Godless in the Pacific Northwest
By Matthew Kaemingk, '03, M.Div., Ph.D.
Godless. Secular. Worldly.
The Pacific Northwest is recognized widely as the least religious region in the United States. According to sociologists, the region is dominated not by Catholics, Protestants or even atheists, but by a contingent of people who describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." These people believe that there is something more to life, but they are convinced that they will never find that "something more" in a religious institution, text or tradition.
Small and marginalized churches in the Pacific Northwest often bemoan their "godless" region with emotions of sadness, fear and confusion. Saddled with more questions than answers, they ask each other:
Is there a future for the church in the Pacific Northwest?
How do we follow and proclaim Christ in this place?
"Secular Seattle" has been, for me, a fascinating city in which to begin my teaching career in the field of theology and culture. I am the founding director of the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture. The mission of our institute is to equip Christians in the Pacific Northwest to better know, love and engage the region.
The institute's online journal, Christ & Cascadia, regularly publishes articles exploring the challenges and opportunities facing the church in the region.
Christ & Cascadia is, in many ways, a sustained argument.
Our argument, quite simply, is that the Pacific Northwest is an exciting and an invigorating place to follow Jesus Christ. The journal contends that the church should reject postures of cultural fear, resentment and isolation in favor of new models of Christian creativity, service, civility and imaginative cultural engagement.
The prophet Jeremiah commanded the Jewish exiles in Babylon to plant gardens, build houses, and work for the flourishing of the imperial city. Jeremiah exhorted them to stop complaining about their lack of power, to stop clamoring to return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah instructed them instead to settle down, invest in the life of Babylon, and actively seek the city's flourishing – its "shalom."
In the same way, Christ & Cascadia encourages churches to engage and invest in the life of Cascadia – to seek its shalom. The church should not complain that it is a minority, a cultural "exile." Instead, the church must settle in – dig in – and seek the cultural and spiritual renewal of the Pacific Northwest.
As I trace my own sense of calling, my four years at Whitworth University loom large.
Indeed, my life and work make little sense without Whitworth's deep and profound presence in my life.
At Whitworth I learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of cultural engagement, beauty, creativity and courage. At Whitworth I learned that "fear of the world" was not an option for those who had experienced the joy of Easter morning. It was at Whitworth that I encountered professors who modeled a faith of grace and truth, civility and courage, beauty and imagination – and for that I am truly grateful.
It should be no surprise to anyone that Whitworth University is a prominent contributor to Christ & Cascadia. Whitworth's very own Jerry Sittser (theology), Julia Stronks (political science), Terry McGonigal (Office of Church Engagement), and Dale Soden (history) contribute regularly to Christ & Cascadia's journal and conferences. If you would like to join in the conversation, I encourage you to read Christ & Cascadia online at www.christandcascadia.com or join us at our conference in Seattle, Oct. 14-15.
Matthew Kaemingk, M.Div., Ph.D., is a 2003 Whitworth alumnus who serves as director of the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture. Matthew studied political science at Whitworth and went on to earn a master of divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary along with doctoral degrees in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and systematic theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He was also awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in the Netherlands on the contemporary conflict between Islam and Christianity. Eerdmans will publish his research in 2017. He and his wife, Heather (Graham), '04, live in Seattle and attend Sanctuary Church.