"Where's all the people?"
So here we go, again: Christianity and the problem of "belief".
Even if it is true that American liberalism would flourish if it returned to the churches, the prospects for that happening are slim. The biggest reason people have left the mainline is not sociological. It’s theological. People simply don’t believe what the churches teach about God. No social or material inducement may make a difference. In that sense, secular liberals are more sincere about belief than are adherents to the prosperity gospel, which promises riches to the faithful.
No, I'm not going to argue with definitions of "belief," as if that would make a difference to anybody; and I'm not going to attack the "theology" of the idea that people are leaving mainline churches because of theology. In fact, I think that's true. I think the problem is the age of churches, v. the age of "millennials." As the article points out a few paragraphs earlier:
Half of American Presbyterians are age 59 or over; half of atheists and agnostics are under 34.
(No, we're not going to argue the boundaries of 'atheist' and 'agnostic,' either. Take them as read.) Valid or invalid, the statistic is arrestingly accurate, and puts me in the median age of Presbyterians, if not of most mainline denominations. And take it as read my millennial-aged daughter, who loves me dearly, would not get out of bed on Sunday morning to come to church if I still had a pulpit. Because I would be one of the younger people there, and she would be one of the youngest.
Age does matter.
So the problem is still not theological, otherwise Joel Osteen's services would not be packed with younger people, and so many non-denominational and non-mainline churches would not be flourishing (in the parts of the country where they do. Granted this is as much cultural as anything else.). But in another sense, it is. When I was preaching the gospel according to Dom Crossan (well, strictly speaking, I never was, but might as well have been for the elder members of my flock), the young people (teenagers then; adults with children of their own by now) liked it. It was the "old people" who didn't. (They didn't, as it turned out, like a lot of things. Let's keep this simple for the purpose of discussion, okay?) I knew there was a theological component that appealed to the "olds" and one that appealed to the young. Let's set "atonement" as the line of demarcation.
It's a dangerous line, because it's the surest way of getting me labeled an "atheist," if not at least a "non-Christian" or at best a "liberal Christian," meaning too liberal to be trustworthy in matters theological. Again, the fight over my theology is not the issue: that this theology provokes a fight, is the issue. Is such a theology, then, to be dismissed, quelled, kept quiet, discarded? Am I throwing out the baby with the bathwater to preach it as a valid Christianity suitable for a new generation, as new wine to be put into new wineskins?
The interesting thing about that metaphor is that the wine is always wine; it is not fundamentally altered from the traditional definition of "wine" by being new. It's still wine, and wine still needs wineskins, or in modern parlance, bottles. The metaphor now might be: do we need corks, or are artificial corks acceptable? Tradition says only cork will do; but cork was only used because synthetics were not available, and synthetics to do the job cork did, without the problem of supply and destruction (since so many more people like wine today than did before) are now actually superior.
You can tell already, if you didn't know, that I'm not interested in arguments about conserving traditions. In my experience traditions do quite well on their own. I find liturgical worship far more interesting than "modern" worship, or even the Reformed tradition of worship so many Protestants are familiar with. This is not, however, a universal pleasure, as well I know. Still, I find it a tradition with virtues, with life, with adaptability, as opposed to the modern forms of foolishness I saw in videotapes in seminary. Or the dull, rather lifeless forms I sat through in the Reformed tradition, forms beloved by some but deathly dull to me.
But what about that issue of "belief"?
I suspect that for many of the spiritual liberals Jain and Levites are talking about, there is just one problem: belief. According to a Pew Research Center study released last year, the most common reason adults gave for disaffiliating from the religion of their childhood was that they no longer believe. Only a quarter of them identify as atheists or agnostics; the rest are, religiously speaking, “nothing in particular.” These non-religious Americans do tend to be politically more liberal than religious ones. They are Douthat’s audience.I think there are as many different definitions of "belief" in those paragraphs, as there are uses of the word. But that analysis doesn't approach the fundamental problem. The question is not "What do we mean when we use the word 'belief'?"; the question is: "Do we need to define 'belief' in a way that makes sense to people today?" Because I don't even agree that belief is the core of Christianity; in fact, I think the insistence on the point is the problem.
Even though his argument is mainly sociological, Douthat acknowledges that belief is the key obstacle. But where Pascal invited the nonbeliever “to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions,” Douthat browbeats the atheist. “Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.” This glib approach only makes skeptical readers dig in further against faith. Belief is no trivial matter; you can’t taunt someone into it.
