Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Transitions" Project: Phase I Completed

The Transitions Project : The Mormon Migration from Religion to Relationship from WIIS on Vimeo.

Religious migration occurs when someone transitions from one religious group to another. This takes place from time to time and with differing levels of "religio-cultural distance" between the religious (sub)cultures in which the journey takes place. What is not often appreciated is the difficulties that individuals can experience in making this journey.

One of the places in which religious migration takes place is between the subcultures of traditional Christianity and Mormonism. As people journey between these religious groups individuals have a need to draw upon resources that assist them with their journey. For those shifting from traditional Christianity to Mormonism new converts might draw upon Clark L. Kidd and Kathryn H. Kidd's Convert's Guide to Mormon Life (Bookcraft, 1998) or Elaine Cannon's Beyond Baptism: A Guide for New Converts (Bookcraft, 1994). For those making the journey the other direction and out of Mormonism and into traditional Christianity there are a small sampling of resources put together on a local level, but what has been needed is a large scale educational resource that can be marketed on a national level.

The Western Institute for Intercultural Studies is pleased to address this need having just completed the first phase of production for Transitions, a multimedia resource that assists those leaving Mormonism and entering traditional Christianity as they grapple with the emotional, relational, church culture, and doctrinal and worldview issues involved. Phase I was the completion of the promotional trailer which can be viewed above. For further information see the WIIS website at the Transitions page. I invite interested evangelicals and other Christians, particularly those who have made this journey of migration themselves, to get involved in this project through their prayers and financial support.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mormon Theological Memory and Sacred Story

In a previous post I mentioned my initial research foray into sources for my PhD bibliography. I have been given some good initial suggestions for threads to follow, including those from Steven L. Olsen. One of his recommendations was the article "The Theology of Memory: Mormon Historical Consciousness," FARMS Review of Books 19, no. 2 (2007). The piece is helpful for a broader understanding of Mormonism for evangelicals in that it attempts to answer why the LDS Church spends a great amount of time and energy in the preservation of its historical records. Olsen answers this with reference to two reasons, the one of most interest to my research touching on "the nature of Latter-day Saint theology." In Olsen's view, "the core religious beliefs of Latter-day Saints derive largely from spiritual experiences and are expressed in narrative terms. That is, Latter-day Saint theology is more experiential than propositional." Further, he argues that this experiential aspect of LDS spirituality and theologizing "seems to partake of the very essence of Latter-day Saint identity." This thinking dovetails with my own observations on the subject which form the core of my dissertation proposal, particularly when Olsen states that LDS "truth claims result more from spiritual experiences than from logical inferences, reasoned abstractions, or other formal philosophical or rational processes."

Later in this article Olsen discusses a key historical and narrative event in LDS history, the First Vision of Joseph Smith where he claimed to receive a visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ. With his thesis of the significance of history and theological memory in mind, Olsen explains that the First Vision "is both chronologically and logically prior to any particular doctrinal significance that is ascribed to the event." In addition, the First Vision functions with "symbolic significance" that defines "the religious identity of the Latter-day Saints." Over time, in Olsen's view "[i]t has become a spiritual archetype, or model for the identity and behavior of a body of believers." It is thus a "foundational sacred story" which serve as the basis for an important function in the lives of Mormons in that it "provides a spiritual paradigm for individual conversion, resistance to temptation, persistence in prayer, study of the scriptures, and similar processes that govern the religious lives of Latter-day Saints."

I am pleased to discover this first of many gems of research in Mormon sacred narrative that I hope will inform and expand my understanding of Mormonism as my research process moves forward.

Monday, March 09, 2009

ARIS Survey: Declines and Gains in America's Spiritual Greenhouse

A new American Religious Identification Survey was released today which includes some interesting statistics on the decline of many religious groups. USA Today introduced the report's findings with the following:

"When it comes to religion, the USA is now land of the freelancers.

"The percentage. of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation. The faithful have scattered out of their traditional bases: The Bible Belt is less Baptist. The Rust Belt is less Catholic. And everywhere, more people are exploring spiritual frontiers — or falling off the faith map completely."

The article then proceeds to a discussion of some of the key findings, three of which are of most interest to my research are reproduced below.

1. So many Americans claim no religion at all (15%, up from 8% in 1990), that this category now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes.

