God in Public?

[Fuzzy San Diego, cas 2007]  

Earlier this year, the spiritual advisor to the Queen of England spoke at a fundraiser for my church’s legal defense. It was my introduction to life as an Anglican in Newport Beach. The fundraiser was held at the yacht club. Jeff and I were seated with some senior citizens, a couple of whom were downing Scotch while singing along with the worship band. A priest wearing ornate red robes stood out amidst the crowd. “Who is that?” we asked. The spiritual advisor to the queen. Ohhh.

The queen’s guy had nothing on N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in terms of crowd-hushing presence. Wright wasn’t wearing robes, but when he walked to the podium at AAR, people seemed to anticipate something profound. I’m not sure he said anything profound, but he resonated with me, partly because I’m neither a “fluffy” postmodernist nor a linear-thinking modernist, and partly, I think, because I’m from New Jersey and we like our Scotch neat. (That’s metaphor; I don’t drink Scotch.)

The Bishop said the idea of God in Public is a topic society should have been addressing for a long time. (Haven’t we been arguing about this in the United States for a couple hundred years?) In the split world of the Enlightenment, even William Wilberforce committed a faux pas by employing a biblically-based political critique in his abolitionist rhetoric. 

Wright said belief in the Bible and in the bodily resurrection of Christ are both fading, but that the rise in fundamentalism is alarming. Once again I heard that the secularist/fundamentalist dance is two opposing modernist narratives that are “running out of steam.” He described the dance as a “stunning example of missing the point.”

(Here he noted, with what sounded like disapproval, that the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature have split under criticism that their relationship was evidence of religious bias in the Academy.)

The Enlightenment dream ultimately “eats its own tail,” in Wright’s view. Reason inevitably descends into spin, which degenerates further into emotivism.

Wisdom takes a different track.

He suggested that much of evangelicalism is based on the Epistles rather than the Gospels and said this mirrors a larger problem of not knowing what the Gospels are for. He believes they provide the basis for the idea of God in Public. In the Gospels, God is reclaiming the world as his own in and through Jesus. They demonstrate what the world looks like with God running the show.

Wright said both Hitchens and Nietzsche work from the perspective of “God as tyrant,” but the coming of God into the world is the confrontation of alientating and dehumanizing tryants.

He suggested an integrated reading of the Gospels and mentioned both Luke 4 and the Sermon on the Mount. He stood the Gospels up against all comers, saying the kingdom Jesus brought was emphatically for this world, defeating both tyranny and chaos, Modernism and “fluffy” postmodernism. He said that the Gospel narrative read this way “resists deconstructionist power games.” It is, instead, the impetus for renewal and the final coming together of heaven and earth.

This is where he called the religious right a “clumsy attempt” at trying to bring God back into public life “without understanding why or how this makes sense.” (He had earlier stated that in England there is no religious right, only a religious left. He seemed to favor neither one.) He then said something about launching a “political hermaneutic of suspicion.” The Gospels, in contrast, are the story of God’s public kingdom project that summons the whole world to repentance and faith.

He quoted Psalm 2, and said the creator God reigns through order, not chaos. He mentioned Jim Wallis’ new book, but said we need a more firmly grounded Creationist order. Even corrupt order is better than chaos, in Wright’s view. He mentioned John 19, I Corinthians 2, and Colossians 2 as a biblical basis for this position. He affirmed the legitimacy of confronting corrupt leaders, saying the rulers of this age inevitably twist God-ordained authority into the satanic possibility of tryanny. However, the cross offers a paradoxical victory. It is tyranny confronted and overthrown (Romans 13).

God is a god of order, even if He has, inevitably, to judge that order.

In the New Testament, Jesus is already Lord of heaven and earth. The Spirit was given so the world would be called to account. The reign of the Spirit is demonstrated in works of justice, mercy, beauty, and through relationship.

He said we must collaborate without compromise and critique without dualism. He denounced our present “glorification of democracy,” which, in his view, stems from Enlightenment dualism. Holding governments to account demands, however, that the church is called to account as well. He suggested that we welcome both prophetic witness and reform within our communities.

Wright said, “In all kinds of ways, we are moving toward post-postmodernism.” He failed to defend this statement.

As to modernism and postmodernism, he dismissed one as boring and trivial and the other as dangerous and dehumanizing. You decide which is which. He didn’t say. I can conjure arguments either way, despite the obvious implication.

The Bishop of Durham concluded by saying we must take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, and develop a wise exegesis for the common good, while rejecting the shrill certainties of fundamentalism and the necessary nihilism of the postmodern reaction.

This is why I liked him. He sounded like a realist.

Living in a Secular Age

It really would have been helpful if I had actually read philosopher Charles Taylor’s book, A Secular Age before trying to summarize a two-and-a-half hour discussion of it, so this post will not be comprehensive. By way of introduction, here is what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Secular Age:

“In his characteristically erudite yet engaging fashion, Taylor, winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize, takes up where he left off in his magnificent Sources of the Self (1989) as he brilliantly traces the emergence of secularity and the processes of secularization in the modern age. Challenging the idea that the secular takes hold in a world where religion is experienced as a loss or where religions are subtracted from the culture, Taylor discovers the secular emerging in the midst of the religious. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on breaking down the invidious political structures of the Catholic Church, provides the starting point down the road to the secular age. Taylor sweeps grandly and magisterially through the 18th and 19th centuries as he recreates the history of secularism and its parallel challenges to religion. He concludes that a focus on the religious has never been lost in Western culture, but that it is one among many stories striving for acceptance. Taylor’s examination of the rise of unbelief in the 19th century is alone worth the price of the book and offers an essential reminder that the Victorian age, more than the Enlightenment, dominates our present view of the meanings of secularity. Taylor’s inspired combination of philosophy and history sparkles in this must-read virtuoso performance.”

The belle of this ball was not Taylor, however, but Robert Neely Bellah, Elliot Professor of Sociology Emeritus as U.C. Berkley. In the AAR newspaper, Bellah was described as a “sociologist, moralist, communitarian, and Episcopal deacon.” Bellah and Taylor were the two celebrated award winners at AAR. Taylor received the Templeton Prize and Bellah was the recipient of the Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion. One award winner critiquing another. How much fun is that? Before I get to Bellah’s critique of Taylor, here are a few tidbits from the other three papers.

The first paper was given by F.B.A. Asiedu of Middlebury College. His was a response to critics, one by the name of Skinner, who view Taylor’s “turn toward transcendence” in this work as nothing more than an apologetic for Christianity, an endeavor I am guessing Skinner thinks inappropriate to philosophy. Asiedu thought it odd that Skinner called himself an admirer of Taylor, while rejecting the essence of who Taylor is. His was an eloquent denunciation of Modernism, something my notes are not.

I didn’t catch (or later find) the name of the second presenter. He was the co-chair of the Philosophy of Religion group at the conference. His was the talk most critical of A Secular Age. He found the absence of “conversation with theology” in the book puzzling. It seemed to this speaker that questions of theology are central to Taylor’s topic. He said Taylor focused on the “conditions of belief” rather than engaging the ideas of Barth, Niebuhr and Tillich, for example, whose works deal with the content of belief. The speaker quoted Shakespeare here, saying the play is not the thing—meaning conditions are not the thing, content is. Taylor later expressed mild regret at not having included a chapter on theology.

