Brews and religious views mix peacefully at Pub Theology meetings
Where do an Episcopalian, a Methodist and someone who is in between an Agnostic and a Christian gather together to drink beer and talk about theological and philosophical issues — such as the meaning or absurdity of life?
No, this isn’t the set-up for the punchline of a joke. It’s what actually happens at weekly Pub Theology meetups.
The goal of the group is to create a safe space that allows for diverse theological, political and philosophical discussion.
The Rev. Sean Steele, a priest at Saint Isidore Episcopal Church, started the group about four years ago. Steele said his church — which has a service area of Spring and The Woodlands — sponsors the group.
“I read about this nationwide movement called Pub Theology, and I realized that one of my interests was being out in the public square discussing theology, not spending all of my inertia looking inward at church traditions,” Steele said.
Snacks are provided at the meetups, and non-alcoholic drinks are available for those who do not wish to drink beer or other alcoholic beverages.
The casual conversation starts with an ice breaker question, and then a question of the week is discussed by attendees. Topics for the question of the week range from issues such as heaven’s existence or how people find meaning in life to using philosophical writings or biblical stories as context.
During an Aug. 21 meeting of the group, attendee Josephine Patton explained why she started going to the group after Steele recommended it to her.
“It’s like being home again. My parents and I used to have these discussions when I was younger,” Patton said.
The meetings garner an average of 13 people who occupy two or three tables in the back corner of Hop Scholar Ale House along Rayford Road in Spring.
Hop Scholar General Manager Matt Barr said the ale house allows the group to use the space, and he said they’re generally respectful.
“They’re welcome to do their thing, but the moment they preach to someone, they’re done,” Barr said.
A few months ago, Steele said they were approaching dangerous territory in that regard.
“As the community developed, we stopped valuing the respectful dialogue to the extent that we should have. Some people, who we liked, came to the community, but they were a little intolerant and started driving others away,” Steele said.
So, while they used to say that all were welcome, they had to adjust that premise in order to save the group.
“If you’re there believing that everyone has cancer and you have the cure, you’re not necessarily welcome. There are plenty of places for people to go and be reinforced by their beliefs, but this isn’t the place,” Steele said.
In the end, they agreed that it was still meaningful to gather for conversation.
“It just goes to show you how sensitive dialogue is when it comes to fragile things. If you don’t steward it well, you can damage it,” Steele added.
Now, Steele said, they print their group guidelines — centered on empathy, trust and sensitivity — at the top of the question sheets participants receive at the gatherings.
“We all want to know and be known. I want to be in a place where I can tell others what I really think and have them keep coming back to the table,” Steele said. “That means we have to develop a certain level of trust with each other, which can be a slippery slope.”
The group tries to do this in a neutral space, not one where they try to indoctrinate members into a specific religion.
Marcus Funk, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University, helps to write questions for the group.
“Given how polarized we are as a society, politically and socially and culturally, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for people with different opinions and backgrounds to have conversations,” Funk said.
And, he added, the medium matters.
“Instead of having the same conversation on Facebook, even if you use the same words and have the same intent…Communicating digitally is fundamentally different than communicating in person,” Funk said.