Faith in Public LIVE Rev. Eric Elnes and Nacho Cordova: God-talk in a Pluralistic Public Square, Part 8
Faith in Public LIVE returns with a lively exchange between two leading voices on religion and politics. Rev. Eric Elnes, co-founder of CrossWalk America, and Nacho Cordova, founder of the blog Woodmoor Village, will trade posts on the challenge facing progressive-minded leaders talking about faith in a pluralistic American society.
Part 8: Nacho Cordova with a Closing Post
Thanks for a great exchange. As you note, this was a great opportunity to look deeply, and not just revisit, but revise my own thinking about these matters. It was also a multi-faceted learning experience since, upon embarking on the conversation, I spent time reading, thinking, and considering perspectives from a wide range of traditions. Quite provocative and rewarding was encountering The Phoenix Affirmations (and not just because my son’s name is Phoenix!). Thank you. It was also very nice to connect broadly with the folks from Faith in Public Life. A bow of gratitude to all of you.
The conversation we started could certainly continue apace. Plenty more to explore and converse. But as I remind people in sangha, we sit in our cushions to get back up and practice everywhere else. Zen practice often calls us just to quiet down and practice. My own practice calls for recognition of our interconnectedness, and thus it has been beneficial throughout our conversation to continually be present in looking deeply at such interbeing. Li Po has a short poem that captures that sentiment very well:
“The birds have vanished into the sky,â€¨and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,â€¨until only the mountain remains.â€ — Li Po
I started my part of the exchange by posing two questions I thought we all need to address deeply, and which I think the current crop (if any ever!) of fundamentalist leaders do not: “What does it mean to take religious pluralism seriously?â€ and, “What does it mean to take religious freedom seriously?â€ I think our conversation has been a way to practice that serious engagement with pluralism and freedom. I suspect however, that these are not the kind of questions we ought to ever answer in the full. They are better thought of as open, continuously calling us to the better angels of our nature (bells of mindfulness if you will), a call to conscience and social justice. Part of the answer for me also, which you articulate in your last entry, is that we don’t have to transform into the other, nor expect the other to transform into ourselves in order to find them amenable for engaging in the ongoing task of crafting a better world. In fact, we need the difference for progress, and we need the deep critical engagement.
I find myself in agreement with your thoughts about the rise of fundamentalism. I like to think, and have written about it in my blog, as perhaps our coming into what philosopher Karl Jaspers called an axial age, and what Lloyd Geering has written about eloquently in Christian Faith at the Crossroads (2001) as a second such axial age. I would situate the beginning of that new axial age with the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity, seeing the post-modern as an extension of it. Yet, the fear and feelings of threat brought about by the implications of the shift do not just belong to fundamentalists. We are all experiencing dislocations that require we adjust and (re)cognize the complexities, the new texture that our lives, and the world, have acquired. As you well note, one such dislocation has been giving up the notion that Christianity is the only way to God. In my estimation, a dislocation that has not yet taken full hold is that all creedal systems are constructions. As Don Cupitt has put it, we need to abandon the old vocabularies, old doctrines, and old institutions. We need to move beyond the metaphysical conception of religion, and the belief in an enchanted universe. I think progressive religion, and folks who organize themselves around networks of spiritual progressives, liberal Christianity, etc. have begun moving in that direction, albeit as a humanist I still see too much grasping for something “beyondâ€ (perhaps a bit of recalcitrance to those significant changes).
The work of coming together to make the best of what we have, to bring those ideals of loving-kind and compassionate communities to fruition, to reduce suffering, and continue loving and acting-each-other (and future generations) into-wellbeing is the task at hand. This is, and has been, the task of humanists, atheists, agnostics, non-theists, and sundry non-believers as well. Harvard’s Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein recently articulated a humanist vision that is “multicultural, inclusive and… inspiring,â€ and highlights that such inclusiveness might not always have been emphasized by humanists. The point after all is that we need to be embracing, and the profound changes we have experienced and will continue to experience, constitute a sobering call to such an embracing that we cannot continue to postpone. I take much hope from recognizing that the “game is afootâ€ in many places around the world, from many perspectives. I am most certainly uplifted from encountering folks like you and the efforts of CrossWalk America who articulate a vision of peace, justice, compassion, and boundless love. I find myself a practitioner in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, and in the Order of Interbeing, precisely because I find a community dedicated to such vision and work as crucial for enlightened living and for planetary survival. Harvard’s upcoming New Humanism Conference, to be held next week (April 20-22) with a symposium theme of “Dialogue Among Religions, Cultures, and Civilizations?â€ promises to be another wonderful resource and opportunity in this common endeavor. What I call Zen Humanism (or post-humanism), and which I’ve been trying to articulate at WoodMoor Village, is just such an ethics. That work is, as you can imagine, ongoing, and this conversation has spurred me to articulate a more comprehensive vision of those ideas.
So I share your hope, dedication, and commitment to the promise of building such a world. I also hope Eric that we continue to cross paths in that good work. Thanks again for a neat exchange, thanks to the readers, and thanks once again to the folks in Faith in Public Life for sponsoring and promoting this conversation.
Part 7: Eric Elnes on Christian Exclusivity and Fundamentalism
I appreciate our conversation over the last several days, and thank David Buckley, Alex Carpenter, and Beth Dahlman at Faith and Public Life for putting this together.
I received your latest response too late to make significant comment on it, but before jumping to my concluding remarks, let me make the following observation: We are not reading Wisdom Literature differently. It is, at base, theological in nature, deriving the basis for its secular reasoning and pluralistic stance from its belief in the existence of God (To your scriptural references one could add a number of references in Proverbs that assert, “the fear [i.e., awe-filled respect] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.â€)
I think there is much agreement between us regarding the implications of our differing beliefs, but to assume that Christians and atheists (or even a slim majority of them) will at some point agree perfectly on the underlying “metaphysical assumptionsâ€ and “epistemic warrantsâ€ that drive our social and political advocacy requires, well, a degree of “faithâ€ that I just don’t have. If we are to deal concretely with what actually promises to make a difference in the public square, I believe we must acknowledge the fact that neither Christians nor Muslims nor Hindus, etc, will likely become atheists anytime soon. For all practical purposes, we will always engage in public discourse informed by different assumptions and warrants. Thus, for those of us associated with each path, our efforts are most efficiently placed where we can do the most good (or damage, as the case may be): namely, in challenging the assumptions and warrants within our paths that do harm to the whole human family, and in promoting those that promote peace and justice.
