I grew up in a religious tradition that was light on social justice and heavy on strict individual morality. As my journey towards a progressive form of Christianity began, however, I had high hopes that if I could just be around a bunch of liberal Christians then together we would change the world. I was disappointed to discover that liberal Christians are really good at being cerebral but not so good at moving from thinking about doing something to actually doing something. Having come from a more evangelical background in which doing often occurred before or even without thinking, I discovered the other extreme was usually the case among liberal Christians. Liberal Christians like to talk about things and pass resolutions amongst themselves, and once they have done so, they feel they have accomplished something.
I was reminded of the gaps between thinking and doing when I read an op-ed in the NY Times this week by T.M. Luhrmann. She wrote a book called When God TalksBack: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. In it Luhrmann, a Stanford professor and a non-Christian spiritual-but-not religious sort, took the role of anthropologist and spent time in an evangelical church outside Chicago and became a regular attendee of a prayer group. She started her “field work” after being fascinated by a woman she met who spoke of “having coffee with God.”
In her op-ed, Luhrmann mentions speaking about her book at a church near her university that was ecumenical, educated and more liberal than not. During the Q&A time, she writes, the questions “circled around the puzzle of belief. Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?” She describes the questions of this mainline church as “the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions.” In contrast, she heard different questions at the evangelical church she studied and participated in, “In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.” In other words, one set of questions were about thinking and the other set of questions were about doing.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done both types of Christianity—the overly cerebral and the overly emotional/experiential. If I’m forced to choose between the two, I would rather pick a religious system that loved God with the mind over one that did not. Yet, I’m glad I’m not forced to choose between the two, because such a choice is a false dichotomy—there are more than just the two choices. Jesus taught us to love God with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” after all. Isn’t it possible that there is such a thing as a religious faith that involves both the intellect and emotion? Can’t we think deeply about such things as the nature of God and faith, while at the same time seek to experience God and faith? Must we divorce thinking from doing? Why not combine the two?
In an interview on NPR, Luhrmann described the practices of prayer in the evangelical church she studied—frankly, few of them seemed attractive to me. Yet, Luhrmann made the point that prayer in which communication with God happened could be learned. Newcomers to the group would try techniques and then begin to hear the voice of God. When pressed by the interviewer about whether or not God really spoke to these people, Luhrmann demurred and stated that she was taking the role of anthropologist. She took the perspective that IF God does speak to people it happens in the minds of people. So, it stands to reason that people who have attuned their minds in certain ways would be more receptive to God--IF God speaks to people. What seems important to me about Luhrmann’s comments is not the particular practices of the evangelical church she studied (I’m not interested in God being my buddy.) but rather the idea of being intentional about attuning one’s mind to the divine. Thinking is not enough; dong matters too.
In 2006, Diana Butler Bass wrote a book called Christianity for the Rest of Us, which gave liberal Christians like me hope. After decades of reporting on the decline of liberal churches, Bass went out and found liberal churches that were growing. One of the common threads of these churches was an emphasis upon spiritual practices—not your Rick Warren sort of spirituality, but rather a thoughtful spirituality that made use of both contemporary and ancient prayers and mystical practices. These churches found ways to allow for doubts, to cherish questions, to view pluralism as a blessing rather than a curse AND to do more than just talk. Their spiritual practices were a necessary counterpart to their intellectual exercises, rather than choosing one over the other. I think that’s the kind of Christianity I want to be a part of.
I came to Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ thinking that in this community of believers I would find thoughtful people of faith who do more than talk about what should be done in their lives and in the world. Eight months in I still think I was right, but it is early yet in our relationship, I could still be proven wrong. I hope you will prove me right.
Grace and Peace,