For a star to form, there is one thing that must happen; a gaseous nebula must collapse. So collapse. Crumble. This is not your destruction, it’s your rebirth.– Jonni Parsons
THE CURRENT RELIGIOUS SITUATION
Christianity is in the midst of an upheaval, having lost its significant influence in Western culture. The related turmoil includes institutional-denominational decline, theological confusion, and the tossing off of once held orthodoxies. And like any period of uncertainty, this one presents both risks and opportunities.
It’s now evident that Christianity has been declining in most of Western culture for decades, even longer. Christianity no longer provides the core, unifying mythic-symbolic narrative for Western culture. Fading are the Christian mythos and ritual practices, yet the culture remains colored by Christian moral notions of kindness, compassion, concern for the poor and weak, and so on. (How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.) Fewer people are going to church, many aspects of Christian cosmology have been rendered untenable, and therefore, many of the mainstream forms of Christianity are decaying.
The West has been deeply shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition and its potential loss comes with risks. Yes, much of the current forms, institutions, and expressions of Christianity should fade away – they’re flawed, outdated, corrupt, and even abusive. Yet there’s a core wisdom in the Christian tradition that merits being kept and reengaged. Much of what’s best, most humane, and most dignified about the West has its origins in aspects of the Christian tradition.
DECLINE OR TRANSFORMATION?
What exactly is the nature of the situation? Is the turmoil and decline currently being experienced the death throes of a once great tradition or the shedding of no longer useful modes of theology and practice? Certainly, significant aspects of Christianity are falling apart – institutional arrangements, the structure of Christian communal life – as well as the dissolution of outdated, stale theologies and positions. So, what is happening?
The current Christian decline has been unfolding for at least the last 200 years, likely longer. Much of this is due to secularizing forces unleashed during the Enlightenment, but it’s more complex than just that. Supplanting Christian influences is a hybrid of secular, humanist, naturalist, consumerist narratives, symbols, values and motifs. Yet the roots of humanist, secular, and even naturalist thought were nourished in Christian soil.
The Christian vision of an ordered universe, the emphasis, even if at times only slight, on a reasoned theology that sought to systematically understand the world and humanity, the assertion of human dignity and the core concept of love of neighbor – these and related concepts eventually gave rise to notions of science, pluralism, diversity, tolerance, free inquiry, and so forth – foundational concepts of the secular worldview.
Therefore, it may be possible to understand the current decline of Christianity as the result of the ongoing, natural pull toward secularism and humanism unleashed by the better aspects of the Christian tradition itself. Elements of the Christian moral worldview and meta-ethics remain (for now.) What’s declining are institutional, denominational, dogmatic, and supernatural expressions of the now unsustainable arrangements and assertions of the tradition.
Granted, the decline isn’t solely an intellectual matter. Many Christian institutions have failed in multiple ways – as moral witness, as credible practitioners of their own values, as positive social and cultural forces. Advocacy of iron age values, banal church experiences, shallow communities, systemic sexual abuse, political overreach, and attempts at cultural control rather than influence has left Christianity seen as a negative social force.
A recent, comprehensive survey of religion in America shows the decline may be stabilizing, but Christianity is not in a good place anyway one looks at the situation. It’s allowed itself to develop in ways that are detrimental, tragic, and even comical. Yes, there are certainly pockets of sanity here and there, but mainstream Christianity is largely unsustainable.
CHANGE IS NECESSARY – THE LAYOUT OF THIS PROJECT
Can anything meaningful come from this crisis? Perhaps, but it will require a significant revisioning and updating of Christian theology and practice, understanding anew the claims of the tradition with the best of demonstrated human learning and knowledge. And it will require the revisioning of how Christians do community and what is meant by church. To quote Bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change, or die.”
My conviction is that new forms of Christian humanism must emerge, centered in a renewed understanding of Jesus’ teachings, that affirm human dignity, freedom, individual conscience, while allowing rational inquiry and science to provide more tenable intellectual foundations for the teachings of Christianity. What is needed is a combination of humanist and Christian ideas.
The following collection of essays explores the cultural context, methodological and epistemological foundations, and the basic tone and flavor of a version of Christian humanism. My theological essays are grouped in two parts.
The first part constitutes thoughts on context and method. What is the broad historical and cultural context of the current transition and what sort of theological and methodological response is appropriate?
In these essays I argue that Western culture is entering a post-secular, post-Christian period. Various intellectual trends formed during the Enlightenment have secularized the culture, particularly naturalism. Most of Christian theology has not risen to the occasion, choosing to cling to outdated theologies, methods, and thinking, rather than properly respond to the challenge by updating its intellectual foundations to align with postmodern reality.
As a possible way forward, I sketch out the contours of what I call an evidential theology – an evidence-based theological approach that balances mythopoetic, metaphorical thinking, understanding of allegory, symbol, and ritual with solid scholarship of all kinds. This is a broad call for the Christian religious imagination to be transformed by a courageous encounter with the best of reason, science, and learning.
The second set of theological essays are broad applications of this manner and style of theology. They discuss a renewed understanding of the nature of divinity which aligns with human experience and science, as well as human religious imagination inspired by mythopoesis. It also applies insights from Historical Jesus scholarship, hermeneutics, and cutting edge textual scholarship.
The result is something of a Christian Humanism, one that deemphasizes abstract metaphysics, ungrounded supernatural claims, and magical thinking, while offering a vigorous proclamation and defense of human dignity that opposes the dehumanizing forces of empire, secularism, and nihilism. This Christian Humanism retains what’s central and vital to the Christian tradition, operating in what Brian Mclaren has described as a broad and generous orthodoxy.