2. Meanwhile, nearly 2.8 million people now identify with dozens of new religious movements, calling themselves Wiccan, pagan or "Spiritualist," which the survey does not define.

3. Wicca, a contemporary form of paganism that includes goddess worship and reverence for nature, has even made its way to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Pentagon now allows Wiccans' five-pointed-star symbol to be used on veterans' gravestones.

As the newspaper's discussion continues it makes some interesting observations about how people speak about their spiritual expression, and at one point the article refers to "Religion as a Hobby and the environment of the USA is seen as "a greenhouse for spiritual sprouts." As thought is developed the article states that "religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."

The current edition of Religion Link also reported on this survey today. Their excerpt from the ARIS Survey findings include:

The percentage of Americans claiming no religion (called “nones”) continues to rise, going from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001 and now 15 percent. But the big news may be that New England, sanctuary to the Puritans who helped birth the United States and bequeathed its religious legacy, has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religiously affiliated section of the country.

Atheists may have lots of best sellers in the bookstores, but the number of true nonbelievers remains relatively small: About 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. On the other hand, the overall number of avowed atheists has grown sharply from 900,000 to 1.6 million since 2001.

The percentage of Americans who are Christian is edging downward, to 76 percent of the population. (The decline from 1990 to the 2001 survey was far steeper, 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent.) But a look behind the numbers shows that most of the decline is due to the ongoing erosion in mainline Protestantism and that evangelical or nondenominational Protestantism is filling the vacuum.

The East Coast Catholicism that was once the lodestar of the church in the United States is continuing to lose demographic heft to the Southwest, to the extent that California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than does New England.

The Jewish community remains relatively stable when identified by ethnicity alone, but the number identifying as religiously Jewish declined somewhat. Meanwhile, the Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .6 percent in 2008.

Religion Link also goes on to suggest stories for writers based on related data that include:

Mormons’ stability: The ARIS report shows that the number of Mormons increased enough to maintain their slice of the religious population, at 1.4 percent. See RL’s 2008 edition on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, updated during the campaign of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who continues to be an influential leader in the Republican Party.

Growth of Islam: The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .6 percent in 2008.

Eastern peak?: ARIS 2008 shows that the number of adherents of Eastern religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly. The study’s authors also note that “Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.” See RL’s source guide to Asian-Americans and religion. RL has an edition on Buddhism that tracked its rapid growth in previous decades, and a guide to Hindu experts and organizations.

New Religious Movements: The report finds that adherents of New Religious Movements, such as Wiccans and self-described pagans, are growing faster than in the ’90s. See an RL edition on the mainstreaming of Wicca and paganism.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Zodiac Christ?

Steve Hollinghurst, my colleague with the Lausanne issue group on postmodern spiritualities has written an interesting piece at the ReJesus site connecting Christ to the zodiac. The introduction to the idea is reproduced below:

Zodiac Christ
Jesus is the model for all kinds of people to look to as they seek to become fully themselves and reach their potential. It could then be said that if we can speak of the star signs as representing different personality types, we can speak of Jesus as possessing the best traits of each. ‘Zodiac Jesus’ explores this each month showing how Jesus embodies the best of each type.

Wise men from the East
The Christmas story as told by St Matthew tells us about wise men in the East who saw a star that made them seek out the birth of Jesus. We don’t know what they saw, where exactly they came from or how they found Jesus from this sign in the stars. But we do know that the ancient Babylonians used stars as omens to understand earthly events, and what we call astrology probably has its roots in the development of this tradition within the Empire of Alexander the Great under Greek and Egyptian influence. Matthew’s wise men seem likely to be such early astrologers.

Written in the stars
The idea that events in the stars might reveal events on earth made sense to the ancients because of an understanding that all things where connected. Therefore divine or earthly events would be seen in corresponding changes in the stars. As astrology developed this lead to the idea that the position of the stars at the time of someone’s birth or at specific times in history could tell the astrology about what that person was like or suggest courses of action to follow. This lead to the classic horoscope, mapping stars at such a time and also to the idea of people being born under a specific star sign that showed what their personality was like.

