Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Great Emergence

Whereas tracts singing the supremacy of Jesus leave me flat, statements placing Jesus alongside other seers stir me deeply.
God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky

A nephew of mine insists I’m not really Catholic because I don’t worship Jesus. I say I couldn’t stop being Catholic if I tried—and I did try, for a time in my life. I suspect more and more Catholics wear shoes like mine, Catholic in spiritual outlook but not obedient to hierarchical authority. We were formed by Catholic devotions—rosary, novenas, saints, Lenten resolutions, and fondness for Mary. We stood, sat, knelt, sang, recited, and received communion in many a Mass. But we follow our own conscience, not the conscience of the hierarchy.

We learned to do that after 1968 when Pope Paul VI rejected the conclusion of a commission set up to study the morality of “artificial” contraception, which advised him to approve it. Instead he repeated the traditional teaching against it. Lay people, theologians, priests, and even bishops dissented from his decision, and this opened the door of freedom for Catholics. It moved the locus of moral authority from the hierarchy to individuals.

Since that movement toward democracy in Catholicism, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have tried to squelch it, but it can’t be stopped. Theologians publish works challenging central dogmas of the faith, and the Vatican’s efforts to silence them only help to spread their ideas. Vigorous dissent flourishes around issues related to sex—abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, women priests—but the most far-reaching questions pertain to the divinity of Jesus. If you can bear to question it, go to my book’s chapter, “The Only-Through-Jesus Stance” or click on posts in my blog index under “Christ divine,” “Trinity,” and other index categories.

In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle states that Christianity renews itself every 500 years, the last cleansing being the Protestant Reformation. She states that Christianity “must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur."

Her book was reviewed in a National Catholic Reporter article, Christian crisis, which lists parish closings, the treatment of women and gays, enlivened lay activity, and resistance to hierarchy as examples of happenings that roil the waters. Today the adjustment is forming a church more “relational, non-hierarchical” and “democratized.” A priest added “experiential and relational.”

All true, but these adjectives don’t hit on the most significant change happening in our shrinking world. As Christians come up against other spiritual systems, including atheism, they're seriously rethinking Christian doctrine. How can we be so sure we know who and what God is when we see these other ways of relating to the Mystery? Literal belief in doctrine insults what we call God. Rubbing elbows with divergent beliefs, we are forced to place the Christian story in the context of other faith stories, to see Christian images as only one possible way of imagining the Invisible, Jesus Christ as only one God-image among others.

The archaic language of church liturgies—“Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord”—is challenged by the words of a Carrie Newcomer song—“I saw Jesus talking shop with the Buddha at the Starbucks.”

Great Emergence? It’s much greater than Tickle imagined.

In conversations with cradle Christians who have read and resonated with God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, I find a mix of attitudes toward Christianity. A few have given up on it, but most live on its fringes, warmly relating to the tradition while aware of its obsolescence. Like adult children with loving parents, they return the love, mind the conformist thinking, but indulge it and search elsewhere for enlightenment. And, like the mature Jewish voices, they nudge their tradition toward more openness. Slowly, slowly, a more inclusive paradigm is seeping into human consciousness.

Losing U.S. Catholics
More than a quarter of U.S. adults have left their childhood religion, according to a PEW survey. Catholics have lost the most, and “unaffiliated” have gained the most. While 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, today only 24 percent say they’re Catholic, and this last figure would be lower if it weren’t for the influx of Hispanics.

I can think of reasons for Catholic losses, among them the rigid hierarchy and the prohibition against women priests. But when I talk about myth and literalism, many who understand me are current and former Catholics. They “get” it, for some reason. A good number of Unitarian Universalists are former Catholics. I haven’t figured out if there’s something to this or just the towering presence of Catholicism in my consciousness.

Recent stories underscore my point about the hierarchy. Check out this report on Catholic bishops deciding that Reiki, a healing practice used by Catholic nuns, is a superstition! bishops on Reiki Scroll down to find the incisive and hilarious comments.

