A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

God's World

How big is my world? What countries, what peoples, what languages does it include? Only those that are on our side? Dangerous politics, you say, to believe otherwise?

How big is my world? Where are its boundaries, its roots, its demarcations? Are they limited, confined, circumscribed? How big is my world? Who is its Maker, its Planner, its Architect?

If I say it's Gods world, then I must admit that we, I, have tried to take God's place! I have tried to make a world that is limited to certain peoples, countries, languages; a world confined to certain social and racial boundaries, and lines of separation!

From the YMCA's 1961 work, Resources for Worship

Friday, February 24, 2006

College Students and the Mainline

If I was to propose how to attract students and encourage their development in the church, it would be to make funding for campus ministry a priority. Most campus ministries I've talked to, don't just face lower budgets; several face the prospects of closing down.

Churches are apt to want to support young adult programs through their parish (and yes they count practically everyone under 40 for this), but not in supporting an campus ecumenical ministry, especially if they don't see the immediate payoffs for their congregation.

The problem is that I've never seen such a program actually attract students. It takes a committment, a person responsible for engaging campus and attracting students. Parish student ministries also end up abdicating the religious public square on their campus.

We've just recently lost one campus ministry in Illinois and others are on the precipice, and this I can't imagine that this is unique for our state. In their place, evangelical para church groups have been filling the need becoming the public face for Christianity.

A good number of students, interested in religion, find that the current public face of Christianity is one they cannot sign on to, either head off to other religions or drop from any religion at all. We can't assume that they'll come back after they have children.

Unfortunately, some campus ministries have substituted left wing politics for ministry. I speak as a lefty who is committed to social witness. It's just that it isn't enough. An anti-war protest alone cannot attract or sustain a Christian community of students.

Christian programing from worship, bible studies, things which connect students to the tradition is needed. And so we have some ministries with little or no students, and one can see why some mainline churches would rather fund other programs.

So besides funding, some greater level of connection between the denominations, campus ministries, and local churches to engage in some intentional discussion on how to outreach to students, provide for their needs, and build a mainline presence on campus is needed.

Local churches should see their campus ministry as their ministry. Denominations should see campus ministry as vital and important as any local congregation. And campus ministry should see student outreach and Christian formation as central, not a peripheral, goal.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

God's Embrace

Jesus, it appears, was quite serious when he said that God was our father and that we belonged all to one family, because in this family all, not some, are insiders.

None is an outsider – black and white, rich and poor, educated and not educated, beautiful and not so beautiful, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, all belong, all are held in a divine embrace that will not let us go.

This was from a speech Desmond Tutu gave to the recent gathering of the World Council of Churches. In other news, two of the candidates for bishop in the episcopal diocese of California are gay. This should add a wrinkle to the debate in the Anglican Communion.

And here's a piece on the founder of the Center for Progressive Christianity and his quest to open up the faith to a wide range of folks from gay and lesbians to people who are trying work out their ideas and questions in an non dogmatic and open place.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Al Mohler Strikes Again

Stop sending children to non-religious, liberal colleges. Stop the historical criticism of the Bible. Stop encouraging cross-cultural learning. Discourage interfaith marriage. Raise barriers between the denominational faith community and other people in society.

Then people would know who is in and who is out, and boundaries would reappear.In sum, move the Protestant communities away from the culture of higher education today, toward the encapsulated faith communities of the past

What Al Mohler quotes approvingly is a proposal which would mean the death of the mainline. Because it would, ironically enough, abolish a significant distinction of the mainline, one which has always defined the church.

Which is to say that the culture this quote is describing has always marked the mainline. There never was a time in which such groups were "encapsulated". If the goal was to set the mainline apart, this would go into the opposite direction. Would it gain members this way?

I'm not sure. A good many folks attend the mainline because of this openness, remove it, and you've lost them. But it's the evangelical churches which are growing not us. If we could prove that there would be a net gain, would it be worth it? I don't think so, for two reasons.

