Saturday, December 31, 2022

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Cost of Discipleship and Cheap Grace

           By Rudy Barnes, Jr. 


Jesus was a Jew who never suggested that he was divine or advocated a new religion.  He called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him.  Early church leaders knew that his teachings were not popular, and to make Christianity popular they reversed the priorities of discipleship over worship with doctrines that limited salvation to belief in a divine Christ.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer considered exclusivist Christian beliefs without discipleship a form of cheap grace.  For Bonhoeffer the cost of discipleship was to return to his native Germany and oppose Hitler during World War II, and that cost him his life.  Today most Christians ignore the cost of discipleship and consider their exclusivist beliefs as the only means of salvation.


Discipleship includes all works or deeds of faith.  James described a faith without deeds as dead as a body without the spirit. (see James 2:14-26).  That would make any profession of Christian faith without deeds of discipleship a form of cheap grace.  Even so, Christianity became the world’s most popular religion based on beliefs that ignore deeds of discipleship.


Discipleship and democracy have had an unholy relationship.  That was evident in 2016 when most white American Christians voted to make Donald Trump their President, despite his egregious immorality that was the antithesis of the altruistic morality taught by Jesus.  Winston Churchill once described democracy as the worst form of government--except for all the others.  


Despite the ancient saying, Vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is not the voice of God.  Trump’s election proved that point, in spite of Elon Musk’s opinion to the contrary.  Whether we attribute the corruption of democracy and Christianity to human depravity, we know that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer.


The concept of civil religion reflects the moral standards of political legitimacy that define a nation’s democracy.  Democracy makes Americans the masters of their political destiny and determines the moral standards of political legitimacy that define their politics, for good or for bad. Unfortunately, white Christians corrupted their church and American democracy in 2016.


Christian morality and political legitimacy are interwoven in a democracy.  Since most Americans consider themselves Christians, the church should be a moral steward of democracy.  If America is a Christian nation, its standards of political legitimacy should reflect the moral teachings of Jesus, or the church cannot claim that it promotes discipleship.                 


Popularity has become the measure of success in both American politics and its church; but the teachings of Jesus were never popular. If the church intends to make discipleship a priority of Christian faith it must forego its popularity and follow the example of Bonhoeffer on the cost of discipleship by continuing to oppose the tyranny of Putin in Ukraine. Putin is as evil as Hitler.



Notes:


The corrupting influence of popularity on American religion and politics has been a continuing theme in my commentary.  The following recent commentaries illustrate that theme.  See:

 #374 (1/22/22): Musings on Popularity as a Corrupting Influence in Democracy and Christianity

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/01/musings-on-popularity-as-corrupting.html.

#419 (11/26/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Vox Populi, Vox Dei in Religion and Politics

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on-vox.html.

#421 (12/10/22): Musings on the Evolution of  Christianity into the American Civil Religion

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/12/musings-on-evolution-of-christianity.html.


On Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer and The Cost of Discipleship.   


As a nation America can practice discipleship much as did Bonhoeffer by continuing to defend Ukraine against the tyranny of Putin.  “Zelensky and his fellow Ukrainians have reminded Americans of the values and causes we used to admire in ourselves — the ardent hunger for freedom, the deep-rooted respect for equality and human dignity, the willingness to fight against brutal authoritarians who would crush the human face under the heel of their muddy boots. It is as if Ukraine and Zelensky have rekindled a forgotten song, and suddenly everybody has remembered how to sing it.  Zelensky was not subtle about making this point. He said that what Ukraine is fighting for today has echoes in what so many Americans fought for over centuries.His words reminded us that America supports Ukraine not only out of national interest — to preserve a stable liberal world order — but also to live out a faith that is essential to this country’s being and identity. The thing that really holds America together is this fervent idea. This liberal ideal has been tarnished over the last six decades. American policy has oscillated between a hubristic interventionism and a callous non-interventionism.  Zelensky came to America as a reminder that for all the talk of American decline, the world still needs American leadership and that the liberal alliance is still strong. While liberal democracies blunder, they have the capacity to learn and adapt.  Zelensky reminded us that while the authoritarians of the world have shown they can amass power, there is something vital they lack: a vision of a society that preserves human dignity, which inspires people to fight and binds people to one another.” See Biden’s America finds its voice at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/22/opinion/biden-zelensky-speech.html.


