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|January 29-February 4 2009
What’s God got to do with it?
Local theologians debate the future
of organized religion in America
by Jim Lillie
These days, religion seems to walk hand in hand with controversy. Whether it’s President Barack Obama’s choice of anti-gay evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration or this past week’s debate between conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and atheist Christopher Hitchens — religion makes headlines daily.
We all know what the hot-button issues are today: abortion, gay marriage, divorce, euthanasia, contraception, Ted Haggard’s sex life, the role of religion in politics. But, while these topics garner lots of ink and keep blogs busy, are they the issues that matter most in the day-to-day practice of religion in our nation?
To find out what local clergy had to say, Boulder Weekly contributor Jim Lillie sat down individually with leaders of four prominent local spiritual communities: Father Bill Breslin, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in downtown Boulder; Reverend Alan Ahlgrim, lead pastor of the mega-sized Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot; Rabbi Joshua Rose, assistant rabbi at Boulder’s Reform Congregation Har HaShem (Rabbi Deborah R. Bronstein is on sabbatical), and Barbara Gould, Har HaShem’s outreach director; and, Janet Solyntjes, center director of Shambhala (Buddhist) Meditation Center of Boulder.
Their answers to the most pressing challenges facing organized religion these days may surprise you.
—Pamela White, editor
Q: What do you see as the challenges to organized religion these days? Is it endangered in any way, or does it simply have an image problem?
Father Breslin: There is an anti-institutional mentality right now in our society. There’s a certain amount of criticism that’s needed. Otherwise the institution goes wacky, and we’ve had our own instances of that. There’s a real prejudice against, especially in the Boulder area, a prejudice not just against the Catholic Church, not just Jesus, but God. And that’s sometimes very palpable. It’s almost as if there’s a hubris on the part of people who pity believers for believing all of that bunk. It’s just a blatant prejudice… and it’s perceived as OK. But we can’t be prejudiced against prairie dogs. It’s just very strange. If we stand for life, and people don’t want to hear that, they’ll be offended. If we stand for purity and virtue, and people don’t want to hear that, they’ll be upset. If we stand for the need to reconcile, the need to ask for forgiveness, the need to recognize there is such a thing as sin, and people don’t want to believe in all that, I suppose they’ll reject it.
Rev. Ahlgrim: I think organized everything has an image problem. I mean, what are we saying, we’re in favor of disorganized religion? No. When this woman who just called me inquiring for help [for her children at Christmas] — you know what? She can be very grateful, whether she knows it or not, that we have some organized religion going on here. We help so many people here.
We gave hundreds of gifts for Touch of Christmas, which is for our people in need. We don’t have prisoners as part of this church — maybe one or two that are somehow related — but we give hundreds of presents to kids whose parents are incarcerated. We gave 400 gifts for another deal. We gave over a thousand coats away. Now, how do you do that, at that scale, unless you’ve got some measure of organization?
Is it perfect? No. Do we find sometimes that people fall through the cracks like this lady who was just calling? Yeah. But, boom, we’re on that. Today that will be taken care of, I know it will...
Somebody does something immoral, and it’s a front-page story everywhere. When Ted Haggard flipped out, do you know that that was big news in Germany? Why? Because it fits their stereotype. You have people who are not what they pretend to be. The Great Deceiver is at work. He wants everybody to think that God grades on the curve, and so if you’ve got somebody who represents Christ and is corrupt, then they don’t need Christ. We need to correct the problems there.
Rabbi Rose: There’s a massive generational gulf. People my age and younger are increasingly alienated from institutional Jewish life. Now, those young people are still very interested in being Jews, but they don’t want to go to the traditional, institutional sources to answer what that means. It’s not just about God. Young Jews can get interested in Jewish culture and never even think about God. They don’t say, “I don’t care about being Jewish.” They desperately want to connect to Judaism. But they are looking to recover a lot of folk identification, the food and music or politics of their grandparents. They’re thirsting for Jewish identity, but they’re not knocking down the walls of synagogues to get [it].
Ms. Gould: My generation identifies Jewishly through the pain and history of the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. If one lives their life only identifying through loss and grief, then that brings guilt. And Judaism — although we might joke about guilt — is not about guilt. It’s about responsibility and life and how we live. That’s part of our generational gap and challenge.
I never learned religion and faith. I learned history and struggle. [The Holocaust] is absolutely a part of us, but it is not the only part of us...We should never lose the pride that comes from our survival through that. But we want Jews to remember that along with a history rife with suffering is the beauty, brilliance, relevance and life-affirming faith that is Judaism.