First, it effectively blocks us from the fastest growing segment of Americans, those who do not identify with any religion and who will not join a group that calls for intellectual suicide, as this proposal does. Second, it would be unfaithful to monotheism.

When the group takes on the central role this proposal has it take, when certainty over one's beliefs becomes absolute, when increasing knowledge of God's world is to be shunned, when any mechanism for self correction is thrown out, the ability for us to remove the focus from ourselves is shot.

While this vision relishes in the boundaries of who is in and who is out, God is the one who tears down those barriers, who declares that we will not worship on this mountain or that mountain, who says that the whole cosmos is God's. Our boundaries end up defying the logic of monotheism's expansive vision.

One other article by Mohler goes after Evolution Sunday, which many congregations around the country celebrated. He asks, should we have a Marx or a Nietzsche Sunday? I'll admit, I don't see that being a problem. I don't think Christianity benefits from ignoring the insights of either figure.

Both articles seemed united in trying to shield the church from ideas different from it's own, as if the church's ideas were absolute and therefore nothing more, by God or anyone, could be said on the subject. The God is Still Speaking campaign by the UCC, is helpful in pointing us away from such a view.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


I came across a wonderful and helpful worship book titled Resources for Worship. It's from 1961 by the YMCA and it has some solid prayers and worship ideas. I also have a book from the same group, from the 20s which is a devotional book on the life of Jesus.

What they produced was liberal Protestant. It started to make me wonder. When I go to a bookstore the vast majority of the devotional lit is evangelical. I get mainline publishers sending me catalogues that are biblical studies and academic theology.

But in the early 20th century there was a tremendous amount of resources, devotional literature that came from the mainline. Now I can't find such things. What happened? Why are mainliners reading Rick Warren? Where is our equivalent to such things?

Part of growing the mainline is some intentional effort at religious formation and that includes providing the sort of devotional resources for people that can be edifying and be reflective of the mainline. Can folks point me to some good current works along those lines?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Troubling Signs

I tend to focus on church news but some troubling events have occurred. Ann Coulter's speech to the Conservative Action Political Conference, which received an ovation after she called Muslims "ragheads" and joked about assasinating Clinton.

The death threats, the calls for rounding up folks, eliminationism is becoming a staple in some circles. Orcinus is a site which has been covering this trend within the last few years and the way it's poisoned the wells of discussion from Coulter to your own relatives.

The other item is the Senate's response to the news that Bush broke the law by spying on Americans without a warrant. They've killed any investigation of this, like they did in response to the torture issue, and are now drafting a bill to make such spying legal.

I mention these things, without a sense of what can be done. How does one respond to the blanket cheering of hate language? Or the unlimited expansion of Bush's powers? What does it say about where our country is going and what is the church doing in response?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

IRD News

If there was ever a question that the Institute on Religion and Democracy is a GOP front, their recent press release supporting the recent decision by the Nat'l Association of Evangelicals to back off on global warming should be exhibit 1.

And for a biased title check out this article "4 churches reaffirm original precepts". Apparently being opposed to gay and lesbian inclusion is an "original precept". While being free to accuse liberals of not following Jesus, no counter voice is to be heard in the article.

According to Peter Jensen, head of the Sydney Anglicans, being gay makes one so powerful that the church itself is imperiled by their inclusion in the church. And Chuck Currie highlights an article on the efforts by the right to get UCC churches to leave their denomination.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Life Issues II

"Poor access to contraceptives has led to an unusually high rate of abortions in Uganda, straining already scarce health care in a country where abortion is illegal, researchers in New York and Kampala reported" in a Reuter's piece that points to the human costs involved.

The South Dakota legislature has just passed a ban on abortion which will throw doctors in jail and includes a feature that never gets spoken of in these debates in that it provides for no exceptions based on rape, incest and the health of the woman.

Alternet has a report on how legal hurdles, lack of clinics in rural areas, pharmacists denying women birth control, the stigma of abortion, has led to later term abortions and the rise of back alley and do it yourself abortions. Our country's future?

