Preaching in an Age of Disaffiliation: Respecting Dissent while Keeping the Faith
The Kavanagh Lecture
From the viewpoint of mainline Christian traditions in the West, the current age can be characterized in multiple ways. Given the well documented exit of many from traditional religious institutions, and the growing unaffiliation of the young who never made such institutions their spiritual homes, the early 21st century is alternately portrayed as time of deconversion, the age of the “nones,” the ascendancy of the spiritual over the religious, and the wholesale abandonment of theism. Preaching in the midst of such religious dubiety seems not only daunting but maybe even foolhardy. One path forward in this time of such liquid believing may not be the abandonment of preaching, but the abandonment of brittle binaries and stolid frameworks that at once normatize believers inappropriately and simultaneously ignore the polyphony of belief that can actually be revelatory and life-giving. This lecture will suggest that the Catholic-Christian tradition of the author provides a wealth of resources to address what might be better understood as an age of polydoxy. This more appreciative approach assumes that a central goal of Christian preaching is not so much the conversion of unbelievers or the repentance of sinners, but the building of bridges between individuals and communities no matter where they place themselves on the believing spectrum. Weaving together threads from the Christian tradition, Wittgenstein’s language theory, sociology and reimaged theologies of evangelization, this exercise will attempt to map something of today’s religious ambiguity, and invite the preacher as a public theologian to both dwell in such ambiguity as well as find it as a source of hope and light.