According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Contrasting Postmodern Emergent Churches with the 1970s Jesus People Movement

Emerging Churches and the Jesus People Movement Compared

by Roger Olson
April 25, 2012


Earlier I blogged about similarities I see between the Young, Restless, Reformed movement and the Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts Seminars movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Now I would like to discuss similarities and differences between two mostly youth-oriented Christian movements separated by about forty years—the contemporary Emerging (or Emergent) Churches Movement (ECM) and the much earlier Jesus People Movement (JPM).

Recently I’ve been reading Tony Jones’s new book The Church is Flat which examines eight leading ECM congregations. The book grew out of his Princeton dissertation and is quite scholarly—not your average, run-of-the-mill popular book about the ECM (not that there have been very many). Of course, Tony has been a leader in the ECM and is well qualified to write about it. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far I’m finding it insightful and informative. (The eight churches used as case studies are Solomon’s Porch, Vintage Faith, Jacob’s Well, Pathways, Journey, Church of the Apostles, House of Mercy, and Cedar Ridge Community. For their locations and leaders google them!)

Before I draw my comparisons, I want to establish my qualifications for doing it. I was involved in the JPM in the early 1970s. I was present the night Larry Norman premiered “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” to a large audience. I was the local organizer of a very early concert by the then-new band Petra. (They took a free will offering!) I led a Jesus People coffeehouse for a while. I grew my hair long (almost getting expelled from Bible college for that!), wore the clothes and hung out at JPM coffeehouses all around the Upper Midwest. I read all the books by Arthur Blessitt and listened to Keith Green music and was assistant pastor at a church that was the local center of the JPM.

I was the main speaker at a retreat for ECM church planters in 2001 and spoke at several emerging churches including Journey (Dallas). I’ve attended many churches associated with the ECM and have gotten to know some of the ECM’s leaders including Doug Pagitt (who has interviewed me on his radio program and we’ve talked at length over meals, etc.), Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren (who has visited my classes and done Q & A with the students). My daughter and her husband attended Pathways in Denver and helped start one of its neighborhood satellite congregations. I attended Pathways’ main meeting once and the satellite church many times. I attended and spoke at the National Pastors Convention in San Diego—a major networking event for the ECM. I have read many books about the ECM and by people associated with it.

So, I think I’m in a pretty good position to compare the two movements and I think I see striking similarities as well as profound differences. The similarities are striking enough, I think, to bear reflection about larger trends in American Christianity (especially) over the past half century.

It’s dangerous to generalize about either the JPM or the ECM:

  • Neither had/has a headquarters or unifying organization.
  • Both were/are grassroots movements that seemed to spring up spontaneously and then snowball first into apparently relatively cohesive movements and then fall apart over deep differences of philosophy, theology and practice.
  • Both had/have strong, public personalities that provide a certain degree of identity to their movements, but neither had/has any single personality looked up to by everyone associated with them.
  • Both were/are very diverse but unified by a common, minimal ethos that set/sets them apart from the “mainstream” of American Christianity—evangelical or mainline.

SIMILARITIES

First, some similarities. (For convenience and simplicity’s sake I will now use only the present tense even though the JPM hardly exists anymore except in remnants here and there such as Jesus People USA in Chicago.)

  • Both movements are marked by strong, mainly youthful dissatisfaction with “standard” churches and Christianity. Both are marked by belief that standard Christianity in America is shallow, inauthentic, culturally accommodated and suited mainly for middle class people whose main commitments are to middle class (or upwardly mobile) values.
  • Both display a sense of alienation from the dominant culture (religious and secular) of their parents.
  • Both search for authenticity, often by reacting in rather extreme ways to their perceptions of mainstream Christianity.
  • Both have older “guru” type thinkers and leaders most of the early adherents look up to. For the JPM it was Chuck Smith; for the ECM it is Brian McLaren. (Others could be named.)
  • Both freely experiment with new forms of worship and break from traditional norms of reverence in worship and appearance, language, etc. Both have music that appeals to them that is not particularly appealing to their elders or peers in more traditional churches.
  • Both highly value community, relationships, belonging before believing or behaving.
  • Both prefer informality in worship to liturgy or forms of worship spelled out on a “worship folder.” (Although both also drew on older traditions, adapting them to their own preferences and styles.)
  • Both prefer non-hierarchical patterns of church leadership, although both also tend to have strong leaders in local congregations.
  • Both tend to have congregations without membership in any traditional sense led by small groups of elders (sometimes called by some other name) who are the only “real (voting) members.”
  • Both tend to disdain authoritative tradition and formal, academic theology and emphasize the freedom to reinvent Christianity for their own cultures. (For the JPM it was the “hippie culture” and for the ECM it is “postmodern culture.”)

I think that’s sufficient to demonstrate some very real similarities between the two movements that don’t look much alike on the surface. And therein lies one of the main differences which is where I’ll begin with the contrast part of the comparison. My thesis is that these two movements are more similar than most people have thought or mentioned. And that could be instructive for the ECM as it looks into its future and tries to avoid pitfalls.


