"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
'...A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches...'
'...Surveys by the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization, have found that most Christians don’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount...'
The article in question is called "Atheists with Attitude" -- and it's a pretty good read. It gets its kick-start from people like Christopher Hitchens who has been making the rounds hawking his book, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." So far I've seen him on the Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher.
Maher, of course, has been Hitchens long before Hitchens - and George Carlin was Maher before Maher ... and then there was Karl Marx, of course. Point is, taking shots at organized religion is nothing new. But there is something new happening -- and it's a natural progression of a society shaped by the freedoms of the Bill of Rights -- particularly freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
And I think it may be the best thing to ever happen to religion.
Look through history for when it was acceptable to criticize the dominant religion. You're not going to find a lot of instances. In many (most?) cases the dominant religion was so intertwined with the power of the state (the Marx argument) that to criticize the religion was to be a revolutionary. Even when our country was founded with the separation of Church and State, Religion -- particularly Christianity -- was so much part of the dominant culture (check what's written on your money) that criticizing it was risking social and economic ruin.
But something happened. The history of this country has been one of the people continually discovering what the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution really mean, continually pushing the envelope. And that's a good thing.
In many ways the U.S. is entering its teen years -- and we're acting like it. We've gotten a sense of what freedom is, and we're reveling in it. We're putting "question authority" buttons on our backpacks and radical quotes in our .sig lines. Combine this with the flattening of systems globally and the increasing ease to make our own communities rather than have to fit ourselves into the ones that happen to exist in our neighborhoods and there is much greater freedom to explore -- and to reject.
And so we're rejecting. As new generations come of age, and as a Boomer generation that pretty much thought it was God incarnate anyway moves into retirement, people like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens are slowly moving from cranky voice on the margins to the voice of the people.
Of course, the Bush administration and the neocons have hastened this to worp speed. Take an administration that has so closely aligned itself with a cariacature of Christianity that is easiest to tear down to begin with ... and then have that administration be incompetent in just about everything it does ... and then have them stubbornly not only deny their own incompetence but also attest that -- inexplicably and with a wink and a nod toward the religious right -- history will prove them wise beyond reckoning some day in the future after we're all dead, and it doesn't take a lot of talent to prop up and tear down this straw man of faith.
But there's even more happening. As the flattening trend happens around the world. As people are experiencing more than the world outside their front door and are discovering their own freedom ... there's a backlash. It's a backlash of religious fundamentalism/extremism. A backlash that, using the worst of the religions they purport to embody, claims that it is cosmic forces of evil that are behind this new emerging world. And so what is happening is what always happens in times of extreme change -- those who resist it are circling the wagons (and in some cases, are going on the offensive) and trying to keep the sun from rising and the tide from coming in. The Bush administration and Al Qaeda are merely two sides of the same coin in this regard -- only the former has at least outwardly clung to some veneer of being civilized (though that truly is only a thin veneer).
So why is this a good thing?
I loved working in campus ministry. I still love being around young adults. I love being with people when they are taking the beliefs (or lack thereof) that were instilled in them in their formative years, and taking them out for test drives. I love that because what they end up with will truly be theirs ... and there's a chance for there to be a depth to it that can really change their lives -- and even change the world.
That's the opportunity if we don't fear this time of questioning and rejection of religion, but embrace it as an opportunity.
Does it surprise me that mainline Christians are ignorant of a basic historical tenet of faith? Does it shock me that a majority don't exhibit the slightest sign of Biblical literacy? Not at all. Because in this country the days where being a person of faith (particularly a Christian) was necessary for social and economic survival are fading fast.
The church, by and large, sees that as bad -- after all, it's harder to get people into church and there are definite financial rammifications to that. But I see it as good. Because when you really have a choice whether or not you want to be a part of a community of faith, saying yes has a much better chance of actually meaning something.
Either way, the world is what it is ... and The Church (broadly speaking) has several options for responding:
First, it can go the route of fundamentalist extremism. Hey, it worked for the Essene's right? We're the righteous remnant and we will be vindicated in the end. Problem is, when's the last time you saw an Essene? Sure, in the short term, the're going to be the ones who will answer Barna's questions correctly. But the forces that are reshaping the world are not the command and control of fundamentalism -- and churches that are fighting against them are just shouting against the tide. (BTW, this represents the right wing of the Episcopal Church)
Second, it can go the route of accomodation. Frankly, this is the one I find the most disturbing. This is when the Church sees that culture is becoming more secular so the Church mimics culture ... becoming more secular itself to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the culture around it -- thus eliminating any real reason for being a part of it! It's this group that is the reason for those ridiculous statistics -- because in rigorously avoiding the traps of fundamentalism, they're so de-emphasizing the substance their faith does have as to become vapid and void. It's the church that says that what it stands for is "inclusion" ... without any sense of what they're including people into. (BTW, this represents the left wing of the Episcopal Church)
But then there is a third, middle way. A way that I think Anglicanism is uniquely poised to take, historically bent as it is toward via media. That's to do what my brother has been doing -- going back and really looking at scripture, but also looking at how God has worked through the life of the Church throughout the centuries and at the experience of God in our lives today. Honestly wrestling with the questions that honest engagement with those texts raise. Asking individually and corporately -- where are we being invited into a new incarnation of this faith? One that is not about the command and control Church of Empire. One that is not about a feel-good Gospel of "everyone's OK just the way they are, so let's join hands and sing Kum Ba Yah 'till blood spurts out of our ears."
There's a third way that isn't as easy for Bill Maher and Christopher Hutchens and even Karl Marx to tear into and tear down. About intelligent engagement with mystery. About rejoicing in beauty and the power of self-giving love. About the refining fire of discipleship that doesn't just leave us fat, dumb and happy where we are but which shapes us into something better, something that makes not just our lives better but makes the world better. An antidote for selfishness. A true hope for the hopeless.
Because Bill Maher and Christopher Hutchens and the rest of the "Athiests with Attitude" (though, Maher does say he's not an atheist, just an apathetic agnostic) have a point - religion has been used to poison a lot of things. But where they're wrong is that it doesn't mean religion is bad. It means human beings are broken and fallible (no news flash there) -- and it means religion that has been used to manipulate and control and be about one person trying to restrict another person's freedom for their personal gain is probably something we want to avoid.
But somewhere there is that place where faith and freedom meet. Where people can be invited of their own free will into a place where they see the good in giving up themselves for the sake of the other. Where they see the transforming power of self-giving love -- God's and ours -- and of their own free will may choose to embrace it.
I believe that will be the faith of the future. And that is why I hope and do not despair.
| Mike at 5/17/2007 12:52:00 PM
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."