Within Christian nationalism there remain advocates for Trump’s radical right politics. See Tulsa preacher Jackson Lahmeyer is building a movement to battle "demonic" Democrats and put Donald Trump back in the White House, at  https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/jackson-lahmeyer-christian-nationalist-conspiracy-theorist-pastors-for-trump-1234649049/.


Ross Douthat has opined that “Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary to religious entrepreneurs--as though where Americans are going now in their post-Christian explorations, they don’t want or need his blessing. See https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/21/opinion/america-religion-christianity.html.     

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Christmas Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Myopic Methodist Schism

Rudy Barnes,Jr.


The United Methodist Church (UMC) is in a schism that defies its nominal unity.  Like other Protestant denominations it split over slavery in the 1840s, and after the Civil War it spun off holiness denominations as America’s most popular Protestant denomination.  Once again Methodism is facing a schism--this time over postmodern issues related to sexual preference.


Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have already experienced denominational schisms over sexual preference and same sex marriage.  The UMC has postponed resolving the issue in its doctrine until next year; but some large churches are already disaffiliating with the UMC over these issues.  They are myopic Methodists who can’t see the forest for the trees.


The issue that will ultimately undermine the future of the church in a world of increasing religious pluralism is Christian exclusivism.  It limits salvation to those who believe that Jesus Christ is the alter ego of God in the Holy Trinity.  Unless such myopic Christian beliefs become more universal and tolerant of other religions, church membership will continue to decline


Jesus was a maverick Jew who never taught that he was divine or advocated a new religion.  It’s axiomatic that Christian morality should be based on the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus never addressed issues of sexual preference.  Even so, Christians have allowed divisive political issues like sexual preference to supersede the universal moral teachings of Jesus.   


Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including neighbors we don’t like (Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus also taught that reconciliation should take priority over worship (Mt 5:23-24), and that God’s judgment was based on how we treat the least of those among us, not on our religious beliefs (Mt 25:31-46).


If there is a schism in the church, it should be over giving priority to the teachings of Jesus over exclusivist church doctrines that Jesus never taught.  Thomas Jefferson was a deist who was critical of the church, but considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”  It’s a timeless universal moral code for people of all faiths.


Christmas is a time to remember that Jesus came as a light to dispel the darkness of the world, not to create a new religion that condemns those of other religions or sexual preferences.  Jesus taught that God calls us to love others, and to reconcile with our adversaries.  Jesus was a universalist wisdom teacher who taught that sacrificial love can save us from human depravity.

 

God is love, and God sent Jesus to exemplify God’s reconciling and redemptive love and mercy.  When the church focuses on morally myopic issues like sexual preference and same sex marriage, it divides us and opposes God’s will.  Christmas is a time to build bridges based on God’s reconciling love, rather than walls between us and those of other religions and politics.          



Notes:


On Why You Should be Worried About the Split in the Methodist Church, see  https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/12/09/methodist-church-lgbtq-slavery-00073112

 

Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while he detested church doctrines.  In 1804 he wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in utmost profound detestation and execration, the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.” Many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips; and Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.  See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.

See also, Musings on the Evolution of  Christianity into the American Civil Religion (December 10, 2022)

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/12/musings-on-evolution-of-christianity.html.


On the Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism, see  http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/08/the-universalist-teachings-of-jesus-as.html.


On Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Virtual Universal Alternative to a Failing Church based on the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_9.html.



