If you’re a reader of the New York Times, or a listener to National Public Radio, or a follower of the Religion News Service, you’d have good reason over the past week or so to come to the conclusion that the United States — and indeed the world — is becoming less and less religious.
The Times recently ran an article on atheism in which, almost in passing, the author cites a Pew Forum study to support the claim that “roughly 20 percent” of Americans are “secularly inclined” as opposed to religious. National Public Radio ran a series this week entitled “Losing Our Religion.” Religion News Service ran a story that The Christian Century published under the headline, “Unbelief is world’s third-largest ‘religion’”.
And yet all of this is misleading, subtly but decisively. Each of these stories, in various ways, combines and collapses three categories: “Atheist,” “Agnostic” (these two combined currently constitute only about 5% of the U.S. population), and “Unaffiliated,” that is, those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation (the so-called “Nones,” who constitute about 15%). But if you read the Pew Forum’s report on the rise of the Unaffiliateds, you’ll find that 70% of them believe in God; 60% call themselves either “religious” or “spiritual,” and 40% of them pray. Lumping together this group with atheists and agnostics, or calling their increase a rise in “unbelief” or a case of “losing our religion,” is sloppy analysis at best.
Worse, this kind of categorization lends support to the false impression that U.S. society, and world society with it, is turning away from religious convictions and toward atheism or agnosticism — a conclusion the data simply do not support. Affiliation patterns are changing, it’s true (this is also true of political affiliations: “Independents” are on the rise in the U.S.). But we also live in a breathtakingly religious age: in percentage terms, religious belief and practice are basically holding steady in the U.S. overall, and globally, no less than 84% of the world’s 7 billion people claim a particular religious affiliation — and a great many of the other 16%, while they may not identify as members of a particular brand of religion, nevertheless call themselves “religious” or “spiritual.”
Religion deeply, widely matters, and will continue to do so, both at home and abroad. Thinking otherwise will lead our thoughts astray, whether we are within or without religious communities. And the stories we tell about religious trends matter, too.
The more we mislabel data and suggest that “roughly 20 percent” of the U.S. population are atheist or agnostic (to take the New York Times example), the more we run the risk of concluding that religion is on the way out — the “secularization thesis” that has come and gone, and now has come again, on the American scene. What’s more, this misunderstanding runs the risk of actually contributing to the trend it falsely announces, since it conjures visions of a stampede for religion’s exit door (“20 percent!”) — and as every antelope knows, stampedes attract followers. On the other hand, the secularization myth may be especially tempting for historically mainline churches today, since it provides a handy excuse for any failure to attract or retain younger generations (“well, it must be them, not us”). In other words, for churches, too, mis-telling the story leads us to misinterpret our situation.
The point here is not that Christian communities should be complacent about the rise of the Unaffiliateds, or simply rest assured that religion is alive and well. Rather, the point is that we should read the data rigorously and wisely, resisting the “secularization” interpretation as long as the data do not support it, and instead working to be nimble enough to engage Unaffiliateds according to their own cherished values: independence and flexibility, to be sure, but also, in many cases, a genuine, vital interest in religion and spirituality.
It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are broken. Our prayers go out to our brothers and sisters in Newtown, Connecticut – and to our brothers and sisters around the world who suffer unspeakable violence each and every day. When children are killed, we mourn in a special way. And we must do all we can to do justice to our grief with our actions and our life together: reexamining not only our gun laws, not only our mental health and social practices, but also the weapon-ridden fantasy world to which the lost, angry, or ill have too often turned in recent American life. We all have work to do.
It’s Christmastime, and our hearts are full. This weekend, CTS hosted the Gifts of Grace program here in on campus, an event bringing together hundreds of families to enjoy a bounty of gifts, food, and fellowship. When children smile, we rejoice in a special way. And those smiles, along with those on the faces of their mothers and fathers and grandparents and guardians, were beyond counting. Thank you to the CTS volunteers who represented our community so generously and so well, and to the CTS facilities staff who so kindly and professionally made it all possible.
