Review: Religion in the University

religion in the university

Religion in the University, Nicholas Wolterstorff. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: Defends the idea of the place of religious ideas in scholarly discussion.

In many quarters of the world of higher education, religious ideas or religiously informed perspectives are deemed inappropriate for the classroom, and for scholarly research and discourse, confining these discussions to the co-curricular part of the university. Emeritus Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff lays out in compact but carefully reasoned format, an argument for the proper place of religious ideas in academic discourse.

He begins with a classic work by Max Weber, “Science as Vocation,” that argued that religious ideas, not being immediately accessible facts, should not be part of academic discourse but be relegated to the private and personal sphere of life. Wolterstorff would contend that this reigning assumption still holds, although developments over the last fifty years significantly undermine this argument.

First of all, in science, the work of Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that evidence often under-determines theory, and thus other factors influence choices of theory. Likewise, Hans Georg Gadamer demonstrated in textual interpretation that questions of significance shape the conclusions made about texts and reflect the situation of the interpreter: gender, ethnicity, social class, underlying philosophical commitments. Hence, in the humanities, there arose a number of critical schools: Marxist, feminist, queer, African, and so forth. All scholars bring judgments of significance, theoretical preferences, and prejudgments to their work.

So, why then are religious commitments ruled out? One of the reasons is a criterion of rationality, and the notion that religious beliefs are non-rational. Some of this comes from the work of Locke, who proposed that a warranted belief should be based on an argument. Yet this dismisses the reality that human beings believe many things on the basis of testimony and experience without resort to argument. Many accept findings on scientific matters on testimony and come to other beliefs on the basis of immediate experience. Wolterstorff proposes that, while we should be open to the possibility of our or others’ beliefs being mistaken, “beliefs, in general, are innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent” (p. 102). He allows that while there are specific cases of deficient religious beliefs, this does not warrant relegating all religious beliefs to the category of non-rational and thus excluded from academic discourse.

In his concluding chapter, he argues that universities are pluralist institutions and that religious as well as other perspectives ought to be welcome to contribute their distinctive voices to academic discussions. He believes that to exclude these contributions is to impoverish the university.

I do not feel qualified to evaluate Wolterstorff’s discussion of different philosophers and so find myself trusting his testimony(!). I would propose that in American universities, Wolterstorff offers a special challenge to Christians, who for a period enjoyed a kind of hegemony, and then experienced a displacement amounting to being exiled from academic discourse. It entails laying aside past memories either of privilege or persecution and learning the practice of participation as Christians in contributing their insights into academic discourse, along with others. In place of a posture of either entitlement or embattlement, this calls for a posture of engagement. It means the careful, respectful hearing of others, weighing the merit of ideas, and forthrightly contributing one’s own for rigorous analysis, for critique, and refinement. That is how universities work at their best. That is the opportunity for religion in the university in the early twenty-first century.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Religion and American Culture

religion and american culture

Religion and American Culture (3rd edition), George M. Marsden. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the interaction of religion and American civil culture from the nation’s beginnings up to 2016.

“The United States is both remarkably religious and remarkably profane.”

The opening line of this survey of the history of the interaction of religion and American culture is an accurate thesis summary of this work. In part, it reflects the point of view of the author, George M. Marsden. He notes in the introduction to the work that his thinking is shaped by an Augustinian outlook that recognizes both the dignity of humans in God’s image and the reality of human evil, the parallel cultures of “City of God” and the “City of Man,” and that Christians inhabit both cities.

Marsden traces this interaction from the Protestant heritage of the early immigrants, which held sway in the country until the Civil War and the conflicted engagement with Native Peoples–from uneasy coexistence, to violent displacement, to occasional mission efforts–a conflicted record. He examines the different streams of thought contributing to the American revolution–and how they converged and diverged. He examines the heritage of dissent, the secular and deist founders, and the ideas shared in common by Locke and the Puritans. He notes a paradox of high ideals of liberty and justice, and the beginnings of manifest destiny and the use of power to displace native peoples, and hold Africans in servitude. These threads continue into the nineteenth century with the revivalist spread of evangelical culture, marked by increasing levels of education as frontier denominations establish colleges. This culminates in institutions like Oberlin College, motivated by religious revival, enrolling female students, and advocating abolition in an increasingly divided evangelical church along the geographic lines of north and south.

