4 steps for talking about Jesus at the bar (or coffeehouse, or anywhere else)

4 steps for talking about Jesus at the bar (or coffeehouse, or anywhere else)

This post originally appeared in Toast Weekly, a newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC.

If you’re like me, you’ve been told once or twice that being a good Christian includes occasionally telling other people about Jesus.

Your reaction might go something like: “Ewww. Yuck. I’m not that interested in evangelism, or selling something, or anything like that.”

But there is another part of you which senses that if more people knew the Jesus who was a radical for peace, forgiveness, love, and justice—the world would be a better place. So how does one go about doing this, without feeling like an unwanted door-to-door salesperson or an awkward friend? Continue Reading..

Pub Theologian’s Best of 2013

Pints were raised. Theology happened. Another year has come and gone.
Pints were raised. Conversations happened. A good year comes to a close.

To new and old readers of this blog, to those who I’ve been able to lift a pint with, and to those gathering everywhere to enjoy a good brew and engage in thoughtful discussion, here’s to 2013! It was a good year! Cheers.

YEAR-END GIVEAWAY – I’m giving away a signed copy of Pub Theology along with a $25 gift certificate to your favorite brewery. Entry details below. (Winner, drawn on Jan 4 2014 is: DIANE McGRATH from Abington, PA! She entered via Facebook. Results via


Pub Theology Official Directory: A listing of all Pub Theology and Theology on Tap style gatherings in the United States. There are over 130 groups listed here and more are being added every week. Know of a group that’s not listed? Post it in the comments below! It’s really great to hear from folks all over the country who are being intentional about cultivating an ongoing conversation in their community about matters of life, philosophy, and faith.


HuffpostRPMA Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walk Into a Bar – at both Philly Beer Week and DC Beer Week, I was privileged to join Rabbi Eli Freedman and Father Kirk Berlenbach for conversational sessions in which each of us discussed the role of craft beer in our faith communities. Both events drew packed houses and generated considerable buzz as unusual offerings on the usual slate of beer week events. Look for us at a beer week near you in 2014!


You’ll see a few saisons on the list this year as my palate expanded to enjoy more farmhouse and Belgian style beers.

10) Monkey King Saison (New Holland Brewing) – A soft, medium body saison with subtle pepper character and fruity undertones.

9) El Hefe Speaks! (DC Brau) – a traditionally brewed German-style Hefe. It is fermented around 65°F and hopped with German Tettnang hops. 11 IBUs and 5.3% ABV make this one extremely drinkable. One of three local DC beers to make my top ten.

8) ESA (Yards) – East Kent Golding hops give this English style ale a subtle spiciness, which compliments its strong malt backbone. Hints of chocolate and caramel round out this deep chestnut colored ale. Floral, earthy, smooth. A cask-conditioned wonder that is a staple of Yards in Philadelphia. I enjoyed this one at a small bar served via the hand-pull from the cask. Smooth and delightful.

7) Peppercorn Saison (3 Star Brewing) – Belgian style farmhouse ale. Slightly sweet fruity nose, hints of grass and coriander, smooth underlying bitterness, clean dry finish, smooth lingering citrus notes. A local DC offering.

6) La Saison Des Fêtes (Atlas Brew Works) – A warming winter Belgian ale straight from the farmhouse to your fireside. The third saison to make the list, and the third DC brewed offering from one of the District’s newest breweries.

5) Stone Ruination IPA (Stone Brewing) – an extra-large helping of malt, and a lot more hops. And then some more. And then even more, resulting in a vibrant blast of citrusy bitterness that hits you on the first sip. Just one taste and you’ll know why it says on the bottle: “A liquid poem to the glory of the hop!”

4) Boxcarr Pumpkin Porter (Starr Hill) – a traditional English-style Brown Porter with pumpkin added to the mash. Light spicing allows the subtle flavors of pumpkin and roasty porter to shine through. Boxcarr is a session beer at 4.7% and very drinkable. This was my go-to beer this fall.

