The 70rd'5 Pr@y3r

Our Gracious Source Code, who art in Amazon S3 Cloud Services, hallowed be thy file extension;

thy debugger come, thy executable be done;

on desktop as it is on smartphone.

Give us this day our daily download.

Forgive us our botnets as we forgive those who malware against us.

And lead us not to the Darknet, but deliver us from torrents.

For thine is the Internet, and the surge protector, and the Ghz forever. Amen

Merely Religion

I find it odd that certain Christian spiritualities preach a so-called “way of Jesus” that is supposed to be available to us outside of the context of religion. This “way” is almost always presented in contrast to “organized religion,” or “the Church,” or “institutionalized Christianity,” or simply “worship.” A Christianity lacking institution would be preferable—Christianity which is not instantiated but which is instead an airy "way of being."

Richard Rohr puts it this way in a meme I see shared often:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”

There has been tension between the "religion of Jesus" and the "religion about Jesus" for about two millennia, give or take a few decades. Frankly, I think the religion of Jesus—informed as it was by second temple Judaism, the Pharisaic movement, and various charismatic movements (Essenes, etc)—is essentially inaccessible to us in the form proponents of the “way” would have us believe. As readers of the book, we get glimpses of the way Jesus lived, the way he called us to live, but only parabolically—in a thrown-to-the-side kind of way. Our access to the way of Jesus is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, never grasped. Our spiritualities make attempts to gain focus, to polish the glass, but clear understanding is always experienced as a gift, as apokálypsis, as an uncovering, as revelation. To claim that these ways of seeking understanding are somehow irreligious is simply marketing jargon.

The religion about Jesus and the functional edifice of the capital 'C' Church is a technology for carrying (some would say defending) the message of the gospel and the story of Jesus' life. Rohr's "mere religion" is the vehicle through which the message of and about Christ has been carried through the millennia. Without it, the way of Jesus would not be available to us.

I take an Augustinian view of a church within the Church. People who hear the call toward discipleship and transformation comprise this spiritual body and press the wider Church to conform to the fullness of the gospel. We may argue for a way which seeks belonging and believing, or discipleship and transformation, or fear and faithing, but one way or the other we argue for a religion. Christianity must be instantiated. It must be represented, as God was in Jesus, by something with actual being which claims existence for itself. This is merely religion.

Kim Davis, Freedom of Conscience, and the American Tradition of Religious Pluralism

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has been in the news for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that her religious beliefs forbid it. She has been jailed, national politicians have jumped to her defense, she has been both demonized and trumpeted as a hero. The pluralism of belief in the United States means that the place of religion in public life will always have the potential to be one of the most divisive topics in American politics.

In the documents that form the United States and in their own private lives and discourse, our Founders intended to establish a society where freedom of conscience reigned and no one would be subject to coercion in their beliefs by an official of the government. Because the U.S. is an increasingly religiously diverse nation, an authentic, ongoing, sharp-edged pluralistic discussion is a necessity if the unity of the United States is to be maintained and a just society is to be cultivated. Otherwise, our rhetoric will devolve into the vitriol we have seen surrounding Kim Davis and the gay marriage question in the last few weeks.

A Christian Nation?

Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson would not exactly see eye-to-eye with the Founders who made concrete their Enlightenment principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. While the Founders certainly carved out a place for religion in America, they never gave credence to a specific religion.

A well-known document crafted by John Adams and the U.S. Senate puts this bluntly. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Specifically Article 11:

the government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.[^1]

President George Washington, for his part, was no Christian. According to Brooke Allen, on his deathbed Washington did not speak of heaven or ask for a minister to preside over his death. Rather, "his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism."[^2]

Other Founders went to greater lengths to impose their rationalism on the world. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with no religious affiliation, and "even banned the teaching of theology at the school."[^3] It is well-known that Jefferson edited his own version of the New Testament, which he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson carefully deleted (literally cut out of the Bible with a scalpel) any miraculous passage of the Gospels that did not conform to Jefferson's understanding of reason.

These three examples don't cover the entire body of men who shaped the beginnings of the United States,[^4] but they represent a sample of the kinds of sentiments that operated among men of their standing and generation. For the Founders, the main concern about religion was that the new nation be free from bondage to its rule. With this concern, the Founders established a possibility for pluralism and laid the groundwork for the great flourishing of religion we see today.

The Founders understood that the power afforded the banner of religion by its adherents could be a corrupting agent in government. They knew that governmental power and religious power combined could be catastrophic to the new nation. They sought to mitigate the threat to individual freedom posed by the confluence of religion and government.

In the person of Kim Davis, we can see the outcome when government power and religious doctrine meet. In her power as a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis has unilaterally limited the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of her fellow citizens based on her religious beliefs alone.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the United States that the country will tear itself apart over issues of religious diversity, including secularism. However, according to John Meacham “history suggests… that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”[^5] The question is why, even with all of the challenges presented by a society like the United States, the Union still stands.

