Thursday, April 26, 2012

Will Christianity rediscover its relevance in the West?

A cross close to the church in Grense Jakobsel...
A cross close to the church in Grense Jakobselv, Norway. Suomi: Risti kirkon lähellä Vuoremijoella, Norjassa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Will Christianity rediscover its relevance in the West? While Christianity is growing in many parts of the non-Western world, it continues to age and shrink in the West while becoming seen as less credible and relevant. Yet in the United States, people are not simply rejecting anything and everything to do with either religion or spirituality. Some are turning to other traditions, such as Buddhism,while many are identifying as "spiritual but not religious". While some do refer to themselves as atheist or agnostic, not everyone who adopts such labels are hostile to religious and spiritual things.

This suggests that many folks who are abandoning or rejecting Christianity (the latter never having embraced it to begin with) are not simply "turning away from God", especially in the broad sense of God as some greater meaning to existence, a transcendent or higher power, or some deep inner light that cannot be explained or contained. They are specifically turning away from the contemporary Christian presentation of God. They are turning away from the social and political agenda associated in the popular consciousness with Christianity, especially when it involves shunning or shaming the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, and others who are marginalized and disenfranchised by society.

The confluence of cultural, social, economic, political, and historical factors that are involved in this transition are too complex to be mapped out and dealt with in detail here. I am going to focus on something that stands out to me, but I don't claim it is the only issue or the most important one when it comes to the decline of Christianity in the West. Yet I do think if it is taken seriously it could not only resonate in this age but actually help Christianity to remember itself. To move toward a reawakening. 

Starting Assumptions

To make my direction clear, let me briefly review some things I have written before based on my analysis of religious thought, primarily from sources in the Christian and Buddhist traditions.

First, religions run the risk of idolatry by conflating its symbols and stories with the realization that they are meant to represent or engender. If you took away the the Bible, the image of Jesus, and the Cross, what is left of the Gospels, for example? Some will say that they would have no reason to care for the poor, to forgive their enemies, to pray or seek the welfare of those they do not personally like, and so on. Their convictions are external or at least are only externally motivated.

This is consistent with a dualism in which God is good and external and people are distinct from God and bad. It is also an immature version of spirituality. This isn't intended as an insult, it goes to the original meaning of immature, as in not fully developed. Christ, or Buddha, etc, has not truly been "discovered within" or "found in the heart". That is, their essence, what they represent, only exists as an external notion, not as a fundamental aspect of ones own nature.

Once this has been discovered and fully realized, the external symbols may still be seen with fondness but it is no longer necessary to cling to them as some form of salvation. They are reminders of a deeper truth that does not depend on particular rituals or doctrines, as the latter are imperfect expressions of or invitations to the former. Thus one finds Jesus beyond Jesus, Buddha beyond Buddha, God beyond God.

Second,  each sacred tradition can be seen somewhat like a Rosetta Stone or cypher to communities with a particular cultural and historical background and individuals with a general type of psychological profile and personal history. When successful such traditions can deconstruct and unlock the psycho-social dynamics which obscure or retard the development of a more profound awareness of the self and its relationship to its environment.

This awareness can be used to appreciate the self-limiting assumptions and attitudes as well as self-serving deceptions and denials which create suffering for oneself and others. Because we create and live in socially constructed realities, these decoders can reach, reveal, and resolve subconscious patterns that influence our emotions, perceptions, and motivations through symbolic action. We are taken out of our normal boundaries and expectations and move into the timeless world of the dominant myth where we participate in its flow and rhythm.

The value of such participation isn't readily summarized, but it can include a chance to gain a new perspective on ourselves and the views we take for granted in our daily lives, an opportunity to make a meaningful connection to others with whom we would otherwise not (which has many additional psychological and social benefits), and a sense of humility toward our failings and empowerment toward our strengths. Norms and values become more than just rules or commandments, they are revealed within ourselves as we face the same scenes and choices that the mythic characters do.

Third, a major purpose of sacred texts, liturgies, and so forth is precisely to recreate these experiences and insights. They are often beyond the question of "literal vs. metaphor". This blends with my first point as well. One result of this confluence is that "God" is a placeholder in our consciousness and our linguistic expression of experience, therefore "God" will take on different meanings and appearances to people in different cultures, statuses within society, historical periods, and phases of life.

That isn't to say "God" is meaningless or can mean simply anything, but instead that "God" appears to move and change because our minds are always moving and changing. Just because one has baggage associated with the term "God" doesn't make "God" irrelevant, only that understanding of the word or the word itself. The underlying reality, the basis of our existence, which each person must investigate for themselves, remains.

Idolization occurs when a very narrow depiction of this underlying reality is becomes fixed, turning into a misrepresentation for the sake of the comfort of false certainty. "God" then becomes a fragile reflection of ones own ego (or a community's collective ego) which must be defended at all costs and even imposed on others. This is often the "God" that people find to be so intolerant, oppressive, and unbelievable.

