As we ease into our third year of publication of The BTS Center’s award-winning blog, Bearings, co-editors Elizabeth Drescher and Alyssa Lodewick have been mulling the role of outlets like ours in shaping what the Church is becoming in a dynamic religious landscape. We’re excited to continue what we see as a multi-dimensional dialogue that extends across that terrain. During the upcoming year, you’ll recognize many of our conversation partners as compelling, insightful storytellers from our first two seasons. But we’ve also added many new voices this year by way of diversifying the perspectives you’ll encounter on Bearings in terms of denomination, ethnicity, race, vocation, and location.
You’ll meet more of our new contributors through the year, but here’s a quick glimpse of some of our new companions on the journey ahead. A gifted spiritual wit, Mark Collins will chime in from western Pennsylvania, where he teaches writing in the University of Pittsburgh’s environmental studies program and reflects on the spiritual ecology of parenting adult children, ferreting out midlife meaning, and nursing the physical and metaphysical aches of deck hockey. Janet Dorman will contribute reflections shaped by her experiences of being a stem cell transplant recipient, an avid nature observer, and an authorized minister with 26 years of local church experience. Janet currently is the pastor at Foreside Community Church, UCC in Falmouth, Maine. Corinna Guerrero, a biblical scholar, writer, and director of online programs at the Jesuit School of Theology, will share insights on scripture, trauma, and the joys and challenges of parenting in a morally complicated world. Chris Hoklotubbe, a New Testament and Early Christianity scholar and Red Sox fan, will write from Loyola Marymount University, where he currently is serving as a postdoctoral teaching fellow and exploring the diversity of early Christianity, which has been obscured by traditional accounts of the faith’s origins.
We know that Mark, Janet, Corrina, Chris, and all of our other contributors will bring much to the strands of conversation that will unfold over the weeks and months ahead. And, we thought we’d kick things off by sharing some of our own recent conversations about the changing religious and spiritual landscape. What follows are snippets from a dialogue Elizabeth (ED) and Alyssa (AL) have been having about the way stories construct the worlds we inhabit and who we are in those worlds. We started by considering what’s changed since we launched Bearings in 2014.
ED: We enter the third season with perhaps more clarity than when we launched. After all, most of the markers on the 21st-century ministry landscape are woefully obvious to all of us by now: declining Church membership and attendance; closing churches; unstable or non-existing paid ministry positions; and, of a particular poignancy to us at The BTS Center, the end of more and more seminaries and divinity schools. The data that mark these changes are well known to us, too. Almost a quarter of all Americans—and a full third of those under age 30—identify as religiously unaffiliated today. As Robert P. Jones has recently argued, this trend has had an outsized impact on the White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism that has historically defined much of mainstream American culture and politics. Jones suggests that this decline has important implications, both because it challenges what once was thought of as a shared spiritual heritage in the United States, and because it creates space for the potential emergence of more diverse and vital spiritualities.
As I argued in my recent book on the spiritual lives of Nones, the move toward a more cosmopolitan, rather than communitarian, spirituality has much to offer American culture and society. But the rise of the Nones and the decline of WASP cultural dominance does raise important questions about what it means to inhabit, and to minister across, the changing American religious landscape. Here, another data point seems important. I keep going back to a Pew Forum report from last spring that “half of U.S. adults seldom or never talk about religion with non-family.” Pew highlighted a difference between “highly religious” and “non-religious” Americans, but what stood out for me was that, in total, nearly 40% of us seldom or never talk about religion with immediate family, and more than 50% seldom or never talk about religion with extended family.
Without religious or spiritual conversation and, importantly, the stories that are shared within those conversations, how do we sustain a robust and meaningful spiritual narrative—however diverse and multifaceted—in the U.S.? I have to wonder if the decline of the Church has as much to do with the loss of spiritual stories as with any other of the myriad factors that are often cited by demographers, sociologists, religious leaders, journalists, and political analysts.
The challenge, then, is to figure out gets in the way of talking about religion and spirituality. What stops us from sharing spiritual stories?
AL: I often wonder whether the dearth of religious and spiritual discourse is somehow connected to individual and societal discomfort with difference. The United States has been a diverse nation for hundreds of years, but I don’t think we’ve learned fully how to deal with our differences and embrace them. Instead of exploring our disparities and appreciating them as beneficial sources of depth and richness in our own lives and the fabric of society, we tend either to ignore difference or seek its eradication by labeling anyone who isn’t exactly like us “stupid” or “bad” or “evil” or deserving of punishment.
Unfortunately, many of us just don’t know how to discuss difference in a productive, healthy, civil way. Even a cursory examination of today’s political landscape proves that point. Instead of respectfully debating ideas and trying to persuade voters of the validity of their arguments, political candidates resort to acts of bullying, harassment, and name-calling that would never be tolerated on school playgrounds—or so we hope!
Here in Maine, we recently witnessed an egregious incident of abusive speech when our governor phoned a legislator with whom he regularly disagrees and left a voicemail laced with offensive epithets. Then, while trying to explain his behavior, our governor proceeded to suggest that he would like to shoot his opponent in the head! Obviously, this sort of behavior is problematic—it drew appropriate censure from The Maine Council of Churches—but from all appearances, it seems to be becoming increasingly common. Instead of being chastised for outrageous conduct and beyond-the-pale language, some politicians are rewarded for it.
