Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Perhaps I too easily take to heart the coffee cup “de-motivator” I have about blogging: “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”  As a delinquent blogger, this saying makes me laugh.  But it also makes me hesitate.

That’s not the only reason I’ve been silent on this blog.  When I don’t know my own mind on some topic about which I feel deep importance, I hunker down for awhile, feeling that I have nothing to say.  This is the case with a topic that has become high profile on college campuses – the interest in spirituality.

Many people who work with college students (especially on the Student Affairs side) know about the extensive research from the Higher Education Research at UCLA (to name only one source) on this subject.  Even though students fiercely protect their prerogatives, they are not the free-thinking skeptics people often associate with higher education.  In fact, they are very interested in questions that we have come to associate with spirituality or faith.  If you pay attention to the literature that has become mainstream, however, students are not all that interested in getting boxed in by “organized religion.”

It’s no wonder.  We’ve been teaching young people to think this way about religion and spirituality for at least a generation.  No time for a long foray into history, but consider: thirty years ago Paul Vitz did a study of the references to religion in elementary school social science textbooks.  He concluded that, given how these references were handled, students would easily conclude that religious practice is either something that “primitive” people do in other parts of the world or (for this country, especially) it is something people did in the past.  Here, insert the Puritans.  You know how they fare in popular sentiment.

Add in the public-private constitutional divide long-established in our society.  Religion is “private,” something that people are free to do with their associates without government interference.  But religious faith must stay in the private realm, which allows it to deal with personal values of all sorts, but does not allow people to be part of public debates (even though religion is always very much in the news).  There are important questions involved, here, but the big thing is that we don’t want anyone “imposing” some brand of religion on us.  The result has been that another vision has been “imposed.”  And it’s not a neutral one.

So, in a thousand subtle ways we have taught kids – long before they get to college – that religion is not all that important except for personal values and, furthermore, it may actually be rather dangerous (especially conservative evangelical versions of Christianity).  Churches have gone along with this process.  Here I refer to the “moralistic therapeutic deism” discerned by Christian Smith and others among teenagers and emerging adults.  Religion is for the purpose of helping people be nice and feel good about themselves.

Yet people hunger for transcendence, for contact with the Lifeforce or whatever word you’d like to use if you want to avoid using God.  If religion is more or less ruled out of bounds, what do you have left?  Spirituality.  And it will inevitably look and sound like how people talk in the literature.  Spirituality is about contact with the transcendent, and authenticity, and compassion, and expansiveness and…

I’m not surprised that the social scientists asking college students what they think about spirituality and religion are discovering the “spiritual not religious” response.  We pretty much taught them to think this way.

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August 1, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discerning Our Desires

People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.”  Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere.  I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.

Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?”  (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.)  In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone.  It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah.  In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word.  John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.”  He is evidence of the day of the Lord.  The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement.  In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.

Next, I notice the word “desire.”  “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire.  People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so.  Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now.  I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is.  It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless.  I know some glorious exceptions, of course.  But not many.

Finally,  the desire is “to flee the wrath…”  Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased.  It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience.  But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt.  They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time.  Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause.   I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power.  We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”

And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives.  “Desire” has emotional tonality.  In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.

Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come.  What do we want?

June 25, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Has “Spiritual Maturity” Lost Its Meaning?

In research for a book project on spiritual maturity, I fear I am discovering that “spiritual maturity” as a term no longer has any currency in Christian talk.  I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday, talking with the manager about this matter and looking at books on the shelves.  “Spirituality” has become the generic term, which, of course, I knew, but the idea that people don’t recognize “spiritual maturity” is more than a little worrisome.

I think I’ve blogged before (I admit, I didn’t check my archives) about the Barna Group – now over a year ago – doing a phone survey on this very matter.  They discovered that neither church leaders nor rank-and-file Christians know how to define “spiritual maturity.”  In fact, the most commonly offered attempt at a definition was “following the rules” (See “Barna Update” for May 11, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12).  To say the least, we ought to be concerned about this shocking lack of awareness.

