Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Light, Less Heat in the Faith & Science Conversation

A couple of weeks ago I noted the launch of The Colossian Forum website. On the front page is a short film introducing TCF; we've also created a longer (8 1/2 minute) film that delves into some of the themes in more depth. You might find this a helpful conversation starter in different contexts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Taking Leave of Religion? On Secular Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an excerpt from Phil Zuckerman's new book, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion. In "Taking Leave of Religion," Zuckerman notes the increase in "apostasy" in the United States, citing the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion. This is not just a factor of secularists reproducing, he suggests (nonreligious people have fewer children than believers), but rather an outcome of people leaving faith. He's also happy to repeat the tired canard that, basically, smart people "get over" religious belief.

I won't contest Zuckerman's argument (yet). While he claims to have generated new qualitative data, I think the bar of explanation has been raised by Taylor's A Secular Age. Rehashing the secularization thesis is just uninteresting. Even if Zuckerman correctly predicts a growing departure from institutional religion in the United States, all that means is that the USA is less of an exception. The conclusions one draws from this are what's at issue.

For now, I'm interested in homing in on Zuckerman's claims about "religion" (and the lack thereof). Consider a first conclusion he draws:
Religion is not universal or necessary. Many people live without religion—in fact, prefer it that way. That bald fact strongly counters the notion that people—as people—are intrinsically religious or that religion is inextricable from the human condition. That might seem obvious, yet some scholars continue to write about religion as an inevitable force. Paul Froese, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, calls religion an "essential aspect of the human condition." Beliefs about God, he continues, "lie at the core of human understanding," and religion is universal and essentially unalterable. Reginald W. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, describes religion as one of the "essential needs" of humanity, like food. The existence and recent increase in apostasy renders such notions highly suspect.
This gets at something I've contested in various places over the last several years: the identification of "religion" with particular sets of beliefs, and specifically beliefs about God. (I've crystallized this argument in a chapter I've written, "Secular Liturgies and the Prospect for a 'Post-Secular' Sociology of Religion," which will appear in The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, forthcoming from NYU Press. I'll try to get permission to excerpt here in the future.)

Interestingly, I don't think a Christian account of "religion" requires that we identify religion with belief in God. Whether one considers Paul or Augustine or Calvin, it seems to me that "religion" is associated more fundamentally with an impulse to worship. To say that human beings are ineradicably "religious" is not to say that they just can't shake belief in God.

(As an aside, I think this is exactly the mistake of so much of the current work on "cognitive science of religion" done by Christians in an apologetic mode--per the "Templeton" project, so to speak.)

To say that humans are essentially "religious" is to claim that they are primed to worship, wired devote themselves to something as ultimate, to ascribe "worthship" to some ultimate end. So while people might be "taking leave" of belief in God or gods, or "apostasizing" from specific communities of religious practice, I don't think that is sufficient to conclude that "religion is not universal or necessary." On my account, secular devotion is not just "analogously" religious: it is religious. It is an expression and product of "secular liturgies."

Reconfiguring our definition of religion--away from a belief-centric model to a "liturgical" definition--gives us new radar for cultural analysis and reframes the sorts of data Zuckerman cites. It also gives us a new take on the everyday. To take just one example ready to hand: Here on my desk is the latest issue of the New York Review of Books in which Michael Greenberg offers further reflections on "Occupy Wall Street." Talking with some of the activists in Zuccotti Park, Greenberg comments:

Talking with him, as with Katie, I was reminded of the so-called Tercer Mundista priests I met in Mexico in the early 1970s, who broke with the Vatican and actively supported revolutionary movements in Central America. Both Alec and Katie possessed that calm sense of devotion to a higher calling—not a certainty of belief so much as a certainty of purpose. They both spoke of the movement in unabashedly spiritual terms. And while neither talked explicitly of religion, they seemed to have faith that they were progressing toward the kind of social system that would provide participants a measure of peace and “mental fulfillment.”
Zuckerman's tired categories will not enable him to see the religious nature of secular devotion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Rock Star Colleagues

I am blessed to work with pretty incredible people. Calvin College is the place I've planted myself, in no small part because the intellectual energy of this institution keeps me on my toes: I am constantly learning from my colleagues across the disciplines. We're big enough to have an amazing array of scholars at work in a number of fields, but also just small enough to actually get to know each other and collaborate on different projects.