The post-Civil war era on its face seemed to reflect a continued advance of Protestantism, including Protestant missions. At the same time developments of both social progressivism, and the advent of Darwinism and higher critical theories brought the first cracks in the established position of both mainline and evangelical Protestants. They also faced an increasingly plural situation with the immigration of large numbers of Catholics and Jews, as well as the growing influence of the African-American church, which in turn, made its contribution to the rise of pentecostalism.

The fault lines become more pronounced in the early twentieth century with divides in mainline denominations between north and south, a rise of fundamentalism in reaction to liberal scholarship. John Dewey’s secular ideals prevail in the educational establishment. The Niebuhr brothers and Karl Barth offer a neo-orthodox alternative to liberal scholarship in more mainline contexts while those of evangelical belief retreat into fundamentalism.

Marsden notes another great reversal post-World War 2 with the rise in church membership, the baby boom, the ministry of Billy Graham, a re-framed culturally engaged evangelicalism, as well as the growth of Jewish and Catholic influence in the country. The African-American church led by Dr. King awakens and asserts its call for justice and civil rights. Then a rising evangelical movement becomes increasingly politically engaged and Marsden traces this history from the rise of Jimmy Carter to the election of 2016, chronicling an increasingly fragmented, secularized, and polarized country.

This “brief history,” as the subtitle calls it, covers extensive ground, and various movements, sects, and various religious communities, in a history at once descriptive, and illustrative of the “religious and profane” theme. Marsden particularly portrays the conflict between religious ideals and our treatment of native peoples and African-Americans, the changing face of Protestant privilege, the unholy alliances that have existed between Christians and our government throughout our history, the growing pluralism, both religious and irreligious, and the perennial tension between the country’s religious and secular ideals.

Marsden concludes with a few thoughts on preserving a truly pluralistic society, which he believes begins with clarifying the rules that protect free speech and genuine diversity within various sub-communities, protecting them from the tyranny of the majority. He concludes by noting why knowledge of our history is so vital to this project:

“This book is a history, and it is much easier to describe how the United States got to the point it has reached with respect to its secular and religious diversity than it is to prescribe exactly how its future with respect to those diversities might be improved. Still, we can safely say that there will be no improvement without historical understanding of how we got to be where we are. One lesson is sure. When it comes to religion, it will not do to resort to easy generalizations; evaluation of its roles must always be nuanced. Such nuance will help us see that religion, even at what we may regard its best, appears in human affairs almost always as a mixed blessing.”

Marsden has given us the resources for that nuanced “understanding of how we have gotten to be where we are.” This seems critical for religious and political leaders alike, to enable wise and humble decisions that avoid the hubris and folly that sadly has too often characterized our history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Neurotheology

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NeurotheologyAndrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.

There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.

In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.

Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.

The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.

Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.

Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.

The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.

Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: No Other Gods

No Other Gods

No Other GodsAna Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018.

Summary: A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands.

It seems that the most attention the Ten Commandments have received of late are controversies about whether or not they may be displayed in court houses and other public settings. Most would perceive that these commandments are the property of the conservative elements of Judaism and Christianity and that more enlightened, secular, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious approaches liberate people from the oppressive laws and strictures of conservative religion. Yet, Ana Levy-Lyons, the author of this work and a minister of a progressive Unitarian congregation, contends that this freedom from religion hasn’t always been liberating, evidenced by record levels of anxiety and depression and an activism lacking in sustaining ethical foundations. She proposes in her introduction to this book:

“We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for such a moment as this. Now be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice–a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.”

Levy-Lyons offers an interpretation of these commandments as a radical manifesto of liberation rather than of oppression, empowering resistance to a materialistic, capitalistic society. Inspired by the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she offers a fresh interpretation of the commandments that she hopes both secular liberals and the progressive religious might engage in common.

