Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Future of Faith

I am continuing my series on the "future of faith" or the "future of religion" on Religion For Life.  You can hear these interviews via podcast.   Of course, no one really knows the future.   I certainly don't.  I do think the changes coming are bigger than most anticipate.  I am a Christian minister.  I have been one for over twenty years.  My denomination is the Presbyterian Church (USA), the fastest shrinking denomination in the United States.   According to this chart, the PCUSA lost 46% of its members from 1965 to 2005.

We are not finished!  More losses will come.  I don't happen to be upset about that.  If we are shrinking as the conservatives say because we are engaged in "theological drift" or because we are rejecting the "authority of the Bible" and "accommodating to culture", then losing members is a noble cause.   We need more theological innovation, more criticism of authority, and more awareness of the diversity of human cultures.

I have been trying to drive people out of the denomination for some time now.   Well, not really, but if you go by the number of churches leaving that use me as justification, it appears I am succeeding.  Here are just a few links that specifically name me as a reason the PCUSA has left its "theological moorings."  The reason I am listed is not because I speak for the denomination.  I don't.  Their consistent objection is because I am not silenced for stating my views.  That is a big difference.  They want a church of sycophants and puppets.   It ain't me, babe.  So far, to its credit, that church is not the PCUSA.
  1. FPC Yakima,  Christ PC, WPC Lubbok, FPC Tacoma, Eden Praire CC, etc. (I am listed under the heading "the bodily resurrection")
  2. Saddlerockepc (p. 3)
  3. Memorial PC (p. 4)
  4. Fountain Inn PC (p. 6, point #38)
  5. Trinity PC (pp. 3-4)
  6. College Hill PC (p. 7, note 1)
  7. FPC Ellensburg (p. 4)
  8. Maple Valley PC (p. 2, point 8)
  9. Layman (p. 1, part 1 sola scriptura)
  10. FPC Dunellen (p. 2)
  11. Saratoga PC (p. 5 and p. 8)
  12. Adventure of Faith PC (p. 3 and p. 6)
  13. New Hanover PC (pp. 4-5) 
  14. FPC Yakima (p. 1) 
  15. Morgan Hill PC (p. 2, note 3) 
  16. Orchard Community Church (p. 2, note 2) 
  17. FPC Omak (p. 2)
  18. Woodbury PC (sermon--point #2) 
  19. FPC Bellingham (p. 4)
  20. Menlo Park PC (p. 1)
All this is fostered by the Layman who uses others and me in their propaganda (or "resources") to push congregations out of the PCUSA.  A lot of this talk about theological drift is a smokescreen for anti-gay attitudes.   One of the central reasons if not the central reason another denomination, the ECO, has been formed is because of good old fashioned prejudice.   In 2011, the PCUSA removed the discriminatory barrier against LGBT people becoming ministers.   Because of that, this new denomination has taken flight and congregations have been entering periods of discernment regarding their affiliation with the PCUSA.

I happen to think this is all good.  I have worked hard throughout my career as a minister for equality.   If we are losing members because they don't want LGBT equality, then losing members is a good thing.  You don't want people on your team who are going to hold you back.  Believe me, it isn't worth it.  I think we should make these transitions as smooth as possible and let these congregations go.   I want to be in a denomination that does not discriminate at all against LGBT people.  I want to be in a denomination that celebrates their lives and their relationships.   That is the future.  If we need to clean house to get there then so be it.    

I don't think these departures are about sexuality alone.  I think many congregants are simply unaware that their religious beliefs are from a pre-modern period and are no longer relevant.  The sad thing, in my view, is that we have waited too long and we have lost at least two generations.  The old mainline denominations squandered their opportunity to be relevant long ago.   The church, and particularly its clergy, never caught up with science.   Some of our seminary professors tried.  They meekly offered us historical criticism and attempted to introduce us to theological innovation.   Little of this sunk in to the clergy and still less was introduced to the laity.   What is the result of this negligence?   People have never been challenged to examine their faith in light of science and reason and when they are confronted with science and reason they have no alternative but to hide in their superstitions and blame "theological drift."   You see this in the examples above about me.  People get into a big hissy fit over my eight points of belief  as if what I write is some huge scandal, when in fact, it is simple common sense that comes from living in the 21st century.

Beyond these important concerns regarding religious literacy, social justice, and LGBT equality, what is relevant?  What is important?  What is the future demanding of us?

Of my eight points, the most important is the last:
I believe...

that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality. 
Our future is a future of energy and economic contraction.   That does not mean that our humanity, our meaning, our relationships, our dignity, and our happiness needs to contract with it.   In fact, the opposite is possible.  We can become more human with less stuff.   Yet we cannot be in denial about what we are facing.  The reason the church is so irrelevant is that it has failed to address our real future.   Like all other 20th and 21st century institutions, the modern corporate church is based on petroleum.  As petroleum peaks, our economic institutions that depend upon it (including the church) are contracting.  The theological gobbledygook that the conservatives prattle on about is nothing but fundamentalist escapism and denial.   We need a spirituality for the task at hand.  We need a religion that is Earth-based and human-focused. 

It is time for radical communities to emerge.  These are communities that are beyond creed, beyond belief, and beyond outdated notions of God.  We need artists and prophets, community organizers and philosophers, musicians and poets, healers and counselors, gardeners and engineers.   We are going to be facing the most difficult challenges humanity has ever faced and we need to be up for it.  We need to treat it as an adventure.  We need to find our inner superhero.   We need to find and celebrate the Sacred in the moment and the Sacred in the movement for sustainability, equality, and joy.  Old-fashioned values such as compassion and sharing, courage and self-sacrifice will be paramount.

I am not sure how exactly these radical communities will connect with each other and how they will be connected to present denominational structures.  The stubborn fact is that professional clergy and institutionalized religion are fading away.   Those of us interested in the future of faith in a civilization that is contracting will have to salvage what we can from the shards and create something new.

As I write this I realize this relates to my grief over my son.  That personal tragedy is making me see our task in a new light.   My personal task to build my life again with my family is similar to my vocational task to grieve the loss of an institution and from its pieces build a new thing.   

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