This philosopher said Taylor “talks as if reference to God isn’t problematic.” Taylor’s world is black or white, either there is God or there is Humanism. He said there are many theological options between these two choices, but provided no examples. (This speaker was non-Western, so perhaps he was drawing from his Eastern heritage here.) He merely concluded that a dualistic conception “lurks behind Taylor’s picture.”

The third paper, by Jennifer Herdt of Notre Dame, was read by the moderator. Hers began with a description of A Secular Age as a “masterful work.”

Herdt said it is not the case that religious practice and belief have declined in any significant way, but instead, faith and religious life continually remake themselves. The Christianity of the 20th century saw the emergence of “narrative forms” and “virtue ethics.” Believers sought to reshape the world rather than conform to existing reality. She said God can seem superfluous in such an environment, which favors immanence over transcendence.

Herdt argued that Christian Ethics reinforces secularization. She quoted Taylor here: “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.” She believes that any attempt to return to the premodern will ultimately fail, and believes secular civilization should be welcomed because it returns us to the martyred life. This is because Christian faith cannot be taken for granted as a structural reality in a secular society. She advocated getting back to basics rather than escaping to the past. She contrasted excarnation, a set of beliefs/doctrines that justify, with incarnation, a life of devotion, prayer, and community.

Herdt’s paper concluded with something about being careful not to cast people off. There’s a difference, she said, between bad faith and genuine searching. The difference is real. Genuine searching beckons the pilgrim onward.

Finally, a frail old gentleman took the podium. Throughout the presentations, he was hunkered at the table, sometimes resting his head in his hand. I couldn’t imagine that he would be engaging, and remember this was a warm, uncomfortably packed room. I was wrong. Robert Bellah was a passionate orator, even as he struggled physically to get through his presentation. He would cough out a few sentences or paragraphs, choke and sip water and then throw himself back into it. This cycle repeated for a good 20-30 minutes. At one point he took his jacket off and loosened his tie. It didn’t seem to help. He was thoroughly engaging, and apparently sick from too much travel.

Bellah introduced Taylor’s book as among a handful of the most important ones he’s ever read, but then offered a good bit of critique, most of which centered on Taylor’s reference to the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Bellah edited a collection of Durkheim’s work, which included an essay called “Individualism and the Intellectuals,” which I am guessing Taylor must have quoted. I won’t even attempt to translate what Bellah’s criticism was all about—something related to Taylor’s use of the terms “paleo,” “neo,” and “post-Durkheimianism.”

Bellah said that in Durkheim’s framework, radical individualism is dominant over and above commitment to nation and God, especially amongst the educated class. But in Durkheim’s view, individualism is not the same thing as egoism. For Durkheim, individualism is the glorification, not of self, but of all that is human. Durkheim never imagined individualism apart from a social context. In fact, Durkheim himself prophesied post-Durkheimianism. Got that? Taylor later conceded this point and suggested that “double-Durkheimianism” might have been a better turn of phrase. (Really, distinguished sir, as an editor, I must object!)

Bellah seemed to hold out hope for our nation, saying he believes that the values held by both religious and non-religious youth are admirable ones. He named among them: justice, tolerance, nature, humanitarianism.

Finally Taylor stood to speak. He surprised me. With so much praise heaped upon him, I expected charisma. There was none. He responded to the critiques with grace and humility, however, saying the 800+ page book could have expanded indefinitely. The primary thing he was trying to accomplish was to explain what had occured from the 16th century to the 21st. He didn’t attempt to tackle his subject through a history of ideas or theology, but wanted to see how the conditions of how we function have changed.

Taylor said he thinks Skinner is “terribly wrong-headed” to focus on Christian atrocities that emerge from certain readings of Scripture, as if only religion produces such evils. The faster we “get over” the idea that the other guy is the problem (Atheist/Christian/Muslim), the better off we’ll be. He cited a book called The Late Christiandom by Frenchman Emanuelle Munier as having influenced him significantly and said we are in a post Constantinian/post-Christian age.

Taylor offered the idea of “Cosmopolitanism” as a solution to the problems of our time. Here he mentioned German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, but I can’t recall if he said the idea originated with Habermas. Taylor traced the origin of the word to the Greek Stoics and defined it as “citizen of the world.” He said the word was never translated into Latin because the Romans thought they were the world, just as Americans now think we are the world. In talking about multiple modernities that need to be deconstructed, Taylor mentioned ethnocultural variations.

I take it then that we are to be citizens of the world, rather than just citizens of our own backyards.

These are my notes on this session. It was much better than they suggest. I’m ill equipped, however, to work from memory when the discussion is philosophy. I do love to listen and learn.

Update: I did eventually read a good chunk of Taylor’s 800 page tome.

Emerging/Emergent San Diego

Emerging San Diegoemerging san diego

[ San Diego, CA, 2007]

Some readers of this blog post are waiting for me to pronounce judgment on emerging/emergent after listening to one two-and-a-half hour panel discussion. So let me get this out of the way: I came away from the AAR session on this subject identifying myself as emerging, if not emergent, but also as someone who might even be willing to add that little “Friend of Emergent Village” logo to my blog. I can use all the friends I can get, can’t you?

This was a great opportunity for me because the subject of emergent comes up so frequently in conversations. My uncle is writing a book denouncing emergent (do we need another?), which he talks to my father about, which my father talks to me about. My Calvary Chapel friends ask me about it. Just yesterday I heard that a musician who has co-written a book on Emerging Worship has been canceled from at least one big Calvary Chapel event because of his book. I find myself defending something I don’t thoroughly understand, simply because I am so well acquainted with the thinking that reflexively denouonces it. The irony here, of course, is that some of the denouncers were, in fact, a previous generation’s emergers.

Scot McKnight, Tony Jones, and Diana Butler Bass did a great job of clearing the fog. Jones will be posting a podcast of the session on Emergent Village. Listening to the session yourself is obviously the best way to evaluate it. In the meantime, I will do my best to summarize what I heard. I must confess, however, that my notes on this session weren’t as good as I had thought.

The discussion began with introductions:

Jones said that Leadership Network discovered Bill Hybels and Rick Warren in the mid-1980s. Their ministries resonated with Boomers who were coming back to church, but that the GenXers were leaving church and not coming back. When his band of peers was trying to determine how to reach out to the this group in the late 1990s, there was an immediate rift in the group. Half wanted to make the gospel relavent, while the other half was reconsidering the gospel in America altogether. This half was interested in epistemology rather than relevance, and founded emergent.

At only 10 years old, Jones said there is still a lot of immaturity in emergent, and that there have been mistakes. He also credited the internet as a factor in its growth. As an example, he mentioned having given a paper at a theology conference (was it at Wheaton?), which was excluded from the official conference book because it was “off message.” He posted the paper on the internet and it was downloaded 2500 times. (I’ve had a similar, if less fruitful, experience.)

