Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 5: Understanding Time

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Geological Time Spiral, from United States Geological Survey

 

Arjuna recognizes that he will have to fight his own family, and he despairs. Krishna responds:

You speak sincerely, but your sorrow has no cause. The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when we cease to exist.

…Every creature is unmanifested at first, and then attains manifestation. When its end has come, it once again become unmanifested. What is there to lament in this? (BG 2:11, 28)

I’ve often heard that the greatest difference in Eastern and Western cultures, or between Abrahamic religions and most of the world, is the conception of time. Does time march forward, like a digital clock? Or does it move cyclically, and everything that has happened will happen again?

Time doesn’t only move forward in the Hebrew scriptures. We get a minority opinion in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of Eccelsiastes is referred to as Qoheleth, “The Teacher.” Listen to how much Qoholeth sounds like Krishna:

Whatever has happened—that’s what will happen again;
    whatever has occurred—that’s what will occur again. There’s nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Einstein informed us that time is relative—it behaves differently depending on how fast we are moving, or how much gravity we are experiencing. Time is part of the created order, so much so that we cannot “see” back before the Big Bang. What existed “before” time got its house in order in those first few milliseconds of the universe?

C.S. Lewis pointed out that God is outside of time, and doesn’t measure time by the clock. God “has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.” We experience one moment after another, but from the perspective of eternity, our moments are spread out like a sheet of paper. All moments are NOW to God.

While I think this is a powerful perspective and I believe its theological truth, let’s not ascribe the same worldview to the ancient Hebrews. In the Bible, while God has an eternal perspective, there is still the notion that God experiences time:

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past, like a short period during the night watch.
(Psalm 90:3-4)

The ancient Hebrews understood God as a liberating God who acts in history: Tell [your children]: We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. But the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). Creation has a start and an end, and both are held in the hands of God as time moves in one direction.

But there is a place where Jesus turns this notion inside-out. When he is debating with Sadducees about the resurrection, he says: “…haven’t you read what God told you, I’m the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32). Of course, everyone listening had always thought that God really meant “I was the God of Abraham.” Jesus puts the weight on I AM.

So to understand our relationship to time and to God, Jesus tells us that either a) we are resurrected—or “manifested” in the words of the BG—again at some point in the linear future, or b) all times are present to God as now, because the advance of time is simply an illusion we are bound up in. Eternity and eternal life is either on the horizon, or it is present even now.

Either way, in both traditions, this thing we call “death” does not have the last word.

Prayer:
God, my world is full of moments. Help me to experience them all as now. Bring eternity into our time.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 4: Harmony and Dissonance

lossy-page1-753px-John_Coltrane_House,_1511_North_Thirty-third_Street,_Philadelphia,_Philadelphia_County,_PA_HABS_PA,51-PHILA,756-9.tif

John Coltrane House, 1511 North Thirty-third Street, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA — Public domain

 

On Saturdays, I plan to take some time to reflect on what we’ve covered the previous week, and perhaps follow a rabbit trail or two.

As I describe the Bhagavad Gita, I’m taking my time approaching the things you may already know about Hinduism that differ from Christian theology: reincarnation, multiple gods, karma, the goal of the afterlife, cosmic unity, and the practice of meditation. I want to come at those things from the side, as it were, so that we understand them in context. When Christians encounter a different religion, I want our response to be not, “Wow, that’s weird,” but “Wow, we’re weird.” Or better yet, just Wow. Exposure to other cultures helps us to realize the things we assume are universally true are not necessarily so—and things we may have thought are unique to our culture are more universal than we expected. What we’ve been taught about other cultures or other religions is often a cartoon version of reality.

It’s also true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I take great care to make clear that anything I say about “Hinduism” is provisional. First, I may not know enough to know that I’ve misrepresented something. Second, there is great diversity in Hindu religion and philosophy.

But that exposure makes me even more aware that the same is true of Christianity. Saint Patrick and Joel Osteen can hardly be said to represent the same religion, and the same could be said of Dorothy Day and Mike Pence. Ask these famous Christians to define a word like “salvation,” and you’d likely get very different answers. What does it mean to say they all represent something called “Christianity?” How do they understand the call to “follow Jesus?”

“Enlightenment” in Hinduism and Buddhism is not the same thing as “salvation” in Christianity. They reflect different worldviews on what the central problem facing humanity is. When Christian missionaries showed up in India quoting scripture and saying, “You must be born again,” Hindus replied, “Are you crazy? We’re trying to stop being born again.”

So I reject the conventional wisdom that says “All religions basically say the same thing,” because a) even one religion doesn’t say the same thing! And b) because all members of a choir do not sing the same notes. In the most beautiful music, there is dissonance as well as harmony, places of tension and resolution. We do not have to collapse or ignore those differences to appreciate the polyphonic beauty.

Nor do we need to pretend that some things aren’t just flat out wrong. Sometimes in an ensemble, people get off key, or sing what they think is right, but it just ain’t. Even if you’re making it up as you go along in a kind of jazz improv, the professionals will wince and shake their heads when you hit a sour note.