Now, even though I finished writing the concluding remarks below before receiving your post, I think you’ll find they continue the train of thought.
I’d like to focus my observations on an area that receives almost no attention in the national media or even in the progressive Christian community yet, in my book, is the single largest inhibitor to achieving a true embrace of pluralism in a society where nine in every ten people (or eight in ten if the recent Newsweek poll is accurate) consider themselves to be Christian.
This inhibitor can be summed up in a single line from the Gospel of John: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through meâ€ (John 14:6).
While there are very solid theological and biblical grounds for interpreting this passage quite differently than 90% of the public understands it, most Christians take it to mean that there are no other legitimate paths to God besides Christianity. What this means is that we can assert the need for tolerance, inclusiveness, and respectful dialog until we’re blue in the face. And we can celebrate the virtues of other faiths, secular reason, pluralism, freedom and democracy until we all drop with exhaustion. Yet in the end, we will receive little more than lip service and superficial accommodations toward pluralism within the Christian community until the Christian faith as a whole — or at least large sectors of it — finally admits that other legitimate paths exist to God besides the Christian one. I claim this as one who is joyfully and unapologetically Christian, who fully embraces Jesus’ path.
As it stands, many Christians publicly affirm “tolerance,â€ yet privately believe that all other faiths are theologically bankrupt, or are instruments of the devil. This, or they feel guilty for not believing these things — as if they are not “trueâ€ Christians if they advocate for respecting other paths besides their own.
So long as this dynamic dominates the Christian landscape, how can we really achieve authentic embrace of pluralism? This is the giant elephant that quietly strolls unacknowledged in the pubic square, trampling over the tables we so carefully set up for people of different faiths (and no faith) to sit as sisters and brothers.
Lest one be tempted here to keep one’s blinders on to this elephant, minimizing its destructive influence while trying to set out more attractive table decorations, consider this proposition: The single largest difference between fundamentalist Christians and liberal ones is not who they think Jesus is, or how they read the Bible, and certainly is not their stance on homosexuality or abortion. While there are large differences between fundamentalists and liberals in these respects, and all of them are connected, the greatest difference by far has to do with their understandings of other faiths. If you take away the notion that Jesus is the ONLY way to God, you completely undermine ninety percent of the power of fundamentalism. With it, you take away a sizeable portion of fundamentalism’s power to influence moderate Christians, a number of whom quietly ride the elephant of exclusivity within the Christian faith.
The above assumptions were confirmed in spades on CrossWalk America’s walk across the country last year. Based on our experiences in a hundred and fifty different churches, meeting face-to-face with over eleven thousand people, we found Affirmation 1 of the Phoenix Affirmations, which implies the legitimacy of other paths to God, to be the most controversial Affirmation of the twelve. It was, in fact, many times more controversial than the second most contested Affirmation — Affirmation 5, which implies full equality of LGBT persons. (Nota Bene: we found overwhelming support for all twelve Affirmations in progressive churches and among non-aligned, “spiritually homelessâ€ Christians.)
An interesting fact: In every single case — without exception — when we encountered an objection to Affirmation 1 and inquired about the basis for the objection, people referred to the line from John 14:6 cited above. It didn’t matter what kind of church we were in, or whose radio show we were on, or if the person could quote the whole line accurately or knew where it came from, we ALWAYS heard this passage quoted. And, I can count on one hand the number of times we heard any other argument made, based in scripture or anything else.
This is not the place to exegete John 14:6. I have done so elsewhere, challenging the popular assumptions, and I do so again at greater length in Asphalt Jesus: Discovering a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America. My point here is that, all too often, those of us in the Christian community who affirm that other paths exist besides the Christian one have contented ourselves with speaking in secular terms in support of pluralism in the public square when the major obstacle to actually achieving it is religiously motivated, from within our own tradition. We have been too quick to assume that biblical exegesis and theological discourse are passÃ©, and have confused lack of media interest with lack of public interest. We have considered ourselves to have more “importantâ€ things to do than dabble in an “outdatedâ€ book and engage with understandings of Jesus that we have “moved beyond.â€
In the meantime, fundamentalists have been more than happy to pick up where we have left off.
Until progressive Christians discover that nurturing a living, breathing, vital and inclusive faith at the grassroots is worth their time and treasure (as in making serious donations to help support organizations who promote such efforts), and do so quite apart from whatever temporary political gain we may hope to achieve through it, then we may as well hand the Christian faith over to the most exclusive, bigoted, and vocal party who still cares. They’ll be happy to take it from us. And have.
Let me conclude with a note of hope. Real hope — not one tacked on to end with a happy face. Theological progressives do have a significant chance to change the tide right now. How we articulate our beliefs at this particular juncture in history has the potential not only to affect the next four years, but the next four hundred.
As many religious scholars are recognizing, Christianity is in the midst of a paradigm shift that has been quietly brewing for over a hundred years, and increasingly out in the open for the last thirty. As Marcus Borg has observed, the shift is largely a product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity (The Heart of Christianity [HarperSanFrancisco, 2004] xii). The rise of fundamentalism is a direct result of certain Christians feeling threatened by the implications of the shift, perceiving its true depth and breadth.
One hopeful, concrete fruit of the shift is that increasingly Christians are questioning the previously entrenched assumption that their path is the only legitimate one to God. While few have the confidence — yet — to challenge this assumption publicly (even within their congregations), the evidence is clear that beliefs are shifting below the surface, even among evangelical Christians. As noted in my first post, when asked confidentially, “Can a good person who isn’t of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation, or not?â€ eight in every ten Christians in the United States answer affirmatively. This includes seven in every ten evangelicals and nine in every ten Catholics (Newweek/Beliefnet poll, September, 2005).
Again, this fact was strongly confirmed by our experience walking across the country this summer. While Affirmation 1 was the most controversial, it was also the one which received the most strongly positive, emotional reaction (Affirmation 5 being the second). Person after person would say, “Finally, someone’s putting words to what I’ve always believed,â€ or “So I’m not crazy!â€ or “Why aren’t more Christians speaking up about this?â€
The public is ready — more than ready — to hear Christians articulate with passion and conviction the “pre-politicalâ€ foundations for their public embrace of pluralism in our society. Frankly, they’re ready to hear our public confession and repentance.
On this note, I hope our readers within the Christian community, and those who feel so moved from other fellowships, will join me and CrossWalk America in supporting The Center for Progressive Christianity’s “Pluralism Sundayâ€ on May 27th.
