Friday, June 21, 2013

Secular AND Sacred

US Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, addressing the AMA House of Delegates.
The division between secular and sacred space is an artificial human construction.  Those of you who know me well have probably heard me proclaim some version of this dozens of times. Church and world aren't always running parallel to each other, or espousing different values and agendas; sometimes they intersect.

I am a priest, but the other part of my vocation centers on my work in public policy, which I have been doing since 1998.  This work has primarily focused on informing the development of health care policy, conducting health services research, and advocating for physicians and patients.  Earlier this week, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Medical Association House of Delegates in Chicago.  The HOD, as it is known, is the policy-making body of the American Medical Association, whose voice often influences the course of federal and state legislation through state houses, Congress, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the White House itself.  The members of the HOD are all physicians, who represent every medical and surgical specialty, every state medical society, and every major physician organization.  In this way, the HOD is largely representative of US physicians.

Jesus preaching from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Now, why have I chosen to tell you about this on a religious blog, where I usually talk about liturgy, saints' days, and baptismal theology?  Well, let me begin by quoting the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  In the testimony voiced in reference committees and the House at large, it was clear that physicians shared the sentiment of this verse.  Physicians of many faith traditions and no religious belief at all articulated a shared commitment to the betterment of humanity through the pursuit of justice, equity, healing, and well-being.  Liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, they all gathered with the intention of formulating health care policy in the best interest of patients.  In fact, one delegate addressed the House with the words of St. Paul from 1 Corinthians 1:10: "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters . . . that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose."  I was surprised to hear the delegate openly quote Paul, and yet the apostle's words seemed an appropriate encapsulation of the spirit of the House.  After all, the integrity of the body is a central image understood by both physicians and Christians.

Like many religious people working in secular arenas, I am careful to prevent any particular religious tinge or agenda to influence my management of public policy issues.  The reality of living in a pluralistic society is that we must respect a diversity of perspectives and beliefs about religion and its role in the public square.  I do, however, allow my humanistic values as a Christian to inspire and inform the understanding of my role as a policy wonk, because I think it's important for our faith to inculcate a sense of responsibility for other peoples' welfare.  This is as true now as it was among the fledgling Christian communities of the apostolic era.  As I listened to speaker after speaker debate perspectives on issues ranging from the Affordable Care Act and US pharmaceutical shortages to obesity and gun safety, I was assured that religion and policy have something in common. All of this occurred during what was reported to be Chicago's most violent weekend so far this year, with seven killed and three dozen wounded.  Knowing that seemed to remind all of us that the perorations at the microphone matter a great deal.  They can lead to increased access to health care for some, and barriers to access for others.  They can affect the quality of care, patient safety, health care costs, and the social well-being of real people, such as those who were shot over the weekend and brought to Chicago-area hospitals for care.

Delegates advance to the microphone for debate.
For a variety of reasons, we tend to compartmentalize secular and religious concerns--and this is often appropriate--but I would argue that there is a pressing need for people of faith to take an interest in what happens in the public policy arena.  The testimony and perspectives offered this past weekend against the backdrop of extreme violence demonstrate that people of conscience should gather to discuss difficult issues and work toward consensus for the betterment of all human beings.  Even where opinions differ widely, both philosophically and pragmatically, there is value in participating in fora where moral and ethical concerns are placed center stage.  So many of the physicians I observed spoke to the need to make a difference, to engage in work that is purposeful and transformative.  It is in this kind of engagement that both religious and non-religious will be able to declare as Jesus did in the Gospel of Luke, "this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why (Some) Americans are Avoiding Church

This week the Christian Science Monitor published an article reviewing the findings of the latest Gallup poll that evaluated the perception of religion's role in American society.  The article argues that religious institutions have reached a nadir in influence and credibility not seen since the Vietnam War.  The article also notes, however, that over three quarters of respondents said that American society would be better off if more people were religious, especially in times of transition and crisis.  This is perplexing.  Is the survey saying, then, that religion has an important role in society, and yet religious institutions are somehow messing it up?

It seems the answer might be YES.  One of the benefits of being a priest and having a lot of non-churchy and non-religious friends is that they often tell me what they think is wrong with religion--and by religion, they usually mean institutional Christianity.  I realize that this is only anecdotal evidence, which does not have the same scientific rigor as an IRB-approved, double-blinded clinical trial, but it's nonetheless instructive.  Consider it qualitative research.   As I sat at brunch with a group of non-religious friends last Sunday after church, I got an earful.  Many of them have given up on religion altogether, because they realize that their churches have lied to them, or that the Bible isn't inerrant, or that they were shamed for doubting and questioning what the Church had taught them.  Several of us at one end of the long table wandered into biblical archaeology, liberation theology, and St. Augustine, and we got some weird looks.  Not hostile.  Just curious and alert.  A couple of people even said, "I've never heard Christianity discussed like this.  Why did no one ever tell me about this stuff?"  Well, good question.  I don't know.