My hope in listening to the music of different cultures and religions is that we come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the whole, and our particular role in it.

Prayer:
Composer and Director of the Cosmos, let me be one with your music.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 3: Family Values and Conventional Wisdom

Whore-of-babylon-blake-1809 (1)

“Whore of Babylon,” by William Blake, 1809, British Museum.

 

Arjuna laments that he must fight his own family. He then makes some statements that I think are illustrative and problematic.

Though [my enemies] are overpowered by greed and see no evil in destroying families or injuring friends, we see these evils. Why shouldn’t we turn away from this sin? When a family declines, ancient traditions are destroyed. With them are lost the spiritual foundations for life, and the family loses its sense of unity. Where there is no sense of unity, the women of the family become corrupt, and with the corruption of its women, society is plunged into chaos. Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well. It disrupts the process of spiritual evolution begun by our ancestors. (BG 1:38-42)

First, let’s acknowledge that this is the patriarchy speaking. It is the same perspective we often find in Proverbs, which describes both wisdom and folly as women. The “corrupt woman” leads men astray and destroys families: Her feet go down to death; her steps lead to the grave. She doesn’t stay on the way of life. Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it. (Proverbs 5:5-6). In this kind of conventional religion, women are constrained to play the role of virgin or whore, and society rises or falls based on the control of their bodies.

Second, let’s also acknowledge the truth of generational harm and trauma Arjuna describes. Much of the Hebrew Bible is about the disruption of family and the way that dysfunction is passed from parents to children: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, all jealous and fighting over the affection of parents or spouses. (Much of this strife is caused by the patriarchy, by who has power and who does not).

I also want to consider Arjuna’s statements in light of conservative social policy, which often idolizes “family values” even as it makes it difficult for families to survive intact. Often it is idolization of the family that leads to its destruction. The religious right in America has argued for decades that society is on the decline because women no longer stay at home, divorce is too easy, prayer has been “taken out of schools,” and the family is no longer considered as sacred as it was in our mythical past.

Jesus’s ministry was tremendously disruptive to family values. He said because of him, families would be torn apart (Matthew 10:34-35). But he believed in a chosen family.

 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)

While there is truth in it, I think Arjuna’s lament is grounded in conventional religion—the notion that religion should create social stability and uphold the status quo. He is speaking as one who is not yet enlightened. He knows enough to know there is a problem, but hasn’t identified it properly yet. Krishna is going to point out to him that the problem is much deeper than family disunity; the problem is that we do not know who we are. What has brought all these people to the point of battle is that too many people are attached to the wrong things, because they do not know themselves.  

Practically, it doesn’t mean that Arjuna can opt out of the battle at hand, any more than it means we can opt out of resisting patriarchy and other injustices in our world. But it illustrates the failure of conventional morality, and why we shouldn’t fall into the same trap.

Prayer:
Source of my being, I may not have picked this struggle; yet I will follow you through it.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 2: Literary Context

30 x 40_Ranbhoomi

This 2012 animated movie is available on Netflix. It does not cover the part of the story featuring the Bhagavad Gita, but does introduce the main character.

 

Arjuna: O Krishna, drive my chariot between the two armies. I want to see those who desire to fight with me. With whom will this battle be fought? I want to see those assembled to fight for Duryodhana, those who seek to please the evil-minded son of Dhritarashtra by engaging in war.

 …And Arjuna, standing between two armies, saw fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, and brothers, sons and grandsons, in-laws and friends. Seeing his kinsmen established in opposition, Arjuna was overcome by sorrow. Despairing, he spoke these words… (BG 1:21-28)

The Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue, told in flashback, on the advent of a great battle. Arjuna is the reluctant protagonist. Epic heroes often overcome great obstacles and fight big wars, but they also carry enormous grief. Often the foes they fight are close friends or members of their own family. Luke versus Darth Vader. David versus Saul. Both David and Arjuna have been wronged, forced into exile by corrupt kings.

David said to Saul, “Why do you listen when people say, ‘David wants to ruin you’? Look! Today your own eyes have seen that the Lord handed you over to me in the cave. But I refused to kill you. I spared you, saying, ‘I won’t lift a hand against my master because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ Look here, my protector! See the corner of your robe in my hand? I cut off the corner of your robe but didn’t kill you. So know now that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. (1 Samuel 24:9-11, CEB)

Both in the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, timeless truths and other-worldly wisdom are set against a violent political and historical backdrop. Sometimes this seems incongruous: how can a God who tells God’s chosen people to commit genocide (Deuteronomy 20:10-18) also admonish them to “love their neighbor as themselves” (Leviticus 19:18) and to treat foreigners as their own citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34)? How can we have such violence in one passage, and calls for peace-making in the next?

People who are disillusioned by Christianity often go seeking a more consistent religion in other traditions, but a universal truth of humanity is that our species does not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. The baggage is both personal and cultural.