Rabbi Rose: Every Jewish person, no matter what age, and every human being, has a moral obligation to struggle with the meaning of the Holocaust and to try to understand it and to never forget. But Jewish teachers at this point in history also have an obligation to make sure that the Holocaust is not the primary source of Jewish identity or understanding. We’re at a point in our lives where it cannot be. We cannot ever forget it. We must not ever forget it. We will not ever forget it, and it continues to inform who we are. But we have to show Jews growing up today that that’s not the primary meaning of being a Jew.
Ms. Solyntjes: I have friends who say, “All organized religion is bad.” And I say, “Why?” And they say, “Most wars are based on religion.” Well, they’re based on territory and money. And religion is in the midst of that, so it’s not just about religion. It’s that people start to stake out territory, literal land, like the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Is that a religious war? Is that a war over territory?
I don’t think it happens in Buddhism so much... Some people flourish being in a community situation, because when you’re on your own, you don’t have enough sense of accuracy with your spiritual path. When you’re with others, there are many mirrors around you. It expresses a commitment that may not have another way to be expressed.
I don’t mean this derogatorily, but there’s not anybody, like the Pope, that is sending down a list of dos and don’ts [for Buddhists]. I think that keeps us more self-reliant and maybe a little bit more genuine because we rule our own world, each of us as individuals. We’re just trying to uplift all of society. And whether you’re religious or not religious, or atheist, it doesn’t matter. How to communicate that is tricky. Because if you’re associated with an organized religion then people see that. It’s tricky.
Q: What would you say to someone who had lost their faith, or who was skeptical? What are the atheists missing?
Father Breslin: I would say they have never known the faith. That what they have known is a heresy. Because if they knew the God that was true, they’d be overwhelmed with love. If they’ve experienced judgment, if they’ve experienced horrific stuff, if they’ve experienced harshness, it’s because they have never known the real God. They’ve known a caricature, a warping of the true God. On the other hand, everybody is responsible for his or her own life, and so, if they’ve never prayed and they lose their faith, then their faith was never real because it wasn’t into the heart.
[The atheists say that] all of this just happened. Then that’s their faith, so they’re not atheists. They believe that. That’s not provable as science. Everybody sooner or later has to make a choice. And if that’s what they choose, maybe God will reach them in another way, in a way neither they nor the rest of us will expect.
Rev. Ahlgrim: The Gospel always travels over the bridge of relationship. You’ll note that God does not send Bibles from the sky. The incarnational message of Christ — He came, we say, “The Messiah.” He entered our mess. The Mess-i-ah. He entered our mess, and he came to say, “All right, I love you, and I’m with you. This is not right what’s happening over here or what you’re doing over there. But I’m here with you, and I’m going to show you a better way.” And that’s what we’re called to do. We enter the messiness of life. So if somebody is suspicious or skeptical, and many people are, they won’t give me the time of day. But over a period of time, they may discover that maybe their experience is not all there is to the church. Any more than if I’d had a bad experience at a restaurant, I don’t stop going to restaurants.
Rabbi Rose: I probably have stuff to learn from atheists. I wouldn’t say they’re missing anything because I think there are a lot of atheists within Jewish synagogues. A lot. If somebody came to me and said, “I’m an atheist, I can’t be involved with Judaism,” I would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist. There’s a lot to draw out of Jewish life.” So I don’t see atheism as something that should stop somebody from exploring a very beautiful and powerful and enlightening tradition.
Ms. Gould: I don’t proselytize to atheists, and I don’t want atheists to proselytize to me. As long as someone finds meaning or hope or love in their lives... What I take issue with is when there’s preaching of hate or anger. That’s not what they’re saying.
Ms. Solyntjes: We’re not saying there is a god, and we’re not saying there isn’t a god... We’re trying to find happiness, pleasure, fulfillment. In Buddhism, we say there’s no external savior. But does that deny a god? Not necessarily. The Buddha himself never felt like he had to deny or confirm. Basically the main approach is, your spiritual path is in your hands. We have teachers that everyone bows to. That bowing is to the aspect of the teacher that is in you also. Theists are welcome to come. Atheists are welcome to come. The most fun thing is debating these topics. Not so that you win but so that you keep expanding your mind. We get so convicted, but we don’t really know if it’s true.
Q: What’s the best thing about organized religion in Boulder County?