DISSIMILARITIES
  • Second, some dissimilarities. The JPM was raucous, flamboyant, “in your face,” noisy and at times intentionally offensive. It bordered on fanaticism and sometimes fell headlong into it. The ECM is, by comparison, reserved, almost introverted.
  • The ECM demonstrates its disdain for traditional Christianity (in terms of mainstream church life) with irony; the JPM demonstrated it with rallies characterized by open denunciations of mainstream Christianity.
  • The ECM tends to be middle to upper class economically and more educated than the average American. The JPM was more diverse economically and in terms of education.
  • The JPM was charismatic and/or fundamentalist; the ECM is theologically diverse.
  • The ECM is socially transformative; the JPM was apocalyptic.
  • The JPM was uncomfortable with ambiguity; the ECM revels in ambiguity (for the most, part with notable exceptions).
  • The ECM incorporates elements of ancient traditions into worship; the JPM tended to disdain everything ancient and traditional (after the first century) and sought to restore “pure New Testament Christianity.”
  • The “mission” of the ECM is to translate authentic Christianity into postmodern idiom for hipsters (and hipster wannabes). The “mission” of the JPM was to translate authentic Christianity into “hippie” idiom for the “flower generation” (and hippie wannabes which is what I was). (In neither case am I using those labels pejoratively.)

As an older person who was involved in the JPM when younger I see both as experimental religious movements led mainly by young people (who are now getting older). JPM meetings had very few children (at first) or middle aged people (except pastors who found a way to attach themselves to the movement) to say nothing of elderly people. The same was true and still is true to a very large extent of ECM meetings (although this is changing as it changed for the JPM after the first five years or so). In other words, both seem to be driven by youthful alienation from parental/”mainstream,” institutions, styles and values.

This is a notable feature of culture generally over the last half century: teenagers and twenty-somethings believing their elders, for the most part, have little or nothing to offer (other than financial support). Ageism is a form of prejudice not much talked about (except with regard to aging actresses finding it difficult to land roles). I confess that as a twenty-something I fell into that American trend of a “youth culture” superior to “adult culture.” My parents and people their age simply “didn’t get it.” To me and my peers, they were just waiting to die. Now I feel the same attitude from many teens and twenty-somethings. (Not most of my students, fortunately!) Of course, over the past half century older people have done little to help the situation; we have tended to regard young people in general (our own children and other loved ones and students excepted) as blind fools rushing to make the same mistakes generations before them have made (and maybe worse ones) with little regard for history and what it could teach them.

I believe generational alienation is a notable but not much talked about social problem. And it has invaded the churches along with every other form of segregation. ECM churches tend to be youth-oriented. (Admittedly “youth” is a broadening category as the original ECM people age.) I recently stayed at a hotel where a church “for” older people met. I predict there will be more of them as more churches adopt contemporary worship and experimental styles of worship to draw in or keep younger people. One of the things I value very highly about the church my wife and I attend is its intergenerational richness. This past Sunday the teens led the morning worship service. One of them, about sixteen years old, gave the “children’s sermon” only she invited older people (than her) to come down to the front, sit on the floor and listen to her teach them. Many went. Unfortunately, as in most churches, our adult Sunday School program is generationally divided. I personally think it would be better to have intergenerational classes centered around subjects. The church life groups, however, are, for the most part, intergenerational. The Sunday morning worship service is “blended.”

My word of advice to ECM folks is a quote from essayist Alexander Pope:

“We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow.
Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so.”

My word of advice to older people is taken from 1 Timothy 4:12: Don’t despise youth.

My advice to both is, strive to overcome generational prejudice. It’s a cultural thing, not a Christian virtue.



Comments

Russ says:
Excellent as always Roger. Two thumbs up on the contrasts between ECM / JPM. Interestingly, my earliest experiences as a growing Christian had been touched by the JPM movement, even though I participated in mostly mainstream evangelical churches. However, those churches had a passion for people, mission and ministry, and consequently, movements like the JPM had influenced us.
Apparently, old hippies never die, and so the ECM immediately attracted me. However, in its earliest years it seemed to have abandoned all reason and spoke in an unclear muddle of youthful whim and theological whimsy. It took many years to sort out its “visage/image.” Unfortunately, it snapped all the clearer in the Spring of 2011 when Evangelical fury raged and it became evidentially clearer just what emergent Christianity was, and was not, from its birthing parent of evangelicalism.

Too, one of the very first things I met within my ECM church was ageism. It was ugly and taught us clear lessons about discrimination’s ugliness. We were thankful for the burden and resisted as we could. Still, it seems that if a “youthful theolog” isn’t representing the movement than it has very few followers. So our prayer, “God help the young, and the older to bear.”

Finally, it is my hope that the ECM continues, expands and grows. It seems in the best position to heal, integrate, and unite all the many forms of Christianity (what is it? like 38,000 different flavors now, counting all the denominations, gatherings, cells and the like?). It offers the greatest freedom of expression and centers simply upon Jesus.

One of the best things I’ve seen is the desire for an “open, dynamic” bible as human language returns to a less strict form of absolutism and allows for ambiguity to enter back in to a degree that can be helpful. Not quite mystical, but certainly divine, God is closer to man now than when held hostage to dogmas and doctrines. Thus, the fresh airs of the NPP (New Perspective of Paul) and the new impetus to re-examine Scripture as authentic and authoritative (vs. inerrant language) through the lens of postmodernism and open/process theology.



John John C says:
Thanks for this, Roger – I’ve read a lot of your posts, and this is one of the best, partly because it’s a pioneering attempt to compare two movements that are rarely compared. I wonder whether there’s a bigger difference in terms of trajectory. The JPM movement was primitivist and anti-intellectual and it tended to merge eventually with conservative or charismatic or seeker-friendly Evangelicalism; the EMC is much more bookish, postmodern and neo-traditionalist, and is more likely to move in other directions – especially towards mainline Protestantism insofar as it is liturgical, progressive and open to ancient Christian practices (think Phyllis Tickle).

