Monday, March 28, 2016

Defining post-theism

In a previous article that I wrote for the Café's Magazine, Facets of Identity, my remarks on post-theism generated numerous comments as well as social media attention. Comments clustered around three questions: what is post-theism, what does post-theism say about belief in Jesus as the incarnated Son of God, and is post-theism synonymous with atheism. This article replies to the first two of those questions. The answer to the third hinges on the definition of atheism. Narrowly construed, atheism denotes a rejection of theism; post-theism is in that sense consistently atheistic. More broadly and commonly, atheism denotes rejecting God's existence, however defined, in which case some but certainly not all post-theists may be atheists.

First, what is post-theism? Post-theism, a form of progressive Christianity, is an effort to update concepts of God in light of scientific progress and other changes in human thought and perspective. Post-theism, still in its infancy, has multiple expressions. Most reject scientific reductionism and supernaturalism, striving to make thinking about God intelligible and credible in the twenty-first century.

Greek philosophy decisively shaped much traditional Christian theology but no longer determines how most moderns and post-moderns perceive the world. Illustratively, the idea that God is immutable, eternally unchanging, is a corollary of the Greek philosophical idea that perfection denotes a static wholeness or completeness; any change to that completeness necessarily entails introducing imperfection. God is perfect; ergo, God must be immutable. In the twenty-first century, we recognize the cosmos's dynamism and widely question the premise that perfection necessarily connotes stasis. Consequently, the idea of a static, immutable God has become incomprehensible to a great many people. Process philosophy provides a basis for alternative conceptions of God whose dynamism makes God epistemologically more comprehensible in the twenty-first century.

Poking holes in crude anthropomorphic images of God (e.g., an old man with a long beard who reigns as the cosmos' sovereign) is easy. More nuanced conceptions of the God of theism are also proving unsustainable. For example, traditional theism presumes an interactive duality of spirit (an ethereal, immaterial transcendent God) and matter (the earthly creation). From Descartes forward, theologians have struggled futilely to describe the dynamics of that interaction; lacking a credible explanation, numerous persons have abandoned religion, a trend popularized in the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and others.

Tillich's Protestant principle highlights the need for continuous reformation in theology. Codifying theology into doctrine inevitably creates an idol. One such idol, perhaps helpful to many for centuries but now increasingly disconnected from a rapidly changing world, is that of an immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. Similarly, the via negativa, which predates the Protestant principle, taught those following it to approach God by progressively denying the adequacy of every attempt to describe God's character; the sacred mystery that ultimately remained hidden is the living God, the one whom scripture reports that Moses encountered in a burning bush. Post-theism takes our journey forward along the via negativa while adhering to the Protestant principle.

Globalization, which has exposed many people to a variety of non-Christian religions, adds additional momentum to the shift from theism to post-theism. Claims that all non-Christians perish or worse seem absurd. If God is truly love, then teaching that God condemns the majority of the world's population for not believing in Jesus, of whom most have never heard, is at best incongruous with the thinking of God as love and at worst an excessively cruel form of religious xenophobia.

On the other hand, if there is only one ultimate reality, then Hindu polytheism, Buddhist atheism, and Taoist emphasis on energy arguably may all be human efforts to translate experience of the one ultimate reality into finite human terms. Some individuals who feel empty and sense the existence of something more than materialism sometimes have turned to a religion other than the one of their cultural heritage, both seeking fresh metaphors for that something more and finding a different set of religious practices beneficial. The growing numbers of persons who identify as spiritual but not religious constitute the next expression of this trend. Post-theism wants to constructively engage with people of other religions as well the spiritual but not religious, cooperatively discovering metaphors and vocabulary for the ineffable that are more meaningful today.

Theologians (e.g., John A.T. Robinson) and scholars from many other disciplines have extensively analyzed theism's problems: limitations stemming from theism's dependence upon Greek philosophy, apparently unanswerable challenges raised in its confrontations with science and modernity, the ineffability of the sacred, and globalization as a catalyst to move from narrow exclusivity toward inclusivity. To date, no post-theistic image or metaphor has gained broad popular traction. Consequently, some theologians and others have struggled to construct a neo-orthodox Christianity out of theism's crumbled foundations. More often, people have abandoned the idea of God, an act to which empty pews silently and starkly testify every Sunday. Meanwhile, parish clergy, who can feel overwhelmed by the far ranging demands placed on them, frequently find staying theologically current difficult, especially if remaining parishioners prefer familiar theistic assurances to the unsettling mystery and uncertainty of post-theism.