Hope and sorrow, sorrow and hope. The truth is, Advent and Christmas aren’t about glittering lights alone: they’re about the light shining in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In other words, every glittering Christmas light is best understood and experienced as a light shining against the encroaching shadows all around us. That’s what Christmas lights are for. The season, then, is surely one of joy and wonder and delight – but always over against injustice and heartbreak and despair. After all, it’s no accident that we celebrate Christmas morning amidst the longest nights of the year. It’s no accident that King Herod’s anxious rage is right there at the center of the story, that even as “unto us a child is born,” at the same time children are ruthlessly slaughtered and lost, and their parents refuse to be comforted (Matthew 2:16-18). And it’s no accident that God’s Incarnation is a vivid act of solidarity with the vulnerable. God arrives as a poor peasant baby in occupied territory. The Maker of Heaven and Earth comes as an infant, utterly defenseless, a soft spot on his head.
There are no easy answers here. Theology is often about knowing when to say, “We don’t know.” And yet, this season as always, we can pray together, act together, struggle together, and learn together. We can wait and watch for the mystery of Christmas morning with a special urgency. We can reach out to each other, mourning with those who mourn, rejoicing with those who rejoice. And through it all, we can give thanks for God’s presence in our sorrow, God’s presence in our hope.
I read that at one of the candlelight prayer vigils in Newtown this weekend, the assembled sang, “Silent Night.” Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children.
Our hearts are broken. Our hearts are full.
One recent front-page Star headline, “Shifting Away from Religion,” was prompted by a new study just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Do the study’s findings really indicate this kind of shift? There are important reasons to question that conclusion.
Protestants now make up 48% of U.S. adults, the study reports, down from 53% in 2007 (and down from 2 out of 3 in the 1960s). The so-called “Nones” – that is, those who check the box indicating “no religious affiliation” instead of any particular one – have increased by about the same percentage that Protestants have declined.
But let’s dig a little deeper into how Nones describe themselves. According to the study, they are not dominated by atheists (only 2% of American adults identify as atheists) or agnostics (only 3%). On the contrary, 70% of Nones say they believe at least somewhat in God or a higher power. That’s right: 7 out of 10 Nones say this. Even more telling, 6 of 10 describe themselves as religious or spiritual. 4 of 10 say they pray.
The takeaway here is that what most Nones seem to value is not atheism or agnosticism or anti-religiousness, but rather a kind of openness, flexibility, and independence when it comes to religious affiliation. Consider a political analogy: an uptick in those who identify as “independent” with respect to political party might indicate a shift away from a certain kind of partisanship, but not a shift away from politics itself. So too with religion.
Part of the problem here is with the word “Nones.” Digging into the data, it’s clear that this group has “no religious affiliation in particular,” but not “no religious beliefs or practices.” “Unaffiliated” is a much better, clearer term.
Two other caveats: in the supposed golden age of American Protestantism (the 1950s and 60s), significant numbers of Christians likely “checked the Protestant box,” so to speak, primarily because it was socially respectable to do so. What may be going on in the decades since is not so much a “shift away from religion” as an increase in clarity and candor about religious affiliation.
Finally, while it’s true that nearly 1 in 3 Millennials (those born after about 1980) are Unaffiliateds, the Millennial generation is also the largest in American history – and so there may well be plenty of Americans interested in religious affiliation in the years and decades to come. Moreover, down the road, the picture changes even more. Just last year, for the first time American hospitals welcomed more babies of color than Caucasian babies, and since religion so often plays such a strong role in African American and Latino communities, among others, an American religious renaissance – a “shift toward religion” – may already be on its way.
The bottom line, then, is that the Pew study has no simple bottom line. What’s really going on today in American religion – an ebb? a flow? a reconfiguration? – remains an open, important, fascinating question.
As you know, from a Christian point of view, one of the most precious opportunities we have to get in touch and keep in touch with the heart of life is when we gather for worship. That prayer and praise, that Word and sacrament, that song and celebration helps remind us of who we really are, and whose mission we are really on. Like lifeblood in the great circulatory system of creation, we are drawn into that great heart, and then sent out again to serve. At its best, worship restores and renews us. It stretches and encourages us. It orients us as a Christian community.
