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4.1: Ways of Being Religious in American Christianity

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    So far the discussion of ways of being religious has dealt in rather abstract generalities. What do the ways look like exemplified in the largely Christian but nevertheless pluralist sort of religious life found in the United States?

    Mention "sacred ritual" in connection with Christianity, and most Americans will think "Roman Catholic." To a large extent, the way of sacred rite is central to the religious life of Roman Catholics, though their pattern of worship has become much less formal than it used to be prior to the change from the Latin Mass to vernacular worship in the late 1960s. What is not often recognized is that sacred rite is also central to the religious life of Lutherans, Episcopalians (or Anglicans), and Eastern Orthodox as well. It is not what distinguishes Roman Catholic worship from Protestant worship, despite what is commonly supposed. (Yet, because most American Protestants have a fairly informal, nonsacramental structure of worship and suppose that they represent all Protestants in this respect, it is easy to see how the idea is so widespread.)

    What is it about worship in these traditions that makes it a manifestation of the way of sacred rite? Typically, the primary form of worship in each includes the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Mass, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist (all different names for the same thing)-a highly structured, symbolic transaction, a sacred ritual meal, in which the whole congregation participates simultaneously on many levels: bodily, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually. Behind the scenes, a comprehensive array of liturgical arts (architecture, choreography, visual art, vestment making, poetry, and music) work together to facilitate holistic, communal participation. All of these elements are premised on a crucial assumption, that the sacred ritual is itself a way of directly connecting with God in Jesus Christ, and above all with the Sacrificial Redemption of Christ through which all things are renewed and find their meaning. Thus, Holy Communion isn't just about Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. It isn't just a matter of calling to mind the events of salvation and an acknowledgment of his lordship over their lives. It isn't just an offering of praise and thanksgiving. It is all of these things and more: for the symbols central to the worship are not mere symbols; they are not simply representative. To wholehearted participants, they are presentative of God in Christ; they are means by which God in Christ becomes present to the congregation and to the individual participants. Inversely expressed, they are means by which participants enter holistically into the presence of God in Christ, receive his1 grace, and renew their sense of what life is all about.

    Although these subtraditions centrally emphasize the way of sacred rite, they may also strongly but subordinately emphasize other ways, such as right action. Even so, a number of Christian traditions in America do give primary emphasis to the way of right action. Among the oldest of these traditions is the Mennonite tradition, the most conservative branch of which is called Old Order Amish. Characteristic of Mennonites (and several other traditions like them) is a stress on simply living the teachings ofJesus in a practical, day-to-day, communal lifestyle distinct from the culture and society at large. To be Christian for them is to live a life of discipleship to Jesus, a life patterned after him in self-denial. Belief in Jesus, while important, is no substitute for personal conduct, and participation in sacramental ritual has no meaning apart from practicing the example of Christ. Accordingly, worship is simple and ministers are virtually indistinguishable from laypersons. Evidence of one's "conversion to Christ" is shown in living as Christ himself lived, doing the will of God, loving one's enemies, and suffering as Christ did. Notable is the historic stand of Mennonites against coercive violence of any kind (especially war), their active efforts on behalf of peace and reconciliation, and their national and international humanitarian relief activities. They do not understand these actions as means of earning one's salvation, as other Protestants may suppose. It is rather that these things are themselves evidence of salvation; they are part of what salvation is all about. To support and participate in them is for Mennonites to experience in some measure at-onement with God in Christ; to participate in them is to be about God's business, carrying out his redemptive work in the world.

    Except for a few aspects of other ways of being religious that directly support and contribute to right action (e.g., theological study and some forms of meditative prayer), about the only other way of being religious evident among traditional Mennonites is the way of devotion as expressed in the cultivation of an intimate, devotional relationship to Christ in one's personal life. However, even here, the way of devotion is dearly subordinate to right action.

    Other traditions that give an especially strong or central emphasis to right action-though not necessarily in a way that would be in agreement with Mennonites-indude Swiss Brethren, Hutterites, the Quaker or Friends tradition, Liberal Protestantism (which is not a denomination, but a modern movement of persons and congregations within mainstream Protestant denominations), the so-called Liberation Theology movement in Third World Roman Catholic cultures, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah's Witnesses.