Anthropologists who study religion suggest that religion serves an evolutionary purpose. It calls members of a social group to make individual sacrifices for the good of the whole. Your tribe develops a totem or mascot “god” who represents your spirit and values. Over time, humans recognize that they are part of bigger tribes, and their gods—and their interests—align. This kind of religion helps us survive, but it also maintains the status quo. Freud explained religion this way in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Religion has another vector—unconventional wisdom that challenges the status quo, that points out the fact that some people are forced to sacrifice more than others in order for powerful people to maintain their control of groups. This vector makes room for disruptive spirituality.

This is why conflict is a frequent backdrop for revelation. We are in an existential state of war, with others and within ourselves. Power is unequal, oppression exists, and we ask “Why?” Both Judaism and Islam describe our relationship with God as one of struggle: the words jihad and Israel both describe a personal wrestling with God.

Prayer:
Source of Everything, we do not come to enlightenment or salvation without baggage. Help us, in our struggle, to let go of unnecessary suffering.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 1: Contemporary Context

East_India_Company_¼_Cent_1845_-_reverse

By 5snake5 – Own work, CC0

 

The East India Company (EIC) was founded in 1600 in England. It became the Blackwater of the British colonial world, a private mercenary force dedicated to protecting the financial interests of wealthy people for more than 200 years. They had a private army that was bigger than the British army, and they became the de facto rulers of India using money and might.

Not coincidentally, the East India Company also played a role in the formation of the United States. Remember the Boston Tea Party? It was partly a response to the monopoly of the EIC.

I start here because before I talk about the spiritual truths of the Bhagavad Gita and how they relate to the Bible, I have to acknowledge the devastating effects of imperial rule and colonialism on India and on the rest of the world. And I believe one of our most difficult spiritual struggles today, in our church and in our society, is the legacy of colonialism. What we experience as dissatisfaction with “the institutional church” and “organized religion” is the way colonialism warps our relationships, our imagination, and our very souls.

There are some people who claim that even though its spiritual roots are thousands of years old, Hinduism is a relatively recent invention. While I think that’s an overstatement, it reminds me of a story I recently heard told by a Lakota activist. He said his grandfather was involved in establishing “The Native American Church” in 1918. “We need this institution,” his grandfather told him, “to protect our way of life from the white man’s institutions.” When the West encounters other forms of spirituality or faith, it forces them to organize in certain ways.  

So when I say that the Bhagavad Gita is not like the Bible, I’m not just speaking theologically, but also socially and politically. It does not have the central place in Hinduism that Christians give to their scriptures. But it should force us to take a step back and consider how we understand what “religion” is, and how it relates to this other idea of “spirituality.”

I would argue that not only is the Bhagavad Gita not like the Bible, but also that The Bible is not like The Bible, because this Greek and Hebrew text has been distorted by our Western colonial view of religion. Colonialism shapes how we understand our sacred scriptures and it shapes how we see the world.

“Orientalism” is a Western way of viewing Asian cultures as exotic and strange. (I encourage you to listen to this NPR piece on the cultural appropriation of “namaste”). The Bhagavad Gita was appropriated by British transcendentalists and mystics, not just because it was true but because it was strangely true. I think this makes it difficult to appreciate how truly strangely true it is!

If we are stuck on how exotic it is, we can’t fully appreciate how other-worldly it is, or what putting it into practice might mean for our world.

I am not a scholar of Hinduism, nor a historian. I approach the Bhagavad Gita as an interested layperson, finding points of connection between the wisdom there and the wisdom of the Bible and my own faith tradition. I welcome your comments, criticism, and discussion as I follow this devotional path.

Prayer:
Holy Mystery, we are a strange mix of the timeless and the now, the universal and the particular. We are shaped by history even as we imagine the future. Help us encounter you in the present, in this moment, and help us to be truly free.

Social Justice isn’t as Dangerous for Evangelicalism as White Guys

Maybe you’ve seen that there is a conference scheduled for Birmingham. A bunch of white guys are going to talk about “Dangers of Social Justice for Evangelicalism.”

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detail of panel from event page

Maybe you remember Mormon white guy Glenn Beck saying that social justice was a perversion of the gospel, and that you should leave your church if they used that phrase.

Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.

Maybe you are aware that for fifty years, coalitions of mostly white guys have been trying to root out social justice from mainline denominations, or destroy them from within if they cannot.

All of these white guys are right. Social justice IS a threat to evangelicalism.

Of course,  #Not all white evangelicals. Some, I assume, are good people.*

The danger of social justice to evangelicalism is that people might begin to see clearly that white evangelicals do not speak for Jesus. Or Christianity. Or God.

That people might begin to see the connection between a violent atonement theology and violent systems of oppression.

That people might see that the doctrine of hell, and the notion that we all deserve it, gives those in power an excuse to inflict hell on others, either personally or through policy.

That people might begin to realize that a great theological starting point to subjugating a continent, enslaving people, and committing genocide, is defining sin as rebellion.

That white guys might lose something.

