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
Christianity is in the midst of a crisis. The related turmoil includes institutional-denominational decline, theological upheaval, and the tossing off of once held orthodoxies. And like any crisis, this one presents both risks and opportunities.
It’s now evident that Christianity is declining in most of Western culture, perhaps even collapsing. The West has been deeply shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition and its potential loss comes with risks. Yes, most of the current forms, institutions, and expressions of Christianity must die off – they’re flawed, outdated, even abusive. Yet there’s a core wisdom that merits being kept and reengaged. Much of what’s best, most humane, most dignified about the West has its origins in aspects of the Christian tradition.
In the place of Christianity, a secular humanism is emerging as dominant. 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, most forms of Christian cosmology have been rendered untenable, and therefore, what comprises Christianity today is collapsing.
COLLAPSE OR TRANSFORMATION?
Or is it? Is the turmoil and decline currently being experienced the death throes of a 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apart – institutional arrangements, the structure of Christian communal life – as well as challenges and rejections of outdated, stale doctrines and positions. So, what is happening?
The current Christian decline has been unfolding for at least the last 200 years. The roots of humanist, secular, and even naturalist thought were nourished in Christian soil. The vision of an ordered universe, the emphasis, even it times only slight, on a reasoned theology that sought to understand the world and humanity, the assertion of human dignity and the core concept of love of neighbor – these and related concepts eventually give rise to notions of pluralism, diversity, tolerance, free inquiry, and so forth – foundational concepts of the secular worldview.
What first must be understood is that much of the current decline of Christianity is 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 remains (for now.) What’s declining are institutional, denominational, dogmatic, and supernatural expressions of the now recognized untenable assertions of the tradition.
The decline isn’t solely an intellectual matter. Many, if not most, 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, abuse, political overreach, and attempts at cultural control rather than influence has left Christianity in general seen as a negative social influence.
A typical Sunday morning across America in thousands of Christian churches finds sermons about angels and demons, assertions of miracles, uninspiring, unimaginative services that fail to convey any sense of sacred realities, often coupled with teachings that denigrate women and other marginalized groups, and often with a good dollop of sexual obsessiveness.
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. Many (although not all) Christian understandings concerning pleasure, culture, work, technology, the arts, the cultural meanings of gender, the role of women, and non-Christians are possibly beyond repair. Yes, there are certainly pockets of sanity here and there, but mainstream Christianity in most its forms is a hot mess.
The problem is not that Christianity in theory and in practice is irrelevant to the common culture – it’s that it’s increasingly untenable, uncredible, and often offensive. Much of the decline is merited, justified, and likely a good thing. As a result, increasing numbers of people are leaving churches, rethinking their theological positions, or exploring other options. Some are simply giving up religion altogether.
CHANGE IS PAINFUL, BUT NECESSARY
Can anything meaningful be pulled from the wreckage? Perhaps, but it will require a significant revisioning and updating of Christian theology and practice aligning the claims of the tradition with the best of demonstrative human learning and knowledge. It will likely require the death of the majority of denominations and institutions. 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.”
The death or significant diminishment of many aspects of the Christian tradition would be a serious loss for the West and beyond. For many, what passes as Christianity today, thus shaping their understanding and impressions of the tradition, are formed by decayed and distorted expressions of such. Mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and above all – mega non-denominational churches as practiced today prevent most from gleaning the enduring, profound intellectual, moral, cultural, and practical contributions of Christianity through the ages. Even the most secular atheist would be surprised to fully understand the positive role Christianity has played and its formative function in even much of the secular worldview. Despite its flaws and errors, Christianity transformed the West for much the better and in deeper, lasting ways that many fail to realize.
Still, despite its previous contributions and value, the manner in which Christianity is understood and practiced today is 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.
When faced with the growing evidence of the current decline many seek to blame others – liberals, conservatives, modernists operating within theology and Christian churches and institutions. Others lay the blame at hostile cultural forces of secularism, consumerism, the sexual revolution, and so on. Some argue that the solution is a return to “fundamentals” or the Latin Mass, or the emergent church style, or theology in the pub, and other such efforts.
The stark reality is that the necessary solutions go far, far beyond clinging to limited and outdated orthodoxies, Benedict options, reengagement of the culture at large, 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, or style at services. 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 find any meaning in identifying as a Christian. The way forward will require that many give up ways of thinking, revise cherished ideas, abandon or revise whole forms of current practice of and leave behind many traditional concepts, themes and topics once considered essential or pivotal. The way forward will require new ways of being church and community – almost certainly ways that will be post-institutional and post-denominational.
The way forward will require each and every Christian to alter their theological thinking. It will require the popularization of cutting edge biblical scholarship and criticism, hermeneutics, cultural studies, historical Jesus scholarship, and intellectual developments that have been going on in the background for over 200 years.
The Christian experience and tradition needs to be revisioned through the lens of evidential reasoning and aligned with the best of human knowledge – evolutionary theory, systems thinking, astrophysics, psychology, biology and genetics, the neurosciences, and the best historical scholarship has to offer. The result of such a project will likely be forms of Christian humanism capable of being intellectually rigorous and reasonable and which in practice will be organic, simple, and authentic.
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 requires applying the best of human knowledge – science, social science, historical scholarship, anthropology, cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology to all forms of spirituality and religious practice.
Such a method of religious reasoning may yield a Christian spirituality that is acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern mindset, one that might appeal to those wanting to move beyond unjustifiable theologies, stale expressions and limiting institutional boundaries, yet one that is authentically capable of transforming those who engage it.
What needs to emerge is a non-institutional, horizontal, intellectually credible form of Christian practice and thinking that focuses on love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, one centered on questions of human dignity and meaning, but which puts aside unwarranted, simplistic, supernatural assumptions. Such seems to be the natural evolution of Christian spiritual expression through the insights of science, personalism, humanism, and liberalism – all of which arise from earlier Christian cultural influences to start with.
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.
My own spiritual history has been varied. I’ve benefited from the love and insights of different traditions and communities. But I feel the time has come to return to my cultural, intellectual, and spiritual roots which are Western and Irish. But what I’m returning to can’t be earlier forms or understandings of the untenable forms of supernatural spirituality and practice that are now justifiably spent and dying.
New, reasoned forms of Christian spirituality must be dreamed. Others will also develop valid, valuable similar projects of renewal as well. Hopefully, the future dialog and cooperation will benefit us all.
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, any of the topics briefly discussed in these essays merit book length works, if not more. Above all, 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.
Some will find my ideas misguided, flawed, and even dangerous. Others may find in these essays ways to ground a meaningful spiritual practice in our contemporary world. Some may find their reactions mixed.
This is not a purely academic or intellectual venture. Myself and a few others are exploring a home-based, non-affiliated, diverse, spiritual community we’re currently calling Nourish, here in the Grand Rapids-West Michigan area. Nourish is not a church nor affiliated with any denominational tradition. It’s an attempt at organic, local, diverse, authentic spiritual community. People meet to socialize, share meals, discuss ideas and books, and celebrate holidays.
Also, this site isn’t a blog. From time to time, I may post a new essay. I also have a section of resources – links to others’ essays and a reading list with recommended books. Additionally, there’s a section with information on Nourish. While I will continue to refine my thoughts here, I’m not going to engage in daily or weekly posting.
I welcome comments, questions, and criticism, my email is below.