Monday, October 20, 2008

Lyceum 2008: spiritual consumerism

Right after AAR, another conference will begin in Unity Village, Missouri, on Nov. 3-6. The conference is Lyceum 2008, an “annual educational symposium open to teachers, writers, and students of spiritual and theological studies.” This is the first year of the conference. I’m not mentioning this conference in order to recommend that people attend it. On the contrary, it might just be the biggest waste of your time. That’s because the theme of this year’s conference is “Culturally Christian, Spiritually Unlimited.”

This kind of nonsense just makes my stomach turn. Lyceum 2008 epitomizes the entire I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious bullshit. What’s fascinating is what this theme actually says, so let’s look at each phrase. First, Christianity has become cultural. This could mean a variety of things. On the more religious side, it could mean that one still attends a church, but only because this is what people have always done and it constitutes a major part of one’s history and identity. On the non-religious or less religious side, it could simply mean that Christianity forms a kind of cultural backdrop within countries like Great Britain, France, Germany, and the USA, among others. To be “culturally Christian” might be something as banal as observing, consuming, and enjoying the cultural artifacts of Christianity—precisely as things to be observed, consumed, and enjoyed. However you take this phrase, the clear implication is that Christianity has nothing to do with one’s true existence. Christianity is part of the landscape—maybe even part of one’s history—but it has no relevance, no existential significance, for the present. It is just one cultural artifact or attribute among others. Maybe more important than most, but cultural nonetheless.

Second, as a cultural Christian, Lyceum 2008 encourages us to be “spiritually unlimited.” Here the conference makes it clear that it has capitulated entirely to the Western capitalistic voluntarist conception of the religious person as a consumer of “spiritual goods.” It’s only appropriate that one of the three keynote speakers is Bishop Spong, who is giving two lectures, the second of which is entitled, “Beyond Christian Limits, but Not Beyond Christianity.” That basically summarizes everything that is wrong with Spong and this conference. In an interview with Thomas Shepherd of the Unity Institute, which is hosting the event, Shepherd discusses the conference. While talking about Bart Ehrman, who is also giving two keynote lectures, he says, “We’re learning that early Christianity had lots of options, from the prosaic to the phantasmagoric. Did you know one sect of early Christianity believed in thirty gods?” The implication, of course, is that there are “lots of options” outside of orthodoxy—that old dry and stiff religious straitjacket. With these unlimited spiritual options, I only have to discover the kind of spirituality that suits me. I can have my pie and eat it, too: I can call myself “Christian” but believe whatever the hell I want to.

This stuff makes me sick. I’m hoping Lyceum dies off after this first year. Maybe the $299 registration cost will ensure that it does.

13 comments:

WTM said...

The real question is, can we submit paper proposals and undermine the whole thing?

David W. Congdon said...

You could have, but they were due back in July.

J*Rob said...

Interesting that Spong and Ehrman are so similar to Rick Warren and James Dobson.

David W. Congdon said...

J*Rob:

You're right. Spong and Ehrman are basically secularist evangelicals: they've kept the individualism, spirituality, consumerism, and cultural accommodationism of modern evangelicalism, and then simply excised the gospel and classical orthodoxy. For Ehrman, the connection is especially strong, since he grew up as a conservative (some might say fundamentalist) evangelical who attended both Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute before doing graduate work at Princeton Seminary.

(Except for Moody, my own educational program has followed Ehrman's exactly.)

R.O. Flyer said...

I got an invitation to this in the mail a few months back and thought the same thing.

It is unfortunate that Ehrman has decided to write on topics that he knows so little about. I find it very strange actually, how someone so brilliant in one area (biblical studies) can be just so utterly stupid in another (theology). I suppose the split in Ehrman is simply one outworking of the over-specialization of the fields.

You are right to say that Ehrman's views are mostly informed by his evangelical upbringing and I don't blame him for this really. Ehrman is the product of a very distorted version of Christianity, that is conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism.

I do think it is strange that he would associate himself with folks like Spong. I mean come on, he's just plain awful. The whole thing is sad though you're right. And it is most certainly representative of the corrosive effects of capitalism on the theological imagination.

RevTWShepherd said...

Thanks for the comments. As the originator of the "Culturally Christian, Spiritually Unlimited" phrase and organizer of this first (of many) Lyceum at Unity Village, it is comforting to know that an old ex-military chaplain like myself can still inspire such passion in the troops.