Beginning with the first command, to have no other gods, she argues that the message of this command is to “dethrone the modern deities of political, social, and corporate power” that pervade our daily life, as well as all the private personal gods that vie for a place in our lives, whether they are ideals of beauty or what she calls the “tyranny of balance.” She argues that our relation as a community to the one who is “Being” itself demotes all these other pursuits. Likewise, we should accept no “sculpted images” (the second commandment) as substitutes, whether they be material objects or the sculpting of ourselves or being lured by the power of a brand. She contends, “real life, unfiltered by brands, is spectacular.” The third command, of not taking God’s name in vain calls upon us to defend God’s goodness by refusing to allow others to justify immorality in the name of God, or justifying a culture that celebrates guns or destroys the environment with the idea that this is how God has made the world, that this is just the way things are. It is a call to assert the goodness of God in matters of justice and care for the earth.

Against a 24/7 mentality and a rigid sabbatarianism, the fourth command is an invitation to squander one day every week. It seeks the liberation of those in wage slavery so they can also rest, it says “no” to a relentless consumerism and “yes” to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time” where we rejoice in enough and linger over meals with friends. It is a dangerously radical waste of time that threatens the “gods” of the other six days. Likewise, in a culture that fosters accountability only to ourselves and leaving home for the next new thing, the fifth commandment calls us to honor parents, and in so doing stay accountable to where we’ve come from. While not justifying the wrongs that may have been done to us, the command challenges us to honor what made us who we are, that none of us are self-made. Levy-Lyons also extends this to the earth itself, that our accountability to it is connected to our living long in the land.

To not kill is not merely to not murder, but to not let die, and challenges our involvement in systems that kill, whether they are the third world sweatshops that produce our clothes or the bureaucratic systems of a city like Flint that channel toxic water into the homes while diverting them from automotive plants. Our commitment to life may go so far as to abstain from meat or animal products, considering how animals live and die. The seventh command against adultery rejects the idolatry of consumer choice (and unchoosing) in the most intimate of human relationship, to instead turn our choices to protect innocence and to stay in for the long run. The eighth challenges us not only to refrain from taking what is ours directly, but in what we pay for things, and how our choices affect the availability of the world’s resources to others. The ninth is not about what counts as a lie but the pursuit of truth, whether in the courts, or in the marketplace or the political arena. She makes trenchant comments about “truthiness” — lies that sound like they could be true but undermine truth-telling.

She ends with the tenth commandment, to not covet, and recognizes the internal aspect of this command, how in fact coveting precedes all else. Coveting is subverted when we embrace a life of “enough”– that we have enough and we are enough. She recognizes that to cultivate a life of “enough,” that keeps the commands, takes a community (it was fascinating that as a liberal, she includes Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in her further reading list–perhaps this is why). Her concluding chapter contends that it matters, that pursuing goodness and love multiplies to a thousand generations and in the end, the commands transform into ten blessings, a paraphrase of which she concludes the book.

I found this attempt to interpret the commands to those seeking to escape the oppressiveness of conservative religion fascinating both for the recognition of how these commandments are in fact for our and the world’s good, and the radical demands that keeping these commands raise, particularly extending beyond personal and private morality to our concerns about systems and structures and ideologies. Yet as one who exists in a different social space than the author, the insistence on the value of human relations while keeping the deity as a very impersonal Being was puzzling. I was perhaps most troubled by an unwillingness to ask questions about the use of abortion as birth control or the warehousing of the aged among our concerns about killing. There seemed to be more concern about the warehousing of animals than people. Likewise, can we truly talk about adultery without also questioning cohabiting without commitment? There was nothing about how pornography destroys marriages. It felt at times that her reading of the commands comported with the values of progressive community with whom she ministers.

We all find it easier to challenge the transgressions of others than our own. This, actually, is what makes this a good book for me to read because I often do not hear in my faith community the challenges Levy-Lyons gives in this book. At the same time, what I would contend is that these commands are truly radical in challenging “off limits” subjects for all of us, whether this has to do with our consumerism, our exploitation of the planet, or all the ways we distort the wonderful gift of our sexuality, or even our attempts to keep the infinite yet personal God at arms length. What a fascinating conversation might be had, like Bill Moyers’ Genesis series, were scholars and ministers across the spectrum gathered to discuss these ten words, ten commandments, ten blessings!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Resurrecting Religion

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Resurrecting ReligionGreg Paul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018.

Summary: In an era when religion has a bad name, the author proposes that what we need is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James writes about, and that his church is trying to live out.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” has become kind of an anthem for our age, particularly with it’s suggest that we imagine a world with no religion. The author of this book suggests there is good reason for this, that there are many examples of bad religion out there that might disillusion some from the whole “religion project.” There is religion that is insensitive to the poor, that is racist, that is hypocritical, or simply irrelevant.

