Tuesday, April 19, 2005

So, it's not just us....

Start with news of the world and the ekklesia:
To understand the crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, visit the Seminary of St. Sulpice in Issy-Les-Moulineaux outside Paris.

The vast 100-year-old structure, built on the ruins of a 17th-century chateau, contains vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows and hundreds of rooms. Pope John Paul II visited here in 1980 on a trip in which he chastised the French for abandoning the church.

But the seminary's corridors are dark, the individual living quarters largely empty. Only 52 seminarians are studying this year, a decrease of 50 percent from a decade ago. Many of them come from as far away as Vietnam and Rwanda.
When I entered Eden Seminary, in St. Louis, before classes started the new students held a weekend retreat at Kenrick Seminary. Well, it had been a seminary, for Catholic priests. Despite the fact that St. Louis, as the RC priest who taught us Pastoral Care said with a smile, had "more Catholics than you can shake a stick at," the Seminary had long ago converted to a retreat center.

The building was built to house about 200 men, and house them comfortably. The cells were small, but the hallways were huge, long and wide. It's no exaggeration to say I could have driven my MG Midget down those halls, and turned it around at either end to go back. There were classrooms, a chapel, kitchen and dining room; it was completely self-contained, under one roof. In fact, there were two groups using it that weekend, and we never ran into each other. It was, of course, almost completely empty.

If the requirements for the priesthood were as high for many Protestant denominations, those churches would have the same problems described in this article (many do, anyway). Most Protestant seminarians now are married, probably retired, or on a second career. Eden Seminary was built originally to house single men. It was still adjusting to families with children from near-college age to nearly new-born when I was there. And some of the professors were still used to dealing with young college graduates, not people changing career in mid-life. But that's another story, and only fits in here as an example of the changes society is forcing on the churches worldwide.

Perhaps it is because the world is finally more attractive than the church, that this question of competition arises. Ekklesia meant those called out of the world, gathered together out of the marketplace, literally. Maybe the marketplace is just a more comfortable place to stay than it was before. In earlier ages the world offered little in the way of advancement or even placement, and the church took in many who were simply willing to do the work. The notion of "calling" didn't gel until Martin Luther was forced to form his own church rather than allowed to reform the only church he knew. Where once the church filled a cultural niche, either as a secure employer or as a source of some social status, it has fallen now not only in the wake of the ebb of the post war boom, but more deeply, in the backwash of the Enlightenment.

That, at least, is the usual diagnosis. A.N. Wilson's God's Funeral popularized that idea a few years ago, and it's become the reigning explanation for the decline of the church in Europe. But things are seldom as simple as that. I was struck by this passage in the New York Times article:
Only 21 percent of Europeans say that religion is "very important" to them, according to the often-cited European Values Study, conducted in 1999 and 2000 and published two years ago. A similar survey in the United States by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number at nearly 60 percent.

The trend away from regular participation has been so noticeable that it has even been given a name: European apostasy.

"European Catholics are not against the Catholic Church," said Ulrich Ruh, editor of the Catholic monthly Herder-Korrespondenz, based in Freiburg, Germany. "They go to church at least once or twice a year and bring their children to be baptized and confirmed. Rather, they have made their own personal arrangements with the church and do not want to be disturbed. They do not want to be evangelized. That is why the pope failed to make the church more attractive."

Part of the problem is the church's emphasis on punishment and sin rather than on inclusion and community.
The first two paragraphs sound like the Europe I "know" from anecdotal evidence and work like Wilson's. That's the Europe of the intelligentsia, the Europe that has turned away from notions like "faith." But the second two paragraphs indicate that is not the whole picture, any more than Pat Robertson or Robert Schuller, or even Jesse Jackson, speak for all American Christians.

And perhaps there is a philosophical bias here, as well. Wilson is British, schooled at one level or another in the Anglo-American philosophies of empricism and positivism. The "analytical" school of philosophy is almost exclusively Anglo-American, and distinguished from the "Continental" schools, which are largely variations of phenomenology, and largely thought of as "French:" Derrida, Levinas. Or perhaps still rooted in German Idealism, as with Heidegger. But then I reflect that Derrida, a Jew by birth, was a Professor of Religious Studies and wrote so many works on religion that he was credited with trying to create a "negative atheology," a decidedly Christian pursuit. And how work in philosophy of religion is a thriving enterprise in Europe (at least in philosophical circles), whereas in this country, as Palle Yourgrau points out, one cannot afford to have even the taint of "piety" among the analytical philosophers. Yourgrau tells the story of Charles Parsons, a philosopher and logician at Harvard, who in 1955 was being interviewed for membership into the Society of Fellows. He made the mistake of mentioning that he had read theology and found Pascal interesting, though he was not a Christian. This prompted W.V.O. Quine to murmur "Good grief, Parsons is pious." (Palle Yourgrau, A World Without Time, New York: Basic Books 2005, pp. 155-156) So the two schools are divided on several levels, not the least of which is the suspicion and distrust of religion widely held by the analytical school. Small wonder any work in religion is being done on "the Continent."

So what is "the problem"? Is it as simple as the Enlightenment slowly but surely sweeping away "superstition"? Or is the problem institutional? Is the church, in other words, the problem?
Grant that thy Church may be delivered from traditions which have lost their life, from usage which has lost its spirit, from institutions which no longer give life and power to their generation; that the Church may ever shine as a light in the world and be as a city set on a hill.

In the Hymnal for the Evangelical and Reformed Church, that is part of the prayer for Church Anniversary. It's a good prayer, because it reminds the church that sometimes, the institition is not the answer. And that the answer is never simple, and it comes from the future. Now, of course, as Alfred North Whitehead said, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous." And institutions despise risk; just as most people do. But that's the proclamation of the church, too: that there is no risk anymore, that in Christ all things have been done that need to be done.

Which gets us back to the theological problems. Like, for example, Central America. The "health and wealth" gospel, which is a theology, is taking countries by storm there; and the only valid response to it I know of, the soundest critique possible, is a good offense. That offense would come in the form of liberation theology. It speaks to the same concerns, but in a wholly different way. There are, in other words, theological, as well as spiritual, answers. And I still have no reason to believe people are not fundamentally spiritual; not culturally, but fundamentally. And I have no reason not to offer the closing words of that prayer for Church Anniversary, because they are true, and can be trusted:
O eternal God, who didst send thy Holy Spirit upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost, we pray that as thou didst strengthen their hearts with daring and fortitude, so thou wouldst confinn in us their faithful labors, their high vision, their holy purpose. Grant us so to live, that the generations to come may find their memorial not alone in graven tablets, but may read it in the living record of an active faith, an unswerving loyalty to truth, a self-forgetting service of mankind. Be this the gift of thy grace bestowed upon us; be this the memorial of the just, transmitted to their children's children through the long centuries to come: and thine shall be the kingdom and the power and the glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end.


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