Question authority (absolutely)

QuestionMark.jpgA developing story in mainline Protestantism reminds me of the oft-repeated joke about what you get if you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness: Somebody who knocks at your door for no apparent reason.

This is the developing story: Liberal Protestants are developing programs to compete with the Alpha Course, a curriculum from the Church of England parish called Holy Trinity Brompton that has found a home among churches ranging from Roman Catholic to The Salvation Army.

Like Alpha, these alternatives begin with a community meal, offer a teaching on videotape or DVD and then turn to roundtable discussion in small groups. Like Alpha, they say all questions are welcome. Unlike Alpha, they prefer questions over answers.

I wrote a feature about one such curriculum, Via Media, for the July/August 2004 Episcopal Life. More recently I wrote a critique of it for Kendall Harmon’s weblog, Titus One Nine.

Lawn Griffiths of the East Valley Tribune in Arizona has written about a United Methodist curriculum called Living the Questions. Unlike Via Media, Living the Questions has chosen some pugnacious representatives of Jesus Seminar theology, including retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and Methodist theologian John B. Cobb Jr.

Griffiths mentions that the curriculum’s two creators, the Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy of Phoenix and the Rev. David Felten of Scottsdale, believe Living the Questions presents “a deeper understanding that challenges their intellect and goes beyond historic doctrines and teachings.”

Spong states the contrast more bluntly:

During a recent celebration to launch the program, held at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Bishop Spong said he doubted the Christian church would die from controversy. “I think it will die of boredom,” he says in touting the Living the Questions program. Boredom comes when “no one is engaged when it speaks a language that doesn’t translate into your world,” he said.

Religious fundamentalists — be they in Judaism, Islam or Christianity — reject the modern world. “They are people who cannot embrace the reality of the world in which they live, so they build a defense against modernity. They sing their hymns and close their minds” and proclaim, “We have the truth. The Bible is inerrant, the pope is infallible, there is only one way to God, and we possess it,” Spong says. Such statements, he said, “become the language of their security.”

Whether Living the Questions represents a second Reformation, as the two pastors believe, will be a story worth watching for many years to come. That may depend on whether the program spends less time on the phantom threat of fundamentalism and more time on what its adherents can affirm — other than more questions, of course.

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  • Carl Johnson

    Socrates just won’t stay dead, will he? Just think, 25 hundred years later, that pug nosed gadfly is still keeping people from admitting that they know things. On the one hand, Skepticism has kept civilization from stagnating into smug self-righteousness, but on the other hand, all this turmoil about “I only know that I know noooooothing! Boo hoo hoo!” can really get old.

  • Brad

    As a former Methodist who left about the time the denomination got really gauzy in its beliefs (along with many others in the congregation since then), I can testify that this will not represent a second reformation…a further deterioration is probably more likely.

    People don’t like churches with questions but no answers…would you go to a restaurant that asked if you were hungry but didn’t offer any food?


  • ECJ

    Spong speaks with some authority when it comes to killing churches. All one has to do is look at the membership statistics for the churches over which he served as Bishop.

    So what do you do if you are a theologian who – for example – doesn’t happen to believe that God speaks, or that there isn’t any God to speak in the first place? Salary sort of depends on the existence of a laity. Of course! A new ciriculum about ‘questions.’ Tha’ll bring ‘em in.

    But it ain’t the medium that’s the problem. It’s the message. If God hasn’t spoken then life is without purpose. And people will find more enticing ways to medicate that condition besides listening to sombody prattle about ‘questions.’ Sex and money come to mind as the opiates of choice for the modern secular world.

    The Church is about sin and redemption. It is not about helping people come to terms with the meaninglessness of life.


  • Cathy

    “The Church is about sin and redemption. It is not about helping people come to terms with the meaninglessness of life.”??
    Church is what gives meaning to life.

  • Brian Lewis

    Possibly a more thought provoking Unitarian joke is the less often repeated:

    Did you hear about the Pentecostal Unitarians? They debate social issues in tongues.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    That is indeed a more thought-provoking — and funnier — joke! I must confess I’d never heard it before. Thanks for mentioning it here, Brian.

  • ECJ


    Actually I would argue the God is what gives meaning to life, and that in the absense of God there can be no meaning. The study course in question begins with the assumption that God does not speak (The one hard question with a definitive knowable answer, I guess.) Hence, no answers. Because if God does speak, then we do have answers. Since the authors deny this, they are tacitly asserting that God is either unknowable or dead.

    But the unalterable endpoint of this path is the realization that life has no purpose. This is the dilemma which consumed Nietzsche. How do we cope with meaninglessness once we posit that God is dead? Well, the “Living the Answers” guys think they have an answer to help, and they have dressed it up in theological robes. In the end, it is nothing but the blind proposing to lead the blind.

    Put rouge on the lips of a corpse, and all one gets is a pretty corpse. It won’t make us forget
    that the corpse is dead.


  • Brant

    Then there’s this one, perhaps old as well:

    We’ve got some tough Unitarians in our town.

    (How tough are they?)

    Make ‘em mad enough and they’ll burn a question mark on your lawn.

  • Camassia

    My trackback doesn’t seem to be working (I’m still getting the hang of WordPress), so I’ll point out here that I posted on this and my own experience in Alpha:

  • Stephen A.

    As someone said here a few dozen posts ago, Do we really need to go to church to discover that God doesn’t matter – or exist, for that matter?

    My brief, horrid experience with Unitarian Universalist fundamentalists was that they taught one thing as an Absolute: “God doesn’t exist. And she’s a woman.”