October 30, 2014

“Losing Our Religion” — A Banal Suggestion

Too-many-choices

“Its a typical situation in these typical times —
Too many choices…”

- Dave Matthews

“In a world of choice, obligatory religions are not faring well.”

- Diana Butler Bass
Christianity After Religion

* * *

Diana Butler Bass once asked an executive of a coffee company how many choices were possible in one of his stores. He said there were nearly 82,000 possibilities for a drink from the menu. I drink my coffee black, but there are apparently 81,999 other choices.

Are you telling me that life and human behavior is just as it ever was?

Are you telling me that a mundane fact like this hasn’t changed the world?

I’d like to posit something very banal here today with regard to our discussion on “Losing Our Religion.” I think a big part of why we are seeing people move away from organized religion in the U.S. is really quite simple. Are you ready? Here it is:

Today, people have choices.

Choices, choices, and more choices. In my opinion, churches in the United States have not adequately reckoned with the fact that we live in a new world, a world dramatically different than it was fifty years ago. Today we live a world of virtually unlimited choices and options.

We’ve come so far that we can hardly fathom a culture like it was when I was a child — when there were just three television channels, three car companies, only a few places where one could find fast food, and hardly anything was open on Sundays. People listened to AM radio (only) and got their news at certain times of the day when the newspaper arrived or a news program was broadcast on TV. If you stayed up past midnight, there was nothing to watch but a static test pattern. Communication was nowhere near instantaneous and the means of communication were few and fixed — land line phone, letter, face to face.

Shopping choices were limited (no malls! no big box stores! few national chains! no Amazon.com!). Eating out options were limited, information access was limited, and entertainment choices were limited. Heck, the only diet soda was Tab (yuck!), and when you ordered coffee you got it black, or with cream and/or sugar.

Even the possibilities for where and how one might worship or practice one’s religion were limited. Churches and other religious institutions were more likely to be based on historic traditions and practices than on the “felt needs” or consumer preferences of the community. More people lived in communities where there were certain expectations about religious practice, so there were pressures of obligation that constrained one’s comfort in making alternate choices. And there certainly weren’t as many options on a Sunday for Christians to choose.

However, today people have choices like they’ve never had before. These choices are available because of many factors, but I think three are foremost:

  1. Technology
  2. Affluence
  3. Freedom

young girl reaching for sweet jar on top shelfTechnology is the first big driver and, I think, the key. Technology makes things possible that were not possible before.

Before the automobile and other forms of modern transportation, along with the infrastructure that supports them such as the interstate highway system developed a half century ago, it was not possible for mass numbers of people to be as mobile as they have been since. We Americans pulled up our roots, restructured our lives around the car, hit the road, and never looked back.

Advances in technology sent people packing to the cities for work. Result: the urbanization and suburbanization of our culture.

Advances in technology made the modern media age possible, with its instant and constant flow of information and communication, along with an almost unlimited variety of entertainment options. I can remember when people used to say that “TV killed the Sunday evening church service,” and I believe it. Choice brings change. People behave differently when they have choices. If they have options, they won’t always choose the ones you think they should.

Advances in technology made the “sexual revolution” possible. Would our culture’s relaxation (some would say “abandonment”) of sexual mores have happened as it did without the pill? Would pornography be as pervasive without the development of video and other media and the internet? Would phenomena such as widespread divorce be as prevalent if we didn’t have the mobility we have in our culture to move about and relocate so easily?

Now listen up: Of course, technology has made our lives better in a multitude of ways. I’m not casting judgment on progress or saying that we all have to imitate the Amish or go back to Little House on the Prairie days to turn these trends around. All I’m saying is that when we wring our hands about how the world is going down the tubes, we lay the blame on all kinds of esoteric or pernicious things. However, in reality, a big part of the reason can be found in commonplace changes, brought about by remarkable advances that have affected the way you and I approach life.

When you get in the way of a big wave, it’s going to sweep you along with it. And suddenly, you won’t be in the same place you were before. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Advances in technology and our good use of those advances have made us the most affluent nation the world has ever known. Sure, we have our economic challenges, but our standard of living is unrivaled, and a vast number of people today are therefore free to make lifestyle choices unheard of in the past.