Light is presently my preferred metaphor for a post-theistic conception of God. Two millennia ago, people thought that light consisted of particles. Scientists then recognized that light sometimes behaved more like waves than particles. Today, scientists generally accept that light has some properties of both particles and waves, currently rendering a precise definition impossible. The Bible, whether coincidentally or serendipitously, uses light as a metaphor for God. That image underscores human inability to describe God's nature. Efforts to characterize God in terms of being (the theistic God) or energy (e.g., the Force of the Star Wars saga) both fall short. Nevertheless, God is the light that teaches and leads us to live more deeply and fully. Light is necessary for most life; light shows the way to love, which requires justice and mercy. Light is fully part of the natural world but still mysterious. As with any metaphor for God, this one has limitations and may someday be anachronistic. Nevertheless, I find light a more powerful metaphor than I do any of the metaphors usually associated with theism and its description of God.

Second, what does post-theism have to say about Jesus? A post-theist may or may not believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Scripture declares that Jesus is the light of the world, but this declaration, like all characterizations of Jesus, is metaphorical.

Illustratively, the story of Jesus' virgin birth is inescapably metaphorical. Jesus received the first of his two sets of chromosomes from Mary. If Jesus received his second set of chromosomes directly and supernaturally from God, Jesus would still be only fully human. DNA literally defines physical existence. Yet the story's intent is to communicate that Jesus is qualitatively different from other humans. That is, the story of the virgin birth is a pre-scientific explanation of why those who knew and lived with Jesus experienced God directly through him, an experience not tied to his DNA.

Post-theism therefore wants to update our Christological thinking. For example, theistic conceptions of Jesus as the Lamb of God are increasingly viewed as more akin to child abuse than salvific. If God wrote the rules (no forgiveness without sacrifice), if God knew people would sin (God's omniscience), and God intended to forgive humans (God's love), then God must have recognized that forgiveness would be possible only through the sacrificial death of God's son. Generations of Christians found that theological paradigm life giving and life enriching. Today, that paradigm at best portrays a masochistic God who chooses to suffer and at worst portrays a father inflicting suffering and death on his son.

In contrast, post-theism variously portrays Jesus as the symbol, incarnation, or metaphorical incarnation of God's love. Words are always symbolic. Indeed, humans have been called the symbolic species because we alone, among all of the known species, utilize symbolic communication. Sadly, Christians forget words' inherent symbolism in vain attempts to invest the words of creeds, dogmas, and catechisms with a timeless capacity for conveying propositional truth. Jesus, the word that God spoke, is therefore a symbol and, like many powerful symbols, both incapable of being easily defined and perhaps even unintentionally emptied of meaning when we attempt too precise a definition.

Proponents of propitiatory and other sacrificial theories of atonement almost universally acknowledge that Jesus was also the manifestation of God's love. Further, this position coheres with widely accepted Christian thinking about God's presence and activity in Judaism, if not also in other religions, both before and after Jesus. These Christologies employ love as a second post-theistic metaphor for God. Like the metaphor of light, love eludes facile definition, is not readily susceptible to scientific or materialistic reductionism, arguably permeates the cosmos, and is inherently and entirely natural rather than supernatural. Importantly in this information age, incarnated love is an essential corrective to virtual reality's disembodied nature.

This essay's brevity requires leaving many aspects of post-theism unexplored, brushes over details, unhelpfully condenses much analysis, and inadequately sketches post-theism's diversity.

As The Episcopal Church initiates its timely new emphasis on evangelism, we will do well to remember that our theology is an earthen vessel or lamp. The time honored earthen vessels and lamps used by previous generations, now cracked and falling apart, need replacing. Hopefully, this essay will be a catalyst for that process, encouraging the conversations and work to produce earthen vessels and lamps better suited for use in twenty-first century proclamations of the good news of the light that suffuses the world and nurtures life abundant.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday and the Brussels bombings

Suicide bombers killed 20 and injured approximately 200 in Brussels this week. I doubt that the attacks, which ISIS celebrated as well-deserved revenge for the Belgium police having arrested the last person suspected of participating in the Paris bombings, were timed to occur during Holy Week. The coincidence, however, prompted a couple of musings.

