Informal Musings
Over Coffee

James Rissler

James has served as pastor to Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship since October of 2006 and was ordained in May of 2010. In what seems like a prior life, he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Notre Dame. So he can be called Rev. Dr. James Rissler, but that sounds ostentatious. The only people who call him that are public officials responding to letters advocating for greater justice for all, which he signs with those titles, hoping they’ll be impressed :-) James is married to Christina, and they have two boys, Andrew and Peter.

James emphasizes the love of God and the importance of loving relationships with God and with all persons. He believes that relationships take precedence over doctrine, and that, almost always, people can find common ground that is wider and deeper than our theological differences. His enduring optimism is grounded in God's creation of us in God's image, a creation that God called very good.

The Future of Religion

“Fellowships, I think, have the potential to do the slower but important work of reaching out to secular minded people who nonetheless recognize that there is more to life than individualism, that community is important.”

Introductory Thoughts - the Future of the Church

I often think about the future of the church.  Very quickly and generally, I suspect that two models of church will flourish over the next decades.  The megachurch model that provides congregants with a wide variety of programs and ways to plug into church life as much or as little as they want will continue to do well, I believe.  And the fellowship model, where small groups of people with a part-time or no pastor, amongst whom a high level of intimacy in community is possible, will also increasingly be prevalent.  While the former relies on effective marketing and solid business plans, perhaps also the charisma of the lead teaching pastor, the latter flourishes in virtue of the giftedness and high level of commitment of its members, and the flexibility to focus on their energies and passions.  These latter may also have a wider range of theologies, ranging from very conservatively evangelical to humanist semi-Christian.

More than the above will have to wait for another blog, or conversation in person.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the future of religions more generally.  

What Got Me Thinking

The impetus for my reflection was the UN security council’s 14-0 vote to condemn Israeli settlement building in the West Bank as illegal and inimical to peace.  (see https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12657.doc.htm)  For the first time during the Obama administration, the U.S. abstained, allowing a resolution reiterating that Israel is in violation of international law to pass the UN Security Council.  Every previous administration since Eisenhower has condemned some Israeli actions, and every one since Johnson has at least abstained from resolutions condemning the establishment of land seized by Israel during the 6 day war in 1967.  (see https://sethfrantzman.com/2016/12/24/abstaining-from-history-heres-all-the-un-resolutions-on-israel-the-us-abstained-on/)

The reaction from many in Israel was stridently condemnatory of the Obama administration’s decision.  Increasingly, right wing politicians are openly calling for the annexation of large areas of the West Bank.  And the motivation for many is the religious belief that this land has been granted the Jewish people by God.

Faith vs. Human Rights?

When I was on a learning tour in Israel-Palestine during November of 2015, I heard two Jewish rabbis speak movingly of their connection to the land where the patriarchs of their faith trod.  One, who lived in a settlement in the West Bank, spoke of the deep meaning that living in this land had for him.  

Against the sincerity of this faith claim that many Jewish settlers share is set the fact that the Palestinian people has also inhabited this land for millennia.  One way to see UN Resolution 2334 is as a statement that religious claims cannot trump outweigh human rights, that religious claims may only be expressed to the extent that they do not impinge on the rights of others.

Such a principle has been part of US jurisprudence on freedom of religion at least since the 19th century. (see http://harvardpolitics.com/covers/limits-of-religious-freedom/)  At least where government has a compelling interest, religious freedom is curtailed.  Lately, courts have heard cases regarding the extent to which religious groups might because of their faith opt not to offer services to gay persons, or contraceptive coverage as part of insurance offered to employees.

I wonder if it is becoming more clearly the case that religions can only be acceptable so long as they honor basic human rights that increasingly are viewed as undergirding global society.  Thus, it really does not matter if Jewish settlers believe they have a God-given claim to land in the West Bank.  Because the Palestinian people have a claim to that land that has been recognized by international law, based on their occupation of the land for millennia and the right of all people to their nationality, religious beliefs to the contrary must defer.

The Obama administration’s general dislike of the term “Islamic terrorism” also reflects this view.  Officials and President Obama generally refrain from using this term because it conflates Islam with terrorism.  (see http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/28/politics/obama-radical-islamic-terrorism-cnn-town-hall/)  The idea is that terrorism perverts true Islam.

Similarly, we might condemn the Crusades and the Inquisition as a perversion of Christian faith.  Those chapters in our history are not, I would say, representative of true Christianity.  They mistake God’s desires and do not reflect Jesus’ teachings.

What Progressive Christians Need to Do

Progressive Christians are likely to be comfortable with limiting religion to beliefs that do not conflict with basic human rights and respect for all human persons.  We believe that Jesus taught these values, that loving one’s neighbor is antithetical to wishing her ill.  But those who believe that God has established particular claims will likely disagree that basic human rights override such claims, whether they be to the land of Judea and Samaria, or to the sanctity of heterosexual monogamy, or to particular beliefs about what a caliphate based on Sharia law should be like.

Too often, progressives and conservatives end up speaking different languages.  Progressives are more comfortable engaging secular liberals who share their commitment to basic human rights than they are engaging conservatives of their own faith who differ about the claims of that faith.  Progressives are too often uncomfortable seeking in their faith underlying grounds for their commitment to human rights, and articulating the same.  

If we are to avoid the increasing bifurcation of society, and divisions of faith traditions, persons of faith must find ways to engage each other within their common traditions, explaining and trying to understand how each side grounds their beliefs in their scriptures and other foundations of their faith.  There is no reason to expect secular liberals and faithful conservatives to find common ground where they differ.  But at least in principle, it should be possible for progressive and traditional Christians, for instance, to read the Bible together and trace their beliefs to a shared locus of divine revelation.

Back to the Future of the Church

I mentioned megachurches and fellowships above.  I believe that megachurches will effectively package and proclaim particular flavors (primarily traditional) of Christianity.  Fellowships, I think, have the potential to do the slower but important work of reaching out to secular minded people who nonetheless recognize that there is more to life than individualism, that community is important.  For community of faith to be important, Christian fellowships must articulate the ways in which this desire for something more, something bigger than any of us, is grounded in the Christian narrative.  We must be ready to tell a story of God’s relationship to us that centers on Jesus and is Gospel - good news - for us.  This story may be more or less traditional in its claims, but it must point through scripture and the Jesus story to God, or else the fellowship’s story is no longer a Christian one.

If fellowships can do this, then they will also be well equipped to engage their brothers and sisters in Christ who hold views different from their own.  The narrative they offer to those who are seeking God ideally should also resonate with more traditional or conservative interpretations of the Christian faith to at least the extent necessary to open dialogue within the Church, as well as beyond it.  If fellowships cannot do this, then they risk becoming secularly liberal communities without hope of engaging those who find the basis for truth claims in revelation.

May we winsomely share the Gospel, both with those who do not think they need to hear a story about God-with-us, and with those whose narrative of God among us differs in a variety of ways from ours.

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