What makes a community a community?

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Here is a quote from the book A Church of Her Own, by Sarah Sentiles:

One of the challenges faced by recent divinity school graduates--and the communities they serve--is the disjunction between the theology they learn in school and the theology being preached in and professed by churches. There is a vast difference between what denominations claim as official doctrine and what students learn in graduate school. In many master's programs, students are encouraged to think to the edge of things, to question fundamental beliefs, to critique theological concepts, to recognize the effects of their theological constructs, to challenge the symbols and stories of their traditions. This critical work is understood as part of faith, not separate from it. Many church communities have not been encouraged to do the same. With lazy preaching and simplistic adult and children's education programs, we have done our congregations a disservice. Most congregations can handle--in fact they crave--complicated, challenging theology. This is not easy work. Challenging people's long-held beliefs--and having one's own challenged--can be frightening, uncomfortable, even devastating. What's more, exposing people to a variety of beliefs means making room for people to have a variety of beliefs and raises questions about what makes a community a community. What would a faith community look like that celebrated difference? What is essential? What holds us together? How do we make meaning? (pp. 53-54)

30 comments:

Luke said...

yeah! Great except! Reminds me of "The Dishonest Church" by Jack Good who claims the same thing... we've dumbed down religion too much and made people afraid to question.

Frank said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank said...

I'm actually horrified at the quality of religious education for youth. The gap between "town and gown" here is the Grand Canyon.

People know almost nothing about their faith. At least that's true among Catholics. The extent of religious knowledge is a few scraps they were taught as children, a few pious legends (which are not entirely bad), and maybe they can name a few saints or popes. That's it. The hope here is that they are absorbing more unconsciously through the liturgy, but that is anyone's guess and I go back and forth on that.

I always thought Protestants were a little better informed, at least in terms of scripture.

WES ELLIS said...

Great quote!
I just exchanged e-mails with a guy named Robin Dugall (http://yliapu.typepad.com/spiritualregurgitations/), a dear friend of mine, who is doing his doctoral thesis on this. He is arguing that students should be taken seriously in their faith and intellect in order for them to grow. The fact that some people decided to challenge me and take me seriously, has been a great thing in my life. Being taken seriously enough to be asked big questions leads one to take God seriously enough to ask big questions of him.

I think that community is a holistic conversation. Community is more about where we are going than where we are now. Community is headed in the direction of shared ideas but doesn't have to always have them. Therefore it's important that in community we ask and talk about doctrine and belief and theology, but our agreement on those issues isn't what makes us a community. It's the fact that we are sharing them together and heading somewhere together, even if it's together in different directions.

The church is a sacrament, it is the effecting of God's grace into the world. If that is indeed what the church is, then it is a community gathered under the banner of what it does, what it causes to happen in the world. As a community we should be able to disagree about words and ideas, but we should still be able to pray and act together. That is the kind of faith that St. James talks about.

Mystical Seeker said...

Luke, I was also reminded of what Jack Good has said when I typed in that passage.

Frank, one of the problems that a progressive Lutheran pastor I know has mentioned is that there isn't much good children's religious educational material out there. I do think that there are degrees of biblical knowledge. It is possible to be familiar with stories, passages, and citations in the Bible without approaching the Bible in an intellectually challenging way and in a way that incorporates moderns cholarship.

Wes,

I think that community is a holistic conversation. Community is more about where we are going than where we are now.

I like that quote. I agree with you that community need not be about having identical beliefs but about a shared willingness to go on a journey together. Great thoughts!

John Shuck said...

Thanks for that excerpt. It was for this reason that Bob Funk started the Jesus Seminar in the early 80s.

PrickliestPear said...

"Most congregations can handle--in fact they crave--complicated, challenging theology."

I kind of wonder about that. Church preaching usually caters to the conventional believers, who are likely to become quite distressed when their beliefs are questioned. As Fr. Anthony de Mello noted, "it's irritating to be woken up."

My feeling is that when people are really craving "complicated, challenging theology," they'll look for it, and find it -- but probably not in church.

Grace said...

Prickliest,

It's not that Christian believers are going to all go ballastic when their beliefs are questioned, or folks express honest doubt, and questions.