First, one of Lent's themes is to remind Christians of their own mortality. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are imposed with the words, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Birth comes with an inescapable presumption of death. Most persons prefer to imagine a large measure of control over when and how death will occur. In fact, death most often comes in an unexpected way and at an unpredictable moment. Suicide bombings underscore both the unexpectedness and unpredictability of most death. Perhaps that accounts for a large measure of the terror such attacks cause. Paul Tillich's theology emphasized existential anxiety rooted in life's finitude and described the good news of Christianity as inviting people to live courageously.

Second, terrorism is not the real source of our fears. By former US counterterrorism official and scholar Daniel Benjamin's count, in the fifteen years since 9/11 European terror attacks killed 426 and US terror attacks killed 45 (those totals include both the Brussels bombings and San Bernardino shootings). That means terrorists have killed just three persons in the US per year since 9/11, a number that pales in comparison to other risks people routinely ignore, e.g., the risk of dying in one's bathtub or in an auto accident. We humans do a terrible job of assessing vulnerability, prioritizing threats, and responding appropriately. According to the gospels, neither the Romans nor Jewish religious leaders knew how to cope with an itinerant teacher and miracle worker who called for people to prioritize loving God and one another. Why do we run from Jesus, preferring the saccharine domesticated plastic idol to the real flesh and blood prophet?

Third, life is precious, at least partially, because life is fragile and short. Jesus' death demonstrated the power of love to triumph over death. He refused to betray God or us in order to avoid facing execution on charges of insurrection. How much is love worth to you? Will you pay the price, and perhaps only you will know what that price is, to love those whose lives intersect with yours more dearly and more completely? This is how a disciple picks up her/his cross and follows Jesus, facing her/his own Good Friday(s).

Monday, March 21, 2016

Loving and being loved

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week. This post on loving/being loved, planned to coincide with Holy Week, concludes my Lenten series on spiritual growth through cultivating the human spirit by developing its six facets (aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, self-awareness, linguistic capacity, and loving/being loved).

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes humans as ultrasocial, a quality that is at least partially a function of human development and use of language as a means of symbolic communication. Communication, however, does not fully describe or explain humans' ultrasocial nature.

The historical trajectory of humans, far more than that of any other species, traces a broadening circle of those about whom others expect one to demonstrate caring or from whom one can reasonably expect to receive care. The oldest and most narrowly circumscribed circles of care identify immediate family, including the nuclear family and perhaps those at one or two removes from it, e.g., aunts, uncles, great aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Subsequent circles of caring expanded to include all known or identifiable members of one's biological family and sometimes all members of a clan or tribe. More recently, circles of caring widened to encompass all of the members of a nation or citizens of a state. Arguably, the best hope for peace on earth is the further widening of circles of caring to include all creation and all species.

Evolutionary biologists, along with some other scholars, label the mutual expectations of caring reciprocal altruism (I've written about reciprocal altruism in Ethical Musings – cf. Why be religious? and A global order in transition).

I prefer the term loving/being loved for two reasons. First, the word love more strongly connotes the emotional attributes and expressions of this aspect of the spirit than does the term reciprocal altruism. Behaviors and thoughts associated with this aspect of the human spirit inseparably intertwine and cognitive and affective qualities. Second, the term loving/being loved points to the inherent link between this aspect of the spirit and ethics. Reciprocal altruism can too easily imply ethical neutrality whereas love connotes positive expectations and obligations, and the absence of love has negative connotations.

Christian theologians have long debated the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. Expiation and propitiation are just two of the most popular alternative explanatory theories (cf. the Ethical Musings' post, Good Friday).

Importantly, almost every Christian theologian accepts the proposition that Jesus' crucifixion expressed God's unquenchable love for us, although most theologians probably reject this idea as insufficient to explain the cross by itself. Thus, Christians emulate Jesus, their moral exemplar, when they loving embrace humans and all creations.

This interpretation of the meaning of Jesus' death echoes the gospel record of Jesus teaching his disciples to love one another and to love others as they themselves wish to be loved. Jesus, who was Jewish, simply underscored what Judaism already taught. Indeed, the latter instruction, sometimes known as the Golden Rule, is a basic ethic found in all of the world's major religions. Given that loving/being loved is an intrinsic element of the human spirit, the Golden Rule's universality is predictable rather than surprising. Process theologian John Hick has suggested that mutuality of relationships is the most important quality of personal existence.