Yes, unless white evangelicalism can reckon honestly with its past and define itself as something other than a tool of white supremacy, social justice is a danger to evangelicalism.

Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys. 


*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.

Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

1. Prologue

Gay marriage is almost the law of the land, and I’m still reeling from surprise that Alabama was not the last state where it became legal. Some anti-gay folks deployed the usual inflated rhetoric, the most amusing of which was a Birmingham preacher who spoke at a city council meeting. You can watch the video here. Now that men can marry men and women can marry women, he said, humans would soon marrying, among other things, dogs, cats, snakes, brooms, and mops. Some have said that the next thing will be marriages of three or more people, or incestuous marriage.

This kind of argument is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy. A fallacy is a misleading argument. A fallacy may sound reasonable or even convincing, but it’s based on flawed logic. The “slippery slope” fallacy says that one action or claim will lead to a series of others that creates an undesirable result. In this case, if legal marriage rights are granted to gay and lesbian persons, people will soon be marrying their mops.

2. The Question – Inanimate Objects and the Problem of Love

By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsSo why don’t we marry our mops?

We could propose several reasons. This is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware or autonomous, and therefore
  3. Mops are not capable of consent, and cannot make vows
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  6. Mops are not capable of sharing an equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship.

Mops, therefore, not only make poor lovers; they make poor people. This is not to say that we may not have some kind of sentimental relationship with a mop. Inanimate objects can have sentimental value. Teddy bears, for instance, are nice to cuddle. But teddy bears, like mops, cannot meet any of the above criteria. Most inanimate objects cannot. (Robots and artificial intelligence may provide and interesting challenge to the above criteria, but they go beyond the scope of this article).

Now, inanimate objects, while they are not capable of consent, have a long history of being used in sexual ways. In this regard they are like other tools which give people pleasure—televisions, radios, scented candles, electric massagers, and hot tubs, for example. The virtues and vices of using these tools can be debated. Still, most people will not be inclined to marry their masturbatory aid for the above reasons: a dildo is a tool and, unless artificial intelligence is involved (again, beyond my scope), not capable of loving anyone back. More significantly for the purposes of marriage, neither dildos nor mops of the non-robotic sort can make breakfast, help carry the groceries, earn a second income, or enter into legal contracts.

Since I am writing from a perspective of Christian sexual ethics, this is an appropriate place to point out that there is no explicit biblical prohibition against masturbation, with or without tools. Some people (both Jewish and Christian) look at Genesis 38 and the story of Onan as a warning against self-pleasure, but most scholars reject that interpretation. Onan’s sin is not masturbation (or coitus interruptus), but theft: he attempts to defraud his late brother of his inheritance by not giving him an heir (38:9). His sister-in-law goes on to seduce her father-in-law by posing as a prostitute (38:15) and is finally called the most righteous of all the characters in the story (38:26). If we accept that Onan’s sin is masturbation, then we’re left with the odd lesson that adultery, cultic prostitution, and non-consensual sex are more acceptable to God than masturbation. Since the Bible does not list masturbation among sexual sins, and since it is probably the sexual practice most easily at hand for a majority of human beings on the planet, it seems reasonable to conclude that biblical authors were not too worried about it.

The Birmingham preacher, in his rant, may have been alluding to masturbation when he expressed frustration at not being able to find batteries, but it is difficult to tell. Only he knows what was going through his mind.

3. Living Things and the Problem of Consent (Dogs, Cats, Alligators, Swans, and Gods)

Cesare da Sesto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having dealt with inanimate objects, let’s turn to the others Rev. Hatcher mentions. Dogs, cats, and snakes, unlike mops and brooms, are alive. Are they viable marriage partners?

At the risk of offending reptile pet-lovers, I will claim that snakes, whose brains are much more rudimentary than dogs and cats, are not capable of love. Reptiles do not typically form social bonds of the sort that would lead to marriage.

Cats and dogs, while mammals, also do not make suitable marriage partners. Even cat lovers will acknowledge that though their cats may be capable of love, and while they display a high (and often frustrating) degree of autonomy, they are still not able to give consent either to marriage or sexual relations. Moreover, cats’ reciprocity is debatable—do they love their owners, or is it merely (pardon the metaphor) a marriage of convenience? Dogs, likewise, are not able to give consent, although they demonstrate a high degree of loyalty. Since both of these animals lack language, making vows and giving consent are not possibilities. Dogs are still valuable helpers: service dogs illustrate the kind of important bond between dogs and humans.

While the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of humans cavorting sexually with gods in the form of animals (swans, bulls, and eagles, just to name a few), and while inter-species sexual activity has been documented in real life, these relationships can hardly be said to constitute marriage. In most of the mythological cases, the consent of the human, if not the animal, is ambiguous. At the very least, there was an element of dissembling: Did Leta know the swan was Zeus? We cannot know. Either Leta or the swan or both were violated, which places that sexual act outside the realm of what is proper. This has not kept artists from depicting—quite frequently—these various sexual encounters.

