Vitriol on the web

A blogger from a right wing Anglican blog site has quoted a large percentage of what I posted in my "post-Easter hangover" entry. The purpose of this was a) to involve me, a non-Episcopalian, into the middle of his internecine attacks against liberal Episcopalianism, and b) to ridicule my beliefs. He did this behind my back; the only reason I found out about it was that the site meter showed a large number of visits today that were referrals from that web site.

I suppose some progressives would consider it a badge of honor to be subjected to this sort of attack from a web site like that, but engaging in flame wars with the attack dogs of the Religious Right is not the reason I blog here. To debate with such people would be a monumentally pointless waste of time. I learned from Fr Jake's blog that that particular web site is notorious for trolling the net for blog entries that don't meet with approval, and then attacking the blogger. I guess it was my turn. Naturally, this was all done behind my back. Of course, dialog with me was not the point; if it had been, he could have asked me a sincere question about why I don't attend the Episcopal church, rather than simply asserting with a know-it-all attitude in his own blog that the church "fits me like a glove" (as if he would know what fits me, a total stranger, like a glove) . The point was to use me as fodder for an internecine denominational conflict that I have nothing to do with--and maybe to engage in the fun of ridiculing someone he didn't agree with. Unfortunately, from the sheer volume of hits that I've received today, it appears that that blog has a very large following. (I should stress that not everyone who reads that blog is of the same mind. Some of the people who responded in the comments section to that blogger's posting showed disagreement to varying degrees with what he had done. This, however, only led him to ratchet up his personal attacks against me--once again, a person he has never met--characterizing me, among other things, as "lazy" and "self-centered".)

The subtlety of my own views, naturally, got completely bulldozed in the translation. I expressed views on Christianity that he abhors, and since liberal Episcopalians express views on Christianity that he abhors, this was an opportunity for him to lump all those he disagrees with into a single category that he could attack collectively. Obviously I am a perfect fit for liberal Episcopal church services, despite the fact that I have written elsewhere that, as much as I respect the Episcopal church, its services that are based on the Book of Common Prayer don't work for me personally, for a variety of reasons that I have spelled out. It is always easier to stereotype people so that you can tell them how they should then conform to that stereotype, and tell them to do what you think everyone who fits that stereotype should do.

This is one of several reasons why I prefer to keep my net presence relatively anonymous. It makes all the nastiness and personally directed vitriol out there a little easier to to deal with.

The fragility of human existence

There is a movement among some bloggers to honor those who were killed in the Virginia Tech shootings by holding a day of blog silence on April 30. It is entirely possible that I won't be writing anything on April 30, but if so, it will not be because of a day of silence; it will simply be because I will happen to have nothing to say on that day.

I don't want to sound callous or insensitive. What happened to those victims was terrible, of course; but the fact is that people around the world grieve every day because their loved ones have died in senseless, unnecessary deaths. And yet those other people don't have the privilege of American flags being lowered to half mast, or of high ranking politicians attending their funerals, or of a day of blogger silence carried out in their honor. I think we really have to ask ourselves if we are being fair when we selectively honor one set of victims senseless tragedies while we ignore the far greater number of others who also die senselessly.

Just a little over a week ago, the WHO reported that 400,000 people worldwide under the age of 25 die annually in traffic accidents. That's more than 1000 young people a day. That amounts to, in other words, about 30 Virginia Techs every single day. Here's a question to ponder: does anyone believe that the families of those young people who die in this carnage on the streets grieved one iota less than the families of the victims at Virginia Tech?

Is it wrong to compare deaths from traffic accidents to deaths from shootings? I don't think so. Loved ones grieve just as much when those they love are taken from them suddenly and unexpectedly. But if one insists that the issue here is not just unnecessary death, but also violence, I would say, okay--if you feel I am not making an apples to apples to comparison, then just consider the number of people who are murdered in the United States on any given day. How many of those victims of violence are honored in this way?

Violence is a serious problem in human society, and has been for much of its history--there is no question about it. It is perhaps the most insidious of human evils, serving as it does as a concrete expression of hate, the very opposite of the abstract philosophical and religious idea of love. And mass murder does really jar us because it does call our attention to the problem of violence that plagues the world in smaller degrees all the time. We certainly need to address the problem of violence--violence by individuals, as well as violence by states ( the death penalty, or the war in Iraq, to cite just two examples of the latter).

So, philosophically, I do think that the question of ending violence should be at the forefront of our minds. But, philosophically, I also think that we do have to ask ourselves how it is that humans often live in denial about the fragility of our own existence.

We often seem to suffer under an illusion that we can create, or that there should be, some form of sanctuary from the random darts that life throws us. We think we can somehow build little zones of safety, and if we can somehow exist as much as possible within those zones of safety, all will be okay, and we will then live to ripe old ages, when we will die peacefully of old age, hopefully in our sleep. College campuses,with their frequently laid out idyllic settings, are supposed to be examples of such zones of safety. If someone is shot in a dangerous neighborhood, well, we at some small level may dismiss that as somehow being that person's fault (similar logic is often applied to rape victims who dress "provocatively".) But mass murder on a college campus violates this conception--it shatters the illusion that anyone can ever be truly sheltered from those random darts.

In reality, none of us is every truly safe. Most of us never give the slightest thought to getting into a car--and yet, in fact, people die in traffic accidents every day.

Life is, unfortunately, a crap shoot. We don't want to admit it. We labor under the delusion of certainty and security. Yet some of us die unnecessarily. My mother wasn't a young, fresh college student full of bright prospects for the future when she died several years ago, unnecessarily, in a traffic accident caused by another motorist who was driving way past the speed limit. She was, in fact, an old woman. Nor was David Halberstram, the author who was just killed this past week in a traffic accident, a young man. Yet each of those deaths was both tragic and unnecessary.

All of us, if we live long enough, grieve the death of others we know personally. Some, perhaps many, of the ones we survive will have died sudden, unnecessary, deaths. Those deaths at Virginia Tech remind us of the tragedy of the human condition, of the fragility of our lives, of the randomness that effects us no matter how much we try to micromanage our existence. I think that the best way we can honor those who died in Virginia Tech is to honor all of those who have died tragically and unnecessarily in the world--including those 1000 or so young people who will die today somewhere in the world in a traffic accident.

Post-Easter hangover

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Easter was making me cranky. Well, I guess I'm still a little cranky--or at least more frustrated than I was before.

My dissatisfaction with my forays into progressive Christianity is probably due to a recent convergence of three events. First, there was Easter itself--the holiday in which Christian churches the world over, including those that are ostensibly "progressive", proclaim that "Christ is risen", in ways that suggest that those doing the proclaiming either actually believe that mythological and mutually irreconcilable Easter experiences described in the Gospels were literal, historical events--or, even worse, that those doing the proclaiming are just pretending that these events were literally, historically true. This dovetailed with my recent reading of Jack Good's book The Dishonest Church, in which he described the phenomenon of clergy who learn in seminary that many of the Biblical stories are not literally true but then who go on to preach as if they really were. Last, but not least, my experiences with Night Church in Copenhagen, particularly the candlelit service which I thoroughly enjoyed despite not having understood much of what was said, led me to realize how much I appreciate worship not for the dogma or ideas so much as for the means they provide for focusing my mind into a state of awe and communion with the Divine.

