Monday, June 3, 2013

So, Just What Is The Point Of It All?

There is much verbal warfare on religious blogs and elsewhere between right and left Christians over just what exactly is the cause of declining church numbers.  As is well known, the numbers of active members of mainline Protestant churches has declined steadily for about 50 years.  The Episcopal Church is probably about half what it was a half century ago.  Right Christians are quick to attribute this decline in churches like the Episcopal, Presbyterian, ELCA Lutheran, UCC, etc. to taking liberal positions on everything from homosexuality to women's equality to social justice over the last few decades since the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the Vietnam War.  But Right Christians have their own retention problems.  Even right wing powerhouses like the Southern Baptist Church are losing members at high rates of attrition, especially among the young.  Despite continuous renewal by a steady stream of immigration from Latin America and Eastern Europe, there are about as many ex-Catholics in the USA as there are loyal Catholics.  It is now more common than not for the young from churches both right and left to leave the churches that they were born into.

We certainly ponder these matters often after Mass over brunch among my fellow congregants in my Episcopal parish in New York.  We note that, in terms of identification and active membership, Christianity is in decline in the USA across the board, from right to left.

Christopher Brittain of Religion and Ethics takes an unconventional view of the decline of Christianity in the USA.
While right wing churches frequently accuse left churches of diluting Christian belief and identity in the culture and politics of the moment, Brittain points out that right wing churches are guilty of precisely the same thing, though in different manifestations:

Douthat's article opens up a crack of acknowledgement in this direction, when he notes that the most successful churches in the United States are "theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message." Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas - no friend of liberal Christianity - has accused conservative American Protestants of being unable to distinguish between their faith in God and loyalty to their country. Intriguingly, his criticism of conservative evangelicals sounds remarkably similar to Douthat's accusation against liberal Christianity: "the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives."

Brittain notes that this is especially true of the "Neo-Pentecostalism" that is sweeping the Developing Nations, especially among the rural poor migrating into the cities.  This brand of Christianity is a potent combination of Prosperity Gospel, motivational and self-improvement ethic, with apocalyptic fundamentalism.  It is as rooted in American commercial ethics as it is in the Bible.

Brittain says that the problems for both left and right in Christianity are much deeper than who wins the current round of the Culture Wars:

As it becomes clear that the fates of liberal and conservative Christianities may not be as distinct as is commonly assumed, the time has arrived for a re-evaluation of liberal Christianity. For conservatives, the task is to stop interpreting the demise of liberal congregations as a victory for evangelical Christianity, and to explore what might be learned from the fact that liberal Christianity's roots lie in the attempt to adapt and respond to cultural diversity and modern individualism. For liberals, the challenge involves far more than finding the courage to address the significant decline in church membership. Their task begins only after acknowledging that liberal Christianity has a real problem transmitting itself to subsequent generations. As Steve Bruce has observed, liberal churches generally appeal more to disaffected conservatives than they do to people with no previous background in Christianity. This fact suggests that liberals need to give greater attention to why the doctrines and traditions of Christianity should matter to someone not already familiar with them.
 These considerations suggest that, contrary to Mary Eberstadt's enthusiastic declaration of victory for conservative churches, Christians of all persuasions have good reason to distance themselves from the tendency to define churches by the terms of the "culture wars." Enormous theological, ecclesiological and missiological energy is being directed towards "winning" the battle over how to interpret same-sex relationships; meanwhile, both liberal and conservative churches are in sharp decline in the Global North. Both sides tend to explain the failures of their opponent as resulting from their problematic attitude towards homosexuality.

While I don't think the issue of homosexuality is quite as beside-the-point as Brittain makes it out to be (I do have a lot personally at stake in this conflict), I think he is right when he points out that left churches primarily attract disaffected conservatives (and vice versa).  We have nothing to say or to offer to people outside of the faith, and especially to those who have no experience of it.

So this raises in my mind a fundamental question; in this day and age, why should anyone be Christian?  What is the point of being a Christian?

Most right wing Christians can answer this clearly and simply, to save your soul, to avoid the fires of hell.  This answer has the virtue of being simple and clear.  It has the defect of turning the Good News into an extortion racket; believe in this and THIS won't happen to you (that is indeed how it is heard by most listeners; if you don't believe me, just watch a subway preacher in action and watch the cowed and resentful reaction of most of the people on the train listening).  It also presumes a lot of things that probably should not be presumed; that the hearers of this message believe in God or hell or an afterlife or any kind of transcendent dimension to life, or even have any clue to what any of those things might be or mean.  The Message (and the threat) is ineffective because it falls on ears who find the whole business of religion to be very alien and archaic.  Besides, we're asking a lot from people who live in an age of laser surgery and intant global messaging to believe in virgin birth and people coming back from the dead.  We're asking them to love and to feel loved by so nebulous and uncertain a concept as God, that this nebulous uncertain thing is actually a person, human just like themselves.

Could any of us left Christians give a clear answer to the question of why should anyone be a Christian?  I'm not sure that I could.  The Christian faith with all of its language, myth, metaphors, concepts, etc. is part of my DNA.  I've lived in it all of my life.  That would still be true even if I left it.  What would I say to someone who doesn't share that set of religious genes?

And let's face it.  Christianity has a whole lot to answer for in its history.  Other people are aware of it, even if we look away from it.  For example:

Adolph Hitler greets "Reichsbishop" Ludwig Müller and Abbott Schlachtleitner at the Nuremberg Rally of 1934.

Sure we can answer this with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller among others, but the fact remains that the majority of German Christians went along with this quite willingly.  I think we would do ourselves a favor by confronting the mess of the last 2000 years candidly and honestly.  I don't think trying to distance ourselves from all this crap will do us or our faith any good service.