Here in our free society, advances in technology and our resulting affluence have led to increased possibilities in personal freedom. I’m no longer bound as tightly by limitations and circumstances. Opportunities are everywhere and more accessible to more people. I’m empowered to do more things on my own, to go more places, to purchase more goods, to participate in more activities, to make more choices for myself.

So, for example, I simply don’t have to go to church anymore. I have a greater power to choose. Like most of us, I probably no longer live in a community where I am bound in close relationships with extended family and friends that exert the pressure of obligation on me. Free from that, I can do most anything I want on Sunday. Technology and affluence have given me many, many choices.

I can travel. I can stay home and watch TV or go to the football game. I can go to any one of a dozen restaurants and have brunch with friends. I can catch up on my work at home on my computer. I can go to the store and shop on Sunday because, with everything that’s available and all the different choices people have about their schedules and lifestyles, it doesn’t make economic sense for stores to close on the “Sabbath” anymore. Also, if I want to, I can still worship with a DVD, watch a preacher on TV, do an internet Bible study, listen to a “spiritual” playlist on my iPod, and have “fellowship” texting with my friends or interacting with others on a blog (!) or on Facebook.

The vast majority of us have many, many more options in life than people had in previous generations. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Americans, even those of modest means, exercise more choices in a single day than some of our ancestors did in a month or perhaps even a year.” 

Or to make it personal, she quotes one man she met as saying, “My life is full without church; it seems kind of irrelevant.”

I suggest that this, my friends, is the challenge for churches today and in the future. Some of the most fundamental reasons for the decline of religion in today’s U.S. society are remarkably natural and banal. There are other reasons, of course, but we mustn’t downplay the strength of the commonplace cultural currents that have transformed the way people live, communicate, move about, and decide what to do with their free time.

Because of advancements in technology and our affluence, we have arrived at a level of personal freedom that gives people a vast array of choices about how to live their lives. More and more of them are not choosing religious ways — at least in the fashion that they are being offered to them.

* * *

Next Time: Helpful and unhelpful ways to deal with this challenge.

Comments

  1. So, would you then characterize the seeker sensitive movement as an attempt to respond to the availability of choices? (with mixed results…)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I would also characterize the Truly Reformed Hyper-Authoritarian movement as a reaction to all the availability of choices. When there are too many choices, you get overwhelmed into Analysis Paralysis. Continue in that state long enough, and you will start looking for a Fuehrer (the more extreme micromanaging the better) to tell you exactly what to choose, exactly what to think — just to make the thrashing stop.

      • That now makes sense about why anyone would submit themselves to the hyper authorities. church style i always said some people can’t deal with too many choices

  2. I wonder if along with this extreme freedom lie the seeds of its own discontent and even destruction. I appreciate choices. But I long ago came to the realization that more choices aren’t necessarily good. Choices to do what? To me, that’s what’s most important.

    If you’ve ever read a book by Barry Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” he presents evidence that too many choices and too much affluence actually can be a cause of depression.

    I think that at the end of the day, churches of various traditions need to be faithful to their heritage. That doesn’t mean they can’t appropriate certain technologies. It means skillfully, carefully and appropriately utilizing them.

    • I think there’s definitely something to the idea that a plethora of choices leads to discontent. When you see all the other choices out there, it’s easy to think that what you’ve got isn’t good enough.

      • Yes, along with a vague sense, even if unarticulated, that there MUST be something “better” out there….if you looked hard enough.

        (Goes right back to yesterday’s post…”I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…”)

    • I think all these choices do lead to a discontent, but nonetheless, the choices are there and are not going away any time soon, discontent or not.

  3. br. thomas says:

    Thank you for the post and I agree that this is a key challenge for the American church. I wonder, though, how God feels about this. Have there been other periods in history when people experienced “full lives” and church (God, His will, etc.) “seemed kind of irrelevant”? I guess the Hebrews settling down int the land flowing with milk and honey is one example comes to mind.

    I also wonder what should our response be to this? I keep coming back to an earlier post: “Where Is the Urgency?” – would some of those principles and attitudes be relevant to this issue as well?

  4. I feel compassion and regret for those who don’t know Christ and/or do not have a supportive community to worship with. Atheists, especially hateful ones, make me sad, as do those who have just drifted away….

