Essays on religion in America: anticipations for 2015

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

As the masthead for my blog indicates, one of my primary interests is American religion. My graduate studies were in this field and my career in the church and academy has always focused upon the historical dimensions of religion and life in America. Even in retirement, I continue to read and write on historical topics, as my recently published book The American Church that Might Have Been makes clear.

With a relatively clear desk and a new and very portable computer, I’m ready for the new year, and here are the historically oriented topics which will occupy my attention and therefore often appear on the blog keithwatkinshistorian.

The twisting flow of water: As cyclist, citizen of the world, and religious historian I have been increasingly preoccupied by the challenges revolving around water—its availability to people around the world, its role in political and economic life, and the ethical and religious issues pertaining to water. Because this field already is so vast and complex, and because it continues to grow, I will never be able to claim mastery.

I may be coming to a place in my work, however, when I can draft an extended essay on this subject, and this is my first goal for the new year. It will include a review of literature that has influenced my understandings of water in the world and proposals for how Americans, and especially the religious communities, should respond to the emerging crisis. Since I am committed to doing a paper on this topic for the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion in early February, this project is number one on my list.

Death and dying in America: This aspect of American life and religious practice was part of my regular work as professor of worship for more than thirty years. Because of my wife’s long illness and recent death, I have been involved in these matters in a new and very personal way.

During the past several months, I have posted columns about these matters and I have developed a preliminary draft of a paper on the church’s ministry at the time of death. One goal for 2015 is to continue my work in this field, reporting these labors from time to time on this blog, and by the end of the year write an extended essay on this subject.

The heretical imperative: In a slender book entitled The Heretical Imperative, Peter Berger has discusses the challenge that comes to all people, which is to  develop a viable synthesis of the traditions on which life is based and the constantly changing social systems within which our lives are lived. During recent months I have posted blogs on this subject, including reviews on how the Qur’an and Book of Mormon are understood and used by contemporary scholars who are committed both to their classic religious texts and to secular canons of scholarship.

Since my retirement from academic life twenty years ago, I have lived in an environment marked by two unsettling characteristics: a disparaging attitude toward the classic Christian tradition and an indiscriminate acceptance popular values and practices. I feel an increasing pressure to resolve the tension I feel.

My reading in this field has been occasional and not well focused, but I hope that in this new year I will be able to bring some kind of order to the process. One way of doing so may be to collect some of the book reviews and incidental reflections that I have already composed and shape a third extended essay that would serve as a progress report on a project still under way.

Could there be a book in the making? In recent years, my friend Joe R. Jones has published two books of essays, sermons, and other occasional writings that he has composed during retirement years. The model appeals to me, and one of the guidelines that I intend to use in shaping the extended essays described above is to bring them together in that kind of book.

So what do you think? Your ideas and evaluations are hereby invited and encouraged.


3 Responses to Essays on religion in America: anticipations for 2015

  1. marveck says:

    As usual, Keith, you lift up topics that resonate! Your regular posts invite careful thought and your analysis of contemporary life provide a reliable background for discussion. Look forward to your current work on the theme of “Water” and a your other writings as they unfold.

  2. Gary Rose says:

    Hi Keith,

    I don’t know if you are a regular reader of Bishop Spong: I am. This “answer” and your post of today seemed connected.

    So sorry about your loss.

    Living w/ a terminal disorder and my background in ministry, I am very interested in reading more of your thinking on death & dying, and Christian traditions addressing the same.

    Best wishes for 2015!


    From: Bishop Spong [] On Behalf Of Bishop Spong
    Sent: Thursday, January 01, 2015 2:01 AM
    Subject: Q & A for 1-1-2015: 500-year cycle of “great” changes?


    Question & Answer
    Rich Smith from the Congregational-United Church of Christ in Reno, Nevada, asks:

    Are you familiar with Phyllis Tickle’s book The Great Emergence and her analysis of where we are in terms of the 500-year cycle of “great” changes? Does it make sense to you? Does “Emergent Christianity” seem to be the wave of the future for faith? Will its impact be primarily on the established church or will it be a new form of faith altogether?

    Dear Rich,
    I am not only familiar with Phyllis Tickle’s book, but I also know and admire Phyllis, who has been a friend and a colleague for years. Her book, The Great Emergence, echoes some of the thought of Karen Armstrong, another of my personal friends and favorite authors. It is fascinating to anticipate, as her book does, the relationship between the historical articulation of a faith tradition and at the same time assess the impact on that articulation of the age in which we live and the knowledge that we possess. For example what does it mean when we speak of God as “in heaven” when we live not in a three tiered universe, which that phrase assumes, but a space age in which we embrace the vastness of the universe. Where is heaven? What does it mean to talk about the human “fall” and “original sin” when we embrace the insights of Charles Darwin, who has taught us that there was no original perfection from which we could have fallen, but rather an evolutionary process that occurred over billions of years as life moved from a single cell to intelligent, self-conscious complexity? We are always being forced to acknowledge that the way we understand both God and religion moves in dialogue with changes in human culture, changing knowledge and stages of life and expanding consciousness. It is, therefore clear to scholars like Phyllis Tickle that religious systems change in cyclical patterns. There is no evidence, however, to think that there are abrupt changes and one never knows except when looking into the past, whether what is thought to be emerging is a minor adaptation or a genuine new birth of a newly-perceived insight.
    I think one can interpret history only in hindsight, we cannot study movements of history with future projections. That is our tendency once we begin to see a new pattern developing.
    So, I urge you to read and interact with both Phyllis Tickle’s thinking, but don’t leap to conclusions too quickly. The future is finally unknown and only fortune tellers, not theologians, really believe they can discern it.
    I am convinced that the institutional church, at least as we now understand it, is dying. That does not bother me. That has happened many times before. There is no church in the catacombs today, neither is anyone building great cathedrals at the center of every major city. I am convinced that Christianity shares in eternity. I am not sure that the Christian Church, as we know it today, does.
    John Shelby Spong

  3. Frank Burns says:

    It all sounds very intriguing. As a new follower of your blog, I will follow the developments in your thinking.

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