Friday, June 15, 2012

U.S. Nuns, the Vatican, and Emerging Christianity

Ongoing tension between the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and U.S. nuns (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) has captured my attention. Refer to the following article for a summary of the controversy:

The manner in which the Vatican is censuring these nuns exposes—at least in part— the nature of the divide in many denominations. Divisions in Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism appear to be along the lines of institutional maintenance vs. spiritual renewal, entrenched power vs. shared power and, in some cases, dictatorship vs. servant leadership.


Institutional protectionism, it seems to me, is a major factor driving large segments of the population to identify as “spiritual but not religious” (See Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening). Who wants to be identified with, let alone controlled by, institutional maintenance, entrenched hierarchy, and dictatorship?


I’m not picking on the Roman Catholic Church as such. In fact, I have the highest respect for many aspects of the Catholic Church, especially the historic concern for equality and social justice represented by the nuns. The Vatican’s contention with U.S. nuns is just one example of a dynamic I see in most Christian denominations. I find it hard to name any denomination, especially in Mainline Protestantism, that isn’t struggling with similar divisions (especially United Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians). These divisions, as Bass implies in the aforementioned book, are largely about institutional protectionism vs. openness to change. Granted, institutional protectionism plays out differently in different denominations. Hierarchical powers, for instance, may seek progressive change (e.g. many of the Bishops in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church as well as some in the Roman Catholic Church). In other words, hierarchical power may or may not be the primary source of entrenchment. Nonetheless, every denomination has its share of unhealthy protectionism, regardless of the source. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), institutions, even those comprised of mostly good people, tend to corrupt themselves through their own pride and self-maintenance.

This tendency can be particularly destructive in the institutional church which, by the very nature of its calling, should be free to change under the leadership of the Spirit. Entrenched institutions lack the flexibility to follow the Spirit that, like the wind, “blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). Indeed, with the emergence of what retired Harvard theologian Harvey Cox calls the “age of the Spirit,” denominations that don’t “get the memo” about the freedom of the Spirit will, I suspect, continue a slow and painful death. (See Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith.)


Although I’m devoted to the church, I increasingly find myself identifying with those who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” To the extent that “religion” means living-out our spirituality in community, with the mutual responsibility and accountability that genuine community requires, I am religious. But, to the extent that religion means maintaining an institution at all costs, I have to go with the “spiritual but not religious” folks. The “old white man at the top of a pyramid” and the “winner take all and write history” way of being church is going the way of the dinosaur. The head of the church said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In this light, the message for the institutional church may be the words of Jesus filtered through the proclamation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls an institution, he bids it come and die.” 

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Essential Question of Religious Pluralism

Today’s blog simply raises a question. Do you believe that Brahman, Dharmakaya, God, God-Beyond-God, Allah, and other religious formulations of ultimate reality represent the same referent? Stated in another way the question could be, Is there warrant for affirming that the same referent is represented by different religious concepts such as Brahman, Dharmakaya, God, God-Beyond-God, or Allah?

If you wish to respond to the question without having your thinking polluted by my thoughts, skip reading the rest of the blog and go straight to the comments section. Some of my thoughts on the question are below.

For readers with a background or interest in religious studies, I should point out that I recognize the conceptual difficulties with the question. I understand, for example, the philosophical and methodological differences between Aldus Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, and Huston Smith over-against George Lindbeck, Stephen Prothero, and Mark Heim. I am well aware of the dangers of seeking “similarity-in-difference” or “identity-in-difference” across the chasm separating “cultural-linguistic systems” (part of the David Tracy—George Lindbeck debate). I find value in opposing perspectives like Schuon’s Transcendent Unity of Religions contrasted with Prothero’s God is Not One.

Granted (consistent with Prothero) it is shallow, ill-informed, and sloppy to say that “all religions are really saying the same thing.”  Religions say vastly different things in many areas and exhibit very different ways of thinking about ultimate reality. I fully realize that the concept of Brahman is different from a theistic notion of a Triune God, both of which are different than the radically monotheistic conception of Allah, all of which are surely different from the nontheistic Dharmakaya. I know that Atman and Anatman raise crucial questions about all of these concepts.

Simultaneously, it seems that many who reject some version of the Perennial Philosophy are comparing apples and oranges when they jump from the very real conceptual and pragmatic differences among religions to such conclusions as (a) each religion is talking about a different god/referent or (b) there is no way of knowing if different religions are talking of the same reality because translation across cultural-linguistic systems is impossible or (c) any talk of “similarity-in-difference” or “identity-in-difference” is simply an ill-informed pluralism that collapses one religion into another. Although conclusions a, b, and c represent possibilities—anyone, holding any perspective on the subject, can engage in sloppy theological thinking—they are not the only plausible conclusions.  Huston Smith, for example, recognizes the very real differences among religions on the exoteric level while positing (admittedly a faith stance) that they point toward the same referent on an esoteric level. Could it be that these “fingers pointing at the moon” are actually pointing at the “same moon”? Wouldn’t one expect conceptual and linguistic differences when people of different cultural-linguistic systems seek to describe the ineffable? It is no surprise that there are differences among “effable” formulations, developed in different religions, of an ineffable reality. In other words, different ways of describing an ultimate reality encountered in an ineffable experience do not necessarily mean that the ultimate reality itself is different.

Once again, I recognize the philosophical and theological difficulties with the question and issues that I’ve raised. The difficulty is part of what allures me. What are your thoughts?