But, we all crave for our clergy to actually preach the gospel, and encourage folks toward an encounter with Jesus Christ. (The reality of the incarnation is everything that we're about.)

Radically progressive thinking, such as shared by Mystical here, and this concern mix like oil, and water.

It's a huge challenge, I think, for Christian believers to know how to respond. Total compassion for any clergy person feeling caught in the middle.

Harry said...

Believe it or not, I agree with PP. Most people are not looking for a complicated or challenging theology and they are not likely to find it in a church.

People are looking for spiritual sustenance, and this doesn't require a deep theological knowledge, just like physical sustenance doesn't require a PhD in biochemistry.

The problem with Progressive Theology is that is serves a sort of spiritual junk food.

When I read Marcus Borg, or even Paul Tillich, it all sounds good, but it turns out to be empty calories.

Grace said...

I'm about to run out the door, but to somewhat pick up on what Harry is sharing. First, I think the term "progressive," is problematice. It can mean different things to different people.

But, using this expression in the way that I think it's shared here, it seems to me that part of the trouble is there really is nothing substantial to hold a radically progressive church together, other than a shared concern to question, and explore philosophical issues, or maybe common committment to progressive social, and political views.

This just would not be enough for me spiritually. My unity, and spiritual fellowship with other Christians is based in the worship, and fellowship of Jesus Christ, and everthing that means in our lives.

As I've shared, I think the reality of the incarnation, and the work of the cross is central, and essential to Christian faith, and the fellowship of the church.

I mean, otherwise, what really is the glue to hold people with widely different cultural, and social values together at all in our mainline denominations??

Mystical Seeker said...

I kind of wonder about that. Church preaching usually caters to the conventional believers, who are likely to become quite distressed when their beliefs are questioned.

You have a point. I think it is true that many people are attracted to a theology that offers nice, easy, pat answers, which basically results in having to check your brain at the church door. However, there are also people I encounter in churches who read Borg or Spong, who attend "Living the Questions" seminars, and who question and think and want to know more about what modern biblical scholarship has to say. I guess it is a mixed bag, and it illustrates the point that different people go to church for different reasons and derive different benefits from the experience.

OneSmallStep said...

What I have to wonder is if the congregations what someone who is the status quo, and not challenging, why bother establishing divinity schools in the first place? If the graduates aren't really going to be allowed to apply their learning in the first place, what's the point?

Perhaps some of it comes down to the level of groundwork, as well. I think we've all had times when we know that the other person is clearly wrong, but telling that person how requires a great deal of effort, because the right building blocks aren't there.

For example, say that person A holds an incorrect assumption about a calculus equation. Person B is a math major. Part of why person A has the wrong idea is because s/he thinks that 2+2=10. If this is the case, person B can't just start breaking apart the calculus equation. Person B has to go all the way back to the beginning, to the basic math, in order to show person A the truth.

Note: I'm not saying that all non-divinity school people are simpletons, or that conservative orthodox Christians are stupid.

Maybe that's also why there can be such a divide. Its' one thing to say that Paul didn't write all the letters in the New Testament. It's another thing to understand why that belief is held, and to walk through all the proof. It can be incredibly time-consuming, and requires going back to the basics.

Mystical Seeker said...

OSS,

Interesting question about why a congregation would want an educated pastor/priest/minister who has all this education but then just tells people what they want to hear instead of what the person actually learned through all that training.

I wonder why it would be necessary to prove that, as in your example, Paul didn't write the pastoral epistles. A dogmatic theological conservative wouldn't accept the evidence against Pauline authorship anyway, so the proof in that case would be pointless. Some people believe whatever they want to believe.

I think the hope for some people is that somehow all that education won't end up challenging their cherished dogmas about the Bible. What some people might want is just a pastor who thinks like they do but has more information about the Bible to impart. The idea that a more sophisticated analysis of the Bible might lead to a different way of thinking about it doesn't really enter the equation.

Harry said...

Grace:

.

Grace said...

But, it's possible for clergy to be very educated, knowledgable concerning modern scholarship, and yet affirm Christian orthodoxy. There is by no means a consensus among Biblical scholars.

Also, I think we can't know if someone has checked their "brain at the door," based on whether he/she is orthodox, or radically progressive. It depends in how someone has come to their belief system, and deepest convictions.

