Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 Year in Review

This is the 148th and final post on UM & Global for 2020, and it's time for the annual year in review. 2020 was quite a year for a number of reasons, and the themes that were prominent on this blog were prominent in many other media sources. There were three themes that received consistent attention in a variety of posts throughout the year:

1. The COVID-19 Pandemic
2020 will be remembered around the world as the year in which the COVID-19 pandemic struck at aspects of society from healthcare to the economy to family gatherings to church meetings. UM & Global examined several issues related to the pandemic. We shared information when United Methodist churches outside the US closed due to restrictions ([1], [2], [3], [4]), but also the new possibilities for connection made possible ([1], [2]). We talked a lot about how pandemic-related travel restrictions impacted mission and missionaries ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8]) and gave rise to the phenomenon of virtual mission trips ([1], [2], [3], [4]). We shared videos discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the church around the world ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]). We explored how the pandemic impacted theology and ethical issues ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]). We examined how the pandemic might still impact a rescheduled General Conference in 2021 ([1], [2], [3], [4]). We talked about whether the Payroll Protection Program eroded the separation of church and state in the United States ([1], [2]). We speculated about what might be different about mission after the pandemic's impact subsides ([1]). The pandemic featured in a quarter of our posts from 2020, more than any other topic.

2. United Methodist Division
When the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation dropped on January 3rd, it was clear that a split in the church would be a major story of 2020. While that division has not yet formally occurred, that possibility has been a major focus for UM & Global, along with other United Methodist news sources and commentators. At UM & Global, we have explored the financial issues associated with division ([collection of posts here]), tracked European efforts to find their own ways forward ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]), examined the Christmas Covenant ([1], [2], [3]), discussed the roots of division ([1], [2], [3]), followed the various political maneuverings in advance of such a division ([1], [2], [3]), and examined the how the COVID-19 pandemic (see above) might impact denominational division ([1], [2], [3], [4]). These posts included a fifth of the total published in 2020.

3. Racism
The #BlackLivesMatter protests that swept around the world starting in June focused attention on the ways in which racism is woven into US society and the global social order. UM & Global picked up this theme by looking at the global dimensions of this and other nonviolent protests ([1], [2]) by examining the intersections between race and mission ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]) and race and other aspects of the church ([1], [2]). Related to the topic of race and racial hierarchies, there have also been a number of posts over the year examining the relationship between religion and empire ([1], [2], [3], [4]) and how this connection may be driving the decline of Christianity in the United States ([1], [2]) in ways that intersect importantly with race.

Other topics that crossed multiple posts included evangelism, missionaries, theological education, ecumenism, women in mission, understanding cultural difference, and an evaluation of the ecclesiology document Sent in Love.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Updated blog pages

Here at UM & Global, we're taking advantage of the slower news cycle around the holidays to make a few updates to the blog. In particular, we've updated our pages, which you can find underneath the banner. We've updated existing pages to ensure that links are still active, and we've added two new pages.

The first new page, "UM & Global Collections," includes a list of all of the UM & Global collections that we've released throughout the fall. These are PDF compilations of multiple posts on a single topic. I hope this list of resources all in one place will be useful for regular readers, scholars, and students.

The second new page, "The UMC Around the World," includes a list of the United Methodist web presence around the world. The page gives websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts (where these exist) for the UMC at the national level. In some instances, information is given for episcopal areas or annual conferences where it is lacking or sparse at the national level. No national web presence exists for the United States outside of the general denominational web presence that serves the entire denomination, and annual conference accounts in the US are not listed.

Many of the information that informs the writing on this blog or appears in "Recommended Readings" posts originates on these websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts from United Methodists around the world. Now, you can more easily access this information itself, whether its accessing the website of the UMC in Cote d'Ivoire, finding the Facebook page for the Baguio Episcopal Area, or following United Methodists in Bulgaria on Twitter!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

UM & Global Collections: Missional Ecclesiology and Church Unity

The previous UM & Global collection looks at the issue of ecclesiology through the lens of two documents developed by the Committee on Faith and Order to help define the UMC's theology of church: "Wonder, Love and Praise" and "Sent in Love." Many of the essays in that collection highlighted the missional nature of Methodist ecclesiology.