And so I’m writing with a warm invitation for you to join us for worship this semester, each and every Wednesday at 11:30am in Sweeney Chapel. I know (all too well!) that there are many demands on all of our schedules – and for that very reason, we need to come together in worship, reminding one another about why we do the work we do in the first place, and inspiring one another to live and serve with both excellence and grace.
If you already attend chapel regularly – thank you (and do invite a friend!). And if you come only occasionally, consider committing to come every week. We need you there. Perhaps more than anything else, CTS needs to become a vibrant, connected, inspired community, and worship is one crucial way Christian communities grow and thrive.
Last week was Convocation, and tomorrow is the first regular chapel service of the year. Come, taste, and see. If you are a singer (and I know you are!), come sing with the fabulous CTS Pick-Up Choir: we rehearse at 11am, learn the song right then and there, and then sing it in worship that day. What could be better? If you love Scripture, the passage tomorrow that our preacher (yours truly) will be tackling (or is it the other way around?) is from the Gospel of Mark: Jesus’ famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” And during lunch, we’ll continue the conversation: I’ll host a table in the cafeteria at which we’ll discuss the critical question: “How do we understand Jesus today?” All are welcome!
And finally, if you want to share your gifts and get involved in CTS worship this year, please know you are more than welcome to do so. This fall, Professor Tércio Junker is convening a Community Worship Group of students, staff, and worship practitioners, and they will be keenly interested in your “dreams and visions” for the future CTS worship.
Come one, come all! Pick-up Choir at 11am (try it!); worship at 11:30am; and Christological conversation at 12:30pm in the cafeteria!
Looking forward to seeing you there.
We commonly speak of “this religion” and “that religion,” but in fact, religions are less like clear, coherent objects and more like big, uproarious, often messy family reunions. There’s real kinship under each tent, of course, and common customs, and perceptible family resemblances that allow us to speak generally of “Christianity” and “Islam” and so on. But at the same time, as any careful reading of the daily paper will tell you, these families are constituted not only by agreements and common cause, but also by fierce, longstanding arguments driven by very different points of view.
Your family is probably the same, and so is mine. In fact, in some respects, it is closer to the truth to say that Christianity is a community of debate about Jesus Christ – not a community of lockstep agreement about him. What makes us “Christian” is that we are committed to interpreting Jesus (and therefore to arguing about him from time to time) and following him as best we can.
And this is why a crucial question in religious life is the question of essentials, of boiling things down, of interpreting certain aspects of the tradition in terms of other, more important aspects. In the Christian Bible, for example, though Deuteronomy 22 reads that if a new bride is found by her husband not to be a virgin, she shall be stoned to death by the men of her town (Deut 22:20-21), it is also written that above all, God requires us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). And so in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, faced with Mary’s surprising pregnancy, confronts an interpretive challenge: which text should govern his actions? Joseph decides to read the law as a guide to mercy, not violence – and so begins the Christmas story.
Joseph gets it. He understands that though certain portions of his own religious tradition may be quite readily interpreted toward violence, the essence that that tradition, the key texts and themes and narrative contours, actually point in the opposite direction. And of course Jesus, the good rabbi, does the same, interpreting the essence of the law in terms of loving God and neighbor. Acting violently in the name of Christianity – or for that matter, in the name of Islam or any other religion that essentially asserts peace – may be historically common, but it is nonetheless mistaken. It misses the center of things, the heart toward which God calls us again and again.
Is religion violent? It certainly can be, and it often is. But Christianity, to take the religion I know best, is at its heart a ploughshare, a tool meant to make for harvest and bounty, and ultimately for nourishment and good health. It’s true that we too often beat it into a sword, and for that we should continually confess and seek forgiveness. But we shouldn’t let such misuse distract us from seeing what Joseph and Jesus saw so well: religion’s blade isn’t for violence. It’s for turning over the earth, so that all may eat together.
