The Future of Christianity: Part 1

The world is changing. It should come as no surprise. The world and the people that inhabit it always change. You are different than your grandparents. They were different than theirs. While someone looks back at their past idyllic self and circumstances from yesteryear, there's another person that when yesteryear was present thought, "If only we can return back to the good old days." While each progressing generation has their struggles and injustices to confront, there should also be sufficient reason to celebrate the advances that have happened over the last many years. Medical science is improving. Racial relations, in American and many other places, is improving. Equality for women has made drastic progress. There is evidence that shows many countries are making significant economic gains proving that poor countries do not have to stay poor. This includes Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, and Gabon, among others. There are many tragedies happening in this world, but there are other achievements and advances which cause us to celebrate as well.

But, what about the future progress of the Church? Is there sufficient cause to lament the future of Christ's covenant community in this world? Is there cause to be hopeful? Harvey Cox, retired Harvard Divinity professor, theologian and scholar, has accumulated much research to shed light on the trajectory of the Church in America. For some, it will be reason to celebrate. For others, there may be sufficient cause for sorrow. 

Cox's book The Future of Faith seeks to address this question: What does the future hold for religion, and for Christianity in particular? It's a book that leverages bits of sociology and theology. Through the first few chapters, I am trying to determine if it's accurate and prophetic or misguided. My hope, should I feel the proper motivation, is to blog through some of the highlights of this fascinating book. The leadership at State Street has had ongoing conversations about the future of faith and how it effects the way in which we minister in LaPorte. 

CHAPTER ONE: An Age of the Spirit: the Sacred in the Secular?

Cox begins the book by noting three qualities that mark the world's current spiritual profile that will effect how religion will be practiced in future generations. It's important to note that Cox is not suggesting that these things NEED to happen, but have ALREADY happened. These qualities are:

  1. The unanticipated resurgence of religion in both public and private life around the globe. It's important to note that Cox isn't suggesting that there's a resurgence of a particular form of Christianity, but religious values as a whole. It's the recognition, that for whatever reason, there is something more than the self. It doesn't look much like the religiousness of the last thousand years in the Western world, but there are still theological, ontological, and philosophical commitments being made. This resurgence comes at a surprise to many. He states,
    "Scholars of religion refer to the current metamorphosis in religiousness with phrases like the “move to horizontal transcendence” or the “turn to the immanent.” But it would be more accurate to think of it as the rediscovery of the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular. More people seem to recognize that it is our everyday world, not some other one, that, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” The advance of science has increased the sense of awe we feel at the immense scale of the universe or the complexity of the human eye. People turn to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next. The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institutions and beliefs."
  2. Fundamentalism is dying. Fundamentalism, as a religious and political movement, is coming to an end. It may take a generation or three, but it is dying out. This is why religious fundamentalists [Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise] are digging in their heals and fighting with such fierce zealousness. To protect their neatly packaged beliefs, fundamentalists feel they have to fight ideologically [or in some parts of the world, militarily] with those who will threaten the shell of the facade. Cox notes,
    "Fundamentalisms, with their insistence on obligatory belief systems, their nostalgia for a mythical uncorrupted past, their claims to an exclusive grasp on truth, and—sometimes— their propensity for violence, are turning out to be rearguard attempts to stem a more sweeping tidal change."
    In my conversations with the emerging generation [which I may be a member myself], truth is very important. Many falsely believe that members in these developing generations do not believe in absolutes in morality and ethics, but that is largely not the case. They do, however, have a harder time admitting that they believe everything absolutely. "There are absolutes," they might say, "but I don't know if my perception of truth is absolute." This is not relativism, as some may claim. It is ideological humility. It is true, however, that the umbrella of what is and is not absolute may be much different among emerging generations than the generations before them. 
  3. A profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness. Cox suggests that this might be the most important in understanding this paradigm shift. What does it mean to be "religious"? He comments,
    "Not only has religion reemerged as an influential dimension of twenty-first-century life; what it means to be “religious” is shifting significantly from what it meant as little as a half century ago. Since religions interact with each other in a global culture, this tremor is shaking virtually all of them, but it is especially evident in Christianity, which in the past fifty years has entered into its most momentous transformation since its transition in the fourth century CE from what had begun as a tiny Jewish sect into the religious ideology of the Roman Empire."
    He goes on to dissect the important difference between belief and faith. Faith is deep-seeded confidence. Beliefs are more like opinions. In Cox's words:
    "Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live. Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two."
    Christianity has done well at forming our beliefs into concise and treasured pillars through the historic creeds. However, these beliefs are not what has made the Christian community thrive throughout the last 2000 years [nor was that ever their intention.] The creeds have given a sense of form to an already-demonstrated conviction through faith. Cox suggests a needed paradigm shift. 
    "Eliminating the spurious use of “belief” to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves “unbelievers” have episodic doubts about their unbelief . “Believers” go through similar swings. Beliefs come and go, change, fade, and mature . The pattern of beliefs one holds at ten are not identical with the ones one holds at fifty or seventy-five. To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. But it does not."
    To profess something as true is entirely different than living as said proposition is true. Hypocrisy happens when our confession do not match up with our convictions. Modern apologetics has taken a hit partly because of this phenomena. One of the larger growth movements within American Christianity is that of Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps this is caused by the Orthodox's adherence and valuing of awe, wonder, and love in light of the more binary view of faith that apologetics often professes. 

Cox finishes the first chapter by discussing three [uneven] periods or ages within the history of the church. 

  1. The Age of Faith [first 350 years of the Church]: In Cox's words: "It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated. During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun." As this initial group of Christ-followers evolved, the initial tension between faith and belief became apparent. "Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him."
  2. The Age of Belief. [350AD - modern era]: "The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire." The empire became "Christian," or perhaps Christianity took on the narrative of the empire. Right beliefs in line with the newly minted Christian empire become essential. In 385 AD, a synod of bishops condemned Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. The ones behind beheaded just 300 years earlier were the ones now doing the beheading. Power struggles, political influence, and religious persecution of those within the ranks became common. Cox summarizes, "The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century. It was already comatose when the European Union chiseled the epitaph on its tombstone in 2005 by declining to mention the word “Christian” in its constitution."

  3. The Age of the Spirit. [Moving forward...]: Cox suggests that we are now entering a new age of Christianity and, perhaps for the first time, one that is not defined by the experience of those in the West.  "Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined." He contends that, in the Age of the Spirit, people will be more influenced by the experiential elements of Christianity more than the doctrinal elements of the religion. 

Cox concludes the first chapter with this paragraph: 

As Christianity moves awkwardly but irreversibly into a new phase in its history, those who are pushing into this frontier often look to the earliest period, the Age of Faith, rather than the intervening one, the Age of Belief, for inspiration and guidance. This should not be surprising. There are striking similarities between the first and the emerging third age. Creeds did not exist then; they are fading in importance now. Hierarchies had not yet appeared then; they are wobbling today. Faith as a way of life or a guiding compass has once again begun, as it did then, to identify what it means to be Christian. The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it. No wonder the atmosphere in the burgeoning Christian congregations of Asia and Africa feels more like that of first-century Corinth or Ephesus than it does like that of the Rome or Paris of a thousand years later.

NEXT CHAPTER
Einstein’s Snuffed-Out Candles: Awe, Wonder, and Faith