Is what was relevant yesterday relevant today?

From this type of thinking flows the question of the relevance of Christianity. Many of the same problems that existed at the Jesus is believed to have walked the Earth are around today:

  • poverty; 
  • religious hypocrisy and the concern for personal purity, reputation, and salvation over the welfare of others; 
  • subservience of religion to institutions that thrive on greed, injustice, and inequality and which use physical, social, and emotional violence to achieve their goals; 
  • the exploitation, scapegoating, and abuse of those who are don't fit the expectations of what "good and decent" folks are supposed to be like (the poor, women, those of the wrong occupation, ethnicity, nationality, or religion, those from the wrong sub-culture, those who have committed crimes, etc);
  • jingoistic nationalism and patriotic exceptionalism as the de facto secular religion of the state. 

The list could go on for quite some length. It is hardly a novel observation, but the historical evidence suggests that Christianity was originally quite subversive. All revival movements think they are getting back to the "original" Christianity, which we only know in fragmentary form and filtered through a contemporary perspective, but this statement about early Christianity is not controversial.Part of what made it subversive is that it directly confronted the problems listed above.

This confrontation drew upon a Hebrew prophetic tradition which has long challenged views of God or religion which were too comfortable with the state and which failed to criticize the corrosive effects of social inequality and neglect. The people who are drawn to Jesus in the Gospels (canonical and otherwise) tended to be those who were rejected, neglected, or harmed as a result of this corrosion, which at its heart is fueled by corruption.

John the Baptist and later Jesus of Nazareth called people to repentance, to accept forgiveness as a platform to soberly and gratefully re-evaluate their lives and to move toward a more whole and growth-oriented way of living. The examples were often concrete, but they tended to have cultural undertones. It was understood that certain acts were associated with particular communities, institutions, or attitudes, which meant that challenging these acts were challenging people's association with certain groups, systems, and perspectives.

For example, today one might talk about cohabitating without being married. Not long ago, this was considered a serious violation of social norms. To do so would be seen as a case of intentionally disregarding the standards of the community. It was also presumed to be based on some form of illegitimacy--after all, if there wasn't something improper about the relationship, why wouldn't the couple just follow tradition and get married? Hence, those trying to make a case about disrespecting community values might have pointed to this as an example: "Do not be like the unwed cohabitators..."

Yet it turns out that cohabitation is linked to poverty and economic stress. Because the roles and expectations for married individuals revolve around being reliably employed while earning good wages and the financial stability this allows, many chose against marriage precisely because they were following these other social norms and values. Presently, economic uncertainty and other forces are gradually making marriage less likely than cohabitation, and if the trend continues, using cohabitation as an example of flouting conventional standards will become irrelevant.

It has long been understood that one must to look beyond an act itself to what it said about the individual and the effect that it had on the actor as well as others. Jesus is recorded as having taught on this very topic. Using this framework, homosexuality is no longer associated with pagan rituals, lack of self-restraint, or demonic possession. A study of sex beyond humans shows it isn't rare or abnormal, but part of the diversity of forms and behaviors that exist regularly in nature. Thus, if one wished to complain about violating natural patterns or a lack of self-restraint, there are many more suitable targets in modern society such as genetically modified foods or impulsive consumerism.

In a tragic irony, rather than seeing repentance not in terms of the external acts but what they said about a person's internal state, too often Christians advocate a selective literalism that follows unfounded prejudice and allows for vicious and promiscuous judgment. Hence their calls to repentance are reduced to calls to adhere to a particular set of cultural norms that may or may not be consistent with contemporary requirements of fairness, justice, compassion, and other values that repentance is supposed to promote. The calls to repentance sound like calls to feel guilty for the sake of feeling guilty, or for the sake of meeting some legalistic set of requirements for admittance to a paradise in the afterlife, or worse, for the sake of being guilty of being yourself.

Thus those Christians who reject such legalistic judgmentalism become very wary of talk of repentance, the consequences of choices, and the value of redemption. It all sounds like blaming the victim, because in large part that is what it has become. It sounds like creating a problem (guilt) in order to sell a solution (grace) because that is how it has been marketed. Through self-proclaimed spokespeople "God" sounds very petty, angry, and out of touch. And many people, especially younger people, do not like what they are hearing. Atheism, spirituality without religion, and other alternatives start sounding better.

What a strange twist then that many early Christian communities were considered atheistic because they didn't serve or give offerings to the gods of the Roman Empire. They were a fringe group that gained popularity precisely because of their care for others, their insistence upon bringing justice, liberation, and a call for repentance and renewal to everyone regardless of their status or reputation in society. It is not a picture that squares well with the popular image of Christianity today, wherein what matters most is unquestioning allegiance to the external symbols, doctrines, and rituals of (the) faith.