It has been a wonderful exchange, Nacho. You have helped me clarify a few points of my own “metaphysical assumptionsâ€ and “epistemic warrantsâ€ with respect to the place of God-talk in a pluralistic society, and I hope our exchange has been of some small benefit for our readers. Plus, I’ve just plain had a lot of fun with this. Thanks again to Faith in Public Life as well.
Part 6: Nacho Cordova on Revelation and Re-construction of Public Theology
Thank you for your recent post about Wisdom Literature. Thanks also for a wonderful opportunity to continue expanding our field of vision on this subject. I’d like to use that subject of Wisdom Literature as launching pad for some speculation… (let me emphasize that!). I hope this won’t be too disruptive for readers or the flow of the conversation. Tomorrow’s posts constitute our last exchange in this forum but I’d like to think that our conversation here will water the seeds of continuing compassionate dialogue between ourselves, and many others.
Wisdom Literature and Progressive Religion: Re-Construction and Re- Cognition rather than Re-Discovery
On the issue of Hebrew Wisdom Literature we might disagree a bit about interpretation. My take on this is that Hebrew Wisdom Literature cannot be taken as devoid of connection to the Divine, that even though significant differences existed between say prophets and sages, and that Wisdom literature is indeed concerned with lived experience, we still have a tradition that stands facing God, the divine, as fountainhead of such moral law, and over and against which such law is to be considered. In other words, we still have a supreme legislator behind Hebrew Wisdom Literature. I’m thinking here say of Proverbs 2:6 “For the LORD giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding,” — and also, Ecclesiasticus 1:1-4 : “All wisdom cometh from the Lord, and is with him for ever.â€ Finally, The Book of Solomon tells us that wisdom is the image of God’s goodness (7:26). Hence, seeing the figure of Wisdom as an attribute of God (if not consort at times), certainly a personification of the divine, a hypostatization. It seems to me then that Wisdom, and certainly those books we consider Wisdom Literature, constitute an interesting strategy by which a bridge between the ethical and the metaphysical in that context was established by moving from the abstract divine to the temporal (in-place) concerns of the community. I’m taking liberties here by reading Solomon and Ecclesiastes as part of the books within Wisdom Literature. Now, major caveats here: I am not a scholar of such literature at all, and my study of it is fairly limited, as is probably painfully obvious (as I said, speculation). So my intent is not to quibble about scriptural interpretation. Instead I raise that different reading because I want to rely on a wonderful quote by Don Cupitt that even though about something else entirely, fits well with the matter at hand:
“It will be retorted that the production of subjectivity, in self- examination and in confession, is itself surely an ancient religious theme. Yes, but in that case the individual self is produced precisely before God. and viewed from the standpoint of eternity in a way intended only to confirm, and not to defer or challenge, the priority and superior greatness of the universal.
Whereas I am talking about a new form of consciousness and vision of the world that is developed, very slowly, as the outcome of a long struggle to fend off and postpone the dominance of the universal and sacred vision, and thereby allow the fragile subjective vision enough time to come forth, establish its own distinctive character, and perhaps even prove its own superior realityâ€ (After God, 65).
Cupitt gives voice precisely to the ground for my different reading on this point. It might be that I misread the Wisdom Literature. Yet, it still seems to me that as per such literature, the development of moral subjectivity still stands before God or the divine in confirmatory fashion as universal moral legislator. The moral instruction reverberates not just for the individual but for the collective that is being forged. That collective is seen within a moral economy laid down not by humans, but by a larger force, often represented by the embodiment of Wisdom (in this way this wisdom lit. is different than wisdom in Eastern thought).
But this is not an objection to seeing Hebrew Wisdom Literature in the sense you describe for progressive religion. I agree with you that much “Wisdom Literature,â€ Hebrew or from other traditions, can be a source for revisioning a progressive religion that is less about posing what a particular God decreed, and more about conduct-in-place and guidelines for leading a good life. Key for me then is that the task is one of re-visioning, a re-construction, and re-cognition, rather than a re-discovery of it (rediscovery for me still carries the etymological connection to “unveiling,â€ of something “revealedâ€ to us.). Still, one of the most crucial, if not the most crucial, moves that has yet to happen is for religious leaders to lead their congregations in understanding that nobody holds revealed truth of any fashion — that all creedal systems and religious institutions are human constructions, and that the world is populated by multiple such moral narratives, some better than others.
Our different reading of Wisdom Lit. does not seem very important when we look at how we can rely on re-constructing the best of Wisdom Literature that can help us arrive at a language or way to effect the transformations from metaphysical to ethical that for me seems so needed. (nota bene: For many atheists we still have to address the fact that this is still a recourse to “the Bible,â€ which raises its own difficulties but which we have no time to go into here.)
Notwithstanding that detour of interpretation for me, the point I took from your previous post was that a progressive religion movement can find sources for grounding not a theo-politics, but public moral argument informed by the specific tradition. At first blush that appears a bit different than a public theology, but it seems to me to be in effect the expression of a public theology in a different sphere (not to the Church audience, but to world and maybe academy). My inclination here is to say that a public theology does better with respect to the questions “What does it mean to take religious pluralism seriously?â€ and, “What does it mean to take religious freedom seriously?â€ but the snag we will always hit if we go down the path far enough is that about the epistemic warrant of our arguments. Amy Sullivan’s concern is I think on target in that religious progressives might have abdicated a certain responsibility for that public witness when they left Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, and others run away with shaping the face of Christianity in the public. But, the dilemma is not just at the level of representation that she treats, but also at the level of the shared metaphysical assumptions, and of the epistemic warrants that undergird a public theology.
It is also this dilemma that keeps me from fully embracing the notion that many Christians are translating those religious pieties into secular reasons not in spite but because of their Christian faith. That might be partly due to the fact that we encounter different folks in our respective travels… I have not encountered as many such Christians who ultimately do not resort to metaphysical warranting, or who are very willing to entertain critique of such assumptions. I hope the numbers are, as you note, increasing, and gaining a stronger voice. More importantly, I take that “because of their Christian faithâ€ as an opportunity to ask you whether that doesn’t just mean that no “translationâ€ need take place — that religious conceptions of the good life do not in fact require translation for public accessibility.
