Thursday, June 12, 2008

The post-Christian age

Recent experience tells me how hard it must be if you’re a member of a religious community or working for a Catholic institution and you believe as I do, or at least are asking healthy questions. I know many such persons. They’re drawn to religion by a deeply felt spiritual awareness but, in contrast to more shallow believers, they have the capacity to scrutinize the statements of religious leaders.

They are likelier than most Christians to THINK, to study spiritual issues. Their scholarship leads to rejection of literal belief, but also to deeper faith, less mundane, less rule-bound, and less parochial. Inevitably, painfully, they see the sins of the human religious institution to which they belong. In my observation, they are more loyal to their immediate community than to the institutional Church, but they choose not to advertise their critical views of hierarchical pronouncements.

The hierarchy still has the power to hurt religious communities, parishes, schools, and individuals who dare to dissent. And less aware Catholics fail to see the trend toward a less monolithic Catholicism. But it’s unmistakable, and the Womenpriests rejection of the Vatican’s excommunication signals something new—they can’t hold us down anymore!

When the ideas for God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky rose in me more than twenty years ago, a religious monk to whom I spoke said, “They’ll throw bricks at your house.” He voiced my own dread. I imagined being shot or assaulted but couldn’t quell the impulse to educate people to my new awareness. That was the climate then. Today the capacity for broadened spiritual understanding has grown astonishingly.

A few months ago, StarTribune columnist Nick Coleman reported that the new conservative Archbishop John Nienstedt forced St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis to stop its popular service, which had “guitars, lay people giving homilies, dancing in the aisles with people who have mental and physical disabilities, gay couples openly participating.” On March 2, 100 or more people from St Stephen’s planned to march to a new home five blocks away “to pray the way we think is right.”

A spirituality rising from the bottom up is clashing with rules and thought control from the top down. Robert McClory, a Catholic critic of his own Church is quoted as saying, “Fierce resistance to change is often the last hurrah of a faltering regime.”

Religious officials try to keep a lid on the ferment by fiddling with picayunish piety. A headline in the St. Cloud Visitor, for instance, announced, “Vatican official questions Communion in the hand.” He feared a weakening of “faith in the real presence of Christ.” The man from Nazareth would tell the cardinal to stop worrying whether the wafer goes onto the tongue or into the hand. He upbraided people for obsessing over cleaning the outside of cup and dish (Luke 11:39).

As lay people gain in education, rule-happy Church authority loses its hold on them. This has been going on for scores of years, but now other factors are contributing. And the changes involve the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."

A study by The Barna Group of 16- to 29-year-olds shows the new generation is more skeptical of Christian claims. Even among church-goers, half of these young folks criticized Christianity for being judgmental, hypocritical, and too political. A third said it is old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

The study finds 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers criticize Christianity’s bias against homosexuals. Unlike older generations, young people have gay and lesbian friends who don’t hide the fact and obviously don’t deserve the contempt given them by Christian churches.

Evangelicals once were obeyed when they told people what to believe, whom to vote for, whom to condemn. The study finds that only 3 percent of the young have a good opinion of evangelicals, who can feel the shift—91 percent of evangelicals think Americans are more hostile and negative toward Christianity.

Other studies show that churchgoers freely switch churches and denominations, forming their own opinions of what’s authentic. "The boundaries that once kept people in one faith, one church, have become more permeable," said Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

These studies only confirm what we know is happening—Christianity is losing its dominance.

3 comments:

Clayton said...

These studies only confirm what we know is happening—Christianity is losing its dominance.

Do you see this as a promising trend?

Jeanette said...

Yes. Christianity is my religious home, but I don't think it should dominate, not even in countries that Christianity won over in the past.

I don't want Islam or any other religion to dominate either. I mourn for Christians who are cruelly harassed in Baghdad by Islamists and for Palestinian Christians cruelly harassed in Jerusalem by Israelis.

Anonymous said...

What are the major influences that have molded the views and opinions of the "16 to 29" age group and why do you give such credence to what they think as if it validates your point?

Jesus did say the "...path is narrow and few find the way..." So, if we take a poll on any subject and the mass-population has a particular united mind consensus, this means, exactly what? Historically, what has been the 'value' of any era's mass consensus?