Thursday, April 24, 2008

Religious People Must Become More Literate About Religion

In his book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn’t (2007), Stephen Prothero argues that while Americans are the most religious people in the Western World, we are perhaps the most religiously illiterate. He states, that the “private and public lives of Americans are “awash in a sea of faith.” “Unfortunately, however, Americans’ knowledge of religion runs as shallow as Americans’ commitment to religion runs deep.” While some religious and non-religious folks would respond that this really does not matter, it does matter a great deal.

On the one hand, the non-religious would argue that we ought to do away with religion altogether because religion is only an ideology that causes problems and conflicts. They would argue that more wars have been fought over faith, and to some extent their argument is valid. On the other hand, the religious might argue that there is no pressing need for religious literacy for faith is not about formal religion, it is about a relationship with God. Formal religious doctrine and practices only get in the way of a unique and personal relationship to God. But both of these positions ignore the powerful role religious traditions and practices have played and continue to play in the lives of people of faith from all religions and in our world.

Only in the recent past, however, have we come to grips with the reality that religion is a major factor in world affairs. For the most part, until perhaps the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we have ignored or downplayed religion as a powerful force. For sure, the cause of international conflicts cannot be boiled down only to religious ideologies, for there are economic, political, and social issues that contribute to these conflicts as well. But now that we are acknowledging that religion is important to world affairs, and that religion will not simply go away, how are we to respond?

First, we should respond by increasing our literacy about our own faith tradition as well as the religion of others. Churches need to take seriously the old-school idea of Christian Education. We have reduced such times of education to teaching about spirituality and personal relationships with God, which surely have their place. But we are failing to teach Christian theology and practice with any depth except when it relates to personal spirituality. Basic biblical and theological knowledge is a must, and specific church traditions ought to be educating the faithful about their beliefs, traditions, and practices.

Moreover, gaining a basic knowledge of other world religions can help us make some sense of world events and history. Such education about other religions will also avoid stereotypes and untruths about other religions that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion. While some churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and time is usually spent finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument with an adherent of that religion. We need to see the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens, and not solely for evangelistic reasons.

Second, we need to gain an appreciation of the truth value of all religions. All the great world religions search for God as the ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans. While the various religions may have their specific way to seek God in order to formulate ideas about who God is, no one religion can logically gain the upper hand of truth over the others. There does not exist a completely logical religion that stands up to every philosophical or scientific critique. This does not mean that to be true faith must answer all the questions that the social and natural sciences throw at it, for faith cannot be proven or disproven by science. But it does mean that while religion can and does acknowledge that God is an all perfect being, religions are human interpretations of the experience of God, and therefore, they are flawed. This does not outright invalidate the truth of one’s religion; but neither does it mean that one religion is more truthful than another.

Finally, through education about our own faith tradition and the religious beliefs of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge the similarities as well as the differences between various religions. At their cores, all religions seek for the common good of humanity. While small groups of adherents from every religion make outsiders think ill of those religions, every faith has a center from which it seeks the common good. Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences, can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Separating the Wheat of the Gospel from the Chaff of Patriotic Idolatry

In recent weeks, controversy has swirled around Barack Obama because of remarks made from the pulpit by his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. While I sincerely doubt that the media and those quick to judge Wright for his controversial comments have taken into consideration most of the sermons he has preached, preferring to act in their normal modus operandi by taking his statements out of context, the remarks Wright has made do draw attention to the divide that exists between white and black Christianity in America.

A popular remark that characterizes race relations in America is that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. There is indeed a division that exists between black churches and white churches. Certainly more African-American Christians are attending predominantly white churches these days, and conversely, many white Christians attend African-American churches. But for the most part, the hour of worship on Sunday morning remains very segregated. This is due mostly to the racial divide in this country, and some of it stems from different worship styles the two communities embrace. But part of the segregation is due to differing interpretations of the gospel.

Conservative white evangelicalism has been influenced greatly by a dispensational theology that sees America as playing a key role in God’s predestined plan; a quasi-theological manifest destiny. Indeed, dispensational theology is still very much a part of the theological and political culture of evangelicalism. Jerry Falwell was a dispensationalist, as is Pat Robertson, both of whom have had a huge political influence. And one cannot scan the channels of religious broadcasts without running across preachers like John Hagee or Ronnie Floyd spouting off their brand of dispensationalism.

Dispensationalists see the world moving toward a God-ordained end in which an apocalyptic battle will take place when nations, particularly Muslim nations, will rise up against the modern State of Israel. In the minds of many of these dispensationalists, America will play a key role in supporting Israel, who they equate with the ancient chosen people of God.

Many of the proponents of dispensational theology, therefore, have an apocalyptic view of the world that sees the inevitable end coming in a war between good and evil. Since this end is unavoidable, there is no need to work for earthly peace and justice; the plan is already written and America, as the only real God-blessed nation, plays a lead role on the side of good.

Black liberation theology, however, holds a slightly different view of the gospel message. Influenced by the liberation theologies that were birthed in the countries of the Third World, where the message of Jesus was viewed as more than a promise of spiritual salvation, and extended to the political, social, and economic liberation of oppressed populations, black liberation theology confronts governmental leadership with its failure to implement God’s justice for the oppressed.

African-American theologians and pastors like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as some white religious leaders who supported the Civil Rights movement, embraced this liberation message and took seriously the political, social, and economic message of Jesus. In doing so, they stood very much in line with Jesus and the Prophets of ancient Israel who railed against Israel’s rulers for their unjust policies against the oppressed.

While I dare not over generalize the dichotomy between these interpretations of Christianity, I see a lack of understanding this division as part of the problem with many who have criticized Rev. Wright. I am not here to offer an uncritical defense of Wright’s words, but I have preached sermons that verge on the same tenor as his; sermons that scold American leadership for its failure to side with the poor and oppressed in favor of the rich and powerful and for its failure to seek true peace and justice in the world in favor of waging war.

If we are serious about our Christian faith, then we need to become more biblically literate in order to separate the wheat of the gospel message from the chaff of our patriotic idolatry. This calls for us to read the scriptures afresh and to consider seriously the political, social, and economic, in addition to the spiritual, messages of the Prophets and Jesus, all of whom spoke harshly to Israel’s leaders, condemning their policies and calling them to repent before God brought judgment on them.

The problem that some have had with the kind of preaching done by Rev. Wright and others is that it does not view America as God’s predestined hope for the world. Rather, it condemns governmental leadership when it does not seek justice, when it does not lift up the oppressed, and when it does not seek peace. Such preaching does not make Rev. Wright or others anti-American or unpatriotic. Rather it positions them in the prophetic tradition of Jesus, who I suspect would have more brutal things to say to America’s leaders.