In follow-up, the two latest collections continue to examine issues of ecclesiology, especially missional ecclesiology. A collection on missional ecclesiology with contributions by David W. Scott and Hendrik R. Pieterse looks at the relationship between mission and our theological understandings of the church. A second collection of essays by David W. Scott considers various sources for denominational unity, exploring in particular the connection between personal relationships and unity.

As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Robert J. Harman: The Current State of Church and State

Today's post is by Robert J. Harman. Rev. Harman is a mission executive retired from the General Board of Global Ministries.

Many in the churches have been watching the grueling efforts in the US Congress to reach a compromise on a second installment of a stimulus bill so very much needed by segments of the population still reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Those who benefitted from the large amounts of funding available to churches in the rollout of the CARES Act Payroll Protection Program may have a special interest in whether a similar provision will be available in any new funding package.

Analysts found that churches benefitted from over $5 billion in the first installment, of which participating United Methodists took in $500 million, much more than the quadrennial budget of the entire denomination. That bonanza occurred without any evidence of a formal consideration of the appropriateness of the legislation ignoring historic standards for honoring the doctrine of separation of church and state. (See my previous article on this topic here.)

In light of those historic standards, is it reasonable to assume that United Methodist church leaders might yet be nudged into a new stance discouraging the acceptance of new government funds? Might United Methodists come out in support of the constitutional separation that assures citizen taxpayers that government funds will not be used to support religion? I hope so, because the silence and accommodation of the churches is having a devastating effect upon the performance of the Supreme Court on church and state cases.

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, legal columnist Linda Greenhouse ponders the direction of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, even before its hold on the court was cemented by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Greenhouse suggests the court is catering to religious liberty voices within a growing constituency, which she identifies as grievance conservatives. Their influence upon the court has risen by claiming to be an overlooked, silent majority that has been treated unfairly in a system that is rigged against them. When religious liberty cases cite the cause of their grievances as “overreach of liberal government policies,” a partisan political agenda is advanced.

Their legal philosophy argues that the historic doctrine of separation of church and state actually discriminates against the right of religious-based organizations to participate equally in the benefits of government resources and programs, and its strict observance denies recognition of legal protection to individual religionists in practicing their faith.

At the outset, the founders saw the protection of free exercise of religion as a guarantee of freedom from the oppressive state-controlled churches and religious life from which so many citizens had fled to settle in America. Government would not interfere with individual or communal acts of devotion associated with the doctrines or traditions of faith communities. Further, because they were products of the Enlightenment, the founders believed their experiment in democratic rule required designing a secular state. Thus, Thomas Jefferson could declare in a letter to a Baptist association that his first amendment non-establishment clause would be a “wall of separation between church and state.”

Recent religious liberty decisions of the high court have been fraught with unsavory implications that the founders sought to avoid by enshrining the non-establishment clause. In her NYT opinion piece, Greenhouse illustrates how several cases infringing upon the separation principle produced collateral damage to other well-established rights.

In a case challenging a state subsidy for private-school tuition, the court ruled that funding must include parochial schools in the program. It ruled that religious organizations may exclude a substantial category of employees from the protections of federal civil rights laws under a “ministerial exception” that goes well beyond members of the ministry. It found that employers with religious or even vague “moral” objections to contraception can opt out of the federal requirement to include birth control in their employee health plan coverage. These cases found their precedence in more publicized Supreme Court cases such as Hobby Lobby, Masterpiece Cakeshop, and Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri—all cases in which persons / organizations with religious claims were all granted anti-discrimination protections.

The court’s decisions are celebrated by religious liberty activists but are questioned as discriminatory by advocates of church-state separation, organized labor, women’s health, public education, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights, who are all concerned that religious exemptions will deprive their constituents of constitutional rights and equal access to vital services.

