Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

In time of adversity they will decry it...


Trick or Treat!

 One can look at the comments to this article/book excerpt and think:  "Oh, flapdoodle!"

Religion counters our terror of oblivion.  Last night, I was contemplating the moment at which I cease and it is horrifying, however I cease incrementally as I age.  The real horror is to be snuffed when young, when you don't ache in the morning and everything is vivid and fresh.  If we weren't cognizant of our deaths, we wouldn't have imagined gods.
....

One can only contain, control and wall off their young people for so long, but that doesn't stop Christianists from trying.  Children have, if nothing else, a strong sense of justice that will come to the fore sooner or later.

Rather than lament that their precious children have forsaken the church for the world, the parents should be grateful that they weren't murdered in their sleep.
...
i am quite comfortable with the multigenerational stories told in this article; mine firs right in.  summary: less religion is better in every way.
if you don't agree, listen to ted cruze's daddy preach for a while.

Although I pretty much agree with this one:

 Oddly enough, religious folks are just another social group of like minded people.  They are honestly not much different than say environmentalist.  Both groups deserve the opportunity to have input into the political process, we accept his as the divers nation we are.  Funny how the millennials are so un-accepting  of diversity.
Which prompted this response:

 religion is a great threat to government, because, by its  special nature, it demands to be the government.  religion is, therefore, a special case, and should be excluded from the political process.

I've seen many on-line groups as exclusionary and reductive as any religious group is supposed to be, and just as determined to have their way and exclude others from the political process.  The old line about pointing one finger at me, and three more are pointing back at you, comes to mind.

Or even the older line about the speck in your brother's eye and the log in yours; which, as I never tire of saying, is a fine example of the understanding of optics and reflections in curved surfaces.  Objects in mirror are MUCH closer than they appear.

And I like the idea that children have a strong sense of justice; wonder why that hasn't manifested itself by now in society at large?  Maybe because none of us who are old now were ever children?

As usual, the comments never engage the substance of the post; they just provide a springboard for mouthing preferences and prejudices (my commenters, of course, are excluded from this broadside allegation!).  But there isn't a lot of flapdoodle in the article, although "Generation Atheist" is wildly misleading (blame the headline editor, not the authors of the book).  As the set of statistics notes:

It turns out that atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. In a poll asking which of the following groups “shares my vision of American society,” out of a list that included Muslims, homosexuals, Jews, Hispanics, and immigrants, atheists were in last place. Asked if they would disapprove of their child’s marrying someone from a list of minority groups, atheists again were last.
Never, ever, underestimate the power of social approval/disapproval.  And don't confuse (as the article doesn't) atheist with "nonreligious."

As for the article:  it attaches several factors to the decline in religious belief/concern among "Millenialists" (it rarely uses that term, thank goodness):  

Today’s young adults marry and have children later than their predecessors and also enter the workforce later, extending the life cycle phase (the college years) when religious attachment tends to wane. Increased rates of higher education may be another factor. A Harris Poll reported that 86% of Americans without a college education believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, while only 64% of those with a postgraduate degree believe so.

A third explanation for the rise of Americans claiming no religion is the increasing politicization of religion. Michael Hout and Claude Fischer argue that the political right has become so identified with a conservative religious agenda that it has alienated moderates who consider organized “religion” a synonym for an antigay, antiabortion, procivic religion agenda. At the same time, while they may feel disenfranchised from organized religion, many of them remain privately religious or “spiritual.” This reaction against the politicization of religion is seen particularly among young adults.

A fourth important factor, one that has not before been pursued in detail, involves intergenerational transmission: the increase in the number of religiously nonaffiliated parents who raised their children without a religious tradition.
 None of these reasons surprise me.  The first two can be regarded as one because they have, I think, the same root:  college students tend to want to be independent of their parents, and attending church was probably a requirement, not a joy.  There is, however, another possible explanation:  if the church you attended at home was where your friends were, most likely none of them are at the churches near the college.  Church attendance for community, rather than religious, purposes is a force not to be overlooked lightly.  Indeed, there is probably more reason to examine church decline based on disruption in social groups than for any other reason.  I'll try to return to that; if not here, then in another post.