The other major difference which you don’t really highlight concerns evangelism – aggressive efforts to get people ‘saved’ were central to the JPM (think Calvary Chapel, Larry Norman, Keith Green, even Bob Dylan’s Christian phase). It seems to be a much lower priority for the EMC.
 



Mike Clawson says
April 25, 2012 at 8:39 pm
Good thoughts Roger. As I told you in person, I wrote a paper on this (already sent you a copy), which agrees with many of your points. For the benefit of your readers, here is the conclusion:

"It seems clear that the relationship between the Jesus Movement and emerging Christianity is much more complex than it would appear at first glance. In some ways the emerging movement is a reaction against the very aspects of the evangelical subculture that the Jesus Movement helped to create – from its sacred/secular dualism, to its overly individualistic and consumerist approach to church, to its right-wing politics. At the same time emergents have taken up and carry on the Jesus People’s emphasis on creativity and innovation, their willingness to adapt to culture for the sake of evangelism, their suspicion of institutionalism and conventional religious authorities, and their demand for a more authentic and passionately committed approach to faith. Furthermore, it is not certain that the emerging movement could have arisen at all if not for the earlier development of the evangelical youth ministry subculture that the Jesus Movement helped to create.

"In other ways, however, the Jesus Movement and emerging Christianity are still two very different movements. While the Jesus People were overwhelmed by the pluralistic options of their day, responding by confidently declaring only “One Way!”, emergents have embraced and seem to thrive on pluralism. While the Jesus People were emotionalistic, charismatic, and (in most cases) intellectually unsophisticated, emerging Christians are highly theological and frequently suspicious of some charismatic groups’ tendencies towards spiritual manipulation and authoritarian control. While the Jesus People were apocalyptic, emergents tend towards realized eschatology. And while the Jesus People were mostly fundamentalist primitivists, even the most conservative of emergents tend to skew more towards liberal theologies or, at the very least, progressive evangelicalism.

"Finally, while the Jesus Movement was largely a youth phenomenon, tied very closely to one rather transitory cultural moment, fading out or morphing into something else once that moment had passed and that culture dissolved, the emerging movement grows out of a much larger and longer-term historical shift – the transition from modernity to postmodernity. Accordingly, emerging Christianity is much less tied to a single generation. It consists of all age demographics: Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, and those even younger and older. Emergents are therefore more flexible as they continue to interact with a changing culture. It is perhaps much less likely, therefore, simply to fade quickly from view as the Jesus Movement did. Ultimately, however, only time will tell.

"As you can see, my one main disagreement with your conclusions is that I don’t think the ECM is defined primarily by generational differences. It is not merely a youth movement, nor simply a rebellion against an older generation. The conversation may have started that way in the mid-1990s, as some were wanting to discover how to reach “Gen X” with the gospel, but it very quickly (in its earliest gatherings) saw that the main issue was not Boomers vs. Gen X, but Modern vs. Postmodern, which is a much larger cultural shift that has been in the works over multiple generations. In other words, the difference is not related to age (demographics) but mindset (psychographics). If some emergent communities seem to skew younger, that may be a function simply of percentages – a higher percentage of Gen Xers than Boomers have a postmodern mindset – though I think it may also have a lot to do with circumstances of when and where and how those churches were planted. In my own experience, there are an awful lot of older emergents as well. Every emerging church and cohort I have ever been a part of has included at least as many empty-nesters as twenty-somethings (if not more), and most emergent events I have been at also have a wide generational spread. In fact, after the Midwest Emergent Gathering I organized in 2007, some of complaints we received was that there weren’t enough younger people – most of the attendees were pastors and church leaders in their 40s and 50s or above."

So yeah, based on my own experiences I would say that the perceived youthfulness of the ECM is an illusion, and where it does exist, doesn’t actually mean what one would first assume. Emergents aren’t rebelling against just their parents, they’re rebelling against (or attempting to move beyond) modernity as a whole.

  • rogereolson says:
  • Thanks for your insights, Mike. We’ll agree to disagree about the ageism issue. But I do agree that the ECM is moving away from that into a more age diverse demographic. I think a lot of boomers are attracted to the ECM, but so were many attracted to the JPM. The coffeehouse I led attracted all ages, but the center was clearly the younger crowd. The older were mostly observers. Everything about it was geared to the hippies (or hippie wannabes). The ECM congregations I’ve visited and conventions I’ve attended have been heavily skewed toward twenty-somethings especially in terms of taste in music (but not only that). There is every possibility, of course, that the ECM is evolving in ways I haven’t noticed. We old people are slower to notice change, you know. :)
 
 
 
 
 

What Does an Engaging-Missional Church Look Like?

First Jones, then Roberts....


"Our primary mission of to serve, to love, to heal,
to witness to the love of Christ" - Halter



"I wonder if Christianity is rejected by many for its lack of serious
intellectual engagement with major, pressing issues?" - Roberts



"It’s really quite impossible to shake religion and simply follow
Jesus. To do the latter requires engaging the cultural and
sociological realities we call ‘religion.’ - Roberts





by Tony Jones
April 20, 2012
Comments

You’ve heard it, and now it’s been confirmed by a major survey from Georgetown University and the Public Religion Research Institute: the Millennial Generation is leaving church, faith, and orthodox belief. Everyone who reads this blog should read this study:
Younger Millennials report significant levels of movement from the religious affiliation of their childhood, mostly toward identifying as religiously unaffiliated. While only 11% of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated in childhood, one-quarter (25%) currently identify as unaffiliated, a 14-point increase. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to Millennials’ movement away from their childhood religious affiliation.