Today, I didn't go to church. I have seen some progressive congregations in the region that interest me, but which are located in suburbs that would require a fair amount of driving to get to. Thus, because of their distance, they, unfortunately, are a bit far away for regular attendance. Still, there is a part of me that wants to at least check some of these churches out at least once, to see if they can provide some hint that perhaps there do actually exist forms of progressive Christianity that I can relate to. This morning, I woke up too late to venture too far afield in time for a 10 AM service, so I did a quick perusal of the web site of the Center for Progressive Christianity, to see what lies in my own city of San Francisco. I've looked at their affiliate list for California before, and it hasn't changed much since the last time I checked it out.

I took another look at a Presbyterian church on that affiliate list. I had looked at the church before and felt that it wasn't right for me. The problem with the label "progressive" is that it is often a vague concept that means whatever the church in question wants it to mean. Many churches like to think of themselves as "progressive" because they fully support gays and lesbians, as if that were the be-all and end-all of what the concept means; yet many of these same churches preach remarkably orthodox notions in other areas, particularly when it comes to the doctrine of the resurrection. This particular church seems to be one of those. I found a sermon on its web site going back to Easter of 2006, in which the pastor made it clear that she fully believed in the literal truth of the resurrection, and that without it she would "wash her hands" of the Christian faith. It is statements like these that scare me away from churches.

Still, I thought I wanted to go to some church, and it was running too late to find a church that had a 10 AM service, and the Presbyterian church's service starts at 10:30, so part of me was trying to talk myself into going there despite my gut feeling against it. The web site for the church included the latest newsletter, which contained an article about progressive Christianity that I mostly liked. Maybe I could check the place out after all. The neighborhood where the church is located is not a good one for finding parking, but, amazingly, I found street parking on the same block as the church. If I were superstitious or believed in parking Karma or that God manipulated parking spaces, I could have taken this as a sign that I should go to this church. But I didn't. I realized I didn't really feel like going in to that church after all--which is to say, my gut feeling won out. I got out of my car, walked down a nearby main drag and found a nice neighborhood bookstore that was open on a Sunday morning. I browsed a bit, then went back to my car, and left.

It was not quite 10:30, and I knew of a UCC church that I had visited once that had 11:00 AM services. I drove to that neighborhood, found parking nearby, got out of my car, walked past the church, walked back to my car, and drove to the other side of town to a restaurant, where I had a turkey burger for lunch while I read the Sunday New York Times. I guess I really wasn't in the mood for that church, either.

The funny thing is, I am not very fond of many aspects of the Danish Lutheran Church's official theology, and yet I was able to find value in its non-conventional Night Church services a few weeks ago. In the case of the candlelit service I attended in Copenhagen, I was able to allow the language barrier to permit me to break through my theological objections and experience worship as a contemplative experience. Non-conventional worship often works well for me, especially if it offers something contemplative. That is why I am drawn to such things as Taize at an Episcopal church while Sunday morning services at that same church hold no appeal for me whatsoever. The Presbyterian church I didn't go to today has a once-a-month Jazz Vesper Service that I have not visited, and that may or may not be something that I would like. Many Episcopal churches offer innovative Sunday evening services that I have considered investigating.

Being on the heretical fringe of Christianity has continued to plague me. It has made me restless. God only knows how people like me would have done any church shopping before the age of the internet. It is only because I can do this sort of research online that I am able to even consider the possibility of exploring various churches that identify themselves as "progressive".

I am waiting for this whole Easter season to end, so that Christian churches can put their mythologies away for another year. I seemed to like it better last summer when "the Risen Christ" wasn't the topic of the sermons.

Love and Justice, Again

Last October, I wrote that love and justice are complementary. I just recently ran across this quote from Dominic Crossan, in his book God & Empire:

My proposal is that justice and love are a dialectic--like two sides of a coin that can be distinguished but not separated. We think of ourselves as composed of a body and soul, or flesh and spirit. When they are separated, we have a physical corpse. Similarly with distributive justice and communal love. Justice is the body of love, love the soul of justice. Justice is the flesh of love, love is the spirit of justice. When they are separated, we have a moral corpse. Justice without love is brutality. Love without justice is banality.


Glynn Cardy wrote an interesting blog entry on the feeling of being abandoned by God. This may be a somewhat difficult subject for Christianity to address, since it can easily be confused with the question of doubt. But, as he points out, even Jesus is reported to have asked why God had forsaken him on the cross. I wonder how many Christians feel sure of God's presence all the time. However, as Glynn Cardy puts it, God is like the wind--we don't see it, but we sense its effects on us:

God blows where it wills. God can’t be wrapped up, domesticated, or walk hand in hand with us. God is more than relational metaphors. Unlike a loving parent, sometimes the wind abandons us and we are left bereft and alone.
Religion can be like a drug some times. You get your God fix, you feel God's presence intimately--and then, at some point, somehow, you can feel abandoned by God. The Divine Morphine has been inexplicably removed. You go into withdrawal symptoms. You turn around in circles, trying to figure out where God went.

We went to a playground yesterday with some friends of ours and their two-year-old son. The boy insisted that I accompany him to the slide and go down with him. It is embarrassing to admit this, but I have a terrible fear of heights, and even a tall children's slide makes me nervous. So I didn't go down the slide with him the first time. Instead I took the steps down and met him after he went down. The slide is in the form of a curved tube, so you don't necessarily see the slider emerge until they reach the bottom. As I walked down the steps, I saw the boy looking all around for me, trying to figure out why I wasn't appearing out of the tube at the bottom of the slide.

Maybe we are like that some times when we don't sense God's presence. We look around, searching for God in the places we expect it--but maybe we are not searching where we should be? Perhaps we are simply like that little boy, with our simple understanding, not able to make sense of everything because we can be to God what a small child is to an adult.

I like Glynn Cardy's analogy with the wind. Another, perhaps sillier one also occurs to me--I imagine that God is like the contents of a pastry shop. When you walk past a pastry shop, you take a whiff of the goodies inside, it smells so good, and you walk inside. But your nose acclimates itself to smells over time, and after a while, you take a deep breath, and you don't sense that pleasant smell anymore. The pastries that produced the aromas are still there--but you can't smell them. So then you have to walk away from the pastry shop and come back another time to take in the smells anew.

Does it make sense for religion to be about getting "high" on God? Is God about ecstasy, or achieving a certain kind of conscious state, or feeling good, or feeling solemn, or feeling awed? On the other hand, is there something missing in a religion that has no ecstatic, emotional, or inspirational component? And is there more to feeling God's presence than just those emotional or psychological states?