And, continuing the thought, once away from church, especially if you don't marry someone from your church/denomination, it is easier to abandon church.  Time pressures are such now that Sunday, which used to exist exclusively for church and then football (in my childhood, anyway, and Sunday afternoons outside football season were empty, indeed), now competes with soccer games and other activities for school aged kids; and it generally demands a time commitment most people don't have the time for.  When church becomes just another claim on your schedule, it's easy to walk away from it, especially if you are a college graduate chasing a professional career (which is more likely to demand your time beyond 40 hours a week).

And there's also the idea of what church is for.  If it is to secure for you the blessings of God, and you already have them, what do you need God for?  Yes, it works for Joel Osteen; but Joel Osteen also isn't starting a new denomination anytime soon.  He's not gonna franchise that "Gospel of Wealth" stuff.  It's market seems large in one place, but in the aggregate, it's quite small indeed.

The third factor is interesting (especially to the headline writer), but I think is the least credible and most shallow.  There are factors moving here over generations.  Just watching "Good Night and Good Luck" last night, I was struck by how little the vocabulary of political fear has changed.  Sen. McCarthy himself, in newsreel footage (not an actor reading lines) spoke of "terrorism" in a way that would fit very comfortably in 2013; but he was speaking almost 60 years ago.  His allegations of crimes and suspicions were no better grounded than the wildest statements of Ted Cruz, yet nobody calls out Cruz on his lies, either.  Not to his face, that is, where it might count.  The same mendacious journalism was being practiced then, the same market pressures on real news were in existence.  Everything old really is new again.  History didn't start with Jerry Falwell or with the Hippies becoming Yuppies becoming parents of Millenials.

And there is the simple fact that most of the people in churches (I speak from experience) are old.  By now, I'm among them, clearly.  Old and grey and full of sleep, and insisting the church local be run to their satisfaction.  Unless there is a very large contingent of young people in the church, what would attract young people to the church?  Church, after all, walks that line between monastery (full of those committed to the life religious) and social hall (full of those here for the fellowship, and little more).  It is usually dominated by people who "have always done it this way," and that contingent is not inclined to make the church experience (in worship or out of it) more congenial to the "younger generation."  Church is, more and more, a voluntary association (which ties in with the third factor), and why volunteer for the fights church life inevitably engenders, fights usually across generational lines?  I learned from my experience that if I spoke to the younger people in my church, the old people soundly resented it (my sermon inspired after discovering Harry Potter may have inspired the few young people in the church, but it annoyed the hell out of people of my generation and older; granted, they were looking for a reason to be annoyed).  But this leads me to the major concern with the life of the church.

150 years later, we are still discussing the changes that occurred with the rise of historical criticism in Biblical studies.  Many of those changes didn't reach American churches fully until the 1970's (I'm familiar with the story of "Seminex," the seminary in exile, because the professors of Seminex served a portion of their brief exile at Eden Theological Seminary, my divinity alma mater.), so the fights are even more recent than one might imagine.   Dom Crossan and the Jesus Seminar (who are already out of date; Biblical scholarship ages as rapidly as computer technology, and for much the same reasons) barely make a dent in the consciousness of most churchgoers, and if they did, the dent would be a nuclear-blast crater, especially if they were taken seriously.  There isn't any real challenge to historical criticism in Biblical fields anymore, except among fundamentalist "Bible colleges," but there isn't any real acceptance of it in the pews, either.  This is a distinct problem of its own, one not addressed in the Salon excerpt.  But this distinct problem highlights other distinct problems across generations, problems created by an ahistorical notion of history prevalent among most Americans.