I don’t remember which Supreme Court justice said it, but, in hearing the challenges of obscenity laws back in the 1960s, said something like, “I don’t know how to define ‘obscenity,’ but I recognize it when I see it.”   I think the same could be said for spiritual maturity, or, at least, I’d like to be able to say it.  Can we recognize spiritual maturity when we see it even if we can’t define it?  Or do we really think that merely “following the rules” satisfies?  If this is the case, we have drifted a far, far distance from the mark.

Which brings me back to my question: does the term “spiritual maturity,” or “spiritually mature” mean nothing any more?  If so, what word goes in its stead?  “Spirituality” does not cut it for me.  I work in higher education and “spirituality” has crept into our discourse as a replacement for “religion.”  Generally, writings from this quadrant oppose the terms “spirituality” and “religion.”  “Religion,” it is said, has to do with external, institutional and legal matters.  “Spirituality,” on the other hand, refers to expanded consciousness, compassion, openness toward (the omnipresent) “other,” justice, and the like.  To be too blunt (I admit, I’ve become quite frustrated with this constant and ironic barrage about “bad religion,” “good spirituality”), most of the stuff I’ve read in this genre is incoherent and badly argued, filled with sweeping assumptions and redefinitions.  Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

So, I don’t like “spirituality” as a replacement for “spiritual maturity.”  And I’m worried that most Christians – if the Barna Update is accurate – don’t understand an absolutely fundamental aim of the Christian life.  Golly, if we don’t understand this point, what do we think being Christian is all about?

My question offered to anyone willing to respond: does “spiritual maturity” no longer have meaning for Christians?

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , | 14 Comments

Affirm People, Acknowledge Diversity

Working on a college campus puts one in the position of hearing lots of talk about diversity: racial diversity, national and ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity.  These are among the standard referents for folk in higher education.

In a chapter on the importance of student affairs programs for developing college students’ spirituality, Jennifer Capeheart-Meninghall writes, “Programs and services that offer activities that affirm diversity (emphasis added), establish and hold students accountable for conduct, celebrate campus traditions, and join various constitutencies together will help build community,” (Spirituality in Higher Education, p. 35).  For all the value and importance of her aim at building community and developing spirituality (an aim I completely support), I’m stuck on the difficult notion of affirming diversity.  Who sets the criteria to determine that diversity has been affirmed?

As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think it is ultimately misdirected.  I think what we should affirm is people.  People are diverse.  Because we are diverse racially, ethnically, socio-economically, culturally, and so on, we should affirm people as they demonstrate a wide range of characteristics and qualities.  We affirm people and, in doing so, acknowledge that we’re different, diverse.

Some people might consider my point nothing more than pious cant, a clever-sounding rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  (Some may find it completely obvious and not clever at all!)  In the current climate, am I just one more white, male, middle-class traditional/conservative complaining about losing power?  I don’t think so.  I hope not.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs.  Maybe “affirm” and “acknowledge” mean the same.  A quick check of the dictionary suggests the contrary.  To affirm something is to state it positively, to validate it or legitimate it and, furthermore, to “express dedication” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary) to whatever is being affirmed.  To acknowledge is to recognize, to own up to (Ibid).

Because all people are created in God’s image, we value them.  We value their characteristics, cultural and otherwise.  We affirm them.  We recognize that we come from a wide range of nations, backgrounds, worldviews and religious commitments.  We accept our diversity, but we value people and we commit ourselves to living together in peace.

Why does my distinction matter?  Well, in my little mind, it seems to be a step in the right direction of disentangling us from some of the political animosities that infect Christians.  It’s too easy to come up with the grocery list of qualities that “proves” one “affirms diversity.”  (By the way, how diverse is the group making that list?)  Then people can make preemptive judgments: if you don’t accept the list, you don’t accept diversity and you’re disqualified from the conversation.  If, on the other hand, we affirm people while acknowledging diversity, then we don’t prematurely disqualify.  We listen with compassion and generosity – and take their ideas seriously.