Greg Paul would contend that the answer to bad religion is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James, the brother of Jesus wrote about:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”  (James 1:27).

In this book, he takes us through the book of James, weaving in narrative of Sanctuary Toronto, a church that takes seriously ministering to the poor, the homeless, all those society tends to write off, forming a community with these people. Their mission to the poor isn’t a once a year volunteer stint at a soup kitchen, but regular communal meals served by all the community to all the community–rich and poor together.

All this comes from taking scripture seriously, and particularly the challenges in James to care for the poor, and that faith without deeds is dead. He argues that the pollution about which James is concerned is a church that shows partiality to the rich rather than seeking to bless the people Jesus blesses in the beatitudes. He writes about Matt, whose abilities to form attachments and exercise judgment was impaired from birth by fetal alcohol syndrome. Loved despite all his faults and struggles with addiction, he ended up taking his life. Paul writes of Matt:

“In all of my reading of commentary on the Beatitudes, I’ve never found anyone who went so far as to say this straight out, so I will: What Jesus taught that day means that Matt, regardless of what he believed about doctrinal concepts such as ‘the person and work of Christ,’ is a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. He was, in fact, thus blessed from the moment of his birth–you could say, in his case, that because he was born screwed, he was also born into the Kingdom and carried the passport all his life, even if he didn’t realize it” (p. 112).

This makes sense of a community that loves the most unlikely–they believe these are the blessed of the kingdom in the beatitudes. Perhaps most moving is his story of Al and Mike. Al was a bicycle courier, a Mixed Nations person, and pretty rough around the edges. Mike was a successful businessman, who one day was in an accident that ended Al’s life. The most unlikely followed. Mike became a part of the community, loved not because he was rich and accepted despite killing one of their beloved members.

Following James’ teaching, this is a community that is learning to listen more than speaking, to find wisdom in submission to God. They are seeking to live out, as the book’s final chapter describes, a new reformation they desperately believe is needed throughout the church. He believes such a community actually follows Jesus into the places he would go, preaches a whole integrated gospel, focuses on practical justice, directs its energies outward, and committed to being a real community and not a social club.

This is not a comfortable book. But neither is James letter. Both sound like they deny, at points, the life of faith, for an emphasis on works. But in our era of designer, big box suburban churches, it seems to me a greater venture of faith to set out to follow Jesus as this community does. It takes them into human pain for which there are no easy answers even while they proclaim and live great grace.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Could One Be Both Spiritual and Religious?

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By Sebd – Own work, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

For some time now, I’ve noted the growing distinction between being spiritual and being religious, including this recent Vox article noting that at least one in five Americans identify as “spiritual.”. Like so many things, this is framed as a binary–you are either one or the other, and increasingly the choice is “spiritual.” It is true, as the article notes, that many who identify as spiritual maintain some religious affiliation, but participate much less in the religious observances of that tradition, and do not find “religion” as meaningful in their lives.

Those who are “spiritual” describe some kind of sense of a higher power and connectedness to the world, often experiencing spiritual experience in art, nature, music, personal rituals like yoga. It’s striking to me how importance beauty is in this contemporary spirituality. It seems that for many, their experience with formal religion was one laced with ugliness–rigid uniformity of belief or practice, hypocrisy, or simply dullness.

What I find interesting in all this is that I’ve never felt I had to make a choice. I am religious in the sense of worshiping weekly with a community that I’ve been a part of for twenty-seven years. We break bread together, sing together, wrestle together in figuring out how to apply the teachings of the Bible in our daily lives, and serve together. It’s not been perfect, because none of us in this community is perfect. We’ve fought, we’ve differed, we’ve sometimes parted. But we’ve prayed for the sick and brought in meals, we’ve fed the hungry, helped needy schoolchildren with lunches during the summer and school supplies. All of this is “religious” in the sense of being “bound” (from which the word religion derives, related to the word “ligament”) to a group of people with whom I share beliefs, practices, and life, and to the God we worship together.

I’m also “spiritual” in some of the senses described in this article. I believe we encounter God in everything from the very ordinary practices of brushing our teeth and caring for our homes to creating a painting or singing “Messiah” or other transcendently beautiful pieces of music. I find wonder in the creation, whether in the coneflowers in my own garden, or the particular beauties of oceans, forests, and mountains.