    BUT~

    Perhaps there is something to be said for the idea of churches filled with adults who WANT to be there. I see nothing in Christianity, and ESPECIALLY in Christ’s own words that indicate He excepted His message to be popular or widely accepted. Even amongst those who HEAR the message in the first place, few stick around….I am totally thinking of the parable of the sower.

    • Scooter's Mom says:

      Right on!!

    • cermak_rd says:

      I’m definitely going to agree with this. I think churches should be, like membership clubs, for those who want to be there. What good would it do for my husband to go to Mass? He doesn’t believe in the deity to (for?) whom its offered, he doesn’t believe the bread and wine are anything other than bread and wine after consecration.

      And the same with me. When I go to Temple, I go because I believe it matters. But, frankly, it took the freedom that Chaplain Mike mentions for me to find it. I had to 1. discover a discontent with my former faith and realize that this could not be reconciled with it, and then 2. research (using modern technology among other things) the world of religions to find one I could believe in. And then 3. get in touch with a local representation of that faith for conversion (or in my case, due to heritage, a form of re-conversion). Along the way, I never had to deal with community disapproval that might have deterred me in earlier times. And, because I was far from my family, I did not have to disclose to them the fact of my faith (though I did my father since Judaism was his recommendation in the first place, but not my mother or sisters) transition until a year or so later.

      • cermak_rd says:

        And, could add that my partner at the same time I was going through my faith issues was also going through his own disenchantment with his former faith. Ironically, I was the one who recommended Hitchens to him. And Dawkins. He found Harris and Dennett on his own.

        But certainly his parents never knew of his atheism. His brothers do now, and the splinter Catholic Bishop brother has more understanding than his other brother, who keeps inviting us to mass (especially with the new evangelization push. There have got to be lower hanging fruit than us, for Pete’s sake).

    • Bingo! You nailed it Pattie!

    • Beau Quilter says:

      As an atheist myself, I think it’s a great idea for churches to limit themselves to those who want to be there! Wonderful. Because right now, the narrow path seems to be the one I’ve taken – toward nonbelief.

      I disagree with Chaplain Mike’s premise in this post. The reason people find it easier to drift away from church is not the number of choices – it is that the world is becoming gradually more tolerant of different belief and nonbelief. My grandparents would have been shocked and scandalized had I even left my denomination, much less left faith entirely. In earlier ages, leaving the faith of your region could result in persecution or death.

      These days, generally speaking (and there are exceptions), we can change churches or leave the faith without fear of persecution or of being socially ostracized.

      This is good! I am glad that I live in this time of change!

      Incidentally, Pattie, hateful people in general make me sad; and there are hateful Christians as well as hateful atheists.

  5. Mike, I know you don’t like links, but this one is so pertinent that I have to include it. David Mitchell is ranting about exactly this issue.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2L4TMQRzac

  6. Steve Newell says:

    How many people select a church based in part on its doctrine? How many people don’t look at a church’s doctrine but make the decision on pastor and programs? When a new member joins the church, does the pastor instruct the new or potential member on the doctrine of the church?

    When we treat the church as another consumer product to sale, we treat the member as a consumer who must be marketed to.

  7. David Logsdon says:
  8. Ecclesiastes 1

    New International Version (NIV)
    Everything Is Meaningless

    1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:

    2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
    “Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

    3 What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
    4 Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
    5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
    6 The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
    round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
    7 All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
    To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
    8 All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
    The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
    9 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
    10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
    It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
    11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
    will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.
    Wisdom Is Meaningless

    12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

    15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
    what is lacking cannot be counted.

    16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

    18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.

    • Unfortunately, Russ, I think that many have not yet arrived at the wisdom of the Preacher. “Vanity” does not mean “meaninglessness” but it signifies the transitory nature of the things in this age. They are like a soap bubble, shiny and attractive but short-lived. The Preacher had come to see this, and that is a forward step in wisdom and toward a serious religious life with God and with things of lasting substance. It seems to me that the majority are still enthralled with the spectacle of so many shimmering soap bubbles floating around them and they have yet become disenchanted with the fact that they all pop and disappear so soon.

      I might add that a Christianity that merely offers more new and shiny soap bubbles will not satisfy and will not last either.