For me, sometimes, religion is more about feeling a pull. I find myself drawn to it for reasons that I can't explain. There have been times when I honestly felt like I was enveloped in a Divine Presence. And yet I can't deny that often I feel abandoned as well. I live in a world of mundane things, where just getting by from day to day occupies my mind. I cannot escape the fact that I am of this world, even if I find myself often considering a more transcendent reality.

Terry Eagleton on Religion

From an interview in the Sunday New York Times magazine with Terry Eagleton, a Dublin-based literary critic:

Unlike most left-wingers, you have been a champion of religion. I did attack Richard Dawkins’s book on God because I think he is theologically illiterate. I value my Catholic background very much. It taught me not to be afraid of rigorous thought, for one thing.

Where do you think all these neo-atheists like Dawkins are coming from? I suppose it is a reaction to various ugly types of fundamentalism. I’m entirely with Dawkins in condemning redneck fascists from Texas to the Taliban. But the trouble with Dawkins is that he thinks that’s what religion is.

The new and improved Limbo Plus!

The old Limbo is out! Meet the new and improved Limbo!

Forgive me for being sarcastic in response to the whole chutzpah behind this--but really.

I mean, golly gee, the pope has made a pronouncement on the afterlife--or rather, given his holy seal of approval to a commission's findings on the subject of Limbo, that realm where the Catholic Church says unbaptized babies go, because, as we all know, if you aren't baptized, you can't be given eternal salvation. (I'm sure that millions of about-to-be aborted fetuses are now breathing a sigh of relief, because it turns out that they might just be "saved and brought into eternal happiness" after all, according to the commission report.)

There is a catch, though; the commission report also added that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge."

What's this? Lack of sure knowledge about what happens after we die? Surely you jest! What's the point of having a patriarchal, authoritarian, dogmatic theocratic dictatorship if it can't tell us exactly what to believe about every single fine point of theology with the absolutest of certainty? If you can't have the details of the afterlife served to you on a platter by Christ's personal representative on earth--well, you might as well be an Episcopalian.

I think all this convoluted thinking really comes down to the strange idea that God would not grant someone eternal bliss just because they happened not to have water sprinkled on them by an authorized person who at the same time said a certain set of words. The real problem with all of this is--what kind of God do you believe in? Do you believe in a God who would deny people eternal salvation just because they didn't undergo a certain ritual during their lifetime? Or do you believe instead in a God of universal compassion who gives unconditional love to all her children?

Evil, Hope, and Despair

When people die senseless deaths, we mourn.

Our lives are precarious, more precarious than we care to think about. We could be minding our business on a peaceful, quiet university campus, and then...

But I ask you: are there any sensible deaths?

Hatred and mass murder transfix us because they shine a light into the dark inner soul of evil, something we rarely encounter in our everyday lives. The people we live with, the people we work with, the people we know--we assume that they will not flip out in hugely violent ways. We build our lives around assumptions of human behavior that lie within certain defined parameters of normality. We ask ourselves what can make someone so filled with hate, so lacking in a conscience? There are many tragedies at Virginia Tech--the tragedies of those lives cut short, but also the tragedy of a twisted human soul. Was there a chemical imbalance in his brain? What made him do what he did? We like to believe in human free will, that people make moral choices, and then we judge them on the basis of those choices. That is why we don't get angry at killer hurricanes while we do get angry at mass murderers. Hurricanes don't make moral choices.

As we mourn those who died, I think of the full breadth of the tragedy of human mortality. When lots of people die in one place and time, we are transfixed. Mass murder and airplane crashes make the headlines--yet, every single day people are murdered in dribs and drabs, and people die in traffic accidents in dribs in drabs. Those dribs and drabs add up to numbers much greater than what transfixes us on the evening news. In 2005, 43,443 died in traffic accidents in the US. Divide that by 365, and you find that gives you nearly 120 people on an average day. 120 senseless deaths. About that many people are murdered in a typical year in Oakland, California. More senseless deaths.

We often live with the illusion of safety. In this era of modern medicine, we expect to live long lives and die a natural death. But the reality is that we can be cut down at any time, unexpectedly. My mother was killed by a speeding motorist in a traffic accident. This was a single tragedy, involving just herself and the other motorist. Two people died in that incident, and it was just an accident, not a conscious decision by one twisted individual to kill another.

We tell ourselves that the Virgina Tech murderer, by this act of violence, intruded on the safe haven of a college campus. But this is an illusion; there are no safe havens. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote,

It is easier, after all, if our tragedies have a certain logic to them. We all understand that there are crazy, paranoid nuts, and that in this country it is not difficult for them to get hold of guns. If Cho had gone on a killing spree in a drug deal gone sour or in some kind of bizarre terrorist attack, we'd at least have a framework to react.

But college is supposed to be a sanctuary, the first stop away from home for our children. It is a way station between high school and adulthood.
"College is supposed to be a sanctuary." But is there really ever a sanctuary from the randomness that effects our lives? Is there any such thing as absolute safety?

We live in a crazy world. George Bush delivered his condolences at a memorial service for the victims of the Virginia Tech murders. This is the same man who started an unnecessary war in Iraq that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, and by all rights should be counted as a war criminal. This is the same man who, as Governor of Texas, once signed a death warrant and then mocked the woman who was to be killed. Do we not live in a mad world?

Christians celebrate the life and teachings of a man who was unnecessarily executed, whose life was cut short in his prime. This man, Jesus, promoted a message of healing, love, and forgiveness. To celebrate Jesus is to celebrate the crazy, radical notion that nonviolent love is best even in the face of evil, even if it is defeated in the short term--and to say that his message did not die even if he was executed for what he believed in. To champion Jesus is to champion not the short term, but the long run.

We want easy answers. We want a world where everything is safe and secure, where good will triumph over evil, where death will be vanquished. We want no mass murderers in our world. But the sad truth is that they exist. We are faced with an existential dilemma. We can give up in despair. Or we can surround ourselves in escapist mythology. Or--last, but not least--we can, as Albert Camus urged us to do, keep pushing that stone up the hill like Sisyphus did. I live in the hope that we can build a better world. It is that hope, and the promise that the ideal of universal love can deliver that hope, that keeps me from falling into despair.

The Three Pauls

In God & Empire, Dominic Crossan distinguishes between three Pauls. There is the "radical Paul" who wrote the seven epistles that are known to have been written by the apostle: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Then there is the "liberal Paul", representing the author or authors who wrote three highly suspect epistles that scholars doubt that the apostle wrote: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians; in these epistles, Paul's original radicalism is sanitized and toned down. And there is the "conservative/reactionary Paul", associated with the three epistles attributed to the apostle that are known by scholarly consensus not to have been written by him: 1 and 2 Timoty and Titus.

Of the three Pauls, Crossan likes the radical Paul the best. I agree with him.

