Personal experiences - Social and political issues - Church as community and institution


From Simon Aihiokhai:

A SECOND LOOK AT PROSPERITY GOSPEL

Some years ago, I took an interest in studying the prosperity gospel as it was playing out in sub-Saharan Africa. I wrote against it arguing that it was a distortion of the core beliefs of the teachings of the church and led to double exploitation of the poor who are told to donate all that they have to their pastors with the hope that the moment of grace would dawn upon them soon, while the pastors themselves continue to live affluently.

I recently visited Nigeria, my motherland, where I was spending time reconnecting with my spiritual roots as well as learning about the spiritual life of the local churches. To my surprise, the prosperity gospel trend has spread also to the traditional churches. It is no longer a third-generation churches’ issue. The Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria seems to be embracing this ecclesial vision. Attempts by the bishops and clergy to delegitimize this movement have failed. During church services, parishioners expect from their pastor homilies that speak to the flourishing of life. Interestingly, while the newly established non-denominational (third generation) churches focus on material success and bodily health, the traditional churches tend to speak to physical healing.

In Nigeria, everyone seeks healing and deliverance from poverty, sickness, and spiritual bondage. Even intercessory prayers are structured to address these issues. Spending time with a religious community at their novitiate, I noticed that the novitiate community is not immune from this wave of spirituality. On second thought, I am compelled to ask the following questions. Have the traditional churches failed to read the signs of the time? Is this the way the Spirit wants to lead the Christian churches in the new millennium? Could it be that our theologies have so glorified suffering that it is stuck in the bondage of the cross (Good Friday)? And we are unable to envision the hope and new life that comes from the resurrection (Easter Sunday)?

While the world is faced with many challenges brought about by greed, neglect of the planet, a distorted sense of economic progress that has led to systemic marginalization of peoples, cultures, nations, and civilizations, and a love of wars, as well as enduring racism and tribalism that cloud the imagination of our collective humanity, there seem to arise an enduring hope that can only come from the divine.

At the heart of prosperity gospel is a sense that the miracle working God has chosen never to abandon God’s people if only they would respond by faith and hope. Perhaps prosperity gospel is showing us how to embrace a theology that is not stagnant, one that leads to the joys of the Easter event. The risen Christ has broken all chains of oppression, whether, racial, economic, political, sociological, ecological, cultural, or psychological.

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For your teaching:

"Are science and religion enemies?" by Dan Finucane

It depends who you ask. The question is important because a significant number of our students think that science and religion are estranged. I hear sighs of relief in student reflection papers when they are invited to take on this assumption and also take up tools to respond to strident voices in our media (and sometimes on our campuses), that argue an incompatibility of science and faith.

I have met more than one premed student, wanting to continue to embrace her faith but enchanted and inspired too by the new scientific depths she entering. If we force our students (even in a de facto way, by ignoring the topic) to choose between science and faith, many will leave the pew for the lab bench. Some will think they are intellectually compelled to do so. Richard Dawkins and others among the new atheists argue that we are finally in an era where being an atheist is an intellectually respectable position. Are we showing how theism is respectable? Psalm 104 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all…” Do we invite our students to connect the study of nature and the wisdom that creates it?

Our culture isn't good at this. A lot of public religious voices are strident and reductionistic. A lot of scientists are frustrated that many Americans are not educated scientifically. Big topics rooted in science are skewed by political agendas.

Does the church trust science? I use a simple thought experiment to open the topic in classroom and parish discussions (and to get a cheap laugh).

“Ever hear of something called a ‘Christian hospital?’” “What do you figure goes on in there? Chanting? Dancing around the bed? Burning incense?” (There’s the cheap laugh). “Actually, the place is full of scientists. They are taking blood samples, doing MRIs, using all kinds of tools to diagnose problems and practice medicine.”

There is a chapel in the hospital too. Is that a problem? Is that weird or inconsistent?