Implicit within the concept of loving/being loved – regardless of whether it is formulated as loving/being loved, the Golden Rule, or reciprocal altruism – is that a person must love her/himself in order to love others. Both self-abnegation and narcissism impede spiritual growth. Genuine self-love honestly appraises the self, affirmatively acknowledging what is good while also acknowledging and seeking to change that which is destructive or harmful to self, others, or creation.

Given this understanding of loving/being loved, the following are spiritual disciplines that may help a person to cultivate this aspect of the human spirit:

  • Daily perform an act of kindness – Intentionally cultivating this habit will result not only in a person becoming kinder but also more empathetic, more aware of the needs of others, and more generous. These characteristics, in turn, will help you to accept the love that others try to give to you.
  • Reconciliation with the estranged – Seeking to reconcile with those from whom you are estranged is a particular type of kindness. Hatred, jealousy, envy, shame, and other negative emotions are corrosive acids that diminish a person's spirit and thereby diminish one's humanity. Seeking reconciliation requires admitting one's own faults and sins, expressing sorrow for those shortcomings, opening one's self to being forgiven, and choosing to forgive others for their faults and sins. Reconciliation is not always possible, e.g., if the other person opposes refuses to work toward reconciliation. But I can act to ensure that I am not the obstacle to reconciliation. Additionally, reconciliation does not always entail restoration. For example, reconciliation may end mutual animosity without resuming intimacy or friendship.
  • Intentionally, regularly, and sacrificially giving of one's time, talents, and treasure to help build a more just, loving community – Each person is the steward of a life. Good stewardship – the intentional, regular, and sacrificial (think proportionally, i.e., as a percentage of time and wealth, initially aiming at 10% and then upping the percentage until the totality of one's time, abilities, and possessions are God's) giving – is a basic ethical principle. You love God and others. Could you do so more effectively (achieve more fulsome, life giving results)? Could you do so more efficiently (achieve the same results using less time or money)? When it comes to loving and being loved, both intentions and results matter. When another person looks at you, your words, and your actions, do they see the same love that so many discover when they look at Jesus hanging on the cross?
  • If you have a significant other, go on a weekly date together during which you converse for at least an hour. If you have children, do something with each child at least once a week, also allowing an hour for conversation. If a parent is alive, commit to speaking with that parent weekly. In short, carve out time each week to connect with those one is most likely to love and by whom one is most likely to be loved. Healthily incorporating loving/being loved into one's lifestyle does not mean loving all people equally. Only God can do that. Instead, loving/being love entails prioritizing our loves, beginning with those closest to us, but extending that love to incorporate all. I am not to feed a starving child abroad before I feed my own children. I am to do my best to ensure that all children, regardless of where they live, have an adequate diet and good nutrition. This obligation does require subordinating excessive personal pleasure to the well-being of strangers, a challenging effort that defies easy or universal answers.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Language and the human spirit

Humans, to a degree unprecedented in the development of any other species, communicate symbolically, that is, humans have a distinctive linguistic capacity. Words are a form of symbolic reference: persons always employ a word – whether in speech, writing, or thinking – to point to something that is not identical with the word itself. In language, a set of rules (known as grammar) govern the combining of words to convey meaning. The universality of language among humans fuels scholarly debate about the existence of a deep, underlying grammatical structure, common to all languages.

Researchers from various disciplines, including biology, psychology, and linguistics, agree that the limited capacity for communication observed in some other species (e.g., apes and whales) does involve language and is therefore not symbolic communication.

The unique human linguistic capacity affects the human spirit in at least two important ways: construction of complex relationships and societies and the creation of narratives that provide interpretive frameworks for understanding the meaning of events and life.

Other species are social. Yet no other species has created a web of complex relationships comparable to human society. For example, DNA largely determines the social roles of ants and bees. Kinship ties are important for the social relationships of whales and apes. Humans are unique in forming communities that span huge geographic distances, endure over generations, permit extensive social mobility, etc. Language makes this possible. Without language, humans could not sustain meaningful relationships with other people over great distances or long periods. Nor could humans repair damaged or broken relationships. Similarly, language may explain the human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects and forces, hoping to influence if not domesticate them by exercising power over them.

Extended solitary confinement is a crime against humanity precisely because the person so confined loses the ability to communicate with other humans. Human interaction – the symbolic communication enabled by our linguistic capacity – is an essential element of what it means to be human.