Only a firm endorsement of the separation doctrine will place all matters that have potential for endorsement of religion beyond the purview of the court. Jefferson’s promise should offer a foundational legal principle for churches today, as conservative advocates focusing their grievance arguments on alleged violations of the free exercise clause find sympathetic jurists willing to define what is and what is not authentic religious belief and practice. Can judges accurately read the heart of a plaintive to ascertain the true foundation of faith s/he represents in a legal claim? Or can a judicial body arrive at an appropriate remedy for alleged social damages in a case-by-case review of alleged infractions of individuals’ freedom of religion?

Churches should be found among the more active court watchers and legal advocates with standing in cases that exploit religious liberty for individual / corporate advantage or political gain. While grievance conservatives can find safe harbor in well-financed conservative legal societies/lobbies like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, they must no longer take comfort in silence from ecumenical and mainline churches. The free exercise and non-establishment clauses deserve the defense of communities of faith that understand these principles to be part and parcel of the common good and defend justice for all.

Unfortunately, the current silence of the churches may have been bought and paid for by the billions of dollars they received through participation in the PPP funding.

The conservative legal argument that established the victories for the religious right cited above prevailed in the legislation enabling churches to apply for loans/grants during the hardship experienced in the initial phase of the COVID pandemic. If receipt of these funds leads to ecumenical and mainline silence on issues of separation of church and state, conservatives will have won a double victory.

Churches must re-assert the separation principle that provision of taxpayer funds for direct support of those in preparation for, or engaged in, the teaching and preaching of religious doctrine is an arbitrary violation of the non-establishment clause.

This complacency of churches is especially egregious because it is happening at a critical moment in history. The rise in the United States of nationalist behavior behind the America First political theme is being hailed by autocratic leaders worldwide and undermining trust in democracy at home. Must we recall the tragic history of how populism begets authoritarian rule when conspiring with representatives of state-sanctioned religion?

The religious right’s successful embrace of religious liberty causes and its growing favoritism among conservatives in the judiciary must be countered before it assumes by default the mantle of establishment. It is late, but hopefully not too late for an urgent correction.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Missionary Videos

For the second year in a row, the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" podcast hosted by Joe Iovino and produced by United Methodist Communications is featuring a series of interviews with Global Ministries missionaries during Advent. The podcasts feature a range of missionaries doing a range of work, including "a community organizer serving in Philadelphia, a youth worker in Liberia, an agriculturalist in Zambia, and a couple serving as a physician and dietician in Kathmandu." Each of the interviews is 20 minutes or less.

The four episodes are as follows:

Ben Lasley, a former Global Missions Fellow from the United States serving at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Lily Maijama'a, a Global Missions Fellow from Nigeria serving the West Africa Initiative of Liberia

Temba Nkomozepi, a missionary from Zimbabwe serving at the Mujila Falls Agriculture Center in Kanyama, Zambia

Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman, missionaries from the United States serving at Patan Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Routes Forward from Imperial American Christianity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Last week, I suggested that it is possible to interpret American Christianity as an imperial religion, that is, a religion whose symbols have served and continue to serve to affirm the ways in which the United States as an empire has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed the United States to do so. Moreover, I suggested that interpreting American Christianity in this way offers an account for the current decline of Christian adherence in the United States--it is a function of the declining imperial power of the United States.

In my analysis, I highlighted a conundrum for American Christianity: If American Christianity remains an imperial religion, it will continue to decline as American imperial power continues to wane. However, merely critiquing the imperial meanings behind the symbols of American Christianity will not transform it into a non-imperial religion. Instead, it will leave those symbols meaningless, leading to further decline.

For those interesting in the vitality of American Christianity as a religious tradition, the path forward must involve adding new, non-imperial meanings to the symbols of American Christianity. In this post, I would like to suggest three important ways in which that can happen: through contextual theology, cross-cultural theology, and constructive theology.