Today, college-age Millennials are more likely than the general population to be religiously unaffiliated. They are less likely than the general population to identify as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.

Millennials also hold less traditional or orthodox religious beliefs. Fewer than one-quarter (23%) believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word. About 1-in-4 (26%) believe Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Roughly 4-in-10 (37%) say that the Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.


* * * * * * * * * * *


Fixing Christianity’s ‘Image Problem’:
Hugh Halter’s "Sacrilege"
Part 1
Posted on by admin

This is the first of what might be several posts in Patheos’ online book discussion of Hugh Halter’s Sacrilege: Finding Life in the Unorthodox Ways of Jesus (Baker, 2011). I was happy to join in the discussion because I am interested in what the “missional church” movement is up to these days. Halter’s is the national director of Missio and the “lead architect” of Adullam, a network of missional communities in Denver, CO.

One thing is clear: the author succeeds in communicating a passion for God’s mission for the world and for God’s love for all people, particularly for those the Church excludes or leaves behind.

In sum, Halter wants Christians to step out of their comfort zones, to quit being hypocrites and pious jerks, and to start being more intentionally relational, more authentic, and more accepting and hospitable toward the “least of these” (sound familiar?)

In short, Halter says, Christians should be more of what they claim to be: followers of Jesus. Jesus hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers—in short, with “sinners”—and Christians should model Jesus’ life, relationships, and Kingdom values.

There is of course, more to it than this. Halter shows how Jesus knocked down people’s sacred cows. He challenged their assumptions about what counts as “righteous” and “holy.”

  • He taught and showed a new way to live, a way that is outwardly directed rather than internally focused. He ate and drank with sinners—and so should we.
  • He exhibited a posture of grace, openness and forgiveness toward sinners—and so should we.
  • He denounced religious hypocrisy, blasting away at unjust religious systems and structures–and so should we.
  • Religion (read: religiosity) excludes, rather than includes; it judges rather than embraces; it denies rather than affirms, it kills rather than makes alive.

In short, Halter says, Jesus practiced the art of “sacrilege”: or of “tipping holy cows” (p. 32) And Jesus invites us, his “apprentices,” to do the same. As we follow Jesus in obedience, we will step out of our comfort zones, think little of our religiosity, and passionately engage God’s mission of unconditionally loving the world. Following Jesus means setting aside our own personal interests, comforts, peripheral but cherished theological agendas, and embracing sinners (“shaking hands with the world”) in the name of Christ.

I appreciate much of what Halter does here. He wants to get us out of our chairs, churches and offices and out into “the world.” He rightfully challenges our complacency, self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes. But for the sake of dialogue, I want to raise some critical questions.

Halter has a real concern with Christianity’s “image problem” (it really bothers him): non-Christians perceive many Christians as judgmental, angry, self-righteous, “holier-than-thou,” and so forth. And he’s right: some (or many) Christians do seem to fit the bill. There’s no denying the image problem, as we witness the decline of American Christianity right before our eyes. And I think part of Halter’s response to this image problem is exactly right: if Christians would spend more time and energy serving and loving the outsider rather than condemning them or trying to preserve “family values” at all costs, this might change.

At other times, however, Halter’s solution to the problem seems a bit superficial: maybe if more Christians would just loosen up, get a tattoo or two (he’s quite proud of his, it seems!) and drink good microbrews (I can go with him on that one), we could fix our image problem. In other words, be “real,” enjoy life (and food and drink), and don’t let your religious stuffiness preclude genuine relationships with outsiders to the faith.

Well and good. But what’s the line between a serious response to the image problem and a superficial one? Can the problem really be addressed by how we market Christianity—and even by how we market ourselves? Should pastors follow Halter’s example, calling themselves “non-profit consultants” rather than pastors, in order to dodge negative perception? Maybe a better response is to show that a pastor doesn’t need to be a hypocrite?

Finally, I can’t help but feel that, if a major problem is that too many Christians are judgmental jerks, will a book like this really help correct the problem? Will judgmental jerks want to read this book in the first place?

In my next post, I plan to raise what I think are more significant issues: (1) the problematic separation of “religion” and “following Jesus” (which is a large component of Halter’s book), (2) the problem of Halter’s claim to have read the “real Jesus” off the pages of the Gospels. (3) Finally, I will suggest that maybe Halter’s desire for “sacrilege” could be furthered by showing, more explicitly, the connections between theological understanding and missional practice.





Less Doctrine, More Mission?
A Critique of Halter "Pro & Con"
Part 2
http://kylearoberts.com/wordpress/?p=599
Posted on by admin


Why are our churches dying? Why is the influence of believers decreasing? Why is our Christian way losing its voice and respect in this country? The answer may be found, to start with, in our arrogance and overconfidence on many noncritical theological positions” – Hugh Halter, Sacrilege (p. 71)

Halter is convinced that much of Christianity’s image problem lies in our lack of epistemological and doctrinal humility. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, Christians are prone to constructing systems of thought and walls of doctrine that keep people out, rather than invite people in and that turn people off rather than compel them.

Halter seems to think of theology as primarily either dogma or doctrine and thereby with a primarily negative opinion (or at least that’s how it comes across to me). Dogma is theology petrified. Doctrine includes “pet” interpretations of Scripture, that are divisive, detractions from the primary mission of reaching out to the world with the love of Jesus. Witness, Halter says, the splintering of Christianity into ‘hundreds’ of denominations (actually, I’m pretty sure the number is around 38,000).