Jones described himself as a “gadfly.” He spends half his time as coordinator of Emergent Village, is a doctoral fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary, travels prodigiously and is a volunteer police chaplain and a cub scout leader. (I hope a good husband too; I don’t recall him mentioning that.)

Butler Bass came to emergent by a different path. She said she knew, and broke, all the rules of the evangelical subculture, having graduated from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, and later having been fired from an evangelical institution of higher eduction. In 2000, she received a Lilly Foundation grant to study examples of vitality in mainline churches, one of which she attends. I believe she said she shared a publisher with Brian McLaren, and was told by her editor that she and McLaren should meet because they were “writing the same book.” I’m not sure which of his books this was, but they met and talked for 4+ hours and, indeed, found parallels in their work.

She mentioned reaching back to the past in order to move forward, and defined emerging as a larger reworking of things—a set of patterns of cultural change—that transcends religious groups and even religions. There is emerging Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

She asked: What is it emerging from and what is it emerging toward?

Scot McKnight first encountered Brian McLaren when McLaren spoke at the institution where McKnight was teaching. He thought McLaren was “thoroughly boring and uninteresting.” But then, a magazine editor suggested to him that he might enjoy blogging (Mark, was that you?). Nothing much happened until he blogged about the book gallies of a D.A. Carson work that he said picked on one dimension of emergent. Jesus Creed took off, much to Scot’s dismay. He said he started following emergent because of the blog and woke up one day to discover that he was a part of a movement with which he doesn’t always agree. Even so, they welcomed him with open arms, which he thought was pretty cool.

After the introductions, a discussion ensued that was intermittently about faddishness vs. substance.

McKnight, who described himself as a linear-thinking modernist, compared emergents to a blue parakeet that invaded the turf of his backyard sparrows. The sparrows were thrown into a frenzy by its presence. McKnight said the emergents are asking questions the traditional church doesn’t want to hear. He also identified emerging as a phenomenon, and emergent as a dimension of it.

These are the questions McKnight hears emergents asking:

  1. What kind of truth can be found in Scripture?
  2. If evolution isn’t true, why did God make the world to look like it is? (He said the younger generation doesn’t care about Creation Science.)
  3. If Paul says we are new creatures in Christ, why are there so many old creatures in the church? (He talked here about church scandal fatigue.)
  4. Is everyone who hasn’t heard the gospel really going to hell? (He said this question isn’t going away.)
  5. The fifth question is about a moral critique of the Bible. eg. Why is Jeptha heroized in Hebrews 11?
  6. The sixth had to do with what he called “social location”—a chastened epistemology that doesn’t seek a universal theology, but is sensitive to cultural context.

McKnight thinks, as do I, that the church should be a safe place for asking questions rather than a place that locks them out. He later coined the term “ironic faith” to describe the generation of students he encounters. Because their environment does not allow for questions, they live with ambiguity, ambivalence, and, consequently, anger. He said genuine conversation lets kids explore answers.

Butler Bass responded that there was not one question on McKnight’s list that she wasn’t asking in the 1970s. She’s asking different questions now. For example, she told the story of visiting the Seattle church where Rev. Ann Holmes Redding has embraced a dual Christian/Muslim identity. Butler Bass was there for what sounded like a beautiful baptism service on the same weekend that she spoke at an emergent event. She compared these experiences and concluded that orthopraxy centers both groups. Both are interested in transformation re. people, institutions, and cultures. With transformation comes tension. The Seattle church is wrestling with the implications of Holmes Reddings’ choice and the questions it raises about identity, meaning and spiritual practice. 

There followed a debate between Jones and Butler Bass of an event at the National Cathedral at which Marcus Borg reportedly said that if he had to bet his last dollar or his life as to whether or not the tomb of Christ was empty, he would have to say that either the tomb was empty or there was no tomb. Jones derided this statement, saying it is no stretch for him to believe that God can defy the laws of physics. Butler Bass took exception to his characterization of what Borg had said, stating that Jones and others had missed the essential sentence, in which Borg affirmed his faith.

Jones said he thought Borg and John Piper are guilty of the same sin (my language, not his), which is wanting an airtight Christianity. They come at it differently, but both expressions are functions of the Modern enterprise. He said emergents have no interest in either expression; they are comfortable with paradox, uncomfortable with liberal answers and unwilling to say that the Bible is not inspired.

Both parties cited studies that found that the numerical ascendancy of evangelical churches over mainline churches is actually a function of birthrate rather than supposed weaknesses in liberal theology. Evangelicals have more kids. [But if those kids are leaving church in droves, what does this portend for the future? That answer came in the Q&A: By 2050, someone stated, 125,000,000 Christians worldwide will no longer be connected with a church.]

Jones launched into a denunciation of bureaucracy, which rightly bothered Butler Bass. They bantered about this a bit. In the midst of the banter, Jones made this statement: “The problem isn’t with gay bishops, but with having bishops.”

Here, in my opinion, is where the immaturity shows up, esp. because he later said all kinds of people are asking to join emergent. Who decides? Him, a board? Is it arbitrary or bureaucratic? In the Q&A, a sharp young female Episcopal priest from the Diocese of Los Angeles asked him how emergents deal with issues of accountability and the protection of children from sexual abuse. I recall that his answer to this question was both disappointing and naive. All I have in my notes is that he said his church has procedures for dealing with such things, and added something about trusting the “other” to be open to talking about their sin. I’d love to hear something more substantive on this topic.

It was in the context of the conversation about faddishness vs. substance that the Theology of the Couch came up. Jones said that what appears to be faddish within emergent is often reflective of theological reasoning, eg. why Solomon’s Porch has couches rather than pews. It has to do with wanting to foster interaction between congregants. I’m embarrassed to say my notes are sparser on this point than I had thought. I recall something about what we do with our bodies being important, and the way pews orient people in the worship experience. Jones said it is much easier to innovate than to reform existing communities. When making decisions about what to purchase for a sanctuary, for example, why not think theologically and innovatively about it?

Personally, I have never had difficulty engaging a neighbor in the pew, but my home church, which is Baptist, arranges the  sanctuary chairs into a u-shape that surrounds the Communion table for its Thanksgiving eve service. There is music and preaching, followed by testimony and corporate communion around the table. Facing one another in worship and sharing our stories like this is one of my favorite events, so I get the thinking behind the couches at Solomon’s Porch. How we orient ourselves in church has meaning. It says something that these leaders care about this. More importantly, the example highlights the importance of being gracious and giving our fellow pilgrims the benefit of the doubt as they  thoughtfully live out their faith and calling.

My notes on this section conclude with an excellent point made by Jones. He said that theology has always been a conversation. He talked about contextualization (an idea that N.T. Wright, unfortunately, derided in his lecture), and said the gospel has always been fully incarnated in a cultural context, which is true.

Next came the Q&A:

Becky Garrison from the Wittenberg Door was in attendance, and mentioned Tall Skinny Kiwi as a chronicler of what is going on with emergent. Most readers probably already knew this; I only knew that the blog is popular.