To date, no research indicates that any other species creates narratives that provide interpretive frameworks. Human consciousness exists only within such a narrative. Reading a novel (or watching an engrossing movie or TV show) is powerful precisely because the experience, at least temporarily, plants the reader (or viewer) in a world shaped by a different narrative. Without language, human culture would not exist. Indeed, Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that the Christian life consists of shedding the narrative of one's culture and living more fully into the Christian narrative.

Most broadly, developing one's linguistic capacity requires basic literacy, i.e., learning and improving one's ability to read and to write. Any effort or program that improves literacy, whether by enhancing one's mastery of one's native tongue or by acquiring another language, will expand one's linguistic capacity.

More narrowly, here are several spiritual disciplines that further develop one's linguistic capacity and that may permit you, after constructing a web of relationships and interpretations of life, to formulate a sense of self that complements your self-awareness and is central to your spirit:
  • Meditative reading – Read something theologically, religiously, ethically, or spiritually evocative, allowing the ideas to initiate or guide your thoughts rather than reading the material for content. Scriptures from various traditions (e.g., the Bible, Koran, Way of the Buddha, or Bhagavad Gita), daily devotional reading (e.g., the Anglican daily office or a guide such as Forward Movement's Day by Day), and literature that explores spiritual themes (e.g., Dostoyevsky's novels, essays by Madeleine L'Engle, and much poetry) similarly provide good options for meditative reading. The time-honored Benedictine practice of lectio divina began as a form of meditative reading.
  • Journaling – Keep a written record of your spiritual thoughts, feelings, and efforts. Construe the word spiritual as broadly as possible. Over time, your journal will begin to trace a narrative, to reveal a moving picture of its author's ideas, acts, feelings, and relationships deepening and changing. Preserving the confidentiality of your journal may help you to be more honest and open. Others may find that sharing their journal with a spiritual director or analyst is the best catalyst for both honesty and deep exploration.
  • Talk story, i.e., tell your narrative – Not everybody gravitates to the written word. The solitary process of writing affords the author an opportunity to formulate and then to examine thoughts and feelings. Telling one's story to another person(s) can function in much the same way with the added benefit of potentially receiving insightful feedback on what one has said. Honestly describing one's ideas and feelings requires great courage because the teller has made her/himself vulnerable to ridicule, perhaps even rejection. Conversely, that vulnerability is also a window of opportunity for potential growth, a deepening and refining of narrative through which one can experience the water of life more deeply.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The centrality of self-awareness

Self-awareness – sometimes called metacognition or self-transcendence – connotes the human ability to represent one's cognitive processes to one's self in order to evaluate those processes. Because of self-awareness, humans can reflect about the future, engage in introspection, converse with the self, create a narrative about the self, and react emotionally to that narrative.

Self-awareness may be the locus of God-human encounters, an element of the imago dei (although some process theologians argue that self-awareness constitutes the imago dei), or an essential component of liberation and spiritual growth, e.g., in Theravadan Buddhism.

Self-awareness is always partial and therefore never completely accurate. Identifying self-awareness as an aspect of the human spirit does not specify the content, degree, or nature of self-awareness but may only recognize the question's universal and distinctive importance for humans. Moreover, externalities such as drugs, physical or psychological trauma, etc., can impair self-awareness.