First, though, two important caveats:

1) American Christianity is an amazingly diverse religious tradition with many different symbols and adherents of many different social backgrounds. This short blog post cannot adequately account for all of the ways in which this diversity intersects with the project of constructing a non-imperial American Christianity.

2) While a full accounting of the diversity of American Christianity is beyond the scope of this post, race must be recognized as a critical factor. For white American Christians, as Robert P. Jones has shown, American Christianity has functioned not only as an imperial religion, but as a religion of white supremacy. The two phenomena are closely connected. This makes the challenge of creating a non-imperial religion that much harder for white American Christians.

On the other hand, because the Christian traditions of other racial/ethnic groups in the United States contain elements that are opposed to or distinct from the ordering of the world to which white Americans have aspired, those elements constitute resources for the construction of non-imperial religion, as evidenced by higher resilience in Christian adherence among many non-white groups.

These non-imperial resources within what have traditionally been labeled "contextual theologies" (at least by dominant white theologians) represent the first path forward for constructing a non-imperial theology. These symbols that either directly resist imperial orderings or direct the attention of believers to aspects of the world outside the imperial order are important sources of meaning that are not tied to the continued success of the empire. They are meanings that can and should take on more importance within a non-imperial American Christianity.

(Though anti-imperial meanings are in some way still dependent upon the empire for their significance. Thus, a religion that is merely a protest against empire may face challenges similar to an imperial religion upon the decline of that empire--loss of meaning stemming from loss of its central referrant point. That is why pointing beyond empire is in some ways even more important than resisting empire.)

Another resource for elaborating new, non-imperial meanings within American Christianity is cross-cultural theology. Theologies from outside the direct reach of American imperial power are especially valuable resources for creating a non-imperial Christianity because they are already relatively separated from the imperial power structures of the United States. Not all of these religious meanings will be able to be easily imported into American Christianity, but they represent an essential trove of theological riches that should be eagerly examined by those interested in the future of American Christianity.

The need to import and thus adapt religious meanings from other cultures leads to the third important way in which a non-imperial American Christianity can be fashioned: through constructive theology. This constructive theology, ideally using the resources of contextual and cross-cultural theologies, must rebuild American Christianity on bases of meaning not dependent upon secular imperial power. This project of constructive theology should thus engage seriously with themes neglected by imperial theologies focused on the power and success of empire. Thus, theological topics like suffering, pain, loss, death, weakness, and trauma will probably take on increased importance within this type of constructive theology.

Because of the diversity of American Christianity and because of the way in which transitions between paradigms happen, it is likely that what will be necessary, at least in the short term, is a proliferation of various attempts to construct new non-imperial meanings within American Christianity. Some of these attempts will ultimately prove to be more successful than others.

There are several open questions with regard to this approach. First, there is the large question of whether those at the imperial center, even if they recognize on some level that they and their religious system are in trouble, will have the humility to open themselves to learning from those at the imperial margins. Empire does not cultivate that sort of humility, so it goes against the conditioning of those at the center to be willing to learn in this way.

It is also an open question whether any of these new meanings or even all of these new meanings together will be enough to reverse decades of decline within Christian adherence in the United States. The 60+% of Americans that were members of Christian churches in the early 1960s may stand as an all-time high water mark. Nevertheless, such contextual, cross-cultural, and constructive theologies remain the best hope for an alternative to the hastening obsolescence of imperial American Christianity.

Moreover, whatever happens to American Christianity, the good news is that Christianity as a world-wide religious traditions is sufficiently diverse and well-distributed that it will keep going, with or without a robust American Christianity. What I am suggesting is not about how American Christians can save the world; it is about how they can save their own souls. And giving up the notion that God will save the world through you and instead admitting that you need God to save you through the world is the first step towards God's grace as it breaks in to imperial decline.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Recommended Listening: African Women in Mission

Both United Methodist Women (UMW) and Discipleship Ministries have recently released interviews with African United Methodist women about their mission and ministry with other African women. Both interviews show the amazing work that United Methodist women do as part of God's mission and are well worth a listen. They show how important the principles of empowerment, listening, and "ministry with" are in African women's missiology.

