News flash! Mushy faith on the rise

jesuskrishnaHey! Here’s a shout out of praise for nonNewsweek!

Yes, you read that right.

Not only are a few GetReligion readers still flipping through nonNewsweek, some continue to send us URLs seeking comment on what is published there. That’s how I discovered that columnist Lisa Miller has spotted the hot news story that, when it comes to beliefs about salvation, Universalism is gaining ground in the mushy middle of the American marketplace of ideas. I am sure that this shocks you.

Thus, in the mini-feature “We Are All Hindus Now,” she writes that, while 76 percent of Americans still call themselves Christians, there are changes taking place down in the doctrinal foundations:

… (Recent) poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.

The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”

Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” — including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone.

Paging James Davison Hunter! It seems that Miller may have read your book “Evangelicals: The Coming Generation” — written more than two decades ago. One of its major themes was that doctrinal absolutes were fading among young evangelicals, including on the pivotal issue of salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ, alone.

Then there was that whole “New Age” thing. Wait, that was two decades ago, too.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

The Miller report is, in fact, a collection of poll results from recent years with — unless I missed it — no news hook whatsoever. Perhaps this is simply a statement of core, creedal principles of the new nonNewsweek? Another way of establishing its identity as part of the “spiritual, not religious” age? A tract to hand out at Woodstock reunions?

The final paragraph does include a subject worthy of an interesting story, even a cover report (then again, I am interested in religion news). The art for this story would be sobering, to say the least, but there you go:

Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit — where identity resides — escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies.

So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them — like Hindus — after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975.

Meanwhile, I would like to remind GetReligion readers that I totally agree with Miller that this is a crucial issue in this day and age, a doctrinal matter that looms in the background of many other stories that make headlines week after week. I mean, remember the “tmatt trio”? For several years now, I have argued that if mainstream reporters want to find the fault lines in Christian churches and denominations, all they need to do is ask these questions and then listen carefully to the answers:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

These questions remain relevant. Ask the Anglicans. Ask the Lutherans. Ask just about anyone, in fact.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Richard Hooker

    The “news” here is that all Americans will inevitably — sooner or later — get swept up in the great rising tide of history that will transform each and every one us one day soon into moral and political cognates of the staff at Newsweek magazine. Any revisions to traditional religious orthodoxy of any sort that need to be made to remove theological impediments to transforming ourselves into moral and political cognates of the staff at Newsweek magazine not only *must* but *will* be made, as the aforementioned great rising tide of history works its will on each and every one of us. And — as we all know by now — traditionalists “had best get used to it.” Luckily, they will, because — again, as we all know by now — there is no incompatibility whatsoever among Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism, Satanism, Atheism, etc. All of them are equally valid paths toward the light.

  • Maureen

    This is another case where the question doesn’t seem definite enough for the conclusion. A lot of people would take “many religions can lead to eternal life” as “many religions are almost entirely wrong, but Jesus will save their adherents anyway, if they’re trying to follow God” or “many religions are full of Christians who don’t know they’re Christians” or “at the last moment, Jesus will come and preach to all the poor unbelievers and bring them to belief in Him”.

    And so on. There’s a lot of difference between “religions don’t matter because all religions are right” and “religions do matter, but luckily God is merciful”. That’s the difference you’d want to expose in a question about this point, and yet the questions are written to expose it.

  • Maureen

    Oh, and the cremation thing. Part of the reason cremations have gone up is that many Christian churches have decided that cremation is all right, if it’s not done as an atheistic act of defiance, a pagan act, or an act of deliberate desecration or magical destruction for eternity of the body (all stuff that cremation and funeral pyres used to be more widely associated with). Engaged in as a cheap sort of pine box funeral option, and with the ashes stored respectfully, no problem.

    The reporter might also have examined the connection between burial costs and popularity of cremation. I know it’s a lot more like work, but I thought reporters love to follow the money.

  • David

    Ditzy Miller might be interested to know just how broad Hinduism really is. There are polytheistic and even monotheistic versions, and versions that emphasize Shiva, versions that emphasize Vishnu, and others that ignore both.