I can imagine, though, that inter-species marriage relationships might be possible if we met a sentient alien race that was similar enough to our own (even though theirs may have multiple genders, or no gender). Could we talk reasonably about “what God intended” in such a circumstance? But who knows? They might find our monkey-like bodies too disgusting to contemplate anything other than a platonic relationship. Like robotic artificial intelligence, this falls outside the scope of this article.

Free consent is vital to the concept of modern Western marriage. It has not always been so. Child marriage, shotgun weddings, and concubinage have all been part of our history. Some ancient biblical authors believed that guaranteeing paternity was more important than consent, so a man who raped a virgin was then obligated to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In that culture, such marriages helped secure her future, since her value as “unspoiled merchandise” was diminished. However, other Biblical authors creatively critiqued this social double-standard (see again the story of Tamar in Genesis 38).

Consent also rules out marrying people who are catatonic or mentally impaired to a degree that they cannot give consent. For this reason, pastors will often refuse to marry people who are drunk. Modern anecdotes of couples who get drunk and wake up married in Las Vegas are common, although these are usually cautionary tales of what ought not to be done. One must be sober and in full possession of one’s faculties to get married.

4. Taboo Relationships

What about taboo human relationships? Incestuous marriages? Multiple partners?

Incestuous relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily related to autonomy, consent, equity, and reciprocity. In familial relationships, the primary question becomes “how free is the person to make a choice?”

We can compare it to another common ethical violation: If a boss or a supervisor demands a relationship with a subordinate, it is workplace harassment. Family relationships, which are even more private, contain much greater possibility for abuse. Even if someone gives their consent, we’re left with the question, “How free is their consent?” In the workplace or in the military, a consequence of rejection may be firing, demotion, or loss of pay. The reward for compliance may be promotion, higher compensation, or status and prestige. The consequences may be described explicitly as a threat or reward, or, more deviously, they may be implicit and assumed. These latter cases are the most insidious, as people in power often claim that people under their power were willing partners.

In family relationships, even the loss of esteem of a family member may be coercive, especially in parent-child relationships. In this situation, how can consent be truly free? Even if these consequences are only possibilities, they place partners in very unequal positions of power.

While romance does happen in the workplace, generally supervisors and subordinates must sever their workplace relationship. This is not possible with familial relationships. Because of discrepancies in power and the question of consent, incestuous marriage remains unacceptable.

Bestiality and incest are often used in slippery-slope arguments against gay marriage. But the main reasons we avoid them is not “because the Bible says so.” There are good reasons to avoid such relationships besides the fact that they are prohibited by scripture. These questions are often deployed as fallacies in order to raise the “ick” factor in the listener, to generate sufficient disgust to paint the issue in question in a negative light. This does not mean that we should not consider them as arguments (the “fallacy fallacy.”) I think there is value in doing so because it clarifies how we think about marriage and sexual relationships.

5. Monogamy and Exclusivity

As for multiple partners, we must observe that the Bible contains many stories about polygamy. People have put households and families together in a variety of innovative ways. Christian missionaries have often struggled with how to address those relationships within the context of spreading Christian values. But for the purposes of talking about marriage and Christian ethics in our American context, we’ll bracket, for the moment, these other cultures and the fact that some people believe that legal marriage is itself a problem or an outdated institution.

Let’s look again at the reasons that marriage to a mop is not appropriate:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware and do not have autonomy
  3. Mops are not capable of consent
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot make vows of marriage
  6. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  7. Mops are not capable of sharing the equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship that leads to long-term social stability.

These last two reasons for avoiding marriage to mops are, I think, also the best arguments against multiple-partner marriages. (I am not, by the way, ruling out multiple-partner marriages, but illustrating one way to think about it).

Marriage is, essentially, the simplest social arrangement for two non-kin human beings to come together to make a family. Karl Marx observed that the elemental form of human being is not an individual, but a family. A single human being on an island lacks what makes us most distinctively human: our social community. Being in solitary confinement “de-humanizes” us. We are verbal, we can imagine others as subjective selves, we form pair-bonds, we use higher reasoning, all because we have to coordinate social action. Aristotle observed that we are “political animals.” Just as you cannot understand bees without studying a hive, you cannot understand human beings without studying how we organize in social groups. The family is the most elementary social group, and a pair is the smallest unit of human society you can have and still call it “human.” We celebrate the equitable, mutual, reciprocal love of that basic relationship because we recognize something virtuous in this act of family-making. Two have become one.

But for most of human history, equitability, mutuality, and reciprocity have had little to do with family or marriage. In biblical times, men treated women more like chattel than like subjective selves whose consent and autonomy mattered. Of course, there are plenty of scriptures (Samuel 1:8, Song of Songs) that indicate these ancient people were not oblivious to love as the basis for marriage.

Today, though, the willing self-giving of two people to each other to enter into this basic social relationship is considered a praiseworthy thing in our society. Ideally, these arrangements lead to long-term stability that benefits society. Couples can raise children, if they so desire, and support each other by creating networks of enduring relationships that build resilient communities. Divorce and separation, when it happens, hurts the partners, children, and even the fabric of the community as friendship ties are severed.

