Monday, October 29, 2012

Nones at the Table

In a recent rebroadcast of an interview between journalist Krista Tippett and poet Christian Wiman on Tippett’s OnBeing program on NPR radio, Wiman made a comment that really called me up short.  “I think that God calls some people to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.”  He and Tippett were discussing Wiman’s own journey from a childhood faith, through a period of agnosticism/atheism and a return in his late 30s to a Christian religious faith.  But the idea that God calls some people to unbelief so that the faith of believers may take new forms got me thinking!!

The “beliefs” and “faith” of an increasingly large group of the American population, those dubbed the “nones” meaning people who claim no religious affiliation and/or who consider themselves atheist/agnostic or spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR), have been the subject of lively conversation recently as the Pew Forum released its most recent study of religious life in America in which the statistics show that fully 20% of the American population today falls into the category of “no religious affiliation” or “none.”  Among those under age 30 the percentage is even higher – fully 30% of that age group.  Christian churches, both mainline and Evangelical, are struggling to make sense of this data and trying to figure out what it means for their very existence, as church participation continues its precipitous decline.  The Pew Forum research shows that of those “nones”, fully 88% of them are not even seeking to affiliate with an established religious denomination or religion.  Certainly in the Christian context, for those who seek to know what it will take to “grow the church” these statistics are not encouraging. 

While participation in established religious traditions and their rituals is on the decline the statistics also suggest that the American public is not uninterested in the issues and concerns that have typically been dubbed the purview of religion.  Issues of human purpose, existential questions about meaning, about suffering, about the quest for emotional, spiritual and physical wholeness and healing, about the role and place of humans in the universe, are burning questions for lots of people.  The sad truth is many of them have not found traditional religious communities to be places where such questions are deeply considered.  They have often found that their own quest for understanding and exploration of those Big Questions is not affirmed in traditional religious settings either.  Among the nones fully 70% think religious groups are too concerned with money and power and 67% say they are too focused on rules. 

The other fascinating finding in this study is that among the nones there is a significant percentage of folks who pray regularly and engage in other spiritual practices, such as meditation, yoga, spiritual reading and other traditionally spiritual practices.  The nones do not categorically eschew religious rituals or practices.   Indeed, they recognize and yearn for such rituals, but again, do not find the traditional places of religious worship meeting their particular needs for such rituals in their own lives. 

In the world of interreligious dialogue, the nones have been seeking a place at the table for a number of years.  Atheist/agnostic/ SBNR groups have been actively a part of interreligious conferences, including the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009.  Colleges are beginning to discover that Secular Student Alliances and Atheist/Agnostic groups seek to be part of college chaplaincy activities, with Harvard University going so far as appointing an Atheist/Humanist chaplain.  The voices of the nones are being heard at interfaith dialogue tables and their presence is to be applauded because they are not afraid to ask the hard questions and to push the affiliated participants to deep thinking and clear articulation of their long held religious beliefs and assumptions.  Indeed, in Krista Tippett’s interview with Christian Wiman, Wiman recalled that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that he enjoyed engaging in dialogue with atheists because of the questions they ask of religion.

Religious people have a tendency, if they invite the nones to the dialogue table, to think of themselves as the purveyors of wisdom to these unaffiliated persons. Secretly, many religious people also hope to convince the nones that their religious tradition does have something valuable to offer and hope to see those folks join a religious tradition.  I think its time we in the religious traditions look to the nones as sources of wisdom in their own right, and engage in dialogue with them, not in the hopes of winning them over to religion, or back to religion, but in order that our faith might take new and invigorating forms. 

