough as it is. The quotes make for a faith compendium I will be returning to over and over to inspire me.

Finally, Winner offers a variety of challenges in the book that will change how I act. For example, did you know that many incarcerated women who are pregnant are actually shackled during the birth of their child, including chains wrapped around their torso and bodies. Not only is this dangerous for the baby, it is inhumane and against international law. Winner's deep identification with incarcerated women wends its way through the whole book, and makes it not just a memoir, but a call to justice. You really need to read it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mainline Self-Loathing | mainlinedecline | Mainline Protestant gaze©

Thesis: Mainline Protestants as a group have terribly low self-esteem, verging on self-loathing. Our self-regard is so low that we actually enjoy reading article after article about what Martin Marty has taught us to call mainlinedecline.

No cattail whips or hair shirts for us, instead we take our self-flagellation in logorrheic doses. We especially like statistics. Show us how bad we are in real numbers, via long pdf downloads.

I was reminded of this again today because of the release of the most recent study from the Pew Research Center, America's Changing Religious Landscape.

I probably am complicit in the self-loathing I'm outlining here. I apologize. I feel bad about it. And this post probably contributes to it. I feel even worse about that. I'm sorry.

These exhaustive, massive studies (35,000 congregations surveyed!), funded by four trusts of the children of that wealthy oil baron Presbyterian Joseph N. Pew, frequently seem to emphasize results centered around how mainline Protestants are performing (statistically) in our nation.

So, we only make up 14.7% of the population in 2014, down from 17.8% in 2007. In the meantime, unaffiliated folks have soared from 16.1 to 22.8% of the population. Evangelical Protestants remain on top (a group I'll come back around to in a bit).

We look at these numbers, and immediately begin to offer explanations. We hope to discover causation. Perhaps we are lukewarm, too liberal, not having enough babies, too inwardly focused, boring, irrelevant, too relevant, apostate, old, void of the Holy Spirit.

Then we wait for the prognosticators to emerge to help us understand these numbers better. Pew itself offers lots and lots of material for us to read, so we can feel even worse about ourselves than we already do.

So what's wrong with this picture?

Well, notice that to begin with, mainline Protestants only make up about 14.7% of the population. What about the other 85.3%? Should we pay any attention to them?

If we did, we'd find out how strangely Pew has lumped these groups. The evangelical Protestants include, if you can believe this:
Southern Baptist Convention
Assemblies of God
Churches of Christ
Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Presbyterian Church in America
All evangelical churches and many non-denominational ones
Has anyone informed Missouri synod folks and SBC folks that they are basically the same tradition? How about Churches of Christ and PCA?

It almost makes you wonder if these faith traditions have been grouped based on what I'd like to call "mainline Protestant gaze." Mainline Protestant gaze© theory is, mutatis mutandi, like male gaze theory. Mainline Protestant gaze© happens when an article or study puts the readers in the perspective of a mainline Protestant person.

Who else other than mainline Protestants would assume that you can lump Churches of Christ with Southern Baptism Convention and Assemblies of God?

You'd think, at the very least, that pentecostals and charismatics would get their own category, given that according to other Pew studies, they make up about 23% of the United States population.

Further proof is the unaffiliated category. Once a religious group includes 56 million people, 22.8% of the population, it's time to come up with a taxonomically richer way of describing them, don't you think? Unless, of course, mainline Protestant gaze is at work, and all these folks are "religiously unaffiliated" because at some time, if we weren't so boring, irrelevant, lukewarm, spirit-less, liberal, and inwardly focused, heck, they might come join us and halt our decline.

Also, of incredible interest but seldom noticed, historically black churches have seen some growth during this same period, rather than decline. So why not more articles about stability in historically black Protestant traditions?

Having said all of this, admittedly written by reading the first copy that came to hand, the initial published results, I decided to burrow down into the actual full report from Pew. It was here that I discovered the Pew researchers are, as you might expect, savvy and forward thinking.

First of all, they're aware of the need for a richer and more subtle approach to the "unaffiliated" category.

Good to know! I promise, as a self-loathing mainline Protestant, I'll definitely read that report to learn where all our people are going, and what they're like!
Appendix B also intrigued me, so I scrolled to the bottom of the pdf to read it. It's kind of hard to find, so I paste it here:

Call outs on this. Notice that a couple of groups you'd think would clearly fall into one category get split in two, Pentecostals being the most notable. Also, notice that 38% of Protestants gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.
Well, that's kind of interesting all by itself, given that the denominational marker for many Christians in the United States would be Spirit-baptism rather than born-again-ness, and if 38% of Protestants gave a vague answer, it could have been fun to create a whole new category of religious affiliation for the study--Vaguers.

All of which is to illustrate how much more endlessly interesting the religious landscape in America is than we might surmise in our navel-gazing self-loathing. Mainline Protestant gaze© is, if my thesis is correct, at least one contributing factor. 

The antidote is rather simple. We should heed Hamlet, and his words to a classmate in Wittenberg (of all places, speaking of Protestantism!):
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
It's a wild world out there, after all, far and away more fascinating than we are often aware. If you've made it this far in the blog, let me offer a prescription that might cure your/our self-loathing.

1. Stop letting pundits tell you why you're failing. Attempts at defining causation are notoriously problematic. Correlation is not causation, and false cause is false cause. The growth of "unaffiliated" is happening at basically every single demographic level, rich/poor, married/single, educated or not, ethnicities of all kinds. Blaming shifts in religious affiliation on [blank] in mainline Protestantism is a fairly obvious example of Mainline Protestant gaze©.

2. Do your own ethnographic research. All these statistics from Pew are great, I love to dig into them as much as the next person. But your neighbor across the street might teach you more about the shifting religious identity of Americans more than any study. You might find out, like I did, why being non-religious makes life far easier in many ways. You might meet a Zoroastrian. You might discover the layered complexity of pastiche spirituality. You might meet yourself.

3. Pick one main religious tradition in North America that isn't your own, and go meet it. For example, I knew almost nothing about Church of Christ before I moved to Arkansas. I still don't know as much as I could. Yet it is a large religious movement with a fascinating "indigenous" sensibility. 

4. Read the Pew study and teach me something about it, point out something I didn't notice. This stuff is pretty fun. The folks who do this research are geeks of a very high order. Dig in.