One of the claims of the Church, starting with the Catholic church when it was universal, and continuing through even the most anti-Papist members of the Reformed movement, is the awareness of the church as composed of a cloud of witnesses in time and across time.  That cloud grew to societal proportions unseen since medieval Europe in America after World War II, prompting even than an ahistorical assumption that Americans had always gone to church (they hadn't; the post-war church boom was an aberration in several ways, one of them historical).  But that cloud always implied a people located in time and connected across time, if not space, with so man others.  It is almost ironic to mention this only a few days after All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day, days observed by some Protestant churches (Lutheran and Episcopalian prime among them), but by no means by all; and just after Halloween, an American festivity that takes its inspiration from the Celtic belief that at Samhain the veil between this world and the next was thin, and ones loved ones (later to become demons.  What was up with that?) could be near, and should be honored.  We have often been aware of death though not afraid of it (that's a modern predicament, not an ancient one; so the idea that religion is about the fear of death originates, not with neanderthals, but with Freud in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.  There's really not much about Freud's thinking that anybody thinks he got right anymore, but ideas, unfortunately, are bulletproof; especially the silliest ones).  Now we are more likely to fear death so much even the thought of our relatives continuing in a spiritual form makes us think of demons and goblins and other undesirable bumps in the night.  And the idea that we could be connected to believers across time when we don't even think we have that much in common with Grandma and Grandpa (who, after all, didn't grow up with cell phones or e-mail or Facebook!) is implicitly a hard-sell.

Which isn't to say this Salon article gets it all wrong; it is an excerpt from a book, after all, there is doubtless much more to the book than this post contains.  But there is clearly more to the dynamics affecting church attendance or church allegiance than these four factors described.  And we have to look beyond those factors to begin to understand this situation and what it really means.

First, as I say: this is not new.  It did not spring sui generis from the political activities of Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell.  It is not the result of Millenialists being self-centered or growing up with social media or just generally being better educated than their elders (they aren't; take my word for it).  The roots here are deep, the causes long in developing.  When you can listen to the historic speeches of Joe McCarthy and realize almost nothing has changed in 60 years, you begin to see that everything old really is new again; and it's new largely because we think history began with us, and will end with us, and what little that happens in between (in an historical sense) is all that could ever happen, and it all happens without connection to past or future (at least after the future ends with us).  It's as old as, well, as the description of "hip" "new" Christians in this Amanda Marcotte column.  The common denominator among the five "hip" Christians Marcotte identifies is that they are still peddling that "ol' time religion" that I by and large grew up with, or grew up among (holders of such ideas as "doctrine," in other words):  homophobic; anti-sex; judgmental; what Marcotte aptly labels "...the cranky, judgmental church of old."  It was old (and "of old") when I was a teenager, and that's forty years gone now.  Things change; and then again, they don't.

The Preacher was right:  there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

So the roots of the current malaise actually connect me with the Millenials, rather than disconnect me.  Not that most Millenials would care to hear that; nor would I much care to tell them.  I'll bore my grandchildren with stories of my childhood, when we have to make "long-distance" calls and telephones had "dials" and TV stations went off after midnight, and there were things like "Test patterns."  Maybe I'll even tell 'em about CONELRAD.

The roots of the problem lie in the problem of history; but they also arise from the problem of the church in time, a church that often would rather be frozen in amber, or wants aggressively to be as au courant as possible.  The UCC was the first mainline denomination to authorize the ordination of gays and lesbians; but it doesn't even get a shout out in this Salon post about evangelicals, where the Evangelical Lutheran church is credited with ordaining a gay bishop in 2013 (to be fair, the author seems to confuse the ELCA and the historical term "evangelical" with the more modern designation of a type of conservative Christianity).  The UCC has, for decades, protested Chief Wahoo and the Washington Redskins name; they don't even get a mention in the stories on that controversy now.  The UCC has strained so hard to be on the cutting edge it is often on the bleeding edge, an edge blamed for the bleeding off of members since it was created in 1957.  There is something to be said for respecting tradition.

The problem comes when you start worshiping tradition.

