Daniel Bergstresser on Religion, Past and Future

I was very pleased with the warm reception that my sermon “The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists” has had since I posted it on supplysideliberal.com. One of the most thoughtful reactions I got back was from Brandeis Finance professor Daniel Bergstresser. I encouraged him to expand his response into a guest religion post. I was especially intrigued by his prediction about the future of Mormonism. Here is what Daniel has to say.

On January 14, 1697, Revered Samuel Willard of the Third Church in Boston read aloud in church an apology from church member Samuel Sewall. Five years earlier Judge Sewall had served on a panel of nine judges in Salem; this famous panel condemned to death twenty people accused of witchcraft. Five years later, on a day of church-wide fasting and reflection, Judge Sewall acknowledged his grave errors during these misguided proceedings and made a plea for forgiveness for his role in them. If July 4, 1776 is viewed as the birthday of independence in this country, January 14, 1697 could also be commemorated as a milestone in the history of humility. 

Churches, even churches with continuous institutional histories, change over time. The Third Church in Boston continues to exist and thrive, although it has changed a great deal since the 1692 Witch Trials and Judge Sewall’s subsequent apology. The church is now served by its twentieth senior minister, the Reverend Nancy Taylor. Known now as the Old South Church in Boston, the church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a progressive Congregationalist Protestant denomination.  Over the years the Church has played an important role in American history. One example is the (original) Tea Party, which was organized by church deacon Samuel Adams at the Old South Meeting House in 1773.     

Miles Kimball’s recent post on religion highlighted his own spiritual journey from the Mormon faith to his current membership in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The post also noted the rapid pace at which Mormon doctrine has evolved, and noted in particular the change in official Mormon doctrine on the membership of Black men. I was interested in this post, and am more generally sympathetic to Miles’ ongoing open discussion of religion on his blog. I emailed back to Miles some thoughts, which he invited me to post as a guest post on this blog.

I feel that it is appropriate to acknowledge my own views on religion. I was raised in what is sometimes referred to as a ‘Mainline’ Protestant faith. The term Mainline is probably inaccurate and certainly lacking in humility, but the church denominations that cluster under that label share some important characteristics and the label is therefore useful.  I am an observant and active member of the Old South Church mentioned above.

Although I am extremely enthusiastic about interfaith dialogue, this enthusiasm should not be confused with holding the point of view that all faiths are fundamentally the same. I am humble about the likely underlying reason why I follow my faith – I am a mainline Protestant, as were my father and mother, as were their fathers and mothers, as were their fathers and mothers. The principle of symmetry suggests to me that if I had been born to a line of Buddhists I would be an observant Buddhist. There are some limits to this symmetry – it is hard for me to imagine being an enthusiastic participant in a religion that requires literal belief in events that are extremely implausible or even demonstrably false.

In any case, the faiths are different in important ways, and to ignore these differences can be lazy and disrespectful. One could construct a set of dimensions along which different faiths differ.  I will make little effort to distinguish between ‘faith traditions’ and ‘philosophical traditions,’ so at the risk of causing offense I will attempt to be broad in my taxonomy that follows. This means that I will consider both philosophical traditions such as Stoicism and faith traditions such as Christianity.

One important characteristic of faith traditions is the tilt towards community versus the tilt towards individual. Both the Mormon faith and the United Church of Christ are characterized by a high degree of focus on the community over the individual. These two faiths can be distinguished from the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. Objectivism tilts towards celebrating the individual over the community. This difference is important, and the recent phenomenon of prominent American political leaders professing to be followers of both Jesus Christ and Ayn Rand mystifies me.  Christianity and Objectivism appear to me to be almost perfectly incompatible. While it is possible that my view reflects some intellectual or spiritual limitation, Ayn Rand herself appears to have shared my point of view on the incompatibility of these two worldviews.

A second differentiating characteristic is the degree to which honest and well-intentioned doubt is tolerated or even encouraged among members. It is the sacred tradition of the United Church of Christ that Jesus, Son of God, was born into extremely humble circumstances. This tradition holds that he spent his life in a ministry defined by the radical embrace of diversity, bringing love to people who were traditionally the outsiders of society.

This faith tradition can be distinguished from others that emphasize the importance of a literal understanding of the Bible. For example, I do not care if the stories at the core of my faith tradition are true in any literal sense.

To me and many others in my faith tradition, the question of literal truth is a distraction from the underlying message. The important part is that we collectively celebrate a deity who was born to an unwed homeless refugee mother. That message has important and obvious consequences for the way that I aspire to live. 

This comfort with doubt about the literal ‘truth’ of events depicted in the Bible is not unusual within the United Church of Christ. It would be less typical in many other Christian faith traditions. It would also, in all likelihood, have been an extremely unusual and potentially dangerous point of view in my own church when it was founded 340 years ago.  

A third dimension is the degree to which faith traditions support a ‘transactional’ view of the behavior of their deity or deities. Religious practice in the Voodoo tradition, some types of modern Wiccan practice, and the Christian ‘Prosperity Gospel’ appear to me to support a view of deities who are receptive to specific prayers for material well-being, the destruction of enemies, or other material goals. This transactional deity is foreign to my own tradition. Most participants in my own faith tradition would be uncomfortable with the image of a deity who exists to serve us in such specific and particular ways. I am reverent enough of my own tradition to view serious prayer for specific material goals with something stronger than mere skepticism. In this regard, my own tradition is more similar to certain strands of Buddhist and Ancient Stoic practice than to the faith traditions of some of my fellow Christians – in particular those Christians who worship a deity who listens attentively to their prayers as he decides how to influence both major and minor human events.