Christianity is both a faith and a cultural context. I would argue that it is not a religion but a family of religions. Every form of the faith has usually believed its people are practicing the authentic biblical faith "of" Jesus, and have conversely assumed that others are at best following a man-made religion "about" Jesus. What "Culturally Christian, Spiritually Unlimited" says is that my membership in the Christian faith is not dependent on ethnocentrism. Bishop Spong makes this same point in his writings.

Now, if that is "BS" to you, well, I respect your point of view, even if you seem to lack the common courtesy to respect mine.

If you are really bothered by Lyceum's goals, please feel free to protest and notify the press. We could certainly use the publicity.

Rev TW Shepherd
Unity Minister & Retired US Army Chaplain

R.O. Flyer said...

Rev Shepherd, thanks for responding.

First of all, what on earth do you mean when you say that Christianity is a "family of religions?"

Second, I don't think any Christian would claim that "membership in the Christian faith" is somehow dependent on ethnicity, or whatever. So, what is it you're trying to do here? What is the purpose of all of this? I'd seriously like to know what it is that you're trying to accomplish.

RevTW Shepherd said...

I thought I had said it clearly enough. Let me try again. Of course membership in a specific branch of the Christian family is not tied to ethnicity, however even a committed believer like yourself must admit that, had you been born in Algeria, you are more likely to be a Muslim than a Christian. I believe it was Soren Kierkegaard who said, not without irony, that the way you became a Christian was to be born a Dane. What the Lyceum theme for this year is attempting to say is that cultural influences in religious faith are undeniable, but even if I am born in a Western culture that does not mean I cannot learn from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or another non-Western religious tradition. Hence, the "spiritually unlimited" portion of the theme.

You can rightly criticize the idea that this is a "Christian" culture--I would probably agree with you, if you mean a Christian culture that actually approaches the teachings of Jesus. However, I think the fact that Christianty has powerfully influenced Western thought and continues to do so is an established fact.

New Thought Christianity, which Unity represents, sees the Presence and Power of God outpicturing in all the faiths and cultures of humanity, even while looking outward at those traditions through a window shaped by the life, teaching, death and resurrection-experience of Jesus the Christ.

Now, if you would like to dialogue on these points, I am certainly willing to continue this correspondence. But if you truly aspire to doctoral level scholarship in systematic theology, it seems to me the first prerequisite for dialogue is a degree of respect for other points of view. If you listen to what I am actually saying, you might find we have more in common than you'd suspect at first blush. If not, well, then we'll both learn something in the clash of theological opinions.

Tag, you're it.

RevTW Shepherd

David W. Congdon said...

Rev Shepherd:

I (author of the original post) didn't ask you the previous question, but I could have, so I'll go ahead and respond to your response.

First, as to the charge of being disrespectful, I apologize. I didn't mean it to be taken personally. I was attacking the "I'm spiritual but not religious" idea, which I do believe is BS. Whether that applies to your conference or not in actuality is something I obviously can't say anything about, since the conference hasn't happened yet and I won't be there. But based on the title of the conference, I feel pretty confident knowing what to expect.

I think the fundamental divide here is that I think the gospel of Jesus Christ stands over against every religion and every culture, including any Christian religion or "Christian culture." That is, I think the gospel of Christ places even the Christian church in radical judgment. There is no church, culture, religion, or spirituality that is somehow superior to any other.

At the same time, though, there is only one gospel, and that is the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and resurrected one. I do believe all are saved in him, whether you are Hindi or Christian. But only "in him." So I'm an anti-pluralist universalist, which probably disturbs some of your categories.

That said, you are right that we can and should learn from other cultures (and spiritualities, if we have to use that word). But these all (including the Christian traditions) have to be subordinated to the word of the gospel, to the word of the cross.

(Personally, I think Bishop Spong's books are some of the worst things in print. I'm not a raving fundamentalist here. I speak as one who finds Spong not radical enough! He's created a tame and bourgeois Jesus, a reflection of himself. On that point, Ben Myers's review of Spong's recent book on Jesus is worth reading.)

R.O. Flyer said...

Rev Shepherd,

I'd be largely in agreement with David on these points. It is not that the church cannot learn from other religions and cultures, for certainly it can. And we must remain critical of any sort of "ethnocentricism" in the church.

Yet, as David points out, for Christians the particular gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is the universal gospel. The gospel of Christ is precisely NOT ethnocentric. It is particular, but not exclusive.

What is problematic about the sort of pluralism that Spong and others promote is the insistence on transcending particularity, as if this is even possible.

It also, regrettably, never seems to see the colonial (and capitalist) undertones of drawing from other cultures and religions in a "spiritually unlimited" manner. This is problematic! Like David, my critique is not a fundamentalist one. It is actually more a leftist one--a critique of bourgeois liberal Christianity.

