For decades now there have been reports of a grave illness in the family. Sociologists and psychologists, scientists and journalists and others have gathered around the bedside of religion.
They have monitored religion’s vital signs and felt its pulse. They have pronounced that religion is old, very old and weary and decrepit … an outmoded, outdated antiquity that has outlived its usefulness. Religion, they say—and they have been saying this for some time—is dying.
Atheists and today’s New Atheists receive the news with barely disguised glee. They are publishing a plethora of books and articles. The New Atheists have appeared on CNN and NPR, in Time, Newsweek and the Nation.
The New Atheists propose and practice “a more aggressive, often belittling posture toward religious believers.” (NPR, October 19, 2009, A Bitter Rift). Blair Scott, a leader in the New Atheists movement, describes their new de-baptism ceremonies: “Well … you get in line, and somebody uses a blow-dryer to evaporate the baptism out of you, and the blow-dryers are labeled with science, logic and reason, and then you get a de-baptism certificate …” (Atheism on the Rise, August 14, 2009).
Yes, it is tongue-in-cheek. Yes, they are having fun … with us.
Last week I participated in a Harvard Divinity School conference on the state of religion today.
The Conference’s Keynote speaker was Krista Tippet. Some of you may know her show, Speaking of Faith. Airing weekly on Public Radio, it is a quiet, intelligent, probing exploration of religious expression throughout the world today.
With a degree from Yale Divinity School in one hand and deep journalistic experience in the other, Krista points out that far from being on its deathbed, religion is alive and well … or alive and feisty … sometimes quietly doing good, sometimes employed to do evil … but alive, animated and animating, multifaceted, complicated and a key player on the world stage. From Sufism to Sikhism, from Reformed Druids to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, from Pentecostalism to Falun Gong religion is everywhere: it is a noisy, colorful, pluralistic worldwide phenomenon.
Once relegated to the back page of Section B, today religion is all over the news. As Tippet observes, on any given day, stories of religion can be found in every section of the NY Times, from the front page, to the sports page, to the OpEd page, to the fashion page.
Religion has checked itself out of the hospital. Religion is back. It is loose in the world. It is full of vim and vigor. Religion is everywhere.
The conference participants were gathered to worry, however, over a particular religious expression which is in serious and measurable decline: ours … not this church, but churches like this church … progressive churches … the very churches for whom Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, Andover Newton Theological School (and other mainline seminaries) prepares students to serve.
What is meant by the phrase “progressive churches”? While the definition is a moving target, I can share some generally agreed characteristics of churches that identify themselves as progressive:
1. Unlike a great many religious traditions, we do not see science as an enemy of religion, but as a necessary compliment;
2. We embrace human diversities and equality …between men and women, gay and straight;
3. Our tradition engages the intellect and welcomes probing questions, including the questioning of religious traditions, creeds;
4. While we embrace Christianity we nevertheless both affirm and respect other traditions and do not claim that Christianity alone is the means to God or salvation.
Protestant, mainline Christianity (progressive Christianity) is in measurable decline. Some might say, like Alaska’s glaciers, it is in nearly catastrophic retreat.
Old Protestant Mainline Christianity can no longer boast pride of place in America, as once we could. No longer can we be called “the religion of the presidents” as once we were.
Churches like this one are, by and large, in decline, no longer mainline, but side-lined, or old-line.
We can be identified by empty pews, aging congregants, buildings in disrepair.
In the 1960’s there were twice as many Mainline Protestant churches in New England than there are today. And, not only are there half as many churches, the pews are less than half full.
Secularism and religious pluralism are partly to blame. We are also to blame. We (by which I mean my generation and older) got old, stale, too serious. We favored a cerebral, disembodied expression, all head and no discernable joy. Embarrassed by the Pentecostal birth of the church in wind and fire and tongues … ashamed of Christian brethren who exhibited “vulgar” enthusiasm … we served our religion up in well-mannered, inoffensive, courteous, restrained doses. We favored erudition over Pentecostal exuberance … and liturgical predictability that left little room for the wind and fire of God’s Holy, irascible Spirit. We aimed for sophistication over the Gospel’s foolishness …
My generation and older had thought that such an expression of religious faith—progressive religious faith—had to be staid and buttoned-down. We thought that embodied exuberance was antithetical to intellectual curiosity. For the record: we were wrong.
Back to the Conference. When it became my turn to speak, I told them about you. I told them the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated.
I told them about this old church—this old, Protestant, descendents-of-the-Puritans Church (doesn’t that sound dire!?)—the church of Benjamin Franklin, of Samuel Adams, of the American Revolution, of the abolitionist, Jacob Manning—this old church, mainline church, in this old building … we, in our black Geneva gowns, and the choir in their cassocks and surplices … is alive, animated, teeming, agitating, worshipping, learning … that this place and people is abuzz … that the Holy Spirit is here … that far from dying, we are alive …
Why? How? Because we embrace all those characteristics of the progressive church and make room for the Spirit’s winds.