In response to a question that I didn’t write down, Jones said that emergents are not trying to convert other Christians to their way of thinking, but that for a lot of people, emergent is their last shot at organized Christianity.

He talked about sharing a meal with Tony Campolo at which Campolo had advised him to resist the pressure to emerge into something because that’s when Jones will start “working for the man.” Campolo advised him to keep pushing the boundaries for as long as he can.

Now, this statement gets at what I grapple with re. emergent. I’ve lived organic innovation 30 years down the road, and have been flattened by what organic can morph into when it, in fact, becomes institutionalized, while simultaneously denouncing bureaucracy. 

I think Campolo sounds a wise warning. Ten years of deconstructing a philosophical framework that has dominated Christian thought for a couple hundred years is not a long time. They could keep on questioning indefinitely, although I suspect such an endeavor would eventually wear most people out. However, it seems to me—as both a writer and book editor acquainted with the tensions between markets, thinkers, and publishers—that the emergents are already “answering to the man” to some degree, at least the ones who are published authors, conference organizers, speakers, etc. Do they have their own t-shirts yet?

So, while I gladly embrace the idea of an emerging faith, I think emergent’s day will, like so many others, pass, and its leaders will have to figure out what it means to hold a moment in their hands that was unique to their time. I, for one, am grateful for the emergent contribution and for the rigorous critique of it. The conversation assures me that our faith is both vital and dynamic.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]


Gaslamp Musician

San Diego is unique among cities I’ve visited; the air is soft rather than kinetic. Nothing jars (at least in daylight), save perhaps the thick homeless population downtown. These aren’t the cleaned-up homeless of Mustard Seed Ranch, but gritty street sleeper types. I paid the gentleman in this photo $5 for the privilege of taking his picture. When I dropped my bill in his hat, he asked me out, so I don’t feel like I exploited him. In fact, I wonder if he exploited me, given the fact that he managed to blow enough air into a saxophone to play entire songs despite the tubes and tank …

Because the atmosphere is so calm in this border town, it was a great place to ponder the weighty ideas I grappled with at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

My first day began with a reprimand from a stodgy old man in a suit and spit-shined shoes. He objected to my cushiony red, open-toed sandals and blue jeans. I could have been offended (Miss Manners would say that his rudeness was a worse breach of etiquette than my inappropriate dress), but I played along, and even commiserated with him about the general decline of formality in American culture, citing dapper novelist Tom Wolfe, who, I believe, wrote about this very subject a few years ago for The New York Times.

I was relieved to see Scot McKnight wearing his brand new blue jeans at the session about the emergents. Or was this simply another indication of the decline of rigorous thinking as Mr. Suit suggested? After all, on Sunday, N.T. Wright dismissed the postmoderns as “fluffy.”

The discussion between McKnight, Tony Jones and Diana Butler Bass was more helpful to me in understanding what emerging/emergent is all about than anything I’ve read thus far, which, admittedly, isn’t much. (I’ll detail the session in a separate post tommorrow.) Here I’d like to note that McKnight attends Willow Creek Community Church and Butler Bass is a liberal Episcopalian. As Jones described it, each has one foot in emergent and one foot in their respective communities. Having spoken to Butler Bass after the session, I suspect she might frame her involvement with emergent differently.

Jones said he had grown up in a combination mainline/Young Life congregation and was unaware of the tensions between evangelicals and the mainline until he went to college. Jones credited Leadership Network for snatching not only him and other emergent leaders out of obscurity, but Rick Warren and Bill Hybels before them. So what exactly is Leadership Network and who funds it? Briefly, it’s a parachurch organization founded in 1984 to “identify, connect and help high-capacity Christian leaders multiply their impact” with the support of corporate “Alliance Partners.” One wonders about this interplay of corporate and sacred at the forefront of contemporary evangelical/emergent culture. Maybe it’s nothing; I suspect it’s something, especially since Jones mentioned book publishers’ role in emergent’s ascendance.

The session was moderated by Keith Matthews of Azusa Pacific University. I had interviewed Matthews for my profile of Dallas Willard, but that interview was cut from the final draft. Matthews was assistant pastor to Brian McLaren in McLaren’s early days of ministry and said in his introduction to the panel discussion that he has a “love/hate relationship” with emergent. I asked him about this in the Q&A. He mentioned Dallas Willard as his mentor and repeated what Dallas had said to me a couple weeks ago: some things needed deconstructing–like Modernism, but at some point one must reconstruct. Matthews thinks the emergents are still somewhat stuck in deconstruction.  To be fair, Jones called emergent a safety net for those who are about to abandon organized religion altogether. Tommorrow, a full outline, including what I am titling Jones’ “Theology of the Couch.”

This theme of deconstructing modernisms and reconstructing something in their place transcended the sessions I attended. In this post I’d like to make some observations about this overarching idea and briefly describe my sensory perception of the conference. In the next few days, I’ll post highlights from some of the individual sessions.

After the emergent panel, I attended a plenary session with Tavis Smiley. The contrast was striking. Jones had mentioned that 85-95 percent of those who preach in both evangelical and mainline churches are white men. At his church, the voice of the white male preacher is not amplified above the rest. I didn’t get how this works, but some technique is employed so that everyone can hear the person who actually does the talking without them talking over congregants. At the “Covenant with Black America” session, standing ovations for black men and women were generous. First for the incoming president of AAR, a black woman, next for PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, whose book, The Covenant with Black America, was the first non-fiction book by a black-owned publisher to top The New York Times bestseller list, then for Cornel West, whom Smiley described as the leading public intellectual of our time, and for a scholar who is about to be promoted to department chair in his field at Princeton. These mostly African Americans were celebrating the haphazard deconstruction of a racialized society and the equally haphazard and lurching reconstruction of one that Smiley hopes will run on love.

After this enthusiastic event, I attended a session called “Radical Life Extension: Implications for Eschatological Visions of the Religions.” Forget deconstruction; Aubrey de Grey, a biologist with The Methuselah Foundation,  is a zealot and self-proclaimed humanitarian who believes human beings will eventually live into the 4 digits. Like all utopians, he gives little credance to the possibilities for his dream to morph into a nighmare. The world he would like to reconstruct is one where Scientism does in fact rule, even if, as he suggested, aging has no evolutionary purpose. Human beings are ultimately fair and rational in de Grey’s utopia, as evidenced by the way we allocate funds for education. They will, therefore, allocate life-extending interventions judiciously.   : )

de Grey was no advertisement for his work. At 44 years old, he said he runs and thinks as fast as he did when he was 24, but his long hair is greying, his eyes are sunken in with dark circles beneath them, and his abdomen length beard did nothing to advance the picture of youth and vitality that he is selling. I snuck out before the discussion of eschatology.

I wandered the Gaslamp District for a bit and ate a platter of Baja lobster taco, burrito, and chowder. Then it was on to a reception for journalists. There I met a documentarian from the BBC, the news editor of The Christian Century and his lovely wife, a freelancer for Religion News Service, a couple of award winners for in-depth religion reporting from an Ottowa newspaper, and one PR person who promised to help me win the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship that I was turned down for earlier this year.

