This weekend, the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly will feature a segment on groups gathering in pubs to talk about God and faith. One group highlighted will be Kyrie Pub Church, a community in Fort Worth Texas that has worship services in a pub. The other featured group will be a Pub Theology gathering I facilitated in Washington, DC. The story, as I understand it, is about people seeking non-traditional forms of community and faith outside the church walls—at the bar. Continue Reading..
What one piece of advice would you offer to a newborn infant? That was the question that kicked off our conversation at Pub Theology Holland last night. After a few quips like: “Go back!” and “A newborn infant wouldn’t be capable of understanding advice,” we decided to stretch it out to a child somewhere between 5 and 8 years old.
Then some real wisdom began to come out around the table. Here are a few of the gems that were shared: Continue Reading..
As part of creating space online for ongoing Pub Theology conversation, I’m considering a new Facebook group. This will be for pub theologians everywhere to gather at a virtual table, to discuss any number of topics. Vote on the Facebook page with your thoughts. If you think I should consider something other than Facebook, let me know that in the comments.
I’m in the process of creating a new Pub Theology website, so ideally whatever I create can be embedded and accessed there.
Guest post by Scot McKnight. Original post can be read here. I share this post because I see much that is in line with my own experiences of good conversations at the pub. Read it and see if you agree.
The question: What are the central characteristics of a genuine conversation in your opinion?
I want to draw your attention to a massive and brilliant study, but for most of us far too specialized to be a book to “blog” our way through. The book is Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation. Her book is a detailed analysis of 17th Century salons, directed mostly by women, designed not for professors and specialists but for a nobility that wanted to form a society where its values and interests could become the central focus. I contend that the term “conversation” can be understood by taking an interest in this movement. I see its descendants in high society England and major metropolises in the world (e.g., high society New York — think The New Yorker). One publisher comes to mind: Alfred A. Knopf.
The Age of Conversation, seen in the salons especially in France, found a group of people who had the following characteristics:
1. They were directed by women and showed an unusual degree of integration between the sexes.
2. They were concerned with the pleasure of conversation, of learning, of enjoying one another.
3. They were shaped by absolute equality between all participants.
4. They had an ideal: to “marry lightheartedness with depth, elegance with pleasure, and the search for truth with a tolerant respect for the opinions of others” (xiii).
5. They sealed themselves off from the power structures and politics of the day in order to form an ideal society.
6. They were shaped by a style: they carried on their lives with a notable style and a code of manners.
7. They secured an informal society that had some clear boundaries between themselves and others.
8. They were opposed from the left (Rousseau thought they were oppressive) and right (Pascal thought they were too worldly).
9. They privatized what was most important to life.
Now to the issue of “style”… Life was made in the salons of France into “the most elegant of games” (340) that was shaped by loving one’s partner and fellow salon members as they ought to be loved. Tolerance and mutual respect shaped the conversation completely; honoring the integrity and value of the other shaped the the conversation as well. These conversations became the educational force for those so involved.
Central to the task was aim of pleasing others and to do this they developed several strategies, and I shall try to use the French words with some brief translation:
Esprit: mental, spiritual, and social sense and joy.
Galanterie: chivalry, galantry.
Complaisance: an obligation to the other, kindness, amiability.
Flatterie: without being overdone, one was to complement the other.
Raillerie: playful teasing of one another.
There are dangers here, like snobbishness, and they are obvious for anyone to see. But what happened was that the French salons created an environment where conversation occurred, not to beat the daylights out of someone else, not to denounce the other, but to enjoy the pleasure of discussing pressing concerns of a given group. They learned to converse in order to learn from one another and make one another more educated.
Conversation like this, however, has its problems. As Craveri sums them up, “their exquisite courtesy was a means of domination, and their intellectual malleability was a mask for sterility and sophism” (356). In fact, at times such conversations refused to ask the hard question. “As on the battlefield where French officers took their hats off to the enemy, or in life’s crucial moments when notaries drink to the health of their expiring clients, so, in theological discussion, politesse had the upper hand, and Morellet would turn to his adversary and address him as ‘Monsieur and dear atheist’” (359).
In other words, and I hope you like this swiped line from Cynthia Ozik, the danger of conversation in this sense is tete-a-tete gone flagrante delicto.”
The fundamental obstacles to conversation among are two-fold: most conversations are blocked either by a right vs. wrong obstacle or by an information-only obstacle.