The scandal of Jesus's male particularity

Glynn Cardy wrote a fascinating blog entry a few weeks ago about how the fact that Jesus is male can often feed into to certain patriarchal notions of Divinity. He makes a very interesting point:

I don’t think however that the limitless Love called God is solely manifested in Jesus. Surely the whole notion of sacred or holy Spirit is saying that the seeds of divinity are thriving within many people, including many who would not call themselves Christian. When the author of the 4th Gospel talks about the Spirit leading us into all truth, I understand that as an unshackling of God out of the cultural particularity of any person, age, gender, sexual orientation, knowledge, and politics and allow that transformative Love to re-emerge, to incarnate, in every time, culture, gender, orientation, and circumstance. Even to incarnate in non-human form.
This strongly mirrors my own concept of divinity and humanity. In the "Saving Jesus" seminars that I attended, the incarnation was the subject of one of the sessions: what does it mean to be "fully human" and "fully divine", as the creeds claim that Jesus is? Does it even make sense to be both of these things at the same time? What does it mean to be fully human, for that matter?

But if "the seeds of divinity are thriving in many people," then the wall between Jesus and the rest of us that orthodoxy Christianity has erected will surely crumble. One could instead argue that Jesus, as a human being who was especially in tune with the Divine (a "spirit person", as Marcus Borg calls him), disclosed something about the Divine through his life--something that lies everywhere and potentially within all of us. Some of us--like Jesus, for example--can disclose a great deal of the Divine within us. But if the Divine is everywhere, then it is to one degree or another within all of us--men and women, Christians and non-Christians. (Quakers refer to this as "that of God in everyone.") The difference between us and Jesus thus becomes not a rigid, fixed absolute, but rather one of degree. All of us have the potential to disclose the degree of the Divine that resides within us. Glynn Cardy puts it this way:
For those who wish to eternally elevate, or beget, a 1st century male into the heart of God, is there any space for women? If the Godhead is masculine then those who worship will elevate the masculine, preferring even oppressive male leadership to female alternatives. If the Godhead is masculine it also becomes oppressive for all who don’t fit masculine hierarchical categories, including many men.
Bravo! I couldn't have said it better myself. Many Christian feminists try to balance out the maleness of Jesus by defining the Holy Spirit as female, as a way of creating a kind of equilibrium within the Trinity. This is certainly one way of trying to solve the problem--at least it acknowledges that the problem exists. In my view, I'm not sure how well this overcomes the fact that the only human being who is claimed to have been fully divine, according to Christian creeds, is male. I am glad to see that Glynn Cardy has addressed this elephant in the feminist room. He points out that there is another solution to the problem--remove the divine particularity from Jesus.

Glynn Cardy concludes his blog with this wonderful passage:
The divinity of Jesus depends on your definition of divine. If you wish to consider Jesus as more than human – and therefore non-human - transforming him into a cosmic superman in the sky, then there are considerable flow-on effects including monotheistic integrity, solidarity with humanity, and the gender/culture of God. If however you understand the divine as transformative Love that is both transcendent and immanent, and Jesus’ life and actions as paramount expression of that Love - but not the boundaries of that Love - then Jesus is not more or less human than anyone else, God is not a Palestinian 1st century male, and we have the seeds of divinity within us.

Experimenting with worship

An Episcopal church in San Francisco recently began offering Taize services on Thursday nights. I have not visited this church, but I was interested to read what the rector had to say about the Thursday services in his blog entry on the subject:

I'm hopeful that this service will continue to grow. It is congruent with the contemplative, Christ-centered character of this parish, yet accessible to newcomers in ways that Sunday Eucharist may not be. (emphasis added)
Episcopal churches are more or less locked into using the rites from their Book of Common Prayer for their Sunday morning services (except, for some reason, St. Gregory's, which got some sort of exemption from that). I give some Episcopal churches credit for realizing that these standard types of morning services are not everyone's cup of tea; hence the desire to try experimenting with different kinds of services, either on Sunday evenings or on weeknights.

The same blog entry that I cited above mentions that they had considered doing some kind of alternate Sunday evening service:
this service followed a nearly year-long attempt to launch a Sunday evening "contemplative Eucharist" that failed for a variety of reasons: lack of promotion, inadequate support from current members who found it hard to come back again after Sunday morning worship, a worship style that failed to differentiate itself enough from Sunday morning.
Although this effort failed, the fact that they were considering it shows an understanding that Book of Common Prayer doesn't work for everyone. I note that several other Episcopal churches in the Bay Area offer Sunday Evening services as informal or experimental alternatives to what they offer in the mornings. Examples include Trinity Episcopal in Menlo Park (5 PM "Informal Services"); St. Mary's in San Francisco (5 PM "Unplugged" service); St. Mark's in Berkeley ("user-friendly", "a low-key evening of prayer, scripture, chant, and the Eucharist"); All Souls Parish in Berkeley (6 PM "Contemplative Evening Worship"); and Trinity Episcopal in San Francisco, which offers a Wednesday night Taize service.

Other than the Taize services at Trinity Episcopal, I haven't experienced these other services, so I can't really comment on them specifically. But I do know that I enjoy the Taize services at Trinity, for both positive and negative reasons. It is true that they don't have many of the features of Episcopal worship that don't really appeal to me--including the Eucharist itself. Instead, the focus is on a contemplative atmosphere with beautiful musical chants, and a diverse body of readings, the vast majority of which come from Christian sources--but not always! (I have been there when they gave a reading from the Koran, and on another occasion they included a reading from a Sufi work.)

Perhaps that is why I enjoyed the candlelit service that I attended at the Night Church in Copenhagen a few weeks ago, even though the language barrier prevented me from understanding much of what was said. In that case, I enjoyed the quiet, contemplative atmosphere, I found the music to be beautiful--and there was no Communion, which is always something I'm a little uncomfortable with anyway. Simple, beautiful, contemplative seem to be the watchwords that work well for me.

If churches are going to attract people like me who sit on the fringes of Christianity, I think they are going to need to offer diverse kinds of worship.

Easter is making me cranky

All this talk of Christ's resurrection has made me quite cranky about the Christian religion.

I can still recall how, when I first attended a Christian service last summer at a liberal UCC church, I was nervous and tense during the entire service. It was a scary step I had taken into the unknown world of mainline Christianity. I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. I particularly wasn't sure how I would be able to handle all the Trinitarian language that I was certain to hear. I wasn't sure how well my mind would be able to ignore the parts I didn't like, the dogmas I didn't agree with, or how well I would be able to derive value from the service despite my theological radicalism. What I found was that services were fascinatingly attractive at the same time that they made me squirm. Cognitive dissonance ruled the day.

Over time, the squirming lessened to the point of disappearing, at least as long as I attended the same church and became familiar with the people who attended. I got used to the Trinitarian formulations in the hymns and the doxology. I got over the whole communion thing; I even partook of it myself sometimes, although almost always with some reluctance. And I think in my own mind I convinced myself that these theological differences with orthodox Christianity were minor issues that I could handle in the weekly services. Over time, I think I was secretly trying to tell myself that, in liberal Christian denominations, there were lots of people who thought like I did. And there seemed to be some evidence of that; at the "Saving Jesus" seminar I attended at a church near where I work, one woman in her eighties told me she didn't consider Jesus to be God. I liked hearing that, and imagined that there must be large numbers of questioning people who attend liberal churches. But is it really true? I dealt with the cognitive dissonance by wishing it away.