Can you see what I'm saying? Someone can be narrow in thinking, and locked into a certain paradigm as a radical progressive. And, another person may be very inquiring, and open in their orthodoxy. And, of course, the opposite can be also true. It just depends on the person.

PrickliestPear said...

Seeker,

"However, there are also people I encounter in churches who read Borg or Spong, who attend "Living the Questions" seminars, and who question and think and want to know more about what modern biblical scholarship has to say."

This is true. But these people are not really suffering from the "safe" preaching most often found in churches. If they want something more, they go looking for it, and they'll probably find it.

Having to preach in a mainline church, where there is bound to be a diversity of beliefs, must be an extraordinarily difficult job. They can't satisfy everyone. It's not surprising that they generally cater to the group that is least tolerant of ambiguity, because they're the ones who will complain the loudest if their views aren't reflected back at them.

I imagine it's quite different in Protestant churches, where pastors generally have greater autonomy (and congregations are, on the whole, not quite as diverse), but a number of Catholic priests that I've spoken to are terrified of the ultra-traditionalists, who won't hesitate to fire off a letter to their bishop the minute their beliefs are challenged.

It's all quite understandable. Church leaders have to be most concerned with the people who are most in need of leadership. The more you grow intellectually and spiritually, the less you rely on religious leaders.

Mystical Seeker said...

Having to preach in a mainline church, where there is bound to be a diversity of beliefs, must be an extraordinarily difficult job. They can't satisfy everyone. It's not surprising that they generally cater to the group that is least tolerant of ambiguity, because they're the ones who will complain the loudest if their views aren't reflected back at them.

Yeah, I think you're right. There are institutional and congregational pressures involved. And who is going to risk losing their pension if they can steer a conservative course instead?

Grace said...

But, Mystical, and One,

The situation is even deeper,and more complex than just wanting to be safe, or to satisfy people.

I think radically progressive clergy in our mainline denominations are caught on the horns of a terrible moral, and ethical dilemna.

In my denomination, the Episcopal church, clergy affirm solemn ordination vows. They promise before God conformity and obedience to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church. They are asked, "Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this church has recieved them?"

As I've shared, things such as the reality of God as trinity, the incarnation, the unique divinity of Jesus Christ are all integral tenets of the Christian faith in our mainline denominations.

For a church leader to use his position of authority to undermine, and discredit the witness of the church is surely a form of dishonesty, and spiritual abuse toward the people he/she has been called to serve.

To me, it is kind of like someone who is homophobic becoming ordained in the MCC, and then using that position of influence to encourage gay parishners toward reparative therapy.

Hey, the person may in his/her own mind be well-intentioned, and sincere, but I think plainly wrong.

Mystical Seeker said...

The problem, Grace, is not that of prejudice (as in the MCC example you give), but of education. People are trained to a job, the training provides them with a perspective and outlook, and yet when they do the very job that they are trained to do, they are forced to ignore the very things that they learned as a part of that training.

And to claim that it is spiritual abuse for a pastor to use their training and expertise honestly in ways that you don't agree with is simply a repetition of the slander you have leveled against progressive pastors on previous occasions.

Grace said...

Mystical,

Even though I'm not ordained, I was trained in a progressive seminary. What I'm sharing is not slander, but the truth.

Mystical Seeker said...

No Grace, what you are sharing is slander, because you are impugning the motives and integrity of progressive pastors.

Grace said...

We'll have to agree to disagree then, Mystical.

Mystical Seeker said...

The real problem here is not progressive clergy who are defying their conservative inquisitors and persecutors, but rather that they are cowed by those inquisitors and persecutors into submission, and congregations suffer as a result because they just spoon-fed what they are "supposed" to hear.

The problem that is highlighted by the quote from the Sarah Sentiles book is clear. If members of the clergy have to dumb down their message and ignore what they've learned in school when they feed pablum to their congregations, it illustrates the problem of "beware what you ask for". Denominations want an educated clergy, but then they end up getting something that they didn't quite bargain for, because education leads to questioning the received party lines. So they make victims of the clergy by imposing restrictions on what they say. Meanwhile, the clergy themselves also didn't get what they bargained for.