3) Three Philosophers (Ommegang) – A beer made for contemplation. Aroma a sweet and heady mixture of rich toffee, floral tobacco, vanilla bourbon, and brown spices. Very sweet smell but there’s a little bitter grain to provide balance. Palate is all rich sweet malts, dark fruits, and spice, minimal toast or roast. Milk chocolate, dates, nutmeg and clove, vanilla cream, a little banana, and licorice toffee with a semi-chewy, buttery mouthfeel. A small amount of ale brewed with Belgian kriek cherries imparts a subtle red fruit acidity from start to finish. Low to moderate carbonation. A very nice Belgian-style quad with a lot of complexity and character. And much gratitude to Ommegang for sponsoring our DC Beer Week event!

2)  Parabola Russian Imperial Stout (Firestone Walker) – Bold bourbon, tobacco and espresso aromas and a hint of American oak greet the nose. Rich, chewy roasted malts, charred oak and bourbon-like vanilla fill the palate and create a seamless finish. A remarkably complex brew that—according to the brewers—offers a transcendental drinking experience. I enjoyed this at Smoke & Barrel tap takeover during DC Beer Week.

1)  Indian Brown Ale (Dogfishhead) – A cross between a Scotch Ale, an India Pale Ale and an American Brown, Indian Brown Ale is well-hopped and malty at the same time (It’s magical!). This made my top ten last year, and this year moves up to no.1! A beer worthy of any top listing.



10) Tomorrow’s Theology. Today’s Task. – My response to a controversial article in The Banner.

9) “No, Donny, these men are nihilists.” – This 2011 post on the roots of rapturous nihilism continues to be popular. The end of the world viewed through the lens of The Big Lebowski.

8) Apology NOT Accepted – A Lutheran pastor is forced to apologize for praying at an interfaith prayer service. I refused the apology.

7) Jesus in the Desert: A Midrash? – Jesus encounters Satan in the desert. History, parable, or midrash?

6) God Doesn’t Need Our Help, But He Asks For It – James K.A. Smith says there is a “new apologetics” afoot in Christianity to make the faith more palatable in an age of intellectualism and postmodernity. He’s wrong.

5) Why Conservative Churches Attract Young People… Or Not – You get the idea.

4) Religion May Not Survive the Internet, Then Again… It Might – Some are saying religion is going to be vaporized by this thing called the ‘internet’. I say not so fast.

3) Noah and the Violence of God – Debate: who is more violent – God or Russell Crowe? [Trailer included]

2) A New Convergence – There are  shifts happening within broader Christianity… whether one likes it or not. This 2012 article is the most popular post ever at

1) Show Up or Else: the So-Called Scandal of the Semi-Churched – A controversial post (from just a couple weeks ago!) where I take a pastor to task for chastising his congregation (and every Christian) for inadequate church attendance.


1) Practicing Theology Without a Net: Theology Pubs, Spiritual Direction, and Letting Go – This fantastic article by Keith Anderson was featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed. A great read.

2) 10 Things You Can’t Do at Christmas While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin’s piece got a lot of attention this Christmas. Deservedly so.


5) Walden Two (B.F. Skinner) – This fictional outline of a modern Utopia has been a centre of controversy ever since its publication in 1948. An interesting read if you’re interested in sociology, community, and attempts at ‘getting it right’.

4) Schrödinger’s Gat (Robert Kroese) – A quantum physics thriller. If you like having your mind bent by science and philosophy (who doesn’t?) while reading an engaging story, read this book! ($2.99 for Kindle)

3) To An Unknown God (John Steinbeck) – A mystical tale, exploring one man’s attempt to control the forces of nature and to understand the ways of God. Steinbeck once again captivates.

2) A Being Darkly Wise (John Atchison) – Every once in a while you find a book that knocks your socks off. “A Being Darkly Wise” is such a book. A group of Washington bureaucrats go on a wilderness training led by a mysterious, charismatic activist/scientist. As the story progresses they begin to realize how estranged they have become from the earth we inhabit. ($3.99 for Kindle)

1) 11/22/63 (Stephen King) –  My favorite read this year, and timely with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If you could go back in time, would you change anything? Captivating read, and really great story-telling. I couldn’t put it down.


