1968: When Churches Live Through a Revolution

1968: When Churches Live Through a Revolution August 6, 2018

I have been sketching the (Christian) religious worlds of 1968, and the many critical changes then in progress. In many ways, circumstances of that time closely resembled other eras of radical transformation, and here I will try to draw out some of the general themes, to create a model for understanding such crisis eras. Please note that the following account is fairly theoretical, and the concrete examples on which I base my statements are found in those earlier blogposts.

I am a strong believer in punctuated equilibrium as a means of understanding historical change, and particularly in matters of religion. According to this theory, which is borrowed from evolutionary biology, change is not gradual or uniform, and cannot be easily mapped by a straight-line graph. Rather, changes occur over long periods, but at very unequal rates. For long periods, biological changes are slight and gradual, to the extent that conditions appear almost static. That seeming stability masks the gradual changes that are accumulating powerfully below the surface, however. Under various external forces, such as a sudden dramatic climate crisis, the pace of change then accelerates intensely, with rapid and obvious development and diversification. As the crisis fades, conditions once more resume something approaching stasis or equilibrium.

However short-lived those transformative eras might appear in the full span of historical time, their influence is profound and enduring. In mainstream history, they are called times of revolutionary change, and we can easily point to several in the Christian past. The years around 1968 fit this model well. A revolution was launched, which took decades to absorb and comprehend.

Commonly, such eras arise because of a radical questioning of the familiar bases of authority, and a distrust of institutions. The quest for new foundations of authority can take many different directions, and different individuals and groups commonly pursue multiple possible paths. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, these often include a return to scriptural sources, but that is not the only possible direction. In the case of the 1960s, much reform was driven by a questioning or repudiation of distinctively religious sources as such, and a dramatic shift to the secular world, to new insights from psychology, and from political theory (especially Marxism). The quest thus takes the turn of a throwing open of gates to the outside world, to bring the church up to date, to make it move with the times.

Sometimes, as in the 1520s, rival religious groups offer competing but equally firm grounds for authority, whether from church tradition or the scripture. In the 1960s, though, the churches rather abdicated their claims to authority, creating a real power vacuum, and at a time of uniquely harrowing social and cultural change.

The lack of a distinctive religious voice from institutions can lead ordinary believers to find their own ways, to form new structures, or to turn to alternative voices offering definitive solutions. In the case of the late 1960s, we see for instance the sharp growth of alternative sects and cults offering strict guidelines of belief and conduct, in sharp contrast to the liberalizing trends within the mainstream churches.

Also, while elites are secularizing, ordinary believers might well pursue conservative and even fundamentalist paths, far more so than they might have done if they still felt the restraining hands of learned authority. Within the Christian tradition, this commonly means a return to roots in the form of apocalyptic, of religious charisma, and of direct divine access in the form of prophecy. That creates an environment very open to sects, which may or may not be pernicious, and to would be messiahs. Expect new attempts at scriptures and sacred revelations.

Also, that quest for alternative authorities tends to overthrow older assumptions about structures and hierarchies. A revolution in generations and gender commonly ensues.

At that point, a number of variables determine long term outcomes. One is institutional, and how far the emerging structures form new bodies that replace or supplant older churches. Politics also plays its part. Sometimes those new sects and pressure groups will acquire potent political voices, and demand a presence on the political stage for years to come.

And then there is a common pattern whereby those long troubled and assailed traditional  institutions reorganize and restructure themselves and try to restore their position, commonly by taking aboard many of the radical ideas that have spread during the crisis years. In the aftermath of the 1960s crisis, we see this clearly within the Roman Catholic church, and the restoration of authority by John Paul II during the 1980s.

Other institutions might simply continue their decline and fall, and give up the unequal struggle.

Anyway, this is a model I am working on, and naturally enough, it fits some eras better than others. I shall persevere.


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