RevTW Shepherd said...

Now, gentlemen, we are engaged in genuine theology, and for that turn in the tone of this discourse I am genuinely thankful. And, yes, in my haste I didn't notice that the subsequent comment came from another source. Thank you for honoring my remarks with your reply.

It is ironic that you have chosen the "spiritual but not religious" label and applied it to the goals of the Lyceum. Anyone who knows my work in Unity's theological circles would probably smile, because I have rather forcefully attacked that idea among my fellow New Thought Christians.

There is a sense in which progressive Christians (and I am beginning to suspect you number in that camp, albeit residing under a different tent-roof than I) have struggled with their identity in an increasingly pluralistic world. How does one hold to the solitary efficacy of the gospel when social anthropology confront us with the probability of Neanderthal religious ritual, Carl Sagan declares there must be sentient life on nearby worlds, and Buddhists sound more Christ-like than many of our co-religionists? If Jesus is the only way to God, the path is not only narrow but it runs through an exclusive, gated neighborhood.

One escape route is something you alluded to, the idea that everyone is saved (universalism) but only through Jesus, whether they acknowledge him or not. The ice thins here, and our conservative brothers and sisters can rightly point to the glaring inconsistency of a doctrine that declares nobody is saved without Jesus and then declares everyone has him whether they like it or not.

Why not this: There is nothing to be saved from, because we are not lost, we are growing toward God-consciousness? A second grader isn't a broken graduate student. Even major doers of evil--Hitler is everyone's favorite example--can be understood as someone who has taken his God-self and done ungodly things. But even after that kind of a life, drenched in blood and consisting of a string of monumental errors, does not a Hitler have eternity to work it out? Even someone this perverse must surely have the opportunity to learn and grow. Origen believed even Satan would be saved, but one need not affirm the metaphysically contradictory concept of a power of evil presided over by a personal devil to understand where Origen was going with that idea.

I realize the analogy isn't perfect, and as with any metaphor probably it can't be taken to an extreme by rehabilitating a Hitler or Stalin without sounding absurd to most people. Yet, isn't faith itself absurd? Isn't that essentially what Tertullian cried?

My problem with the "spiritual, not religious" crowd in my tradition is that they want to develop a post-Christian Interfaith religion, as if one could come to an interfaith table without what Howard Stone and James Duke call an "embedded theology". To me, Unity is a Christian movement in which not being a Christian is an option.

Now, I'm certain there are storm flags flying all over the battlements as you read these words, and I'd be interested in hearing your take on my version of New Thought Christianity's universalism, which holds that no atoning sacrifice by Jesus was required because we were not estranged from God in the first place; humans decided what the death of Jesus meant, then wrote it into their gospels and massaged it into the developing proto-orthodox theology. And you certainly know there were many takes on what it means to follow Jesus.

Anyway, I crashed your party and I'll not be offended if you don't want to continue this discussion.

One final point: You and your friends (graduate students, instructors, or anyone with appropriate theological credentials, or anyone else who has something interesting to say in an intelligent way) are invited to submit papers for next year's Lyceum.

The Lyceum 2009 theme will be "Science and Religion."

Please come and show us the error of our ways. You'll be greeted warmly. That's not the Unity way.

PS & FYI: The presenters at this year's Lyceum include PhD's and students from Penn State, Berkley, Wichita State, Michigan State, UNC-Charlotte, Catholic University of Belgium, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Claremont University School of Religion (a rabbi, PhD candidate), Shaw University Divinity School, University of Christian Studies Toronto, University of Ibadan(Nigeria), Valdosta (GA) State University (Spanish Catholic scholar), St Paul School of Theology (KC-MO), UC-Riverside, Lancaster Theological Seminary and the Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy. Most of these folks are not even remotely affiliated with Unity, so I expect we'll hear so great new ideas.

RevTWShepherd said...

Correction: Ooops! The last few lines of my comment, above, before the "PS & FYI should read:

"Please come and show us the error of our ways. You'll be greeted warmly. That's the Unity way."

R.O. Flyer said...

Rev Shepherd,

Thanks for fleshing out your position. I certainly am not offended by your responses.

I won't speak for David, but it seems we have very different theological methodologies at work here and for this reason I think our positions are irreconcilable.

The notion that Jesus does not save, because we aren't really sinners seems rather strange to me. I'm really not sure why you hold such a view. Because your methodology doesn't seem to be too concerned with fidelity to revelation or tradition, I'm not even sure how to respond theologically to such a claim.

I do think you've misrepresented David's "anti-pluralist universalism." He has a whole series of posts on this subject that are really worth reading.