Thanks for reading, everyone! Don’t forget to enter the year-end giveaway!

Here’s how to enter:
1) Share this post on social media (FB, Twitter, Google+).
2) Like my author page or invite your friends to like my author page.
3) Like this post with your WordPress account.
4) Share your favorite beer or favorite book (or both!) from the past year in the comments below.
5) Follow me and/or Pub Theology on Twitter: @bryberg and @pubtheology


You can enter multiple times by doing each of the above. Must enter by 1/1/2014. Drawing on Jan 2. Good luck!

Congratulations to

Diane McGrath
Winner, Year-End Contest 2013!

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

Pub Theology Is (not) a Waste of Time

This post originally appeared in HuffPost Religion as “Pub Theology Is a Waste of Time”.

You’ve read, perhaps, about churches making use of beer to gain traction in connecting with people. NPR put it more starkly in a story recently: “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer.” But you’re skeptical. And I don’t blame you. It sounds like a gimmick. Trying to be trendy. Throwing a few jokes into a stale sermon to appear witty, humorous, relevant. Young. People increasingly like beer. People increasingly don’t like church. So it makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t blame churches for trying.

pubtheology waste of time_FI have my own experience connecting beer and faith. I help facilitate pub theology gatherings every week. Pub theology is simply open conversation over a pint. You’re still skeptical. “So, you go the pub to drink beer,” you might say. “Great. Some of us are actually spending time doing things that matter. Helping the poor, working on housing and jobs, advocating for justice, mentoring people and more. Going to the pub to talk about faith seems like it increases what we don’t need any more of: talk. Why do we need more talk? More hot air does not make the world a better place.” You might conclude: “Pub theology is a waste of time.”

–Related: Bar theology: Burgers, beer, and a side of spirituality in D.C. (Washington Post)–

I’ve heard some criticism along these lines, and I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Pub theology — gathering with folks to talk about life over beer — is nice. But isn’t it time to start doing some things that really matter? Isn’t it just dressing up a relic without really changing anything?

I wonder, though, if there isn’t a small flaw or two in this line of questioning: it assumes that pub theology is the only thing one is doing. Or that one is doing it as a gimmick to attract new church members. Neither of those things is true. Pub theology is not the newest trendy outreach effort. It is open, honest conversation, wherever that leads. It may lead someone to your church. It may also lead someone out of it. Now if you’re a regular reader of mine or follow me on social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pub theology is all I do. If it was, I think I’d be in heaven already. But that’s for another discussion!

So I hear these legitimate questions and critiques and occasionally wonder to myself: maybe pub theology isn’t so worthwhile. Maybe I need to find something else to do on Tuesday nights.

And then we have an evening in which a Buddhist sits across from an atheist, and a liberal Lutheran sits across from a conservative evangelical. A member of a Unity church pulls up a chair. And the discussion is rich, full, and meaningful. We talk about issues of justice, evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God is culpable for the bad things that happen in the world. Some share stories of hope and powerful religious experience, while others talk about why the church is no longer the place for them, and still others say they’ve abandoned God years ago.

Is all that is happening here just “talk”? When we can sit and learn from someone who gave up his Catholic faith in college and has subsequently been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years, something is happening. When an atheist who gave up his religious views because of deep philosophical considerations, yet is interested in issues of meaning and life enough to join us and contribute — something is happening. When a person who hasn’t stepped into a church for years, but still considers herself spiritual pulls up a chair to listen: something is happening. When ten of us from very different perspectives can wrestle together about questions like — “Can violence make the world a better place?” or “Is the weight of history unbearable without the idea of God?” or “Is privacy a God-given right?” — something is happening. When we build relationships with a bartender, a server, a pub owner, something is happening. When a beer distributor attends an interfaith event during DC Beer Week and says, “Man, this is so refreshing compared to other beer events I go to,” something is happening. When someone says, “I just don’t go to church anymore because it doesn’t mean much, but I come here because it is participatory, thoughtful and open” — something is happening.