And there’s Richard McBrien’s report on “ominous rumblings” within the hierarchy itself over Pope Benedict’s stubborn refusal to heed warnings that could have prevented his blundering insults to other religious groups, such as his pardon of a Holocaust-denying bishop. Benedict blundering

The best summary of what’s wrong with the Catholic hierarchy comes from retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong
Besides their dodging of clergy sexual abuse, he faults Catholic hierarchs for being wrong on the celibacy requirement, on abortion, on the treatment of women, on end-of-life options, on gays, “and wrong on many of the great theological issues of the day.” Unwilling to discuss these differences, Catholicism identifies “its point of view with ultimate truth so that any disagreement is interpreted to be an attack on truth itself,” says Spong. He reminds us that, early in his pontificate, Benedict XVI even discouraged language allowing legitimacy to other Christian churches. “We own all truth”—a claim sure to create conflict in our global community.

Now an aside: People listening to me often bring up Spong, because we both debunk literal belief. I always add a description of religious myth, which I consider essential to understanding the religious impulse.

Although “this is a church walking steadfastly into yesterday” (Spong’s superb summation), I find most Catholics more capable than evangelicals of cutting through dogma’s outer shell to the core of meaning inside. While the official church squelches ideas and fusses about externals in the liturgy, ordinary Catholics practice their religion in heart-warming, life-giving ways. The Catholic Church has both sides— its shameful history alongside a glorious history of spiritual nourishment.

One more example of the shameful comes from Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister. Chittister Here she writes, “it was a Papal Bull that authorized both conquest and slavery in the New World for hundreds of years" and “that women were labeled [by the Church] as witches from the 16th to 18th centuries influences social systems to this day."

8 comments:

Florian said...

My next comment is about democracy in the church. This idea of democracy is somewhat inapplicable to the church. The U.S. Constitution begins "We the people..." Yet, the church was not founded by "the people", but by God. As we cannot change God, we cannot change the foundation. Jeanette gets around this problem by simply rejecting that the church was divinely instituted.

Further, if we really want to be democratic, then we have to consider the votes of all Christians, or at least all Catholics. This includes those Catholics who have died. Why should their votes be inferior simply because they happen to be no longer alive? We say they can't vote because they are dead, but their ideas live on in the church's tradition. That's why tradition gets a heavily weighted vote in our church. Tradition is not against democracy. It is democracy; it is the "Democracy of the Dead" as G.K. Chesterton called it.

If I were writing the Catholic Church constitution, I would have a legislature with at least one house/chamber with equal representation of the generations of Catholics. Contraception, for example, would be struck down as immoral in this house/chamber, as no generation except the present one has considered it to be not immoral.

What might Jeanette and liberals say to this? They might say that we should consider all the future generations as well; but they have not voted yet. More probably, they will say "we, the present generation, know better now." I disagree. Anyway, liberals will always dismiss previous generations as unenlightened, an easy thing to do when the previous generations aren't around to defend themselves. They feel their generation has superior opinions. It's ironic. Jeanette will complain about Christians thinking they are superior to other religions. But what is wrong with thinking that we are superior when liberals think that way about themselves and their generation all the time?

My final comment about democracy is that Jeanette doesn't want democracy in the church anyway. She wants to follow her own conscience, not church teachings. Would Jeanette accept the divinity of Jesus as long as that doctrine were adopted democratically? No, she would not.

Anonymous said...

Your nephew is absolutely correct. You are not Catholic. A second grader learns the pivotal doctrine that Christ is the God Incarnate, which you deny. Your continual denial of that doctrine (and others like say the Eucharist as defined by the Catholic Church)), combined with your claim to be a Catholic, is intellectual dishonesty, contradictory, and just plain silly. This would be obvious to the second grade as it is to your nephew.

Jeanette said...

1) Readers of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky can see that I affirm the Incarnation and Christ as the divinity within humanity.

2) Christian condemnation of contraception is based in its early inclination to reject the body, as in Paul’s opposing flesh against spirit. The only accepted purpose of sex was procreation, so that many believed sex between married couples was sinful if it could not lead to pregnancy. Not until 1930 did the Church approve “natural” birth control.
The Church (as defined by Vatican II—the whole body, not the hierarchy) is changing its mind about “artificial” contraception. This is not an isolated example of the Church changing its mind about moral matters. It used to accept slavery and condemn homosexuality. Today its condemnation of slavery is well-established and I think its acceptance of homosexuality is well underway, although not yet by popes.