Perhaps the increased presence of the nones in our culture and their willingness to engage in dialogue with us is God’s way of moving us towards new and revitalized forms of faith.  Perhaps their willingness to engage our secular culture without trying to demonize it is an invitation to all of us within religious traditions to embrace our culture, including literature, the humanities, science, the social sciences, psychology and other disciplines, not to mention the arts and even popular culture, in new ways and with enthusiasm for how those voices may contribute to new forms of professing and living our faith. Perhaps the challenges that the nones lob at people of religious faith can become opportunities for us to dig deeper into our religious traditions to develop thoughtful and nuanced responses that take seriously the challenges raised by those with no commitment to a particular tradition.   Douglas John Hall, Reformed theologian from Canada, speaking about the struggles in contemporary Protestant contexts says it well:

[T]he gift of a future will have to be met by a new, cheerful, and disciplined readiness on the part of Christian individuals, congregations, and “churches” to take responsibility for its implementation.  That is, the church will have to become the ‘disciple community’ all over again, and in great earnestness.
And for churches in the United States and Canada, it seems to me, that means one thing in particular: they will have to seek to deepen. And they will only deepen if they are ready to become communities of theological struggle, contemplation and dialogue. …Thought is of the essence of the cross that North American Christians today are called to pick up and carry![1]

The call to deepen the discussion and engage in thoughtful dialogue sounds clearly from the nones and is a call that we who profess religious faith should take seriously. Interreligious dialogue must include the voices of the nones/SBNR/atheist/agnostic thinkers for the sake of the religious people at the table.  The rise of the nones on the American religious landscape may be just the catalyst many of our communities need to develop new and creative forms of faith. 

[1] Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 264.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Crossing Over and Passing Back: The Journey into God

        I’m an Episcopal priest.  From childhood I’ve loved church, particularly the music, the incense, and the Eucharistic ritual.  When I stand at the altar Sunday after Sunday, chanting words of prayer I’ve known since childhood, I transcend for a moment the boundaries of space and time and feel the presence of the Holy in the gathered community and the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  No matter how busy or stressed I may be, walking into a church on a Sunday morning feels like “coming home” and my spiritual center returns as I prepare the elements, don the vestments, check the gospel book and get ready to lead the community in worship, prayer and the celebration of the sacred mysteries.  The hymns, the prayers and the ritual of the Eucharist make Christ present and real in that holy “thin place” whether it be a large, well appointed city church or a small country chapel with just a few folks.

Interfaith dialogue is very much alive in our land these days, and certainly here in Rochester.  For many of us raised in a particular religious tradition, simply walking into the sacred space of our tradition can conjure up the sense of the transcendent as we are enveloped in the symbols and ritual of that tradition. When we enter someone else’s sacred space, however, we might feel like a stranger in a strange land, as if we have crossed a border into foreign territory far from the God we know and worship.  In my years of interfaith dialogue and education, I have come to appreciate how spiritually significant it is for those of us who want to know our interfaith neighbors better, to overcome shyness and awkwardness, fear and suspicion, and enter their sacred space with an equally open heart, expecting to hear the voice of God and to see the face of God in new ways through rituals and prayers not our own. 

Paul Knitter in his book, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian describes his experience of becoming immersed in the Buddhist tradition as an experience of “passing over” and “passing back” as he practices Buddhist meditation and then returns to his Roman Catholic roots when attending church.  Interreligious encounter is often structured as an intellectual exercise, where we gather folks together for discussion of sacred texts or beliefs, but often we leave out a most important piece of the genuine interfaith encounter, which is prayer.   And when I say prayer, I do not mean a carefully crafted “interfaith prayer”, something written or prepared specifically for an interfaith gathering so that it will be acceptable to anyone, but prayer that is rooted in the particularity of a specific religious tradition, with the images, symbols, language and cadence of that tradition.  I have come to believe that sharing in the worship of my interreligious neighbors is a profoundly moving spiritual experience through which I come to know the God I first met in my Episcopal church tradition, more deeply than I can within the confines of my own tradition.  I have become an advocate of interfaith “crossing over,” including participation in the rituals of others, where such participation is acceptable to one’s hosts and does not violate one’s own sense of religious propriety.