Let us say that a person wants to converse about world religions, about the presence of “silent Christians” in the Islamic world, about the issues surrounding eschatology in the New Testament, about how to “do church” in a postmodern context, about preaching in today’s world, about homosexuality, about the church and the poor, about the gospel and social justice, about marriage, about rearing children… any topic that matters and any topic about which a person has concerns and wonders what is the best way to think about. Bring into the mix a person who is young or a person who really has serious and good questions about traditions … and you create the only kind of conversation that really can a conversation. Something important, a couple of people, and a desire to learn from one another. But, often mutual exploration is not what happens. Why?
The first obstacle is the right vs. wrong risk. Orthodoxy is right; anything else or less than orthodoxy is wrong. With that looming behind every conversation, when a person raises a question there is immediately a worry if what the person is asking is orthodox or not; whether or not by participating in such a conversation a person will be seen as harboring doubts about orthodoxy; and whether associating with such persons calls into question one’s reputation. Quickly, in many cases, the conversation stops being conversation and becomes instead a quick lesson on what tradition teaches the Bible says and that if one strays from that one is questioning the Bible and, there you have it, the slippery slope worry comes to the surface.
When conversation is shaped like this — and this is what I want to contend — there is no conversation. Instead, it becomes didactic. Which leads me to the second issue.
The second obstacle is that conversations, instead of becoming explorations of one another’s minds on a given topic as each reflects on how each makes theological decisions, become information-exchange sessions. Whoever knows the most becomes the teacher; whoever knows the least becomes the student. That’s all. It’s about information exchange. It becomes catechesis instead of conversation.But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.
I do not deny the value of information, nor do I deny the importance of orthodoxy. But can we have conversations sometimes?
What are the marks of a good conversation?
First, a good conversation (and therefore a good conversationalist) requires a safe environment. By this I mean space — somewhere to feel comfortable; and I mean at least two people with listening skills; and I mean the ability to disagree if necessary but not denounce, condemn or berate.
Illustration: most of us think this blog is safe; when someone joins us at the table and starts denouncing someone we feel uncomfortable. The reason we feel uncomfortable when someone denounces another is because we assumed we were in a genuine conversation in a safe environment. We believed we were in a conversation not sitting in a pew listening to a visiting pulpiteer.
I’ve been blogging now 8 years — began about this time 8 years ago — and sometimes I wonder how long I can keep doing this but it is the commenters — our virtual community — that keeps me plugging along. So thanks.
Many have turned to the blog world because they are having difficulties finding a safe place. I can’t tell you the number of pastors who have written me privately and said “I can’t say this on your blog, but I want to converse with you about the post today” or about something else.
Second, a good conversation requires a good topic or a good question. This one is clear: what is a good topic for some is not for others. It is also clear that some topics are better than others. Some topics are off-limits for one person and on-limits for another. There is a social skill involved here: some people perceive immediately what is on-limits or off-limits; others don’t.
Third, a good conversation operates on the basis of frequently-unexpressed but nearly always assumed, shared assumptions. I find this to be a regular hang-up on the blog. Many of us operate with a set of assumptions — and it would be fun to bring to expression what these really are — but we don’t talk about them. When someone violates them, we raise our eyebrows or start to wiggle our fingers and maybe even break into a sweat. Perhaps it begins with the viability of the question we ask.
Fourth, a good conversation requires the spirit of exploration and experimentation. If I ask my good friend, Greg Clark, who happens to be a philosopher and therefore practiced in the art of conversation and one who finds it delightful to turn over each stone somehow, a question, I expect him to tell me what he is thinking on the subject and he will probably explore his mind and he’ll ask me what I think and then I’ll ask him back and it goes on and on.
The major problem here is when someone gets too dogmatic. If in conversing we want to explore something together, we can’t have someone say “here’s the answer, buffo, and there’s no other possiblities.” The shared assumption is that we don’t get too dogmatic and that we explore and think together.
Fifth, a good conversation desires wisdom. I have very little use for a conversation that goes nowhere unless a few of us are gathered just to chat over beer or coffee or about a football game. No, a good conversation with a good topic or question leads to mutual exploration so each of us can learn and grow in wisdom. As a Christian, we want the conversation to lead us into the wisdom of the way of Jesus.
