Charting a New Course – Changing the Conversation


22 October 2016

I have always been interested in politics and come from a politically active family. This year, however, I have seen and heard more than enough about Donald and Hilary. I am politically tired and frustrated. I am also keenly aware that regardless who wins the key to the White House, the battles will not be finished when we wake up on November 9th. The civil/uncivil conflict may have just begun.

Today, in secular society and in the church, fierce polarization is our “realpolitik.” It threatens to disempower us and tear us apart in a long-lasting way. This past month (by way of a small personal example) because of my political and theological positions, I have been “unfriended” on Facebook by people who have been (I thought) my real friends for more than twenty-five years. Painful. Disappointing. Unnecessary.  

In the United States — but across the globe as well — we are in an historic and major socio-cultural transition: cultural change everywhere with various violent eruptions. It impacts religion and political stability. It shapes our sense of personal and group identity. It spreads fears about security and our sense of security. It demands, frankly, that we start working together to chart a new course – a new direction — for church and civil society.  

Charting a new direction and changing the conversation means moving beyond self-centered “my group” expediency to an other-centered engagement that promotes a more genuine Christian community and a safe and healthy society for all citizens: what we used to call “the common good.” It means looking at life and talking about life in new ways.  

Last week I read the Robert P. Jones book The End of White Christian America. Are we experiencing the “end of white Christian America”? Probably. Should we be anxious about this? I don’t see why. It is not the end of Christianity. It is not the end of America. It is reality. Now how do we talk about it?  

Americans in the United States are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past. They will be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. WILL NOT have one single racial or ethnic majority, and “white people” will be a minority group. It may come as a surprise to some observers; but Asia has already replaced Latin America (including Mexico) as the biggest source of new immigrants to the United States.  

One of my correspondents wrote recently that “gays are destroying American society and thanks to them family life is disintegrating.” Well that is one way of looking and speaking. What, however, would gay people say about American society today? How would they speak about family life? If we can shift our conversation from quick condemnation to dialogical comprehension, we might also become a bit more understanding and supportive of men and women living and struggling in a variety of family situations.  

The American family is changing. In the United States, today, there are nearly 13.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Single fathers are far less common than single mothers, constituting 16% of single-parent families. The number of American adults who have never been married is now at an historic high. Two-parent households are on the decline. Divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation are on the rise. So, what is our appropriate response? We can shake our heads or we can be supportive of people living in changing times. It is a called ministry and outreach. Healthy social movements and positive social evolution are launched and maintained by compassion, support, and collaboration. Christianity is there to pick people up not push them down and ignore their plight. The historic Jesus understood this. He did not condemn the woman at the well, the woman about to be stoned to death, nor the good Samaritan.  

Charles Chaput, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, gave a speech at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday. He said that many prominent Catholics (he had the Democratic vice presidential candidate in mind) are so weak in their faith that it would be better if they just left the Catholic Church. He said he would prefer a smaller church of holy people, anchored in traditional orthodoxy. With Chaput’s approach, I fear, Catholics will continue their exit; and the Catholic Church will indeed become smaller. I am not convinced it will necessarily become holier. We could change the conversation however. Sit down with people who are leaving or have already left the church: not to pass judgment on them but to listen to their stories: their experiences, their expectations, and their disappointments.  

Another important element in changing our conversation must be inter-religious dialogue. As we chart a new course, we need to start building bridges with Islam. In our churches, we can and should have Muslim/Christian discussion groups and adult education programs. Why not have an adult ed. presentation on “Understanding the Qur’an: Islam’s Holy Book.” 

Projections about our world, over the next four decades, suggest that while Christianity will remain the largest religion, Islam will probably grow faster than any other major religion. By 2050, the number of Muslims in our world will nearly equal the number of Christians. Muslims are not Christians, but they are sons and daughters of the same God; and they are indeed our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. It is time we get to know and respect each other. It is not enough simply to change our conversation about them. We need to change our conversation with them. 

The Millennials, young adults born after 1980, are the new generation to watch. They have already surpassed Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) as the largest U.S. generation. In many ways, they differ significantly from their elders. They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. They are much less interested in institutional religion and very supportive of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage.  

A colleague suggested recently that we need to do a “better job of educating the Millennials.” I am all for good education, and my friend may have a point. Charting a new course and changing the conversation, however, means first that WE must start LISTENING to the Millennials. We need to hear and learn from them about their life realities, their experience of church, their hopes, their frustrations, and expectations for tomorrow. 

