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The Progressive Case for Religious Institutions

congregationThe case that I would like to make is not meant for those who are not religious. That is a separate argument that I think could be made. It would involve the need for collective free spaces where people are able to learn how to live in community, voice their own needs, and develop an identity apart from the interests of a market society. It would be a civic society argument that someone like Robert Putnam could make. Or it could recount the source of progressive change that mainline religious bodies represented in the social gospel and civil rights movements.

Instead this argument is for those religious progressives who believe that religious institutions are primarily a hindrance, a barrier to an inclusive religious vision. They may have noticed the collapse of the mainline church and still remain optimistic. Even if denominations have lost half of their memberships, seminaries are closing, and we lose over 4000 churches a year, at least we’re in the midst of a revolution. A revolution of ideas, as glbt folks, women, and others who have been marginalized in the church, claim their place. We no longer need to give deference to religious authorities and in the midst of this, we may be able to create something new, more fitting, more liberatory then the structures we inherited over a century ago.

In the midst of this, perhaps we could go back to the original sources of religion? According to William James, this was located in something called “religious experience”. Religious structures, for him, come after to rationalize and institutionalize that experience, mediating it but never in a way that replicated the original experience. And for the last few generations, it is that experience and not institutions which command allegiance. Especially after we have had so many religious institutions fail us, for instance, in the cover up of priest molestations. The rapid secularization in Catholic countries like Ireland, give testimony to such failures.

And then there could also be a source of optimism founded in numbers. Not numbers in mainline congregations, but the numbers of the unaffiliated who identify with religious progressive ideals. As Tony Jones writes there are more religious progressive millennials then any other category, outstripping social conservatives and those who identify as not religious. The rapid change in support of gay marriage gives testimony to the shift in religious culture in our country.

But that would depends how you read the data. Is this a half way house to a non religious country or is it the birth of a new progressive religious movement? I think the answer to that question comes from how it is that we intend to organize folks. And that will turn to institutions and my case for them. I’ll say that I’m a bit worried to see the simple trust in generational shifts as if it alone could do the heavy lifting for progressives. And it should be noted that the collapse of the mainline has meant the collapse of an organized progressive religious presence on most campuses in the US.

Let me give some examples. In Indiana there were a dozen progressive and mainline campus ministries 20 years ago. Now there are 2, Butler and ISU. Notice that the largest universities in the state, including IU have no such presence. Here in Kansas we also had a dozen ministries and in the same period we have been reduced to 2. There is no organized presence from the University of Iowa to the University of Oklahoma. I would compare that to what evangelical para church groups and secular student organizations have done in that interim. I know from my own story that the reason I found a way to stay in the church was because there were religious progressive campus ministries where I found a way connect my values and faith.

Of course to do that required institutions. Many of the theologians I read taught at progressive seminaries, many of which today are endangered or are closing.There was the denominational funds to support the ministers who were on my campus. There was the base of support of churches that provided the funds for denominations. As those churches close their doors, as funds are directed elsewhere, my experience will grow increasingly unlikely. Maybe there will be progressive areas, blue counties, cities where folks will spontaneously create progressive religious bodies, or maybe individuals will find their own way to be spiritual apart from any groups.

But I happen to think the models of religious experience we relate to are thoroughly mediated by histories, by traditions, by organized communities. Even if one is not part of such a community, the very language and rubric by which we make sense of experience, religious or otherwise, has a context. In that I disagree with William James. Jesus did not, for instance, have a  generic religious experience. He had a experience thoroughly formed by his Jewish context. 19th century Victorian philosophers had there’s formed by mainline protestantism. So what is informing and shaping the experiences we have today?

What ever is created will be shaped by our context today. A context marked by deep class divisions, racial divisions, and sexism, as much as by progressive values. Let me give an example, when we start from scratch to get over the hindrances of traditions. In many Unitarian congregations, they have replaced communion with an ingathering service. Water is brought from meaningful places that parishioners had been that summer and combined together. But a class division emerges as the service can often turn into a show and tell, over who has been where. Communion, which worked for centuries, to bring a kind of equality at the table has now been replaced with something which illustrates the class divisions which mark our society.

Those traditions have had a chance to do a certain kind of work over the years and if replaced, serious questions need to be raised over the context which is informing the new ritual. Also those old rituals created the space for an experience to occur. When new rituals are put in their place, too often it is not the ritual which is doing the work, but the person doing the ritual and the place where it is happening which matters. At least that is what I hear time and time again from those who participate. Which is why many new age events have to be at expensive retreat centers and evangelical mega churches have to be led by attractive young men with a wife and 2.5 children. Old people, disabled, single, gay, women need not apply if what organizes religion now is the charisma of individuals instead of the institution and its practices.

That’s because that is what humans seem to naturally fall into. We seek people, attractiveness, and success as determined by our culture. Without an identity, intentionality and an institution which checks that propensity, the result will not necessarily produce an inclusive religious gathering for all people. That doesn’t mean that all institutions are inherently progressive. One could name many reactionary religious groups. But I am arguing that not having institutions, churches, seminaries, denominations, is not a viable path for those seeking a progressive and inclusive religious presence in our communities across this country. I suppose I’m saying that if you are a religious progressive, find a good church, synagogue, religious body building it up to provide a genuine space for people to live out those values.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at Ecumenical Campus Ministries at the University of Kansas.

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