And so as I reflect on the ongoing place of gatherings like pub theology and similar events, I liken it more and more to a spiritual discipline or practice. In other words, it is something that I intentionally participate in because it shapes me in important ways (again, it is not a gimmick to attract new members — though some might seem to use that approach). And like any other discipline or practice, it isn’t everything. So it isn’t fair to compare it to something that it isn’t, and that it isn’t trying to be. It isn’t those things, and it doesn’t need to be. It is one thing, among many things that a person might be involved in. And like a practice of, say, contemplative prayer — which incorporates deep moments of silence, one might say of it: “Nothing is happening. You should be doing something.”

Yet when I engage in contemplative practice, though it appears nothing is happening, much is happening: deep wells are being opened up within me. Space is created which heightens my awareness, deepens my senses, gives me more patience and love in which to encounter the very real challenges that life contains. My connection to the Spirit of God is renewed. It is far from nothing. In silence, I find that much is happening. And as a discipline, when I participate in it regularly and intentionally, it adds to the other things I am doing, which includes engaging in “action” and more visibly constructive types of things like building relationships in my neighborhood, being an activist for issues like peace instead of war, dismantling mass incarceration and recidivism, tuning in to environmental /climate realities and how I might be a participant in and advocate for the natural world, creating a community of people seeking to engage their world while deepening a connection to Jesus and more.

And so pub theology, like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, is a discipline. One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking.

It is also, in a way, like preventive medicine. When I know someone as a person, I am less likely to judge them harshly based on preconceived stereotypes. If I know a peace-loving evangelical or Muslim, I am less likely to judge all evangelicals or Muslims as endorsers of violence. If I meet a deeply thoughtful, liberal Christian, I realize that they aren’t just about feelings or dismissing orthodoxy, but are about careful, deep reading of Scripture and tradition. If I meet an atheist, I may well realize through her caring presence that atheists are just as thoughtful and intentional as anyone else. If all I have are stereotypes, I’m likely to help perpetuate them.

So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up. It is a practice that I value deeply, and — in many different ways, under many different titles — it is happening all over, and needs to be happening, and I’m glad to be a small part of it.

bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.  Bryan currently facilitates weekly conversations at a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Pub Theology Live-Tweet


TONIGHT at our regular Pub Theology DC gathering, we’ll be LIVE TWEETING – you can join us in person, at the Bier Baron at 1523 22nd St NW – just a few blocks west of the Dupont Circle Metro stop, or you can jump in on the conversation via Twitter using #pubtheology. Be sure to follow me (@bryberg) and (@pubtheology). Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:

  1. If you could name the street you live on what would you call it?

  1. If you received an extra burrito when ordering at your local shop would you say something?

  1. True or false: We should be wary of any efforts to improve human nature.

  2. Did you march on Saturday? Are you marching tomorrow? Does marching lead to justice?

  1. Did Jesus pay for our sins? In what way?

  1. Is hell a just punishment for sinful people?

WE’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!  Come on down and join us for a pint, or grab your smart phone, a craft-brewed pint, and hit the Twitters! Starting at 7pm.

A Philly Priest Visits Pub Theology DC

kirkb2Guest post by Fr. Kirk Berlenbach, rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. He has been facilitating the parish beer club (The Franklin Club) since 2007. Originally posted at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar.

WASHINGTON DC – One of the great things about the internet is that, no matter how obscure your interest or hobby, the net allows you the chance to seek out and connect with other people who are just as off kilter.  When I began to take this whole faith and beer thing more seriously one of the first things I tried to do was see who else out there might be doing it too.  I was pleased to find I was not alone in the universe.  I came across and have since corresponded with a couple of kindred souls.

Among them are guys like Michael Camp, author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, which is next up on my reading list.  Another book on the subject is Diary of a Part Time Monk by J. Wilson which I just finished reading.  I referenced J’s quest to emulate the monks of old in this post.  In short, he attempted to follow the Lenten discipline of monks who fasted existing only on their dopplebock.  The book is his account of this remarkable experience.