Of course, Halter is right that Christians can be so concerned with theological precision and doctrinal correctness that we forget or ignore our primary mission of to serve, to love, to heal, to witness to the love of Christ. Halter is critiquing a particular way of thinking about theology, a particular kind of theology that is self-concerning, speculative, and purportedly “objective”–the proverbial “angels on pin-heads.”

But doctrinal arguments (even ones we might–in hind-sight–think of as “petty” or the consequence of “pet interpretations”) are very often serious, heart-felt and earnest communal acts of soul-searching and Bible reading. They involve conflicts of interpretation regarding what it means to follow Jesus in the first place. What does it mean to love? What does it mean to speak truth? What does it mean to “do justice and seek mercy and walk humbly with thy God?” “Following Jesus”, it seems to me anyway, is not nearly as self-evident as Halter suggests.

I’ve been a part of numerous church small group discussions in which people earnestly try to figure out what it means, practically, to serve the poor, widows and orphans. Do we forgo our children’s education account? Do we spend family spring break vacation serving the poor, rather than visiting Grandparents? Do we replace our old, leaky refrigerator or buy a one for a needy family? As much as it can seem like “diversion,” practical questions abound.

Further, the current conflicts within many denominations and churches today over gay marriage and gay ordination are prime examples of the genuine struggles of theological and biblical interpretation. People on both sides of the issue sincerely believe they are following Jesus in their reading of Scripture and in their response to the Spirit; it is precisely their differing convictions about what it means to be an “apprentice” of Jesus (to use Halter’s term) that leads to conflict.

You could say the same thing about the nature of baptism, the practice of Eucharist, and any number of theological/doctrinal issues upon which unity was either threatened or disrupted, leading to new denominational bodies. In this sense, I think Halter sounds similar to my favorite religious philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who famously noted that "the problem with Christianity isn’t that the Bible is hard to understand; rather, the problem is with our disobedient hearts."

I’ve always liked this sentiment and, in principle, it’s easy to agree with. Just focus on the things that are ‘clear,’ do what is right, and quit using theological and hermeneutical conflicts and ambiguities as an excuse to evade the hard demands of the New Testament. But, on closer look, it’s not so easy to separate the “clear” from the ambiguous. Or, we should be at least honest and recognize that what we assume is clear is not always so (or, at the very least, its significance may be far from self-evident).

Furthermore, I wonder if one of the “image problems” that Christianity suffers today is actually a different problem from the one that piques Halter’s interest? I wonder if Christianity is rejected by many for its lack of serious intellectual engagement with major, pressing issues? I wonder if the unwillingness of many of its leaders to offer theological reflection in preaching and church life is actually a root cause of its perceived (or actual) irrelevance?

Another thought: Halter wants to distinguish between religion (or what he thinks of as ‘religiosity’) and following Jesus (or in his preferred terminology: being apprentices of Jesus). This differentiation reminded me of the spoken word video that recently went massively viral. The poet, Jefferson Bethke, contrasted false religion with ‘true Christianity,’ suggesting that it is somehow possible to escape the trappings of religion and follow Christ purely, authentically, and to leave ‘religion’ behind in order to serve the world in the name of Jesus. As several commenters have pointed out (of Bethke), while some elements and expressions of Christianity are unhelpful and destructive, while its institutional religious forms are often in need of critique and deconstruction, and while proponents and practitioners of Christianity are often prone to hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes, it’s really quite impossible to shake religion and simply follow Jesus. To do the latter requires engaging in those cultural and sociological realities we call ‘religion.’


...As an aside, Relevancy22 is attempting to do this very thing
Jesus, Religion, and Relationships

Is Free Will An Illusion?

Free Will is an Illusion?
http://musingsonscience.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/free-will-is-an-illusion/

by rjs5
on April 10, 2012

I have been moving of late to include some administrative roles in my duties – and this has led me to receive and even read with interest The Chronicle of Higher Education. The March 23 issue of The Chronicle Review has the provocative cover statement …

You may think you decided to read this.

You’re wrong.

In fact, a scientific consensus is emerging:

Free will is an illusion.


The forum in The Chronicle Review contains a brief intro and six short articles by several scholars coming from different angles – biology, neuroscience, philosophy, and law. This forum was precipitated in part by Sam Harris’s new book Free Will, published in early March, but in reality reflects a much deeper and more pervasive discussion including recent books by Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain) and David Eagleman (Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain).

The Chronicle Review introduces the six short essays with a quote from the ever provocative Sam Harris:
What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off “a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.”
What do you think?

Is modern neuroscience capable of proving that free will is an illusion?

Does this cause problems for Christian faith?

Jerry Coyne contributes one of the essays with the claim that free will is ruled out by the laws of physics which require causality, this constitutes proof that free will is illusion. There is nothing in the composition of a human being that is capable of making choices. And he too takes a jab at religion:
The absence of real choice also has implications for religion. Many sects of Christianity, for example, grant salvation only to those who freely choose Jesus as their savior. And some theologians explain human evil as an unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. If free will goes, so do those beliefs. But of course religion won’t relinquish those ideas, for such important dogma is immune to scientific advances.
Both Coyne and Harris exhibit a rather poor understanding of religion – Christian religion in particular. There is, of course, a long tradition of Christian thought that claims human free will is illusion, at least after the Fall. John Calvin appears to view it as an illusion even before the Fall. The sovereignty of God requires that he knew Adam and Eve would fall before the foundations of the world. Paul Bloom in the final essay of the series in the forum acknowledges this point, referring to the Jewish philosopher, theologian, and teacher Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). But the theological debates predate even Maimonides. Given this, it is not terribly likely that these scientific “discoveries” will set off a culture war that can come close to rivaling the conflict over creation and evolution.