  9. According to Phyllis Tickle in her book ” The Great Emergence”, we are moving through a 500-year shift when virtually every aspect of life as we know it changes. It’s destabilizing, producing widespread fear & anxiety, & takes generations before the dust settles. But our Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us that in every death is the hope of new life. We can’t see/know what that new life will be, but we all have a hand in forming it.
    Years ago in the first Lutheran church where I was actively involved, I realized how varied the backgrounds were of the members. A reflection of the freedom to choose not only your church but denomination. As a former Catholic, it took years before I felt I had a grasp of Lutheran doctrine/tradition because there was no established education process for those of other faith/no faith backgrounds. Then I read of a church in Seattle who developed a year-long education program for prospective members & those who wanted to be baptized. They knew that many would walk away from such a rigorous expectation, but those who remained developed the truest understanding of what it takes to be a Christ follower. I was so impressed with how this church responded to changes & choice in their community by emphasizing education before membership.
    This is one sure way forward – redefining church success not in numbers but in strength of understanding.
    Another way forward is in reminding ourselves that, though we have more freedom of choice than ever before, there is no freedom without responsibility. Our free will reflects the breath of God only when it is tied to those around us.

  10. I was going to link to Paradox of Choice book myself, but I see someone beat me to it. Bu, essentially, the thesis of the book is that the more options we have to choose from, the more chance there is that we will feel regret after making a choice. This pertains to almost anything in life. The NPR show Radiolab did a show about this and they interviewed the author. It’s worth listening to: http://www.radiolab.org/2008/nov/17/

    Another thing that the Radiolab show brings out is that when it comes to making choices, humans aren’t rational beings. And, really, that’s not a bad thing. If we were completely rational, we would be paralyzed by the simplest decisions – what clothes to put on in the morning, what cereal to buy at the store, what flavor of ice cream to eat, etc. We are faced with so many mundane choices throughout the day, that if we took time to do a full rational analysis of them all, we would be overwhelmed by it. Indeed, there have been people who have had their hypothalamus removed (a part of the brain vital to the limbic system), and with absent of emotions, they don’t become Spock-like. Rather, they become somewhat paralyzed when it comes to performing simple tasks.

    That’s not to say that being driven completely by emotions is desirable, either. But it’s just that so much Western thought is driven by the idea that the Platonic ideal is the way to go. Aristotle envisioned the mind as a cart being pulled at by two horses – one rationality, and the other our animal, or emotional, impulses. He theorized that the more noble man would be led by the rational horse and ignore the other one.

    The problem is that people aren’t really capable of doing that. This concept strikes me in many of the threads where we talk about Evangelicalism. When people complain about Evangelicals not looking at things rationally or being driven by their emotions, this why I think many times those arguments fall on deaf ears.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Indeed, there have been people who have had their hypothalamus removed (a part of the brain vital to the limbic system), and with absent of emotions, they don’t become Spock-like. Rather, they become somewhat paralyzed when it comes to performing simple tasks.

      Analysis Paralysis. (“but on the other other other hand…”) Type example: Senator JF Kerry and his “nuance”. (“but on the other other other other hand…”) And one of Kerry’s ad libs during his 2004 Presidential run (“but on the other other other other other hand…”) let slip one of the corollaries of Analysis Paralysis (“but on the other other other other other other hand…”):

      In a candid moment, Kerry said that one of his favorite eating places in the DC area was a place that had only ONE special on the menu. That it was a relief when somebody else has already made your choice for you. That confirmed to me that he suffered from Analysis Paralysis (“but on the other other other other other other other hand…”).

      Because when you’re in Analysis Paralysis, you want to have somebody else tell you exactly what to do, exactly what to choose, exactly what to think. Just to make the thrashing stop.

      And it explains the rise in One True Way authoritarian-abusive Truly Reformed right alongside the Seeker-Sensitive Circus.

      • Well, yeah, but HUG, maybe it’s simply a fantastic restaurant where no matter WHAT they plunk down in front of you it’s gonna be great.

        And does everything need a decision? Can’t the poor guy take a break from all of that Washington stuff?