While it may be possible for more than two people to enter into this kind of relationship, the most basic system is a pair. We must acknowledge that even pairs are seldom alone in how they form households and families: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, children and grandchildren may all live under one roof. They do not all enter into this kind of covenant relationship, and their presence in the household may be temporary. But in a household with a married couple, all of those relationships are often sustained by the vows and stable relationship of at least one pair.

Sex and reproduction is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a marriage. People marry who cannot have sexual intercourse. Infertile couples marry. Old couples marry. We must also acknowledge that people can, and do, form households or families without marriage. These may be created with any number of sexual or non-sexual relationships. Sex and reproduction are not necessarily part of the relationship.

But part of the traditional vow of marriage is sexual exclusivity, “forsaking all others.” There are several reasons for this exclusivity:

  1. Ensuring paternity and clear parental responsibility for children
  2. Preventing the spread of STDs, especially to the unwitting partner
  3. Ensuring each partner’s energy is focused on the other for stability’s sake
  4. Creating intimacy

Regarding #3 and #4, it should be obvious from divorce statistics that it is difficult enough to create a stable long-term relationship with one other person. Adding more into the mix increases the difficulty level. In cultures which practice other forms of marriage, these reasons might be contested or mitigated by different social arrangements in a village or community. But if having a stable marriage relationship is itself a good to be desired, we can make reasonable arguments for monogamous exclusivity.

Again, this does not rule out the possibility of other marriage arrangements. It does force us to clarify what the social goods are that we believe marriage is supposed to produce. People can, and do, argue that the Bible supports polygamy. If we wish to make arguments about what Christian ethics supports, we will have to do better than just make claims about “what the Bible says.” The long-term work of truly “knowing” another person, coming to terms with our differences, sharing a mission in life together, all may be virtuous goals of monogamous marriage supported by sexual intimacy. But if these are good for straight folks, they are good for LGBTQ folks as well.

6. Further Thoughts about Sexual Ethics and the Bible

Many folks have a good deal of anxiety about the rapid social change that has led to the social acceptance of homosexual relationships. They fear that rejecting one set of moral standards means abandoning all moral standards. But in pursuing this (absurd) question, I’ve illustrated that we have many ways of making ethical judgments. “The Bible says” is only one kind of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and it’s one that not even devout Christians follow completely. We refrain from adultery, murder, or bearing false witness not because the Bible forbids it, but for other very good reasons. That the Bible forbids it gives us interesting theological insight into the ethical nature of God—but it’s not the primary reason we don’t kill.

LGBTQ allies have often noted that the Bible also forbids eating shrimp and endorses the stoning of disobedient children. While dispensationalist Christians sometimes relegate certain regulations to the “old” covenant, it’s pretty clear that even they are not refraining from stoning their disobedient children because one set of regulations (or divine commands) has been superseded by another set.

There are challenges to traditional binary-gender opposite-sex marriage even without the looming inevitability of same sex marriage. Sometimes people are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia. As Jesus himself observed, “some people are born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12.) Should intersex people be allowed to marry? Does someone born with ambiguous genitalia have to “decide” which gender they are going to be and marry someone of the opposite gender? In this case, someone may be chromosomally male, but identify and express themselves as female. If this person is also attracted to women, could we reasonably forbid her to be in a same-gender relationship? Or will our society be okay with it if she just changes clothes and acts masculine?

Transgender and queer persons continue to face marginalization because their gender expression or gender identity don’t line up with social expectations, even among gay and lesbian peers. Yet if we were to transport Jesus (as he is popularly depicted) to modern-day Birmingham in his first-century Palestinian dress and long hair, people might assume he was cross-dressing. Jesus never wore trousers. How we interpret the meaning of people’s clothes, makeup, gestures, and vocal characteristics depends not only on their gender, but on our own culture and value systems.

The Bible contains a single line forbidding cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5,) yet many Christian women who claim to be biblical literalists wear pants, vests, and ties. We are forced to ask tough questions about what gender roles have to do with Christian ethics. Is it okay for a man to wear a kilt? A toga? Since fashion changes with the times, is it a Christian virtue to be conventionally fashionable?

I think these are all good questions that challenge us to think more deeply about marriage, sexual ethics, and the things our society considers good and bad. Unfortunately, because a few anti-gay Christians have liberally used fallacious logic and hateful rhetoric, they have undermined the credibility of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere. Those of us who believe that Christian ethics has an important role to play in public life wind up doing damage control. Naturally, plenty of non-religious people have come to believe religion itself is the original sin that plagues our society. As Paul said to the religious leaders of his day, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Both Jewish and Christian ethics have a long tradition of reframing and reinterpreting the Bible. Jews have somehow avoided stoning disobedient children and adulterers for thousands of years in spite of the fact that they don’t believe in the Christian “new covenant.” Their history of rabbinical argument and dialogue has been a model for Jewish communities about how to read and interpret sacred scripture. When our faith seeks understanding, we leave behind childish things.