However, the astrology that developed from those early ‘wise men’ divided into two branches that viewed this quite differently. In India Vedic Astrology saw the link between the actual position of constellations in the heavens and the time of birth as essential. This has not been so in the western tradition those of us who live in the West are used to. This is important because of a natural phenomenon by which slow movements of the earth’s axis mean that over time the stars occupy different positions in the sky. The Vedic system is thus over time changing the dates ruled by each star sign whereas the western system has kept the twelve signs fixed to particular dates. This means that in western astrology the star sign one is ‘born under’ no longer relates to the actual position of that constellation in the sky.

Astrology and personality
Psychologist Carl Jung didn’t believe the stars foretold our personalities, but did think the twelve star signs revealed good ideas of the way different personality types worked. This observation and other ‘archetypes’ he observed in different personality systems was used by others to formulate the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, this time with 16 personality types and drawing on the observations of psychologists. If the connection between when a person is born and the stars seems difficult, it may be that the personality types represented by the 12 signs of the Zodiac relate to some extent to the kind of personalities we have.

Jesus Horoscope
Even if we wanted to we couldn’t cast Jesus Horoscope because we don’t know exactly when he was born. Astrologers have often associated Christianity with the ‘age of Pisces’ and now say we have entered the ‘age of Aquarius’ due to that movement of the stars in relation to the earth. But they aren’t claiming Jesus was born in March!

The writers of the early church letters we have in the bible describe Jesus as the pattern from which humanity was copied. In this sense it would be sensible to see all the varieties of human personality types as present in Jesus. He is also the model for all kinds of people to look to as they seek to become fully themselves and reach their potential. It could then be said that if we can speak of the star signs as representing different personality types, we can speak of Jesus as possessing the best traits of each. ‘Zodiac Jesus’ explores this each month showing how Jesus embodies the best of each type.

Zodiac Jesus
In describing the traits of particular star signs each has positive elements and also those which can be negative. This is true of other personality systems too, and the point is to help people develop; drawing out good traits and growing out of bad ones. The aim of ‘Zodiac Jesus’ is to help people do the same. As well as growing within the personality we have inherited, this can also involve nurturing complimentary traits from other personality types.

The Zodiac as well as having 12 types divides these between 4 underlying elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. These relate to different ways of relating to the world, through physical sense under the Earth element; through the mind in the Air element; emotion in the Fire element and spiritual awareness in the Water element. Jesus spoke of the need for us to worship God with all our strength, all our mind, all our heart and all our spirit. These four ways of relating to God are drawn together in a holistic approach that calls us to learn to relate to God with all of our being. These four ways of relating to God are like the four elements in astrology; in astrological terms Jesus calls us to explore the traits of elements other than our own as part of how we grow into Jesus likeness as women and men made in God’s image. This too is a way we can as individuals use ‘Astrology Jesus’ as part of our spiritual growth.

Steve's recent post on this can be found here. Before Christians shout heresy, we might reflect on what merits there might be in contextuaizing Christ within this framework. I turn it to my readers: what do you think about Steve's proposal?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Muck and Adeney: Christianity Encountering World Religions

A few of the forthcoming volumes announced in the Baker Academic book catalog looked interesting, especially one due out in April by Terry Muck and Frances Adeney, Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-first Century (forthcoming, 2009). Muck is dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and Adeney is William A. Benfield Jr. Professor of Evangelism and Global Mission at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In my view this book will make a helpful contribution to missional reflection, and the two recently responded to a few of my questions about book's contents.

Morehead's Musings: You have co-authored a forthcoming book from Baker Academic on mission and world religions. Of course, there are many books on mission, including mission in the twenty-first century. How do you seek to make a unique contribution to this body of literature and thought through this book?

Terry Muck: In our judgment, mission to people already committed to world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, has reached a standstill. And that from a history of ineffectiveness. Although the church has poured mission resources into evangelizing Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures, little success can be documented as a result. We think some new thinking about this aspect of mission is called for. Our book is a start in that direction.

Frances Adeney: One way we do that is by taking a positive approach to persons and cultures of other religions, learning to understand them and respect them. Rather than seeing mutual respect and dialogue as an end in itself, however, we offer a mission model that includes giving and receiving gifts from those in other religions. One of the gifts we have to offer as Christians is the good news of the gospel. One of the ways we receive gifts is through embracing the ways that God’s grace is working both in other religions and in their followers lives and communities.

Morehead's Musings: One of your key chapters is titled "Giftive Mission." Can you define this?

