My blog-buddy, BTG, recently took exception to my claim that Christianity is dead — or if not dead, then rendered irrelevant by modern life. I want to defend my claim somewhat in this limited space, though I would say at the outset that even if it is true that Christianity is no longer a vital force in our postmodern culture, there are certainly many good people who profess to be Christians and attend church regularly. And there are Christian communities around the world that still share the deep beliefs of bygone days. Perhaps this is true even in this country, here and there.
But when we consider that a study conducted in 1993 concluded that only 19.6 percent of the Protestants and 28 percent of the Catholics in America were in church in any given week, we must pause. If we contrast this with that period of 1000 years in Western history when Christianity was a vital force, say, up to the Renaissance, I think I can make my case without repeating more than necessary what I have said in previous blog posts.
In the so-called “middle ages” atheism in Europe was practically unknown. The majority of men and women attended church regularly, sometimes daily and two or three times on Sunday. In addition, the invocation of saint-protectors, the cult of relics, the division of the day by the bells that sounded regularly from parish or monastic church permeated the air and threaded a sense of security through life’s many uncertainties. But one thing that was not uncertain was the assurance that a good life would be rewarded in heaven and a wicked life would be punished by eternal damnation. This was assured and it gave medieval people a center to their lives and a hope that is greater than anything we can compare it with these days. As Carl Gustav Jung said in his intriguing book Modern Man In Search of a Soul:
“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were the children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for blessedness; and they knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. . .
“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brothers, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”
Modern man, as Jung goes on to argue, seeks to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of this all-encompassing spirituality by amassing wealth and engaging in such fads as scientology, encounter groups, therapy, T-groups, creativity workshops, meditation, est seminars, and the like. These replaced the certainties of medieval life and the pervasive influence of the church with its many clerics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, lay members of various religious orders, all identifiable by their costumes — to the tune of from one to three percent of the entire population. The lives of these people were filled by the church and, as Henry Adams argued convincingly, much of the certainty they shared was due to the loving influence of the Virgin Mary whom they considered their own mother who would forgive them, regardless how great their sins, and lead them to eternal joy in the life to come.
There can be no question that religion generally pales today in contrast with the religion of those years. The causes of these changes cannot be identified with ease, but there do seem to be a series of factors that have brought about the retreat of Christianity and religion generally from the lives of the great majority of us Westerners today. As Adams argued, the Protestant Reformation severed the ties medieval men and women had with the Virgin Mary and, as a result, the Church began to retreat from their lives and seem somehow remote and abstract, though some might argue that the Great Schism and the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church created a sense of growing uncertainty. There was also the invention of the printing press, which made available to a great many more people the written word — especially in the form of the Bible which they could read for themselves: they no longer had to rely on someone else to determine how to live their lives. Further, the birth of modern science that lessened suffering and prolonged life on this earth while relegating religion to the dust bin of “superstition” had a powerful influence as well. And, of course, the birth of industrial capitalism, as I have argued in previous blogs, had a powerful impact, especially given the impetus of thinkers like John Calvin who insisted that material prosperity was a certain sign of God’s grace and love, whereas it had previously been regarded as a sign of earthly corruption. Add to this two world wars, recurring plagues and pestilence, especially as modern cities grew more heavily populated, and one can understand why many began to regard this world as “absurd” and ceased to believe in anything but what they could see, hear, and grab for themselves.
What resulted was a growing unwillingness to make personal sacrifices together with the retreat, slowly but surely, of a life centered around thoughts of the world to come as a release from the suffering that seemed inevitable in this world. These were replaced by a world view centered on the self and the security in this world that could only be assured by wealth and a solid social structure shielded by a strong military presence. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Christianity (if not all of religion) is “dead,” because, as noted above, there are sincere believers who seek to live good lives according to the commandments of God. But the number of such people has shrunk to meager proportions as the desire to gain material advantages has increased and spread throughout the Western world. To be sure, there are pockets of resistance to the spread of materialism, and entire communities that can still be called “religious” in a meaningful sense of that word — especially in what we derisively call the “third world.” Furthermore, there are certain elements of the Christian religion lying buried in whatever is left of our sense of charity, duty, and right and wrong. But as a generalization I think the case can be made that religion, for the vast majority of people alive in this century, is a faint shadow of what it once was: it simply does not comprise the center of most lives; it survives, if at all, on the periphery.
Hugh, great post as usual and thanks for including my thoughts in the mix. I like to separate Christianity from organized church service. Per your comments above, I think organized religion, for the most part, has become more exclusive and lost track of their audience. I think that is a one reason many Christians ceased going to church regularly. The Catholic Church with its extremely poor and, in some respects criminal handling, of the pedophile priests, showed they cared more about the institution than its members. And, it is still is out of touch with its members on birth control and gays/ lesbians. Yet, with that said, Pope Francis has brought the focus back to where it should be on social injustice. This is inclusive ministry is winning more hearts and minds of Catholics. But, have they returned to regular church service? Maybe not in droves.
