One of my interests has become to look at the state of our Christian faith, not merely that of the Church, but, more broadly, its state in the larger context of Western society. Most keenly, how is Christianity working, both as personal faith as well as in our culture at large. We are at a crossroads between the Christian tradition as fostered by the Church and the much-discussed decline of congregational attendance and the mild uprising of atheism in America and Britain, in particular, in recent years. It has become quite clear that the Church tradition of many centuries, even in the 20th Century, is less sustainable now than at any point in my lifetime. Young people are wary of the Church for different reasons, and so are reluctant to join its “system,” thus incurring continued declining attendance and involvement. Statistics abound about this decline, some even stating openly that the Church will never recover a sustaining level of attendance. Churches are sold every day to become other businesses entirely, most favourably as restaurants.
Beyond the “Church crisis” is the larger question of what is the place of spiritual persuasion in a heavily secular society which values science over hints of the supernatural. I could ask Should we believe in God any longer, but my bias is clearly that we should and must, because there is no more viable alternative. One of worst false dichotomies is between science and religion, which I will not belabour here.
Rather than to range too far and risk addressing nothing clearly, I want to look at three groups which, in combination, grind forward an inertia which slowly threatens the vitality of Christianity, each for its own reasons. These are: 1) the generally stullifying nature of the Christian clergy, regardless of denomination; 2) the continued objections of Jews to accepting Jesus as their Messiah; and 3) the up-risen nuisance that is atheism, which I liken to a nagging parasitic infestation that can be ignored, but not without some consequence, particularly to gullible younger, well-educated men.
The clergy are, of course, trained in seminaries. They learn about Scripture and its exegesis, used frequently in sermons that buttress Lectionary passages. While this is designed to educate congregations, I generally found this style to be meandering at best and boring at worst. Clergy learn about the history of the Church, although this is rarely presented either coherently or in depth during services or in Sunday school. Seminaries provide education for clergy the way the military provides training for soldiers: the only way. There is some skepticism from theology professors about the veracity of Gospel material, but students do not seem to be encouraged to think for themselves meaningfully. Over the many years that I attended three churches, little sustained me from the pulpit, despite being exposed to many different preachers. My involvement with Sunday School classes brought no real enlightenment, and, indeed, at least in my own experience, the clergy tended to not actually teach such classes. While each clergy-person is unique, what they express in the tradition of the Church remains more similar than different. This is understandable, and yet unfortunate. My sense is that most clergy, especially the Catholic clergy, are clinging to a Church tradition which has become slippery, and their fear of lack of sustained employment is justified. These people work very hard, but, all too often, are not accomplishing nearly enough. People leave the Church because of what I have called “the monotony of performances,” the same thing every week and every year, seemingly forever. The clergy are perhaps the only professionally trained people who are getting rejected as a profession by so many people, compared to doctors, dentists, lawyers and others. I heard one preacher admit from the pulpit that her seminary education had not prepared her for the reality of the 21st Century church situation, which has greater ramifications for their profession because it is not as easy to either teach themselves or find alternative mentors. To a greater extent, the clergy are a hall of mirrors, with no clear path toward anything new and valuable.
My suggestions would be for the clergy to look very hard at their situation, and ask, for them, the less obvious question: Why should people still go to church? What can one or two hours a week provide in that setting what can not be obtained elsewhere? People do not go to church merely to serve on committees. The clergy needs to abandon the Lectionary system as a mainstay process, and teach what they feel their congregations need. Broader brush strokes of Scripture or relevant Church history would be useful. Taking up moral questions would certainly be appreciated. Better quality sermons couldn’t hurt, preferably unwritten. since Jesus never wrote anything down. Simplifying and diversifying the basic church service would be another option to relieve monotony. What appeals to me is an opening hymn, then the first half of a two-part sermon, a second hymn while the offering is taken, the second half of the sermon, and then a closing hymn. That’s it. The Lord’s Prayer recited (in slightly different translations from time to time) wherever it best fits. The clergy’s job is profoundly simple: like Jesus, to take us toward somewhere we Spiritually need to go, and perhaps have never even considered, week after week. If they can not do this, they will keep getting rejected, and frankly, should be.