Not free will – but reductive naturalism. The conflict Sam Harris predicts will not come over the issue of free will. The real shift, and source of conflict with Christian faith is the implicit assumption of reductive naturalism that underlies the discussion and is permeating our western society. In this view human beings are reduced to living biological machines – complex computers, not significantly different from ants, with laws and rules which serve to facilitate human survival as a social animal, and with no more free will than a bowl of sugar (an expression used by Anthony Cashmore in his inaugural article in PNAS following election to the National Academy of Sciences).

In his essay Michael Gazzinga from UCSB builds on the idea of the human brain as a machine and compares rules of human society to traffic laws – necessary for the smooth flow of interactions.
The exquisite machine that generates our mental life also lives in a social world and develops rules for living within a social network. For the social network to function, each person assigns each other person responsibility for his or her actions. There are rules for traffic that exist and are only understood and adopted when cars interact. It is the same for human interactions.
People have responsibility and can be held accountable – but only because this is essential for the natural and mechanistic functioning of human society and survival.

Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale notes that it is common sense to think that our decisions are neither determined nor random but something else. But this “something else” is an illusion. He continues on to compare human thought processes with the deliberations of a computer program.
Most of all, the deterministic nature of the universe is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought. These (physical and determined) processes can influence our actions and our thoughts, in the same way that the (physical and determined) workings of a computer can influence its output. It is wrong, then, to think that one can escape from the world of physical causation—but it is not wrong to think that one can think, that we can mull over arguments, weigh the options, and sometimes come to a conclusion. After all, what are you doing now?
But can neuroscience disprove free will? I used “discoveries” in quotes above because I don’t see that any of these claims by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom, or others are anything more than assertions based on metaphysical assumptions. In fact, I don’t see how any experiment can rule out the possibility of free will, and I don’t think any experiment performed to date does.

We are fully embodied creatures. Certainly our choices and our abilities are constrained by our bodies – mind and brain are intimately related. Experiments in neuroscience, case studies such as those discussed by Joel Green in his book Body, Soul, and Human Life, and even the every day experience of each of us are enough to demonstrate this. But the connection between mind and brain does not, of necessity, eliminate the possibility or the reality of free will.

Scientific elimination of free will as a possibility would require a demonstration that thoughts are nothing but mechanical response, a complex computer algorithm that will, save the truly random input of quantum uncertainty, arrive at the same choice and action every time the program is rerun (if we could rerun the program of life). This has not been proven – it has been assumed by Harris, Coyne, Gazzinga, Bloom and the others.

The Chronicle Review included essays with counter views – and I recommend reading all of the essays on the site. One is worth mentioning here. Owen D. Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt is a bit more restrained and realistic in his view:
This is not to say that degrees of freedom are irrelevant to law. Science hasn’t killed free will. But it has clarified various factors – social, economic, cultural, and biological in nature – that constrain it.

All behaviors have causes, and all choices are constrained. We need to accept this and adapt.
Constraint is real – and an experimentally demonstrable phenomena. This is not a challenge to religious faith. Free will is something different, perhaps not a challenge to religious faith, but a challenge nonetheless. Presented with a cookie there is “something else” within and I can decide to eat or not – a real choice, not the mechanistic workings of a computer on legs.

Does the connection between mind and brain challenge your understanding of what it means to be human?

Does this have consequences for Christian faith?

Do you think free will is an illusion?


If you wish to you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If you have comments please visit Free Will is an Illusion? at Jesus Creed.





Review: Christianity Today, "Evangelical Evolutionists Meet in New York"


Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity
on April 12, 2012

Tim Stafford wrote a short, but nice, piece for the web-only edition of Christianity Today Evangelical Evolutionists Meet in New York on the recent BioLogos Theology of Celebration III Workshop in New York City. I don’t really like the phrase “Evangelical Evolutionists” or the term evolutionist in general but the phrase has a certain headline ring … so perhaps we can let it slide. I had the opportunity to attend this workshop and found it both encouraging and challenging. Although most of the people in attendance support the idea of evolutionary creation – it is important to note that at least a few of those who were there are open to the possibility of evolutionary creation, but uncertain whether this is the right understanding of creation.

In his CT article Stafford suggests that the most sobering point in the meeting was the report by David Kinnaman of Barna Research that more than half of protestant pastors in the US support young earth creationism or lean strongly toward that position. The poll includes the entire range of protestants, so we can safely assume that well over half of evangelical pastors lean toward the young earth view.

The most sobering point for me though, was not this particular finding (which was not unexpected), but the realization that the vast majority of this “more than half” of evangelical pastors - roughly three-quarters of them - believe that they understand both the theological issues and the scientific issues involved in the creation/evolution discussion very well. This is sobering because as a practicing scientist I find the general level of understanding of the science rather low. As a result I see a mountain range resembling the Grand Tetons (if not the Himalayas) looming ahead as we try to find ways to communicate in the church.

In the rest of this post I would like to reflect on a few of the peaks in that mountain range that hinder progress and perhaps a few of the the passes that may take us through the range.