(an aside here: I’m concerned that for the heartening news you bring about a population that is more progressive in their beliefs, we are faced with an increase in fundamentalism, a predilection in these times for dogmatic pronouncement, and the safety of easy answers. We are facing the emergence (or re-emergence) of a class of folks who can best be classified as Christian Nationalists, who although perhaps small, I believe hold more sway than we think)
But my apologies Eric, so far in these exchanges I’ve been talking as if the only matters to treat with a progressive religious movement are matters of belief. As we know there is much more to political practice than the affirmation of this or that belief. The work of organizing, of mobilizing constituencies, of getting a message and vision of hope, understanding, of how working together for social justice improves all of our lives, of seeing ourselves connected deeply beyond the stories we choose to live by, of helping others find and develop a public voice for justice and peace, of leaving this world a better place for our children… all of these in my estimation are essential matters on which we all need to work together and which for me are deeply a-theistic (which is what I take you mean when you say that religious beliefs are humanistic and work whether God truly exists or not). I’m heartened to hear that your work has brought you in close contact with others who very much see things similarly (and I look forward to reading the books). The promise, and challenge, for me is always seeing this work beyond my own pieties — in fact, recognizing those pieties and how they might get in the way of accomplishing this work.
Thanks again Eric,
Part 5: Rev. Eric Elnes on Wisdom Scripture and Secular Reason
Thanks for another interesting post! I think you have done exactly what you set out to do: focus our lens to arrive at more pragmatic concerns “on the ground.â€ Naturally, I love your question regarding why one might choose CrossWalk America over Dobson’s or Falwell’s theologies and the implied invitation to answer it while taking the demands of pluralism seriously. I’ll be happy to do this, although not in a way our readers may expect.
Let me note at the outset that we are in complete agreement regarding the need for “secular reasonâ€ to dominate public discussion regarding policy issues in a pluralistic society. As you observe, “Secularism, or secular reason, tells us that there are ways to comprehend the universe and human life without recourse to God or explanations external to humanity.â€ Wherever commonly held assumptions about the universe and human life exist, “secular reasonâ€ may serve helpfully as a kind of Rosetta Stone translating discourse between people of many faiths (and no faith) into a common language just as Jesus may serve as a Rosetta Stone between Christians (viz., my last post).
Of course, a key assumption being made is that there are widespread, accepted ways of comprehending the universe and human life, whether God is involved or not. Finding such ways may prove to be as elusive as the quest for commonly held understandings of Jesus! Yet, I’d rather not quibble over this point, given that it can obscure more than clarify. Bottom line: there are indeed commonly held assumptions shared by large segments of the population, religious and non-religious alike. Where these exist, we need to meet there for discourse.
Where I believe I differ from you is in where your argument leads you. After defining “secular reason,â€ you conclude:
“On this rests the fundamental distinction between Church and State: liberal secular reason provides us an alternative that values freedom, autonomy, individuality, rationality as ways to organize and lead human life without recourse to reasons external to humanity, and in so doing reminds us that by applying such notions we get to make up our own minds in a pluralistic world. In other words, liberal secular reason can account for pluralism but does so in a political way, where positions articulated emerge precisely from political contestation/life and not from pre-political (i.e. religious) foundations.â€
Even as I strongly affirm the separation of Church and State (viz., Affirmation 7 of the Phoenix Affirmations), I am not convinced that interest in “secular reasonâ€ provides a “fundamental distinction between Church and State,â€ or that it provides us an “alternativeâ€ that “values freedom, autonomy, individuality, [and] rationality,â€ as if “pre-political (i.e. religious) foundationsâ€ do not value these. I therefore do not find the need “to balance pre-political beliefs with the demands of free, democratic, and plural political society,â€ as if pre-political beliefs make no such demands in and of themselves on their adherents. The James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons, and D. James Kennedys of the world may not value “secular reasonâ€ as much we’d like them to, but in my book they do not define Christianity. Jesus does — both the Jesus of history and the Christ of lived human experience.
To take up the subject of Jesus for a moment and hint at the particular “pre-politicalâ€ beliefs I have in mind when I assert that Christian faith drives believers toward affirming “secular reasonâ€ and humanistic values in the public sphere: When confronted by religious leaders who try to stop Jesus’ disciples from gleaning grain on the Sabbath (when work is forbidden), Jesus asserts, “the Sabbath was created for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbathâ€ (Mark 2:27). The strong implication here, which reverberates in a great many of Jesus’ sayings and parables, is that the purpose of religion is to serve humanity, not the other way around. Religious values, at their best, are humanistic (in the fullest sense of the word) not sectarian in nature. They should “workâ€ whether God truly exists or not. One is reminded in this regard that the historical Jesus referred to himself most frequently as “Son of Man,â€ not “Son of God,â€ which was a later convention.
In his prioritization of human values over religious ones, Jesus stands in a very long tradition within Judaism, most fully embodied in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, portions of the Psalms), and embraced in many writings of the early church. The wisdom tradition affirms, rather than contradicts, the kind of ethics of citizenship you articulate. In contrast to other writings in the Bible, wisdom literature:
- is strongly cosmopolitan and international in nature, stressing the commonalities with other cultures more than differences
- understands God as being known primarily through human experience and in nature
- pursues knowledge vigorously, with stress on rational contemplation over supernatural speculation
- is highly anthropocentric, emphasizing human aspirations and endeavors more than those of God (What Walter Brueggemann has called “theology from belowâ€)
- is intensely practical, focused on material effects in the here-and-now rather than the hereafter
- is strikingly devoid of major biblical themes that focus attention on one particular people or belief such as: (a) the distinctiveness of Israel; (b) intervention by God in history to deliver a particular people; (c) the notion of covenant; (d) the concept of Israel’s election; (e) the Torah, (f) the Exodus.
While many Christians are not aware of the biblical foundations of their faith, the wisdom tradition has real, concrete influence particularly within the emerging Christian faith at the grass roots in America (and many parts of the world, in fact). There are vast numbers of Christians in our society who value the perspectives of those who believe differently, who want them fully represented in the public square, and who celebrate human freedom, autonomy and individuality. While they may desire Christian individuals and churches to be more fully Christian they have no desire to turn America into a Christian nation. In fact, they find this notion abhorrent.
This observation was strongly confirmed in the experience of CrossWalk America as we walked across the country last year (I detail these experiences in Asphalt Jesus: Finding a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America [Jossey-Bass, forthcoming August, 2007). They are also highlighted in the upcoming film, Asphalt Gospel, to be released in August as well].
Yet our experience is also reflected in the research of Hal Taussig, who lists a thousand progressive faith communities across the country whose beliefs would be highly compatible with the “secular reasonâ€ you look for in the public square (A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots [Polebridge Press, 2006]). Diana Butler-Bass finds similar communities in Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
Why would all these Christians be so invisible on the landscape of public discourse in America compared to the vocal few who seek to plaster Jesus on every law and public institution? In part, it is because many have been practicing what you are preaching, and have been doing so for a long time. They are not wearing their faith on their sleeves. Instead, they have been translating their “pre-politicalâ€ assumptions into the “secular reasonâ€ required in public discourse. They have done so not despite their Christian faith, but because of it.