I left my apartment at 5:30 am and crawled into bed exhausted sometime after 11pm.

Yesterday I left home at 7am and made it to San Diego in an hour. My day began much more pleasantly the second time around, with a discussion of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor‘s book, A Secular Age. I had this session on my agenda, but my new best friend, the PR guy, had said I shouldn’t miss it, so I scratched the other possibilites off my schedule. Lo and behold, Mr. PR was thanked in the introductory remarks because AAR has been trying to get Taylor to speak for years, and he was responsible. If he can accomplish that, perhaps he can indeed help me with the fellowship. One never knows.

Taylor was less interesting than those gently critiquing his book, but he humbly conceded their points about the 800+ page tome. The tightly packed room made the session more challenging physically than any other event. The talks were worth enduring physical discomfort however. Here again Modernism and Atheism were eloquently deconstructed, while “Cosmopolitanism” was offered as an alternative to any particular religious perspective. I’ll expound on this theme later in the week.

After the end of the Q&A was announced, the moderator pointed unexpectedly to the back of the room, where Cornel West boomed out his question with poetic force. He wanted to know if Taylor had ever been tempted to abandon faith as a member of the Academy. Taylor reiterated something Dallas Willard had said when I interviewed him two years ago. Taylor said that when he and a friend arrived at Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t recall which, many years ago, they lamented together the philosophical junk that was being peddled. The friend was eventually converted and became a renowned analytic philosopher, but Taylor decided that his only choices were to either leave philosophy or confront the ideas that he found vacuous. He remains a practicing Catholic and a philosopher. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, later told me he plans to write something on Taylor’s book for B&C. While he likes the man, he has problems with the book.

Next I sat in on a session called “Black Theology: New Times, New Methods” at which a name came up that I had heard from Tavis Smiley: James Cone is apparently the dean of Black Theology and any black pastor who doesn’t know this should, according to a panelist from Fuller Seminary, be ashamed of themselves. What needs to be desconstructed, according to these brilliant minds, is white, European modernist Christian theology, to be replaced by one that relies on the earliest texts, which are African. Indeed, IVP was advertising a book called How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden. I had gone to this session hoping to gain some understanding about the unique contributions of African American theologians to the community of faith, but even the elder-statesman of the panel said there really was nothing new in what was said by the participants. They said it brilliantly however. The high proportion of black attendees at the conference made me wonder if they are overrepresented in religious studies and underrepresented in other fields, or if black cultural identity has been so interwoven with faith that it makes what N.T. Wright later said about God’s absence from public life sound almost foolish, or at least neglectful re. civil rights movements here and elsewhere.

Wright made me glad to be an Anglican, and believe me, I’m not always sure what I’m doing as an Anglican. It seems to be the best available option, however. My particular congregation is politically conservative, it being located in Newport Beach and all. I am not a conservative. I’m a moderate, as evidenced by my broadly pro-life views on immigration, racial justice, embryo issues, etc. So it was good to hear Wright critique the religious right in his talk “God in Public?” He called it a fumbling attempt to bring God back into public life. The White House apparently doesn’t like this assessment and let him know it.

Wright also talked about deconstructing Modernism, which by the way, isn’t a monolithic thing. He suggested, with audible relief, that we are moving into post-postmodernism, or need to. He suggested a radical kingdom theology for public engagement based on the gospels (again reminiscient of Willard), and advocated a trajectory entirely separate from the Fundamentalist/Secularist deathmatch. This session was the most packed of any I attended. When I got up to leave during the Q&A, I literally had to climb over people who were jammed into the aisles.

It was at this lecture that I ran into both John Wilson and Ted Olsen of CT. Ted was one of those unlucky floor dwellers that I waded past on my way out.

Then it was off to the session I had most been looking forward to, but which was the least interesting. It was called “Evangelicals and Southern California: Factors Shaping Evangelical Identity.” I had thought this discussion was going to be about how the culture of Southern California shapes evangelicalism nationally—a topic that greatly interests me, but instead it was about factors that shape SoCal evangelicalism. There were only two panelists. Daniel Rodriguez, of Pepperdine University, gave a paper on Hispanic ministry that could have come out of the Calvary Chapel play book. He studied two SoCal church networks: Victory Outreach and Praise Chapel, both of which started around the time Calvary Chapel did, but were not outgrowths of it. The other paper, if one can believe this, is the subject of a bright young scholar’s doctoral dissertation on the theology of sports ministries like Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The salient point in her talk was that, in the case of Athletes in Action at least, the theology appears to have been influenced by the writings of … are you ready? Arnold Schwarzenegger, and perhaps, as one audience member suggested, Maharashi somebody.

I intended to wrap my evening up at an InterVarsity Press reception, at which Alistair McGrath was scheduled to speak. It was postponed for 90 minutes and I was famished so I crashed the Yale University reception, surmising that the Yalies would have the best food. Smart girl. I ate sushi, brie quiches, rich blue cheese on date nut bread, accompanied by a few sips of Cabernet.

Afterwards, I met an evangelical Lutheran scholar from Hungary who had, oddly enough, connections to both my past and my present. She has friends who attend a Calvary Chapel in Budapest, and had been there to hear Chuck Smith. She wanted to know if there was a thelogical basis for the way Communion was served at the service she attended. The elements were simply placed on the stage with little commentary and no pastoral interaction. I told her this is possible because low-church Protestants tend to believe in the priesthood of all believers. She also happened to have become acquainted with, I think she said, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. She described sharing a cozy dinner with this eminent member of the clergy, at which he spewed profanity-laced vitriole at my church.

The IVP reception included some exquisite chocolate desserts, but McGrath had canceled and I was conflicted between the engaging replacement topic, “The Legacy of John Paul II” and a photography presentation. The thought of leaving the conference without attending a session on the Arts was anathema to me, so I ditched the pope.

In the exhibit hall, there was a stunning photograph of a transgendered sex worker. Sounds out there, I know, but I hoped to see the rest of the series. It was a grand way to end the conference. Golden States of Grace is a traveling exhibit that looks at the spiritual lives of marginalized communities. The artist’s work deconstructs assumptions about those lives and inspires compassion and respect for the humanity of every person created in God’s image.

You might notice that I generally did not choose sessions dealing with doctrinal minutiae, but instead went for big picture themes. Not only does doctrinal minutiae bore me silly, but I’m a journalist who wants to understand our world and where it’s going from the perspective of a variety of voices. In the end, N.T. Wright resonated with me the most, while a couple of African American Phd. candidates from Duke University impressed me the most. I’ll outline Wright’s talk in a couple days. He made me feel safe in my new Anglican identity and for that I’m grateful.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

A Divine Conspirator

Dallas Willard is on a quiet quest to subvert nominal Christianity. 

It’s the first week of class at the University of Southern California, and a young woman named Sarah is standing on a soapbox in Hahn Plaza giving her testimony. She describes her first girlfriend, and says that when her mother found out about their relationship, she sent her to therapy. It wasn’t until Sarah came to USC that she fully embraced her identity as a lesbian.

