Our crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.– Antonio Gramsci
A SNAPSHOT OF THE SITUATION
Throughout the Western First World, the predominant cultural influence of Christianity for the past 1700 or so years has been waning for decades, even centuries, and this is becoming increasingly visible. Yes, the residue of Judeo-Christian moral insights remains, but weakening is widespread, explicit identity with the mythic narratives and participation in the rituals and practices of Christianity. These traditions are being displaced by other forms of spirituality as well as various secularisms and ideologies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we live in a post-Christian age.
Our current religious situation is one of declining institutions and congregations, declining financial support, declining participation, and declining relevance and even interest. Entire denominations are on a trajectory to vanish within a decade or two. More than a third of Americans are no longer affiliated with any church, the pace of change and effects of this transition are seen even more strongly in Europe. (See the Pew Research Center or Barna Research for studies and figures, and read the latest Gallup poll.)
Church attendance and affiliation is only one measure of cultural influence, but still a useful barometer. Overall, in 2016 73.7% of the population publicly identified as Christian. In 2020 that number fell to 63.1%. The trends in Europe are even more stark. In Ireland, 85% of the population attended weekly Mass at least 3 out 4 Sundays in 1990. In 2020, 31% attended on any given Sunday. Attendance rates are even lower for most other European nations.
Where are all these people going, one might ask? No where. The vast majority of people leaving active church membership or rejecting Christianity outright do not join another religious group. This growing demographic has been called the Nones, referencing the answer they give when asked on a census and/or in various polls and studies to state their religious affiliation: None.
The personal religious views of the Nones are being carefully studied. The only discernible trend is that the group is predominantly younger and clearly reject the form, tone, and mindset of traditional religious institutions. Again, read the Pew Report on Religion in America or Barna Research Studies or any of the dozens of other reliable, carefully conducted studies. (See also, Decline of Christianity on Wikipedia for an overview and references for the above statistics.)
Noting the decline, the situation however may be stabilizing. A recent, 2020 survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), comprehensive in scope, found that Christianity’s institutional and affiliation decline has plateaued for the time being. Research conducted by other groups, including the English think tank, Theos, also indicate a stabilizing of the situation.
Sizable portions of American culture still identify as Christian. The situation in Europe is more dire. While it’s unlikely that Christianity will disappear in the modern West, it is no longer the predominant cultural force it once was. Further, many denominations are grappling with the aftermath of the shrinkage.
Haven briefly considered the above, the question arises – what’s causing all this?
THE DYNAMICS OF THE SITUATION
In general Christianity is being passed over by the mainstream culture not because the culture is corrupt or immoral, but because growing majorities within the culture have looked intently at the claims, actions, statements, and behavior of the tradition, and found them wanting and of decreasing relevance. More and more people are rejecting what they see and are moving on.
Some the decline is due to disappointment in institutional community.
Religious communities are feeling the effects of decades of overreach, unjustified theologies, arrogance, smugness, and abuse inflicted in the name of God and religion. Religion has too often been used to justify the marginalization and control of others, and a price is now being paid for this overreach.
The quality of spirituality being offered in many churches is shallow at best. Much of contemporary Christian theology fosters a spirituality that amounts to magical thinking, wish fulfillment, and ego-projection. Most clergy are poorly trained by ideologically driven seminaries. And the quality of religious education for the typical layperson is abysmal.
Banal music, liturgies, rituals, shallow or irrelevant teaching, and moralizing have taken their toll. People are yearning for authentic communal experience, teachings and ritual that convey spiritual gravitas once again. When Sunday morning is more entertainment than it is reflection, when it’s more political message than exploring communal meaning, it comes at the expense of mystical experience however understood. The failure to convey the mystical and the sacred erodes lasting, authentic commitment.
While all humans exhibit hypocrisy to one level or another, Christians included, the institutional witness of Christian communities has been lacking. When churches spend tens of thousands of dollars installing coffee bars and fellowship lounges, but do little for the poor, when religious leaders align with the powerful and offer no voice for the powerless, and when church communities promote marginalization – when our churches are merely partisans of the popular culture – many recognize such as serious, corrupting circumstances.