Sixth, a good conversation stays within the parameter of the topic. One of the routine challenges of conversation is wandering. We begin with a good question — Did Jesus do miracles by the power of the Spirit or in his own power? Can libertarian economics exist in a world like ours? — that begins on the right track but then someone begins to talk, and wander aloud to another topic (a previous event in life) and then we’re talking about that event, which leads to another topic and we realize we are no longer on topic. This element of conversation requires either a conversation partner who keeps us in line or, better yet, we make a mutual commitment to stay in line.
Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.
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.
I 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 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.
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:
If you could name the street you live on what would you call it?
If you received an extra burrito when ordering at your local shop would you say something?
True or false: We should be wary of any efforts to improve human nature.
Did you march on Saturday? Are you marching tomorrow? Does marching lead to justice?
Did Jesus pay for our sins? In what way?
- 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.
Guest 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.
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 Amazon.com
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:
My book, Pub Theology, has been out for about six months now. I have heard from readers all over, nearly all of whom have really enjoyed the book. The reviews on Amazon are all positive. The Goodreads ratings are great. This is a bit surprising to me, as I expected a certain amount of push back from readers. Perhaps they have been biding their time. A disappointed reader recently responded to the feature review of Pub Theology posted at the Englewood Review of Books.
Check out this response from Alex:
I am nearly finished with Berghoef’s work, which I had high hopes for. I appreciate points of your review, but I have to say that I do disagree about some of Berghoef’s intentions. If it were merely a monograph to discuss active listening in interfaith settings, I would be all ears. But within that framework he exposes that he is not a Christian living in a pluralistic world, he is a pluralist. I don’t say this with disrespect but in recognition that he is seeking to shed the “exclusitivity” of fundamentalism and traditional Christianity while learning what it means to “climb to the top of the mountain” of understanding and knowing God, asserting that multiple faiths can be incorporated into Christianity without any taking priority. (See his illustration of the telescope for an example). In establishing pub theology, he is also seeking to deconstruct Christian theology into a more cultural friendly model. I admittedly am frustrated with what you call his “whimsical” approaches to these gatherings. I too believe that there needs to be real listening and understanding, but I would not go so far as to say that this negates some central tenets to my own faith. I think that I can still be an “orthodox” Christian while also dialoguing with other faiths. From Berghoef’s Reformed background, he seems to posit the rigidness and fear of that upbringing as something that all people universally experience with tradtional (sic) Christianity. I would say that his context is dictating his views of others’ experience with the church in a way that molds his book. Maybe I am not progressive enough, but I don’t see religious pluralism as the necessary next step for Christianity, remembering that Jesus calls Himself the “way, truth, and the life.” The trouble I have with this multi-faith approach to God is that many of the faiths mentioned, at least in their primary Scriptures, see themselves as the sole route to God. To omit this is to in some way neglect what is a central part of the different faiths represented, and it’s a naive approach to interfaith dialogue.
These are just some of my relatively disjointed thoughts, but I’ve been wrestling with this book and needed to get them out.
Alright. There we go. That wasn’t so hard, was it? If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the above. If you haven’t read the book… what are you waiting for? (Spend $10 of your Christmas cash and start reading now on your Kindle).
I actually really appreciate where Alex is coming from. I’ve encountered others who have had the same frustration. I expected more people would have this same concern, and probably they do, but for whatever reason haven’t voiced it. But that very frustration highlights to me why the book (and the gatherings) are needed! Too often Christians can only contemplate a space in which they are allowed to have the final say, they are allowed to ‘be right,’ and the forum which purports to be an open dialogue really masks for the latest in a clever church outreach attempt. People should be treated like adults. We shouldn’t need to try to con anyone, by attempting to ‘be relevant’ and hang out at the pub, while secretly just waiting to do our evangelistic duty, all the while despising pubs and beer and anyone who wonders if God actually exists. We shouldn’t say we’re having a conversation where all are welcome at the table and there’s no requirement for any particular faith, and then turn around and make it into a Bible study or recruitment session for a particular church. A true open space will be divested of hidden motives to convert. A true open space will allow for anyone present to have the floor, and even, the final say. If we really trust in the Holy Spirit’s ability to work, we should never have to resort to manipulative tactics.