        (I’m trying to avoid the “WE GOTTA TAKE A STAND!” syndrome…)

    • I just finished a book that described in a way what you are saying : humans are not primarily rational. We are creatures who desire first and foremost. Maybe I missed any pertinent conversations on this site relating to this book, but the book was called Desiring the Kingdom, by James KA Smith. I highly recommend it.

    • Isn’t the trick to this finding what choices actually matter and which ones don’t. I have no problem with a plethora of coffee offerings. I just about always order the same thing unless there’s a seasonal variety that looks interesting. I grab whatever clean clothes are at hand because ultimately it really doesn’t matter what I wear or if it matches (unless I’m going to a special occasion).

      There are, what? Millions of books to read, yet I can winnow recommendations and filter by interest to find one that matches my current mood.

      One’s metaphysics and lifestyle rules, on the other hand, I would think would be matters of import that should be analyzed. Certainly if I’m giving up bacon, I ought to understand why I’m giving up bacon and whether the metaphysical reality for which I’m giving up the bacon is worth it or is real enough to matter. And you could substitute a lot of things for bacon there. That’s just one of my personal battles (some times I win, sometimes the bacon wins, what can I say?)

      • “One’s metaphysics and lifestyle rules, on the other hand, I would think would be matters of import that should be analyzed.”

        I certainly agree with this and wouldn’t have chosen (though I prefer to think of having been called to) a life in ministry or even to write on this blog if I didn’t. However, how deeply do others think about these things? We all have our moments, I’m sure, but I get the impression that many either don’t, or they are so confused by the abundance of choices out there that they remain in a state of limbo for extended periods in their lives.

        That is what I took away from the interviews with the young people on NPR that we looked at on Wednesday. It’s no so much that they have chosen against religion with firm conviction. They are confused — intellectually, emotionally, relationally. They don’t understand how what they have heard in their religious traditions coheres with their experience of life in the world as it is today. There is a disconnect. Like the fellow in today’s piece said, their lives are full of so many things already, and religion seems kind of irrelevant to all of it.

        It also seems to me that churches, at least, have not grasped this situation adequately nor have they effectively addressed it. I hope by Monday to share some thoughts on that.

        • It also seems to me that churches, at least, have not grasped this situation adequately nor have they effectively addressed it. I hope by Monday to share some thoughts on that.

          I think some churches think they have grasped it, and because of that, they end up responding in the totally wrong way. They think, “well if people want more choices, we’ll give them more choices!”. That’s why Saddleback has like six different “styles” of worship services (one of them being the Hawaiian theme – God help us). And that’s why other churches will have a “traditional”, “contemporary”, and “mixed” service.

          I think in the end, it just ends up puzzling people more. Not that I like using marketing language when talking about the church, but it does remind me of Steve Jobs’ quote – “The customer doesn’t know what he wants. It’s our job to tell him what he wants.”

          • I agree that many think they have grasped it but what they have grasped is the outward phenomenon and not insight as to what the phenomenon actually does to people. Therefore they respond to the superficial and not the substantive needs of people before God.

  11. The increasing amount and speed of communication has also meant that the modern Christian is much more aware of the large variety of Christianity that exists. But, this confuses rather than helps. To continue your example, ordering a coffee took a few seconds many years ago. Now, you can go to a Starbuck and watch people standing, sometimes for minutes, trying to decide not only what coffee to get, but then deciding whether they want a double-shot, or whipped cream, or … The multiplicity of choices actually has a paralyzing effect on the coffee buyer.

    Imagine when a much more important decision needs to be made, and you can see why one ends up with the paralysis many Christians in the USA feel about deciding on a church and then sticking with it. Though some advocate that more churches and denominations give more choices, the real result is that they paralyze choice. Rather than giving clarity or “highlighting some facet of the Christian life that has been neglected” the multiplicity of groups confuses and obscures the faith.