When asked by researchers and polling professionals for reasons for leaving a religious institution, one of the most frequently reported was the impersonal and superficial social environment. Report after report talks about how people in many churches are nice, but remote. Many people look to a religious community to find friends or even a spouse. Study after study shows that many individuals who leave, and even those who stay, form few if any lasting relationships with the people they attend services with, and that community members rarely engages one another outside of religious functions.
At it’s best, religion is about meaning, not control. At it’s best, religion should facilitate authentic community. At it’s best, religious thinking and practice must align with the truth as understood through reason and experience. Religion rooted in control and supernatural fantasies will ultimately, necessarily, disappoint. As a result, increasing numbers of people are finding meaning, community, and even mystical experience outside of traditional religious institutions and systems.
Some of the decline is due to intellectual changes.
Much of the decline is also rooted in the playing out of pivotal intellectual trends, the rise of science and the fruition of ideas inherent in the Christian tradition itself (See the work of Canadian Catholic professor, Charles Taylor, Anglican priest-Oxford professor, Don Cuppit, and English Christian social thinker, Nick Spencer, among others, for more on this.)
The Christian worldview of systematic inquiry into an ordered universe, that stressed the importance of learning and discovery, and which preached the dignity of the person eventually gave rise to science, freedom of inquiry, human rights, tolerance, pluralism, and liberalism – Enlightenment and humanist ideas – which have fueled much of the emergence of secularism.
Ideas that flourished during the Enlightenment and after, such as rationalism, nominalism, humanism, and especially naturalism and liberalism all have played a role in secularization. These ideas, and others, shaped modernism with its emphasis on science, pluralism, free inquiry, and the separation of church and state.
More people today accept the concepts of evolution, astrophysics, philosophy, and the social sciences. Many religious assumptions are being challenged and probed using science, systematic research, and above all logic. Such challenges have narrowed or even eliminated many of the gaps which were once filled by God and supernatural claims, and have shown the weakness of many theological assumptions, or at least how they are currently explained and expressed.
Reason recognizes that one can live a good, meaningful, rich, and full life without Jesus, the New Testament, or belonging to a particular denomination. Further, we’ve grown aware that claims of human dignity, compassion, and social justice are rooted in reason and philosophy, not just theology. Christianity can powerfully promote the same, but it’s become mired in inadequate theologies.
Let’s examine the broader cultural context for these developments and trace their roots in the evolution of Western culture.
THE LARGER CONTEXT – THE EVOLUTION OF WESTERN CULTURE
The root of the word culture relates to the soil. To cultivate is to grow. Our understanding of culture originates in agricultural metaphor. Cicero was one the first to employ and popularize the word, writing about the intellectual, political, moral, and religious soil needed to cultivate a virtuous people.
In the broadest sense, the term culture implies the patterns of social behavior and norms found in human societies, including the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, and habits of the individuals within these groups. Culture influences and shapes both the philosophical self understanding and outlook of a people and colors the minutiae of life, including how we dress, eat, and even greet one another.
Culture arises from the people, it is embodied and engendered. The relationship between a culture and its people is mutually constitutive, with individuals being formed by the culture in which they live and then, through their actions (individually and collectively), shaping the culture moving forward. Therefore, culture is always dynamic.
Culture is narrative. Much of cultural narrative is mythic, meaning the foundational, underlying plots, metaphors, and stories that help people make sense of their world. Various religions have often provided central cultural narrative for peoples throughout history. Secular narratives such a progress and consumerism also shape a culture.
Culture is also multivalent, consisting of entwined and interwoven subcultures of ethnicity, religion, nationality, economic status, and place. As such, systems theory is often an apt approach to understanding cultural dynamics.
Anthropology, history, and philosophy speak generally of Eastern and Western cultures. By the East, we mean the cultures of the great civilizations of China, India, Japan, Korea, and their surrounding areas. By the West, we mean the cultures of European civilizations and those nations and regions where its influence was established through immigration, expansion, trade, and colonization (Europe, North America, Australia-New Zealand, and to lesser extents much of Africa and South America.)