At the top of their list of complaints is one that has been validated by survey data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  People, especially young people, avoid going to church, because they perceive many religious institutions as hypocritical.  The Christian Science Monitor article opines that "these numbers, however, probably reflect a growing distrust in almost all institutions, not just established denominations, as well as a rising interest in individual spirituality more than group worship or faith-impelled social action."  That may well be true, but it still begs the question of why there is a growing mistrust in institutions.  For example, "if Christianity preaches a message of inclusion, tolerance, and love," my non-churchy friends argue, "why do so many churches and the people in them fail to walk the talk?"  This is especially the case in churches that many young people view as out of pace with prevailing public opinion on social issues.  I am stunned by the number of people who still conjure up stereotypes of the Church: fusty, prudish, judgmental, sanctimonious, puritanical, even oppressive.  And yet, there is an ample basis for these characterizations in both history and individual witness. The Episcopal Church, for which I feel much love and pride, is perhaps more consonant with the American secular mainstream, but for all of its virtues, it too can be overly cautious, risk averse, and panicky when it encounters things outside its comfort zone.  Institutions, even good institutions, are like that.

A lot of church growth experts claim that what the "Church" needs to do is to offer better hospitality and more accessible and culturally relevant worship, and the young people will flock to us.  No doubt good worship, music, hospitality, and meaningful mission in the community will help with those who already make the brave step of visiting a church on Sunday.  But what about all those people who don't show up?  How do we reach them?  As I discussed with a young brother priest last week, I'm beginning to think we might be doing things the wrong way round.  I know a lot of people (like my friends at brunch) who wouldn't darken the door of a church for worship, and yet are interested in Christianity, religion, or spirituality.  The trouble is that we are misidentifying the problem and hence offering an inappropriate remedy.  A doctor wouldn't prescribe a couple of aspirin to treat cancer, and yet that's what we're doing with respect to peoples' spiritual health.  The spiritual malaise or apathy needs a different therapeutic response.

Conversations with disaffected religious and spiritual folk have persuaded me that before people can even begin to think about visiting a church for worship, we need to respond to some more immediate issues.  Most of the people I talk to about religious issues are attempting to process the deep questions of God, the meaning of human existence, the afterlife, and theodicy (the presence of evil and suffering in the world) using the theology they learned as children in Sunday school.  These folks, many of whom are very intelligent and well educated for their secular pursuits, were never given more mature theological tools to process these thorny questions as they grew older.  In a sense, their theological education was truncated early in life and is now developmentally inappropriate.  If people can't find a way forward on these fundamental questions, then offering them more contemporary worship or small relational groups isn't going to work.  Even if we offer theological resources in our preaching and adult education, that's not going to reach all those people who would never dream of appearing on Sunday morning. 

What's holding a lot of people back from going to church is their lack of resources for exploring who God is, why bad things happen to good people, why evil exists, what gives life meaning, and what happens when we die.  I hear people say things like, "Why did God give my mother cancer?" and  "I'm ashamed of being angry at God." and "How can the Bible be of any value if two verses contradict each other?" and "I'm afraid I will blink into nothingness when I die."  Part of the solution may be to explore these questions outside the church wherever people happen to be.  I know the Church says it's already doing this by hosting pub theology nights, 20's/30's groups, and the like.  I'm actually not talking about formal programming, which tends to attract people already receptive to church outreach, but rather identifying casual opportunities to talk with people about religious issues and starting to develop what I would call improvisational catechesis.  I'm not altogether comfortable with the word, catechesis, in this instance, because it carries a suggestion of the institution imposing wisdom from above.  What I have in mind is a more collaborative, exploratory and mutual dynamic that does not place any one person's (especially a priest's) views or beliefs above someone else's.  I was rather thinking of just being present as spiritual companions to each other wherever we happen to be, even over brunch, because I believe that when two are or three are gathered together in Jesus' name, he will be in the midst of us.  Maybe people aren't so much avoiding church, as the church is avoiding them, albeit unintentionally.  Maybe we need to rethink how the church might be embodied, in unexpected places and among unexpected people.