Secondly, the Jews and their disbelief over Jesus as a viable Messiah. While the original Christians were Jewish, a schism evolved between Jews and Christians over Jesus during the 2nd Century, as described, for example, in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho. Paul himself only had a little luck converting Jews to Christians, and during the final phase of the 1st Century (after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E.), converts would have been harder to obtain in larger numbers. Scholar Bart Ehrman estimates that there were ca. 10,000 Christians at the end of the 1st Century, still a sizable number. Jews were skeptical of Jesus as a messianic figure from the beginning, having endured previous “false prophets,” and could not understand that such a figure could be crucified, the worst form of capital punishment reserved for low-status criminals. This, combined with Jesus’ sometimes radical teachings and eventual confrontation with the Temple hierarchy during Passion Week, made Him an unlikely messianic candidate for them. By the end of the 2nd Century, the Jewish-Christian split was firmly in place, and not only because of Paul’s relaxation of the Law and circumcision, but because Jews thought he had tried to trample their religion. What men conjured about God had outlasted what God Himself had created, which remains our problem today.
Over the evolving centuries, Jews have largely remained steadfast in their refusal to allow Jesus to be a Messiah. Only in the past forty years, a small number of so-called Messianic Jews have accepted Him as such, much to the consternation of their Jewish brethren. Traditional Jewish objections about Jesus as Messiah involve a variety of concerns: 1) God can not assume human form, which assumes that Jesus was divine; 2) the manner of His death by crucifixion; 3) the third Jewish Temple must be rebuilt; 4) there has been no general resurrection of the dead; 5) all Jews in exile have not yet returned to Israel; 6) there is no global peace; and 7) they offer alternate explanations for Old Testament Scripture which alludes to Jesus’ coming as Messiah (e.g., Isaiah 52-53: “the suffering servant”). They lean heavily on Jewish written tradition, including the writings of a 12th Century Jewish sage, Maimonides, who discounts Jesus as a messianic figure.
My problem with such Jewish objections is that any or all of them are born out of only human concerns. By nature, a Messiah comes from God on His own terms, and certainly He does not requite our permission to bring forth the Messiah of His choice. Scripture itself was written by humans, even if divinely inspired. None of the 613 Jewish laws pertain to a messianic figure, and the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed over the topic of resurrection of the dead. Religious tradition, regardless of its source, does not directly equate with obvious divine intervention. I suspect that the Jews are proudly mistaken about Jesus being their Messiah, know they have made a terrible mistake, but are prone not to admit it. I also suspect they know that some other messianic figure is not coming, and so we see a natural dropoff in the percentage of Jews who still “do kosher.” Judaism has atrophied from an excess of humanly-dictated teachings which do not allow for the probability that they are wrong about Jesus. I find this sad because there is a long, natural trajectory between Judaism and Christianity which is mutually nourishing, when given the chance. While Jews only number 16-18 million people worldwide, they are our forebearers, and can have much to offer we Christians, if only they would at least read the Gospels after all this time, which tends to be where their “conversion” begins.
Lastly, the atheists. While there have always been skeptics about God, historically, most would have allowed for at least the possibility that God exists. In the last century, such skepticism has, for an increasingly larger group, come to be defined by a rather militant insistence that He can not possibly exist, has been disproven by science, and so all “religious fools” are misguidedly ignorant and should accept the obvious: there is no God. This is not the waveringly doubtful agnosticism that many undergo at some point in our spiritual lives, it is a false certainty that borders at times on being menacingly hateful. I spent about six months earlier this year “debating” with atheists on several Facebook pages, basically a waste of time because they have the dual problem of misguided righteousness about “science has explained God” as well as general ignorance about both the Bible as well as how the super-natural could exist. Worst of all, they reject spiritual curiosity as a waste of time, not caring that the rest of us have spent the better part of 4,000 years trying figure out who God is and why He matters.
