CONTEXT

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 CLEAR-EYED VIEW OF THE SITUATION

The predominant cultural influence of Judeo-Christianity for the past 1700 or so years has been waning for decades 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 Judaism and 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-Judeo-Christian age, at least in terms of the traditional expression of such.

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 a synagogue or 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.)

Those who argue that their particular church or denomination is growing or that Christianity is alive and well in their specific region or community are failing to see the broader reality. The pervasive, negative trends do not appear to be temporary detours or anomalies. They have been going on for decades, if not longer, and show no sign of slowing or reversing.

Let us tour the current landscape (as of early 2021). The United Methodist Church was once one of the largest denominations in the US. In 2000 it counted just under 10 million members, in 2021 it counted 5.7 million. According to the denominations own estimates, at the current rate of decline, the denomination will be unsustainable by the mid-2040s.

Or consider the Roman Catholic Church in the US. While immigration has kept the overall numbers in only a modest decline (a loss of 2.4 million members since 2010) slightly over a third of all white Catholics have stopped attending or left. Diocese across the nation are consolidating parishes and closing schools. Baptisms are down 34% from just 2010. Catholic weddings have declined 38% in the same period.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group, has declined 30% since 2000. The Episcopal Church has experience roughly the same rate of decline. The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) has lost 40% of its members and closed 15.4% of its churches since 2000.

Overall, in 2016 73.7% of the population publicly identified as Christian. In 2020 that number fell to 63.1%, and the rate of decrease is accelerating. As mentioned earlier, 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% attend on any given Sunday.

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 denomination or religious group. This growing group has been called the Nones, referencing the answer they give when asked on the census and various polls and studies to state their affiliation: None.

The personal religious views of the Nones is being carefully studied. The only discernible trends is that the group is predominantly younger and strongly and clearly reject the form, tone, and mindset of traditional religious institutions. Are some of these individuals Christian in any sense? Yes, but the exact numbers aren’t clear at the moment. Again, read the Pew Report on Religion in America or Barna Research Studies or any of the dozens of other reliable, carefully conducted measures. (See also, Decline of Christianity on Wikipedia for an overview and references for the above statistics.)

Those who study the situation closely have begun to accept the possibility that the shift is really not so much decline as collapse. Tracking the loss of membership merely shows the loss of people attending. What is now becoming evident is that large numbers of Nones are second or even third generation secular, meaning unchurched. Therefore, increasing numbers of people are completely unchurched, without any theological or religious education, and without any traditional formation. The likelihood of these individuals returning to a religion they never were part of in the first place is extremely low.

Financial and institutional concerns also aren’t fully reflected by simply looking at affiliation numbers. Most parishes or congregations require a critical mass of attenders and donors to support the maintenance of the building(s) and salaries for the staff and clergy. The percentage of individual communities falling below critical mass is increasing. Staffing cuts and cost saving measures can only go so far before a church or community has to close. This plays out as well across denominational institutions – central offices, educational structures, and seminaries are also closing in growing numbers due to the same dynamic.

After considering the above, the question presents itself – what is causing all this?

THE 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 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 as well as coloring 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. Therefore, culture is always dynamic.

Culture is narrative. Much of cultural narrative is mythic, meaning foundational, underlying plots, metaphors, and stories that help people make sense of their world.

Culture is also multivalent, consisting of entwined and interwoven subcultures of ethnicity, religion, region, nationality, 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? 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 peoples, and others. Each of these sets of influences engaged, clashed, and changed one another.

Our purpose here is to discuss the underlying worldview of the West, its core ideas and narratives. 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 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, frequent military conquest, and 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 and fail to see 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 engage 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 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, sometimes called the imperium.

Civilizations and cultures change, and few, if any, empires 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 who were seen as subversive by the imperial elites. The Christian sect, mostly comprised of the lowly and committed to the ideas of an itinerant Jewish rabbi cultural revolutionary, was considered dangerous because it 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 of all persons. Mercy, love, kindness, compassion and mutual care – the witness of the early Christian communities slowly won it converts and aided its growth and endurance.

Eventually the outsiders became insiders. Whether Christianity would have developed into a global force without Constantine is hard to say, but probably unlikely. Constantine cemented the eventual integration of Christianity 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 the underlying source of the new imperium.

Christianity supplanted Greco-Roman paganism and Christians moved up in the ranks and eventually took the 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.

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. Within these massive cultural shifts were the hallmark ideas of human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, market-based economy, and liberalism. 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.

Within the same cultural movements and transitions also were the notions of freedom of conscience, tolerance, pluralism, individualism, and various forms of relativism. Within Western Christianity were the seeds of the secular world to come.

The 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 the divisions of “gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female” bur rather a fundamental unity in our humanity and in Jesus, according to Paul.

The Enlightenment 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 State-Churches and stripping the secular power of religious organizations. As an expansive view of freedom and rights developed, so did the recognition of the freedom to choose one’s own religion or no religion.

After the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution comes the growing acceptance of evolution as causal narrative and a naturalist mindset. Naturalism, at least in it’s soft, methodological form, is essentially the notion that claims of supernatural realities lack evidence and proper justification. When presented with claims of miracles or divine action or message, individuals operating from a naturalist mindset will be inclined to ask for proof, 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.