Again, such distinctions always suffer from inexactitude and ambiguity. Is Russia Western or Eastern or something else? How would we culturally describe the Middle East and it’s rich history? Is Japan today Western or Eastern? Argentina seems thoroughly Western, but what about Brazil? Given the complexity, scope, and richness of culture, we must be careful not to over generalize, recognizing our inability to fully describe or explain a particular culture.
The foundations of Western culture are a hybrid of the influences of the classical world (mostly Hellenism and Roman influences), the religious worldview of Judeo-Christianity, and the pre-Christian influences of the Celts, Gauls, Germanic, Slavic peoples, and others. Each of these sets of influences engaged, clashed, and changed one another.
Our purpose here is to understand, even if only superficially, the underlying worldview of the West, its core ideas and narratives, in relation to Christianity. For the sake of our efforts here, we will concentrate on the West’s general transitions from classical culture to Judeo-Christian culture, now shifting into more secular expressions. The following overview is quite generalized with broad sweeping strokes, for the sake of brevity.
The Transition from Classical to Christian Imperium
The classical world of Greece and Rome gave us the origins of democracy, philosophy, the rule of law, and the notion of the human individual as person. It’s religious outlook was polytheistic, animist, and pagan. The classical world’s achievements are impressive. Yet that same classical world also gave us slavery, fierce tribalism, frequent military conquest, and abundant forms of dehumanizing imperialism.
Despite the erudition and achievements of the Greco-Roman world, the culture it helped spread was violent, abusive, and in many ways, harsh. Women were viewed as inherently inferior. Many peoples of the world were viewed as being naturally slaves.
We today, living in the contemporary Western world, often overlook that the same peoples who brought us the foundations of justice, democracy, and law, also practiced infanticide, the subjugation of women, and slavery. The same peoples who gave us early notions of human dignity also engaged in public forms of entertainment that included the bloodsoaked barbarism of gladiatorial combat and the public execution (various forms of torture and feeding to wild animals) of criminals and the marginalized. In the classical world, the poor and lowly mattered little, sex was often used as an expression of power, and life for the average citizen was harsh.
The ancient Greco-Roman world was a very harsh slave society with little interest in humanitarian considerations. Is there a single case of humanitarian prison-visiting in the whole of pagan antiquity? Did anyone organize relief for the survivors of Pompeii? In a largely pitiless age, it is scarcely surprising that Christianity had appeal.– Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West
The Romans adopted and then adapted earlier Hellenism, spreading it far and wide through its empire. With imperial armies, governors, and law also came imperial ways, values, and ideas, the totality of which is sometimes called the imperium.
Civilizations and cultures change, and few, if any, empires or imperiums last forever. The Roman Empire mostly decayed from within, collapsing due to the inner rot of corruption, economic inequality, military overreach, and violent grind of its daily life. Those who sacked Rome merely hastened the inevitable decline.
In the classical world, Christianity started as a marginal faction of religious rebels and misfits who were seen as subversive by the imperial elites. The Christian sect, committed to the ideas of an itinerant Jewish rabbi cultural revolutionary, was considered dangerous because their ideas and values directly challenged the imperium of Greco-Roman culture.
Christians refused to offer ritual homage to the emperor or participate in public-pagan sacrificial meals. Christian values stood in critique of those of the empire. Justice through peace, not war or violence. Concern and care for the poor, lowly, and marginalized. A sense of the dignity and value of all persons, not just some. Mercy, love, kindness, compassion and mutual care as a way of daily life – the witness of the early Christian communities slowly won it converts and aided its growth and endurance. It also earned it the occasional wrath of Rome.
Eventually the outsiders became insiders. Whether Christianity would have developed into a global force without Constantine is hard to say, but it had grown beyond a marginal collection of small communities. Constantine’s official sanctioning of Christianity cemented the eventual integration of it in the empire as well as its eventual dominance.