I’ve entertained this question, “Why don’t we marry mops,” because I think it’s important for thinking Christians to recognize and name the fact that we use ethical norms other than “what the Bible says.” Rejecting heterosexist or anti-gay norms does not mean we reject all norms and values, or even Christian ones. In fact, we may emphasize other norms, like consent and personal autonomy, that are more conducive to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For more reading:

Does the Bible Mean?

A reflection on Margaret Farley’s 7 Norms for Sexual Ethics

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Why the United Methodist Church Should Ban Contraception (No, Not Really)

So, yeah, the headline to this post is deliberately provocative, but I think it’s important for church leaders to recognize how changing marriage and birth rates affect the churches they lead. (There are, of course, Christians who do support this philosophy).

This is a follow-up to my last post on this subject, Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid. I said that the economy has affected how people create and maintain families, and that because churches have strategically focused on stable families, declines in participation are probably more related to the economy rather than to theology or mission (which preachers prefer to talk about). I drew evidence for my argument from Robert Wuthnow’s book After the Baby Boomers, which far too few church leaders have read. I want to share a one particular excerpt from it on why changing marriage patterns and birthrates have affected church participation.

Growth and decline are partly affected by how many children people want and have. Growth and decline are also influenced (perhaps even more) by the timing of those decisions. If a hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 30 when they had these children, in 60 years there would be 338 offspring. But if those hundred couples gave birth to an average of 2.6 children and averaged age 20 when they had them, there would be 439 children in 60 years, or almost 30 percent more.

Screen shot 2013-08-24 at 9.02.06 AM

I’ve added another hypothetical average age of childbirth (15 years) not because I think it’s a good idea, but to illustrate the math. – D.

In addition, waiting until age 30 means more discontinuity of the kind that often weakens religious ties with religious traditions (geographic mobility, travel, higher education). To the extent that religious organizations perpetuate themselves by encouraging families to have children, then, the most significant influence may not be the number of children, but when they have children. (Wuthnow, 143)

Again, I want to assert that I do not think that the Great Commission (making disciples of all peoples) is primarily about breeding new Christians, nor do I think churches should actually be advocating for earlier heterosexual marriages or contraception bans. But I do think that part of the religious right’s idolatry of the family comes from a recognition and prioritization of these social realities. Churches that have built Jesus-theme-parks for families know which side of their bread is buttered.

As a culture,  we have idolized a particular vision of family even as we have made that vision less attainable. We have made it economically tough for young people to marry and have babies, even as the religious right has ratcheted up their condemnation of sex outside of heterosexual marriage. If we make it hard for people to form and maintain families, we also shouldn’t be surprised when churches that depend on families begin to decline. Again, I don’t think this is the way things should be. I just think it’s a pretty accurate description of the way things are.

I’ll restate some of the important questions that I believe churches should ask: How can we be church to people who choose not to or can’t have children? To single parents? To gay and lesbian parents? To grandparents? How can we help people whose life goals do not include “settling down,” but building a life of active ministry?

Why Are Fewer People in Church? It’s the Economy, Stupid

“Young Adults, Authenticity, and the Future of the Church.” This was the title of our proposal for three years of study when we applied for an ICE grant. In recent days, an article by Rachel Held Evans has created a flurry of replies about the same topic. Here are some of them, compiled by my friend Rachel Gonia:

My favorite (somewhat curmudgeonly) response is from Anthony Bradley: United Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face. He says that really, the United Methodist Church addresses all of Rachel’s examples of millennial dissatisfaction. I, too, want to stand on the rooftops, wave my hands and say, “Hey, all you disillusioned evangelicals and spiritually-minded skeptics! We’ve got what you’re looking for right over here!”

Except that I believe all of the discussion about theology and mission is largely irrelevant to Protestant decline. It’s important stuff, certainly, and worthy of discussion. I’m just skeptical that it has much to do with the growth or decline of the church. Our churches have been beating ourselves up about our theology and mission and so on for thirty-some-odd years, and while there may be some insightful critiques in all the hand-wringing, I believe the decline of participation in both evangelical and mainline churches has more to do with two things: money and birthrates.

I know, we’d rather blame our theological and denominational bugaboos. We’re not missional enough, or evangelical enough, or socially-conscious enough, or orthodox enough, or envelope-pushing enough, or slick enough, or simple enough, or radical enough. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when evangelical inde-bapti-costal churches were growing and mainliners were shrinking, conservatives gleefully blamed weak liberal theology (and the wrath of God) for our decline. Now that it’s hitting the conservatives, too, we (slightly more) liberal mainliners can blame their bad theology. Or whatever theology and practices we dislike. Some people like the idea of shrinkage, because it demonstrates how countercultural the gospel is—only those of us authentically Christian enough will really get it. Okay, sure, I like being in the moral minority, too.