The Founders knew this would be a divisive issue for their new nation. Their solution was to separate the state from the power of religion and religion from the power of the state. These separations were grounded in freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Conscience

What does freedom of conscience mean? Basically what we’re talking about here is freedom from external coercion directed by the government. However, it cannot mean that individualism and total self-sovereignty reign. That is the way being tested by Kim Davis and her supporters.

If freedom of conscience is to flourish, it must be based first on respect—perhaps even love—between individuals, and it must be guarded by the government. Freedom of conscience, guaranteed by America’s framing documents, promises something deeper than freedom to act, speak, and assemble; it promises that the right to think freely will be defended by the government, as long as citizens respect each other.

The Founders did not seek to separate “faith and politics” or “religion and public life.” No. They sought to separate the institutions of religion and government. Separating the public spheres of religion and government was not about secularizing society, it was about “protecting conscience by insisting on clear institutional boundaries.”[^6] Personal faith could inform politics, private religion could be manifest in public life, and how an individual chose to exercise her religion was her own business. But faith itself “should not be singled out for special help or particular harm” among private citizens.[^7]

In a nation as diverse as the United States, the government and its officers have a responsibility to the free thought of every individual under the government’s power. Importantly, the Constitution’s religion clauses exist not only to protect doctrinaire believers, but to “protect the right of religious dissenters.”[^8] For the Founders, the greatest sin was to impinge upon another human being’s freedom of thought and ability to choose. Here the reader may herself connect the issue of “religious dissenters'” rights being impinged upon to the actions taken by Kim Davis’.

For Americans, the way forward is paved by freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution and in respect for one another. For Christians, the way forward is paved by love of neighbor grounded in Christ and in freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution.

Pluralism

”Freedom of conscience is, in a sense, the reason for pluralism and also the appropriate and just response to pluralism.”[^9]

Pluralism is forever an attempt. The point of pluralism is not to achieve perfect agreement on all matters and tastes. Pluralism is not the savior of society; it will not fix all ills or erase sin from the world. What pluralism does do is aim at achieving relationship. Only if we openly, respectfully disagree can we come to understand our disagreements and begin to find common ground. The Founders knew this and so built freedom of conscience into the Constitution through separation of church and state, providing the foundation of plurality itself.

This is all well and good, but if the discussion of who we are devolves from respectful dialogue to angry muttering, idealistic positivism (as in the Kim Davis case), or outright violence, then we should begin to worry.

A generation of pluralism is not enough. A commitment to religious literacy, respect, understanding, and the responsibility of citizens to teach their children the way of pluralism is required. For Christians, pluralism means dedication to Jesus' command, “You shall love your neighbor.” American Christians should be the champions of pluralism. It is time that we worry less about politics and more about love. Building a perfect society is an unattainable goal. We will not save ourselves from sin. But pluralism grounded in freedom of conscience and love of neighbor grounded in Christ are steps toward a society that cherishes justice for all.

Not MY Pew Survey

In my day-to-day life, I have to pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in religion news. In the past couple weeks, the major talk has been “the rise of the nones,” a talking point drawn out of the recent Pew Research Survey detailing shifts in American religious affiliation.

The rising number of people choosing “nothing in particular," a subset of the "unaffiliated" label, has raised hackles across the theo-political spectrum, from evangelicals decrying the de-Christianizing of this great Christian nation to more mainline Protestant handwringing over the decrease in possible butts in pews that, if they'd only stay, might somehow stop their particular denomination’s death (note: nothing will stop this).

The problem with this range of views (as far as I’ve read) is that, while certainly broad, it’s pretty shallow. There’s nuance to the “nones.” I can say this with confidence as someone who has drifted across the borders of that category once or twice or every other day. While there are certainly those in the group who don’t care about religion, Americanly expressed or otherwise, such a category also holds those with complicated feelings of their lives as uniquely religious, of all things as uniquely religious, and who have done the work to interpret those feelings.

The “spiritual but not religious” crowd tends to be cited here, though it’s often cited with an air of disdain or ignorance. Sure, there’s plenty of b.s. that can go along with this, but there’s also some legitimate expressions from thoughtful people who are keenly aware of divinity as a deeply woven into life but have no interest in an organized structure focused on it. I can’t say I’m in agreement with those folks, but they can make good points. And they might be “nones.”

On the not-quite-flip-side, you’ve got the “religious but not spiritual,” a growing group who are keenly aware of the importance of religious community, of liturgical expression, of the collective search for mystery. Yet they do not experience the spiritual elements of the faith community as personally transformative, at least not in the traditional ways that other adherents within the community might. I’ve rested in this group for long stretches of my life. Maybe I’m there today. I’ll let you know.

Then there are true “nones,” people who have no sense of their being as spiritual and who have no interest in the communities who do. But even in this group there is nuance. Plenty of folks I know fall here, yet even they have complicated relationships with religion, whether as something which drives their academic lives, something that used to drive their personal lives, something that influences how they still seek to live in their secular community, etc.