As part of their Faith Talks series, UMW hosted a podcast in which Jennifer R. Farmer interviewed UMW regional missionaries Finda Quiwa of Sierra Leone and Dr. Catherine Akale of Cameroon about "International Women in Mission." The conversation focused especially on women's work in empowering other women, especially empowering younger women through education. The podcast episode runs about 48 minutes.

As part of its Global Conversations on Discipleship series, Discipleship Ministries hosted a podcast in which Mighty Rasing interviewed Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau of the North Katanga Episcopal Area in the Democratic Republic of Congo about "Women Empowerment and Discipleship in the DR Congo." This conversation also touched on women's work in empowering other women, including through education, and it explored women's work in reconciliation between Bantu and Twa/Pygmy peoples. The podcast episode runs about 24 minutes.

Friday, December 11, 2020

UM & Global Collection: Commentaries on "Wonder, Love and Praise" and "Sent in Love"

Three previous UM & Global collections have looked at issues of global ecclesiology: one on the UMC as a global church, one on church autonomy and the Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), and one on ecumenical perspectives on the global UMC.

The latest collection looks at the issue of ecclesiology through the lens of two documents developed by the Committee on Faith and Order to help define the UMC's theology of church: "Wonder, Love and Praise" and "Sent in Love." "Wonder, Love and Praise" was a draft ecclesiology document released in 2016. It was revised and rewritten into "Sent in Love," which is pending for adoption by General Conference the next time that body meets.

The collection includes twenty-nine essays by a range of authors: Benjamin L. Hartley, Knut Refsdal, Daniel Shin, Robert A. Hunt, Jacob Dharmaraj, Stefan Z├╝rcher, Norma Dollaga, David N. Field, Joon-Sik Park, Steven J. Ybarrola, Ole Birch, James Z. Labala, Global Ministries staff, Nkemba Ndjungu, Laceye Warner, Meeli Tankler, and Lizette Tapia-Raquel. Women are under-represented in the analysis of "Wonder, Love and Praise." Yet the collection includes ecclesiological reflections by United Methodists from a wide range of cultural backgrounds.

As always, discussion questions help connect these writings to pressing contemporary questions for United Methodist leaders, General Conference delegates, and students.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

American Christianity as an Imperial Religion

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Last week, I offered a definition of imperial religions and suggested why and how they decline along with the imperial power structures that support them. This week, I would like to extend that analysis by looking at American Christianity as an imperial religion and drawing out some of the consequences for American Christian numerical decline from this analysis. Next week, I will examine some thoughts about what this analysis means for alternative futures of American Christianity.

I suggested that an imperial religion is "one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire." Thus, to say that American Christianity is an imperial religion is to suggest that American Christianity does serve and has served to affirm the ways in which the United States has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed it to do so.

Some may object to the premise of this analysis by asserting that the United States has never been an empire in the sense of holding vast territories. Yet, there are two problems with this analysis: First, Filipinos, Cubans, and others can quickly point out that the United States has indeed held territory outside its imperial center. Second, most analyses of empire examine it as about the exercise of power rather than direct control of territory. The British did not formally control Indian territory until 1857, but India was under the influence of the British Empire long before.

If American Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion, then there should be similarities in the trajectories of American Christianity and American foreign power. Indeed, that is exactly what one sees looking historically. Overall religious membership was low in the American colonies and early decades of the United States. US church membership began to increase significantly at the end of the 19th century, just as the United States became more influential internationally through expanded economic and political power. That upward trajectory continued through the 1950s, as the United States won two world wars and created an international political and economic system structured around its interests.

Decline in religious membership began at about the same time that the United States was proving unable to assert its international interests through the Vietnam War. While anti-Communist evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism saw continued growth in the midst of the context of the end of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, decline for all religious groups has accelerated in recent years, as the United States has again experienced vulnerability and setbacks in its foreign policy objectives, especially through, though not limited to, the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror.