At the same time, my “religion” nourishes and enriches my spirituality. As Dorothy Sayers once asserted, “the dogma is the drama.” My faith tells me that the beauty I rejoice in in the world is the artistry of a Master, and that it would be folly to worship the artistry instead of the Artist. My faith doesn’t just tell me to love people in general but binds me in a particular community, challenging me to lean into the hard work of loving real people who stubbornly remain themselves and not the people I want them to be. My faith faces me with the ugliness of my sin and all the ways I deceive myself into thinking I’m better than I am, and shows me the way to forgiveness, and what I might become through grace.

I’ve also come to appreciate the specificity of the things my faith tells me about my God who is not a vague “higher power” but a personal being. I love and care about words, and it makes eminent sense that a personal being might be able to communicate God’s self in words as well, as the source of our own communicative abilities. And with this is the capacity for real relationship, and one that, perhaps even more than in human relationships, I cannot simply conform to my wishes.

In the end, the religious ties that “bind” me actually free me to engage with a God to whom I may speak freely or be silent and who I cannot make in my image. I am freed to be in a community where I have a group of people to whom I belong. I am freed to tend and serve a world of beauty. All the beauties and transcendent experiences of life make greater sense in pointing to a reality of which our present day is but a glimmer.

So, if a pollster asks me whether I would define myself as “spiritual” or “religious” I guess I would just have to say “yes.” I’ve never felt I had to choose, and I’m not about to start.

The University Today: Secularization

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Statue of William Oxley Thompson, President of The Ohio State University 1899-1925, in front of Thompson Library. Photo (c)2015, Robert C. Trube.

That fount of all human knowledge, Wikipedia defines secularization as follows:

“Secularization refers to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. As a result of secularization the role of religion in modern societies becomes restricted. In secularized societies faith lacks cultural authority, and religious organizations have little social power.”

Universities, which arose out of church cathedral schools in Europe, and in the U.S. as institutions to train ministers, and other professionals, for the service of God have become places where religion is confined to the personal and private and extra-curricular aspects of student and faculty life.

Yet the effort to create a “neutral” public square both denies that secularism itself is an ideology and fails to prevent the rise of other militant political and religious ideologies. The following material, Part Four of an address given first at the World Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in 2015 explores these ideas at more length and explores what hope there might be for collegiate ministries facing this apparently bleak secular landscape.

Secularization:

At Ohio State, we have a statue of William Oxley Thompson, the longest sitting president of Ohio State from 1899 to 1925. What few acknowledge is that Thompson was a Presbyterian minister who on one occasion during his tenure commented, “I am essentially and always a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Incidentally I am president of the university….”[1] Many of the institutions, even state institutions where we work, have Christian origins and influences, and yet the prevailing ideology is a secularist one that confines matters of faith to personal and private spheres of life. Often, our ministries are tolerated to the extent that they conform to this prevailing ideology.

Issues around human sexuality reflect the emphasis on personal expressiveness that arises from secularization. And here I must apologize for the cultural imperialism of significant portions of the Western church, which have moved from teaching a redeemed sexuality that has been the consensus of the church across cultures and through history, to affirm pretty much whatever our culture affirms. This has been done without consultation with the church in the Majority World. Those in the West have not considered the consequences of affirming what would be considered decadent by some of the enemies of Christianity.

At the same time, we have often said and done that which is hurtful to those Jesus might have considered as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” A friend who is a university leader in my country and deeply committed Christians says, “These are young people, trying to figure out their lives.” We may remember our own awakening awareness of our sexuality and our struggles to live with this. Imagine that awakening with the awareness that one’s physical anatomy and mental perceptions of attraction or gender are in conflict with each other. I wonder  what might have happened in my own country if we had devoted ourselves to caring for those facing these struggles, loving them, and as God gave opportunities, helping them follow Christ rather than trying to win a “culture war.”

We also see the rise of militant, clashing narratives:  political, sexual, and religious. Secularism in part serves to mitigate the clash of narratives in our settings and sometimes affords the opportunity for those of different views to engage each other with civility. And yet both we and others realize this secularism is not a neutral meeting ground but an ideology in its own right. Secularism values certain narratives above others, such as vague gnostic spirituality or outright atheism, and certain value systems such as materialism.