Going back to Christianity’s origins, Paul taught that it was belief, not ethnicity or social status, that made someone a Christian, and faith, not deeds, that made a Christian worthy of salvation. The Protestant Reformation and, later, the growth of Evangelical churches reiterated this emphasis on belief as the core of Christianity and the prerequisite to belonging to the church. In the gospel according to Prince, now a year departed, Jesus assures his listeners, “All I really need / Is to know that you believe.”
As any number of atheists who attended a seder for the Jewish Passover last week could tell you, belief is not inherent in all organized religious practice. But it is in Christianity. The teaching that Christianity is first of all about belief was intended to open church membership to any person. In a skeptical age, it may be the biggest impediment to greater Christian affiliation and the broad-based civic Christianity Douthat wishes to see.
Then again, I'm an atheist; or a closeted agnostic; or a "liberal Christian."
Younger Americans who have left Christianity are simply taking a longstanding Christian doctrine at its word. The churches told them they had to believe in order to belong. They don’t believe. So they left. In doing so, they may well have left a vacuum in their lives and communities. But in an important sense, they may also have taken Christian teaching more seriously than the Times’ official believer does.
Belief was once the cement that held together the church as a pillar of society, the argument goes. It doesn't anymore, and frankly it hasn't since at least the 1960's. None of this is new, it's just an ongoing change in Western culture that dates back to the Enlightenment. Then again, was it belief that made the grandparents of my German-descended church members say "You must go (to church)!" in German? (It sounds so much more imperative in that language.) Was it belief that made my alcoholic grandfather sober up and get to church every Sunday morning? Was it belief that made my father go to church, even as he grumbled about every pastor the church had but the one he liked, long ago? There wasn't much belief in my parents' reaction to my decision to leave a failing law career with a 1 year old daughter in tow and move away for one more post-graduate degree and yet another career, this one in ministry (except a belief I was making a mistake). How much belief have I ever seen in any congregation? How much was belief a motivator for any of the people I pastored, the ones who loved me and the ones who despised me?
I don't think any of them were motivated by belief at all: neither in the certainty of the existence of a Cosmic Judge who would weigh us and find us all wanting, nor in the assurance of a loving God who wanted only the best for us. That was background; but it wasn't foundational. Something else was foundational, and I'm not sure at all that something else was theological.
People found in church what they wanted, what they needed. My fondest church memories are of people my age being there. I had friends in church that I didn't have at all in junior high, and new friends in church in high school. My parents had friends in church we socialized with frequently: Sundays after church, Friday or Saturday nights; Christmas and birthdays and New Year's and 4th of July. They had children my age, we were all friends because of the church we all knew each other through. Did belief really matter? We said it did, when questioned; but was that just a socialized response? That church no longer exists, either for my daughter or for me. The church I grew up in was the church of my parents, and they persisted in it long after I was free to go, and then I moved away. I found churches with people my age, but fewer and fewer with people my age and religious preference (not a "mega-church," thank you very much!) or, later, with children the age of my daughter. Then I became a pastor and churches kicked me around and I left altogether (again, recapitulating early adulthood), and there the story becomes too personal to be universal. But what happened to that church of my childhood? Did we lose our belief? Did we lose our theology?
Or was the change sociological? Some left the church of my childhood over perceived matters of theology, but it was really no more important (or valid) than leaving because you didn't want the church by buy new carpet for the sanctuary, or you didn't like the new pastor. It was never because of "belief." Why is it now?
I suspect because belief is an easier target to aim at. Of course, I can understand why people want to think it's about "belief" when you have office seekers wandering in front of microphones to say stuff like this:
"I personally believe, as many Montanans do, that God created the Earth. I believe that God created the Earth. I wasn't there, I don't know how long it took, I don't know how he did it exactly. But I look around me at the grandeur in this state and I believe God created the Earth."I don't believe what that guy believes, but what theological position am I going to take that's going to fix the perception that his belief is my belief? Preferably something I can fit on a bumper sticker or sing in a hymn, because nobody wants to come to church to read my theological arguments. I don't think, however, arguing about my belief v. his belief, or even about the subject of belief at all, is going to do a thing for mainline Protestantism.
Establishing churches where people feel welcome and are among people their age, will. What kind of church would interest people as young as my daughter? How would I know? I'm an old guy, and I'm sure my beliefs about it are a very secondary consideration. There are reasons to continue the work of the church that are far more concrete than "belief."