Recently a family member had surgery to remove a tumor on her brain. (She is fine, it was small and benign.) We did two things. We found the top neuro surgeon in town. And we prayed and had our friends pray. I prayed for the surgeon, for his concentration, for a good night’s sleep for him. Is that weird? Did we think something would happen because we prayed while the surgeon cut? What kind of view of reality is behind this sort of behavior? What sort of intellectual premises support such a view?

I am hoping we can invite our students to take up a rich, complex intellectually robust and faith filled worldview. They need one they can both think and pray with. We can work from several angles.

Scripture is still often misunderstood and abused in science and religion debates. We can help students see what scriptural texts actually are. We can show scientists that we are not fundamentalists. We can read tough scriptural texts with our students.

Much current mischief (and the parameters of much public discussion) is mired in an assumption that there is a historical rejection of science by the church. (A delightful resource that dispels such assumptions is Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed., Ronald Numbers). Do our students know that John Paul II created a study group to examine the Galileo case? Journalists and scientists had a field day with the admission, three and a half centuries after the fact, that the church was wrong at the Galileo trial. But the pope knew we look sillier not bringing the topic up.

With our students, we can look at the intellectual antecedents for our current scientific worldview; antecedents that go back before the rise of science, into the monotheists’ vision of the cosmos, the big picture work of Aquinas, the challenge to embrace faith and reason in Maimonides, the perspectives on humans and the cosmos in the church fathers, and the vision of creation in the psalms.

Psalm 104 is on the same page as the big bang, big history, and big science. Strident voices make for viral media stories and cable show shouting. But our classrooms are stages where learning and civility can offer deep foundations for a richer vision. We are sending our students into a world that is uncomfortable discussing either science or religion. But we can invite them into the conscious, ongoing reflection of a vibrant faith; a church that is the home of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and engineers, as well as lawyers, business leaders, political voices and teachers.

Our commitment to a holistic and graced worldview goes way back: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3: 15-16)

COMMENT by Dee Christie

As a biologist who converted to theology late in life, I am always puzzled by the supposed dichotomy between the pursuit of science  and a strong faith. When I was in college, a puzzled teacher at the school where I was student teaching asked me, “ How can you be a scientist and a Catholic?” She seemed amazed at this apparent contradiction.

Professor Finucane presents a good answer to the question. There is a richness to the Christian religious tradition--and that of other religions--that needs to be understood and embraced--dare I say it?--in a scientific way. Rejecting a caricatured version of religion is silly. Fundamentalism does not do justice to either scripture or nature. There is no ark atop a European mountain nor a dig of crumbled tablets (with ten Roman numerals). There is a complexity and compassion in nature that causes both science and religion to marvel.

For myself, the connections between science and religion have become more rich with passing years. While I no longer titrate the contents of test tubes or watch Stentor wave its turquoise glory under a microscope, I love to linger in thought or discovery at the wonderful world. Awe and appreciation of the divine can be found in tiny things: primal algae and its relationship to the green leaves of trees, DNA and its power and vulnerability, the teleology of tiny seedlings that motivates them to seek the sun. Is this not the presence of God to ponder? Is this not what we bring to a Sunday celebration: the connections between life and its creator--the earthly bread become God?

When I converted and put the study of biology behind me, I was thrilled by the many facets of the biblical tradition. A scientific study of scripture does not cause one to abandon faith but rather to appreciate it more. For me at least, I have never seen the need to dichotomize the two disciplines.  While the language of each is unique, the message is that we learn from everything. Life, nature, scripture, even the smallest of creation, is the prie dieu at which we meet God.

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Reflection about:

"Baptist Seminary Life" by Steve W. Lemke, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

As a member of the ATS Board of Commissioners, I have had the opportunity to see how many Catholic seminaries go about the business of theological education and how they differ from conservative evangelical seminaries. There are exceptions to the generalizations that I’m about to note, but these generalizations do represent a general pattern.