I get beaten up with this stuff a lot as a Christian.  I get reactions of horrified astonishment, especially from other gays and lesbians, when I come out as a Christian.  As far as they are concerned, I might as well be a Jewish Nazi.  Of course, I'm perfectly comfortable with this identity.  How do I make them comfortable with it?  How would I point out to them that the Nazi Jew simile is fundamentally flawed without looking defensive?  How could I convince people who've been on the receiving end of Good Christian fists and have lost teeth (and friends) that the Gospel really is Good News for them just as they are without one plea? just as it was for me?

When I get yelled at, singled out, mocked, dismissed, etc. for being Christian,  am I oppressed?  No, I'm not.  I just feel uncomfortable.  I suffer no legal penalties for being Christian.  No mobs are coming to burn down my church.  I pay no extra tax, I'm not prohibited from voting or holding public office, nor am I forbidden from certain professions, nor am I confined to specific areas just for being Christian.  I feel perfectly safe on the subway on Sunday mornings going to and from church.  No one in New York or the USA or the Western World is going to beat the crap out of me or kill me for being a Christian.  Those things could happen to me for being openly gay, even in gay-friendly New York (where we've had a record wave of anti-gay violence including one murder over the last 3 weeks).  In 29 states, I can still be fired and evicted for being gay, though not for being Christian.

I discuss with my friends the prospect of a secular future.  I must admit to mixed feelings about that.  Part of me welcomes this.  Institutional Christianity over the last 2 centuries identified itself with everything anti-democratic and anti-liberal and has thoroughly crapped all over itself.  More often than not, Christians brought up the rear on major humanitarian developments in modern history.  They were sharply divided on issues like abolishing slavery and the emancipation of labor and women that they probably shouldn't have been divided over.
On the other hand, Christianity gave the world everything from the concept  of free will to hospitals.  We may not like the Roman Catholic Church, but it runs the world's largest hospital network with services to the most destitute people.  No one else is doing anything like this on a similar scale.

Also, I'm less worried about a secular world than I am about one that trades in one God for another, and  no, I'm not talking about Islam.  I don't see anything else out there with the institutional muscle and staying power to stand against the destructive nihilism of international capitalism.  We need something more than hippies pitching tents.  We need convictions that are deeper, and expectations that are higher, than outrage over getting shafted by our ruling plutocracies.

All that said, I must confess that I have an inner Anabaptist.  I don't think anyone should be born a Christian.  I think it is something for which that we must make a conscious, informed, and adult assent. Maybe it is time to rethink the whole business of what it means to be a church, to be something much more than some exclusive club of the Elect.  Maybe it's time to quit being so anxious about preserving a clear Christian identity.  Maybe it is time to be that Priestly People catechisms talk about and to do what the Jewish faith calls tikkun or healing for a broken and bleeding world, all of it whether they can say the Apostles' Creed or not.  Perhaps our task as Christians is to fight evil and death, not unbelievers and outsiders.

So what do you think?


It may not answer the question of why anyone should be a Christian these days, but this motto inscribed  over the entrance to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York I think is a great summary of what it means to be Christian and to be the Church:

"The Cross is Medicine to the World"


I've always admired Kierkegaard (a Lutheran pastor all of his life, and never thought of himself as otherwise), for his courage in pointing out what an embarrassment the Bible can be.
An old friend of mine shared on his Facebook page this passage from a popular religious text:

"God pleasantly laid down some very practical and powerful guidelines in the Bible ..."
"Pleasantly?" my friend asked amazed.
I then shared a couple of my favorite bloody passages from the Bible, like this one that inspired Oliver Cromwell in Ireland:

"Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15:2-3)

Or this lovely passage from the 58th Psalm that some people say at hockey games:

"Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces."

And there are so many other passages and stories just like this.


JCF said...

I think in some sense that the Triumph of Secular Humanism IS the Triumph of Christianity. Think about it: everyone, except the truly insane, desires to be Good. Desires the Good. While the antitheists have a "Good Without God/Be Good for Goodness Sake" slogan, it's really an oxymoron. The words "Good" and "God" are inextricably linked. Our very notions of ethical "goodness" come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Good w/o God" merely wants to do away w/ the personality of the Good.

On the other hand, it is because of the oxymoronic nature of GWOG secular humanism (esp antitheism), that threatens it to go off the rails, and actually subvert/invert/pervert the Good. That's the danger, I think, if notions of the Good are completely cut-off from the LOVE that allows Itself to be put on the cross.

But there's another question: the above deals w/ the cognitive (abstract "Goodness", abstract "God"). What of the affective?

The biggest problem for too much liberal Christianity, too much conservative Protestantism, AND most (if not all) secular humanism, is losing touch w/ affective ritual. Sacramentality.

This, of course, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity has in spades . . . but I think that 21st century "Traditionalism" pretends that the Bloody Crucifix/Ikon they venerate is Christ's Blood-mixed-with-their-own . . . when they're actually adding to Christ's Blood the Blood of Christ's Least-of-These (whom they're busy crucifying. See re latest gay-bashing murders in NYC *or* Russia)

Well, that's enough of my blather for now. TEC is closest to Getting It Right (IMHO, of course!), but there remains much more to do. Somehow, those Secular Humanists who choke on the "G word" (the one w/ only 1 "o"!) need to find a way to personalize The Good enough to (say) Eat It. Incense It. Chant It.

Otherwise, "Be Good for Goodness Sake" is nothing but the Capitalist slogan it sounds like [If you want to know where that leads, see re "Michael Ginsberg" on last night's Mad Men!]

it's margaret said...

"Perhaps our task as Christians is to fight evil and death, not unbelievers and outsiders.

So what do you think?"