This points to the difference between the rhetoric of life and the outcomes of efforts to control women's health care decisions. An honest assessment of these efforts on the lives of women is needed in the church and the society because given the results so far, life is not being valued.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Free Speech a Value

I've avoided posting on the controversy over a Danish paper's publication of cartoons protraying Mohammed and Islam in an unflattering light. I did so because when I take religion to task, I prefer to respond to my own religion as an insider.

It's too easy to go after faiths that one does not hold than scrutinizng one's own religious committments. I'm breaking my rule because the issues involved are larger than one religion and I'm disturbed by the claims in defending the reactions against the cartoons.

In particular the piece by Stanley Fish who argues that liberalism only allows for a privatized religion that has no affects in the public realm. I agree this is a problem but his conclusions don't follow. For instance, he claims that those argung for free speech are arguing for an "abstract principle".

Given the sort of struggle that has and is occuring for this principle, I'm not sure why it should be counted as "abstract" or not real. It's real for those who are arguing for censorship and certainly real for people who face death threats and intimidation for what they write or draw.

In comparison, those who are engaged in intimidation and calling for censorship are counted as having actual beliefs and values. Liberal values in this account are not values, they are only taken as a stand in for that which opposes actual values.

And since those who are burning down embasses have actual values they are to be more credited than those who argue for freedom of speech. But how did we get the idea of what does not count as a value? And is Fish really defending religious belief in this piece?

I agree that religion to be religion needs to have effects in the world, cannot be privatized but it does not follow that all such effects are praiseworthy. Recognizing original sin should preclude such a move. Our religious systems can not afford to be above scrutiny or criticism.
When we create an atmosphere or actual legal mechanisms which makes it impossible to do just that, we're not defending religion, we're crippling it. Because without the means of criticism there is no basis for self correction. Marty's work, the Infidel covers the ways in which such a process works.

In some ways liberals have acted as if their beliefs were the grounds for rationality, not a competing value or faith committment. This is what opens the door to treating such values as not real. A different route is recommended by Stout's book Democracy & Tradition.

He argues that liberal and democratic values have the same standing as any other values including religious ones. They must be argued for, cultivated, seen in the same light. If they are to survive it is becoming more evident that this route needs to be explored.

But like many of the clashes over religious faith, including this one, there is an assumption that one must go direction or the other. Either religious faith and censorship or free speech an going after religion. For those of us who are religious liberals a third route exists.

Religious liberals are not very popular in these clashes, don't really fit into either side really well. And we're not growing as those who trade in certainty and clarity on either side. But if we're going to negotiate the conflicts plaguing our world, liberal religion has some resources on it's side that ought to be looked into.

A third route, would take religious faith seriously and liberal values seriously, not asking either to be marginal but central in how one understands ourselves in relation to our world. As a subject I hope to follow this up with future posts.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Bible Says...

The trial of Jane Spahr commences soon for her blessing of two same sex unions. Blessing love between two committed people is in some cases to much to handle for the church. I have to think the church's mission has seriously run a ground when this becomes the case.

I've had some comments critical of my stance of inclusion because it doesn't fit biblical standards. I admit, I question whether such a standard exists. The vision of relationships change over time, once allowing for multiple wives that we no longer consider normative.

And I question whether two middle aged lesbians married at city hall are ever addressed in the Bible. The passages frequently quoted on this subject appear to deal with abusive and exploitative situations, pedastry in 1 Cor., gang rape in Sodom, idolatry in Romans.

I don't think the point is to relativize the Bible, though an argument can be made for such a move. It is to seek to identify what the authors are, in fact, addressing. There's an ahistoricism that assumes our debates and controversies are invariably found in the Bible.

I think a better model would be to look at Paul's description of the fruits of the spirit and his description of love in 1 Corinthians and when we find such things in a relationship, regardless of gender, the church needs to bless and support and be there for such couples.