Then there is Bryan Berghoef.  When I finished reading his book, Pub Theology, I knew we had to at least correspond.  We hit it off and found we had a lot in common, not just in terms of our love of beer but also in terms of our approach to ministry and the Church’s need to find new ways to connect with the ever increasing “spiritual but not religious” population.  We discussed the idea of a visit but never got around to making specific plans.

Then, a few months ago I got the bright idea to do an event on the whole “beer-faith connection” as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week.  (more on this in next week’s post).  Anyway, when I was thinking through other clergy who could work with me on this event, Bryan was on the short list.  I contacted him and he was very excited at the possibility.  But I thought it was important to meet the man I was going to work with.  Moreover, I wanted to see an example of one of his “Pub Theology” sessions up close and personal.

So last week I took the train down to DC.  Bryan met me at the station and we headed off to the pub where that night’s conversation would take place.  The whole concept of Pub Theology is “Beer, Conversation, God.”  The gathering is open to anyone who wishes to attend and the topics are sent out a few days ahead of time.  On the heels of the massive Oklahoma tornado the topic included God’s role in natural disasters, as well as more abstract topics like, “Was there a time before time?” and “Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen.  Can you call that faith?”

We talked over burgers and beers and then made our way to the back part of the bar to wait and see who would show up.   Over time the group grew to a very respectable 15 people.  Many were members of Bryan’s new church planting project, Roots DC.   Others were visitors and one was a local clergy colleague.  People’s perspectives varied,  greatly (and thanks to the presence of a young woman from South Sudan, also went beyond just an American lens) and at least one person was by openly an atheist.

As the conversation progressed and folks ordered their 2nd or third beer, people definitely became more vocal.   Yet a no time was there a hint of disrespect or even frustration.

What Bryan has built here is no small accomplishment.  To create an environment where people, many of whom are strangers, can speak openly and honestly about the deeper issues of life is quite extraordinary.  As I have reflected on this I began to see the genius of Bryan’s concept.  While such a group could take place over coffee or in a park, the setting of the bar is really critical to its success.

Where else but in a bar can friends, acquaintances and strangers all engage impassioned debate yet still remain not just civil but even jovial?   Now it is true that often times those debates are about how the manager is mishandling the bullpen and not dark matter.  But there are many times I have heard focused discussion about politics, God and the meaning of life coming from the other end of the bar or the next table.

It seems to me that if the bar is indeed the new Forum, then Bryan has indeed hit upon a valuable insight into how the Church can connect with the world outside its walls.  The key lies first in a willingness to go out to where the people are rather than insisting that they come to us.  But just as important is the setting.  In order to get people talking about what they really believe about God and what  truly matters in life, then you can’t do much better than your local pub.  And, at least in my opinion, the best way to start any meaningful conversation is over a good pint.

So here’s to Bryan and Pub Theology and the rediscovery of a great way to talk about God and all things that matter most.

You can read Kirk’s latest thoughts at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar: Beer, Music, and a Thirst for God, or find him enjoying a craft beer somewhere in Philadelphia.

In Session: Pub Theology 101

In Session: Pub Theology 101

A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub

You’ve heard about people gathering at the pub to talk about God and faith, and wondered, why aren’t I doing this? Now you can, thanks to this new guide by Bryan Berghoef, author of Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God. Here Bryan walks through all the steps to beginning your own Pub Theology group, from choosing a location to deciding what to talk about. (You’ll have to make your own decision as to whether you prefer an IPA or a stout). And the best part of this new book: hundreds of discussion topics and questions, sorted by category–such as art, belief, death, morality, philosophy, politics, science, and world religions, to name a few–that Bryan has compiled from over five years’ worth of pub discussions.

So what are you waiting for? This is the inspiration you’ve needed, and the resources to boot, all for less than the price of a pint!
—Book description at

Pub Theology 101
Hot off the press!

My new book, Pub Theology 101: A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub, is out TODAY for Kindle for only $2.99! (Go to Amazon page)

After my first book, Pub Theology, came out, I began to hear from people all over the country—some leading similar groups, others wanting to get one going. The constant request was: what do we talk about? Do you have some topics for us to get started?