First, Catholic theological education is dually focused on both classical training and spiritual formation. I am in admiration of the care and attention that most Catholic institutions give to the spiritual formation of priests. It is both comprehensive and extended over the entire MDiv experience. While Protestant seminaries do give attention to spiritual formation of ministers (some more than others), I know of no Protestant seminaries that give the sort of focused attention that I see in Catholic institutions. Because of this attention to personal spiritual formation, most (not all) Catholic seminary training is done on a main campus. Internet and extension center education is more common among evangelical seminaries. These multiple delivery systems are offered because although the MDiv is required as a prerequisite for the priesthood in many Catholic and mainline Protestant tradition, this is not so in evangelical traditions. In my denomination about 45 percent of ministers have little or no theological training. The flexibility afforded students through these delivery systems means it is not uncommon for evangelical seminaries to be larger in enrollment (with 1,000 to 5,000 students) than most Catholic seminaries. I also notice that some Catholic seminaries are embedded in universities. Although this is common in mainline Protestant seminaries or divinity schools, in evangelical seminaries it is more common to have undergraduate programs embedded in the seminary. However, Catholic and evangelical seminaries are also similar in that they both focus on classical theological education, a close connection to our church communities, and a commitment to conserving a confessional theological tradition.

Let me tell you more about my particular seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. We are owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, one of six SBC seminaries serving our culturally diverse denomination with 47,000 churches with 15 million members. Our main campus is in New Orleans, but less than half of our 3,800 students attend classes there. We have about 25 extension centers in the five Southeastern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), from Shreveport, Louisiana to Atlanta to Miami. Some of these extension centers are for undergraduate students in our Leavell College, some are graduate centers, and some offer both. We have five undergraduate extension centers in maximum security prisons, training ministers to lead in cell churches, which have helped change the culture of violence in these prisons. In extension center classes, some teaching is done via Compressed Interactive Video (CIV), and some by in-person teachers. Many extension center students also take some online classes (about a fifth of the 40,000 credit hours we teach each year). Online students are from about 45 states each year, plus about a dozen foreign countries. We have also experimented with offering synchronic video classes based upon on-campus graduate classes. We offer various certificates, an undergraduate degree, and 8 graduate degrees online.

In addition, we have dozens of undergraduate certificate centers for lay ministers in church settings. Many of these certificate centers are multicultural settings, including African American churches, as well multiple language settings (French Haitian, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, and Cambodian). We also offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Korean and Spanish languages, and a Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Korean.

The Master of Divinity (MDiv) is our standard graduate degree, which we offer with 23 different specializations. We also offer 17 various Master of Arts type degrees. Although many of our students will be pastors or missionaries, a large number are studying to serve in a variety of ministries such as minister of music, discipleship minister, youth minister, children’s minister, counselor, or social worker. We offer the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) and Doctor of Educational Ministry (DEdMin) in five more states in addition to those in extension centers in the five Southeastern States. We offer three research oriented doctoral degrees (PhD, EdD, and Doctor of Musical Arts). In an experiment approved by ATS, we also offer many of our PhD majors via synchronic online video. Our faculty also direct a dozen research centers, highlighted by our archaeology program with its groundbreaking dig in Tel Gezer, Israel, and by our Center for New Testament Textual Study, which has one of the largest collections of New Testament manuscripts in North America.

Why do we offer so many class delivery options? Because Baptist churches do not require theological degrees for their ministers. It is particularly commonplace for large church staff members to attend classes while they are already serving in churches. We would be a much smaller seminary if we only offered classes on our main campus, particularly because Baptists are a small minority (about 6 percent) in South Louisiana. So, that’s why we do seminary in the way that we do.

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Observing the 500th Anniversary of the Start of the Protestant Reformation:

"What We Lutherans Can Learn from Roman Catholics" by David VonSchlichten

As a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) working as a professor of religious studies at a Roman Catholic university, I have been striving to model for students how a person can embrace both denominations without either downplaying the differences or decreeing that one is “better” than the other. Students tend to want to do one or the other instead of considering a third way, which is that we can value both denominations without there being one that is “right.”