    She might also be interested to know that Christians don’t generally believe that their actual current bodies will be resurrected, just that they will have physical bodies of some kind.

    But then again, maybe she wouldn’t. …

  • David Charkowsky

    Wasn’t the Arian heresy extremely popular at one point in time? To the point that it actually had the majority of Christian adherents?

  • dalea

    Reincarnation is a concept held by many Pagans and NewAgers. Who are apparently more influential than I had realized. Odd the reporter had to use Hinduism when there are local, home grown religions that would do.

    When my mother passed, her Pastor explained to us that in the Church of Sweden cremation is the prefered option. It is because the amount of land devoted to cemetaries has been fixed for centuries. Burial is only for a limited period; the grave is opened and the bones go into some sort of building. And the grave is reused.

  • Jerry

    Non-traditional does not necessarily mean mushy. It’s perfectly possible to have a fully developed, rigorous non-traditional theology.

    From another frame-of-reference, the image you chose reminded me very strongly of an experience Ramakrishna Paramhamsa had:

    One of his young charges had a bible and used to read to Sri Ramakrishna stories from the bible. He became enamored of the wonderful stories of the life of Christ and of the beautiful picture of the Madonna with the Divine Child and fully immersed his mind in the Christian images for three days. On the fourth day as he was walking he saw an extraordinary looking person of serene aspect approaching him with his gaze intently fixed on him. Presently the figure drew near and from the inmost recesses of Sri Ramakrishna’s heart there came the realization: “There is the Christ who poured out his heart’s blood for the redemption of mankind and suffered agonies for its sake. It is none else but the Master-Yogin Jesus, the embodiment of Love!” In his divine vision the Son of Man embraced Sri Ramakrishna and became merged in him. The Master lost outward consciousness in Samadhi, realizing his union with Brahman with attributes. Thus was he convinced that Jesus Christ was an Incarnation of the Lord. Thinking that there is only one, eternal Christ but that there have been many incarnations (Avatars) of that one Christ is, of course, heresy from a traditional Christian point of view.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Part of the reason so many Americans are becoming mushy about their faith is that they are constantly bombarded in the media and in colleges, etc. that there is no difference between religions. If something is categorized by ivory tower scholars or media gurus as a “religion,” then it is the same, essentially as all other religions.
    This is illogical (but few realize just how idiotically illogical). The Nazis were a political party. The Communists were a political party. The Democrats are a political party. They are all political parties so there are no essential differences between them??????

  • EJCM

    Tell that to the Christians in Orissa and elsewhere in India.

  • Richard Hooker

    There are of course still a few religions left that are not “all the same deep down” — i.e. all those religions that assert, contra Newsweek, that all religions are not, in fact, “all the same deep down.” But those particular “paths toward the light” are *not* “equally as valid” as all the rest. Especially if, in addition to adhering to one of them, one also is less impressed by Barack Obama than Newsweek is.

  • danr

    Miller paints a false correlation (one of several) between cremation and “agnosticism about the fate of the human body”. Though Christian tradition (and Jewish) does teach respect for the deceased and that the body should therefore remain intact if possible, Christians also believe that absolutely nothing (including cremation) can prevent an omnipotent God from resurrecting the body for eternal life (or judgment).

    Also, David wrote: “She might also be interested to know that Christians don’t generally believe that their actual current bodies will be resurrected, just that they will have physical bodies of some kind.”

    I know we’re slightly off-topic, but this isn’t quite accurate. The foundation for Christian resurrection belief isn’t that Jesus got a brand new body disconnected from the old one, but that His lifeless corpse rose from the tomb, albeit forever transformed (glorified and immortal). And as He did, we shall. Otherwise, the proper term wouldn’t be resurrection so much as re-creation.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Not only are a few GetReligion readers still flipping through nonNewsweek, some continue to send us URLs seeking comment on what is published there.

    These people have way too much time on their hands.