    Among American Christians, the way of devotion is given central emphasis in traditions that identify with the label "evangelical." As used here, the label does not represent a specific denomination or even a group of denominations (though some denominations as a whole are clearly evangelical). Rather, is it a religious movement within preexisting Protestant denominations, outside denominations (e.g., in community churches and nondenominational revival meetings and crusades), and sometimes spawning denominations, that goes back through a series of national revivalist movements to the so-called Great Awakening in the British colonies prior to the American Revolution. The distinguishing mark of Evangelical Protestant identity is first priority placed upon an experience of "personal salvation," a being "born again," a "conversion experience," in which one prayerfully surrenders to a process of emotional purgation whereby Jesus Christ (understood as an inward spiritual presence) becomes the central focus of one's affective life, one's "personal Lord and Savior." A close second priority is the Evangelical activity of bringing other people to the threshold of this experience: "introducing other people to Jesus" and "winning souls for Christ." All other things, by comparison, for most Evangelicals tend to fall into insignificance (although some find room for aspects of other ways of being religious). Accordingly, religious activity for them consists primarily in cultivating and renewing this sense of the presence of Christ through corporate worship and individual devotional practices, and creating occasions for persons to make a "decision for Christ." Evangelical worship is typically simple and informal, focusing on congregational singing, prayer, and "Gospel. preaching"-which traditionally culminates in an "invitation" to open one's heart to Jesus (whether for the first time or for renewal). Protestant denominations that may be characterized as Evangelical include Baptist, Nazarene, Free Methodist, Wesleyan Methodist, Church of the Brethren, Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, and all Pentecostal denominations (although Pentecostals are more than simply Evangelical, as will be explained below).

    Although they prefer to identify themselves with Evangelical Protestantism (even as the true or most genuine of Evangelical Protestants), Fundamentalist Protestants, in their comprehensive opposition to secular humanistic orientations in society, culture, and "liberal religion," tend to emphasize the way of right action over the way of devotion, contrary to the predominant greater stress on the way of devotion among Evangelicals generally. This emphasis on right action is evident in their insistence that true Christians (1) adhere to "the fundamentals" of correct Christian belief over and against non-Fundamentalist Christians, (2) "come out from among" those deemed going to Hell and publically declare their faith in Christ (i.e., affirm "the Fundamentals") by joining "the righteous remnant" who are going to Heaven, (3) be committed to "win new souls for Christ," (4) obey "the absolute standards of Christian conduct," and (5) uphold and enforce "biblical values" and "biblical teachings" in American society and American public institutions that are being undermined by secular humanistic patterns of thought.

    The way of shamanic mediation in American Christianity generally is not very evident and in some places it has been actively discouraged or suppressed with the exception of two significant movements: (1) the Pentecostal Movement, which began as a nondenominational, revivalist movement at the turn of the twentieth century and produced a number of different Pentecostal denominations (e.g., Assembly of God, Church of God, Pentecostal Holiness, etc.), and (2) the Charismatic Movement, which began around 1960 as a nonor inter-denominational, lay movement within existing Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. In both movements, shamanic mediation remains closely fused with and largely subordinated to the Evangelical pattern of the way of devotion described above. What makes them instances of the way of shamanic mediation and not simply the way of devotion is a deliberate invocation of what they take to be the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, intervening in the lives of persons (in service of the purposes of God) to accomplish things beyond their natural human capacity: to enthuse, inspire, give vision, provide guidance, exhort, predict events, provide knowledge and understanding, reveal truth, change lives, console, encourage, heal physically, heal psychologically, heal spiritually, and exorcise demonic powers. Access to the agency of the Holy Spirit is not direct, but depends on the willingness of persons, as believers in Christ, to give themselves over to the inward control of the Holy Spirit, becoming channels or mediators of its power on behalf of the ongoing purposes of Christ in the world. This experience is known among Pentecostals and Charismatics as "Baptism in the Holy Spirit." It is typically, but not always, manifested through "speaking in tongues" or glossolalia. The latter manifestation is said to be the Holy Spirit speaking through one's own voice in a language beyond one's direct comprehension.

    Pentecostal worship especially, but also informal worship of Charismatic Christians that takes place outside of any non-Charismatic worship in which they may be involved, is typically a dynamic, highly expressive, (predictably) unpredictable, body-involving event, characterized by spontaneous release of joy and of personal suffering faced, purged, and surmounted. Though an evangelical "invitation" to accept Christ as Lord and Savior may occur in the midst of Pentecostal worship, the focus is more often on what is taken to be some supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It may be speaking in tongues, prophecy, a "word of wisdom," or healing prayer. Music, both vocal and instrumental, is an important contributor to the whole, as are rhythmic movement and dynamic, audience-involving preaching.

    It is worthwhile noting that Afro-American Christians have had a significantly influential effect upon the emergence and development of Pentecostalism in America and on the style of its music and worship. From its emergence among black slaves, with their roots in aboriginal African culture and religion, AfroAmerican Christianity has always been more expressive, more dynamic, and more spontaneous in its worship than mainstream white American religion. Many features of Pentecostal worship can be directly traced to antecedents in Afro-American Christianity.