Whenever the Israelites’ “wilderness wandering” comes up, it presents a golden opportunity – especially in the current U.S. political climate – to talk about immigration.
This kind of preaching and teaching “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” (as Karl Barth is said to have put it) provides at least two major advantages. It’s an opportunity to consider and engage a major political issue in light of the gospel. It’s also an opportunity to consider and engage Christian life in light of a major biblical and theological motif: the idea that every disciple is fundamentally a pilgrim, a “stranger in a strange land.”
As far as immigration from the South is concerned, the reality is that our southern border is everywhere – it’s not just along the far rim of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Undocumented workers’ extremely low wages enable low prices in supermarket produce sections across the country, and a similar subsidizing effect is in place in a whole range of homestead industries: construction, housecleaning, landscaping, house painting and so on.
The U.S. standard of living depends on poor people who work for low wages and are often separated from their families for long periods of time because of immigration laws. Becoming more aware of these dynamics means becoming more aware of reality itself – and of the real consequences and costs of our everyday decisions.
It isn’t for nothing that the Bible spends so much time reminding readers that they, too, were (and so in some sense still are) slaves, strangers, aliens in a foreign land. It’s a point that might motivate us again and again to work to reform our society into a more humane, self-aware, graceful place to be.
Part of what is so stunning about the recent YouTube video of a Texas judge beating his 16-year-old daughter is the sheer number of times the video has been viewed (last I checked, well over 6 million clicks and counting). We are fascinated by violence: curious about it, afraid of it, offended by it, mesmerized by it. More and more, we are surrounded by images and incidents of brutality. And for this very reason, we ought to redouble our efforts to make our homes bastions of tenderness and dignity.
At the heart of the Christian tradition is a story about violence, the story of the cross. There are many ways to interpret that story, of course, but at its heart is a searing indictment of violence in its manifold forms: betrayal, desertion, assault, humiliation and shame. What happens to Jesus – at the hands of his enemies, but also at the hands of his trusted friends – is a devastating, heartbreaking thing. That God miraculously makes something good out of this ruin doesn’t change the indictment; if anything, it underscores it. God is a God of life, and so opposes the world’s ways – our ways – of death, contempt and destruction.
The cross, we should never forget, is an ancient instrument of torture and intimidation. The good news of Easter morning is that God has transformed and will transform even the worst into signs of life and resurrection.
Reasonable, well-meaning people will disagree about the precise role physical force should play in Christian parenting, but in my own view, the indispensable role of the parent is to protect the vulnerable bodies of children. Love can sometimes be “tough,” as they say, but it should never injure. Our homes, our lives, our most precious relationships should be pockets of patience and resurrection, sanctuaries against the swirling storm.
Our hearts are broken for all of those affected by the tragic events at the Indiana State Fair this weekend, just a few blocks from CTS. I attended the Memorial Service on the fairgrounds this morning, and the mood was simultaneously mournful and inspired: mourning the losses, and inspired by the stories of courage and compassion.
Facing such tragedies, Christians can do at least three things. May God grant us the grace to do them well.
First, we can deny easy answers. In catastrophe we confront great mysteries, and the mysteries demand to be honored. We certainly cannot say, “God willed this,” and we can respectfully, strongly object to those who do. But at the same time, by the same token, we cannot simply say, “This happened against or despite God’s will,” thereby conjuring up a world full of chaos against which God is powerless or indifferent. Either way, we claim to know too much, and we are in no position to make such pronouncements. We are in a position to pray.
And so second, we can pray. We can offer prayers of solidarity, standing as best we can with the lost and grieving, the living and the dead. We can pray not only with our words but also with our wallets, our time, and our talent. We can reach out across the city and around the block to all those affected, near and far. We can act, touch, listen – and lend a hand.
Third, we can lament. We can join our voices with the brokenhearted singer of the Psalms, asking those passionate, difficult, ancient questions that ring down through the ages: “How long?” and “Why?” Anger and sorrow have a place in our lives and therefore in our prayers, and denying easy answers sometimes means persistently pressing the unanswered questions.