“Diversity,” sadly, is a politically loaded term.  It shouldn’t be.  We are a nation of diverse peoples.  That’s an uncontroversial fact.  What we value is people, who always bring with them their cultural, ethnic, and other (diverse) qualities.  We don’t ignore diversity.  We acknowledge it; accept it.  But we affirm people.

September 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Have to” Questions, “How Do You Know” Questions

I’m helping to teach a class that affords me opportunity to interact with college students about spirituality. In such venues two sets of questions alway arise. I’m thinking about the unhelpful ways we in the ministry often answer them

I call the two categories “have to” questions and “how do you know” questions. An example of the “have to” question: “Do I have to go to church in order to be a (good) Christian?”

To the “have to” question I can give a pat answer: “Well, no, of course you don’t have to go to church in order to be a good Christian. But good Christians want to do what helps them grow, and going to church helps us grow and…” Though true, I think this common answer is wide of the mark.

College students ask “have to” questions because they’re trying to figure out how to handle freedom. Hence, it not a question driven by rebellion, which is typically how we assess it. They are trying to make sense of the multifaceted nature of their desires. They want to be Christian. They don’t want to waste time doing something boring and unhelpful or being where they don’t feel connected or known. In other words, there might be a lot more to the “have to” question than the standard answer permits.

So, instead of answering with the somewhat expected (and superficial) answer, I think we ought to ask students why they want to know. What other thoughts are connected to the “have to” question? What’s driving them to be concerned? The important question: What is it like to be a grown-up Christian where “have to” is irrelevant? I’m reminded again (I’m a slow learner sometimes) of the importance of letting “have to” questions become the staging ground for transformative interaction.

An example of the “how do you know” question: “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” Students face a staggering array of options. After all, they Google something and they get seemingly limitless hits and a head-spinning range of possibilities. How do they know which option to pursue?

If, in response, I switch to “apologetics” mode and launch my vast intellectual armaments in defense of the faith (a very important task, to be sure, but misdirected here), I will lock on to what sounds like skepticism and completely miss the fragile openness, the hesitant vulnerability standing before me. I dare not stomp on the tenderness of this holy moment!

Now, I’m not advocating some version of the high brow liberalism (pardon the term) I got as a seminary student: you know, the “It’s not the answer but the question that matters” claptrap, which is superficially true, but usually intellectually dishonest. Sooner or later, everybody wants a satisfying answer, even while recognizing it’s only partial.

That point accepted, I still must recognize that the “have to” and the “how do you know” questions are golden opportunities for God’s grace to be poured out. If we care about evangelism; if we feel called to apologetics, let us please hold gently in our hearts the people asking the questions.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Stunting Pragmatism

I’ve been bothered for a long time by the impatience that many Christians seem to show about the intellectual content part of the faith.   Since I’m a college professor, I could be a suspect for the “intellectual elitism” charge.  I hope it’s not true of me, and I think it is not.  

I’m reading a book about St. Augustine, just good and started.  In describing Augustine’s spiritual vision, the author, Thomas Martin, writes, “Augustine concludes his arguably most profound theological exploration, On the Trinity, with a prayer, one that serves as a vivid reminder that for [Augustine] not only are spirituality and theology inseparable, but that both are deeply plunged into the mystery of God,” (Martin, Our Resltess Heart, p. 51).   

Theology and spirituality are inseparably linked.  I totally agree.  Our pragmatism, our hurry, gets in the way of effective Christian spirituality.  You don’t have to be a “great theologian” to think deeply, theologically.  Slowing down to think cannot but help.  

I’m not interested in turning everybody into contemplatives.  Some people are just plain doers.  But even they need to slow down and think.  I believe, if we did/do, we’d have a more productive Christian life.  And maybe gain some self-awareness.  And maybe even become better witnesses.

Slowing down to think actually has a beneficial practical effect.  That’s the irony.  

What do you think?  Are American Christians too pragmatic?

January 30, 2009 Posted by | The Church | , , , | 1 Comment