    Outside the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, the occasional recurrence of visionary phenomena within Roman Catholic popular piety (e.g., visions of the Virgin Mary) and attendant alleged miracles are clear evidence of the way of shamanic mediation in that tradition.

    Before leaving shamanic mediation, mention should be made of various spiritualist groups that have been on the fringes of American Christianity, when not actively excluded, from early times. They became especially strong in a number of nineteenth-century religious movements, which resulted in the founding of the American Spiritualist Church and, in a considerably attenuated form (in fusion with the way of reasoned inquiry), in the Christian Science Church.

    The way of mystical quest has not generally been encouraged in American Christianity until recently, even in the historic traditions that have been known to encourage it in other cultural contexts-namely, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism. This may have something to do with the pragmatic disposition of Americans to prefer doing over being and activity over contemplation. Nevertheless, the way of mystical quest has had a continuing place in American Christianity, though a relatively small and somewhat hidden one, awong Roman Catholic contemplative monastic communities and in small numbers of lay contemplatives in the Episcopal and Quaker traditions, among others. Recently, however, the picture has changed considerably, along with the flood of interest in Oriental and alternative spiritualities that took hold in the 1960s and the "rediscovery" of long-standing traditions of mystical quest in Christianity by Christians who had never realized that such a thing existed. One result has been a phenomenal growth in a market for publications on contemplative spirituality, both Eastern and Western, a blossoming of interest in spiritual direction and retreat experiences at contemplative centers, and something of a (re)birth of interest in contemplative monasticism: Roman Catholic (e.g., Cistercian or Trappist, Carthusian, Carmelite, Contemplative Benedictine), Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and some interdenominational Protestant attempts).

    What is involved in pursuit of the way of mystical quest in a Christian contemplative tradition such as Trappist monasticism (which, despite the recent growth of interest, has been going on in this form for a very long time)? First, it involves living in a quiet place apart from the distractions and interferences of conventional life. In important respects it represents a renunciation of conventional life. It is to live a life stripped down to its bare essentials in order to grapple in a deliberate and focused way with the obstacles within oneself to at-onement with God in Christ. Trappist monks voluntarily take upon themselves a set of spiritual disciplines in common and, in addition, certain disciplines specific to themselves in their own spiritual quest. Among the common disciplines are commitment to live apart, in charity with others, in a single place, under obedience to the community and its abbot, as together the community seeks to discern and follow the will of God, to labor manually each day in support of the community, to participate each day in the cycle of corporate monastic prayer, to maintain an atmosphere of recollection and silence, to restrain one's appetites, and in all to seek a progressively fuller and more complete conversion of one's life, in all of its aspects, to God. Individual disciplines vary, but generally they include some form of meditative prayer: a solitary, quiet centering and a deepened attentiveness to God in scripture, in liturgy and sacrament, in nature, in one's fellow monks, and in oneself. The idea is to break through the illusions, distortions, and distractions of ordinary conscious experience in order to become directly aware of God and of all things in God and become wholly grounded in him and responsive to him. It is a form of religious life unfamiliar, it seems, to most American Christians, yet one of increasing attraction for many.

    American Christian expressions of the way of reasoned inquiry are many and varied, ranging from individual study of the Bible to the composition of systematic expositions of Christian belief by seminary theologians. Because Protestants generally emphasize scriptural literacy and have done so since the Protestant Reformation, encouragement of individual study of scripture is a part of virtually all Protestant traditions. Roman Catholicism has given a central, strong emphasis to theological study in all of its educational institutions in America. Moreover, it has consistently required extensive theological study by all of its priests and bishops. However, Roman Catholicism has not emphasized the individual study of scripture as much as Protestants have, but it is not uncommon nowadays to find Roman Catholic lay persons who seriously study scripture to build up their knowledge and understanding of the Christian revelation-though usually this is done with the guidance of their church's traditional interpretation.

    Although much of scriptural study among Christians is simply to learn what scripture says and to comprehend the content of Christian revelation, the prime motive of scriptural and theological study is to make sense of the world, of the times through which one is living, of puzzling aspects of one's own experience, and of choices one is facing in light of the revelation of God as disclosed in scripture (and mediated by tradition). The aim is to attain clear understanding of something initially not understood through the illumination of "God's ultimate truth," as that discloses itself through diligent examination of scripture and tradition. Among professional theologians, such inquiry is less focused on individual puzzlements than that of lay persons; is more systematically concerned to take into account the interpretations and arguments of other theologians, present and past; and on the whole is more rigorously and comprehensively thought through in every detail. Nevertheless, it remains essentially the same sort of enterprise as that of a lay person's serious study of scripture.