  • Jay

    So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them — like Hindus — after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975.


    You let this slide without comment. Is there something Hindu about allowing cremation? My dad was pretty devout but he was cremated because that’s all our local National Cemetery has room for nowadays. His ECUSA (now ACNA) priest never said anything about it.

    I realize some Christian groups oppose cremation, but IIRC most have no position at all. So where’s the evidence that getting cremated is Hindu?

    Even the 100-year-old New Advent Encyclopedia sounds, well, agnostic on the subject.

    In conclusion, it must be remembered that there is nothing directly opposed to any dogma of the Church in the practice of cremation, and that, if ever the leaders of this sinister movement so far control the governments of the world as to make this custom universal, it would not be a lapse in the faith confided to her were she obliged to conform.

  • JD

    Some things have changed over the last twenty years: The menu of domestic pluralism has been getting even wider, there are more actual Hindus, there are Sikhs, the Muslims are growing and getting more assertive, Paganism has risen, and so on. Even Mere Judeo-Christianity doesn’t cut it anymore as a lowest common denominator.

    Universalism is a very effective way of neutering faith, and I haven’t yet seen a really convincing strategy of how the traditionalists, the exclusivists, propose to counter it – except to extol the virtues of shrinking. Valid enough, but also a kind of capitulation.

    It is not illogical to think that all religions are the same if your background assumption is naturalism. Then all religions alike reduce to insubstantial epiphenomena, jumbled collections of rituals, metaphors, and borrow clothing.

  • Stoo

    Even if this doesn’t have a news hook, it’s interesting reading. I’m all for an exploration of what’s going on in between the predictable rantings of the Angry Atheists and the (traditional Roman Catholics).

  • Dave

    Universalism is a doctrine that all souls are ultimately reconciled with God. It is mute on the validity of other religions.

    I don’t find “no news hook” to be a valid criticism if the collected survey results cohere into an informative picture.

  • JD

    Universalism is a doctrine that all souls are ultimately reconciled with God. It is mute on the validity of other religions.

    What’s validity except salvific validity ? If universalism holds which religion you practice makes no pragmatic difference.

    Universalism is one aspect of a package, perhaps best called philosophical pluralism. If tmatt likes to repeat his patented three-way test, I’ll repeat my single question: Are you a philosophical pluralist, or do you believe in some exclusive concept of truth ? That’s pretty much the divide. The challenge for the exclusivists is to fend off philosophical pluralism when empirical pluralism – the lived experience of rubbing along in a pluralist society – is rising. It can be done, but it isn’t easy, not at all. (The religious liberals usually accept philosophical pluralism, more or less. Their challenge is to avoid becoming Unitarian Universalists.)

  • Maureen

    This article would have been more impressive if they’d shown that Americans in general were doing puja or classifying themselves in castes or refusing to kiss in public because it was immodest, or anything really Hindu of that nature. Reincarnation was believed in the West by some (some of the Celts, apparently, and the Pythagoreans, IIRC) and in many other non-Hindu religions. The rest is equally non-denominationally pantheistic and such.

    If I were Hindu, I think the article’d be kinda offensive to me.

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  • Jerry

    Reincarnation was believed in the West

    There’s a lot of controversy about reincarnation in the early teachings of Christianity. I’ve read a number of claims and counterclaims including what appears to be very carefully worded statements, decisions about what should be in the Canon etc.

  • Dave

    JD, I’m just giving you the classical definition of the term. …

  • Julia

    Lots of Catholics in my area get cremated these days. Like somebody mentioned earlier, the problem was cremation’s association with other religions that was the problem.

    Probably similar to Jews not having milk and meat dishes even touch each other. Some rituals regarding Baal and maybe Astarte involved eating a kid boiled in the milk of its mother. So – to make sure there was no such sacrifices in Israel, there was to be no milk and meat in the same meal and not even use the same dishes.

  • Cathy

    Umm, Stoo: personal attacks much?
    And I don’t even know the man..

  • tmatt


    I heard you.