Further, a true open space will also require its attendants to be honest. And, yes, this will lead to disagreements. There will be times where I, as a Christian, flat out disagree with a Muslim, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, about some central issues! I find God most fully revealed in the person of Jesus. I don’t expect a Muslim or Jew to agree about this. And the book notes that disagreements will occur – and even highlights this with some actual pub theology dialogue. (I actually think much of Alex’s concerns are addressed in the book, but then I often don’t land where he wants me to, hence the frustration).
Here is how I responded to him:
Glad to hear you are reading the book, and I share your high hopes for it. 🙂 I entirely appreciate your comments and your frustrations, and am glad you posted them. Also, before I forget, I’ve spent significant time in evangelical settings, so I think I have a fair grasp of (and to an extent have been shaped by) this perspective as well.
The book is meant to draw us into a setting of conversations where we actually do encounter others. Part of that requires at least sitting down to the table as a “pluralist,” in the minimal sense of: I believe all people are created in God’s image and have something to teach me. This does not necessarily mean everyone is right, or all paths lead to God, or anything of the sort. At that point you’re reading into what I’m saying (or not saying). I’m pretty sure I don’t make any claims in the book as to people’s eternal destinies. (Though I do hope and trust that God’s grace and mercy are much wider than I can imagine).
When discussions happen with people of various (and often competing) worldviews, there are going to be disagreements. Yes. Absolutely. Perhaps I could have articulated this more strongly in the book (though I think it is evident in some of the pub anecdotes and elsewhere). There have often been evenings at the pub where I have, as a Christian, flat out disagreed with people over important issues. An honest discussion demands this.
However, the point of the book is not to give an exposition of my own theology (though it arises at points), but rather to encourage the setting in which true and good dialogue can happen, and indicate ways in which one’s own faith or perspective (regardless of which kind), can be broadened.
I intentionally don’t show all of my cards, or even give the hoped for “But you’re going to tell everyone Jesus is the only way to God, right?”, because I want people to live in the tension. The tension of true interfaith connection, in which we hold the possibility (even if we don’t embrace it), that “the other” may well be right, and we are the ones who need to learn. As I note in the introduction, for too long the church has taken the place of preacher and teacher, and perhaps it is our turn to listen. Your comments indicate the discomfort that arises with such tension. You want to enter such discussions, not really to learn, but with the safe knowledge that you are right, and anticipating the moment you can share that. (Ironically, we Christians often come to such discussions hoping others will be open to our perspectives, while having no intention of being open to theirs).
You may not be in a place where you have something to learn from others, which perhaps might indicate your frustration with the book, and that’s fine. But many, many others have found the book to be a welcome volume which allows their own doubts, questions, and answers to be honestly wrestled with.
The book is not a defense of the Christian faith, or any other faith, though I write it as a Christian. It is simply one person’s experience of engaging others, and realizing that our world will be a better place if we can all sit down together and talk, instead of dismissing each other from our own safe enclaves.
I have no grand project of converting others at Pub Theology, except to this: to be a better person — one who loves more fully, questions more broadly, listens more intently, and hopes more strongly. I trust that at the end of the day, God’s purposes will happen, and the truth will win out.
As Augustine put it: “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”
God doesn’t need me to sit at the pub and tell everyone they’re wrong if they don’t believe a particular (often, narrow) version of Christianity. He needs me to create a space of hospitality, where all are received and welcome, and where his very way is incarnated and on display. Where saints and sinners are equals. And occasionally [in fact, often!], yes, I tell people about Jesus.
What do you think? Is Pub Theology a ‘naive approach to interfaith dialogue’? Or is it a needed shift toward creating true spaces of connection in our communities?
Latest reader review of Pub Theology posted on Amazon.com:
Let me preface this review with the fact that I am by no means a Christian, nor a non-believer. A skeptic at heart, I came into the book and the concept of Pub Theology warily. I had never heard of Pub Theology or even met Bryan, but the book found me by chance.
That being said, it was a delightful read. He’s wise beyond his years and brings us a message of love, understanding, and openness. Do not let the word ‘theology’ turn you off – it’s relevant life-enriching information no matter your belief system. Whether you come into this as a veteran on the subject or as a fresh mind, you’ll find value. Worst-case scenario it’s a fun read on an interesting subject and a wonderful refresher. Best-case, you’re going to start seeing things differently and come away with some very useful information.
I was invited to and attended a Pub Theology event while in midst of the book. If you have the opportunity to visit one, do not miss the chance.