Stories like this may strike fear in the heart of many a Christian parent, but for the past 41 years, USC students have also had the opportunity to hear the teaching of a provocative Christian thinker named Dallas Willard.

It’s a short walk from Hahn Plaza to Willard’s office in the Mudd Hall of Philosophy. A stately brick building with a clock tower stretching to the sky, Mudd Hall was modeled after an Italian monastery and built in 1929. The father of the building’s architect and the department chair that year, Ralph Tyler Flewelling, was a Methodist who wanted to establish a Christian intellectual outreach to the Far East. It’s a fitting home for a man devoted to reestablishing the exalted place moral reasoning once held in the academy.

Willard is most familiar to Christians from his books: The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year in 1998), The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart, and, most recently, The Great Omission. But philosophy is both his primary vocation and the foundation of his devotional writing. According to Willard’s wife, Jane, his book on German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s early work, Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge, was the “other woman” in their marriage for the 15 years it took him to write it. Conversely, she had to press him to write The Divine Conspiracy after he had been teaching its principles to church groups for several years. “He works individually,” she says. “He doesn’t process things out loud. I would hear it when he preached it.”

Learning to Question

Willard says that when he left the ministry to study philosophy in the early 1960s, God told him, “If you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you.” He had no idea what this meant, because, at the time, the church was still the primary cultural authority. However, as a young Baptist assistant pastor, he had become convinced he was “abysmally ignorant” of God and the soul. He decided to study philosophy, because he believed that “Jesus and his teachings and the philosophers and their teachings were addressing the same questions.”

Willard’s provocative thinking was evident even in the 1960s. He recalls shocking his college classmates with statements like this one: “If you could find a better way, Jesus would be the first one to tell you to take it. And if you don’t believe that about him, you don’t have faith in him, because what you’re really saying is that he would encourage you to believe something that is false.” This realization freed Willard “from ducking or trying to avoid issues raised against the content of the teachings of Jesus. … It made it possible to do honest inquiry in any area and to meet those of different persuasions on the field of common inquiry, not on that of assumptions to be protected at all costs.”

A consequence of Willard’s academic honesty is his unwillingness to state who’s in and who’s out spiritually, which bothers critics who worry that he is a universalist. He says he doesn’t believe anyone will be saved except by Jesus, but he adds, “How that works out, probably no one knows.” He teeters on the edge of openness theology, saying God can choose not to know the future if he wants to, but he doesn’t go as far as many openness adherents, whose views he believes “slip into process theology.” Still, as apologist Dave Hunt notes in his critique of The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Study Bible—of which Willard was a coeditor—some conservative critics remain disturbed by the kind of openness to ambiguity that marks the Renovaré Bible and its editors.

James Higginbotham, chairman of USC’s philosophy department, says Willard’s reputation among philosophers stems chiefly from his work on Husserlian realism. Like Husserl, Willard believes that we can have direct experiences with the world that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. What intrigued him about the German philosopher was partly his obscurity. “I thought the fashionable views were a disaster,” says Willard. “I wouldn’t have stayed in philosophy if it weren’t for realism.”

From Moral Knowledge to Transformation

As Sarah rattles on about her sexuality in Hahn Plaza, Willard is teaching a class on the history of modern philosophy in an antiquated Mudd Hall classroom. He is a subversive and sophisticated apologist for the existence of truth in a setting that he claims has abandoned its mandate to transfer moral knowledge to the next generation. Point by point, he explains where and how modern thought went wrong. He begins with the Renaissance, unravels the Reformation-inspired battle over authority, then moves in broad strokes from rationalism to relativism.

On the first day of class, he transformed this group of seemingly bored 19- and 20-year-olds into attentive students by carefully explaining that philosophy would help them “find a basis in knowledge for action.” Senior Zachary Muro says Willard’s ability to make real life connections, along with his kindness, is why he keeps taking his classes.

Talbot School of Theology distinguished professor of philosophy J. P. Moreland says that three of Talbot’s five philosophy professors were Willard’s students. He says Willard models the integration of philosophy, the life of the spirit, and mature discipleship, and that they are attempting to emulate his approach at Talbot. Moreland recalls a student who came to him following a seminar he was giving at USC and asked, “Do you believe Jesus can come up to you and listen to you?” He had been wondering about this ever since Willard told him that it was indeed possible. Moreland assured him that, in his own unique way, Willard had spoken the truth. The student later gave his life to Christ.

In philosophy classes, Willard mentions the Intelligent Design debate as an example of the battle over who gets to decide what constitutes knowledge. He says this is important, because it inevitably determines who has the right to formulate and carry out public policy. It annoys him that people who identify with science, professionally or otherwise, get to decide what knowledge is, while people who aren’t scientists can rarely be taken seriously in the id debate. “There is knowledge of God and the spiritual nature of man, as well as other types of reality (e.g. moral obligations) that are not reducible to the world dealt with by the so-called ‘natural sciences.’ The idea that knowledge—and, of course, reality—is limited to that world is the single most destructive idea on the stage of life today.”

His elders told him he was insatiable about the “why questions” as a child. Willard doesn’t remember that. He remembers the struggle to stay alive during the Great Depression and the anguish of being separated from his siblings some years after their mother died when Willard was only two years old. He has been devouring books ever since he followed his siblings to their one-room Missouri schoolhouse as a four-year-old. Plato was his companion when he worked as an agricultural laborer after high school. He still loves to work with his hands, doing carpentry and landscaping on his hilltop property north of Los Angeles.

Willard recalls giving his Baptist Sunday school teachers a “very bad time” as a young teenager. He didn’t think it made sense that you “got saved” and were “stuck with it.” He says he recognized that “even though we want to say salvation is by grace and that anyone can be saved, behaving in certain ways simply is inconsistent with having eternal life.” Nevertheless, he was later ordained as a Southern Baptist pastor.

His Arminian bent can be traced to the influence of his Methodist grandmother, but also to his feelings of failure as a young pastor. That’s when he began reading John Wesley and Charles Finney and aspiring to emulate them. “Generally, what I find is that the ordinary people who come to church are basically running their lives on their own, utilizing ‘the arm of the flesh’—their natural abilities—to negotiate their way,” he says. “They believe there is a God and they need to check in with him. But they don’t have any sense that he is an active agent in their lives. As a result, they don’t become disciples of Jesus. They consume his merits and the services of the church. … Discipleship is no essential part of Christianity today.”

He says these problems are theologically grounded: “We don’t preach life in the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus as an existential reality that leads to discipleship and then character transformation.” He adds, “When you don’t have character transformation in a large number of your people, then when something happens, everything flies apart and you have people acting in the most ungodly ways imaginable.”

The last “great outbreak” of the kingdom of God in the Western world, according to Willard, was the Wesleyan movement, which transformed both people and public institutions “without regard to churches or not churches.” When I ask Willard about later revivals such as the 1970s Jesus Movement, he says that they haven’t changed public institutions, particularly academia.

