Universalism

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Big theology news: Pope Francis agrees that various world religions were 'willed' by God

Believe it or not, the language of theology can make news, every now and then. This is especially true when the person speaking the words is the occupant of the Chair of St. Peter.

However, this goes against one of the great unwritten laws of journalism, which appears to state something like this: Whenever the pope speaks, even in a sermon, the most important words are always those that can be interpreted as commentary on events or trends in contemporary politics. This is consistent with this journalism doctrine: Politics is the ultimate reality. Religion? Not so much.

For a perfect example of this law, please see this story in The New York Times: “Pope Francis Breaks Some Taboos on Visit to Persian Gulf.”

The taboos that make it into the lede are, of course, political and, frankly, they are important. This is a case in which Times editors really needed to insist on a difficult and rare maneuver — a lede that lets readers know that the story contains TWO very important developments.

The political angle raised eyebrows among diplomats. But there was also a theological statement linked to this story that will trouble many traditional Christians, as well as Muslims. Then again, Universalists in various traditions may have every reason to cheer. Hold that thought. Here is the political overture.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis used the keynote address of his roughly 40-hour stay in the United Arab Emirates to breach delicate taboos on Monday, specifically mentioning Yemen, where his hosts are engaged in a brutal war, and calling on countries throughout the Gulf region to extend citizenship rights to religious minorities.

The remarks by Francis were exceptionally candid for a pope who as a general rule does not criticize the country that hosts him and avoids drawing undue attention to the issues that its rulers would rather not discuss. …

But on Monday, during the first visit by a pope to the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam was born, Francis was blunt in a speech before hundreds of leaders from a broad array of faiths on a day used to underscore the need for humanity to stop committing violence in the name of religion.

“Human fraternity requires of us, as representatives of the world’s religions, the duty to reject every nuance of approval from the word ‘war,’” Francis said at the towering Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi.

“Let us return it to its miserable crudeness,” he added. “Its fateful consequences are before our eyes. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Yes, the reference to Yemen was big news. Yes, that had to be in the lede.

So what was the theological news?

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Was it anti-Semitism to invite a Messianic pastor to pray at a GOP rally, after Pittsburgh?

Was it anti-Semitism to invite a Messianic pastor to pray at a GOP rally, after Pittsburgh?

No doubt about it, inviting a pastor from a Messianic Jewish congregation to pray at a GOP campaign event is going to be controversial — under any circumstances.

Extending that invitation in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was an even riskier political move, one that raises all kinds of questions about the Republican leaders who organized a Michigan campaign stop for Vice President Mike Pence.

However, the first wave of coverage and partisan commentary has left me rather confused about some crucial facts in this story.

Let’s start with key sections of the basic Associated Press report — as it appeared online at The New York Times. For starters, I would have used a neutral term in this lede, such as “pastor” or “clergyman.”

WASHINGTON — A rabbi invited to pray at a Michigan campaign stop with Vice President Mike Pence on Monday referenced "Jesus the Messiah" at the event.

Rabbi Loren Jacobs of Messianic congregation Shema Yisrael offered prayers for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Messianic Jews follow Jewish law but believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

The major denominations of Judaism reject Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism, and Jacobs' participation was condemned by Jews on social media.

A Pence aide told The Associated Press that Jacobs was invited to pray at the event in suburban Detroit's Waterford Township by GOP congressional candidate Lena Epstein and said Pence did not know who he was when he invited Jacobs back onstage to offer another a prayer for the victims, their families and the nation. As Pence stood next to him, Jacobs ended his prayer by saying, "in the name of Jesus."

"He was not invited by the VP's office to speak on behalf of the Jewish community," the aide said.

OK, let me offer some initial questions and comments.

First, I think that it’s crucial to know who invited Jacobs to offer this prayer. Several news reports have assumed, or implied, that Pence offered this invitation — as opposed to being the headliner who arrived at the last minute after locals had made all the arrangements.

