Pub Theology as an opportunity to explore

At Campus Edge we’ve been hosting Pub Theology for several years now. It’s an opportunity for people to talk about how faith and spirituality interact with current events and topics of interest (e.g., sexuality, racism, politics, technology, etc.). Pub theology is a place to learn how to listen to each other and make space for people who see the world differently from me. Its intent is not to convince people of the Christian position but instead to facilitate people learning from each other, being both encouraged and challenged that there is more than one way that Christians (and others) have approached difficult topics. 

Pub theology has also been a place where people who are exploring Christianity can join us, and we’ve been delighted by how God has brought different people from different backgrounds to our conversations. People are free both to lament negative encounters with Christians and to ask pointed questions about what believing in God looks like. It is meant also to be a safe place to have one’s own views about Christianity and the Bible be refined.

Bryan Berghoef, who originally started pub theology, wrote an article about how pub theology might seem like a waste of time. After all, what real good does sitting in pub talking to other people really do? But Berghoef suggests that:

“One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice [of pub theology] 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. . .

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.”

Bryan Berghoef, “Pub Theology is a Waste of Time.” (January 2014)

the new American dream?

In talking with young adults about the American dream, it became obvious that the faults in the American dream are more obvious to a generation that isn’t looking to pursue that same dream. The traditional American dream seems to value getting more things (prosperity) and having a better position in life (success and upward social mobility) without taking into account how society does not reward everyone’s hard work equally.

The millennial generation has come to recognize that they will probably not have a better life than their parents: they will probably not be better off, a reality that seems to be reinforced by high student debt and underemployment. The American dream, except for one subsidized by one’s parents, no longer seems possible for many.

Perhaps partly because the dream no longer seems realistic, millennials seem less focused on obtaining more things or trying to obtain upward social mobility. Instead, they seem to reject pursuing stability, recognizing that it is illusive anyways, and choose instead for something else, like experiences. Commitment and stability – key aspects of the American dream – look different now than in previous generations. There is high commitment to ideals and people, but there is limited commitment to institutions (e..g, churches), places, and even a specific jobs.

While most churches do not argue for the prosperity gospel, which one could argue is a Christianized version of the American dream, most churches still thrive on commitment and stability. This new version of the American dream is not something churches have easily adapted to: there is an opportunity for people to have new experiences through high quality worship and service projects, but it’s hard to fulfill the ideals when people’s lives are less stable. Authentic community generally takes time and commitment, and active pursuit of knowledge, while possible to convey through quality sermons, takes conversations in which trust has been built, something which requires a certain level of time and willingness to be vulnerable with each other. In the area of ideals and desires, church and society seems to be clashing, and so it is not surprising that many young adults struggle with finding churches where they belong.

Critiquing the American dream

In pub theology the other week, we talked about the American dream: what it was, whether it was inherently exploitative, and whether it has changed. According to Wikipedia, “The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, as well as an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about the danger of the American dream in Between the World and Me:

“When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you [my son].”

According to Coates, the American dream is inherently oppressive, as it causes us to focus primarily on our own personal good and escape from the reality around us, especially the role that race plays in hurting society.

Ryan Cooper, in “The American Dream is a Lie” concurs with Coates:

Coates connects this death [of the promising young man, Prince Jones], and the others much like it happening daily, directly to the American Dream. Gruesome human sacrifice is what undergirds the picket fences and ice cream socials of the “people who believe they are white.” . . .

[This] is not to deny the fact that many Americans enjoy considerable prosperity in this country. Many millions do float easily on the tide of America’s fantastic wealth. The lie is found in the universal application of the Dream, that America is a place where everyone can get a fair shot at a decent life. . .

The American Dream allows us whites to pretend that our relative affluence is the result of our own actions on a fair playing field. But it just ain’t so.”

 

Cooper’s article also contains an interesting and helpful quote by David Brooks where he points to the good that the American dream has given us:

“[A] dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility, and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past… It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future. [The New York Times]

Brooks points us to the wonderful freedom and opportunity that has been present for many of us in (North) America, a freedom that has benefited many Christians, especially on account of the value placed on hard work and help for those in our network who are struggling. At the same time, it is important not to close our ears to Coates words, recognizing that, for many different reasons, the opportunities that each individual receives are not the same, and the hard work that we’ve put into things do not produce the same results. Furthermore, the focus on the individual and one’s own achievements has a degree of self-righteousness, selfishness and works righteousness is counter to the Christian teaching of loving one’s neighbour and the recognition that, as the Psalms often say, sometimes the wicked prosper.