Indeed, some of my colleagues are just downright "rock stars" who allow the rest of us to bask in reflected glory. As a sample, let me highlight just two who've gotten attention over the past couple of weeks, both members of our legendary English department:

First, Gary Schmidt, who teaches creative writing here at Calvin, is a much-lauded author of fiction for young people--and a regular hit in the Smith house. His earlier books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars were both Newberry Honor books. And then this year, his new novel, Okay for Now, was nominated for a National Book Award! Yeah, he's kind of a big deal. And he gladly and masterfully teaches eager undergraduates at Calvin College.

Second, Lew Klatt is a colleague of Gary's in our English Department where Lew specializes in poetry. His first collection, Interloper, won the Juniper Prize and his most recent collection, Cloud of Ink, was awarded the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize. And the accolades just keep coming. Most recently his poem, "Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91," which first appeared in The Believer, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry of 2011 AND was made into a fantastic short film.

To see that film, hear the poem, and hear Klatt's reflections on "The Artifice of Eternity: Notes Toward a Christian Poetics," enjoy this video of a recent lecture:

The Artifice of Eternity from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Colossian Forum: Reframing the Faith & Science Conversation

For the past year I've been quietly involved with a start-up organization called The Colossian Forum. Rooted in the conviction that "all things hold together in Christ," The Colossian Forum aims to help the church grapple with issues that often cause tension and dissension within the body of Christ. In particular, we're focused on helping the church to be equipped to work through debates and disagreements at the intersection of faith and science.

However, our approach is different than other organizations in this ballpark. We are not a conduit of scientific information, nor do we have a stake in any particular "position" (say, on issues of creation and evolution). Rather, The Colossian Forum is focused on the spade work needed to help the church be able to have such conversations. Our task is not to provide information to settle a debate; instead, we want to foster formation in the requisite virtues of compassion, patience, humility, and charity so that the church can be a people who have such debates well--so that we can grapple with potentially divisive issues in a way that does not compromise the unity of the body of Christ, precisely because out witness is tied to our unity.

In addition, The Colossian Forum aims to reframe the Christian theological heritage as a resource rather than a liability in such conversations. We see the tradition as a gift, not a millstone, when it comes to grappling with such issues--and we believe the theological wisdom of the tradition is uniquely "carried" in the worship and practices of the ecclesia.

I'll say more about The Colossian Forum over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I invite you to explore our new website and watch this short film that introduces the mission and vision of TCF:

Colossian Trailer - Nov 2011 from The Colossian Forum on Vimeo.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Peculiar People: Sifting "Dutch" and "Reformed"

There are a number of denominations in the United States and Canada that are bound up with a distinct ethnic heritage and specific immigrant communities. These would include Lutheran denominations which were initially founded by German immigrants, the Swedes who founded the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Presbyterian Church in Canada's Scottish heritage, or more recently, the growth of Latino Pentecostal congregations and Nigerian denominations in the United States. My own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, has a similar history that intertwines a distinct theological accent with a significant ethnic heritage--in this case, waves of Dutch immigration to the United States and Canada.

Almost a year ago, I published an article in our denominational magazine, The Banner, that obliquely addressed some unique tensions (and confusion) at this intersection of Reformed identity and ethnic heritage. In "Buried Treasures?" I noted it this way:

[S]ome have been rightly concerned that what was often valued as “Reformed” was really just “Dutch.” And they rightly understand that the proclamation of God’s kingdom, and the invitation into the people of God, is not a matter of taking on the particularities of some ethnic heritage. So we have spent a generation sifting the tradition, as it were, in order to separate the dross from the treasures of the Spirit.

That’s a crucial concern. Yet I worry that something else has happened along the way: that we have inadvertently fallen into the trap of thinking that Reformed Christian faith is a kind of “content” or “message” that can be distilled and then dropped into other so-called “relevant” or “contemporary” containers.

I've just published a new article in Perspectives that now follows up on this issue, emphasizing the importance of "de-ethnicizing" the Reformed tradition without thereby losing the distinctive theological gifts and accents that we inherit from this specific incarnation of the Reformed tradition which we have inherited from thinkers like Kuyper and Bavinck and Dooyeweerd--who were, providentially, gathered as a community in the Netherlands. We should neither identify Reformed distinctives as if they are merely "Dutch" nor should we throw out such Reformed accents just because they have been inherited from a particular community. As I put it at one point in this new article, "A Peculiar People":

Because a lot of CRC folk—including, it seems to me, denominational leaders— have unwittingly bought the historians' ethnic reductionism, they have also implicitly accepted the Reformed = Dutch equation. As a result, the dynamics of immigrant embarrassment wash onto our denomination's theological heritage. Rightly wanting to unhook the CRC from mere "Dutchness," but having confused Reformed practice with Dutch ethnicity, eager "reformers" in the CRC advocate throwing overboard all sorts of Reformed theological distinctives in the name of relevance, reform, and even anti-racism.