What do you see as the important peaks in the mountain range?

How do you think these issues can be effectively addressed? Where might we find the passes?

My post a couple of weeks ago, What Do We Have To Offer, was inspired by the insight offered by Tim Keller at the workshop. This is summarized nicely by Stafford in his article.
Few Christian colleges or seminaries teach young earth creationism (YEC), participants noted during discussion groups. But less formal, grassroots educational initiatives, often centered on homeschooling, have won over the majority of evangelicals. “We have arguments, but they have a narrative,” noted Tim Keller. Both young earth creationists and atheistic evolutionists tell a story tapping into an existing cultural narrative of decline. To develop a Biologos narrative is “the job of pastors,” Keller said.
I think Keller is dead on right here – we need a narrative, a way of casting the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that takes science seriously, with the respect that knowledge of God’s creation deserves, and can catch the imagination and interest of broad groups of Christians. This is, if not the job of pastors alone, certainly a job that requires the leadership and active engagement of pastors. Powerful preaching and the ability to communicate the vision to large groups of people is an important part of the calling of pastors.

I am encouraged that people like Tim Keller, John Ortberg, Joel Hunter, N. T. Wright, and others are engaged in this effort. But we need more. And here Stafford is right – it is sobering that more than half of the pastors surveyed lean to the young earth view. This points to a need that extends beyond the narrative and must involve more than pastors alone.

We need biblical scholars and theologians as well – and I am encouraged that people like Scot McKnight, John Walton, Alister McGrath, N. T. Wright, Peter Enns and others are actively thinking about these issues. No one person in any area of biblical studies or theology will arrive at all the right answers alone. Again we need more. The biblical and theological issues arising from the interaction of Christian faith with evolutionary biology are significant peaks in the mountain range.

We need scientists; those who can explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience. Here I find Dennis Venema’s articles on the BioLogos site to be excellent examples and provide a valuable resource.

But we need more than just scientists who know science. I had a conversation with a younger colleague a few weeks ago who was frustrated that when he tried to discuss these issues (science, faith, and evolution) with his pastor he was told to first read and study a large, dense book on systematic theology and then return and they could have a discussion. This seemed a bit much.

I agree with his pastor though … to an extent at least. Some rather unfortunate things have been said by scientists, even Christian scientists, confident in their understanding of the science, who seem to think that settles it and others should simply accept the truth. Arrogance is a rather common trait and this is another significant, but avoidable, peak in the mountain range.

Although assignment of this particular large dense book on systematic theology may not have been the best approach, we need scientists who have a general understanding of the theological questions engaging in the conversation. This doesn’t require attending seminary (or learning Greek and Hebrew) but it does require serious and scholarly engagement with doctrines of our faith. We need Christians with expertise in science who take the same professional attitude toward their understanding of Christian faith. I have spent a great deal of time over the last eight years or so studying and writing in an ongoing effort to come up to speed and move forward on many of these issues.

There is a corollary of course – and this returns to the sobering observation I opened the post with. Most pastors understand rather little science, but many feel they have a firm grasp on the scientific issues. Unless willing to study the science seriously they should respect the expertise of those who do understand and practice science. The need for humility and a willingness to learn must go both ways. Arrogance is not a vice restricted to scientists.

Beyond science, theology, and biblical studies – we need Christian scholars in other disciplines, philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology for example, who are willing to engage and bring their expertise to the church as well.

An Opportunity. The task of finding passes through the mountain range of issues involved in the discussion of science, evolution, and Christian faith is a job for the church as a whole and requires the gifts of many. Pastors alone, scholars alone, scientists alone will have little impact. There are no fast and easy solutions. As a start to help facilitate this process the BioLogos Foundation, with funding support from The John Templeton Foundation, has announced a grants program, “Evolution and Christian Faith,” for 2012-2015. Awards will range from $30,000 to $300,000 for 34 months with the larger number of awards at the lower end of this range. Preproposals are due June 15th, full proposals October 1.

The program is described more completely through the link above. It targets both Christian scholars and pastors or parachurch leaders. Examples of topics of interest include intra-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary scholarship in biblical theology, philosophical theology and biology, history and sociology, psychology and neuroscience. The program will also provide funds for translational projects involving pastors, churches, or parachurch ministries, that encourage Christians to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue to reduce tensions between Christian faith and mainstream science.

Questions about the program can be addressed to BioLogos staff at ecf@biologos.org. It is a small step – but a step in the right direction.

Where do you see the greatest needs in the discussion of science and faith?
What kinds of teams are needed to make an impact?


If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If you have comments please visit Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity at Jesus Creed.



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A Related Article on the Biologos Conference may be found here -

Critique of Tim Keller's "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople"






Is Theology the "Queen of the Sciences?"

Theology … The Queen of the Sciences?

by rjs5
on April 19, 2012

In today’s post I would like to put forth a few ideas for discussion, all related to the claim that theology is the queen of the sciences and how this could or should play out. This isn’t a polished argument, but a desire to start a conversation.

The modern university has its origin in the High Middle Ages (1000-1300) when many of the oldest institutions we know today were founded. In Europe this brought education out of the local monastery or cathedral and into a broader sphere. Theology, however, was “The Queen of the Sciences.” Most education was for the church, and the subjects of study culminated in theology. Other subjects were of value primarily as they served to enable theological thought.

