“I thought you hated Christmas!” my friend exclaimed, when she saw the Nativity set in my living room. She told me I had some ‘splainin’ to do. So I proceeded to splain the process of deconstruction and then reconstruction of my understanding of the nativity story – which is actually just one example of that process.
Then another friend told me about a CBS Sunday Morning segment called “Losing Our Religion” based on anew study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. It wasn’t really anything new. It’s no big surprise to hear once again about the growth of the number of people who answer ‘None’ to the question of their religious affiliation.
No, none of this was news to me, but what got my knickers in a twist was the conclusion of the study that it’s not God or faith in a higher power that’s turning people off – it’s organized religion, “with respondents overwhelmingly saying many organizations are too focused on money, power and politics.”
What is a parish pastor to do?! The comments – 266 of them! – were particularly distressing. Many of them expressed an extremely negative view of religion. For example: “. . . religion divides people and creates animosity. The concept of god was used in biblical times to justify genocide and extreme brutality. Later on, the gruesome cross symbol was used to support the crusades. Religion was used to justify killing scientific thinkers. Today, religions are mostly anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-science.”
Another result of the Pew study as documentation of the rise of those willing to identify as atheists. And not only that, the affirmation of the integrity of atheists, as opposed to people who adhere to a religion. Today’s newspaper even tells me that Stanford University now has a chaplain for atheists.
Believe me, I get this. This isn’t a rant against the ‘spiritual but not religious’ or against atheists. What it is is a question: how do I, as a progressive Christian parish pastor, swim upstream against the popular opinion of the institutional church? How does a progressive Christian congregation survive and thrive, while acknowledging the many different paths people are walking to encounter ultimate meaning in their lives?
Getting back to the Nativity scene: how do we help people deconstruct their old understandings of the biblical stories, their concept of God, their negative perception of what church is and can be – and then reconstruct a new way of being spiritual AND religious? For me, the little manger tableau symbolizes my own journey into progressive Christianity. As we approach the Christmas celebration, I have to wonder – as a parish pastor – how to convey this journey, this process, this meaning to those who obviously are good and faithful people?
I really and sincerely welcome your thoughts on the matter.