But then came Easter.

Maybe it was fortunate that I was out of town on Easter Sunday, and thus I wasn't able to attend a service in which Christ's resurrection was proclaimed. But Easter, alas, isn't done with us yet in the Christian calendar. There's that whole post-resurrection, pre-ascension time that gets celebrated in Christian liturgy. The first week after Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary includes a passage from John 20 that tells the story of doubting Thomas. Ah yes, doubting Thomas--what a perfect story to hit skeptics over the head with, those who don't believe that there ever was a literal, physical resurrection.

Interestingly, however, in the church I attended, the Bible reading wasn't from the lectionary; instead of John 20, a passage from John 21 was used. Rather than serving the goal of responding to our skepticism, John 21 instead told a story of Peter casting his nets for fish on one side of the boat, only to be told by Jesus that the fish was found on the other side. An interesting choice, because the pastor extracted from that a lesson about how sometimes, in our moments of pain, the answers we seek aren't always found the first place we look.

Whenever I listen to a passage in church from a biblical account of the post-resurrection appearances, part of me is just screaming for a member of the clergy to say, just once, in their sermon, "Of course, the resurrection stories in the four gospels are inconsistent with one another, obviously mythological, and rather than being literally true they point to a greater truth." Just once. But so far, it hasn't happened to me. Maybe it happens somewhere, in some Christian church in some part of the world. But, as Jack Good points out, this isn't often the way the game is played. Certainly, in this case, the pastor last Sunday didn't say anything like that, and treated the passage as if it described actual, historical events, which perhaps he believes to be the case. Still, I appreciated the fact that he also went somewhere different from the usual place that he could have gone in the week after Easter.

Meanwhile, a brief glance at online sermons on the subject of Easter, even in liberal churches, reveals the usual proclamations of a resurrected Jesus as a literal, historical event. All of which makes me, once again, wonder if I am deluding myself. What am I doing in attending church? I managed to convince myself that people attend churches for all sorts of reasons, that not everyone who attends or belongs to Christian churches accepts the party line, that there is a secret, hidden undercurrent of diversity and skepticism in liberal churches that never really gets acknowledged by the clergy or brought into the services in any obvious way. Since this presumed undercurrent is covert, it is impossible to disprove its existence. But without any confirmation that there are others who feel as I do, it is just as easy to imagine that there is no such undercurrent whatsoever. It is a big mystery to me as to what is going on. And at Easter time, in particular, I feel particularly out of touch with the Christian experience as it is explicitly formulated.

Maybe I'm not attending the right church. Maybe there are churches with discussion groups or other activities that would allow me to find more confirmation that there are others in the same boat as I am. In any case, this needle that I try to thread between orthodox Christianity on the one hand and rejecting the Christian tradition on the other is making my eyes cross.

Fleeing Fundamentalism

The book Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross is the autobiographical account of a woman's odyssey of spiritual and personal development, as she moved from being a committed and believing minister's wife in a fundamentalist church towards leading a more fully developed life as an independent, free thinking woman.

I found this book very compelling. The story does not only detail her spiritual growth from naive college-aged fundamentalist to a thinking adult woman; it is also a very personal story about her troubled marriage and her struggle to become a self-sufficient mother of three after leaving that marriage. The stories of her finagling a waitress job, dealing with a hostile welfare case worker, trying to juggle university classes while raising her children, and the angry and sometimes scary relationship with her husband, are all fascinating in their own right.

Her encounters with hypocrisy, particularly on sexual matters, within the fundamentalist church where her husband was the minister are perhaps not very surprising in this era of Ted Haggard. The interesting question is whether she would have evolved the way she did anyway without her encounters with such hypocrisy. She was clearly a very intelligent woman, one who I believe could not be permanently caged inside a fundamentalist prison. At some level, she seems never to have really bought into the misogynistic ideology of female subservience that pervaded her church, and her encounters with sexism were an important factor in her path to liberation. But even without the sexism and the bad marriage, I would like to believe that she was just too smart to stay where she was. And yet, in a way, one can see how lucky she was to have escaped; her close friend Susan, a member of the church who bought into the whole idea of female subservience even when she herself was forced to confront male sexist hypocrisy head on, seemed to remain loyal to the fundamentalist vision to the end.

Interestingly enough, her husband also underwent an odyssey away from fundamentalism. Perhaps because he was not presented as a sympathetic character in the book, his own odyssey was not really detailed much--only alluded to. At one point, after Ms. Cross caused a stir at a church event by questioning the existence of hell, her then husband chastised her for saying such a heretical notion that embarrassed him in his own position as minister; but then, almost as an afterthought, he admitted that he didn't believe in hell either. We find out later that her husband would go on to switch denominations and had become a minister in a couple of New Thought denominations--Divine Science, then later Religious Science. No explanation for the process that led to this change is given. But it would seem that both parties in that unfortunate relationship were simply too smart to remain in the fold of fundamentalism, and both had fled it, each in their own way.

In her own case, it was interesting to read her description of the freedom she felt later in life as she attended a public university, where open inquiry was de rigeur, unlike at the Bible college she had attended in her youth. At the Bible college, she was spoon fed dogma that she was not allowed to question. This once again makes me wonder what makes some people who, by circumstance, find themselves in fundamentalist circles at a certain point in their lives, yet manage to leave--while others stay comfortably within the fundamentalist cage all their lives. Was she just destined, one way or another, by dint of her personality and intellect, to leave the fundamentalist fold?

Aside from the story of her personal struggle, her book also gives interesting insights into denominational power politics in a congregationally operated church. Her husband was a popular preacher who brought in new members, which one might have considered a good thing; but the old guard of the church feared that they would lose seats in the congregational governance to newcomers, so they and the minister agreed to rig the selection process to prevent that from happening. Although some people in the church did not come across very positively--right wing ideologues, for example--she occasionally mentions, besides her friend Susan, a few people in the church who seemed genuinely good hearted (including one rather unconventional soul who was tolerated by the church leadership, perhaps mainly because he contributed a lot of money to the church).

All in all, I found the book to be a fascinating portrait of American fundamentalism, with all its attendant evils.

God and Empire

Here is quote from a book I have begun reading:

Imagine this question. There was a human being in the first century who was called "Divine," "Son of God," "God," and "God from God," whose titles were "Lord," "Redeemer," "Liberator," and "Savior of the World." Who was that person? Most people who know the Western tradition would probably answer, unless alerted by the question's too-obviousness, Jesus of Nazareth. And most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, or even extraordinary titles applied to special people in the East. They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant. Either that was a peculiar joke and a very low lampoon, or it was what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason.