So, to answer your question of why one might choose CrossWalk America’s vision of Christianity [articulated in the Phoenix Affirmations] over Dobson’s or Falwell’s theologies: I cannot answer for anyone else, but I personally give my “Amenâ€ to the Phoenix Affirmations because I do not find there to be such a large dichotomy between my personal faith and my public politics. Primarily, however, I say “Amenâ€ because I find that there isn’t such a large gap between my assumptions, my politics, and my understanding of Jesus
Because there are many Christians like me who are motivated primarily by their understandings of Jesus, and secondarily by their politics, I continue to speak publicly to fellow Christians about this Jesus, trusting that this is the best way I can place my faith in the service of the entire human family and promote lively, free, and reasoned civic discourse. I know Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus who are making similar efforts within their own particular traditions. And why should they not? Religion was made for humanity, not humanity for religion.
Thanks for an engaging dialog!
Part 4: Nacho Cordova on Pluralism, Secularism, and Religious Belief
Thanks again for the thoughtful reply. We are quickly getting down to some interesting intersections, so let me see if I can continue that job of focusing our lenses even more. My expectation is that when we do so, we might be able to speak in more pragmatic terms about things on the ground. You’ve started that with your note on Sullivan, and I did not have enough time to address it here. I hope to do so in the next post, if not in comments. The argument about secular reason failing us at times leads me to the following:
Isn’t secular reason just another comprehensive view originating in enlightenment thinking that saw religious orientations as intrinsically different from non-religious ones? Aren’t we betraying or discounting the requirements of pluralism when we place a demand on citizens to see secular reason as neutral language that exists above and beyond value-laden commitments? If so, why should we then discount explanations from our neighbor merely because those explanations originate in religious motivation? Besides, what do we do when secular reason fails us? Shouldn’t we instead focus on the demands of pluralism rather than demanding secularism? (An unexpressed notion here is whether secularism really provides the underlying framework for democracy)
Good questions all. Let me start with the one you more directly pose:
Yes, secular reason is going to fail us. As you note, there is plenty of evidence that attests to that fact. Yet, there are sharp distinctions between both orientations. Secularism, or secular reason, tells us that there are ways to comprehend the universe and human life without recourse to God or explanations external to humanity. On this rests the fundamental distinction between Church and State: liberal secular reason provides us an alternative that values freedom, autonomy, individuality, rationality as ways to organize and lead human life without recourse to reasons external to humanity, and in so doing reminds us that by applying such notions we get to make up our own minds in a pluralistic world. In other words, liberal secular reason can account for pluralism but does so in a political way, where positions articulated emerge precisely from political contestation/life and not from pre-political (i.e.
religious) foundations. That political process is essential because it might allow us to come up with rationales far more amenable to legitimation and/or interpretation than purely religious explanations. In pluralistic society how might we choose between competing religious beliefs that are pre-political?
Hence, secular reason will indeed fail us. Religious reasons will also fail us. Which type of reasons ought we privilege in political society? Perhaps the above paints the situation in too polarizing a way, too rigidly defining sides, and not providing a way to speak of how we come together to enact public life through all these comprehensive commitments. In my view, the above explanation takes both domains as opposing magisteria, especially taking the secular as if it were an unalloyed state (have we ever had pure secularism?).
For some, like William Galston, the answer has been to deploy a discourse of pluralism rather than secularism, but I’m not sure that the two are incompatible if we conceive of the secular rationale principle as a call to the civic virtue of inclusivity. Yikes! this whole thing needs serious development, but I’m trying to find an ethics of citizenship that does not discard the honest religious voice that calls us to the broad moral boundaries we ought to uphold in liberal-democratic society, without assuming those moral boundaries have to originate with religion, that religion is its epitome, or that religious reasons can be identified with public interests unproblematically.
I see the efforts of CrossWalk America, especially if I interpret the Phoenix Affirmations well, as trying to walk a path of respect for pluralism. A path that recognizes and affirms unapologetically that religion is an integral part of public life, that it is a major source of preparing (habilitating) citizens for such a life, and that while religious reasons might not be unproblematically identified with public interests, religion can play an important role if it abides by a theology of love and promise, and an ethics of radical inclusivity. To return to the question of what does religious pluralism and religious freedom require, I still propose that it requires a rhetorical sensitivity and savvyness, and that such a savvyness implies a political obligation to balance pre-political beliefs with the demands of free, democratic, and plural political society (Robert Audi calls that a theo-ethical equilibrium). A pragmatic question that comes out of these concerns might be why choose CrossWalk America over Dobson’s or Falwell’s theologies? A religious explanation can be given, but how do we answer this if taking the demands of pluralism seriously?
I’ll have to address Stout, Sullivan, and the other points a bit later. Perhaps in comments! As a preview to my argument about Stout’s formulation, and the idea of advocating for a social good out of due diligence rather than failure to do own’s homework… I would say that such due diligence rationale needs to find public articulation, it might be that the difference between doing own’s homework and “due diligenceâ€ is negligible.
Part 3: Rev. Elnes on Avoiding Kooky Reasoning
Thanks for your insightful and informative comments yesterday. My head is spinning with all the ways to engage your ten excellent points. I think you could tell from my post that I am substantially in agreement with what you are saying.
One point I find reflected throughout all ten is that it is not adequate in public discourse to warrant or legitimate any public policy based solely on religious arguments. Rather, debate in the public square regarding matters concerning the whole of society should be based on secular rationale.
You offer many reasons in support of this contention, including preserving the freedoms of the non-religious and those of other faiths, building bridges between parties, and conforming to the strictures of logic and reason. Underneath it, I also hear (and pardon me if I put words in your mouth unnecessarily) a basic aversion to arguments that appear, well, kooky.
Amen, I say! I would like to respond to your basic point by both adding further support for your contention, and then adding some nuance to it.
1. While you cite primarily fundamentalist abuses of logic in the public square, there are plenty of liberal abuses, too, that could be cited. The age-old argument that “God says soâ€ is nearly as common among liberals as conservatives (though we may use different language), and often strikes me as little more than a convenient excuse for not doing one’s homework.
My bachelor’s degree is in economics. Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of economic policies being advocated by well-meaning ministers and laypeople on my end of the theological swimming pool based on the grounds of “God’s preferential option for the poor,â€ to cite one example. Yet, if many of these policies were actually implemented, they would do more harm than good for the poor and marginalized.