Today it is relatively common to hear a statement about theology as the queen of the sciences made in discussions of science and faith. We are, some suggest, in the midst of a power play to relegate all other forms of knowledge, especially theology, to the tyranny of science and enlightenment rationalism. Theology must, they suggest, retain the privilege of having the last word, and the right to criticize and eliminate from the consideration some kinds of ideas.

Is theology the queen of the sciences?
If this is true, we then must step back and figure out what it means for theology to be the queen of the sciences.

How can we study theology? What tools do we use?

How do we learn about the nature of God?

One of the commenters on my post last week Evangelical Evolutionists … and an Opportunity put forth this kind of argument explicitly in the context of the natural sciences and evolutionary biology.
Is it possible or desirable for a theologian to criticize a scientific idea theologically? Is it possible or desirable for a scientists to criticize a theological idea scientifically? What about other fields as well? Sociology? Economics? Politics? Can a theological criticize a political idea theologically?

The issue that I see is that people tend to get upset when pastors and theologians criticize scientific ideas on theological grounds, but they are perfectly willing to do the reverse.


What I’m getting at (if it isn’t obvious already) is that this seems to be less about science, evidence, and theology, and much more about a power play to make sure that theologians are subservient to scientists, that they recognize their lower status in the modern world, and that the scientists are properly recognized as the real priesthood of the modern age.
And after a response of mine, the commenter came back a little more explicitly:
I agree almost completely with that! One thing to note, however, is that while all truth is God’s truth, the fact is that every discipline only has partial truths (or even untruths, or merely practical truths masquerading as truth), every discipline needs to be open in conversation to comments from other disciplines. While theology should be open to input from other disciplines, ultimately it is the queen of them all. (emphasis added)
This argument is used to diminish the significance of evolution in biology, relegating the idea of evolution to a human construct subject to theological critique and dismissal.

This exchange led me to think about the issues involved in the claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences” a little more carefully. The situation becomes somewhat murkier if we look beyond the natural sciences, or even the social sciences. Theology should be open to input from other disciplines, but ultimately it is the queen of them all? It is not clear, to me at least, what is meant by such a phrase … or how it could or should be applied. And here it is, perhaps most useful to change gears and move to a different topic.

The Nature of Justification. It appears that many of the same issues that come into play in the discussion of evolution, creation, science and faith, come into play in the discussion of justification and the new perspective on Paul. The conversation on Scot’s post yesterday, (A) Reformed View of the New Perspective, was fascinating. One of the commenters noted:
I think the nature of the clash is the division of the disciplines of systematic and biblical theology. I read through Wright and Piper’s back and forth and it seemed like they were talking past each other. Wright argues like a historian; Piper like a theologian. Wright, Dunn, Sanders, and Hayes want to ground Paul’s thought in the religious milieu of his day, whereas the conservative Reformed critics of the NPP are looking for a system that harmonizes all of the biblical data even outside of Paul. It’s history versus proof texts.

… The Reformed can’t answer their arguments with proof texts, because the NPP argues that the verses don’t mean what they think they mean. The classic examples of this are the arguments around the phrases “works of the law” and “the faith[fulness] of Jesus Christ.”
In this discussion many want to place theology in the drivers seat. Theology is viewed as an appropriate tool to criticize biblical studies and historians. But it is unclear, for some at least, that historians, students of ancient languages and cultures, or even biblical scholars can be permitted to challenge theology.

Is this what is meant by the idea that theology is the queen of the sciences?

Is it appropriate for historical and textual considerations to challenge theological ideas?

Biblical Interpretation. And we can take one more example. If theology is the queen of the sciences, then theology controls biblical interpretation. That is, the bible is to be interpreted through the lens of theology. Consider the following verse from the story of Noah:
The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. Gen 6:6 (NIV)
John Calvin’s theology drives his commentary on this verse.
The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity. (Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 Translated by the Rev. John King)
According to John Calvin the verse is not to be read literally because a literal reading of the text would contradict firmly held notions about the nature of God. It is taken as given that God can not regret or repent and he cannot be deeply troubled, he cannot experience grief.

Another example is found in the commentary on Genesis 3. Here John Calvin, reading the text through his theology, concludes that God willed that Adam would Fall. God had determined the future state of mankind. Any other conclusion would be contrary to the nature of God … according to Calvin’s theology.

I don’t mean to claim that Calvin’s theology is necessarily unbiblical. Certainly his reading of the whole of scripture informed his theology. But in this commentary his theology informs his interpretation. There is no sense that Calvin approaches the text open to the idea that he may learn something from Genesis 3 or Genesis 6 about the nature of God.

Is the bible to be read through the lens of theology?

Is this what is meant by the preeminence of theology?

I think all of these examples serve to illustrate a point. Theology is the queen of the sciences only in the sense that it is the fundamental focus that brings coherence to our view of the world and our role in the world. All truth is God’s truth. Theology is not a lens through which we test all other ideas. Our theology, our understanding of the nature of God, has to be informed by the bible, by the things we learn about God’s creation, by the things we learn about history and culture. But it is a feedback loop. Our understanding of the nature of God also informs our appreciation for and interpretation of the wonder of his creation and the story of the past.

If there is no feedback loop in play, theology as the queen of the sciences leads to the tyranny of a human construct, and it will usually be wrong in rather significant ways.

This isn’t a simple problem and there is, of course, much more to be said.

What does it mean to claim that theology is “the queen of the sciences”?

In what way could, or should, theology criticize new ideas or discoveries in science or history?

What does it mean to claim that all truth is God’s truth?


If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If you have comments please visit Theology … The Queen of the Sciences? at Jesus Creed.