The relevance of these external symbols is fading for many, and with it the relevance of Christianity and its gospel. It is too ironic that Christianity is an establishment religion and that when people become disillusioned with it, in some cases for the same reasons people in New Testament Palestine became fed up with their own establishment religion, they are stigmatized by the Church (referring here collectively to all Christians, as opposed to the system of beliefs, rituals, etc, which is referred to as Christianity). In a strange way, the tables have been reversed. Today's Christianity is in bed with governments, the military, the wealthy and powerful, and has learned to sustain itself by its privileged position. And as this privilege shrinks, it looks to blame cultural changes and all manner of external enemies for its decline.

Christianity has largely neglected to translate the underlying spirit of its message and its mission into something relevant to the societies in which its dominance was taken for granted. With that dominance in decline, what message does it have to offer? What is its mission? Just repeating some story about a day laborer from Nazareth who was really God and who died to save you from your sins isn't spreading the gospel. The cultural bridge between the time when that story needed little elaboration or unpacking and the present has long since collapsed. Literalism reigns in the religious imagination of the believer and the skeptic alike, even among those who decry literalism. The ability to read such symbols and enter such narratives with the heart has given way to trying to analyze and reconcile them with the head.

Moreover, the collusion with the systems of "worldly" power, the prejudicial judgementalism against those who are often excluded from such power, and the conceit born of centuries of being the dominant religion in Western societies undermine interest in these symbols and narratives. What possible value could they have if the people who supposedly understand and practice them behave in such a fashion? Religion in general and Christianity in particular come to look like antiquated systems of power and control driven by superstition and greed. Little additional investigation is warranted. And fewer people fill the pews.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The conclusion to be drawn here isn't a surprise.

Christianity needs to learn how to speak to modern people in a way that respects its tradition but which accepts the realities of contemporary society. Some of it, such as justice and aid to the poor and the outcast or calling out the wealthy and powerful on their responsibilities and abuses, need little translation. But other areas, such as sexuality and gender, badly need such recontextualizing. More crucially, the Church needs to rediscover and share the importance of the poetic imagination in reading about or reflecting on issues concerning the soul and heaven and similar notions. The flat, reductive, left-brained understanding of such things is akin to vivisection. It is brutal, agonizing, and will kill the very thing you wish to study.

The following recommendations are merely starting points for imagining what a relevant Christianity could or should look like, and it is similar to what it described in the historical accounts and those of the New Testament:

Churches need to be places where the weakest, the poorest, the most misunderstood, and all others who are stigmatized feel the most welcome. Don't believe in God? Or think God is awful? Come, let us feed and serve you with no expectation of your "conversion". Feel unworthy, hopeless, or abandoned? Come, let us feed and serve you with no condemnation or forced attempts to "fix" you. Just bored and looking for something to do? Come, let us feed and serve you with no attempt to put on a big show to keep you entertained.  And when we preach about repentance and the gospel, we will make sure it isn't about being "one of us" or what is wrong with you. It will be about our own shortcomings and what is right with you. And it will be translated in a way to make it accessible, to show why it is potentially meaningful to modern life, and offer instruction in understanding our symbols, stories, and rituals and poetry of the heart.

Churches need to be places where the most powerful, the wealthiest, and the socially and politically popular and connected feel more self-conscious and in some cases uncomfortable. Where they are confronted with the reality of the injustice and violence that frequently enables and supports their "good fortune". They shouldn't be made to feel unwelcome, but neither should they be allowed to carry their status and the privileges that go with them into the church. They should be reminded of the numerous teachings of the responsibilities of those who have such assets--the stories of those who used them wisely and generously, those who used them poorly and selfishly, and the consequences of both choices. They should be encouraged to use their influence to promote the welfare of all and especially the most vulnerable. This extends to the clerical system as well, where applicable, where a model of servanthood should be the rule rather than a model of lordship, with those in places of higher rank seeing their role as guiding and serving those placed under them. Some ancient monastic orders, such as the Benedictines, are good representatives of such a model.

Christianity needs to reassert its emphasis on healing and serving and divest itself of any roles which support individual or institutional promotion of social inequality, violence, or injustice. It should be the first and loudest voice for those who have none, or who are drowned out by the concerns of the powerful and the popular. It should lead the way on preserving and demonstrating the importance of the spiritual life and perspective in matters of ethics, conflict resolution, and cultural change, working with other groups and traditions seeking the same goals without trying to compete or self-promote. Humility and confidence have no need of such pursuits.

The point is not whether any of this will get more people to attend Christian services or become church members. It isn't about reversing the loss of power and prestige of a religion. It is about the relevance of that religion, and what it will be going forward. It is about the necessary debate over the future of Christianity that present in books and blogs but largely absent in national meetings and coffee hour. The hour grows late.

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