To accept some of the shrill, overly easy claims made by my fellow liberals about the intrinsic evil of multinational corporations, or God’s distaste for wealth and the wealthy, or the moral bankruptcy of any form of free-market capitalism, for instance, one would have to conclude that God may have great morals but is a lousy economist. This is not, of course, to say that all multinationals, or wealth, or capitalistic enterprises are good. It is only to agree with you that any claims citing God as the source of wisdom cannot end there. They must be warranted by solid economic theory that makes sense whether one believes in God (or one particular God) or not.
Now, to nuance the argument a bit:
2. Just because arguments are based on secular grounds, there is absolutely no guarantee that they are any less kooky, ill conceived, or dangerous than purely religious ones. There are many historical examples of religious progressives rushing to embrace secular, scientific “wisdomâ€ too easily, with disastrous results. Viz., social Darwinism. As my friend Doug Adams at Pacific School of Religion reminds me, one reason that the upper classes and upper middle classes were happy to embrace evolution in the early 1900s was that it justified their neglect of the poor at home and their support of imperialist activities abroad all in the name of “survival of the fittest.â€ Progressive Christianity (during the 1900 to World War I period) was largely a Protestant Republican upper class and upper middle class movement more populated by owners than workers and prone to imperialism abroad.
3. As Princeton University’s Jeffrey Stout might remind us, if one is going to claim that a belief in God changes anything, one must be able to demonstrate how “belief in God make[s] it reasonable for us to do or to risk things that a reasonable person who did not believe in God would not do or riskâ€ (Christian Century, June 1995). If one cannot do this, it could logically be argued that one’s belief in God makes no difference at all. Thus, if belief in God really does make a difference in people’s lives, then their lines of reasoning will not necessarily conform to the strictures a non-believer, or one of different belief. Intellectual (and spiritual) honesty will, therefore, tend at times to lead believers of any faith to accept and advocate for certain social goods that pure logic cannot necessarily support. In these cases, it is not failure to do one’s homework that drives the argument, but due diligence.
4. One does not need to be religious to agree or relate with the above point. One need only be a lover of art. Imagine if we held musicians and poets to the same standard we are considering for the religious. If writers of love songs had to warrant their choices with appeals to reason and logic that are acceptable to everyone, then I can only suggest that iPods would not need nearly the number of gigabytes of memory they currently have! Or to the contrary, perhaps they’d need a lot more gigabytes, as the average love song would likely expand from 3.5 minutes to 40 minutes or more to offer adequate justification.
5. Finally, as Amy Sullivan might remind us, one of the reasons why religious moderates and liberals have lost so much ground in American culture is not that they have failed to be reasonable or secular enough, but because they have lost touch with the basic language and story of their faith. Writing in the Autumn, 2005, issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (“‘Out’ Inside the Beltwayâ€) Sullivan notes:
When the religious right emerged two decades ago, being religious became not only dÃ©classÃ©, but also dangerous. No one on the left wanted to be lumped in with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; nor did they want to cross any lines by inappropriately mixing church and state. So religious liberals started secularizing their language and compartmentalizing their church-going selves. And as groups like the Christian Coalition became more vocal, these religious liberals withdrew further from public view. The parting gift they gave Christian conservatives was an uncontested public square
In a country where nearly nine in every ten citizens consider themselves Christian, it is imperative that Christians speak out, at times, specifically to the Christian community, drawing on the particular language, thought-forms, idioms, stories — and power — of their faith. This is not to say we need to revert to some form of the “God said soâ€ mentality. It is only to recognize that, in certain circumstances, Jesus may be more persuasive than Milbank. Jesus’ Beatitudes may ultimately do more to influence public opinion that moves public policy forward with respect to military conquests and concern for the poor, for instance, than endless citations of statistics, or economic or political theory — particularly since so many constituencies on both sides of the political divide recognize their authority.
Personally, I would welcome a great deal more public discussion and debate over the meaning of the Beatitudes than we presently have, as we could actually hope to have Christian liberals and conservatives talking to one another using a strong base of common ground (i.e., their respect for Jesus, who serves as a kind of Rosetta Stone among Christians of all flavors). An impassioned discussion/debate over the Beatitudes and their implications in the modern world would likely serve to move progressive ideals forward more powerfully than an equally impassioned debate over whether the war in Iraq is truly “making the world safe for democracy.â€
Yet I am not counting on such public discussion arising anytime soon. Until then, I will continue my work with CrossWalk America — and my church — striving to change the public face of Christianity in our country to a more inclusive, compassionate one, using the Phoenix Affirmations as a guide (the Phoenix Affirmations being, in essence, an accessible, theological articulation of the Beatitudes). On this note, I will leave you and our readers with those Affirmations. You can decide for yourself if the nation would be better off if more Christians used them as the underlying theological basis of their public policy decisions.
The Phoenix Affirmations
As people who are joyfully and unapologetically Christian, we pledge ourselves completely to the way of Love. We work to express our love, as Jesus teaches us, in three ways: by loving God, neighbor, and self.
(Matt 22:34-40 // Mk 12:28-31 // Lk 10:25-28; Cf. Deut 6:5; Lev. 19:18)
Christian love of God includes:
1. Walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may provide for humanity;
2. Listening for God’s Word which comes through daily prayer and meditation, studying the ancient testimonies which we call Scripture, and attending to God’s present activity in the world;
3. Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God’s Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human;
4. Expressing our love in worship that is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.
Christian love of neighbor includes:
5. Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class;
6. Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others;
7. Preserving religious freedom and the church’s ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of church and state;
8. Walking humbly with God, acknowledging our own shortcomings while honestly seeking to understand and call forth the best in others, including those who consider us their enemies;
Christian love of self includes:
9. Basing our lives on the faith that in Christ all things are made new and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imagination — for eternity;
10. Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, and recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth;
11. Caring for our bodies and insisting on taking time to enjoy the benefits of prayer, reflection, worship, and recreation in addition to work;
12. Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose; a vocation and ministry that serve to strengthen and extend God’s realm of love.
Part 2: Nacho from Woodmoor Village on Pluralism, Freedom, and Sensitivity
Thank you for starting us off on what promises to be a provocative exchange about religion, public discourse, and progressive politics. I’m grateful for the opportunity that Faith in Public Life has provided us to engage in this public dialogue. Thank you also Eric for articulating so well an inclusive voice that envisions religion as a practice of deep relationship with, and for, others; a practice centered on an ethical view of such relations as embodiment of a call to love as way of being in the world, of extending community, and of what feminist theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison called passing on “the gift of life.â€ Let me start my own post by positing some themes that I hope to expand upon in subsequent posts, that I think are implicit in your words (and my assumption is that also in the Phoenix Affirmations) and that I find frame much of my concerns regarding a progressive religious voice.