Recently I attended a portion of the ceremonies at the Hindu Temple of Rochester during which the image of the deity Ganesha was consecrated and installed at the Hindu temple.  Those rituals took place over four full days so I only experienced part of the extensive ritual.  I took off my shoes, entered the temple and sat on the floor with the devotees, taking in the scent of the incense and the sounds of the chanting by several Hindu priests. I watched the flames of the fire ceremonies and the offerings of food, water, grains, flowers and other items as they were given to the murti.  Even though I do not understand Sanskrit nor Hindi, the sound, rhythm and cadence of the chants washed over me and I could feel the presence of the holy in all of the rituals as the devotees participated with the priests in the prayers and offerings that would imbue the granite likeness of Ganesha with the divine spirit.  I joined the line and poured rice over the image during one of the puja ceremonies, sensing the sacred just as I do when I consecrate the bread and wine on Sunday mornings in my church. Not knowing the words to the chants, I nonetheless hummed along, the sonorous quality of the chanting taking me to a quiet and contemplative place. When I go to the Temple now, I like to go visit Ganesha for prayer, sensing the presence of God in that odd elephant-headed deity who gazes impishly and lovingly from his pedestal adorned in beautiful garments and surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and incense.  

Then this week, after our second of three Muslim Christian dialogue events at the Islamic Center, I went, as I often do, to the balcony, where the women pray, for Isha prayers, the final night prayers in the Muslim roster of five times a day prayer.  Again, I removed my shoes, and this time I chose to stand in line, shoulder to shoulder with my Muslim sisters to experience the prayer as they experience it, no longer an observer, but a participant.  I do not understand Arabic, although I can understand the phrase Allah-u- Akbar, (God is Great) and I have read English translations of the prayers and know there is nothing prayed there to which I cannot assent.  I felt strongly the presence of the holy as we stood together in the masjid, the sound of the recitation of verses from the Qur’an soaring in the prayer space as the imam recited them beautifully. The sound of those Arabic words recited in a sacred chant invokes the sense of God’s presence.  I understand why Muslims believe the words of the Qur’an to be holy words as the very sound of them brings God into the room.  I was profoundly moved by the practice of prostrating myself as part of the prayer ritual.  Christians have, for the most part, lost touch with the importance of using the body in prayer.  Muslims have something to teach us about what it means to surrender to God, and that sense of surrender becomes palpable as the forehead touches the floor.  And the sense of being part of a praying community is deepened as you stand shoulder to shoulder with others bowing, prostrating and standing in a sacred dance that incarnates the reality that we are all connected one with another and ultimately with God.

Carl Jung had a sign over his door, a replica of which I keep in my office, which declares, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Thanks to the hospitality of my interfaith neighbors I have been blessed to experience God’s presence in a variety of distinct and different sacred spaces and rituals.  I do not feel fear or estrangement when I enter a holy place, rather I feel like a child playing hide and seek, waiting to discover God in some unexpected way as I take in the details of that space, the sounds of the prayers, the movements of the practitioners, and the smells of incense or rugs or candles.  God has many faces and many voices and the people with whom I pray in these holy places become fellow pilgrims on the sacred journey as I join with them in prayer.  By crossing over and passing back I have discovered that truly, there is nowhere in the world where God is not. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Empowering Women: An Interfaith Challenge


In the past couple of weeks, two different incidents of cyber-bullying of women have garnered media attention.  On September 25 the Huffington Post reported on a post made to Reddit, a social media site, of a photograph of a young Sikh college student snapped by a man in an airport security line.  Balpreet Kaur, a sophomore at Ohio State University is a baptized and practicing Sikh and therefore does not cut her hair, in accordance with her religious tradition.  She has an unusual amount of facial hair for a woman, and the person who posted the photograph was clearly poking fun at her untraditional and “unfeminine” appearance.  The post-er thought he was being funny.  The post went viral, and when Balpreet learned about it from a friend, she responded with grace and dignity.  In her response to her critic on the Reddit site she wrote,  "When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can." Balpreet is studying to be a neurosurgeon.

This week, Jennifer Livingston, news anchor for WKBT television in Wisconsin received an e-mail from one Kenneth Krause accusing her of being an inappropriate role model for young children because she is overweight.  Livingston, after speaking with her husband and her superiors at the news station, responded to her critic publicly, on the air, in a dignified and strongly worded rebuttal.  “I’m much more than a number on a scale,” she said, and she took her critic to task for his mean and uncompassionate attack on her based upon her appearance.  Her response to this bully provided a role model for girls everywhere, as Livingston refused to retreat in abject humiliation at an attack on her personal appearance, an attack that likely would not have been leveled at a male news anchor who was similarly overweight.