The quandary that this puts clergy in must be horrible. Imagine that you go to school because you feel a powerful calling; but in the process, you find that your preconceived notions don't hold up. I remember a UCC pastor telling me that it is a well known phenomenon in theology schools where future pastors acquire a crisis of faith after they begin to learn about biblical scholarship. I am sure that those who went into school with a mature faith to begin with probably don't have much of a crisis, but for those with a more conservative bent it can be another story. One way of dealing with the crisis is denial; another way is to lose one's faith; and a third way is to develop a greater and more mature understanding of Christianity and the Bible. For a lot of these people, the calling is still there. They come out of school, their idealism still there, but, alas, the hard cold realities of institutional repression of free inquiry will come down hard upon them. They are caught between their desire to pursue their calling on the one hand, and the compromises they have to make on the other.

I'm not saying that this is always what happens among the clergy, but I do think that there can be a vast disconnect between scholarship and the pablum that sometimes gets fed. Jack Good discusses this problem in great detail in his own book, which Luke referred to and which I have blogged about myself in the past.

The Sarah Sentiles book that I quoted from, by the way, is actually not about this problem specifically, and it only mentions it in passing. The book is actually about sexism and the way that it makes life difficult, if not impossible, for women who want to be in, or are members of, the clergy.

All of which points to the suggestion that there are huge institutional problems that exist within mainline denominations with respect to clergy. Of course, I say this as someone who is not myself a member of the clergy, but it does seem to me that there do exist problems. Churches are human institutions, and as such, they are plagued by human problems--politics, power struggles, sexism, racism, and intolerance.

OneSmallStep said...

**They are asked, "Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this church has recieved them?"**

The problem here is defining people as "radically progressive." That's giving the impression that it's someone who is extremely out there who is professing these views. Yet every single mainline scholary book I'm reading is saying that these views are mainstream among these types of divinity schools. Not "radical." Sarah Sentiles is saying that this is a common problem among the graduates.

It's also coming down to a conflict between doctrine and scholarship. If we have 80% of the people (making up numbers here) saying that there's a huge difference between the historical facts and church theology. What should be happening is that (imo) the church doctrine should stem from the historical facts, because doctrine is supposed to be historical. Most of what I see from conservatives in what they theologically hold is b/c it goes back to the apostles, and thus is the true faith, unmarred by time.

Yet the actual mainline scholars are saying that it's very much not that simple. The churches that tell the leaders to conform to a certain idea -- what is that idea based on? Who is deciding that? Can we truly say historical scholarhsip, if the very people who hold that scholarly knowledge are stifled in sharing what they've learned, or what they know?

So what we have here are the general instutions without the historical training dictating how those with the historical knowledge should behave.

And if it's said that "leader to use his position of authority to undermine, and discredit the witness of the church is surely a form of dishonesty, and spiritual abuse toward the people he/she has been called to serve," then, honestly, why bother requesting a divinity graduate in the first place?

Grace said...

Sharing from my perspective, I don't think the problem is really just good, objective Biblical scholarship. It's more in the philosophical presuppositions that underlie some of the scholar's opinions.

For instance, it's one thing to study how the canon of Scripture came to be recognized over time, to learn about some of the possible source documents that may have been used, the whole Q hypothesis, that type of thing. To me, I think that's very legitimate, good, and objective scholarship.

But, when the scholar declares "a priori" that the Scripture has no divine as well as human origin, that the miraculous should be simply discounted out of hand, or that Scripture should not be regarded as authoritative in the life, and practice of the church, he is then sharing nothing more than personal opinion, conditioned by his own philosophical paradigm.

OneSmallStep said...

**But, when the scholar declares "a priori" that the Scripture has no divine as well as human origin, that the miraculous should be simply discounted out of hand, or that Scripture should not be regarded as authoritative in the life, and practice of the church, he is then sharing nothing more than personal opinion, conditioned by his own philosophical paradigm.**

Except from what I've seen, most people don't enter into divinity school with those opinions. As Mystical said, there can often be a crisis of faith upon learning many of the theories out there, such as the Q hypothesis, or even the history of the church. And not even in that element, but the validity of the Exodus story, or King David, or even how "true" the Adam/Eve story are.

And the question becomes how to best relay this to any congregation, given the gulf between church theology and scholarship.