The Willard Laboratories

An early laboratory for Willard’s theology was a little Quaker church in the San Fernando Valley that the Willards attended in the 1970s. The founder of the Renovaré movement, Richard Foster, was the pastor. Willard led singing, and Jane played the organ. “I was fresh out of seminary and ready to conquer the world,” Foster recalls. “Dallas was so patient with me. He really, in a way, pastored from the pew. … When I would teach, folks might come, but when Dallas taught, they brought their tape recorders. We all did.” Foster recalls sensing that they were “onto something big” when Willard taught through the Book of Matthew.

These days there are multiple and varied laboratories for Willard’s ideas. He teaches in seminaries and is invited to many conferences, and he acts as an informal mentor to a cadre of young men whom Jane refers to as “our boys.” He also serves on the board of Renovaré and speaks and counsels at its events.

Willard has avoided many of the trappings of a high-impact ministry; colleagues like Moreland, Foster, and Higginbotham mention his generosity of spirit and his patient humility. He doesn’t have a book agent, has never pursued a book deal, doesn’t charge a set speaking fee, and doesn’t sell his books when he speaks.

Willard’s influence has sometimes led to radical changes at churches. Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California, was running along smoothly according to the Willow Creek model throughout the 1990s. Senior pastor Kent Carlson says that after a period of rapid growth, the church leadership finally had “time to think.” The leaders read a book that essentially said consumerism was a mainstay of American culture, so if the church couldn’t beat the culture, it might as well join it. Carlson says, “This was a distasteful concept to us.” At the same time, senior co-pastor Mike Lueken was taking a course taught by Willard at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

While church leaders were grappling with these conflicting ideas, they had a powerful experience with God at a leadership retreat. Carlson says that afterward they made a decision to “restructure the church so that people would have a genuine encounter with God that leads to transformation.” Oak Hills’ seeker service was canceled in the belief that evangelism would be more effective as people began to “live more contagiously.”

Instead of “trying to get people’s papers in order for heaven,” the church began concentrating on helping spiritually hungry people “pursue their life with God.” Carlson adds, “We probably didn’t do a very good job at this. We had a bit of an attitude that didn’t always come across as positive. There was anxiety at having built this large organization that we had to keep functioning while we were more enthralled by the more substantive thing.”

Tackling the Big Issues

Willard intends to tackle the question of how to live rightly on a grand scale when he takes a sabbatical from teaching this academic year. He is planning a new book, tentatively titled The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. In it, he will attempt to demonstrate how it came to be that the “institutions of knowledge have nothing to provide in terms of moral enlightenment that would be available to an ordinary person.” He says, “People today don’t know how unique that is to our times.” Harking back to the century after Wesley once again, he adds, “There was a moral synthesis at the end of the 1800s. It was an enlightened form of Judeo-Christian ethics, and really what I want to do is return to that, to bring it up to date and say, ‘Here is moral knowledge.’ “

Ken Archer, a graduate student at the Catholic University of America, notes that moral knowledge has been an important theme for Willard, philosophically and theologically. Archer has written about the impact of phenomenology on the theology of both John Paul II and Willard. He notes a similarity in both men’s practical application of realism. “It is often pointed out by biographers of Pope John Paul II that [the] call to see in the moral actions of a person who the person has chosen to become is very much a reaction against the routine hypocrisy required for survival in communist Poland,” he writes. Later, he summarizes John Paul’s insight: “You are who you are, not what you would be if the system was different.”

Likewise, Archer points out, Willard asks in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “Why is it that we look upon salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of the daily life we receive from God?” In The Divine Conspiracy, Willard writes, “God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right,’ we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life.”

To those who wonder if he advocates a new perfectionism, Willard replies, “They’re thinking the righteousness here is doing or not doing certain things, and that leads to what Jesus called the ‘leaven of the Pharisees’: hypocrisy.” What “killed” the Wesleyan movement, according to Willard, was people taking Jesus’ teachings—in which he refuted general rules without establishing new ones—in the Sermon on the Mount and turning them into legalisms.

Willard says the intersection between his philosophical and devotional work can be found in the simple question: Who are you going to become?

Husband, Father, Workaholic

Who Willard has become in his 70 years on earth is perhaps most evident at the meandering hilltop property north of Los Angeles where he and Jane raised their children, John and Becky. To say the house, furnishings, and outbuildings are modest would be an overstatement by American standards. However, the bucolic hills where Willard and the children spent afternoons exploring are visible from every room, and Jane’s quiet strength fills the house on a Saturday morning visit. Next door is the rental house they built with their own hands, and beyond that is the building containing their offices, with Willard’s makeshift library between them.

Willard was only 19 years old when he married Jane. They met in the library at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga. She was a popular, blonde music major. He was a favorite of professors. Jane thought he was a rebel, because he went sockless and wore his shirttails out; yet she was attracted to his musical gifts, the depth of his preaching, and his sensitivity in prayer. She says it was only recently that she learned his habit of going sockless had been primarily a result of poverty. Still, she remarks, “He did have rebellion in him.”

About his family life, Willard is candid: “I have not been a wise husband or father, and this has cost us dearly.” He declines to comment further for the sake of the privacy of the people involved. But Becky Heatley says her father was a “great example of unconditional fatherly love.” She says he was always singing hymns and silly songs around the house and that he taught her and her brother to think. She recalls one such experience when she was in junior high school. Billy Joel’s song “Only the Good Die Young” was playing on the car radio, and her dad provocatively asked, “Is it true that only the good die young?”

Willard says apart from the knowledge of God, Jane has been the greatest blessing in his life: “On many occasions, she has held me steady and preserved me from going off-track.” These days, Jane, who is a marriage and family therapist, needs the help of a small committee to keep Willard’s demanding schedule on track. She says he has a hard time relaxing: “If there was a blood test for workaholism, he would come up positive.” A devoted co-laborer in the work of getting his message out, she adds, “I certainly don’t feel unloved, at least at this juncture. … Always down deep in my formation was this thing before God of ‘I cannot stand in his way.'”

It was with Jane that Willard had an early experience that set him on his life course. He and Jane had prayed to fully surrender their lives to Christ during a campus service at Tennessee Temple University. Afterward, R. R. Brown was laying hands on Willard and praying over him. Jane says Willard lost consciousness, later describing the experience as being enveloped in a cloud. A spiritual reality became tangible for Willard in that moment.

In some sense, he has been trying to describe and teach it ever since.

Christianity Today, September 2006

© cas 2006

A Delicate Hospitality

How Hispanic Churches in Southern California negotiate the dilemmas of ministry with undocumented immigrants. 

When he was 19, an associate pastor of one Southern California church came to the United States illegally from El Salvador. Although he has been an American citizen for 25 years, he doesn’t view violation of immigration law as sin. In fact, he sees his own illegal entry as a good that led to the salvation of his family.

For the past 10 years, he has led a ministry team that serves burritos, drinks, and the Word of God to day laborers (some of whom live in the surrounding caves) in Laguna Canyon. He recalls one day laborer’s gratitude: “I thank God for your ministry. I was going to open a bar when I go back home, but now I want to open a Bible study.”