Saturday, December 17, 2022

Musings of an Old Maverick Methodist on COVID, Life and Death and Love

Rudy Barnes, Jr., December 17, 2022


I’m an octogenarian.  I know that life is short; but after getting all of my vaccinations and  taking precautions, I felt rather safe against COVID.  Now I learn that even if vaccinated, we old folks are the most vulnerable to COVID.  I beat the odds when I made it to 80, and along the way I learned that love is what life is all about, and that life doesn’t end at death.  Love remains.


Last week I attended a Christmas party of my high school class--the Dreher Class of 1960.  They all looked remarkably well preserved to be 80 years old, and we all shared stories of the halcyon days of our youth.  My bubble of nostalgia burst when I came home and read that even when vaccinated the elderly remain the most vulnerable to dying from COVID.


Too often we think that a long life is a great blessing.  It’s only a blessing if it’s a life full of love.  My eighty years of life have been blessed with love: first with parents who taught me the meaning of love, then with a wife and children who have shared that love for over 58 years.  We have all experienced the death of loved ones, but God’s eternal love has sustained us.


We know that life will end, but that love remains.  I retired  from three professions: I’ve been an attorney, an Army officer, and a United  Methodist pastor--and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.  What I have  learned so far is that God is love, and doesn’t favor those of one religion over others.  We’re all God’s children, even those that don’t know it yet.


Jesus was a maverick Jew who never advocated a new religion or that he was the alter ego of God.  Jesus was a great prophet and the Word of God.  His teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves; and most people accept that moral imperative of faith as God’s truth.


The truth is that we can’t love God without loving all others as we love ourselves; but the church teaches that worshiping Jesus Christ is a priority over following the teachings of Jesus on altruistic love.  Jesus taught God’s universal and timeless truth for people of all religions and those of no religion, and most older folks have come to accept that eternal truth.


Churches are ubiquitous in America, but the great commandment to love those we would rather ignore has been lost in exclusivist Christian beliefs and our materialistic and hedonistic culture.  But be hopeful.  The wisdom to correct flawed church doctrine and to promote altruistic love in politics could save the church and our democracy from the dustbin of history.    


Remember that “God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”  (1 John 4:16); and also Paul’s beautiful description of love as the most excellent way.  “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.” (1st Corinthians 13).  Love gives meaning to our lives, and it can sustain us in life from COVID and the fear of death.  

  

 

Notes:


Covid-19 Isn’t  a Pandemic of the Unvaccinated Anymore. “Americans received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses in December 2020, which means we are now approaching the beginning of the third year of the pandemic’s vaccine phase. And yet hundreds of Americans are still dying each day. Who are they? The data offers a straightforward answer: older adults.

Though it’s sometimes uncomfortable to say it, mortality risk has been dramatically skewed by age throughout the pandemic. The earliest reports of Covid deaths from China sketched a pattern quickly confirmed everywhere in the world: In an immunologically na├»ve population, the oldest were several thousand times more at risk of dying from infection than the youngest.

But the skew is actually more dramatic now — even amid mass vaccinations and reinfections — than it was at any previous point over the last three years. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people 65 and older accounted for 75 percent of all American Covid deaths. That dropped below 60 percent as recently as September 2021. But today Americans 65 and over account for 90 percent of new Covid deaths, an especially large share given that 94 percent of American seniors are vaccinated.”  The wisdom that gives meaning to life comes with age, but then so does death. That’s a sad reality for the old and young alike.  See  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/07/opinion/environment/covid-19-pandemic-elderly-deaths.html.

 

Altruistic love is a timeless and universal virtue taught by Jesus, but it has been buried in exclusivist Christian doctrines of belief that were never taught by Jesus.  Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him.  God’s will is to reconcile and redeem all people through God’s love, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer. Unfortunately, in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, Satan is winning the popularity contest.  That’s bad news for democracy.  Fortunately, God’s spiritual kingdom is not a democracy, and contrary to the belief of Elon Musk, The voice of the people is not the voice of God.  See Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Vox Populi, Vox Dei in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on-vox.html.