The dominant cultural narrative of Imperial Rome, condensed in the epics of the Iliad and Aeneid, was gradually replaced by the narrative(s) of the gospels and biblical writings. Christianity, at least as understood in those periods, become an underlying force of a new imperium.
Christianity supplanted Greco-Roman paganism and Christians moved up in the ranks and eventually took the administrative reigns within the crumbling empire. The Empire of Rome was now co opted by the Kingdom of God. However, with power and influence often comes corruption, and Christianity would feel the corrupting effects of imperialism, too. Roman Empire gave way to Christendom and both changed each other.
The Transition from Christendom to Secularism
Much happened on the long way home from the coliseum. Christianity became the dominant Western cultural influence for the next 1,000 years. While Christendom wasn’t always faithful to the vision of its founder, it did produce, overall, a more humane culture. And despite the crusades, inquisitions, religious wars, and persecutions, offered the world a more compassionate vision rooted in love, mercy, and kindness. This moral vision remains, albeit imperfectly, influential today.
Human nature is more or less a constant regardless of the culture. And human nature has proclivities toward love and mercy and creativity, as well as war, hatred, and destruction. Christianity tempered and directed human proclivity toward compassion and kindness in ways Greco-Roman culture could not.
With Christian influence came the first hospitals, the end of infanticide, the rise of universities that typically started as cathedral or monastic centers of learning, somewhat improved literacy, moderate cultural improvements for women, and greater provision of food and care for the poor and needy.
Yet human nature remains human nature. While Christianity is a tempering influence, it did not eradicate war, violence, tribalism, or other such darkness. Christian nations went to war against Christian nations, tribal and clannish hatred still erupted, and oppression was not eradicated. But the culture of daily life under Christianity was a marked improvement compared to that of the Greco-Roman culture and it’s baseline harshness.
Culture is never static. Within the blending of the classical world and the Christian worldview were the seeds for today’s secular West.
The Christian West (influenced by the classical vision) developed the humanism of the Renaissance, the focused reason of the Enlightenment, and the later emergence of science, technology, and industrialization. And yes, the Church resisted much of these developments. However, the sources of resistance to the Church, and criticism of it today for past and current behavior, find their roots in Christianity itself, therefore emphasizing its success in having changed the moral and anthropological underpinnings of Western culture.
Within the massive cultural shifts of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even Romanticism are seen the hallmark ideas of human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, market-based economy, and liberalism. Within the same cultural movements and transitions also were the notions of freedom of conscience, tolerance, pluralism, individualism, and various forms of anti-dogmatism.
While many of these notions took time to reach fruition, and are still developing, they remain the hallmarks of the better aspects of the West as understood today – and they owe much of their genesis to Christian influence. Naturally entwined in Western Christianity were the seeds of the secular world to come.
You may consider yourself secular, but the modern Western secular world is itself a Christian creation. Nobody in the West can be wholly non-Christian.– Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West
What we assume to be the very modern, secular vision of a universal humanity, of love for all, of breaking down tribal and cultural barriers is present in the Christian notion that there is no longer “gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female” the vision of the fundamental unity of humanity of Paul and in the actions and teachings of Jesus.
The multifaceted Enlightenment that birthed modern science also motivated the drive to hermeneutics, critical textual theory, and other philosophical ideas that undergird today’s biblical scholarship – the same scholarship that opposes the array of literalisms and fundamentalisms prevalent today.
With notions of freedom of conscience, inquiry, and speech nascent in Christian and classical influences, came the Reformation, the dismantling of church exercise of secular power. As an expansive view of freedom and rights developed, eventually did the recognition of the freedom to choose one’s own religion or no religion.
After the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, and the work of Darwin, comes the growing acceptance of evolution as causal narrative, along with the slow spread of a naturalist mindset. And it is this naturalist mindset that plays a significant, but not singular, role in secularizing the West.
Naturalism, at least in it’s soft, methodological form, is an application of the principles of scientific method to assertions, essentially the notion that our factual claims require justification. When presented with claims of miracles or divine action or message, individuals operating from a naturalist mindset ask for proof – evidence, repeatability, explanation – they will seek to verify the truth of the claims. This inclination is not ideological or inherently anti-religious, it’s simply how evidential reasoning functions.