At the same time, it’s crucial to know when Jacobs was invited. Was his appearance set up before or after the Pittsburgh massacre?

Rally organizers were in trouble, either way, of course.

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Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

JOEL’S QUESTION:

[Explanation:] The pastor of a New Jersey Protestant congregation sent in several “questions that have come up here.” One of them is how to understand the passage in the New Testament letter of 1st Peter about Jesus Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Bible’s major teachings are clear enough. But Joel and his parishioners shouldn’t be embarrassed if they’re confused about this particular New Testament head-scratcher. Even Martin Luther (who so energized Bible study 500 years ago by sparking the Protestant Reformation) said it’s “certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do now know for sure what the apostle means.” Robert Mounce, president of Whitworth University, agreed that this section is “widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in the New Testament.”

Here’s the text at issue: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah . .  .” (1 Peter 3:18-20a, RSV translation).

The following analysis relies especially on commentaries by Mounce, an American, the German exegete Leonhard Goppelt, and England’s J.N.D. Kelly. Scholars candidly admit that each explanation has problems. Among them:

(1) Between his death by crucifixion and bodily resurrection, Christ visited the realm of the dead and preached to Noah’s wicked contemporaries. That was the view of early church “Fathers,” notably Clement of Alexandria.

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Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Bracing for the next news story: Was Bernie Sanders actually pushing 'secular humanism'?

Does anyone remember the days, a decade or two ago, when the official boogeyman of religious conservatism was a cultural tsunami called "secular humanism"?

I sure do. That nasty label was being pinned on people all over the place.

The only problem was, when I went out to do my religion-beat reporting work, I never seemed to run into many people whose personal beliefs actually fit under the dictionary definition of "secular," which looks something like this:

secular (adjective)
1. of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred ): secular music.

I hardly ever met culture warriors who didn't have religious beliefs of some kind. Oh, there were some atheists and agnostics in these dramas. But what what I kept running into were packs of evolving, progressive, liberal religious believers who rejected the beliefs of traditional religious believers, almost always on issues linked to sexuality and salvation.

Yes, there were also some "spiritual but not religious" folks, but when you talked to them you discovered that they would be perfectly happy in a Unitarian folding chair or an Episcopal pew -- if they wanted to get out of bed on Sunday mornings. And if you probe those Pew Research Center "Nones" numbers, you'll discover that most religiously unaffiliated people are rather spiritual, on their own "Sheilaism" terms. You can toss the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism trend in there, too.

Variations on all of these themes popped up this week when Todd Wilken and recorded the new "Crossroads"podcast (click here to tune that in). We discussed my new "On Religion" column about the recent U.S. Senate hearing showdown between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought, the White House nominee to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

How do you write a logical, coherent news report about a survey that offers evidence that Americans are not the most consistent pack of people in the world when it comes to matters of absolute truth and eternal life?

That's the challenge facing journalists writing about a new LifeWay Research survey probing the current status of several ancient Christian doctrines in postmodern America.

Based on two early reports, it appears that the crucial question is whether the survey is newsworthy because it shows that lots of Americans are out of step when it comes to holding on to core beliefs in traditional Christianity or because it shows that evangelical Protestants are out of step with ordinary Americans.

First, here is the top of a Religion News Service piece -- "On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map" -- on this subject. Spot the approach.

(RNS) Two-thirds of Americans believe God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The exception: Americans with evangelical Christian beliefs, according to LifeWay Research’s 2016 State of American Theology Study. Only 48 percent of evangelicals share the belief God accepts all worship.

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That New York Times headline about Catholics witnessing to Jews? Look again ...

That New York Times headline about Catholics witnessing to Jews? Look again ...

Trust me, I know that it is hard to write accurate, easy-to-read articles about complicated Vatican theological documents. This is especially true when dealing with materials focusing on very nuanced issues that continue to cause behind-the-scenes debates among Catholics.

