This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
Q: I was raised in the Christian religion and consider myself a person of faith, but I cannot accept the systemic sexism promoted by many of the patriarchal religions, and I am offended by the idea that God rejects LGBTQ people as his own creations. Now the religious right seems to hold center stage in the conversation about God, making church-going and even prayer seem entirely suspect. If religion won’t adapt to our evolving world, doesn’t it deserve to die out as a cultural expression of faith?
What a great question. It requires more than just a written response but probably a series of conversations. It’s also a question as a church leader I’ve long struggled with myself.
Before we tackle three interrelated answers or responses to your question, I should offer an apology. As a person who embraces the Christian faith, I am also well aware that there is a dark history that we need to own. Our history includes a weaponization of faith that led to some horrific events. These include the treatment of women and all persons who identify as LGBTQ+ and our attitudes of domination over persons of color, embracing slavery and our arrogance in terms of the environment. We have a great deal of work to do.
We need to look at three equally valuable responses to your questions.
First, you are correct in saying that there are expressions of the Christian religion that are narrow, harsh, and judgemental. This is most evident in branches of Christianity that have a literalistic view of teachings, scriptures, and practices—often called fundamentalists because they argue for a return to what they believe are the fundamentals of their religion. In the past fifty years, there has been a rise in fundamentalist expressions of all religions, especially in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
These approaches tend to be dominated by an archetype that is overly masculine, aggressive, and exclusionary. My view is that as the world becomes more complex and change more rampant, some people desire simplicity to ease their angst. Additionally, if you or your group believes they are being disenfranchised from a world amped-up of changing patterns of living, you might find solace in a back-to-basics or return to the “good old days” again.
Second, I think it’s important to know there are indeed branches of the Christian religion that are evolving. While in no way a rapid or smooth evolution, there is a growing movement among Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, and even some Roman Catholics to lean into a changing world. This is not an easy transition, and the tumult can be pretty jarring, but one notable positive change is that LGBTQ+ persons are being included in these traditions more and more.
For example, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in addition to ordaining women since 1970 voted to ordain LGBTQ+ persons in 2009. This decision resulted in some of the most exemplary new young leaders now serving in the New England Synod. We are a better church because of this decision.
Interestingly, I have also had numerous conversations with people who were initially resistant to the vote in 2009 but have now come full circle to view it quite positively. I know this has happened in other denominations as well. I point this out as one example of progress.
Third, I also believe we are witnessing a change to what the religious function has traditionally expressed. For thousands of years, the religious or transcendent function expressed itself through worship, rituals, religions, temples, churches, sacred practices. But, in recent years, I and others have noticed energy that used to be expressed in religion now manifested in other areas of life. People now realize that each individual must take responsibility for their spiritual growth. This used to be provided by external authorities such as the church and church leaders. But, we are witnessing a shift away from the institutional source.
While some applaud this move, I would be remiss if I didn’t articulate a concern. That concern is that more and more people are choosing a life without a spiritual component. I’m not attached to one religion or the other, but if people don’t engage in something, be it church, temple, yoga, meditation, etc., what we are left with in our culture today is the religion of consumerism.
I would make the case that the two dominant expressions increasingly capturing people’s imaginations are materialism and politics. Are we acting on our need for the transcendent by investing energy in shopping or political extremism? Are we searching for community or connection to others by posting on social media, despite evidence that those activities actually isolate us further? Are we investing all of this busyness as a way to deny the reality of our own finitude?
In short, I believe the central question may be around our longing for an encounter with the numinous, the sacred, the holy, but our running away from it at the same time. This paradox of life haunts us. In the past there were institutional and cultural reinforcements of church that helped us navigate these questions. Today, it seems we are on our own.
The good news is that makes us responsible for our own decisions; the bad news is that makes us responsible for our own actions.
Religion will likely continue to both evolve and devolve at the same time. This seems to be the nature of humanity in many fields. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is enough energy in the culture that attracts some to a literalistic and legalistic expression of religion for the foreseeable future. There is a splitting in the community that seems to be pushing people toward extremes.
One aspect of this is the rise of fundamentalist ideologies. I’ve seen this around the whole science vs religion debate where even some scientists take up a literalistic interpretation of religion in order to make the case against it. Obviously, we are also witnessing this in the area of politics where some adopt an almost apocalyptic perspective. Candidly, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.
Yet, hopefully, other forms that are more nuanced, open-minded, and imaginative will grow in both the depth of people’s souls as well as the number of people seeking that way of practicing faith. If each of us takes up the responsible task of engaging with that kind of Christianity, the world will be a better place. The truth of the matter is there is a big difference between the Jesus of the four gospels and the Jesus marketed as exclusionary, judgmental and rigid of some expression in fundamentalist religion.
I could close with a list of dozens of parables and teachings, but let’s recall the theme of his ministry centered on compassion, a focus on providing for the poor and a promise of grace. Perhaps the most well known of Jesus’s parables is that of the Good Samaritan, a story that illustrates the it is the unlikely one, the one from the “other” group, who demonstrates compassion for the man lying on the side of the road. Jesus links the act of compassion by an unexpected outsider with eternal life.
In our time, I’d substitute eternal life with the phrase meaningful. Yes, a meaningful life is found in acts of generosity and compassion. I would hope that’s a religion everyone can embrace.
This post is republished on Medium.
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