In the spirit of embracing both denominations, let me suggest what we Lutherans can learn from Roman Catholics. Of course the learning goes both ways, but I am hoping here to model how a person can recognize the differences between the two denominations without needing to defend his or her own. So then, let me propose three theses regarding what we Lutherans can learn from Roman Catholics.

1. Reverence for the Eucharist with Help from Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

While Luther held the Eucharist in high regard, the Lutheran church has had a spottier record. We Lutherans believe in the real presence of Christ “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine, and in seminary we had Eucharist weekly and were taught that weekly was the ideal for congregations. However, there are still ELCA congregations that do not observe weekly Eucharist, and one of the reasons for resisting this practice is that it is seen as “too Catholic.” The Roman Catholic Church has simply done a better job of emphasizing the importance of the Eucharist for the Christian life. The Eucharist is central to the Mass and not just another part of it, whereas for some Lutherans it is seen as optional.

One figure whose writings could help Lutherans grow in their appreciation of the Eucharist is Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), who exhibited an extraordinary passion for the Sacrament. Even when she was Episcopalian, on Communion Sundays she would rush from church to church so that she could receive the Eucharist as many times as possible. That passion intensified once she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1805. Her joy in receiving the real presence is evident in her writings, such as in this journal she kept for her sister-in-law Cecelia: “Jesus then is there we can go, receive Him, he is our own . . . so this Bread of Angels removes my pain, my cares, warms, cheers, sooths, contents and renews my whole being.” According to Father Simon Gabriel Bruté de Rémur, when close to death Seton sobbed in the presence of the ciborium because of her aching to receive the Body.

Luther also writes passionately about the Eucharist, but Seton is more relatable in that her writing is less polemical and scholarly than Luther’s. Seton’s reflections on the Eucharist vibrate with the ardor of a simple piety less evident in Luther’s reflections. We Lutherans could benefit from becoming better acquainted with Seton’s intense love for the Body and Blood. My point is not that Luther is wrong and Seton right (both authors contribute fruitfully to thoughts on the Sacrament), but that Seton provides a supplemental voice that can help Lutherans cherish the Eucharist more deeply.

2. Reverence for Tradition

The Lutheran emphasis on sola scriptura has much of value to it, but so does the Roman Catholic understanding of Scripture and Tradition flowing from a common source. Indeed, separating the two is somewhat of a false dichotomy. After all, Scripture arose from Tradition (such as the Psalms being used as hymns in the Temple), and Tradition has been shaped by Scripture. Indeed, we Lutherans are certainly aware of the importance of Tradition, through which the Holy Spirit clearly works. Roman Catholics can help us Lutherans to regard Tradition with new reverence even without jettisoning the sola scriptura principle.

3. The Lives of the Saints

Where to begin? We Lutherans could learn so much from studying the saints and other great spiritual leaders beyond those who appear in the Bible. For instance, in a course I teach on women’s spirituality, we study with some depth Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Dorothy Day. Whether we are listening to Hildegard’s music, reading Julian’s revelations, contemplating Teresa’s ecstasy, learning from Seton’s holy pedagogy, or marveling at Day’s solidarity with the poor, we are receiving extraordinary guidance from heroines seldom stressed among Lutherans. We Lutherans have our heroines and heroes, too, such as Bach and Bonhöffer, but the Lutheran church tends not to celebrate its saints in the way that the Roman Catholic Church does. We Lutherans could learn from our Catholic siblings about what it means to belong to a communion of saints.

I could go on, and, again, I could also write extensively about what Catholics can learn from Lutherans. My point is simply to challenge all of us anew to learn from each other without trying to outdo or one-up each other. Part of reforming the Church is shifting from a watering down of differences or an either/or mentality to a celebration of differences that embraces the both/and.

Write your own reflections to be posted!

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