Those titles were fully appropriate for one who had saved "the world" from war and established peace "on earth." The first Christians therefore had to present a positive counter-mantra and a positive counter-program to Roman imperial theology's sequence of religion, war, victory, and peace. Victory, by the way, does not bring peace but only a lull--whether short or long--and after each lull the violence required for the next victory escalates. Is there any possible alternative to "first victory, then peace," or "peace through victory"? Yes, it is this: "religion, nonviolence, justice, peace"--or more succinctly, "first justice, then peace," or "peace through justice." -- John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire
I am still in the midst of reading this book, but I am utterly impressed with it. In the beginning of the book, Crossan writes about Empire--its history in the course of "civilization", its development, and its full expression during the era of Imperial Rome. Empire, Crossan argues, has been with us ever since the first emergence of civilization some 6000 years ago. Empire is inevitably a part of civilization as it is currently constituted. Empire, closely associated with the accumulation of power and the unequal distribution of wealth, and enforced by violence, is still with us today. The modern dominant Empire of our age is, of course, that of the United States. Although we live in a different era from that of ancient Rome, the fundamental aspects of Empire remain with us.

Jesus stood in contrast to the Empire of his day. In the quote above, Crossan makes the point that the titles assigned to Jesus by his followers were meant to be a subversive expression of rebellion, in which the Kingdom of God was contrasted with the Empire of Rome. Unfortunately, I believe, this act of subversion had a certain self-defeating consequence, as I believe it became more focused on the crowning of Jesus as King than on the building of the Kingdom that Jesus sought. In a way, these followers couldn't get out of the royal or imperial mindset; they were simply replacing one Emperor (Caesar) with another one (Christ), which certainly seemed like a good idea to them at the time. But this in turn led to Christianity being a religion about its founder almost to the exclusion of the message that its founder believed in--a colossal mistake that led to such travesties as the Apostles' and Nicene creeds, and which has derailed Christianity throughout much of its history ever since.

Despite all that, Jesus's message has not been totally obscured or lost. In many ways its core has survived, albeit sometimes it has been buried under a degree of theological detritus; it can be found in the New Testament, but it is frequently surrounded by post-Easter filters, interpreted through later creeds, and drowned in doctrinal language that focused on meaningless points of dispute on such issues as Jesus's divine nature, the Trinity, or the atonement. Through it all, though, there have been many Christians dedicated to the pursuit of social justice. But the social justice message has always been easily obscured as well.

But what of the Empire that rules the world today? Many liberals believe that the solution to our problems of Empire lie in crowning a better Emperor. If we'd just replace the current guy who rules it with a kinder, gentler Emperor, our problems would go away, or so the argument goes. I don't believe this to be the case. The problem lies not with the Emperor, but with the Empire itself. But even that doesn't go far enough, because the problem lies not with any single Empire, but with a worldwide system that has continually produced new Empires throughout history. It is this cycle of Empire, this system that produces Empire, that lies at what I see as the core of the message of the Kingdom of God.

In the Kingdom of God, there are no Empires, and no Emperors to govern them.

An open faith versus a dogmatic faith

Here's yet another quote from Jack Good that I like:

The concept of a Christian faith that is rigidly fixed, dogmatically established for all times and places, is an oxymoron. Christianity is, by definition, open. It continues a tradition that has always welcomed new insights, that has looked unblinkingly toward the future. It is always in process. Those who insist it must be handed forward in an unaltered form violate it in the most basic way.

-- Jack Good, The Dishonest Church

What's in it for me?

Here is a great quote from Jack Good, in his book The Dishonest Church:

On one issue there is increasing agreement among those who treasure and study the New Testament: Jesus's teachings focused on this world. He spoke time after time about the Kingdom of God. The phrase suggests the way human life would be organized if God, not Caesar, were in charge.

The church has been especially dishonest on the subject of Jesus's focus on the present life. An uninformed visitor to most mainline services would be convinced that Jesus was concerned primarily about life after death. Such a visitor could easily conclude that the current life is only an obstacle course on the way to a blissful existence beyond the grave....

The modern church that makes the afterlife the near exclusive focus of religious attention is violating the most elementary of Jesus's commitments. Rather than expanding the horizons of people, it reinforces inwardness. Instead of challenging people to live as if God were in charge right now, the church offers its people an inexpensive ticket to the rule of God in an undefined afterlife. Instead of encouraging a broadened concern, the modern church allows people to remain in their consumer-oriented state: "What's in this for me"?
This captures in a nutshell what is so wrong with much of contemporary Christianity. This focus on me manifests itself in all sorts of ways within Christianity; the ultimate example of this kind of self-centered focus can be found in the churches where the so-called prosperity gospel is preached. But that is just a more extreme example of a problem that really, in my view, pervades the religion; the ultimate issue is that a kind of me-ism, one that perverted Jesus's outward focus on the Kingdom of God, has existed for a long time in Christian history.

Years ago, when I was living in Colorado Springs (a haven of fundamentalism), a pair of proselytizers once knocked on the front door of my apartment; their first question to me when I opened the door was whether I knew if I was going to heaven or not. If that's the first question they ask a potential convert, that tells you right off the bat what the focus of their religion is.

Me, me, me. What's in it for me?

It isn't just fundamentalism that is to blame here. This hollowing out of the core of Jesus's message in favor of easy platitudes goes back very early in the history of the faith. One need only look at the Apostle's creed to see what I am talking about. Here we have a statement, meant to be recited by believers, that claims to assert the essentials of the Christian religion. But what does it say--and what does it not say? It talks about the virgin birth, it talks about Jesus's execution, it talks about his resurrection. Not a single word about the life and teachings of Jesus during the 33 years that separated his birth and his crucification. Nothing that he did during his public ministry is considered important enough to make the cut in a statement that supposedly captures a fundamental creed of the faith of his followers!

The life and teachings of Jesus are thrown by the wayside. Instead of focusing on the Kingdom of God, we focus on how Jesus's resurrection earns us a ticket to a blissful life in another realm than the one we live in today. Sure, we have four Gospels that tell mythology-laden accounts of Jesus's life. But his life and teachings are always secondary in this scheme of things, always part of a grander scheme that is ultimately not about his teachings, but about me, and how I can get a ticket to the afterlife.

Last Sunday, Christians celebrated Easter. Christian services the world over proclaimed a hopeful message--"Christ is risen!", we are told. But what does that mean, really? Why the celebrating? Does it mean that Jesus was literally brought back to life as some sort of conquest over physical death that we all can partake of so that we can see our dead grandparents in heaven? Or does it mean that Jesus's ideas about the Kingdom of God outlasted his own death, that there is hope that all of us can work together towards building a better world, that he showed the way through humble self-sacrifice that the way to conquer the Kingdom of Caesar is not by emulating the ways of Caesar?

The best way we can honor Jesus's self-sacrifice on the cross is not by ignoring the life and teachings that brought him to that fateful end. And the way to do this, in my view, is to get back to the real essential task of building the Kingdom of God--in the here and now, as Jesus sought to do.