We stand today in a world both beautiful and broken. There is so much that needs to be done. People that need to be fed, wars that need to end, bodies that need protection, hearts that need encouragement. It’s enough to overwhelm us, too much, too much. It’s enough to send us to our knees to cover ourselves in dust and ashes, the very debris of death.
And yet, think of this: the Eastern Orthodox Church calls the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday the season of “bright sadness.” That sounds just about right, doesn’t it? We are called to be a light to the nations, to let our light shine – but not in a way that stands apart from the world’s sorrows, or our city’s sorrows, or our neighbor’s sorrows. On the contrary, we are called to shine in a way that illuminates those sorrows, and that stands with the sorrowful in their grief and their hope.
This is who we are: people of bright sadness. Each of us called to deny easy answers, and pray, and lament, and shine until the shadows become like the noonday sun.
Our hearts are broken. There’s nothing easy here. Let us pray.
Holy and beautiful God, you created this soft, green earth, and you called it good. You made the oceans depths and the soaring mountains. For your earth and for your people: Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.
God of wind and rain, God who said to the storm, “Peace – be still,” we cry and beat our breasts with all those who are grieving. How long will disasters haunt our days? How long will hearts and bodies break and bleed? How long will parents bury their children?
God of grief and anger, this is what we know: Even in the valley of the shadow of death, still we are held, still we are loved, still we are brought back to life, rocked so sweetly in your everlasting arms. God of hope against hope, we call on you, we depend on you. Deepen and brighten our sadness.
God of love and new life, for your earth and for all of your people, living and dead, wounded and healing: Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy. You are our refuge and strength. You are our very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the winds may rage, though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea. Be with us now. Have mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
(Indianapolis, IN) – Christian Theological Seminary announced today that Rev. Dr. Matthew Myer Boulton has been named the seminary’s sixth president. The CTS Board of Trustees voted to elect Boulton following a nearly year-long, national search. An ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister, Boulton earned a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago (2003) and a M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School (1998).
Boulton is relocating to Indianapolis from Cambridge, Massachusetts where he has served as Associate Professor of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) since 2007. He has taught a broad range of courses on Christian theology, preaching, and history, including courses that put social justice work in theological perspective. His teaching and research have explored the ways in which Christian life is shaped through worship and music.
CTS Chairman Mark Mutz commented that Boulton understands that the most important work in theology does not occur in the insulated towers of academia, but where faith meets the joys and sorrows of living. “If you look back at those who have made the most significant contributions to theology – people like St. Augustine, John Calvin and Karl Barth – you will see that they were all pastors who spent a great deal of time with men and women confronting the most difficult and rewarding issues of their lives, issues like children, marriage and death. Their thinking arose where their faith met these realities. Matt gets that. He has not only written respected academic works, he has also made films, founded a church and started a band. He has the intellect, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to lead CTS and theological education in exciting directions,” Mutz said.
An accomplished musician and songwriter, Boulton co-founded the bluegrass gospel band, Butterflyfish. He notes that the arts can provide effective means for conveying theological concepts. “Just as scholarly writing can explain and explore the big ideas of Christian faith, a song or work of art can bring clarity and insight to those very ideas, making them easier to engage and understand,” Boulton stated.
Boulton is no stranger to the Midwest. The son of a religion professor, he grew up in southwest Michigan and earned a degree in film and history from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, before an interest in anthropology, ritual studies and theology prompted him to enroll in Harvard Divinity School.
Prior to his teaching at HDS, Boulton served as Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching at Andover Newton Theological School. He is the author of God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship and the forthcoming Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology, due out this fall. His essays have been published in a broad range of scholarly journals, and he is a sought-after speaker, preacher, and workshop leader.
Boulton said he was intrigued by CTS’s legacy of exploring faith in ways that engage both intellectual rigor and passionate inspiration. “We strengthen and deepen our faith by asking critical, adventurous questions while at the same time leaning into what most inspires us. I look forward to working with CTS’s accomplished faculty and staff to continue asking these questions in fresh, exciting, faithful ways,” he said.