Robert Wuthnow is one of few researchers pointing to sociological causes, and his book After the Baby Boomers completely changed the way I think about these issues. To wrap your head around the various causes of decline in church membership, remember this fact: The best predictor of church attendance is if someone a) is married and b) has children. I’m not saying that this should be the case. I’m not saying that married people with kids are the only people in church or the only people who count. I’m just describing empirically-verifiable data.

Instead of theological or worship or marketing issues, I believe a more likely explanation for the decline in attendance at mainline Protestant churches over the last several decades is simply that people tend to marry later (if at all) and have fewer babies. Although our mission is to make disciples, most denominations have grown not by converting unbelievers, but by breeding more Christians. Since the best predictor of church attendance is “settling down” and investing in a local community like your parents did, slowing marriage and reproduction rates means fewer generations in a given church. As evangelical churches began catching up with mainline Protestants in education and income patterns (which delay marriage), their growth slowed and reversed as well. Sure, Christians still make converts and baptize new believers—just not faster than they are dying off.

The trend has only been accelerating. Because of economic pressure on the middle class, marriage itself is becoming a less-attainable goal (compare and contrast with this article about urbanization and the family from 1969). When people have to work two full-time jobs to raise a family, they don’t have time to go to a worship service on the weekend. Speaking of jobs, Wuthnow pointed out that it is less likely that anyone will be employed by the same employer in the same place for more than a few years. With all that job-and-place-changing, people don’t settle down anywhere, nor do their children get habituated to church attendance. At a recent church-planter training, Jim Griffith pointed out to us that since people can’t afford to take two-week vacations anymore, they wind up taking multiple weekend trips during the year, decreasing the time they have to participate in church activities. All of these lifestyle and economic influences make it less likely that people will commit to a church.

At the same time, the number of churches per thousand people has been declining since the 60’s as well. At one time, Methodists were proud of the fact that there were more Methodist churches than post offices in the United States. All those little country churches became a drag on growth as urbanization increased, yet we stopped planting new churches in cities. And guess where young people are more likely to be? The cities. Not marrying. Not breeding. And the longer they are not in church, the less likely they are to return.

It’s not all about young people. Since a greater number older people can’t afford to retire, the pool of available retirees who provide valuable volunteer labor to churches is declining. We like to talk about the graying of our congregations, but the fact is they are increasingly absent, too.

Here’s a little comparison that illustrates what I’m talking about. Overlay these two graphs. The first is union participation and wage growth for the middle class:

This graph starts with 1967, the last year that the UMC posted a gain in church membership. Since then, we’ve mirrored all other Protestant denominations:

Of course, I’m not claiming that you can just look at two possibly correlated graphs and infer a cause. But I do think that they illustrate what Wuthnow claims about socioeconomic factors leading to fewer young adults in churches. We designed churches to be anchors in the community and shaped them around heterosexual couples who were married, had children, a stable income, and predictable life patterns. The church in the United States shaped itself around the middle class, and grew as it grew. We do not live in that world anymore.

Sure, any given individual’s story may not describe those socioeconomic pressures. I have no doubt that an 22-year-old who has left a church disillusioned might blame bad theology, religious exclusivism, or intolerance of LGBTQ persons for her leaving rather than her parents later marriage, smaller family size, and job transfers in the 80’s and 90’s. And again, I’m not suggesting theology and mission are not important. In fact, I think they are extremely important. But I am always skeptical of self-reporting, and I tend to look for material (rather than intellectual or spiritual) etiologies for church problems. I know this approach is not popular among the religious set, but I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

There are some questions, though, that do connect the socioeconomic problems with the theological ones: Why is church a place where we settle down instead of launch? Why have we idolized family, race, and class values instead of questioning them? And why aren’t we raising more of a ruckus about the economic injustice that is (directly or indirectly) decimating our churches? Why aren’t more of us pointing out that our civic religion and social structure seems to be based more on the pagan worship of the power and wealth of the 1% than the liberating God of Moses and Jesus? Maybe it’s time that we were driven out into the wilderness to learn about the kind of society God envisions.

From Daniel Erlander’s “Manna & Mercy”

The inevitable question people ask me when I talk about this stuff is, “What do we do, then?” I wish I had a better answer, because I automatically mistrust any pastor or pundit whose answer is “Think more like me.” Including me. Especially me.

I do not have an answer, but I have chosen a particular response: Make disciples and plant churches. Plant churches for people in transition. Plant churches for people who want to launch instead of settle down. Plant churches for families. Plant them for homeless runaways. Plant them in bars. Plant them in parks. Plant them in closed or dying churches. Plant them among the young. Plant them in retirement communities. Plant them on the internet. Plant them for liberals. Plant them for conservatives. Plant them among the disillusioned and the non-religious and the too-religious and the rich and the poor. Plant them for freaks and geeks and people who like church and people who don’t. Plant them and call them churches or plant them and call them something else. Just plant them, like a sower randomly casting seeds that bounce off of car hoods and passersby and fall between cracks in the sidewalk and land in vacant lots and on railroad tracks.

That’s my plan, anyway. I’ll tell you if it works.