The truth is that secularism lacks substance and the result is the assertion of vigorous competing ideologies from an evangelistic atheism to militant Islam. On U.S. campuses, this takes the form of competing demonstrations. In places like Garissa and northern Nigeria, it means the death of brothers and sisters. Might it be that our opportunity is to witness to a third way between the hollowness of secularism and the militancy of clashing ideologies, one that holds together and extends the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus to an alternately truthless and graceless world?

Questions:

  1. How are we equipping our students to understand and engage with courage and grace the reigning paradigm of secularism?
  2. How might we function as a “third way” people providing an alternative to pervasive and empty secularism and militant ideologies?

[1] James E. Pollard, William Oxley Thompson: Evangel of Education (Columbus: The Ohio State University, 1955), p. 226.

The previous three parts of this address may be accessed by following these links:

Internationalization

Technology

Economics

 

Review: Losing Our Religion

Losing Our Religion

Losing Our ReligionChristel Manning. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Summary: Qualitative sociological research on the religious category of “nones” exploring the different types of “nones”, the influences of time and place, and the parenting choices around religion “nones” face in raising their children.

Some observers would argue that the category of “nones” as in “none of the above” in a list of religious categories is the fastest growing group on the religious scene. This work extends the growing body of work on this group in two important ways. One is to more finely define the different types of “nones” that fall under this category. The other, and motivating interest in this research, was to explore how “none” deal with the question of religion and religious identity with their children.

The author, who describes herself as one who was a Spiritual Seeker at the beginning of this study but a Philosophical Secularist by its conclusion, confronted the question of how parents who are “nones” raise their children. To explore this question, she began by exploring the demographics of the “nones”and what they believe. Most significant in these first two chapters is a fourfold classification that brings added clarity to the different kinds of people who fall under this category: Unchurched Believers, who identify with one faith but avoid any institutional connection; Spiritual Seekers, who believe in some form of higher being or spiritual reality, often cobbling together various beliefs into their own personalized worldview; Philosophical Secularists, who subscribe to a material view of life and often are highly motivated by ethical considerations; and Indifferents, for whom religious or ultimate questions are irrelevant to the lives they live.

Time and place are significant factors in “none” experience. Many who were brought up in a religious tradition abandon this during college years for a variety of reasons. The critical question is how these decisions are reconsidered when people marry and begin to have children. Do they return to the religious institutions they grew up in, identify with new communities, or make a more deliberate choice to not raise their children in any of these traditions. Some of this is determined by the kind of “none” one is. In some cases this transition forces a clarification of where one stands, as it did for the author of this study. Likewise, some parts of the country, particularly New England and the Northwest are friendlier to those who are “nones” The South is a more difficult place, as are parts of the Midwest.

In her exploration of the parental choices of “nones,” the issue of choice emerges as quite important to understanding the decisions these parents make about raising their children. Just as they have defined for themselves their worldview, often departing from that of their parents, many also believe it wrong to define these choices for their children. While some, particularly the Unchurched Believers return to institutional expressions of their faith, for many, they choose exposure to multiple religions as well as philosophical secularism and allowing children to choose their own path. She also addresses the question of the often touted benefits of raising children religiously, demonstrated signally in the work of sociologist Christian Smith. She argues that the comparisons are often between more and less religious youth and do not considered those brought up in principled secularist backgrounds.

At this point she reveals her anti-religious bias. Generally, I appreciated her openness about her own point of view rather than a pretended neutrality. But here, it seems she sets up the worst examples of religion, and particularly Christianity, against the most commendable examples of secularism and atheism. Anyone can play that game. I could argue that Christians built hospitals, cathedrals and universities, while atheist Marxists built Gulags, colorless tenements, and brutally genocidal cultural revolutions. I think this mars otherwise fine work and indulges in the anti-religious caricatures common among academic elites. But I get that some people really experience these things and don’t want to believe in such a god or practice such a religion. I would not and do not either!