The truth is that I was invited there and asked to participate and speak, only because of you. You are bucking the trend. You are an outlier … an exception. I was invited because you put the lie to the formula that progressive means dull. I was invited to the conference to share our secret. They wanted to know what kind of Wheaties you are eating … or whether you’d found the recipe to Popeye’s Sacred Spinach.
I told them that what animates us, what compels and inspires us, what changes and moves us, is our yearning for God’s future … and that those who are leading us there the young among us and the young at heart.
I told them that we are a teaching church—which usually means that we who are old and seasoned: the establishment—see ourselves as mentors to the young. I told them that at Old South Church we turned that around: it is the young who are leading and teaching and mentoring the old. It is the young who are helping us to listen with fresh ears and subtle hearts to the call of God, to the movement of the Spirit. The young are loosening our frozen limbs, inviting our toes to tap, and opening our mouths for praise.
I told them that when it became clear that our signature, traditional 11:00 a.m. service wasn’t reaching the next generation (was experienced as old, staid, too safe, too cerebral, too disembodied, boring) we designed new services of worship and put them into the hands of the young.
I told them that First Worship and Jazz Worship are laboratories of worship. We enter those laboratories to play with fire … to wrestle with God, to raise the stakes of what it means to be human and alive in the year 2010. I told them that what has happened in those services has spilled over into and animated this one: this traditional service … as well as the whole of our lives …. our lives of Christian discipleship, stewardship, prayer, study and service.
What the predictors of religion’s demise, religion’s old age, got wrong … what the sociologists and psychologists, scientists and journalists and others got wrong when they proposed that we had evolved beyond the need for religion … what they missed, I think, is the power of religious imagination … imagination born in relationship with God.
Moses imagined freedom for the enslaved Israelites. He had no reason to imagine such a thing. It was illogical. Preposterous. Yet Moses imagined freedom for the enslaved Israelites. Imagine that!
The ancient biblical prophets imagined justice (in an unjust world) and righteousness (in an unrighteous world). They didn’t imagine a drop of justice or a spoonful of righteousness. They imagined justice gushing like a coursing river and righteousness like a mighty stream. Imagine that!
Jesus imagined the Kingdom of God. Despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, despite the evidence of violence and greed and sin, Jesus imagined the Kingdom of God. Not everyone could see what he saw. Lots thought he was crazy. Others deemed such ravings as dangerous. Jesus went ahead and imagined out loud the Kingdom of God everywhere around him. Imagine that!
What’s more, Jesus imagined that there is a spark of God’s divine spirit inside everyone one us and that even on our bad days—our dark and despairing days, our faithless and fickle days, our mean and nasty days—he imagined the divine spark still there … he imagined that divine spark inside us like one of those fake birthday candles that you can’t blow out, no matter how hard you try. Imagine that!
In jail, in Birmingham, behind bars, with no power, no prospect, no hope, with no good reason, Martin imagined civil rights where there were no rights. Imagine that!
Julia Ward Howe—mother of seven children and founder of Mother’s Day and whose story we will here next week—imagined women fomenting world peace. She imagined women in solemn counsel scheming to protect their children, their beloved sons, from war, from that which maims beautiful, young bodies and scars lovely, young souls. She imagined women fomenting peace. Imagine that!
Old South’s Moderator—an immigration attorney by day, but on nights and weekends he turns into our Church Moderator—Vard Johnson imagines a national conversation about immigration that is bathed in compassion for those who are so desperate that are willing to face privation and humiliation, even in a hostile land, for the slim hope of a better life. He imagines a nation so proud of Lady Liberty and so moved by her poem about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” … he imagines that nation, this nation, engaged in a conversation infused with compassion. Imagine that!
John of Patmos imagined a new heaven and a new earth. Let me be clear about this: he was standing on the old earth. He was in exile, in anguished isolation, cut off from friends and family and all human community. He was without consolation. He was bereft of all human companionship. His Christian colleagues were being persecuted. He might well have pronounced death to Christianity … But he looked right past that and imagined a new heaven and new earth, where every tear is wiped away. Imagine that!
The world needs us. It needs us because in our imaginations, we can see beyond death. Because in our imaginations, we can see justice and feel righteousness. Because in our imaginations, science and religion are not the Hatfields and McCoys; Islam and Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism are not the Hatfields and McCoys …we are different expressions of the same earnest impulse. We are responding to the same divine spark. In our imaginations these are not feuding, but complimentary, kissing cousins, all children of the Creator God.
In our imaginations, we are equally awed by mythology and laboratory, by mystery and microbe and method. In our imaginations diversity is among God’s most beautiful gifts.
In our progressive religious imagination we can see a new heaven and a new earth. Imagine that!