On the protestant side, the evangelicals are becoming very exclusive and narrow minded in their views (the man written bible is 100% accurate, gays’ lesbians are evil, creationism is science, etc.). These views are driving people away. I think most Christians would call themselves inclusive with a social conscious. So, when the church is at odds with that, it gives them heartburn and conflict. The more non-denominational churches tend to do better at attracting people.
Yet, your posts on “Earth Mother” and “Now Generation” are connected in another key way. People don’t go to church more out of not wanting to invest the time. Church services need to give you comfort and people are saying it is not worth that effort. I would add many say they would rather watch football at home than go to a game, so that tells you something about the desire to cocoon than socialize. So, in our country, we have people who choose to be non-church goers, yet still call themselves Christians.
Christianity is not dead. It just has more passive believers. Of course, to your point, you need passion to keep the fire burning. Again, thanks for making me think about this. Take care, BTG
In short, I believe over the last 50 years or so, “Christianity” has been hijacked, mostly by the politicians, but also by other groups. It has also been in a self-destruct mode for some time, most recently by the catholic pedophile acts and the churches protection of same to the detriment of its members, and the greed of church leaders and their responding to wealthy “benefactors.” See Langone of Home Depot and his attacks on the Pope.
The last thing is christian churches becoming more exclusive, shutting their doors to only the most specific kinds of members. Jesus would open his arms and say, “come, all are welcome.” Todays christians would close the doors, until you pass the rites of admission.
Christianity, like our democracy as a whole, is in a self-destruct mode for lack of vision and fear of change.
g’morning my friends!
barney’s reply triggered a memory from the late 1990’s. an episcopal priest, in her sunday sermon, referred to a recent mission trip to central america. each day there were more and more people gathered around the gates where they stayed at night. during a meeting, someone asked what could they do about all of those people… someone else asked, ‘what would jesus do?’ and someone else stated, ‘jesus would not be behind those gates. he’s be with those people..’
Exactly what I mean, Z. Well Said and Well Done! Christianity here has become a joke, an excuse to exclude people, and be biased and homophobic, all under the auspices of christianity. I can’t help but believe Jesus would cry in shame for what the churches and religions and religious and political leaders have done in his name.
I agree with Barney about this. Christianity is about what Jesus would do and this part of the world has totally ignored that question repeatedly.
Hugh, I don’t disagree with you that in America and Europe Christianity is not what is used to be. Our lives are gobbled up by materialism, and we do often turn to sources outside the traditional church for spiritual and emotional fuel, if we bother to seek them at all.
But I would encourage you to take a global perspective. According to a Pew Research Forum study in 2010, Christianity is alive in the world – just not as alive in Europe and America as it once was. From 1910 to 2010, the number of Christians in the world grew from about 600 million to 2.18 billion.
And it has spread. In 1910, 67 percent of all the world’s Christians lived in Europe and 27.1 percent lived in the Americas. In 2010, only 26 percent of all Christians lived in Europe, and 37 percent in the Americas.
24 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa and 13 percent in Asia and the Pacific.
A way to think about it closer to home: there are now more than 5.3 million Lutherans in Tanzania, or slightly more than the entire population of the famously Lutheran atate of Minnesota.
I did mention that in what we like to call the “Third World” Christianity seems to be a strong and vital influence. But my focus, like Adams’, was in Europe and America.
Hugh, I read that. But part of me worries that if we adopt the view of focusing largely on the West it becomes one more layer of “a worldview centered on self.” There is so much the west can learn from the energy and less self-centered practice of faith in other parts of the world – not that any place is ideal, of course – that I wish we would include those areas more often in discussion.
I agree, but feel unqualified to speak about what I know little or nothing! Thanks, Dana, for filling in at least some of the blanks!
Great comments. Following up on Dana and Hugh’s discussion, in the work we do with folks in poverty, whether it be here or in a Third World country, is the less you have often makes you cling more to your faith, as that is all you have. For example, with our volunteers to mentor homeless families, we used to make certain that the mentors knew not to proselytize to the homeless families. What we found can be summed up by our original Executive Director, who observed “who is witnessing to whom?” Our families with little showed a die hard faith that often times shamed the mentors as they had so many material things. This is one of the points of Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity.”
Barney and Z are right that some have used religion in our country as a weapon to divide. We need to get back to the Big Tent, where all are welcome. I have written a couple of posts about this, but this is a clear line of distinction between Billy Graham and his son Franklin. Billy welcomed all, while Franklin will make you take a survey to see which boxes your checked before you can enter the tent. Thanks Hugh for throwing a great discussion. BTG
And thank you for contributing — as usual. I do think there is an inverse correlation between the amount of money one has at hand and the depth of one’s faith. That’s what I try to point out when I note the inherent contradiction between capitalism and Christianity. The one urges open competition to get as much as possible, the other urges people to give it away to the poor. What we like to call “Christianity” avoids any mention of the sacrifices Jesus calls for in the New Testament. Today’s Westerners don’t much care abut making sacrifices. We have come to care more about creature comforts. At the risk of over-simplification, that’s my point. Thanks again, BTG, Dana, Barney, and Z for your usual thoughtful comments.