Frances Adeney: We see mission as a two way street. We don’t encounter people of other religions just to “give them” the gospel. Rather we receive from them as well — wisdom, friendship, community, knowledge. And we “give” the gospel story through giving gifts — our presence, action for social good, building relationships and other mission methods.

Terry Muck: We think that using the metaphor of gift giving and receiving is a good one to describe what a Christian does when he or she shares the gospel story with a non-Christian. We call this giftive mission.

Morehead's Musings: It might seem like an easily understood concept in this chapter when you state that "the way we give the gift of the gospel needs to be appropriate to the context in which we find ourselves." Have evangelicals and other Christians always been sensitive to the concern for giftive context?

Terry Muck: Not the way we think of gift giving. In all the cultures of the world, gift giving is a reciprocal process -- the giving of gifts is just seen as the first action; the gift giver then receives a gift in return. And that then leads to a return gift, and so on. In the past, if Christians saw themselves giving the gift of the gospel, they have tended to see it as a one-time, one-way gift. We think the reciprocal, ongoing dynamic of gift giving needs to be emphasized.

Frances Adeney: Yes.

Morehead's Musings: You draw attention to the fact that "Westerners think they understand" the concept of "gift-giving practices", but you state that "because of their underlying market orientation [they] can hardly grasp it." Why and how is this so?

Frances Adeney: When Americans give a gift, we also expect one in return. Even more pointedly, when one receives a gift, immediately that person feels an obligation to reciprocate. Rather than freely receiving a gift, or buildings relationships through the giving and receiving process, we tend to see gift exchange in contractual terms. The gift creates an obligation to return a gift of equal monetary value. So what happens to the concept of gift as something freely given and received?

Terry Muck: Of all the economic systems in the world, the capitalist one has the most loose understanding of gift giving and receiving. Market economies tend to reduce gift giving to market forces in a way that de-emphasizes gift giving. This doesn't necessarily mean that market economies are wrong; it just means that a strong tradition of gift giving needs to be resurfaced in such cultures.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in the chapter on giftive mission you discuss ways in which critique of another culture enters the picture, and you remind us that "no matter how sensitively expressed, [it] cannot help but come across as being at least a but judgmental, a little bit holier than thou, a little bit triumphalistic." In your experience, how aware are evangelicals of this perception in others?

Terry Muck: Evangelicals are becoming much more aware of it. In the past we have not tended to notice this because our mission work was almost always done in a context where we have the social, political, and economic power. That is changing in many places of the world, and this has left exposed the triumphalisitc nature of much mission work.

Frances Adeney: In the method section of the book, we walk through a process of cross-cultural understanding that can undercut that triumphalistic attitude. Christians need to critique other cultures and religions. But first we need to understand our own biases and lay them aside so that we can learn the strengths of another culture. After opening ourselves to the people and ideas of another religion or culture, we bring back into the picture our own views. When done in that way, our critique of the other culture is balanced by a true appreciation of it and so comes across as less judgmental because — well because it is less judgmental. We have gone through a process of seeking understanding that lends itself to a gracious appreciation of another culture even as we critique it.

Morehead's Musings: You also state something that might take evangelicals by surprise. You say that "[o]ur gift is not doctrine. Our gift is not judgment. Our gift is not about us, but about Jesus." In my experience, many evangelicals make an intimate connection between Jesus, doctrine, and judgment. How might this need to be rethought in keeping with your thinking in this chapter?

Frances Adeney: Every religion, including Christianity, is filtered through social and cultural lenses. Our understanding of doctrine is no different. As we keep the focus on Jesus, the Holy Spirit will teach Christians from another culture to “grow up into the fullness of the knowledge of Christ.” We don’t take ready-made doctrines to other cultures — rather we share what we have received and trust God to mediate it to others.

Terry Muck: We need to see our understanding of doctrine as less than perfect (as in imperfect minds trying to understand a perfect gospel) and more conscious that judgment belongs to God and Jesus, not to us. Those are easily said remedies, but difficult to carry out.

Morehead's Musings: You say that our "task is to suggest that the story of a people's culture fits into the Jesus Story, somehow," and later you define "story" as a narrative that is not didactic or discursive. Have evangelicals perhaps emphasized doctrine and didactic elements to the neglect of considerations related to story?