    • Joseph (the original) says:

      i think there is a marketing dynamic here that is part of our technology driven society: people actually do expect choices, especially the youth. they have been raised on rapidly changing trends & technological innovations. 1,000 apps on their smart phones? no problem for them. a zillion digital images instantly broadcast to them from mulitple electronic devices? no problem. text their friends faster than speaking? no problem. they are awash in a media saturated environment that has to be fluid if the advertisers (for whatever products/services) hope to land a nanosecond’s worth of appeal/attraction on the up-and-coming purchasing demographic. i would argue that the younger generation would be much more uncomfortable with fewer choices than more choices. this is the real world the church in the industrialized countries must be salt & light to.

      i would have to believe the essence of ‘the faith’, the relevance of the gospel (who is not interested in good news?), the beauty of genuine faith community acceptance, love, appreciation, etc. will always have universal appeal regardless of culture, technological advances, demographics, etc. i think the multiplication of religious groups, organizations, traditional/denominational faith expressions, different forms of orthopraxy, etc. not a threat to anyone today. no amount of gospel reading, sacramental practices, liturgical expression, multimedia usage, contemporary music, top-notch coffee offerings, areas of targeted ministry, etc. will be sufficient to keep, let alone attract, people that would know the real gospel-lived-out deal vs. religious presentation. if youth today experience a level of acceptance from their peers & feel connected thru their social media choices, then whatever church expression is going to be of any real appeal will have to preach what they are actually practicing, not the other way around…

  12. This is not unlike the paralysis I used to feel when I went shopping after Christmas, and was faced with rack upon rack of densely-packed clothes, as far as the eye could see. I felt overwhelmed, and usually walked out empty-handed. I know better now – I just avoid it altogether.

  13. Randy Thompson says:

    Written in 1979, Peter Berger’s “The Heretical Imperative” interestingly addresses this issue of choosing and this general conversation. (Sorry for the second reference to Peter Berger this week!)

    Noting that authoritative tradition limited one’s choices in pre-modern societies, Berger points out that modern society is pluralistic in nature, with no central, authoritative tradition. Religious people, and for our purposes, Christian people, live in this pluralistic society with all its choices, like it or lump it. In his words:

    “The modern individual, then, lives in a world of choice, in sharp contrast with the world of fate inhabited by traditional man. He must choose in innumerable situations of everyday life, but this necessity of choosing reaches into the areas of beliefs, values, and worldviews. To decide, however, means to reflect. The modern individual must stop and pause where premodern men could act in unreflective spontaneity. Quite simply, the modern individual must engage in more deliberate thinking–not because he is more intelligent, not because he is on some sort of higher level of consciousness, but because his social situation forces him to this.”

    What’s interesting is that he wrote this in 1979, before the internet, cell phones, smart phones and Facebook. I can’t help but wonder whether religion isn’t just another choice that people, exhausted by all their other choosing, simply don’t want to face. Is it possible that our culture is suffering from Choice Exhaustion, and an inability to sort out important choices from trivial ones? If you’ve just gone through the elaborate process of buying a car or a laptop or a smart phone or whatever, do you really want to make another decision about church and God? Wouldn’t that look rather daunting?

    Berger makes another important point, too.:”Moderniization has brought with it a strong accentuation of the subjective side of human existence.” If pluralization has eroded external authority, people are “complelled to turn inward,” into their own subjectivity. “to dredge up from there whatever certainties [they] can manage.”
    This means that Michael Spencer’s rant about people claiming that God is talking to them is really a rant about living in the world we live in.

    Overwhelmed with choices and with the erosion of tradition through pluralization, people retreat into their own lives for solace, peace and some sort of certainty.

    It seems to me that if Christians are to be the light of the world in our current situation, Christians need to have a subjectivity that, paradoxically, reflects an encounter with the risen Jesus, where that Christian subjectivity is shot through with Christ’s presence.

    We can’t go back to the pre-modern world which produced the Bible we read, but we can engage with that Bible in such a way that keeps our subjectivity honest. To quote Berger again, “Christian faith here means to express the conviction that the universe ultimately makes sense in the light of Sinai and Calvary. ”

    Near the end of his book, Berger makes a great point about relevance in the modern world, and it’s worth sharing:

    “Yet, if anything impresses one today, it is the poverty of modernity. ‘What does modern man have to say to Christian faith?’ The probably answer is: ‘Not much more than he has said already! This fact accounts for the sterility of so much of what passes today for a Christian struggle with the Zeitgeist . . . Most sterile of all is any renewed effort to make Christianity palatable to what is deemed to be the secular consciousness of modern man. Such an effort is ironically futile in that precisely this modern secularity is in crisis to day. The most obvious fact about the contemporary world is not so much its secularity, but rather its great hunger for redemption and for transcendence.”