150 years later, and the Church is still coming to terms with historical criticism in Biblical studies?  This is rather like saying science is still coming to terms with the idea that chemistry is not going to answer all our scientific questions, that maybe we should give physics an audience.  (It's no coincidence the longed for Grand Unifying Theory in science is in the field of physics.).  The position is not just hopelessly out of step with the teachers of the church (seminary professors who train pastors for pulpits), it's hopelessly out of step with the present day.  We continue, from the UCC to the most hardshell foot-washing Baptist fundamentalists, to approach the problems of 21st century life with 17th century (at best) attitudes.  I will admit the best music for singing by untrained persons are the hymns of the 19th century (they have the loveliest melodies), and the best form of worship is rooted in medieval and Catholic Europe.  I would still even champion a church calendar based on a year that has no relationship to the solar calendar, retails sales, or school vacation time.  But the best approaches to what it means to be a Christian should be explicable in terms consonant with our understanding of the world and our understanding of the human position in the world.  Karl Rahner should be more common place than controversial (or, more likely, unknown); Rudolf Bultmann should not still provoke either bewilderment or consternation (he is still the particular bête noir of "educated" evangelicals and fundamentalists; that is, the ones who have actually heard of him); the Jesus Seminar and Dom Crossan should be widely appreciated, if not widely accepted, simply because they talk and think the way we do today, and not the way some did in the 16th century.

I love the King James Bible, but can we please stop treating Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer as if Jesus and David spoke like Shakespeare?

I don't have the answers to this problem for the church, although I suspect the better course lies with the example of Pope Francis than with that of Pope Emeritus Benedict.  I do know this problem didn't start with Jerry Falwell or the invention of the personal computer. and that it won't be solved by making church "hip" or "cool" (we tried that in the late '60's.  Anybody else remember it?  Anybody remember any lingering effects of it?  Even the folk masses of Vatican II didn't mark a sea change in the declining interest in organized religion we are seeing across Europe and America.)  I do think the problem is old and deep, if only because Eliot identified it in the 1930's.

"New" churches reach backwards, to Calvinism, for their inspiration.  Mars Hill is almost as simplistic as Joel Osteen, just in a completely different direction.  Both have simply surrendered to the world, one the latter by embracing its standards as God's, the former by throwing up its hands and saying God will save you or not, and all we can do is point to your failure.  No, I'm not kidding:

Marianne Esterly, a women's counselor at Mars Hill, says she tries to help women resist the desperation that can come with forgetting that man's chief end is to glorify God, not to obsess over earthly problems. "They worship the trauma, or the anorexia, and that's not what they're designed to worship," she says. "Christian self-help doesn't work. We can't do anything. It's all the work of Christ."
I'm not sure we're "designed to worship" anything, but the bigger problem is the idea that failure is the fault of the individual, is perhaps even (thanks, TULIP!) the will of God.  Do we really need to revive those notions, when there are much better theologies to be pursued?

In the end, of course, this is not the task of one person; and it is not a task the "church" can take on and "win."  Protestant churches no longer have any authority in their realm, because they no longer have a realm.  Once buttressed by society, Protestant churches now exist as wholly-owned subsidiaries of society, anxious to be "responsive" to their members as a sales clerk is in a retail job.  They cannot force new theologies on congregations (nor should they), but they don't seem to be very good at persuasion, either.  I mean, 150 years later and we're still coming to grips with Von Rad in the pews? If we're coming to grips with it at all?

Of course, to emphasize Biblical scholarship is to drain much of the poetry and humanity from the scriptures; but that poetry and humanity needs to wear a new face and speak in a new language.  Then again, we've tried that, too, replace the RSV (which replaced the KJV) with the NRSV, but still nothing momentous happened.   We need to be willing to change our vocabulary, which means we need to be willing to change our concepts about what is central to Christianity and to being a church, and why, and how we can affirm it.

As Eliot said:

The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying
within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while
there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity
               they will decry it.

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