What is valuable in the work is something I’ve long contended, that we should assume at least the same level of thoughtfulness in those of different religious persuasions than ours. This is equally so with “nones” and this extends to the thoughtfulness of their parenting choices. I do wonder if “nones” just as much as the affiliated religious subtly encourage, or at least model the choices they have made, even while upholding choice. I wonder how “nones” would feel if their children embrace a strong religious affiliation, such as fundamental forms of Islam or Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. Time will tell whether, in fact, the religiously affiliated and “none” parents in fact have more in common than they might admit. That could make for interesting conversation!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!

 

 

Review: Tower of Glass

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970).

Summary: Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

Robert Silverberg began publishing science fiction around the time I stopped reading it. I may have read a few of his short stories in anthologies, but that was a long time ago. Over time he was awarded five Hugo and five Nebula awards (yes, I know the cover image says four Hugos!). He is one of twenty-nine science fiction writers to receive the Grand Master Award of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Recently, Open Road Media has re-released a number of his books in e-book format, where I am discovering him for the first time.

Tower of Glass is set in the twenty-third century. It is premised on a relatively depopulated earth from previous wars. Simeon Krug has helped fill this population vacuum and become fabulously wealthy by perfecting the process to create android humans out of vats filled with the basic components of life. Three classes of androids exist in ascending intelligence from gammas to betas to alphas and Krug sells them to serve the remaining human population.

The novel begins with Krug setting out to build a 1500 meter glass tower in the Arctic permafrost to send tachyon signals to NGC 7293. Krug, whose previous efforts to discover life forms in nearby systems have all failed, has learned of cryptic signals in the form of number sequences coming from this ring nebula. He employs a vast work force of his androids under the leadership of his Alpha foreman, Thor Watchman, in an ever more frantic quest to complete the tower, oblivious to the increasing death toll this dangerous task entails. Simultaneously, in a Denver factory he is building a space ship to send more androids in suspended animation to NGC 7293.

While focused on the stars, he is more or less oblivious of intertwined undercurrents with his son, Manuel, and the androids. Like other sons of the fabulously wealthy Manuel is trying to find his own meaning in life beyond inheriting his father’s enterprises. He is in an affair with an android woman, Lilith, while married to Clissa, who has yet to bear him a child. His quest leads him to “shunting” where he exchanges consciousness with five other friends, discovering their most intimate thoughts, emotions, and memories, as they do his.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any, including Simeon Krug, most of the androids, apart from a few political activists, have given themselves over to the religion of Krug. They have created a whole religious system centered around their “creator”, in whom they lodge their hopes that after trials, they, the people of the Vat, will be full partners with the people of the Womb, enabled by their Creator Krug, who they venerate and pray to in secret services in “chapels” all over the world.

Redemption is slow in coming. When Manuel tours one of the factories that gives birth to androids and is deeply disturbed by what he sees, his lover, Lilith, and Thor Watchman see a chance to help their prayers for deliverance from servitude to their human masters. Manuel is cultivated as an android ally, finally learning the truth of their religious belief in his father.

As the tower nears completion, Manuel goes to his father to reveal the hidden religion and intercede for the androids. We approach this plot climax wondering whether any of this was such a good idea and how Simeon Krug will react to his god-hood.

Beyond the android religious rituals, I was struck with a couple other profound echoes of biblical religion. One was the idea of Krug’s tower. Like the tower builders in Babel, Krug builds a tower to reach up to the heavens–literally. We watch a hubristic quest, an obsession really where pursuing a technological chimera that justifies mounting death tolls and sending a ship full of androids toward the blue giant at the center of the nebula in a quest to communicate with life that could incinerate them.

We also see in Thor Watchman a kind of Moses figure concerned with the deliverance of his people from their servitude. Moses’s initial attempt as a young man involved taking that deliverance into his own hands to no good end. I will leave you to discover the results of Thor Watchman’s effort to take deliverance into his own hands.

We also cannot help but consider the implications of crossing the threshold of become “creators” of life, and what that does to both “creator” and “created”. Our technologies are resulting in increasingly life-like and humanoid robots, and our cloning experiments have resulted in viable animal forms of life. This book explores the presumption of control by the creators. It also explores the consequences of what happens when such creations have “self-awareness” and with that longings both for worship and for self-realization. If anything, Silverberg’s story speaks with greater prescience and relevance today than when first published 46 years ago, warning us of the dangers of our hubristic dreams.

[Parent advisory: This book does contain explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse as well as some violence.]