Terry Muck: Some have and some haven't. We know evangelicals who are examplars of what we are suggesting, many evangelicals, actually. For those, we are just articulating in words what is already being practiced. But many evangelicals are perhaps not as aware of the primacy of the story of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

Frances Adeney: Christians from the West can learn from African and Asian Christians about how theology might look in another setting and how story might relate to theology for them. Reading theologies from those places helps Western Christians begin to see the cultural situatedness of our own theologies. Books like Mangoes or Bananas: The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology by Hwa Yung from Malasia, or Communicating Christ Through Story and Song: Orality in Buddhist Contexts, edited by Paul H. DeNeui are examples.

Morehead's Musings: Toward the conclusion of this chapter you reference the religious competition metaphor as one which has largely defined inter-religious interactions. You say that, "This has created, in our minds at least, a tendency to over-rely on the marketplace metaphor as the primary one to describe inter-religious interactions. The metaphors of marketplace competition and combat are particularly strong among evangelicals in inter-religious interactions in the Western context. What steps can we take to move beyond it?

Frances Adeney: When people travel to non-Western societies they learn a great deal about other metaphors: hospitality in Turkey, community in Africa, family in Asia. Even short term mission trips can help Westerners see a different complex of actions and ideas come together to illustrate the gospel.

Terry Muck: Imitate what Paul did in the Corinthian marketplace. Acknowledge that Christian mission is a market exchange on some levels, but emphasize that at its core it goes way beyond that. Christian mission aims at giving and receiving free gifts that are not material but spiritual, not temporal but eternal.

Morehead's Musings: One final question I'd like you to provide your thought on. Your book, looks at the concept of gift giving mission in light of indigenous, Eastern and Western cultures, but some subcultures in the West are strongly resistant to the notion of the gospel as gift. Neo-Pagans, for example, say that such an offer disrespects them in their choice of spiritual pathway that ignores or rejects the gospel, and they question the sincerity of Christians who engage them, even with the idea of giftive mission, as those who have an agenda. It's one thing to share our gift with those religions that are also "evangelistic" and missionary-minded, but what about those that do not have this sense? How would you respond to their concerns?

Terry Muck: Our offer of gifts will not always be accepted. Our motives will always be challenged by some. That shouldn't stop us from doing what Christ commands, though, giving the gift of the gospel to any and all. Also, it may that there are ways to give in the context of Neo-Pagaism that we haven't discovered; gospel gift-giving must always be contextualized so as much as possible cultural inhibitors are avoided and cultural opportunities are taken advantage of.

Frances Adeney: Yes. A few years ago, one of the students in my evangelism class became quite involved with Pagans in the Louisville area. As she got to know individuals in the group she repeatedly heard from them that she was the only Christian they had ever met who listened to them and really cared about their beliefs and practices. That’s a good place to start.

Morehead's Musings: Thank you again for talking about this forthcoming book. I look forward to reviewing it in the Spring once it becomes available, and I hope it contributes something meaningful to mission and inter-religious interactions.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Summum and the Establisment Clause

The recent edition of Religion Dispatches includes an interesting discussion of the recent Supreme Court ruline on the Utah-based Summum group and its desire to have a monument placed in a public park. The story, by Bruce Ledewitz, includes the following byline:

Why was a Utah city allowed to prevent a minority religion from erecting a monument next to a monument of the Ten Commandments? The Supreme Court's Summum decision, litigated in the shadow of the Establishment Clause, raises more questions than answers.

After summarizing the case and commenting on it in terms of free speech, Ledewitz then moves to a consideration of Establishment Clause issues. He writes in part:

"But, as Justice Scalia wrote in a concurrence, this free speech case was 'litigated in the shadow' of the Establishment Clause. In general, government is permitted to say anything it likes. But one limit on the doctrine of government speech is that the government may not prefer one religion over another. Pleasant Grove City is not permitted to put up a display of the Ten Commandments while refusing to accept the Seven Aphorisms if its reason for doing so is that the Ten Commandments are true and the Seven Aphorisms are not.

"The underlying uneasiness about the case is that the city might well have been making exactly this judgment. The rejection of the Summum monument had a jury-rigged and ad hoc quality about it. Undoubtedly, if Summum had in fact been centered in the community, the city would have found some other, allegedly neutral, reason for rejecting its monument."

This case that brings together a minority religion and issues of free speech and constitutional issues in a religiously plural society is worth reflecting on further. Those interested in reading this article in a single page format can find it here.