Your post immediately brings to mind two questions that, generally speaking, I don’t see religious leaders addressing quite as rigorously as they should. The questions are from a recent book, Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America’s Sacred Ground (Baylor University Press, 2005), and they are: “What does it mean to take religious pluralism seriously?â€ and, “What does it mean to take religious freedom seriously?â€ In my estimation, an answer to those questions must include full engagement with the following non-exhaustive propositions:
1. Spirituality, Religion, and/or Faith, cannot be seen just as private matters. This triumvirate calls people to enact public citizenship in particular ways and thus cannot be the sole province of privatized theology, or relegated to the shadows.
2. Concomitantly, there must be increased public scrutiny of religion and spiritual claims. Far too many religious leaders claim a desire to enter a public square from which they have supposedly being excluded, but are not willing to submit to the public scrutiny that such participation entails. Religion thus cannot play a hermetic role in public life.
3. We need to expand the religious voices that we hear in the public. So far there is a narrow confinement of religious voices to a set of prominent leaders that are not representative of the religious diversity of the nation. These voices are taken as normative and our media not only panders to them, but reinforces their status. I applaud FPL and CrossWalk America because their work brings the voices of those very people whose faith and lives are being discussed and supposedly represented by these leaders, to the center of the conversation about faith and public life.
4. Dissent with Church teaching and religion needs to be an integral part of religious freedom. Without such dissent no freedom can exist, no prophetic voice can develop, and religious people cannot enact public life if they cannot challenge received wisdom. Directed to a progressive religious movement: such efforts must be explicitly self- conscious about its own assumptions, and must encourage dissent from magisterial pronouncements.
5. Religious folks need to let go of two overused narratives: a) the narrative of persecution, and b) the narrative of exclusion from the public square. The first one manifests as a defensive and reactionary claim that a secular state, atheists, humanists, and other believers are waging a war on, or attacking, a particular group (often Christians). That narrative of persecution is needlessly polarizing. The second narrative incorrectly confuses participation in public discourse with having the power to shape public policy. Religion has not been, and is not now, excluded from public discourse, that is public participation. Public discourse in this nation has always had a vibrant religious voice. This claim of exclusion ought to be read in two ways: First, it points to the fact of pluralism in our society. Some Christian leaders claim they have been excluded because they are realizing that they are just not “the only game in townâ€ anymore. Second, challenge to religious assumptions and claims do not exclusion make. In fact, it is the opposite. The more engagement and discursive contestation, the more full a role religious claims play in the public. What is truly excluded from public life is the assertion of non-belief, of agnosticism, and atheism.
Second, what should obtain strong limits is not participation in public discourse, but the place of religious argument in warranting or legitimating public policy. Here the questions remain: “can we confer democratic legitimacy on the efforts of fundamentalists that are inimical to democratic thought itself, and that eschew or have no interest in democratic deliberation to begin with, remaining insulated from the actual practice of argument, from political debate?â€
6. We must challenge, or at the very least, engage fully and forcefully, the notion that religion can remain politically illegible. A difficulty with formulations that God is neither Republican or Democrat, or that God takes no sides, is that it defers those questions to an abstract God rather than to religion and/or spirituality as lived practice of everyday people. It also denies the increasingly profound integration of political and non-political commitments of many religious folks. In other words, for at least a significant segment of the population it is particularly difficult to disassociate non-political commitments from political ideas.
7. A good understanding of what religious pluralism and religious freedom means must eschew political piety and instead endeavor to participate in a civic piety that is not about emptying theological content for the sake of political gain, but instead engaging in capturing religious, ethical, and moral inchoateness and transforming it into common moral ground.
8. It must conscientiously work toward building bridges and reducing division rather than polarizing by affirming dogmatic truth. Here I will rely on the first three of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, as essential to taking seriously religious pluralism and religious freedom (Openness, Non-Attachment to Views, and Freedom of Thought). They can be read fully here: http://www.mindfulnessbell.org/14trainings.htm
9. Such an understanding must perforce include a planetary ethics. Pluralism requires that we not remain mired in a truncated perspective of the nation. In my view this requires recognition of the deep interconnection we share with one another and with our universe. Although I don’t use the language of the sacred, let me cite Starhawk on this point (from her Declaration of the Four Sacred Things):
“All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.â€
10. Pluralism and Freedom means having faith in the life of the polis, in a life enacted in public as part of a polis that secures a space for as many voices as possible. Specific faith traditions are often seen as blocking others from participating in that public life. Hence, I believe we ought to adopt what Robert Audi has called a principle of secular rationale: “one has a prima facie obligation not to advocate or support any law or public policy that restricts human conduct, unless one has, and is willing to offer, adequate secular reason for this advocacy or support.â€
I can see objections to this idea, but in at least a modified way, we ought to consider this to be concomitant with a Rhetorical Sensitivity. The point is not that religious reasons cannot be provided, but that religious folks ought to also offer explanations, reasons, and/or arguments that can be understood from non-specific faith tradition grounds. Such rhetorical savvyness calls us to deeply consider audiences, our language, plurality, and freedom; certainly that our call for such laws or public policy should not rely on exclusive notions of God or what only that God might deem acceptable.
Various other ideas animate my thinking about this issue which I’ll leave as half-formed and half-baked questions for now: Does progressive religion have a theory of the political? Does progressive mean “liberal,â€ or “left?â€ What distinguishes the progressive religious movement from the early eighties movement of the GOP to open its “big tentâ€ to religious fundamentalism, thus creating the conditions for a takeover? To what end a religious connection? If the state ought not be religious then the allegiance is for social justice and not for religious ends. Can a religious progressive moment theorize outside of the faith? How do we “speak truth to powerâ€ to those powers that do not respect other truths?
To close let me paraphrase and adapt again from Beverly Wildung Harrison, our work should be based, and should grow, out of our deep relationship with each other, of recognition of our interconnectedness and that nothing is self-contained, thus the “final and most important basepoint…is the centrality of relationship.â€ As Harrison noted, we must continue to find ways to love and act-each-other-into-wellbeing. Thank you Eric for nurturing my thoughts with your thoughtful post and with CrossWalk America’s work.