    I like that.

    • Randy,
      I like it, too. I’m a big admirer of Berger, and appreciate his keen and theologically informed analyses of the modern and postmodern world. Berger recognizes that we live in a very religious era, and he knows that this increase in religiousness is not only confined to the developing world. While institutionalized religion in Euro/America is on the decline, interest in the metaphysical and supernatural has never been greater or more varied. And there is a marketplace that feeds and promotes every shade of religious interest. I agree with you,too, that it’s pointless to rail against the hunger for religious experience; it was precisely this hunger for first-hand religious experience, which many felt wasn’t being met by an anemic traditional Christianity, that opened Europe and especially the U.S. to Eastern meditation technique, to Buddhism and Hinduism in the 1960’s. There is no doubt that the emphasis on religious experience that we find in current Evangelicalism also developed to address this felt and expressed need of multitudes of people. It’s an irony that the more secular our society gets, the more religious its citizens get (I’m talking about both institutional and non-institutional religion, which would include many of the “nones” that have been in the news lately). Unfortunately, Christianity as an organized religion does seem to be on the decline in Euro/America recently, even Evangelical churches which have hit a plateau and either aren’t growing any more or losing members. Of course current trends are not irreversible, and the increasing appetite in both America and Europe for things spiritual provides Christianity with an opportunity to proclaim the gospel anew in the West, a gospel which proclaims “…the conviction that the universe ultimately makes sense in the light of Sinai and Calvary.”

  14. In a time when most people are uneducated and couldn’t really “think” for themselves, the lack of freedom and choice is, of course, optimal. But we live in a time where more and more people have college degrees and learn so called “critical thinking” skills, all of which should enable us to make a triage of choices. Unfortunately, we cannot. More than anything else, what all of this represents is a failure of our own institutions (educational, government, and church) in equipping us with the right tool to make the right choices in an increasingly complex modern world.

  15. “My life is full without church; it seems kind of irrelevant.”

    Bingo —- that sums up how many feel today. Church is not in the fabric of our lives.

    • Randy Thompson says:

      Really, the question is, what on earth is your life full of? And, how much of that “fullness” is trivia?

      • Bingo and double bingo.

        I hear so many Christians fall into the “the world hates us” mindset and I always think, “You should be so lucky”. Mostly, the world just ignores us.

        This entire post is thought provoking. I think back to when I was a kid (1960s) in my lilly white neighborhood, with my lilly white protestant friends (mostly Lutheran), going to my lilly white protestant parochial school. Catholics we considered nice people in spite of their “wrong” beliefs and I did not know Mormonism existed (first enlightenment was the Osmonds). I had no clue about other religions and did not meet a black until I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure I did not meet a Muslim or Jew or atheist until college. I honestly did not know that gay people existed until my later teen years and had never knowingly met one until I was an adult. I had no idea that my view of the world was not everyone’s view of the world and I was absolutely certain that my view of the world was the one that was true
        .
        Today’s world is vastly different. Most of my parent’s generation went to church because everyone did and I doubt many of them really grasped that they had a choice. Church is also where they did business networking and the women of yesteryear got their reason to get out of the house and socialize. They didn’t explore other religions because they had no way to do so. People’s lives now are very full with things meaningless and thing meaningful. They discover that their Muslim or atheistic neighbor is a great person. They see scandal after scandal in the church. Marketing religion is, I think, a very bad idea because it sees people as sales prospects. People aren’t likely to join a church because that’s what everyone does when adulthood looms. People do need a reason to be involved and many just aren’t seeing any.

        I agree that we are on the cusp of something new and potentially exciting, but it’s also very frightening. The old is falling away very quickly and with it, many of our notions of how things should be. It certainly will be very interesting to read about 50 or 100 years from now, but it isn’t always the easiest thing to live through.

      • And how much isn’t trivia? My husband fills his time with learning new things, reading good books, he’s about to embark on learning the trumpet (which will be awesome for me as I am learning to play the clarinet and could use a duet partner). He paints (acrylics, I’m into oils) and argues with anonymous people online. OK, that last one is probably trivial.