Or, as a Muslim friend has explained to me: ‘In Islam, the opposite of faith is ingratitude.’ I am a Christian, but this point of view resonates with me. I have to confess that I am alarmed by the idea of specific prayers for things that I don’t have. Those specific prayers can crowd out the essential and more general prayer of gratitude. 

A fourth dimension along with faith traditions differ has to do with their governance structures. I was raised in the Methodist church, a mainline Protestant denomination that is highly centralized.  In a Methodist church, your minister is assigned to you by your Bishop. Your minister, should he or she want to remain a Methodist minister in good standing, is absolutely bound to follow the denomination’s rules on a number of important matters. For example, a Methodist minister is absolutely not free to marry a man to a man, or a woman to a woman. This is true even if 100 percent of the members of their specific church are in favor of blessing such a union.

The United Church of Christ, on the other hand, is a confederation. The local church establishes their bylaws, manages their affairs, and hires their minister independently. This federated structure has important benefits and costs. This flexibility has allowed the United Church of Christ to avoid the schism over gay marriage that appears inevitable in the United Methodist Church. My transition from membership in a Methodist church to membership in a Congregationalist UCC church does not amount to anything close to a conversion, but it is a transition. Both Methodists and Congregationalists are part of a larger Mainline Protestant family, and individual churches and people within those traditions are extremely diverse.  

I think that gay marriage is an important topic, and I think that religious schisms should only occur over important topics. My own view – one that I believe to be widely shared among other members of the Old South Church – is that it is absolutely appropriate and consistent with our faith traditions to bless and celebrate permanent unions between two people, regardless of their gender. This is something much stronger than mere tolerance – it is active celebration of diversity.

Faith guides my view here. Kindness, tradition, and reason are all important. Most of the time kindness, reason, and tradition will all lead us in the same direction. There are times when they come into conflict. Faiths differ on the weight they apply to these competing priorities. My own faith is that we should apply the following prioritization: first kindness, then reason, then tradition. This is not to say that tradition is unimportant. But when, upon prayerful collective consideration, tradition appears to come into conflict with kindness, my own view is that kindness should win. My enthusiastic support of gay marriage thus comes not in spite of but because of my faith.

This leads to the next-to-last distinction between different faith traditions that I intend to discuss: the extent to which these systems of belief are now ‘closed’ to new revelation. The Mormon faith occupies an interesting extreme, with a process for ongoing revelation through a restored and ongoing line of prophets. Although the process is somewhat opaque to me as an outsider, the evident result can be rapid changes in church doctrine. The process in the Mormon faith appears to differ from the evolutionary process that governs my own church. In the United Church of Christ, it is official church doctrine that, as we put it, ‘God is still speaking.’ It is our view that there is and will continue to be new meaning to be extracted from our sacred texts as history proceeds. As John Robinson, pastor to the Pilgrims who set forth on the Mayflower, said: ‘Do not cling to where Calvin and Luther left us. God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.’ The process that governs this evolution in understanding is not mysterious or esoteric; it just involves prayerful debate, study, and discussion.

The last distinction that I will mention is the comfort that different faiths have in proselytizing. The Mormon faith is distinguished by its emphasis on missionaries and winning new converts to their faith. Members of the Mainline Protestant churches are often uncomfortable proselytizing. I believe that proselytizing among members of other faiths is ill-conceived and demonstrates a lack of humility. This point of view has been widely shared by other members of my denomination, including the prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. This point of view, however, does not reflect any failure to appreciate the distinct history of my religious traditions and their continuing relevance for me.

Miles’ post on the evolution of the Mormon faith stirred something in me, and so I dropped him a line which became this longer line. In a nutshell, as both an enthusiastic American and a person of faith, I think that it is important to pay reverent and respectful attention to the Mormon faith.  In any case, if current trends hold up, our grandchildren or great-grandchildren could well be Mormons. So rational dynastic self-interest motivates learning more. This is particularly true given the Mormon practice of offering baptism to long-deceased ancestors. As long as there is a good chance that one of my well-intentioned converted descendants will attempt to baptize me into the Mormon faith, I feel that I enjoy some license to make observations about this faith and its rapid and impressive development. As an interested and respectful outsider, I will make the following observations:

  1. The Mormon faith is growing rapidly. If we are humble about the potential that God is at work in the world, then it follows that there may be something about that growth that suits God’s purposes, however inscrutable these purposes are to us. If we can make an analogy between America and the Roman Empire, perhaps the LDS church will be our empire’s Roman Catholic Church. Food for thought. 
  2. I certainly acknowledge a tension between my respect for the rapidly growing Mormon faith and my own deep and discomfort with proselytizing among believers in other traditions. I am also no longer comfortable allowing my own (probably just aspirational) humility to prevent me from articulating clearly what my own tradition and beliefs are.  I acknowledge the underlying silliness involved in crafting a long note, intended for public consumption, on the role of humility in faith.
  3. Mormon doctrine appears to this outsider to be capable of rapid change – more rapid even than the transformation in my own tradition that has turned witch-killing Puritan fundamentalists into enthusiastically ecumenical Mainline Protestants. The process that governs this change appears, at least on the surface, to differ from the process that governs change within my own UCC tradition.  
  4. There are important distinctions between religious traditions that should not be papered over or ignored. The Mormon Church and my own faith tradition are very different. But the two traditions stand in decided opposition to more individualist traditions as well as the philosophies of nihilism and radical atheism. The non-avoidable differences between the United Church of Christ and the Mormon Church on the question of gay marriage highlight the importance that marriage and stable families play in both traditions.
  5. As a progressive and observant Christian, I am troubled by the ongoing decline of the Mainline Protestant churches as a group. I believe that the Mainline traditions, which emphasize respect and equality across our very different religious traditions, the separation of church and state, kindness, reason, tradition, and social justice, have important things to contribute to our society’s various ongoing debates.