Barbara Brown Taylor, “Three Circles of Concern”

I am persuaded that every living religious tradition stays lively by attending to three overlapping circles of concern. The first is its institutional life, which includes the care and feeding of institutions so that the faith can be communicated from generation to generation. For Christians, these institutions include churches, schools, and seminaries, as well as other historical institutions, such as the papacy, the presbytery, or the episcopacy. The second circle of concern is the intellectual life of faith, in which followers are called to think clearly about the ways that changing times call for new teaching. For Christians, liberation theology, process theology, and feminist theology belong in that circle, along with new thinking about the relationship between Christianity and the other world religions. The third circle is the experiential life of faith, which embraces the practices that a religion offers its followers to help them make direct contact with the divine. For Christians, that circle includes everything from centering prayer to speaking in tongues.

Most of us are more comfortable in one of these circles than we are in the other two, but if a living religion ignores any of them for too long, then it will get wobbly. I think that the present exodus from many traditional churches suggests that one or more of the circles has gone flat. When people say they are “spiritual but not religious,” I think they are announcing their resignation from the institutional sphere—or their disinterest in joining it. Of course that means their faith may get wobbly too, but rather than dismissing them as shallow, it might be interesting for church people to put some energy into finding out what the Spirit is doing with them. What if they are the faithful ones?

— Barbara Brown Taylor, in an interview in The Other Journal (emphases mine)

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