Night Church in Copenhagen

I think there can be something deeply refreshing and beautiful about attending worship services in a foreign country, even if you don't understand the language that they are conducted in. As I mentioned in my previous posting, I was unable to find any organized expression of progressive Christianity in Denmark. But, despite that, I did discover a somewhat less traditional form of worship that was offered by three of the state-run Lutheran churches in central Copenhagen. The services, held on certain evenings of the week, are identified by the name Natkirken, or "Night Church". I decided that I wanted to check the Night Church out, in the hopes that I could find some spiritual value in these services--this despite my theological differences with the Danish Lutheran church. My hope was that if they lacked some of the more conventional elements of traditional worship that I don't care for, I could enjoy them purely for their spiritual or contemplative value.

One of the churches that holds Night Church, the Church of the Holy Spirit (Helliåndskirken), is located right on the main pedestrian street in the center of the city, which gets lots of foot traffic well into the night. The Friday services take place over a five hour span, starting at 8 PM, with a new service starting each hour, and each service being of a different type. (The other two churches that offer Night Church are Vor Frue Kirke, which is the main cathedral there, and Trinitatis Kirke.) I attended Night Church at the Church of the Holy Spirit on two consecutive Fridays.

The first Friday, I attended the 8 PM International Evensong, which was conducted in English. The service consisted of songs, readings, and prayers, with participation by both the clergy and the congregation. There was no Communion. There was a creedal recitation included in the order of service, which I wasn't crazy about, but my reaction to that was simply that I did not participate in that part of it. The reason this service was conducted in English was to accommodate the many tourists who visit Night Church. Of course, late March is not exactly high tourist season in Scandinavia, but to my surprise a steady stream of what I presume to be tourists did come in, watch for a while, and then leave. I was actually rather amazed by all the coming and going--I wouldn't have had enough nerve to just drop in on the middle of a church service and then leave like that. I was sorry to say that the pews were virtually empty of people. Other than the clergy, staff, and choir, and the parade of visitors who came and went, there were only three people who sat through the entire service--myself, my girlfriend, and one other person.

The following Friday, I attended the 10 PM candlelit service. It was conducted in Danish, so I didn't understand much of what was said, but in some ways that might have been a blessing, since I was able to just sit back and enjoy the beauty of the service and the music in the candlelight. The priest, a very tall and slender man with a deep, resonant voice, is the same one who had conducted the International Evensong a week earlier. He may have recognized me from the week before, because after service he asked me where I was from. When I said "San Francisco", he asked me if I lived in Copenhagen now. I said no, and told him I just wanted to check out the service while vacationing. I added that I didn't understand what was said. He laughed and said, "Of course". Danes don't expect foreigners to speak their language.

I really enjoyed the candlelit service a lot. As I left the church walked out into the cold nighttime air, I felt a pleasant glow; I really was glad that I had attended it. If I ever go to Copenhagen again, I will definitely go to the candlelit service at Night Church.

Europe and the Failure of Orthodox Christianity

I have just returned from an extremely pleasant vacation in Denmark. Although it was mostly a purely escapist experience full of secular pleasures like watching movies and eating smørebrød, I also wanted to experience first hand one or more religious services. Unfortunately, my pre-trip research into the religious possibilities in Denmark confirmed in my mind the difficulties that lie ahead for Christianity unless it experiences a truly progressive reformation. More broadly, it demonstrated in my mind the correlation between the intellectual failure of orthodox Christianity and the need for just such a reformation in the face of a post-Enlightenment world.

I felt truly disappointed as I tried to search, in vain, for an organized expression of progressive Christianity in Denmark. Certainly it is hard enough finding progressive Christianity in a nation as large and religiously diverse as the US; in the tiny nation of Denmark, it was impossible. While there do exist pockets of organized progressive Christianity in American mainline denominations--with some congregations explicitly embracing the label, if not the theology, of progressivism, and with published authors like Marcus Borg and John Spong readily available in American bookstores--in Denmark, the situation is quite different. The only choice available to religious seekers within the Christian tradition is that of orthodoxy. When asked to choose between, on the one hand, abandoning one's intellectual foundations at the church house door in order to satisfy one's religious curiosity, and on the other hand simply leaving Christianity altogether, many Danes (quite understandably) choose the latter. They simply are not afforded the option of an intellectually viable religious experience that makes sense in the post-Enlightenment world. As a result, most Danes simply eschew religion altogether. This is, indeed, a phenomenon that we find throughout Europe, where religious attendance throughout much of the continent is quite low. And the blame for this low attendance, I believe, can be placed right at the door of the European churches themselves. As long as these churches insist that believers must adhere to certain dogmas that most modern Europeans simply can't accept, attendance will continue to be low.

The stranglehold that the orthodoxy has on Christianity is apparent in Denmark by looking at the denominational breakdown. One denomination in Denmark has a virtual monopoly on the Christian faith--the Danish People's Church, which is a state supported Lutheran denomination. There are, in addition, various small so-called "free churches", which do not rely on state funding. While the official Lutheran church is overwhelmingly orthodox in its theology, to its credit it is not fundamentalist (for example, a bishop from the Copenhagen cathedral stated in a Danish language interview that the Bible is "not a cookbook"). Unfortunately, with the exception of a small Unitarian church (which generally resembles UU churches in the US), the rest of the free churches almost without exception are more conservative theologically than the state church. These free churches include independent Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostalists, Methodists, and various evangelical churches. There are some English-language churches among these--including one that is run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and an Anglican Church. None of these appealed to me as a place where I would choose to attend Sunday morning services.

What is interesting to me about this is that this sad state seems to correlate rather strongly with the remarkably secular nature of Danish society. Despite the fact that Easter, Good Friday, and Maundy Thursday are national holidays during which most people get the day off from work, the Danish people almost entirely ignore the Christian religion. It being Holy Week, the state of Danish religious belief was discussed quite a bit in the national media during the time I was there, and the results were interesting. The English language weekly newspaper Copenhagen Post reported last Friday that, according to a recent poll, "only one in five Danes believes in the Resurrection and over 50 percent flatly deny that it ever occurred." A TV news report that I saw one day last week reported that over 50% of Danes never attend church.

The lack of religious diversity in Danish Christianity has led most Danes to assume that you have no choice but to toe the orthodox line in order to satisfy your religious cravings within the Christian faith. On Easter Sunday, as a matter of fact, one of the two major Copenhagen newspapers, Berlingske Tidende, claimed in an editorial that defended the notion of the literal resurrection that Christian belief is a "combined package", "a belief system...that one can either make up one's mind for or leave behind". This all or nothing embrace of the orthodoxy is, of course, complete nonsense. When Danes are repeatedly fed this lie, is it any surprise that so few Danes attend church?