It's even harder to write informative, catchy and, yes, accurate headlines for these kinds of stories.

This brings me to a recent New York Times report that ran with this headline: "Vatican Says Catholics Should Not Try to Convert Jews."

The problem with that headline is that it is simplistic to the point of being inaccurate -- that is, if the goal is for readers to understand the document ("The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable") addressed in this story.

Now here is the ironic part. You can tell that the headline is inaccurate by carefully reading the actual Times story, which means reading past the flawed lede on which the headline is based. Let us attend.

ROME -- Catholics should not try to convert Jews, but should work together with them to fight anti-Semitism, the Vatican said on Thursday in a far-reaching document meant to solidify its increasingly positive relations with Jews.

Then, in the third paragraph, there is this:

Addressing an issue that has been a sore point between the two faiths for centuries, the commission wrote that the church was “obliged to view evangelization to Jews, who believe in the one God, in a different manner from that to people of other religions and world views.” It specified that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

Did you catch the subtle, but very important, difference between the lede and the actual quote from the document? 

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Do all liberal Protestants in Germany think Christians are wrong to convert Muslims?

Do all liberal Protestants in Germany think Christians are wrong to convert Muslims?

There are times when I am tempted to believe that many journalists are so convinced that the religious left is right that they don't even pause to listen to what folks on the doctrinal left are actually saying.

This media cheerleader stance is -- gasp! -- not always in the interests of folks in the world of progressive religion, who are -- gasp again! -- not always of the same mind when it comes to some controversial, and rather basic, issues. Some of these doctrinal differences are rather subtle and it helps to actually be paying attention when they talk.

Consider this basic question: Does everyone on the religious left oppose evangelism?

After all, the New Testament and centuries of church doctrine insist that Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Does that mean that those who reject Christianity are, to be blunt, not going to heaven? Or, are there doctrinal liberals who are "Universalists" when it comes to salvation, but others who merely oppose what they believe are unethical and shallow forms of proselytism?

Now, what happens when you take complicated issues of this kind and stick them right in the tense and maybe even violent territory at the heart of one of the biggest news stories in the world? I am talking about the flood of immigrants -- about a million seeking asylum in Germany alone -- reaching Europe after fleeing the bloody hellstorm in Syria and Iraq. Here is what that looks like at the top of of an important story from Religion News Service:

(RNS) One of Germany’s largest Protestant regional churches has come under fire from other Christians for speaking out against efforts to convert Muslims just as tens of thousands of refugees from the Islamic world are streaming into the country.
In a new position paper, the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland says the passage in the Gospel of Matthew known as the Great Commission -- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” -- does not mean Christians must try to convert others to their faith.

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Dear Washington Post editors: Why was National Cathedral security so tight during Muslim prayers?

Dear Washington Post editors: Why was National Cathedral security so tight during Muslim prayers?

Over the past few days, I have had quite a few people ask me what I thought of the first-ever Muslim prayer service held inside the vault of the Washington National Cathedral. Would GetReligion be "covering" that? 

My response, of course, was whether they were asking for my personal take on this event, as an Orthodox Christian, or for my take on the media coverage of the event, which is what GetReligion is all about? Most meant the former, which isn't all that relevant to what we do here on this blog. Thus, let me offer a thought or two about the Washington Post coverage of the event, which ran under this headline: "Washington Cathedral’s first Muslim prayer service interrupted by heckler."

Your GetReligionistas rarely critique reporters by name, since we think editors also play crucial roles in the final product that ends up in print or on the air. However, in this case I'd like to note that it was interesting, and I think wise, that the Post editors assigned veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable to this story. She has years of experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan and is also known as the author of the book, "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia."

The information that made it into the story was solid, although at several points I wanted to know more -- such as the actual doctrinal content of the sermon scholar Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s U.S. ambassador. In each case, I found myself wondering if these vague spots were the result of editing or the values of editors in the newsroom.

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Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

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