I'm not sure how to address the last aspect, in terms of the Bible being authortative, because many progressive Pastors do consider it to be a book of authority.

However, I can understand discounting the divine origin or the miraculous, and I'm not sure it can be grouped into "personal opinion." It's not my personal opinion that snakes don't talk, it's a fact reflected in this world. Same with donkeys. Yet both are found in the Bible. Am I committing shoddy scholarship by saying that maybe those stories are more mythical than real live events? No, because I'm using the framework of the natural world, and what it tells me. Talking animals violates how the world operates. Yet if I must accept those as truth, what is it based on? What standard?

If not for that framework, then it becomes an almost "anything goes" because I have no way of judging the validity of a historical aspect.

Mystical Seeker said...

Except from what I've seen, most people don't enter into divinity school with those opinions. As Mystical said, there can often be a crisis of faith upon learning many of the theories out there, such as the Q hypothesis, or even the history of the church.

Exactly. The people with the a priori positions are the religious conservatives. Many people who come out of divinity school with changed points of view do so precisely because they found that their a priori, conservative points of view, could not stand the test of scholarship and reason.

If not for that framework, then it becomes an almost "anything goes" because I have no way of judging the validity of a historical aspect.

Religious orthodoxy indeed rests on this kind blind faith. It accepts the truth of extraordinary claims because--well, just because. Yet when we are confronted with the fact that the four gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, and that they are the product of oral traditions, layers of development, and editorial revision, then there is simply no basis for taking these extraordinary claims as anything but mythical in nature.

I would suggest that divinity school students wouldn't enter this process with their a prior beliefs shattered by reality if they had received a better religious education in their churches before they ever set foot in divinity school. Which gets back to the original thesis here--that people go away to divinity school, learn things that don't conform to certain expectations, and then they keep their scholarship to themselves when they assume a pastoral role. This perpetuates the problem across multiple generations.

As Prickliest Pear and others have pointed out, there are reasons behind this, but identifying the reasons doesn't necessarily offer up a solution.

Grace said...

Guys,

We could definitely go around this for awhile, here. There is a diversity of thinking among Biblical scholars. Many feel that the gospel writers did have access to eyewitness testimony, and that there is a validity also to oral tradition.

On top of that, even outside of Biblical literature, we have access to the witness of the church fathers, and other early Christian writings.

Also, is God limited by our personal experience of the miraculous? To give an example, because I've never personally witnessed the dead raised, this surely doesn't prove that an omnipotent God did not raise Jesus from death.

As a final footnote, no one is forced into the ministry of the Christian church, or compelled to stay in ministry, either. In my denomination, perspective clergy go through literally years of spiritual discernment, and formation.

It's not at all a matter of people being cowed, or forced into anything, guys. Ordination vows are freely affirmed.

Personally, I think the best time to search through these issues, deal with questions, doubt, etc., to decide "Hey, does the witness of the church truly reflect my personal convictions, and faith," is before standing up, and affirming solemn vows before God, and headin out into active ministry with the Piskies, Presbys, Methodists...

In TEC, we actually have a priest who has now decided he is a "high church atheist." Well, the man is being honest, I guess. But, let's face it, what actual Christian believer sharing his fellowship is not going to express concern. God have mercy!

It's unrealistic to expect people in the church who are committed to the gospel, and who care about people spiritually , and the faith of the church in general, not to care about the spiritual convictions, and personal faith of their church leaders.

But, I'll be honest, as strongly as I feel about all this, when push comes to shove, I can't bear to see anyone out the door. What would Jesus do? I'd sooner see these heretics next to me in church, than gone forever. Hey God holds on to us, and never lets go. He loves us fiercely. How can we do less?

But, you can be certain, I'm goin to be talking, and praying, and expressing my concern all over the place.

The content of our faith, the "good news," matters!!

Enough said.

Peace out..

Mystical Seeker said...

It's not at all a matter of people being cowed, or forced into anything, guys.

If people are afraid to talk to their congregants about what they have learned in school because of the repercussions they might face, then yes, that is a case of being cowed.

I think the best time to search through these issues, deal with questions, doubt, etc., to decide "Hey, does the witness of the church truly reflect my personal convictions, and faith," is before standing up, and affirming solemn vows before God, and headin out into active ministry with the Piskies, Presbys, Methodists...