My point being, this rise of the nones probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or rather, it doesn’t mean only what you think it means. Don’t forget the nuance. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re part of a faith community that’s already trying to figure out how to reclaim these nones from the death grip of secularism, take the nuance into account before you launch Operation ReJesus. The nones will be grateful.

So, It’s Non-Religious Religion in Church That’s Not Church?

“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe…What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.” – Flannery O’Connor

Apart from what you see here on the DB, Logan and I are friends who still talk about religion and belief quite often. We do so in funny and serious ways. He also knows what love I harbor for Flannery O’Connor, so he sent me the quote above. I guess it worked, because I’m writing this. It’s also a chance for me to provide my own angle on Logan’s most recent post. Doubt and the ability or desire to believe is something I spend a lot of time wrestling with, which is what makes something like a “non-religious church” an issue for me, particularly for its shallow approach to something that is by its nature paradoxical and mysterious.

I think what we’ve got going here is a battle over terms, over the language of church and religion, which is no small battle as words are all we’ve got to explain what we’re doing. As Logan noted, Sunday Assembly hasn’t done away with religious structures even in their attempt to provide a secular alternative to “church.” This isn’t just another community organization we’re talking about here; otherwise, it wouldn’t have made the news. Rather, it’s an attempt to co-opt and then negate the mysterious connection afforded to us when we attempt to interact with the divine.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I’m not saying Sunday Assembly should go away, or that they are wrong in their approach. Do what you want. Being a good person is good. I generally acknowledge that how you choose to experience joy in community isn’t my business. What I’d like to say though, if SA is your cup of tea, is this: don’t cheat yourself.

Churchy Church

If we’re going to get at the contention of language presented by trying to separate what church is from what you want church to be, it begins with “feelings.” Church isn’t about making you feel good, which is what O’Connor is getting at in the quote above. Want proof? Christianity, at least, is a religion that houses an execution instrument at the front of, and on the tops of, its buildings. Granted, the effect has been lessened by its shallow usage and smothering frequency on everything from jewelry to coffee mugs, but still. This is a religion about the cross, and that’s not “feel-good.”

There is a public notion at large, one which SA bases itself upon, that being a good person and feeling good about it captures what church is about if you can so conveniently place the “God-talk” by the wayside. Wrong. Church isn’t about feeling good, it’s about confronting mystery and power, confronting a cross and all it represents, and wondering what you should do about it. When people reduce "church" to something you can do non-religiously, you're pigeon-holing religion into something devoid of mystery and power, which is antithetical to the origin of religion itself. The major religions negated by SA’s “feel good, do good” approach [and we’re going beyond Christianity here], and the organization of church as an extension, is about dealing with a truth and a reality which is, often, profoundly uncomfortable. You’re not all there is, how you “feel” isn’t really the center of anything, and what’s more, you’ve got to get over that and do some real work for others with a real eye towards love and obedience. And what makes groups like the SA so inept in their attempt to make a church is this: church is the place where you go to face that and fold yourself, along with your neighbor, into an attempt to live out those uncomfortable truths. Faith and belief are real concepts that those of us committed to living out religious truth must deal with, but church isn’t even really the place we go to do that. Faith, or even the longing for faith, is a foundation upon which church is built. Church is the second step in a religious process. So you can’t separate church from faith. Sorry.

Religion and Cost

This is where the language of struggle and the concept of belief as something painful come into play. O’Connor is right in that “religion costs.” It costs a great deal. I count myself among those who cry out for belief, wishing they had it in a way they used to or can only imagine now. And in my position, I do find it much harder to believe; yet I still strive for it. When confronted by the cross, I no longer truly know what to think or feel. But I don’t go to church to figure it out. That’s work for me to do, painful work, in which I grasp for something I believe truly matters and yet consistently avoids my longing, outstretched fingers. It’s work I do in silence, work I do with friends and family and mentors and professors, work I do in books and on paper and on an awesome blog called Disembodied Beard.

But church? That’s where I go to live out the parts I know are true and struggle to keep my heart and mind open to the parts I’m not sure about. Like, that if God exists, God is love. And love is hard. Loving God and loving neighbor aren’t any easier than loving in romantic or familial relationships. Church is where I learn how to live out that love, where I learn how to express religious truths that inherently speak power to action, where I bind together with a community to buckle down and get things done. Sometimes that makes me feel good, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my “feelies,” my “believies” (Logan already linked the best clip in his article, so go to it) aren’t a factor in all that. My actions are, and they’re predicated on my desire to know more about the divine and myself.

So, do what you want to feel joy, but don't confuse that with what church is supposed to do for you. Church is supposed to confront you with mystery and power and transform you, often in painful ways. And if you want to gather and sing songs and love each other, that’s great. Seriously, it’s great. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did that. But that's not "church minus religion." That’s a club, and if that’s what you want, name it and own it.

Definitely Lost, Maybe a Mystic

The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good -- but that’s another post.

Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.

As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.

It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.

The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.

I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, "not all those who wander are lost"