Then tragically, in our Rochester community, everyone was shocked and traumatized by the tragic death last Saturday evening (9/29/2012) of a Brockport College freshman, an 18 year old swim team member, just weeks into her college career, at the hands of her 21 year old boyfriend, in what is apparently a case of domestic violence turned lethal.

All of these incidents serve as reminders that despite years of progress, in terms of feminism and “women’s rights,” women still live in a world where their bodies are considered fair game for ridicule, and even for physical violence.   These incidents happened to hit the prime time news just as PBS was airing a stunning four hour documentary, “Half The Sky” produced by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn based upon their book by that name, in which they chronicle the oppression of women in various places throughout the world, including Somaliland, Kenya, India, and Cambodia. It is still the case in far too many places in the world that women are disposable, and their bodies are considered property of their male relatives, or, in the case of sex trafficking, those who “own” them and sell their bodies for profit.  And all too often, religious beliefs are offered as a rationale for treating women in these destructive ways.

Interfaith dialogue on issues affecting women tends to be done tentatively and infrequently. When such conversations do occur, they are often dubbed “Women’s Interfaith Dialogue” and relegated to the background, given less publicity and often undertaken primarily by women, as if men have little interest in addressing the global consequences of the oppression of women. It remains true that religious institutions are often the locus of considerable dis-empowerment of women if not outright oppression.  In many traditions women cannot assume religious leadership roles and their voices are relegated to those issues considered appropriate for women, which usually don’t include substantive religious or theological discussions. And sadly, in too many religious traditions, tenets of the faith or snippets of the tradition’s holy writ are used as justification for violence against women. Or, as is the case with Roman Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States today, women who do take an active and vocal role in the life of their religious tradition come under considerable scrutiny and harassment simply for doing the good work their religious faith calls them to do, often work that the high powered men in the tradition wouldn’t deign to do. 

The time has come for the interfaith movement to commit to serious conversation and advocacy for the empowerment of women.   Women continue to be bullied and oppressed in ways great and small throughout the world, often in the name of religion.  The great religious traditions of the world offer much wisdom and support for the empowerment of women but that wisdom all too often remains hidden and untapped. The empowerment of women and girls is an important humanitarian issue, not merely a “women’s issue.”  When women and girls receive education and health care and are equipped to earn a living to support themselves and their families, whole villages and communities see a rise in their standard of living.  When college campuses become safe places where women can receive the education they need to move into promising careers without having to contend with worries about date rape, domestic violence or bullying about their physical appearance, everyone will benefit.  Balpreet Kaur, a young woman, a college sophomore and a religious Sikh, acting out of her own religious beliefs and commitments, is a role model for college students everywhere and especially those of us committed to interfaith dialogue.  After the bullying incident last week, she wrote of her own commitment to interfaith engagement:

I started wearing my heart on my sleeve and seeing every stare as a chance for dialogue and friendship. I began to firmly believe in the power of the spoken and written word. I finally began to realize that I had to take charge of my own narrative; if I didn't, then that ignorance I saw in people's eyes would never change into knowledge. That's what it means to be a Sikh and an interfaith leader.
I hope my story inspires people to learn more not only about the Sikh tradition, but also about what it is in their own faith or philosophy that would inspire them to respond to moments of nastiness with grace. I also hope my story inspires people to become interfaith leaders themselves…Together we are better, together we can overcome prejudice, and together we can make interfaith cooperation a social norm. (Balpreet Kaur, Huffington Post Blog, 10/5/2012)

And together, as interfaith leaders we must address pressing issues for women and girls, everything from date rape and domestic violence on college campuses, to cyber-bullying, to sex trafficking and modern day slavery, to issues of equal opportunity in the workplace and civil society.   At the University of Rochester our motto is “Meliora” – Ever Better.  As interfaith leaders we must commit to making the world in which our women and girls live “ever better” in order to make our entire community “ever better.”