Along with the scientific method, naturalism, and evidential reasoning comes the decline in variations of mythopoetic thinking that formed the pre-scientific world. The modern mindset leans toward the factual, the literal, and the logical as explanations for things. We moderns explain and tell our history differently than our ancient ancestors. We today see the world through these lenses.
The result of all of the above has been an ongoing secularization of the culture. Although there continue to be important disagreements among scholars, many begin with the premise that secularism is not simply the absence of religion, but rather an intellectual and political category that itself needs to be understood as a historical construction woven from many strands. Taylor and Cupitt, as well as others, argue against the view that secularity in society is solely caused by the rise of science and reason – such a view is far too simplistic and does not fully explain the subtle contours of our present culture.
Taylor, in particular, argues that the transformation from Christendom to secularism was accomplished through three major thrusts motivated by various forces: one, an anthropocentric shift that posited nature as human’s proper dwelling place, that the world is not a temporary home before arriving at an eternal destination; two, the idea that God relates to us primarily through the impersonal order – namely, the natural world; and three, the idea that religious claims must be compatible with accepted forms of reason.
Taylor and Cupitt disagree on the way forward. Taylor finds secularism, while a natural outgrowth of Christianity, too limited and stunted, unable to point humans toward genuine and authentic forms and sources of fullness. Cupitt, on the other hand, finds secularism not only a natural outgrowth of Christianity, but still shaped by its fundamental anthropological and moral vision, and therefore, to be embraced and further cultivated.
There are reasons to be wary of popular narratives of simple, cost-free supersession, whether narrated by Christians or by protagonists of the Enlightenment (secularism). Both sides believe they hold the key to genuine progress, a humane culture, and the truth. Yet both positions are ultimately incomplete and lacking nuance. And, as I hope to show, both need one another.
The Transition into the Post-Secular, Post-Christian Age
Our cultural story is ongoing. While Christianity is certainly in decline and transition, it likely won’t disappear, nor will religion in general. There’s growing consensus that Western culture is now moving beyond simple notions of secularism into a postsecular period where religious influences, albeit somewhat diminished, will not been eradicated. In a sense, we are beginning to learn how to use religion as a personal and communal tool for meaning and interpretation within the context of a secular culture.
Evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and sociology are increasingly concluding that human beings are inherently religious. Granted, religious is carefully and strictly defined. Still, the insights show human nature and the human mind being inclined toward narrative and meaning and respond deeply and powerfully to ritual and symbols.
A pivotal European thinker analyzing postsecular culture and the developing relationship between naturalism and religion is Jurgen Habermas. In several essays and book length works, Habermas concludes that the height of secularization was experienced after the Second World War and that the shift to a postsecular direction is now underway. It’s also important to note that Habermas is himself, not religious.
Habermas acknowledges the decline of Christianity in Western culture, but like many evolutionary theorists is convinced that the religious impulse is inherent in humans and that the forces of Christianity are too deeply embedded and formative of Western culture to eradicate.
In his “Notes on a Post-Secular Society.” Habermas concludes that cultural and human progress in the postsecular, post-Christian age requires a rapprochement between religion and secularism. Both sides, each from its own viewpoint, must accept an interpretation of the relation between religious thinking and scientific-secular knowledge that enables them to live together in a self-reflective manner. Religion benefiting from the forces of secularism (Enlightenment, science, and reason) and secularism benefiting from the collective religious wisdom, now being revised and updated, concerning the meaning of human life, morality, and human wholeness.
The secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernization is losing ground. Therefore, we face a different question: How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must those religiously minded and secularly minded reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that social relations remain civil and that intellectual, political, and cultural collaboration remains,
If Christianity hopes to play a significant role in the West’s ongoing development, it needs to align and reformulate its theology according to forms of reasoning that dominant the culture and human learning in general. It must participate in the rapprochement of post-secularity.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)