The decline of Christianity has been most marked among white liberals, who are also most likely to be critical of neoconservative ideas about America's place in the world. It is more resilient among white conservatives, who are more likely to hold an "America first" attitude about the United State's place in the world. It is highest among racial and ethnic minorities where religion serves as a marker of those group identities in addition to its function as a religion of American empire.

Of course, this may all be correlation rather than causation. Still, the fit seems close enough to warrant indulging further in this line of thinking.

At this point, it seems that, while the United States will continue to be an influential player in international politics and economics, the American century of unquestioned American predominance has ended. China is effectively challenging US economic predominance. Increased nationalism at home and abroad undercuts US cultural soft power. The mid-20th century post-war order built on a system of international alliances and institutions is looking increasingly rickety.

Along with this diminution of American imperial power, American Christian membership is continuing to decline significantly and shows no signs of reversing any time soon. Younger generations are increasingly secular, and almost all population groups within the United States are moving away from Christian affiliation. This trend thus continues the correlation between imperial power and religious strength, at least as measured by membership, though now in a downward fashion.

Thus, it makes sense to presume that, given anticipated decline in US imperial power, American Christianity will continue to decline in terms of members, as well as less easily-measured aspects such as practice and belief. Denominational reorganizations, changes in or affirmations of sexual teaching, trendy new styles of worship, and other revitalization strategies may make some difference for individual congregations or Christian groups, but these are all paddling against the current and unlikely to reverse the overall trend.

One might presume that if American Christianity is to avoid further decline as US international influence wanes, it must transform into a non-imperial religion. Yet that is much easier said than done. It is extremely difficult to de-couple an imperial religious tradition from empire.

Imperial underpinnings are not just about one or two doctrines that can be easily rejected or amended. They are woven into the practices, symbols, assumptions, and meanings of a religious system, often in ways so subtle that they are difficult to detect by those at the imperial center. Empire is the lens through which those at the imperial center see the world, including their religion. It is not easy to see the world from another perspective, let alone to see oneself and one's assumptions from another perspective. To create a post-imperial future depends on much more than loudly proclaiming that one will now be "de-colonial" in one's approach to the world. American Christians of all theopolitical stripes have proclaimed how they (unlike their opponents) are not colonial, all the while behaving in ways that continue to presume their preeminence as people from the imperial center.

Moreover, even if one were somehow successful in removing the imperial meanings from an imperial religion, that would leave the religion empty of meaning (and thus devoid of followers) unless something else is added back in. Because imperial conceptions give meaning to the symbols of an imperial religion, taking away those imperial meanings leaves nothing behind without new meanings taking their place.

If this analysis of American Christianity as an imperial religion holds, then the future continuation of American Christianity depends just as much if not more so upon American Christians' ability to add new, non-imperial meanings to the religion than it is upon their ability to sufficiently critique and root out imperial meanings within the religion. I will say more about that possibility next week.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Recommended Viewing: Global Perspectives at Inclusiveness IV Conference

The United Methodist Association of Retired Clergy (UMARC) has sponsored an annual Inclusiveness Conference since 2017. Initially formed to support Bishop Karen Oliveto and LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, this year's conference focused heavily on racial justice and other forms of inclusion, such as including more global voices in the conference.

The online conference included a set of presentations on "global perspectives" featuring the following speakers:
  • Rev. Knut Refsdal of Norway talking about LGBTQ+ inclusion and the state of the church in Europe
  • Augustine Bahati of Rwanda talking about the church's work in Africa with marginalized people
  • Bishop Rudolfo A. Juan talking about the Christmas Covenant
  • David W. Scott of UM & Global talking about the importance of understanding people from other contexts on their own terms and recognizing that Black African lives matter
  • Rev. Jasper Peters talking about racial and other inclusion in the Mountain Sky Annual Conference