According to a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report, there are 11 million unauthorized migrants in the United States (including 6 million Mexicans and 1.7 million children under the age of 18). This is an increase of 700,000 from a year ago. In California alone, there are approximately 2.4 million undocumented immigrants. This influx is creating economic, social, and political pressures—as well as ministry opportunities and dilemmas for churches. The pastor mentioned above (who wished to remain anonymous) is one example. CT spoke with a number of Hispanic pastors and churches to see how they are dealing with the legal and spiritual dilemmas that arise around unauthorized migration.


Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), says that Hispanic evangelical churches, especially in border states like California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, are full of undocumented immigrants. “We have two responsibilities,” he says. “One is our collective ethos to protect our citizenry from possible terrorists and from drug trafficking. But similarly, we can’t deny Leviticus 19:34.” The verse says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your nativeborn. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Rodriguez interprets the command this way: “We have a moral, biblical, Godgiven obligation to take care of the disenfranchised, the alienated, and the foreigner. How they got here is not our issue.” He doesn’t see someone’s illegal status as sin. He points out that Hispanic culture dominated and preceded Anglo-Saxon culture in the West, and asks, “Was it sinful for the Europeans to kick the Indians out and put them on reservations? . . . Is it sin for a father to cross the Rio Grande because his family is impoverished? He’s a hardworking, God-fearing individual; his family is impoverished, the [Mexican] government is corrupt, drug traffickers are mowing down individuals in his community, and for the sake of saving his children, they cross the Rio Grande.”

Rodriguez adds, “I would like to see the white evangelical church make some clearcut statements that would resonate with the Leviticus 19 principle alongside with what we are stating: Let’s protect our borders; there is a legitimate border issue. . . . Nonetheless, we need to work at creating programs within our churches that will facilitate the expeditious acquisition of documents, residency, and citizenry requirementsfor these Hispanic immigrants.”

Notre Dame doctoral student Daniel Ramirez traced the history of Mexican Pentecostal ministry in the borderlands through five decades, beginning with the Azusa Street Revival of 1909. Ramirez found among Apostolic Pentecostals and many other Mexicans and Mexican Americans “a de facto biblically informed hospitality that transcended—and all but disregarded—national borders and legal status.”


For top-tier NHCLC pastors, this remains the case. It begins with how Hispanic clergy understand their role. Rodriguez says they have determined that there is no legal precedent or obligation for the clergy to report the undocumented within their churches, and they base their conclusion, in part, on the traditional right of “clergy privilege.”

Joe Trull, editor of http://www.christianethicstoday.com/, pastored for 20 years in the border town of El Paso, Texas. He sees clergy privilege regarding unauthorized migrants as “somewhat analogous” to what Corrie ten Boom did by hiding Jews during World War II in defiance of Dutch law. Pastors must decide between the greater good and the lesser evil, he says. They should acknowledge the evil in disobeying the law and be careful not to rationalize it for their own convenience, but also weigh this evil against the greater good of allowing Hispanic immigrants to feed their families. He adds that Christians must work to pass better laws so that the evil of breaking the law is temporary.

Hospitality to the undocumented also means taking a compassionate approach, as does Templo Calvario in Santa Ana—one of the largest Hispanic churches in the country. The church has a history of immigration ministry. During the 1980s immigration amnesty signed into law by Ronald Reagan, Templo Calvario partnered with World Relief to help congregants with their immigration cases. Santa Ana is home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. For years, World Relief and many other Christian groups have helped resettle Asian and European refugees who were fleeing communism. For some Christian groups, refugee issues evolved into immigration issues. World Relief still helps those who are eligible to legalize through marriage, family ties, or employment—including a few who enter the country with the intent to overstay their visas.

Like most people interviewed for this article, Templo Calvario’s senior pastor, Daniel DeLeon, was hesitant to speak on the record—until Rodriguez intervened. DeLeon has pastored the church for 29 years and says that when he began, the congregation was composed of 99 percent English-speaking, second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans. Demographic changes in Santa Ana have transformed the church.

On the Sunday I visited, the sanctuary was overflowing for the early morning Spanish-language service, but it was only about two-thirds full during the 10 a.m. English-language service.

DeLeon says that as a church, Templo Calvario doesn’t have people standing at the door asking for green cards permanent residency documents). “God has given us a mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. This witness shall be preached to all the nations. . . . The word [nation] in the Greek means all ethnic groups. So whether they’re here or there, across our borders or across the ocean, we have a responsibility to preach the gospel to them.”

He doesn’t kick out migrants if he finds out they are unauthorized workers. “I’m not a legal entity for the government. I tell people from the pulpit, ‘Get your papers in order,’ and will always encourage them to abide by the laws of the land.” But he reserves judgment for the “real illegals”—those who knowingly employ the undocumented.

DeLeon says Christians have a second responsibility. “Many of the laws through the years have come about through the influence of the church, not only in America, but in the world. So we have a responsibility and a right to speak about issues that are touching the life of our congregation and the people that we serve.”

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University near Pasadena, California, has found in her research that Hispanic pastors don’t preach about the immigration issue: “The sermons are [about] piety, personal holiness, conversion. It doesn’t come up as being illegal, terrible, and sinful, and it doesn’t come up as a communal response to reform laws.”


At a meeting of about 30 Hispanic pastors within one affiliation of churches, I was introduced as a journalist from the podium and then waited near the exit to do interviews. Most of the pastors either coolly or nervously walked past. A few agreed to be interviewed, but only if they and their churches were not identified. A pastor who emigrated legally from Uruguay many years ago and whose congregation is 50 percent undocumented immigrants explained, “We have a lot of pastors who are illegal.” (This situation may be unique to this affiliation of churches, which has a very loose organizational structure.) He does not view immigration violations as sin and said neither do his congregants, with one exception. Two years ago, a couple who had been praying and trying unsuccessfully to gain legal status decided they were outside of God’s will and returned to Mexico as an act of faith.

Another pastor said that when fingerprinting was implemented in his nationally-known church’s children’s ministry (to safeguard against pedophiles), many gifted workers, fearing deportation if their illegal status were discovered, had to find other avenues of service. He said they felt rejected and resentful toward the church’s leadership because the church was “hindering them from doing the work of the Lord.”

A southern Orange County associate pastor said that his church’s senior pastor decided to forgo fingerprinting. Instead, he allowed the associate pastor to use his judgment in evaluating workers for the Spanish-language children’s ministry.

As Sanchez-Walsh suggested, most of these pastors, like DeLeon, advised their congregants to “do the best they can” to be honest, law-abiding, hard-working Christians. Only one pastor took a different stand. He had crossed the border illegally as a young man to marry his Mexican-American fiancé, but says that he now believes the current process for getting into the United States is “great” and “necessary.” When an undocumented worker responds to the gospel, “the Lord will not be glorified” if that person continues to live a lie. He expressed relief, however, that no congregant had ever confessed illegal status to him.

Christianity Today, March 2006

© cas 2006