Therefore, along with the Enlightenment, scientific method, and evidential reasoning comes the decline in forms of mythopoetic thinking and understanding. The modern mindset leans toward the factual, the literal, and the logical explanations for things. We see the world through these lenses.

Diversity and exposure to different people and ideas has also weakened Christian theological claims. The modern world is small – we are more mobile, with greater ability to communicate nationally and globally. We encounter people of various beliefs and cultures, sometimes daily. Diversity has a way of moderating one’s worldview, introducing relativistic aspects and careful scrutiny of the claims of one’s own authorities.

Today, rare is it that people live in communities where everyone believes the same thing, accepts the same explanations, and trusts the same leaders and sources of authority. Today, the Christian young adult meets the Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Atheist young adult and finds them to be a good person with interesting ideas different than their own. This in turn, leads to increased questioning of one’s own traditions, an activity most of the traditions are not adequately prepared to endure with much success.

As a result of the above secularizing forces, the various institutional, denominational, and ritual structures that formed Christian expression for centuries have been declining for decades, if not longer. Fading are various forms of Christian religious culture and practice. Gone is the strong mainstream cultural reliance on scripture and religious authority to sort moral and social issues. Western culture may no longer explicitly understand itself primarily through the narratives of the bible, but remaining is much of the essential moral vision of Judeo-Christianity.

In short, the modern West isn’t actually anti-Christian or post-Christian, it is rather, morphing into a secular form of itself.

LIVING IN A POST INSTITUTIONAL RELIGIOUS AGE

In general, Judeo-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 these traditions, and found them wanting and of decreasing value and relevance – more and more people are rejecting what they see and are moving on.

Some the decline is due to disappointment in institutions.

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.

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 layperson is abysmal.

Banal music, liturgies, rituals, shallow teaching, and moralizing have taken their toll. People are yearning for communal teachings and ritual grounded in reason and reality and 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 erodes lasting, authentic commitment.

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 the community rarely engages one another outside of religious functions.

At it’s best, religion is about meaning, not control. 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. 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 strongly rooted in the playing out of pivotal intellectual trends, the rise of science and the fruition of ideas inherent in biblical tradition itself (See the work of Canadian Catholic professor, Charles Taylor and Anglican priest-Oxford professor, Don Cuppit for more on this theme.)

More people are learning about evolution, astrophysics, philosophy, and the social sciences. Many religious assumptions are being challenged and probed using science, reliable research, and above all logic. Such challenges have narrowed or even eliminated many of the gaps which were once filled by God and have shown the weakness of many theological assumptions.

Reason recognizes that one can live a good, meaningful, rich, and full life without Jesus, Torah, 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, not revelation. 

As a result of all of the above, and more, Western culture is becoming increasingly secular, humanist, and naturalist. 

Yet the concerns of spirituality – meaning, purpose, morality, fulfillment – are perennial. While religion and spirituality are undergoing dramatic changes, other forms will naturally arise to fill the vacuum left behind. Yes, gone is the viability of supernatural religion and spirituality concerning spirits – gods, angels, demons – or supernatural notions of magic or spells. But human nature hasn’t really changed, the same yearning for meaning remains, and therefore will the drive to spirituality.

What needs to emerge is a natural spirituality rooted in reason and evidential reasoning. A spirituality of nature, of human relationships, of interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. In terms of religion and spirituality, it’s time for some necessary upgrades.

A (RE)VISIONING – NECESSARY UPDATES

Most of us have had the experience of having to install updates on our computer or smartphone or even install a totally new operating system. We do this because the old system has flaws and design limitations and we’re promised that the new features or system are better.

And we all hate these update experiences because they take time to download and they make us change things we were familiar and comfortable with. And if we’re honest, most of the changes are for the better in the long term, although not all the changes bring their promised benefits.

Western spirituality needs some badly overdue intellectual updates and operating system upgrades. These changes are required for the sake of the truth as well as for the sake of the long term viability of the culture at large.

These updates require the application of evidential reasoning to theology, the deemphasis of institutions and a renewed focus on nature and the ecosystem and human beings place within it.

And like software and computer updates – they take time to download and will result in uncomfortable, even sometimes painful changes. Yet sometimes we even need to delete data and start over with new code and instructions.

The choice is ours – upgrade and change – revise our understandings – or allow our old, outdated systems and programs to eventually freeze up and crash.

The signs of the times are very clear – the West is in a period of transformation marked by the cultural and practical decline of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This has been going on for at least the last 200 or so years. (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 27)

What is the way forward? Understanding that openness to reality and the effort to avoid narrow ideology is the foundation of wisdom – we must allow ourselves to be informed by our experiences and reflection on them – not by limited theologies and “isms” that attempt to force reality to comply with their theories – we must live according to the truth.

RECOMMENDED READING

Pew Religious Landscape Study

A Secular Age – Charles Taylor

The Meaning of the West – Don Cuppit

Betrayal – The Staff of the Boston Globe

Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

The End of Religion – Sam Harris

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