    For example, a theologian of my acquaintance in a midwestern Methodist seminary recently completed and published a profound, critical study of modern economic theory in light of an understanding of economy implicit in the Bible. 2 Its primary motivation lay in wrestling with the crises of human livelihood in today's global economy and discovering something that hardly anyone had realized before-namely, that the ultimate, theoretical assumptions that govern contemporary economic decision making call for serious examination and challenge in the light of the Christian revelation. Another, very different example is the work of feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who is seeking a renewed understanding of Christian revelation as found in scripture that is free of traditional, male-dominated patterns of thought, and therewith a more theologically grounded basis for assessing contemporary gender bias. 3

    The work of professional theologians like these two typically takes place in church seminaries and church-related colleges and universities. Traditions of rigorous theological reflection are particularly associated with Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Roman Catholic academic institutions, and currently with such interdenominational seminaries as Union Theological Seminary in New York, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, the University of Chicago Divinity School, Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

    Thus, we have six patterns of religious life, each exemplified by more than one American Christian tradition that gives it special emphasis and priority. However, do not suppose that any of these Christian traditions are primarily identified with a single way of being religious. Hardly any exclusively focus on a single way. And even when they seem to do so, individual members of such traditions can often be found whose religious life involves aspects of other ways. The so-called sacramental Christian traditions, for example, do not exclusively identify with sacred rite. While sacred rite is central for them, other ways are often evident in the lives of individual participants and sometimes in congregational activities as well.

    Thus, some members of a larger Episcopalian congregation will be involved in the Charismatic Movement, an interdenominational Christian movement that believes in, and actively solicits, the supernatural intervention of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians, exemplifying the way of shamanic mediation. Overlapping with the Charismatic group, but not identical to it, are a number of congregants whose personal devotion to Jesus is for them as vital as participation in Sunday Eucharist, exemplifying the way of devotion. For these Evangelical Episcopalians, Jesus is a living spiritual presence at the center of their lives that they deliberately cultivate through personal prayer, devotional reading of scripture, informal gatherings with other like-minded Christians for singing, sharing, and prayer, and evangelical efforts to introduce others to their divine Friend. A scattering of others in the congregation spend several weekend retreats a year at a nearby (Roman Catholic) Trappist Monastery open to non-Roman Catholic retreatants. There, guided by a spiritual director, they practice a discipline of "Centering Prayer," a Christian instance of the way of mystical quest. The assistant priest, presiding at the worship service, has a Ph.D. in philosophical theology, participates regularly in professional conferences such as those of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and teaches extension courses in theology for a regional Episcopal seminary. On the intellectual side of his Christian life at least, he pursues a Christian variety of the way of reasoned inquiry, fitting together into a coherent whole the sometimes conflicting conclusions of modern thought, contemporary science, and traditional Christian faith. Still another group within the Church are members of the Episcopal Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization that works actively on behalf of peace movements around the world. Many members of this group, oriented strongly in the way of right action to make a difference in the world on behalf of Christian values, are also involved in activities such as Habitat for Humanity (building affordable housing for low-income families), a soup kitchen for the homeless, and political lobbying for minority rights. In addition to Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox occasionally practice these other five ways of being religious as well, although not necessarily in the same manner as here expressed.

    Protestant denominations other than Lutherans and Episcopalians do not encompass as many of the different ways of being religious. With some important exceptions, already mentioned, what one finds in these denominations is the way of devotion pursued almost exclusively or in some combination or fusion with one or two of the other ways (or aspects of them)-mainly reasoned inquiry and right action-but rarely more than two. The fact that Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal traditions generally acknowledge and give some place to all six ways of being religious (though not all in the same respects) seems to be an important aspect of the meaning of the name "catholic" with which they take special interest in identifying themselves. The root meaning of "catholic" is usually given as "universal," "comprehensive" or "inclusive of all parts." But here it would seem to connote wholeness, completion, and perhaps balance, too. In those Protestant churches where there is not the same readiness to affirm all of the ways, there is a corresponding reticence to identify with being "catholic," even though most claim to identify with "the universal Church." (Largely, of course, they shun use of the term in order to distinguish and distance themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.) The point is that at least some Christian traditions consciously embrace all six ways.

    From this quick survey, we see that all six ways of being religious can be found in various forms with different relative emphases within American Christianity. By extrapolation, one can easily imagine how they can be found in Christian communities in other parts of the world. This feature is not unique to Christianity, for the same is largely true for the other great religious traditions of the world.


    This page titled 4.1: Ways of Being Religious in American Christianity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.