The seeds of current-day atheism may lie with English philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, who in 1927 wrote an essay, Why I Am Not a Christian. The current generation of atheists (most notably biologist Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens) owe much to Russell for at least introducing the strange idea that Jesus never existed. He also can not accept that God has always existed, since “If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.” This reductionistic argument, which comes from science and not from God, is parroted by Dawkins to develop another strange idea: that there are multiple universes, of which there is currently no proof. Russell thinks that God invented “the Klu-Klux-Klan or the Facists,” apparently not realizing that these are human creations, and God isn’t interested in our nastier meet-ups. We hear that “most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it,” which, while perhaps true, does not account for the variety and richness of our spiritual journeys, occasionally out of atheism and into Christianity. Like Dawkins and comedian Bill Maher, Russell confuses God with religions, as though they are one and the same. He states that religion is based primarily upon fear, which begs the question: fear of what? If I don’t believe in God, what is He going to do to me? Likely, nothing. Russell wants to replace God and religion with “a fettering of free intelligence” to relieve our ignorance. He gave up on Christianity at the ripe old age of eighteen, and his father was a disbeliever. Without knowing about Russell’s essay, atheists mimic his weak arguments as a way of not having to deal with the super-natural or God’s invisibility.
Having this irritating experience of attempting to enlighten often angry male atheists, I came to the conclusion that their perspective is parasitic upon religion and spirituality because they have nothing to offer beyond “what is the proof of your argument” that God exists. Over and over, I heard “what is your evidence” to prove God’s existence, a shallow trap because they knew I could not readily produce such evidence. If I spoke of the research on the Shroud of Turin, it was a hoax because of now-faulted 1988 radio-carbon dating fiasco. Atheists basically keep their forefingers in their ears because, if they take them out, doubts about their own position will occur. They also rejected videos of medical miracles by physicians who knew better, not wanting doubt to surface. Atheism is an air-tight thought experiment which allows nothing inside in order to preserve the delusion that God can not exist. C.S. Lewis famously said that atheism is simple, and it is. Always remember: Jesus never existed, since they said so.
So, how is Christianity stuck, because of and despite these three disparate “tribes?” It is stuck because these tribes and the general Christian populace are, unlike Jesus, not really pushing the boundaries of the familiar to look at our collective purpose. If the Jews and the atheists cling to a collective NO about God and Jesus, the only consequence is a diminished Christian community in numbers of followers, but no seriously detrimental impact otherwise. They are mildly corrosive, but no worse.
But what are two billion Christians to do with ourselves these days? When I again left the church over five years ago, I personally had given up on the clergy to help me with my Christian journey, as they had nothing serious to offer. I could either do nothing or take on the job of nudging myself forward on my own, which has actually been quite beneficial. I have look at both Judaism and atheism from a distance along with Catholicism, the historical milieu of 1st Century Jesus as well as other interests. Most importantly, I think I have begun to understand how God actually works, and written about this in several essays. Not everyone can or will want to do this work. It is not so much hard as time consuming, but for me, certainly worthwhile. It can be hard to maintain our spiritual curiosity in the face of our daily world as well as God’s invisibility. The greatest task is to meld a personal sense of God with what Jesus calls us to do: to flex our spiritual muscles in the world. Few people can do both equally well, and I am not yet one of those who can. It is too easy to merely be a contemplative Christian, which has been the Achilles’ heel of so many of us. Jesus’ brother, James, was at least half-right: faith without works is not dead, but neither is it enough by itself. Despite her idiosyncracies, I do admire Mother Teresa’s tenacious need to aid the poor. Catholic priests admire their saints while also molesting altar boys. God shakes His head and groans about us each and every day.
I feel God lurking behind me, gesturing to me to keep walking, at least somewhere other than where I already am.