I am not a misogynist. I do want to see women exercising every type of ordained ministry. I suggest however that we need to change our conversation about “women deacons” and “women priests.” Changing the conversation means that we consider the more basic questions about the meaning of ordained ministry. How should we understand Christian ministry today? What is the specific nature of ordained ministry today? What should it be? What structures and institutional roles and behaviors are appropriate for contemporary Christians? What is a proper – appropriately Christian – understanding of power and authority in the church? Is it not possible that the “ordained” have more than once misunderstood and misused their “power and authority”? I suggest that in many ways we need to chart a new course for ordained ministry. A new course will necessarily involve new parochial and ministerial structures. I can imagine for example that a parish could have a ministry supervisor (pastor) who would not necessarily have to be ordained. Within the parish there could be a great number of ordained ministers (women, men, married, single, gay and straight): ministering in schools, hospitals, youth groups, neighborhood and home visitations, college campuses, etc. 

Well enough thoughts for today. I read in the very latest (October 19th) Pew Research bulletin that only 13% of Americans have a great deal of confidence that religious leaders act in the best interest of the public. We do need to change our conversation and chart a new course: away from polarization.

(Next week end I will be participating in a conference on the Millennials. I will offer some reflections on that after the week end.) 

9 thoughts on “Charting a New Course – Changing the Conversation

  1. Bravo, Jack!!!! I couldn’t agree more. BTW, I have experienced much the same reactions from Facebook friends during national election cycles. Not as much during this one, as when I supported Barack Obama in 2008. It is sad. I was told by another Catholic friend that if I supported Mr. Obama, I wasn’t a “good Catholic”. This past week, another Catholic friend posted an article from a right-wing Catholic site stating that anyone who proposed changes to our Church was in serious sin. I deleted the post from my Timeline, but I must admit, these things make me think about walking away from the Church. I understand that change takes time, but I become so disheartened when people I love post things like this. How can people refuse to think on their own, and simply follow? (Sigh)

  2. Jack, you have, again, beautifully defined the disappointing situation we find ourselves facing in these times. The dilemma, as I view it, is that your wisdom resonates with us who think like you but the Cardinal Chaputs and Donald Trumps of the world do not listen to nor believe in words like “tolerance and acceptance” or even “compromise.” My conservative brother-in-law views accomodation as weakness and negotiation as verbal warfare. Negotiation is used as a way of gaining control or power. I compromise so he can “win.” How do wise words like yours touch the Caputs of the world who would rather eliminate anyone who isn’t in line with dogma? Black and white thinking makes it easy to distinguish friend from foe. And that is the “fear factor” for idealogues—there are enemies everywhere and they are those who don’t look/act/think like them. Your words obviously threaten those who have “unfriended” you. Sad to think that they cannot realize that you are the same fellow they liked/loved before. It’s a shame their world is so small and cannot include those who are different from themselves. Absolutists cannot stand the stress of self-confrontation and self-doubt. I can’t wait for your next pearls of wisdom!

    • Frank I always appreciate your reactions….these days three thoughts keep me busy: extreme polarization, violent reactions after the presidential election, and building a better future for all. – Jack

  3. Much of that so-called White Christian privilege & priority for their interests was restricted to MALES…
    As a white woman, I have long understood that my ways have not been in the majority for a long time, if ever…
    Haven’t missed it the least bit, since dialoging with others has made for a much more interesting life!!

  4. Jack, I see a problem with restricting the ordained ministries to one gender. But like you I really think there needs to be a move for clergy to give up some fiduciary and administrative authority to the laity. I don’t think we need to go the way of some of our Protestant brothers and sisters where the “board of deacons (not ordained) have all the power over the church, but something else. It is something that needs discussion moving to action.

  5. Thanks very much Jack for your insightful commentary, as always. I can understand the shock of being “un-friended” by old, well, friends.

    On the topic of women and ordained ministries, I would go farther: on the basis of my years of pastoral work, including nine years as a campus minister before I came to Leuven, and my research particularly on the history of the old rite of the churching of women after childbirth, I’m aware that the strong aversion even to discussing women priests goes deeper, much deeper, than organizational structures or even pastoral need. There is something visceral, primordial even, about the level of contempt for women’s bodies and the repugnance for the idea of women priests standing at the altar, handling sacred vessels and acting in persona Christi.

    Through almost the entire history of the Church women who had given birth (and sometimes even their midwives) were required to remain outside the church because the flow of blood was thought to contaminate the holy places. Some documentation shows that a woman who had died in childbirth was not allowed to be buried from the church. The rite used Psalm 24, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? … only the one with clean hands and a pure heart.” Survey data from women who were among the last to receive this rite in the 1940’s and ’50’s shows that they perceived clearly that they were being told they had sinned in giving birth to a child, and that they were impure as a result.

    Really, nothing else explains the hard line against even discussing the ordination of women. The real key lies in the deep, fearful issues we’re not discussing about sex, gender, ancient blood taboos, the nature of what we consider sacred, and how (and whether!) women are understood within their own church to be full baptized persons.

    And I wish that the arrogant misogynist discourse aroused by the Trump campaign didn’t tend to support this line of thought … !

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