All too often, the same sort of thing happens in the religious realm. Right after 49 patrons of an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando were murdered on June 12th, a minister in California preached a sermon in which he lamented the fact that more people hadn’t been killed. Fortunately, most people of good will rejected his rhetoric. But the question remains: How did that pastor ever come to believe that it was acceptable for him to preach such revolting, hate-filled words—especially in the aftermath of a national tragedy? To say that he lacked pastoral compassion would be a gross understatement.
In an increasingly noisy world inundated by talking heads and advertisements, some political and religious leaders seem to believe that outrageousness is the only useful vehicle for garnering the attention they crave. As a result, 21st-century political and religious rhetoric has become so inflated, overheated, and inflammatory that it often feels unsafe to even try to have reasonable dialogue.
As a society, we are losing the ability to hold civil conversations—and our growing ineptitude threatens to trickle down and poison our most intimate relationships. Why should people share their spiritual or religious narratives if doing so may result in being labelled a sinner, or a simpleton, or a heretic? Why should people talk about religion in their families if doing so may cause them to be shunned?
At their best, religious and spiritual discussions liberate people to explore life’s biggest existential questions. But when it becomes too painful to talk about God in a hostile (rhetorical) universe, people inevitably retreat. Overwhelmed by mean-spirited and cruel discourse, people hesitate to venture beyond their own interior spiritual worlds … and if they do go out, they seek refuge among people who think exactly like they do.
It truly constitutes an act of courage to engage in dialogue about one’s faith these days—especially with people who vehemently promote different beliefs. And that’s why The BTS Center is proud to offer your class this autumn, Elizabeth. We trust that “Spiritual Stories for a Wired World” will give faith leaders of all stripes the practical skills they need to interject reason and compassion into complex public conversations about religion and spirituality. And, perhaps even more importantly, we know that it will equip them with the fortitude they’ll need in their efforts to serve as bulwarks of hope, love, and optimism in a confusing, painful world.
ED: Yes, yes! You’re right—religious discourse has in the last century become so much about competing beliefs that argument has become the mode of conversation more than the stories that characterize the teachings of Jesus.
It’s worth remembering that Jesus never argued about doctrine. Someone would challenge him on, say, hanging out with women, or fraternizing with outsiders, or violating religious rules, and he’d never take that bait. “There was a woman,” he’d say, or “Once there was a man who …” I think he did this because he understood that religion, the spiritual, the holy—all of the deeply lived mystery that can so enrich our lives if we open ourselves to it—is not much about propositional beliefs but rather about sensate and emotional experience—about what it feels like as humans to be aware of the presence of the divine.
Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus avoided the hostile, name-calling, uncivil discourse you call out, he didn’t do so by offering a more rational or even more humane philosophical, political, or theological argument. Instead, he moved to an entirely different register to engage lived, felt human experience: the feelings of connectedness, of love, of worthiness, as well as the feelings of alienation, trauma, otherness, and so on that so often amplify our attentiveness to the holy, to God. This, I want to suggest, is much more the core of what people once called “religion” or the “spiritual.” It’s much more difficult to talk about. And it certainly can’t be argued; I can’t shout down your feelings of divine mercy or your lament. I can only listen to your story. I can only share my own. And in those tellings, we come in time to richer and more compassionate shared narratives of hope, love, and optimism.
That’s why I am so fixated these days on spiritual stories and why I’m so inspired by what Bearings contributors offer into a world that needs more spiritual stories. It’s why I’m so excited about the workshop this fall and what I hope it encourages in terms of widening the web of such stories across a complex and ever-changing religious and civil landscape.
AL: I agree. Stories are key to helping us puzzle out what is happening on shifting landscapes. We need to be listening to where folks are and where they hope to eventually go. As people and institutions of faith, we need to work on creating safe spaces for people tell their most important stories. When we carefully listen to others’ spiritual narratives, we learn what people value, what they need, and what we can learn from them.
Similarly, when we share our own stories, we have the opportunity to teach others. In a couple of weeks, The BTS Center will host a free public lecture, “Bathrooms to Birth Certificates: Religion, Politics, and the Nature of Sex.” It will feature the voices of Lianne Simon and Dr. Megan DeFranza, a theologian and scholar studying how different religions make sense of the complexity of sex. During the event, Lianne will share her story of growing up intersex – in a body that could not be categorized as clearly male or clearly female. She will talk about how faith saved her life, only to set her on a path challenging the very faith tradition she holds so dear.
Personally, I am looking forward to the lecture, partly because I know that Lianne will share a story that is quite different than my own—in the telling of it, she will teach me—and partly because I anticipate that some of her story’s elements will sound familiar. For I’m guessing that at some point in life, almost every person of faith encounters questions about identity and belief that rattle their senses of the self and the world.
So here’s to another year of Bearings blog. And here’s to another year of sharing stories, rattling a few cages in the search for liberation and innovation, and companioning one another … and we do need fellowship, because the individual and communal work of creating and embodying new spiritual narratives for the new days ahead is joyful, painful, confusing, and empowering.
We’re glad you’re here with us, readers, in the midst of it all.