I apologize for my poor rate of postings. I'm headed to a political shindig in Philadelphia this weekend and hope to visit the church of Beth Stroud's partner as well as a student based and successful liberal protestant campus ministry at the University of Pennsylvania. I'll follow up with a post when I get back.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Presbyterian News

Simply counting on young adults to return to the church after they marry and have children “cannot be a dependable strategy,”-youth ministry specialist Rodger Nishioka. The quote comes from an article on young adult outreach.

A Presbyterian pastor from Michigan has joined the small but growing ranks of clergy who will not grant civil marriage licenses until they are granted for gays and lesbians. On the other end of the things, Jim Berkeley writes of missing the "old" Mel White.

Berkeley is head of a conservative pressure groups within the PCUSA. Mel White was a ghost writer and evangelical pastor within the religious right. He later came out of the closet and has worked for over a decade for gay and lesbian inclusion within the church.

Berkeley writes of how Mel White used to evangelize and bring people to Christ but now simply justifies gays and lesbians. But of course there is no justification needed for the latter. I'd argue that Soul Force and White's work has brought a number of folks, both gay and straight back to the church.

Mel White' fight for inclusion of folks who thought they had no home in the church, is a form in evangelism, in the best sense of the term. One final note, the "old Mel White" was gay just like the new one is. To the degree that Berkeley did not know this, how much can he claim to know about Mel White?

Friday, February 03, 2006

A great on target quote from Hugoboy:

When we risk schism and international opprobrium, we do so because of a fundamental belief that we are obeying the Gospel. Straight folks make up the majority of liberal Protestants in this country; permitting gay marriage doesn't give us any new or special privileges.

Why then are so many of us in the Episcopal Church willing to argue, debate, and possibly get thrown out of the Anglican Communion all so that our GLBTQ brothers and sisters might feel completely included? Secular liberal conviction isn't enough to bring most progressives to the precipice of schism.

What brings us there is a quiet conviction that to love radically, fearlessly, and inclusively is to obey the will of Christ. We know, just as our conservative brothers and sisters know, that obedience has a cost. And we know as believers we have to be willing to pay it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Life Issues

I've tended to avoid abortion as a topic for the blog. Some of the rhetoric on both sides made me shy away from the controversy and the number of folks who are in opposition that I've linked and respect from Hugoboy to Propaganda Box helped too. But now I'm feeling compelled to write on the subject.

I can understand the moral ambiguity involved in the debate but over the last few years the rhetoric and the tactics of much of the "pro-life" movement makes me think that their goal is not an honest reduction in abortion as much as it has to do with control over women in reproductive matters.

I linked on the efforts to defund planned parenthoods, a source for sexual education and contraceptives which can reduce abortions. The continual efforts to go after any education which includes information about contraception in the schools, as well as misinformation in many absintence only programs, concerns me as well.

The campaign to have pharmacists deny women the morning after pill is one which has wider ramifications, in terms of access to birth control. The morning after pill prevents implantation, ie a pregnancy, it does not cause an abortion. A number of birth control methods such as IUD work in the same manner.

The campaign over the morning after bill suggests a movement to restrict access to contraception on a much wider scale. I'm not sure how this can reduce abortions, especially when you compare US rates, one of the highest in the western world, with other nations where education and contraception is widely accessible.

Then we have the language of Al Mohler who reject contraception even within married life as a rebellion against God. If the goal was to reduce abortions, this campaign against contraception and women's choices in reproduction makes no sense.

You'd also want to support services such as child care, health care, education, things highlighted in Chris Tessone's post on abortion. Instead congress just voted to eliminate funding for reigning in dead beat dads and slashing health care and education. All things which could give women options outside of abortion.

If it's on the other hand, a way of controlling women's decisions in this area, than the efforts by many in the "pro-life" movement start to make sense. And that's why, as noble as some of the rhetoric sounds, I can't throw my lot in with such a movement.