Spiritual disciplines that can help to develop self-awareness are:
  • Physical exercise – A person is his or her body, having no existence independent of the physical body. A program of physical exercise aids in attuning awareness to one's bio-rhythms, sharpening the difference between self and non-self, clearing the mind by reducing stress and flushing negative emotions from the body, and putting one more in touch with one's self.
  • Contemplation – Contemplation denotes thinking about an image, idea, object, or relationship. Christian contemplatives, illustratively, often focus their reflections on Jesus or some aspect of his life, such as his death on the cross. In Orthodoxy, Christian contemplatives often use an icon as the catalyst for their reflections; in Roman Catholic Christianity, contemplatives frequently will use the rosary, the consecrated host, or Stations of the Cross as the catalyst. Sadly, many Protestant Christian traditions have abandoned contemplation as a spiritual discipline.
  • Meditation – In meditation, a person aims to move beyond words and concrete images to a more direct, personal experience of God that occurs by emptying the mind, leaving it a blank canvass upon which God can write, paint, or appear. Meditation has been part of the Christian tradition since almost the beginning, but those who have pursued the spiritual discipline of meditation have often faced misunderstanding and condemnation. Current interest in being spiritual but not religious seems to invite Christians to explore and to inhabit those parts of their tradition that affirm the value of meditation, offering an important counterbalance to interest in other religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, that have historically placed greater emphasis on the value of meditation.
  • Spiritual direction or psychoanalysis – Improving self-awareness – more fully and consciously recognizing what you think is your identity, your purpose, and your values – is one of the benefits from receiving spiritual direction or undergoing psychoanalysis. Some individuals find continuing guidance from a spiritual director invaluable. Other persons prefer an occasional "checkup" that they use as an opportunity to review their spiritual life, to discuss obstacles or new directions, to clarify experiences, and to assess progress. As is true in developing all six facets of the spirit, each person is unique. Each person, usually through a process of trial and error, must identify a helpful and sustainable set of spiritual practices. Over time, some of those practices will cease to be helpful and need replacing. Other practices will seem dry and pointless for extended periods, but perseverance will bring the person fresh insights and depth. A good spiritual director can help one to discern whether to abandon a particular discipline or to persevere with it. 

The disciplines that develop self-awareness are generally not exercises in which one can engage haphazardly. Physical exercise, contemplation, and meditation all require an ongoing and commitment. Numerous books outline programs for each. Selecting a particular program is a function of personality and lifestyle. In all cases, establishing a regular pattern and some form of accountability will help to transform an initial interest into a habitual practice.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Christian, Anglican, Episcopal, and Post-theist

These four terms – Christian, Anglican, Episcopalian, and post-theist – are how I describe my religious identity. I choose which term(s) to use on a particular occasion depending upon context and what I want to communicate about myself.

1. Christian. I am a follower of Jesus who intentionally seeks to tread the Jesus path. Ironically, being identified as a Christian sometimes stereotyped me in ways that were wrong and uncomfortable. This occurred most often in Navy settings, where fundamentalists and evangelicals dominate the chaplaincy and sailors' perceptions of chaplains.

Too often, Christian in our culture connotes an exclusivity that I believe is inimical to Jesus' message of God's all-inclusive love. Exclusionary passages in the New Testament (e.g., averring that Jesus is the only way to God) are best understood as expressions of love rather than as propositional truths. Declaring that Jesus is the only way is analogous to asserting that one's spouse is the ideal mate. Both claims reveal the speaker's feelings rather than stating objective, provable facts.

Similarly, many people regard all Christians as biblical literalists who probably also have conservative theological, social, and political views and values. The Romans executed Jesus as an insurrectionist and criminal. Jesus was a radical known for advocating peace and justice. He opposed military spending and favored feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and liberating the oppressed. Biblical literalism was foreign to Jesus' Jewish hermeneutic and his teachings conflict with much of the political and social agendas conservatives advocate.

Christian now often exists in metaphorical Egyptian servitude, i.e., a label that signifies those who fear life in an unknown wilderness more than cultural bondage. Perhaps the Church needs bold prophets to declare that exclusivists and biblical literalists have actually strayed from the Jesus path. Maybe these prophets should emulate Jesus' use of hyperbole, and enjoin the narrow minded to stop self-identifying as Christians. We do not need a reprise of hurtful debates over who is a Christian and who is a heretic, but definitional clarity is beneficial. For example, writing this essay has required useful self-examination and lured me deeper into the mystery at the center of the cosmos in unanticipated ways.

2. Anglican. The Anglican tradition provides the context for my spiritual journey, informing and shaping that journey with a set of distinctive historic emphases. Inclusivity, sacramental worship, pastoral concern, and human dignity are among the more important of these emphases. I am thankful for the efforts of Bishop Curry and those who strive to maintain the formal ties between The Episcopal Church and the other Anglican Communion provinces. I hope and pray that their efforts succeed.

However, neither my Anglican identity nor that of The Episcopal Church (TEC) depends upon those links enduring. If the Anglican Communion were to break completely with TEC, Anglicanism's indelible shaping of my religious identity, and that of TEC, would continue, just like the indelible and continuing influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Anglicanism has continued in spite severing formal connections over 500 years ago.

