What do you think of when someone mentioned the God of the Bible?
A fickle sky deity worshiped by a collection of allied city states from Bronze age Palestine that merged to become the ancient nation of Israel? Perhaps an image of an old white haired sovereign on a celestial throne?
Perhaps you think instead of socially conservative religious leaders and their political allies and the things they say in the name of God. Or various injustices of history committed in the name of God.
If you do think of such things, you are far from alone. But like my unsolicited advice to Western convert Buddhists (1), one can ask what may be obscured by such reactions.
This kind of reaction is something many Christians seem to be at a loss over. Here is one take on that loss.
All human knowledge and experience is mediated through and embedded within symbols and analogies, especially in the shape of metaphors. Knowledge and experience is also mediated by and has embedded within it moral (how things are/how things ought to be) and emotional content. This is all woven together into narratives or stories at the level of individuals, communities, and societies.
We are more likely to trust someone whose narrative has a structure and interpretation lines up with our own in key ways, or with whom we have more intimate social and emotional connections. Its reciprocal. If I trust you, I trust your worldview. If I trust your worldview, I trust you.
Religion offers, among others things, a communal response to the spiritual impulse (seeking connection and purpose through integration into higher orders of structure and meaning) rooted in an existential narrative (a story about why we exist). This narrative takes the forms of myth, a story connecting an ahistorical origin of a people ("Long ago..." "Before the world began...") to a moral vision of the contemporary world -- how the world is, ought to be, and will be.
In many contemporary, industrial, post-Enlightenment societies the symbols and images associated with Christianity, its mythology, and its ritual institutions have become problematic.
For those with little knowledge of the religion itself or of its theology and history, the symbols, images, and references to Biblical and non-Biblical stories of faith hold little meaning except for their association with the most visible aspects of Christianity such as televangelism, homophobic and sexist political tirades, and the sex abuse scandals.
For those with limited but intense exposure, such as people who grew up in a socially conservative and fundamentalist evangelical form of Christianity and abandoned it as ignorant, deceptive, or intolerant, the moral/emotional association with the symbols, images, and stories can be downright toxic.
Then there is the fact that some symbols and images and allusions to Biblical stories are so ubiquitous that the over-exposure dilutes anyone but the loudest/most visible interpretations, feeding into and reinforcing the views already described. Add in that this does not come with the widespread and developed sense of cultural literacy needed to make sense of or engage these ubiquitous elements the social smog surrounding Christianity becomes even thicker.
So is Christianity doomed? What can the Church try that it hasn't pursued already? Jump below the break to find out.
Social forces at play
First up, some additional pertinent observations.
One: the Western Churches, Rome and her children, gave rise to a tendency toward literalism, conceptualism, logicalism, and empiricism in interpreting and supporting the faith. This was an outcome of the long-standing efforts by various incarnations of Scholasticism. The consequences of the efforts to make logic and reason supreme set the cultural currency away from areas such intuition, imagination, and the arts. Head over heart. This set the stage for conflict with critics of the Church and the current strategies of atheists in regard to religion.
Two: part of this "head over heart" approach meant that faith was about belief and belief was about intellectual assent to conceptual propositions or formal ideas. Statements about material history and logical assertions. The imagery and symbols and stories were given fixed meanings along these lines, and they became very rigid lines. The poetry of it all became second or third fiddle. Endless min-schisms over doctrine ensued. Attendance became more focused on obligation and less on edification and inspiration.
Three: social forces related to economics and politics -- where people live, the size of their communities, division of labor, type of labor, how goods are distributed, who settles disputes and organizes communal activities -- also affect things such as the form and structure of family and how one establishes and maintains identity. In the early period and hey day of Christendom, major elements of identity formation and maintenance were fairly static. Your identity was heavily embedded within your family and in turn within the local parish. Major changes such as conversion to another religion could be difficult or even dangerous.
Four: the Church(es) had a captive audience for so long that keeping its mythology and associated images and symbols relevant outside of a presumed "insider" context wasn't relevant except to foreign missionaries. Thus all thinking about Christianity has become self-referential. You explain Jesus by discussing the Cross, explain the Cross by discussing Jesus, explain Jesus by discussing sin, explain sin by discussing the Cross, and so on. As social forces have changed, this has become even more of liability. People move about leading interchangeable lives. Many of the previously more fixed elements of identity are ever more fluid and interchangeable. When this and other forces lead to a drop in stigma for not being in church services on Sunday, a steady decline in attendance ensued.
I have only looked at some historical perspectives and social forces responsible for decline in affiliation with and participation in Christianity, but I think they are much overlooked in the rush to become hip and connect to those sometimes referred to as the "unchurched".
What I am suggesting here isn't a quick and easy way to get attendance up to save faltering congregations or some slick evangelism method. I am just offering my perspective on where I think Christianity needs to focus if it want to have more meaningful relationships with non-Christians, especially those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or "none".
So here is the challenge: Try to explain what the core of Christianity is and why it is relevant without using words such as "God", "Jesus", "Cross", "Sin", "Heaven", and "Hell". No references to or from the Bible, either. Then look at how much you are just trying to use extremely similar substitute words and the like to get around the ban without really expressing things differently or in a new way. Don't just say something like "
I was discussing this yesterday with a friend who has spent years going Christian apologetics on the internet, and he expressed interested in taking up this challenge. He is currently on a short vacation from his blog but has agreed to work on this when he starts writing again. If you want to take up the challenge send me a link to where people can find your response and I'll post it here.
I'll give you the same starting suggestion I offered to my friend:
All is/was whole and complete. There /iswas disruption and division. The nature of the things created by this division is/was to remember their wholeness. All is/was whole and complete.
Of course, this basic story can be perceived in virtually all major world religions, and is in some ways the basis for or reflects the mystical/contemplative core they all share. So what, if anything, is the unique or essential Christian take on this story? Or do you have a different starting story altogether? Good luck.
1. Those familiar with this blog will recognize I do claim to speak for or about all Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, and so on. I share what I am thinking or feeling at the moment on a topic and hope you find it interesting or useful.