The Easter issue of the New York Times magazine featured an article on Pope Benedict that underscores this problem. Throughout Europe, the rejection of organized Christianity is rampant: "In Western Europe as a whole, fewer than 20 percent of people say they go to church (Catholic or Protestant) twice a month or more; in some countries the figure is below 5 percent. In England, fewer than 8 percent go to church on Sundays," points out the article. At the same time, Americans report much higher church attendance. And yet--here is where it gets interesting:

But the story is more complicated than this. “The interesting fact is that people responding to questions about religion lie in both directions,” says the Spanish sociologist José Casanova, who is chairman of the sociology department at the New School for Social Research in New York and an authority on religion in Europe and the United States. “In America, people exaggerate how religious they are, and in Europe, it’s the other way around. That has to do with the situation of religion in both places. Americans think religion is a good thing and tend to feel guilty that they aren’t religious enough. In Europe, they think being religious is bad, and they actually feel guilty about being too religious.”
In other words, there is a great, untapped religious craving that exists in Europe that is not being fulfilled. Could the reason it is not being met is that orthodoxy has a stranglehold on Christianity there?

The Times article points out that the lack of church attendance in Europe is largely a phenomenon of the traditional church services. In Catholic countries, for example, more innovative services that are lay-led are drawing people to them while conventional masses are often mostly empty of worshipers:
Data on declining church attendance obscure the fact that there is a good deal of spiritual hunger in Europe, but it is largely outside institutional religion, a phenomenon that the British sociologist Grace Davie calls “believing without belonging.” The Vatican is aware of this and says that the lay Catholic movements may represent a bridge, a way to bring the aimless, searching, largely secular Europeans back into the fold.
But it seems doubtful to me that the Vatican will ever bring secular Europeans "back into the fold" because these lay services exist precisely because they offer an alternative to what the Roman Catholic Church gives them. Whether these lay-led services are progressive in basis (which perhaps they are not) or not isn't necessarily the point; the point is that church attendance per se is not a true barometer of religious interest. The Vatican wrongly confuses the conflict as being between secularism and Christian orthodoxy, when in fact the real problem is that there are those who may wish to choose alternatives that don't fit neatly into that simple binary division--and many of those people may be attracted to progressive Christianity. As the Times article puts it,
But the problem is that the spiritual hunger that exists in Europe seems to be precisely for what the church can’t provide. Polls show that Europeans distrust institutions of all kinds. For an institution that is practically synonymous with hierarchy and control, the lay movements may represent as much a threat as a promise.
When all is said and done, the only way that this religious hunger can be satisfied is if Christianity is loosed from the bonds of orthodoxy and allowed to incorporate a post-Enlightenment understanding. Until a reformation of Christianity in this direction really takes place, large numbers of Europeans will continue to find their spiritual hunger unfulfilled.

All is not lost, however. There do seem to be signs of stirrings of progressive thought, at least within Danish Christianity, as I observed on my trip to Denmark. It is, of course, being met with the usual resistance from the guardians of dogma. The Copenhagen Post article that I mentioned above, for example, reports:
Svend Andersen, a noted professor of theology, recently said that the Resurrection should be seen as a "symbol", while bishop Jan Lindhardt of Roskilde diocese told metroXpress [a free Danish newspaper] that he did not feel concrete belief in the Resurrection was a necessary requirement for being a good Christian.

The remarks prompted Anders Dalgaard, vicar for the Church Association for the Inner Mission in Denmark, to request all the nation's bishops to send pastoral letters out to their parishoners stating that Jesus's rising from the dead is an undeniable dogma within the Chrisitan faith.
Svend Andersen, for the moment, appears to be something of a lone voice within Danish Christianity. He is a theologian, not a bishop, and while it is interesting to hear that bishop Lindhardt said that belief in the Resurrection was not a requirement for believers, it is worth noting that he himself did not express any such doubts of his own. In fact, the Danish state church has demonstrated that it will suspend any clergy members who do express such doubts, as it did a few years ago in the case of Thorkild Grosboel. Still, it is a hopeful sign that we are starting to see some cracks in the orthodoxy there, and perhaps these developments will lead to a future development in progressive Christianity within that nation and elsewhere in Europe.

A visit to a progressive church

I recently attended a Sunday morning service at St. Gregory's Episcopal church in San Francisco. It is a very innovative church that has deviated in many ways from the traditional Episocopal style of worship. Instead of using the Book of Commmon Prayer, the two co-founders of the church have created a new form of worship that incorporates, among other things, dancing by the worshipers.

The service includes no confession of creeds, no confession of sins, and, in addition, communion is open to all "who want it". Visitors are asked to wear nametags so that they can be addressed by name when given bread during Holy Communion. The wine is passed from person to person. The person next to me said "the blood of Christ" as he handed the wine to me. I could not bring myself to say this when I handed the wine to the next person, which was probably a faux pas of some sort, but then again, no one actually instructed the visitors to say anything in particular. I was not necessarily in the mood to partake of Communion anyway, but it is not exactly easy to back out of it, since everyone is standing in a circle around the altar at this point, and it would almost seem rude not to participate. Thus it almost felt as if participation in the Eucharist was mandatory.

In general, visitors are made to feel quite welcome from the very beginning. For example, in addition to the reason for nametags mentioned above, I also noted that, as the attenders stood in an entry area before the service, various robed individuals came out and shook hands and welcomed us. Another example of their welcoming spirit is that, prior to taking up the collection,they ask first time visitors not to put money in the plate; instead, they suggest that we can contribute financially the next time we come, if there is a next time.

In some ways, though, the service can be daunting for a visitor. There is no printed program of service, so you never exactly know what is going to happen next. The music is totaly a capella, and, for those of us who are musically untrained, singing can be a little difficult without any background instruments to guide us. (The music itself, I must admit, didn't do much for me.) At one point in the service, individuals stated their concerns or blessings or prayer requests; after each such statement, the congregation would say in unison a statement, either praising God or something else appropriate. The attenders knew frome experience to do this; as a visitor, I was unfamiliar with this ritual.

After the sermon, we were supposed to walk towards the altar, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us, using a particular type of step. It was a little confusing to me--in part because I was spacing out a bit just as the priest was giving the instructions--and the woman in front of me, who was also a first time visitor, started to move too early. The man behind me gently held onto to my shoulder to let me know that I should stay where I was, offering a subtle correction that was very helpful.

After the service, I spoke to one person who said he had been attending for several years and that he loved it there. There were maybe 50-60 people at the service, and they have an earlier service as well, so the community is fairly vibrant. This church has managed to create a following with its innovative style. Still, it is a part of a larger denomination--the Episcopal Church. I wonder how many people who regularly attend (because they are drawn to this style of service) also feel a broader denominational loyalty, given that the denomination as a whole typically has Sunday morning services that are much more traditional.

Overall, I enjoyed the service, and I appreciated the thought that was put into building this church community. It probably doesn't exactly match my personal style and it is not going to be my church home, but it does represent, in my view, a very positive effort. As I stood near the altar during the Eucharist, I looked up at the wall and saw paintings of various "dancing saints", depicted with halos surrounding their heads. Among those dancing on the wall were Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, and Malcom X. I had to smile. Even if it isn't the church home for me, it has a great sense of joy and fun and warmth.