Institutional unity is valuable. Integrity is more valuable. Other Anglican provinces trying to impose "consequences" on TEC for boldly and prophetically embracing the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church represents a post hoc shift in the Communion's rules of engagement focused on issues of secondary or even tertiary importance, e.g., marriage. This distorted focus has occurred in no small measure because disputes over sexuality generate more heat, draw sharper dividing lines, and attract more outside money than do underlying basic questions about how contemporary Christians can hear God speak in or through the Bible. Furthermore, in spite of personally appreciating definitional clarity and experiencing the flattening of the world, I very much doubt that most Anglicans in any Communion province really care what Anglicans in another province think or do. I do not want to harm my brothers and sisters. Conversely, I refuse to accept responsibility for harm that a third party's self-interested meddling causes.

3. Episcopalian. The Episcopal Church constitutes the institutional setting for my spiritual journey and in which I minister. During four plus decades of ministry, I have repeatedly observed well-intentioned attempts by Christians to be church while avoiding institutionalization's inevitable and inherent limitations. In time, each of those naïve groups discovered that the bane of institutionalization also offered necessary blessings: mutually agreed processes and structures for making decisions; owning equipment and supplies enhanced worship and other programs, as did renting or buying facilities; and incorporating as a tax exempt non-profit eased financial transactions and complied with government rules.

No institution, including the finest and best ecclesial institution, is perfect. And I, for one, would not claim that TEC is the finest or best ecclesial institution. But it is the ecclesial institution to which I belong, the one that has formed me, and the one in which I choose to live and serve. Laments about our declining numbers have become tiresome and non-productive.

Instead, I view TEC as potentially well positioned to serve a new generation of people who are spiritual but not religious. Engaging in mission requires that we learn to ask different questions and adopt a different focus.
  • We claim to be inclusive. Do we welcome persons who are spiritual but not religious? Do we welcome diverse and conflicting theological views and liturgical styles?
  • We claim to be pastoral. Do we value persons more than we value our buildings? Do we strive to align our resources with current demographics and human needs or does a diminishing remnant grow weary in striving to perpetuate our buildings and institutions as a testament of who TEC used to be?
  • We claim to be sacramental. Do we revere all creation as an outward and visible symbol of God's presence and love? How do the basic human acts of washing (i.e., Holy Baptism) and feeding (i.e., Eucharist) people shape our sharing Jesus with a broken, hurting world?
  • We claim to respect the dignity of all. Is our attention and effort focused on those within the Christian circle or equally focused on all people? What is TEC, which in so many places appears concentrated on survival, saying to those who are over-stressed, underemployed, hungry, abused, sidelined, and so forth? Do we actually acknowledge strangers in our midst much less welcome them?
4. Post-theist. This term identifies my theological orientation. I prefer post-theist to progressive, although the latter is not objectionable, the former adds content and is less politicized. Post-theist is also more meaningful than the terms such as broad church and Anglo-Catholic, which prior generations used to describe their theological or liturgical orientation.

Pope Francis has reenergized and popularized the papacy with his emphases on openness and mercy. But, like all humans, Francis is a complex figure. He combines fidelity to Jesus with pietistic encrustations more suitable to the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first century, e.g., his recent participation in the public extravaganza that welcomed the silicone-enhanced corpses of Padre Pio and Padre Leopoldo to the Vatican as exemplars of mercy. Regardless of the merits of these two saints, pietistic fascination with their relics resembles magic, seems weirdly out of place in contemporary Europe, and illustrates theism's inability to incorporate scientific knowledge or move beyond antiquated Greek philosophy.

Thomas Kuhn in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argued that scientific knowledge advances through paradigm shifts, e.g., from Newtonian to quantum physics. Kuhn's view of scientific progress sharply contrasts with the widespread, often unstated, and patently unreasonable presumption that knowledge of God is static. The New Atheists are wrong. Religion is not a dying anachronism. Instead, we are in the midst of a theological paradigm shift. Theism is dying. What will replace it? Do we most helpfully refer to the ultimate as consciousness, light, energy, or with another metaphor? Which symbols most powerfully convey an experience of ultimate mystery or depth to those persons whose worldview and epistemological presuppositions cohere with the scientific method? How can we speak meaningfully of spirit, illuminating the poverty of material reductionism? What insights about life and the ultimate can those who walk the Jesus path glean from the spiritual journeys of the spiritual but not religious and of those born into western Christianity who subsequently find spiritual fulfillment in an eastern religious tradition?