Saturday, December 10, 2022

Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.


Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Martin Luther King are unlikely bedfellows in the evolution of the American civil religion.  Jefferson was a slaveholder and deist who wrote the Declaration of Independence, while MLK was an activist black pastor who promoted civil rights.  How can we reconcile them as bedfellows in the evolution of Christianity as the American civil religion?    


Both Jefferson and MLK believed that the moral principles taught by Jesus should be the standards of political legitimacy in America’s democracy.  Civil religion consists of widely held beliefs that resemble those of a religion.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau considered the purpose of civil religion “to foster sentiments of sociability and a love of public duties among citizens, extending those bonds throughout a citizenry and its membership.”  


Rousseau asserted that a civil religion “should condemn intolerance as a creedal matter, and that there should never again be an exclusive national religion.  A civil profession of faith ought to tolerate all religions that tolerate others, and not uphold beliefs that run contrary to citizens’ duties.”  Both Trump’s America First nationalism and Putin’s Russian World nationalism are forms of Christian nationalism that ignore Rousseau’s requirement of tolerance.


Under the U.S. Constitution and law, religious freedom ensures that religious standards are voluntary and cannot be enforced as law.  Likewise, all moral standards of legitimacy in a civil religion are voluntary.  The moral standards of a civil religion represent national values and norms of behavior, and there is no place for moral police, like those in Iran and Saudi Arabia. 


A civil religion challenges the authority of traditional scripture and religious leaders to define the moral standards of legitimacy.  Instead, the national values of a civil religion would be determined by public polls and elections.  Today so-called “Christian” values vary considerably, from fundamentalist biblical standards to the “family values” of Republicans.


In the 1960s sociologist Robert Bellah asserted that civil religion exists in the U.S. and is  “suffused with various rituals that unite its citizens with symbols drawn from specific religions, but which operate independently of those origins.”  Bellah reckoned that the U.S. has its own saints and martyrs like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.” 


The 17th Century Enlightenment reinvented politics and religion in the West based on reason and advances in knowledge.  It’s time for another Enlightenment to give birth to a civil religion that provides a moral paradigm to define political  legitimacy for libertarian democracy in changing times.  America must rediscover what it means to provide for the common good.


The church has failed to be a moral steward of American democracy and lost its credibility as a proponent of political legitimacy.  Christianity has promoted conflicting standards of morality in politics.  To restore its legitimacy the church should abandon its exclusivist doctrines and promote the universal moral standards taught by Jesus as America’s civil religion.



Notes:


Civil religion is a public profession of  faith that aims to inculcate political values and that prescribes dogma, rites, and rituals for citizens of a particular country.  “This definition of civil religion remains consistent with its first sustained theoretical treatment, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762). Rousseau dedicated a penultimate and relatively lengthy chapter of that work to a discussion of civil religion, laying out its central conceptual elements and emphasizing its normative importance for a healthy body politic. The object of civil religion for Rousseau is to foster sentiments of sociability and a love of public duties among citizens, extending those bonds throughout a citizenry and its membership. Civil religion identifies gods and tutelary benefactors to assist with that great aim, and its successful inculcation is supposed to help maintain stability, order, and prosperity for the country.

Rousseau proposed that the dogmas of civil religion ought to be simple: they should affirm the afterlife, a God with divine perfection, the notion that the just will be happy and the wicked punished, and the sanctity of the social contract and the polity’s laws. Civil religion should also condemn intolerance as a creedal matter, Rousseau contended, given that there can never again be an exclusive national religion. A civil profession of faith ought to tolerate all and only those religions that tolerate others, he suggested, at least insofar as the respective religious groups do not uphold beliefs that run contrary to citizens’ duties. 