Even if it were that simple (and ignoring the language about "the witness of the church", which itself presupposes a host of questionable assumptions), the real problem is why should a church to begin with put people into an unbelievably absurd position where they have to decide between applying in their jobs what they learned in the training process for that job, or else toeing the party line and thus ignoring what they were trained for. The real absurdity is when churches send people to get training and then force them to ignore it. It means that churches are acting at cross purposes.

I don't know how serious this problem is. Maybe it is small, maybe it is large. I have no firsthand knowledge of what is involved in becoming a priest of pastor, but based on books I've read, it is an excruciating process, and people have to go through hoops to get there. A lot gets invested in the process. Churches invest a lot, and the clergy invest a lot of their own lives to pursue what they are called to do. My guess is that a lot of applicants never get very far along in the process if they rock the boat too much, as they go through various interviews and checks early on, before ordination ever takes place. Many learn how to play the game long before they ever get to the point of ordination. If you are too blunt, too honest, you might offend just the wrong person, and you are out. You can judge the people who make those compromises all you want--I guess you've already removed the log from your eye so that gives you right be judgmental--but people do make compromises in life, and clergy are no different. Unfortunately there is a lot of pressure put on people who feel called to ministry.

Some argue that it is a broken process. In a way, then, pastors feeding the party line to congregants, instead of what they learned about biblical scholarship in school, can be a kind of continuation of what is probably a broken process. The book that I quoted from by Sarah Sentiles, documents one way that the process is seriously broken, as she details various cases of serious sexism against female clergy within all the major denominations. This is just another example.

If churches are going to train people and not expect them to use what they learned, and then tell those who invested their lives to serve in the clergy and who are committed to their denominations that they will just have to leave if they don't like it, is not a way to fix the problem, and in fact if a significant number of trained clergy left because their private knowledge of the Bible didn't fit the official party line, then maybe churches should just stop training their clergy in the Bible altogether. That would be one way to solve the problem, albeit a really stupid one.

OneSmallStep said...

Grace,

**Also, is God limited by our personal experience of the miraculous?**

We may be talking in two different views here. You seem to be grouping how the world works with personal experiences -- again, if I say that there are no such things as talking snakes, most people aren't going to say, "Oh, that's just your opinion based on your philosophical underpinings." They are going to know that I'm basing that on how the world works, and the "natural laws."

Or even with being raised from the dead -- in today's times, such an event is going to be a lot harder to take on someone's say so, because we know that's not part of the natural process. To say that someone doesn't accept a literal resurrection because of an "a priori" is kind of dismissing a lot of how we operate, because we evaluate things through that natural laws framework. It's not so much making an assumption as holding to what we know to be fact.

Now, yes, many hold to a literal resurrection based on fact. But that is forcing the person to push past the paradigm of natural laws, and as soon as that happens, what standard is used to evaluate the truth of something? All you can do is take it on faith, or one's personal experience with God. It is again an "anything goes." If there aren't limits put on what one is studying, then how do we determine what is and is not something literally true? What basis is used? On the one hand, we'd usually know that if a story contains a man coming back from the dead, people would reject it as a fable, and not be told that they are doing so from a personal "a priori." Yet if they apply the same principle to the Bible, they are? What causes the standard to change?

**to decide "Hey, does the witness of the church truly reflect my personal convictions, and faith," is before standing up, and affirming solemn vows before God, and headin out into active ministry with the Piskies, Presbys, Methodists...**

But again, we have some sort of conflict set up between the personal convictions, and some sort of vast orthodox truth, and yet the very people who are best suited to give thoughts behind such truth -- the divinity graduates -- have no say on historical validity? It seems that as soon as someone's view might contradict what you find orthodox, it gets regulated to a mere opinion. And as the quote shows, a lot of divinity graduates are running into this conflict between church theology and what they've learned in school. The truths they learn there don't always mesh with the church theology, such as the virgin birth, or a literal resurrection. Even the "witness of the church" might not be so straightforward for them, but most of the laypeople have it all figured out? It's like telling the trained person that they can be the leader, so long as they conform to the idea's of the people who did not go through all the training, and learn everything they did.