Father Breslin: Hope. In an age of terror, in an age of desperation, in an age of materialism, we stand as a people of hope. And we have a 2,000-year history of hope through the darkest of times far worse than our own time... As much as people will accuse the Catholic Church of not being tolerant, I can guarantee you that Catholic priests are the most tolerant people in the world. Because they hear, every week at least, one kind of sin after the other and what people go through. And you can’t listen to that and not come away with great reverence [for] the person who’s struggling to let God’s grace in there to help them. Are some of the teachings, as they’re perceived through the press, as tolerant? No. But, dealing with the individual, we understand that. Those who enter into that experience are very aware of how the church has been there for them.
Rev. Ahlgrim: Safety net. The best safety net we’ve got going is not government — though if you talk to government people, it’s the only thing they can relate to. For the most part, they just assume whatever they assume about churches, that people just kind of walk in the door and sit there listening to boring stuff and are guilted into giving money and leave. I mean, what else could they assume? They’re not a part of church. They don’t understand that for believers, it is life to them. We live in a broken world, and we’re all broken people to some extent. If people think it’s bad now — [if the world was] without churches? — I believe that the light shines the brightest in the darkest of times.
Ms. Gould: This is a community that comes together beautifully. And in many ways we go beyond politics to provide what is meaningful to our community. So I have the great fortune of being able to see all of these organizations working together for common goals. We understand our common ground. Even when there isn’t common ground, we’re able to come together.
Rabbi Rose: There’s tremendous diversity, respect, cooperation, passion. And what really distinguishes this community is a real willingness to take chances, within and between the institutions, [which] leads to some fascinating and beautiful responses.
Ms. Solyntjes: There’s always been something that I think is powerful in organized religion that we don’t have in the same way here, which is the ritual of Sunday morning. Even though in many places people replace that for going deeper into their own spiritual path. The Sunday ritual gathers people together, and they get inspired, if there’s an inspiring speaker. I think that’s fabulous, because it might spark something in an individual to try to remember throughout the week, something that matters to them. And short of that, I don’t know how that happens for people.
Q: What’s the worst thing about organized religion in Boulder County, the one thing it needs to do better?
Father Breslin: More authenticity in the people who speak on behalf of the church. Whether it’s your next-door neighbor, or a priest or a bishop or the people in the pews, all of us need to be more authentic and have a greater reverence for other people, with whatever is going on in their lives. Just to be a constant loving presence despite it all.
Rev. Ahlgrim: If believers were more open and not intimidated by political correctness. It’s amazing. Believers can be in organizations in the community and not even know for quite some time that there are fellow believers there. I mean, if you believe something is true, and if it’s fulfilling to you, why wouldn’t you want others to have that opportunity? Christians just don’t speak up. Other people speak up all the time, sometimes in rude and ridiculing ways, and we just are silent. We need to speak up more... And the difficulties we have because people don’t “get it,” or it’s not cool to be a Christian in Boulder, in their view? It’s cool to be a whatever? A nothing? You just don’t know what you’re rejecting. Our brothers are facing extraordinary sacrifices around the world.
And what we face here, it’s minimal compared to what they are dealing with on a daily basis. It’s a great time to be a Christian.
Ms. Gould: Jewish thought and practice can’t live on with a bagel. We have beautiful and challenging holidays and rituals that take place in a synagogue or in groups. There has to be a way to practice and continue our traditions in a contemporary way. We have to all learn how to think outside of the box. Literally. We have to know how to be out there meeting people where they are. And not always expecting that they’re going to come to us. In Judaism, there’s so much that we practice about mutual responsibility. And it’s our responsibility to go out as much as it’s peoples’ responsibility to come in.
Rabbi Rose: The deal is that young people are doing very cool, interesting Jewish stuff without us. And our challenge is to learn from them. Not because we want to co-opt them, but because they’re doing stuff that works. If you have these spontaneous groups, 20 or 30 people gathering around a dinner table for a Sabbath dinner, they’re doing something right. Our challenge is to see how we can help them, and how we can learn from them. It begins with thinking outside and getting outside of the synagogue.
Ms. Solyntjes: When you have an organization you have power. You can pervert that power, or you can use that power. And I think that’s the thing — finding more and more ways that we can use our collaborative potency to help. Because often we think, “How can I help in Nicaragua, or how can I help in India?” But how can we help Boulder County? And I know that some people are doing that already... When people come into the building and say they’ve been in Boulder for years and walked by this building for years and never come in, and I say, “What kept you from coming in?” They’ll say, “I thought there would be a lot of people in robes.” Or they thought there’d be some middle-aged, trippy kind of thing. They just didn’t know that it would be regular, ordinary people. I could care less if anybody out there becomes a Buddhist. I care more that they find a path.
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