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What Does a Lutheran and an Atheist Have in Common?

Here's an article about me from my friend Chris Highland in the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times - 04/13/2019

A Progressive Lutheran Minister’s Season of Questions

While one season opens the door to invite the next to come out, the cycle of the year moves us along at a steady pace. For many of us, the open door invites us out into the creative colors and wild wonders of nature. Spring is itself a pilgrimage. For others, the season is primarily inward, a personal journey into self-reflection, an inward invitation to a pilgrimage of faith. Whether our steps take us deeper inside ourselves or free us to enter a wider world is our choice. And there’s no reason we can’t do both.

A retired Lutheran minister wrote to me after reading my latest book (a collection of “Highland Views” columns). Her comments are an open invitation for Christians or all people of faith to consider serious questions. Secular folks will find much to engage as well.

The Rev. Susan Strouse, author of “The INTRAfaith Conversation,” was the pastor of a Lutheran church in San Francisco for many years. I gave the sermon there one Sunday, enjoying a good exchange with her congregants afterward. In the last few years our paths have crossed through social media.

Susan’s response began in the context of the season leading up to Easter: “For Christians, it is the season of Lent, a time of introspection and soul-searching. How appropriate that I have just finished (reading your book) … each of these columns is worthy of contemplation.”

Susan goes on to explain how she “came to a point of knowing that I no longer accepted a lot of the tradition in which I had been raised, educated and ordained. Unlike you, I stayed in the Church – although it has always been a love/hate relationship.”

Susan continues to step deeper into her honesty: “I find myself chafing against the traditional Christianity I thought I’d put behind me.” The “exclusive language” of the scriptures, liturgy, prayers and creeds makes her “wonder if I should just quit.” Her struggle is apparent when she takes this inner tension a step further: “Truth be told, I don’t believe a lot of the same things you no longer believe. The only difference really is that confronted with questions about traditional Christianity, you took a path into freethinking and I went toward a form of progressive Christianity.”

What intrigues me here and begs more probing is what Susan means by choosing “a form of progressive Christianity.” She offers more hints as she continues her story. She pursued a doctorate in interfaith theology and in the process she discovered that “accepting the beliefs of another as valid was the first step in pulling down the whole house of cards that was my ‘received’ belief system.” Susan served on the board of the Interfaith Center of the Presidio where she built relationships (key concept) with a diverse circle of theists and non-theists.

What seemed to soothe her “allergic” reaction to church was a call to “a progressive congregation willing to wander off the orthodox ranch.” With the encouragement of her community she began “to reconstruct my belief system.” But not so much a system as a living “organism.” In the evolution of her faith, she became convinced that Christians need “to undertake a serious look at the Jesus question in light of our conversations with people of other faiths and of no faith.”

I take that to be a sensible statement and stance. That “serious look at the Jesus question” was an important part of my own exodus from faith. The story of Jesus can be told in a variety of ways. I think it’s the season to hear those stories told afresh, even by freethinkers.

Susan has a certain dread of Holy Week. “There aren’t many churches that satisfy my mystical or panentheistic way of understanding what that was all about.” She contemplates staying away, not attending services this year. She imagines she may “go to the ocean.” “I am totally on board with your love of the natural world.”

Speaking of oceans – and oceans of ideas – I’m curious what Susan’s “panentheism” looks like. As my handy dictionary defines it, panentheism is a theological word for the belief that “God is greater than the universe and includes and interpenetrates it.” Perhaps this is the “form of progressive Christianity” Susan espouses, yet leads to some confusion, as she admits, when she states “I do not believe in a supernatural God.” Can a person be a theist without a God? Is our language inadequate here?

Susan Strouse concluded her letter to me by affirming the importance of “books, conversations, encounters, relationships [to] help us understand the viewpoints and beliefs of others.” In her perspective, this causes us to “explore and clarify – and maybe even change – our own [beliefs].”

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