I have compiled all of my topics, questions, and quotes from facilitating Pub Theology sessions for the last five years into one handy ebook, all sorted by category, as well as some tips and suggestions for best practices. And I’m making it all available for—have I said this—less than the price of a pint (or a tip to the bartender.) This is a must-have resource for anyone leading discussions at the pub!

You can carry this handy guide with you on your Kindle or smartphone and pull it out whenever you’re looking for something interesting to talk about with friends, or when prepping for facilitating a Pub Theology session (or Theology Pub, or Theology on Tap, or even Scripture and Scotch, as I heard the other day).

Quotes from Bob Dylan, Søren Kierkegaard, Mother Theresa, Mark Driscoll, Thomas Aquinas, Rob Bell, Kester Brewin, John Piper, Peter Rollins, John Calvin, the Talmud, the Buddha, Plato, Demosthenes, Immanuel Kant, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tim Keller, Richard Rohr, Jesus, the Shepherd of Hermas, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Walter Wink, John Frame, Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah, C.S. Lewis, Doug Pagitt, Blaise Pascal, Ludwig Feuerbach, Leo Tolstoy, Paul Tillich, and. . . many many more questions that I’ve written or others have shared with me —all gathered here, for your pub theologizing pleasure.

So what are you waiting for? Get your copy now!

I should also mention—there’s no marketing plan and no major publisher behind this, it is totally word of mouth and grassroots, so share on your Facebook page, Tweet it, pass it along to friends. If you know anyone who might benefit from this resource—let them know!

*Also, if this resource proves helpful to you, please leave a review at Amazon!

Don’t have a Kindle? You can get a free Kindle reading app for your Mac, your PC, your tablet, iPad, phone… Or, you can convert it to Nook or other another eReader format at Calibre.

From Chad Schuitema, facilitator of Pub Theology Lafayette:

“Everything you need to start your own Pub Gatherings – except the courage! The enormous amount of questions and discussion starters have helped me not only with each week’s gathering, but have helped me come up with my own as well. A much needed resource!”

Pub Theology topics – Oct 18

In case you missed it, here were the topics on the sheet at Harmony Brewing Co. last Thursday.

1.    Rousseau said that ‘it is impossible to describe true enjoyment.’ Can words fully convey an experience?

2.    Is grace unique to Christianity?

3.    Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen.  Could you call that faith?

4.    Is science the discovery of what’s really out there or the construction of a way to perceive it? What about theology?

5.    “‘Real people’ are just as fictional as the characters in a novel; all our encounters with other people depend on our ability to ‘fictionalize’ them.”  Discuss.

6.    Does temporal and cultural distance create an unbridgeable gap between biblical texts and us?

No Pub Theology this week at Harmony in Grand Rapids, or Right Brain in Traverse City, as I will be on the road, and the TC group will break for this month’s Etcetera gathering, at the Good Work Collective.  Still looking for someone willing to help facilitate an ongoing Grand Rapids group – Harmony is a great setting and there is an interested group forming!

Pub Theology Recap – Oct 11, 2012

We had a great turnout last night at Harmony Brewing Company, in Eastown, Grand Rapids.  This little brewery has been open since February, and features a cozy atmosphere, spins some good tunes (last night was Vinyl Thursday), and brews up some great offerings.

A few of us started off with Jackson’s Joy Fall Festival Ale, which was a good, if a bit sweet, oktoberfest-style ale.  Others jumped in with the Hideout IPA, which was a stand-in for the usual Fiddlestix IPA.  My favorite on their board is the Star Stuff Belgian Dubbel.  The Black Squirrel Porter was unfortunately also tapped out.

About a dozen of us squeezed in together in the upper-level, a small, quiet space of about 10 or 12 tables.  A couple familiar faces, a few Pub Theology first-timers, and some regulars made for a great discussion.

The sheet had the following topics:

1.    True or False: the better you can articulate what you believe, the more spiritually mature you are.

2.    How do certain [spiritual] practices open you up to new possibilities?

3.    Is there a difference between the Word of God & the words of scripture?

4.    Is it ever wrong to try to convert someone from one religion to another?

5.    What’s the difference between Christian education and indoctrination?

6.     Is a believer [ontologically] different from a nonbeliever?

Getting to the bottom of things.