Part 1: Rev. Elnes on Christians and Self-Criticism
First of all, thanks to David Buckley for the gracious invitation to you and me to jot down some reflections about how religious progressives can talk about their religious identities in a diverse society made up of different (or non-existent) faiths.
This is a question that I and my colleagues at CrossWalk America had to think through carefully as we formed an organization whose first major national effort was to host a 2,500 mile walk from Phoenix, Arizona to Washington, DC, to promote a more inclusive, compassionate vision of Christianity than is typically aired by certain vocal religious leaders. How we answered the question surprised many of our fellow progressive leaders, angered a few, and delighted others. Looking back on our experiences, we are quite happy about the path we eventually chose, even as we affirm and join hands with those who have chosen differently.
At the heart of our struggle were two seemingly competing objectives. First, a key part of CrossWalk America’s vision is “openness to other faiths.â€ We strongly believe that there are other legitimate paths to God besides the one(s) specifically labeled “Christian.â€ We feel it is both faithful to the essence of Christian faith and critically important in our contemporary context, where rivalry between major faiths dangerously lurks underneath the surface of politics and culture, for Christians to joyfully and unapologetically find common ground with people of other faiths, and with those who espouse no faith.
Given this commitment, some felt that CrossWalk America should establish itself either as an interfaith organization, or as secular one focusing more on social change than religious advocacy.
On the other hand, many of us also felt that, in the United States, the largest roadblock toward establishing a more harmonious and productive relationship between people of different traditions comes from within the Christian faith itself. The dominant Christian voice in the mainstream media is that Christianity is the “only way,â€ and that those who have not accepted Jesus as lord before they die will burn in a fiery hell for eternity. Such beliefs move with surprising ease across the thresholds of individual faith communities to influence national and international politics and society at large.
Given that nearly nine in every ten Americans identify themselves as Christians, (“Where We Stand on Faith,â€ Newsweek (August 29-September 5, 2005)), then as long as this exclusionary view dominates in the public square, there can be little hope of broad-based change. This holds true not only with respect to promoting openness to other faiths, but also with respect to LGBT equality, the separation of church and state, affirming the compatibility of faith and science, and so on. Therefore, some of us felt that the most effective use of CrossWalk America’s limited time, talent, and (very limited) treasure would be to help work for positive change specifically within the Christian faith rather than across faiths. Our sense was that, just as Muslims are the best equipped to counter extremist influences within Islam, so Christians are distinctively positioned to influence the future of Christianity.
In the process of our deliberations, some of our Jewish and Buddhist friends encouraged us to form ourselves as a Christian organization speaking primarily to Christians. One told us quite frankly, “You folks caused the problem. You need to fix it!â€ (Her statement was accompanied by a check!)
Another source of encouragement came in the form of studies of American Christianity. In the Newsweek/Beliefnet poll cited above, for instance, we were surprised and delighted to find that, if asked “Can a good person who isn’t of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation, or not?â€ eight in every ten Christians in the United States answer affirmatively. This includes seven in every ten evangelicals and nine in every ten Catholics. What this suggests is that, while certain Christian leaders may currently garner the lion’s share of media attention for their exclusionary views, the actual faith geography looks quite different at the grassroots.
Another interesting fact: While nearly nine in every ten people in America identify themselves as Christian, polls consistently show that less then three of these actively participate in an organized community of faith. This means that by far the largest block of Christians in the U.S. is made up of Christians who are, in essence, “spiritually homeless.â€ They may identify with Christian faith, but for a variety of reasons they are feeling so alienated from Christian churches that they aren’t showing up on anyone’s radar.
While the “spiritually homelessâ€ are far from a homogenous group, we regularly found that a large percentage are feeling alienated because the churches they used to attend convinced them that one must step outside the Christian faith to hold many of the very beliefs that CrossWalk America and other progressive organizations and churches believe lie at the heart of their faith! These beliefs include:
- Openness to other faiths
- Care for the earth and its ecosystems
- Standing with the poor and marginalized in society
- Valuing artistic expression in all its forms
- Authentic inclusiveness of all people — including the LGBT community
- Opposing the commingling of church and state
- Embracing both faith and science in the pursuit of truth
- Talking the Bible seriously, but reading it non-literally
Over time, it dawned on us that if we in the progressive Christian faith community are to blame anyone for the rise of militant, exclusivist forms of Christianity in the United States, we need look no further than ourselves. Fundamentalist church-goers aren’t to blame. After all, when only about twenty percent of all Christians in the U.S. actively attend any church — fundamentalist or otherwise — then the majority of social and political change is not being swayed by church-attenders. Rather, much of it is being swayed by the “spiritually homelessâ€ who, while in the voting booth, are asking themselves, “What’s the Christian thing to do?â€ When the dominant Christian voices in society come from the far right, who assert exactly what they feel is “the Christian thing to doâ€ in front of media cameras and microphones, is it any wonder that a significant percentage (though, of course, not all) of these “spiritually homelessâ€ tend to vote in their direction?
Thus, while CrossWalk America is deeply committed to working on behalf of all of society — Christian and non-Christian — and strongly affirms the work of progressive interfaith and secular organizations, we feel that our distinctive contribution to the movement is best made by embracing our Christian faith and working for change within the Christian community, including among the “spiritually homeless.â€ At the same time, we actively embrace and promote an ecumenically developed set of twelve Christian principles known as the Phoenix Affirmations, whose very first Affirmation advocates for openness to other faiths. (All twelve Affirmations can be found here. I have written a commentary on the Phoenix Affirmations which can be found by following this link.)
As we walked across the country last summer, we were pleased to find our intuitions confirmed by very strong support for the Phoenix Affirmations not only among progressive Christians, but also among people of other faiths. We encountered a surprisingly high level of support among moderate conservatives and even among what might be called “spiritually uncomfortableâ€ fundamentalists. I write about many of these experiences in Asphalt Jesus: Discovering a New Christian Faith Along the Highways of America (Jossey-Bass, forthcoming August, 2007).
Now, seven months after the conclusion of the walk, we have found that interest in what we are doing has not only continued but increased dramatically. Traffic to the blog section of our website, for instance, is double what it was even at the height of the walk, with approximately 1,000 “unique visitorsâ€ per day (and thousands more “hitsâ€). When we have asked our visitors what benefit they receive from the blog, the majority response is, “I don’t feel so alone anymore.â€
Based on our experiences, we feel confident that, joining hands with other faith-based, interfaith, and secular organizations working toward similar goals, we truly are making a difference at the grassroots. Change is not only possible but probable, provided we can continue to find ways to build stronger bridges rather than higher walls.
I look forward to your thoughts,