We need a different paradigm. We need to refuse the tendency to reduce Reformed identity to mere Dutch heritage. We need to resist accounts that confuse theological distinctives with ethnic habits. I have elsewhere argued that those of us in historically "ethnic" Reformed denominations need to do some work "sifting" our ethnic habits from our theological inheritance. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we can't let merely ethnic preferences masquerade as theological distinctives; that is, we can't allow Dutch traditionalism to parade under a "Reformed" banner. But I don't think this is our biggest problem today. No, we need to appreciate the second edge of this point: while we cannot allow mere Dutchness to mask itself as "Reformed," neither can we jettison the riches of a Reformed theological heritage under the pretense that it is merely an ethnic inheritance. We can't confuse Reformed babies with Dutch bathwater.

Read the rest of the essay.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On Saul Bellow @ The Twelve Blog

As further evidence of my continued inability to say "No!" to good things, I have agreed to be part of a team of bloggers at The Twelve, a collaborative blog hosted by the good folks at Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. It's a diverse team of--you guessed it!--12 bloggers with different styles and interests coming from various vocations (pastors, artists, scholars) but all identifying with Reformed traditions. (Which of us is Judas remains to be seen! ;-) I hope you'll consider adding it to your RSS feeds and such.

My first post begins a little series that will look at Saul Bellow's recently published essay, "The Jewish Writer in America"--which raises some interesting parallels for Reformed folk in a North American context (with obvious differences as well).

On a related note: watch for the release of The Best of the Reformed Journal, a compilation of some of the landmark essays that appeared in the predecessor to Perspectives.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Hidden Meaning of Hand-Raising

A fun little sidebar in the Education section of Sunday's New York Times was a bang-on semiotic analysis of "The Hidden Meaning of Hand-Raising." Check out the slide show online. Here's a sample:


Uh, I’m going to have to disagree actually. I know you haven’t finished talking, but I can already tell that I disagree. I’m pretty sure the professor disagrees, too. I mean, psh, I can see that she’s nodding and smiling at you, but she and I have a more subtle understanding. Right, professor? Professor?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Hughes + Shakespeare

Essential ShakespeareEssential Shakespeare by Ted Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shakespeare + Hughes = Jackpot.

This book is brilliant in its conception and stunning in its content. Part of the Ecco "Essential Poets" series, Hughes made a brilliant editorial decision: rather than simply anthologizing Shakespeare's poetry (i.e., the sonnets), Hughes decided to de- and recontextualize passages from the plays as poetry. As he notes, speaking of Macbeth's soliloquy, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow...":
[I]f one specifies that "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" is spoken by MacBeth as he faces the leafy army that will put an end to his spellbound, murderous career (having just heard that his wife, who prompted the course of action that converted him from the king's loyal champion to a regicidal tyrant, has died), it actually limits the use of the passage for the readers. Its relevance is then confined to Macbeth's unique predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play rather than applied directly to our immediate plight as ephemeral creatures facing the abyss on a spinning ball of self-delusion. Obviously by reading the passage out of context, one is missing the great imaginative experience of the drama--but one is missing that anyway. The speech on its own is something else, read in less than a minute, learned in less than five, still wonderful, and a pure bonus.

This decontextualization works brilliantly. It makes Shakespeare's language and psychology come alive in a new immediacy. All of a sudden one sees how Shakespeare is part of a lineage of English poetry, part of the stream that will give us Yeats and Eliot and Larkin and Hughes.

One has to wonder whether this work--the work of an "anthologist" now immortalized in Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist--isn't part of Hughes lasting testament. Indeed, I found myself hearing Shakespeare anew, almost as if the language had the same broad earthiness of Hughes' Yorkshire dialect. The very context seemed to help me hear Shakespeare anew, as a voice of England, and not just the sort of Oxford snobbery that usually accompanies his aficionados.

In sum, a marvelous little book--one of those delights to which one returns again and again, to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow.

View all my reviews