We kicked off the evening on the first topic, and there was immediate push back to the notion that ‘spiritual maturity’ is linked to the ability to speak well about one’s beliefs.

Immediate counter-examples were offered: an older person who has a wisdom and maturity about him but is not a good source for systematic theology; a mother who lives in a way that bespeaks spiritual maturity (it was noted that there is more than one way to articulate things, we shouldn’t limit it to verbal articulation).

Another person thought the whole notion of ‘spiritual maturity’ was dubious.  “Doesn’t that whole idea speak of having arrived?  Does one ever arrive?  Isn’t spiritual maturity that thing you strive for but never reach?”

We then mused about whether the church often falls into the trap of equating these two things: articulation and maturity.  In my own tradition, it’s when you can say what you believe, when you can give the right answers, that we acknowledge that you have reached at least some level of spiritual achievement that you weren’t at before.  Perhaps there are other means for evaluating faith — in fact I’m sure there are, and I think many of us are wanting to think more holistically about what it means to grow in one’s faith, beyond just words.

At the same time, someone noted that if you can’t at a basic level explain what you believe, perhaps you have some work to do.  Fair enough.

The second topic had us discussing the various practices that lead to spiritual growth, and open one up to new possibilities, new ways of experiencing God, or living into one’s experience of God.  Things like prayer, meditation, Scripture reading were mentioned, as well as getting involved in justice issues like poverty, slave trade, etc.  “My faith is deepened as I seek to live among those who are marginalized in our society.”

One person noted that in his own very evangelical tradition, spiritual maturity equaled the ability to share the gospel with someone else: “How many people have you led to Christ?”

This led us naturally into topic no. 4: Is it ever wrong to convert someone to another religion?

There was some hesitation.  It was initially noted that there are certainly wrong ways to share one’s faith: the in-your-face model, the used-car-salesman-routine, the forcing-awkward-family-relationships routine.  Yet some felt, if eternal things are at stake – how could it be wrong to convert someone?

Then one person at the end of the table piped up: “Absolutely.  There are times it is flat out wrong to disrespect someone else’s culture and religion by trying to convert them.  I have friends in Buddhist and Hindu countries and I don’t think it would be right at all to go in there and try to convert them.  I plan on seeing my Muslim and Buddhist friends in heaven.  But maybe that means I’m not a real Christian.”

This provocative perspective made some uncomfortable while others cheered.  What do you think?

We ended the evening on topic no.3:  Is there a difference between the Word of God and the words of scripture?

This took us many places, but we began by looking at the perspective that there are two books in which God speaks to us – one, the book of the Bible, the other, the book of creation.  It was noted that in a recent NPR story a person from a more evangelical background noted that someone could not believe in evolution and be a Christian. “This drives me crazy!  How can we not be willing to find God in the world he has made, even if that forces us to reconsider some of our [long-held] theological positions?”

We then wondered about extrabiblical books, other gospels, the apocrypha, and so on.  Are these ‘God’s Word’ in any sense?  How does canon come into play, and should we restrict the Holy Spirit to speaking only through what ‘made it in’? And what about other traditions that include other books?  Or what about books that were left out, were those for spiritual or political reasons, or some other reason altogether?  Finally we wondered, what about words in the Scriptures themselves that portray God in a less than flattering light.  Are these too the “Word of God”, or are there instances in the canon where we see humanity struggling to understand God, and perhaps not always getting it right?  This latter line of thinking made several mutter “Marcion” under their breath, and made plenty nervous.  Others felt these were legitimate questions that we should be able to ask.

In the end, it was a great night.  Good beer, new relationships, honest conversation.  All agreed that the pub is a place to have these open and honest conversations, to have our thinking pushed, and to recognize that God just might be bigger than we’ve thought.   (And of course we ended in plenty of time to watch the Detroit Tigers beat the Oakland A’s behind the arm of Justin Verlander!).

Feel free to weigh in on any of the above topics in the comment section below!