Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Spiritual Fruits and Religious Nuts

Martin Thielen, The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers

We’ve all seen bad religion in practice. Whether we’ve gotten burned by self-righteous judgmentalism, inflexible anti-modernism, or political drum-banging, even the most spiritual among us have gotten burned by bad religion. We’ve probably felt the temptation to abandon religion altogether. Fully one-fifth of Americans today admit of no religious affiliation. With so many pressures demanding our attention, it’s easy to walk away.

Reverend Martin Thielen begins this book discussing how the Christian denomination where he formerly pastored became entrenched in nationalism, gay-bashing, and anti-semitism. (He doesn’t name the denomination, but his official bio states his former affiliation with the Southern Baptist conference.) He, too, considered walking away. But he reveals his thesis in his title: he reinvented himself as a Methodist minister and strove to define what constitutes good religion today.

Most of those religiously unaffiliated persons, called “nones” in social science parlance, retain some inclination toward spirituality. Irreligion is on the rise, but not necessarily unbelief. Many still crave connection with transcendent principles, but feel alienated from institutions of worship. They’ve grown tired of absolutism, but believe something awaits them beyond material life. Congregations can reclaim these wanderers by emphasizing formerly common faith virtues like hope, community, and service.

This book isn’t fundamentally about faith. Thielen doesn’t entice unbelievers to change their ways. Rather, Thielen writes about religion, that is, about the communal practices that arise when people sharing faith come together. Spiritual crowds, like any other crowds, can become toxic, perpetuating base impulses and rebuffing outsiders. But when religious congregations reclaim the open, generous spirit that attracted early converts, the spiritually hungry will rejoin our table.

Moreover, though Thielen comes from a Protestant Christian background, the principles he identifies aren’t specific to any religion. New converts accept their faith because it provides guidance to their lives. Believing brings joy. Acts of worship which unify communities of believers can nourish that joy, or smother it. Unfortunately, no checklist exists of which behaviors have which consequences; Thielen encourages us to constantly reëxamine our actions, considering their consequences.

Examining which prevailing behaviors alienate, and which unite, Thielen manages to establish certain patterns. The alienating behaviors will surprise nobody. Citing Anne Rice’s famous 2010 declaration that “in the name of Christ, I quit Christianity,” he acknowledges we’ve all been there. We’ve all shared that feeling, that our fellow travelers don’t represent our beliefs. But quitting is a feeble choice, sundering communities and discouraging deeper spiritual thought. Surrender solves nothing.

Instead, Thielen insists, religious communities must recommit to principles that nourish believers’ joy. We become believers because religion prompts action, challenges evil, strengthens bonds, and encourages creativity.. Briefly, converts accept their faith and practice their religion because they want to improve this life. Blessings of heaven and terrors of hell have their appropriate place; but we believe because believing provides architecture to this life, not to the next.

Therefore, Thielen prompts, with solid Biblical backing, that we constantly revisit our choices, as individual believers and as congregations. He provides benchmarks for which behaviors uplift communities, which tear them down. We must, Thielen says, expunge arrogance, negativity, and partisanship; we must promote love, service, and forgiveness. Only those religions which hearten the soul and guide the life will survive the buffets of today’s negativistic, increasingly factional society.

Besides this book itself, Thielen has also released a Leader’s Guide and Outreach Kit. Coupled with his very short chapters, these indicate Thielen intends this volume for small-group study. I endorse and embrace this purpose, because a collection of church leaders, interested volunteers, or spiritual seekers could correlate this book to existing Biblical and denominational principles. One hopes such students, collaborating closely, could renew the religious virtues Thielen extols.

Not that Thielen’s exegesis is perfect. Indulge my recurring peeve, but Thielen’s examples run very, very short. Because he expects readers to consume each chapter essentially separately, few illustrations exceed few pages. Thielen avoids the two worst manifestations of pastoral brevity, the transcribed sermon and the moral list, which pleases me; he spends time on his examples. I just wish he carried examples beyond one chapter, avoiding the patchwork texture.

Midway along, Thielen quotes Oxford’s Cognition, Theology, and Religion Project, an interdisciplinary venture that has demonstrated humans’ innate religious inclination. If we believe the CRT Project, we must accept that not everyone shares that inclination. Thielen doesn’t attempt to ultimately prove religion or foreclose on unbelieving worldviews. He simply strives to create an intellectual space where rational belief is possible. If that is your goal, Thielen clearly succeeds.

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