Starting Over Again to Find Our Balance
The news came recently that Protestantism is no longer the majority religion in the good old USA. If you have been paying attention over the last 25 or so years, this will not be news.
There are a lot of reasons why this diminution is going on. Although it definitely has a place in the mix, I want to leave atheism out of consideration, because we should not point fingers; we have enough troubles on our own.
Part of the problem undoubtedly has to do with the edifice complex, as we call it. The high cost of maintenance means it’s not easy to keep up a building, particularly if it is old. But that’s not it either. It’s about people.
This tale of woe reflects a broader fact: interest in and commitment to organizations has diminished all across the boards. Besides churches, fraternal and civic organizations (Lions, Rotary, etc.) are way down in membership, a trend evident since the sixties. But let’s stick with religion.
The figures for other religious bodies are the same. Episcopalians have lost about half their number in the last forty years. For another example, Philadelphia used to have over 300 Lutheran churches. Check the stats these days: less than half remain. The list and the lament go on.
As an aside, I believe the Protestant movement shot itself in the foot by accepting the notion that being active in a church is not an essential part of Christian life. We all know people who claim to be Christian but never set foot inside church. That more is demanded comes as a great shock to those who think you come once when you are “christened,” once when you are confirmed, maybe when you get married, and finally when you’re dead. But with no discipline, there is no gain, so to speak.
One response to this diminution is to circle the wagons and insist on toeing the line on dogma, but such moves are pale substitutes for the cultural-religious complex of our ancestors. Today’s back-pedaling is not connected to culture other than through criticism and opposition. This attempt to trust in a strict system of belief can sour over time and turn into negativity and distrust and, ultimately, a total loss of faith.
In Holy Ignorance, French social scientist Olivier Roy argues that such strictness is a symptom of the secularization of society, not a reaction to it. Think about that. He also says – even more importantly – that many faith traditions have given up so much to the secular world that they no longer offer any sense of transcendence for the seeker. Hence the rapid growth of alternative forms of mysticism.
People find spiritual sustenance where they can, if the tradition doesn’t give it to them. The search for the Holy is hard-wired into us, New Atheists notwithstanding. Nowadays this has meant going outside the church. That movement outside is also part of the complex of loss.
We have work cut out for us. It won’t be easy to find the balance between the extremes of caving into or totally opposing the culture. We will not find that balance through lip service, obscurantism, anti-intellectualism, slogans or bumper-sticker religion. It’s not easy to move back into the public arena when we’ve been sidelined and marginalized for so long. But we have to do it. We are called to nothing less.
We will never see numbers like those in the glory years from the end of World War II through the middle of the Sixties. But we were never promised such opulence and success, just a path to walk in faith and love, following Jesus.
published Friday 19 October 2012