Civil religion is not identical to religious establishment. Established religions can prioritize otherworldly ends over life on earth, too, or identify a church leadership independent of political authorities. Rousseau saw the latter problem as both common and pernicious: “Wherever the clergy constitutes a body,” he wrote, “it is master and legislator in its domain.” Rousseau contrasted contemporary, institutionalized Christianity with the “religion of man,” distinguishing the latter as the religion of the gospel. Rousseau maintained that civil religion has decided benefits. It unites divine love with the laws of one’s country, and vivifies the body politic. In the 1960s sociologist Robert Neelly Bellah proposed that civil religion exists in the United States suffused with various rituals that unite its citizens, employing symbols that are drawn from specific religions but which operate independently of those origins. He reckoned that the United States has its own series of saints and martyrs (such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln) and that an examination of founding documents and important inaugural addresses shows how it operates on the idea that it is a nation chosen by God.” See civil religion: a philosophical concept, at https://www.britannica.com/print/article/1365961.


Wikipedia describes the American civil religion as “a sociological theory that a nonsectarian quasi-religious faith exists within the United States with sacred symbols drawn from national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The concept goes back to the 19th century but its current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in his 1967 article, Civil Religion in America.  According to Bellah, Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion.”  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_civil_religion.  

 

Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while he detested church doctrines.  In 1804 he wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in utmost profound detestation and execration, the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.” Many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips; and Robin Meyers has echoed Jefferson’s criticism of the church in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus.  See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html.

 

In Qatar, a nation deeply rooted in Islam, worshippers from other faiths find community in a government sanctioned island of Christianity.  It represents a step from Christian sectarian exclusivism and competition in a pluralistic religious culture to a more diverse and tolerant Christian community. At the center of the eight churches in Qatar’s Church City is the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Father Rally, as congregants call him, is a 52-year-old from the Philippines. He leads a team of 11 priests. This church has an estimated congregation of 200,000 — or it did, Father Rally said, before the coronavirus pandemic, and maybe before Qatar finished or suspended the construction projects related to the World Cup that had employed so many migrant workers. Now, maybe it is 100,000. He is not sure. He just knows that they come in droves.’Most people are social beings, so they want community.’ Father Rally said. ‘They want belongingness.’Qatar is a nation deeply rooted in Islam. Calls to prayer can be heard five times a day throughout Doha. World Cup stadiums have prayer rooms for fans, and some staff at the games will stop what they’re doing to kneel in prayer. But there are only about 300,000 Qatari citizens in Qatar, a country with a population of nearly 3 million. It is a segregated and stratified society, where nearly 90 percent of the people are from somewhere else: the global south, mostly — places like India, Nepal, the Philippines, but also many parts of Africa: Egypt and Kenya, Uganda and Sudan.” See  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/04/sports/soccer/at-qatars-church-city-sunday-comes-on-friday.html.

 

Why are some churches leaving — and others staying with — the United Methodist Church?  Because the church has failed to promote the moral teachings of Jesus in contentious political issues.  See https://www.dallasnews.com/news/faith/2022/11/27/why-are-some-churches-leaving-and-others-staying-with-the-united-methodist-church/.

 

On The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.


On the Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World, see

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/04/the-relevance-of-jesus-and-irrelevance.html


On Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? See   http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.


On the Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism, see  

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/08/the-universalist-teachings-of-jesus-as.html.


For Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century, see 

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/05/musings-on-relevance-of-jeffersons.html.


For Musings on Morality and Politics and the Need for a Civil Religion in America, see 

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2021/05/musings-on-morality-and-politics-and.html.


For Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Relevance of Jesus Today, see 

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/06/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on.html.


For Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Jesus, the Church and Christian Nationalism, see 

http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/11/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on-jesus.html.


For Musings on the Need for a Civil Religion in America’s Dysfunctional Democracy, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2022/11/musings-on-need-for-civil-religion-in.html.

 

On American Civil Religion is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion, see ProgressiveChristianity.org, AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION IS DEAD, LONG LIVE AMERICAN CIVIL RELIGION.