A UM News Service summary of the conference, including some of Dr. Scott's remarks, can be found here. Other videos from the conference can be found on the UMARC homepage.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Recommended Reading: Resources for evangelism in a digital world

The Methodist Church in Britain has released a timely set of resources related to "evangelism in a digital world." The resources define digital evangelism, discuss methods that can be used for digital evangelism, and pay special attention to the use of social media in digital evangelism. These resources would be generally relevant in the 21st century, but as churches continue to adapt to COVID-imposed limits on physical presence and interactions, and as the pandemic will likely alter in lasting ways how people connect to church, these resources are more important than ever.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

What Is an Imperial Religion, and Why Do Imperial Religions Decline?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Back in June, I wrote two pieces ([1] and [2]) that suggested the reason why religious adherence in the West has declined in recent decades was because Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion for the West and the decline in the West's imperial fortunes in the past eighty years has led to a decline in affiliation with, belief in, and practice of Christianity as an imperial religion.

I think this argument is worth revisiting, and in this post I'd like to do so by trying to define more precisely what counts as an "imperial religion" and what that definition can suggest about why imperial religions decline along with their empires.

To do so, I'll draw on Clifford Geertz's definition of religion. In his essay, "Religion as a Cultural System," Geertz said that a religion is "(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

Two pieces of this definition are especially relevant: that religion is connected to conceptions of order, and that religion makes those conceptions seem factual or realistic. It is also important to note the broad sense of "symbol" with which Geertz worked. For Geertz, symbols included not only visual symbols (such as a cross or star and crescent), but also language, rituals, stories, pictures, etc.--anything that served to embody and convey meaning.

Empire is critically about a political, social, and economic order, and while empires exercise force to maintain their orders, for the most part, empires operate because people accept that ordering of the world as fact, whether or not they like the ordering. Force is used to keep people in line, but empires do not run on force alone; they are ultimately commonly accepted ideas.

Thus, one might define an imperial religion as one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire. Under this definition, part of the meaning of the symbols of an imperial religion is derived from conceptions of the empire. That may not be the entirety of the meaning of those religious symbols, which may also convey other meanings divine and human, but it is nonetheless an important part.

It is this connection between the conceptions of an empire and the meanings of the symbols of an imperial religion that explains why that religion declines as a result of imperial decline.

When an empire goes into decline, the conceptions associated with it become less commonly accepted. People stop believing in the empire and in the way in which it has ordered the world. Again, military defeats, political infighting, economic troubles, cultural change, and the like are important factors in the decline of an empire, but ultimately empires fall because the idea of the empire becomes implausible.

When the idea of an empire becomes implausible, that drains meaning from the symbols of an imperial religion. Because the symbols of that religion derive part of their meaning from ideas about the empire, when those ideas are rejected, those religious symbols lose meaning. And when those symbols lose meaning, then people stop using that religious language, stop participating in those religious rituals, stop telling those stories, etc. In other words, practice, belief, and adherence to the imperial religion declines.

It is possible that an imperial religion may survive the collapse of its empire, but only if the religion contains (or can adopt) enough meaning beyond that which it derived from the imperial order. If there are enough other sources of meaning within a religious tradition, then some people will continue that tradition because of the meaning they find in it independent of empire, even if others lose faith because of the loss of meaning derived from empire.

Religions are likely to contain more forms of meaning if they have been adopted by multiple groups of people with varying relationships to the empire. When new groups of people adopt a religion, they always infuse it with new meanings. Thus, cross-cultural religious traditions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have continued despite the fall of many empires (even if certain sects or sub-traditions have died out), because they are large enough traditions to contain a variety of meanings appreciated by a variety of groups of people.

Other traditions, such as post-exilic Judaism or post-Persian Zoroastrianism, have been reworked sufficiently after an imperial collapse so that their meaning was no longer centered on a particular socio-political order and could thus continue independent of whatever socio-political order reigned.

This post has looked in very broad terms at imperial religion. Next week, I will look more closely at what this discussion of imperial religion means for 21st century Christianity.