A key word to describe the above project is broad. I paint with a broad brush for the sake of brevity. I am not seeking to construct a full systematic theology, as much as to nudge theology in a different direction, to rethink how it presents itself to the secular culture, and to offer interwoven insights and glimpses of a revisioned Christianity, showing a possible path for the tradition into the 21st Century and beyond.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The complete collapse of the Christian tradition, although unlikely, would be a serious loss for the West and beyond. Despite its flaws and errors, Christianity transformed the West for much the better and in deeper, lasting ways that many fail to realize. Even the most secular atheist would be surprised to fully understand the positive role Christianity has played and its formative function in much of the secular worldview.
Critics tend to focus on the superstitious, magical thinking, and out of step hyper-moralizing of many Christians. Outdated attitudes towards women, a rejection and/or deep suspicion of science and evolution, poorly thought-out theology, coupled with unsubstantiated claims of miracles soaked in juvenile forms of spirituality are easy targets for the New Atheists and fellow travelers.
What fails to get appreciated is Christianity’s contributions to humane culture, it’s moral vision of love, mercy, justice, and care for the weak and needy, it’s role in birthing humanism, the Enlightenment, liberalism and human rights, multiple forms of scholarship, and a personalist anthropology all of which still implicitly, yet tenuously, inform Western culture.
Still, despite its previous contributions and value, the manner in which Christianity is understood and practiced today is too often a pale, anemic expression of such. The degree and scope of change required tends to go beyond the imagination and thinking of many. Partial solutions or change around the margins won’t do.
The stark reality is that the necessary solutions go far beyond tinkering with programs, establishing yet another useless commission, study, or committee, writing more books on church planting or evangelizing, or using this or that language or music at services are not going to reverse the current trends. The problems are far deeper, the issues far broader, the crisis is way beyond what many think.
The way forward will be uncomfortable for most who identify as a Christian. The way forward will require a reformulation and revisioning of theology, keeping the core claims of the tradition, but reanimnating them through the intellectual developments of the past 200 or so years. The way forward will require new ways of being church and community – almost certainly ways that will lean decidedly post-institutional and post-denominational.
GOING FORWARD – THE REVISIONING
For renewal to happen, Christian thinking and practice needs to be revisioned through the lens of evidential reasoning and aligned with the best of human knowledge.
By evidential reasoning I mean a manner of thinking and analyzing that asks for evidence and rational justification for theological claims made, akin to the reasoning that underlies scientific method, without lapsing into scientism. It owes much to soft methodological naturalism. It understands that many religious claims can’t be literally examined by the hard sciences, but it still scrutinizes those claims using today’s standards of reason and inquiry to help us get to their core meanings.
Such an evidential method will also help us reclaim the sophistication to know when the ancient authors were speaking in mythopoetic, symbolic, and figurative terms. For example, the authors of the two Genesis creation accounts were not trying to do science (which didn’t exist then) and they were most certainly not asserting an actual six day creation process. To criticize these authors and their accounts as unscientific or naive is to be missing the point and a category error.
Christianity was birthed in the ancient, classical world. It developed for much of its history in the pre-scientific period. Earlier Christians stated their truths and told their history differently than we do today. Our religious ancestors made their core claims operating within a worldview different than today’s.
Therefore part of the task of evidential theology is to rigorously and carefully ask what our spiritual ancestors were trying to tell us, how they understood the meaning of the claims they made, and then translate those truths in the contemporary intellectual context. This is not a watering down or denigration of the Christian tradition, despite what some critics claim. It is a reapplication of the insights, wisdom, and truths our spiritual ancestors grasped in the reality of today’s world.
The task is therefore dialogic. What were earlier Christians trying to tell us about the world, human nature and wholeness, morality, and the meaning of human life, and how can we understand the core meanings of such from today’s perspectives and knowledge? However, the dialog doesn’t stop there, rather those updated perspectives and insights of meaning are then (carefully, humbly, and respectfully) offered for dialog with the secular culture and today’s realities.
Such a method of religious reasoning may yield a Christian spirituality that is acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern, postsecular, post-Christian mindset, and one that might appeal to those Christians wanting to move beyond unjustifiable theologies, stale expressions and limiting institutional boundaries.
Obviously, I’m not the first to propose such an approach. We all swim through ongoing conversations and writings which provide intellectual context and shape our thinking. The ideas presented here have been gleaned from many authors and sources. This broad project has been engaged in various ways by thinkers such as John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Rodney Stark, Paul Tillich, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rudolf Bultmann, Charles Taylor, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Arthur Broadhurst, Gordon Kaufman, John Caputo, Daniel Maguire, Stephen J. Patterson, N.T. Wright, and Marcus Borg, to mention but a few.
In the following essays I seek to present my ideas clearly, simply, but above all, briefly. Conciseness is often at the cost of thoroughness. Obviously, many of the topics discussed in these essays merit book length works, if not more. In addition to brevity, I hope to offer my insights in ways that are humble and inviting, while remaining open to dialog, challenge, and disagreement, welcoming a valid diversity of approaches.
New, reasoned forms of Christian theology and spirituality must be dreamed. Others hopefully will develop valid, valuable similar projects of renewal as well. The future dialog and cooperation will benefit us all.
I welcome comments, questions, and criticism, my email is below.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)