3) The assertion that God founded the church—that it is not a human institution—also receives less credence as its history is exposed. God did not make Catholic bishops take on the trappings of Roman emperors.
The assertion that the church’s tradition somehow makes it democratic is spurious. Its own documents roundly deny that it’s democratic at all.
Finally, democracy does not tell people what to think. On the contrary, it protects freedom of conscience.

Laura said...

If you accept that God founded the church, can you accept that he did in the context of the historical time that it was started? Would the leadership of women have been accepted at that time?

How do we know that everything that the men through whom God started the church is "gospel?" Why, because those men told us so. And they told us they were infallible. But what if they weren't?

What if Jesus meant for his words to be followed but not for himself to be worshiped? Nowadays it seems that you can be saved simply by believing in him. But what does that belief entail? Is it more than eating his body and drinking his blood?
What if the most important thing he meant to convey was love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have others do unto you?

Florian said...

To respond to Jeanette's points:

1) "Readers of God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky can see that I affirm the Incarnation and Christ as the divinity within humanity."

But you do not affirm what the actual doctrine of the Incarnation is: God becoming a man named Jesus. Affirming a different doctrine which you call the "Incarnation", but which is in fact not the doctrine of the Incarnation, does not spare you being labeled a heretic. You know that.

I will respond to Jeanette's other points in subsequent comments.

Florian said...

2) "Christian condemnation of contraception is based in its early inclination to reject the body..."

This isn't really correct. What is immoral about contraception is the injustice done to the human that is about to be conceived: it is unwanted; it is prevented from entering the world and joining the human family. It has nothing to do with rejecting the body. I think the church actually concedes Jeanette's point that an inclination to think of sex, the body, and carnal pleasures as sinful is an inadequate basis for condemning contraception.

In any case, the basis for the condemnation of contraception is only of secondary importance. The important thing to know is the fact that contraception has been condemned in almost every Christian generation, which is an indication that the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us something. My only point in bringing up contraception was to use it as an example of a long standing Christian tradition.

Florian said...

Later in point (2), Jeanette says, "[Contraception] is not an isolated example of the Church changing its mind about moral matters. It used to accept slavery and condemn homosexuality."

Nevertheless, a healthy hesitation about changing church teachings is very important. Jeanette does not hesitate, which is an indication that she is not really Catholic.

I have not studied the issue that much, but I don't think that slavery is a good example of the church "changing its mind". Actually, it is a good example of how a teaching resided implicitly in the deposit of faith the whole time, and was clarified only later.
Even now, we cannot say that slavery is an evil in all cases. The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, did not absolutely abolish it, but condoned it in certain cases. (I hope the reader reads the thirteenth amendment to see what I am talking about.) Slavery was long tolerated by the church because it took time to identify basis for its condemnation: the right of humans not to be regarded as property.

But in the case of homosexuality, there is nothing to clarify. Homosexual unions are either acceptable, or they are not. A reconsideration of the church's position on homosexuality is no more necessary than a reconsideration of her positions on polygamy, incest, or pedophilia. Or does Jeanette fault the church for not reconsidering those other positions too?

Florian said...

3)"...God did not make Catholic bishops take on the trappings of Roman emperors."

This is an example of Jeanette making an irrelevant point. The church does not claim that the imperial trappings of bishops were divinely instituted. What history does confirm is that the leadership of local churches by duly appointed bishops (or presbyter-bishops) was a tradition begun by the apostles.

"The assertion that the church’s tradition somehow makes it democratic is spurious," says Jeanette. She is entitled to that opinion. But I bet she sees my point that, even if tradition doesn't make the church democratic, rejecting tradition would make it more un-democratic than it already is, since that would disenfranchise a whole block of church members (the dead ones).

Jeanette: "Finally, democracy does not tell people what to think. On the contrary, it protects freedom of conscience."

Well, it's true that democracy in our country doesn't tell people what to think. It is impossible to enforce laws that command us to think in a certain way. But we are talking about our church, not our country. It is possible for a social body to adopt principles/beliefs democratically. Our church makes judgments about faith and not just morals. So a church legislature would be empowered legislate beliefs as well as actions.