  16. Lester Pangs says:

    Ok, confession time. I am a “none”. I’m not an atheist. Maybe I’m agnostic. I was a Christian once. Went to a fundamentalist high school. No, it didn’t leave me broken. Tried mainline Christianity after than. And then Quakerism. But it meant nothing to me. And no, the church hasn’t “wounded” me. I think, in the end, I could just never buy what they were selling. Anyhow, mostly these days I just don’t care whether there is a God or not. There just isn’t a compelling reason for me to worry about it.

    When my religious friends try and convert me, or at least have me come out to their church (a hint guys, please stop, OK? Pretty please?) they first try and sell me on the idea that something is missing in my life, that I have a hole to fill. Thing is, the more they try this, the more it seems like they are trying to create a hole in me that needs filling. I certainly don’t feel like anything is missing from my life. And if you’re trying to create that sense in me, you are trying to hurt me.

    But this approach doesn’t work and then, invariably, they start trying to threaten me. You may not think that talking about my “eternal salvation” is a threat, but it’s really hard for me to see it any other way. I won’t respond to that and if that’s how God operates, well why would I want to go to church and pray to THAT?

    Also comments like this :

    “Really, the question is, what on earth is your life full of? And, how much of that “fullness” is trivia?”

    are just so loaded I dismiss them instantly. To ask this question, you’ve pretty much already decided that aspects of my life *are* trivia. Which doesn’t exactly give me warm fuzzies about anything else you have to say.

    And finally, on the other thread I noticed that someone posted a comment (that seemed to be) mocking “nones” by saying (something like) : we just want everyone to do their own thing, and not bother other people with it, and everything will be just fine and dandy…

    Honestly, that sounds like a pretty nice world.

    • Thanks for giving us your perspective, Lester. I hope you’ll keep reading and participating.

      • Chaplain Mike,
        “…..they try…and sell me on the idea that something is missing in my life, that I have a whole to fill. Thing is, the more they try this, the more it seems like they are trying to create a hole in me that needs filling…” This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted that the gospel should not be proclaimed by the church as something for the periphery of life, for the increasingly narrowing space that can not be explained from a secular perspective, for the areas of perceived weakness or vulnerability; rather, the gospel, and Jesus Christ, should be proclaimed for and at the center of life, in the midst of vitality, in the places of human strength and dignity, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is too noble to exploit what is weak in humanity, too glorious to rely for entrance into the human soul by way of human frailty and vulnerability. This is the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s enigmatic assertion that we must live before God in a world “grown of age” as those without God. Humanity is capable of an awareness of its own dignity and autonomy that it is futile and ignoble for Christians to deny; witness the above words of Lester Pangs, who represents many.

  17. “Like the nine billion names of God
    Don’t bring you any closer
    To anyone you can simply set eyes on”
    – Bruce Cockburn

  18. Chaplain Mike,
    Sociologist Peter Berger in his “A Far Glory: the Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity” deals with this exact subject, the effect of the proliferation of choices on religious identity in the contemporary world, in a very perceptive and theologically informed manner; are you familiar with it or any of his work? One of the things he asserts in that book is that the more choices we have in regard to religious identity, and the more we are exposed to the different choices of others in a pluralistic society, the less certainty we tend to have about the choices we do make, and the more aware we are of the contingency of both our choices and the choices of others. The result is an extraordinary level of uncertainty and anxiety (compared with earlier societies) about the plausibility of the belief systems that we choose, and an awareness of them as our choices rather than fait accompli. Anyway, here is a rough paraphrase of a humorous little story that Berger offers in that book: Two friends are talking. One of the men asks the other about what his new job is like. The second man tells him, “Well, I sit in an orange grove under a tree. Oranges are brought to me and I have to separate them. I put large oranges in one basket, and smaller oranges in another basket.” The first man asks the second how he likes his new job. The second man says it’s a very stressful job. The first man tells his friend that he’s surprised by his answer, since sitting in an orange grove under a tree and separating oranges does not sound like an altogether unpleasant or difficult undertaking, and asks him why it might be so stressful. His friend looks at him and says, “Well, you see, it’s all those choices.”

  19. The current Coffee with Jesus seemed quite applicable to this discussion.

    http://radiofreebabylon.com/RFB%20Images/CoffeeWithJesus/coffeewithjesus491.jpg