No historical paradigm change is evident to the people living within it. Christian faith is either dying or undergoing a change. Which is it? Good question.
Remember the Postmodern
Twenty years ago, “postmodern” was the buzzword church leaders used to explain the changing times. The new generation was “postmodern.’ The church needed to reach out to “postmoderns.” The prevailing assumption was that the Age of the Enlightenment or modernity was ending with a new one beginning. It is hubris for a generation to claim that the difference between them and the previous one is fundamental to the meaning of being human.
The Age of Reason is not over. Scientific understanding of the world is still the primary standard of thought. I write this just before the Nobel Prize for “economic science” is to be announced. This makes my point nicely. Archaeology and historical analysis continue to drive biblical interpretation. Linguistics, anthropology, and genetics inform our discussion of cultural origins. It is not likely that we will see the end of this way of viewing the world anytime soon.
Back To The Point of Faith
Christian faith is dying in the global West. The evidence for this is the anxiety of the churches. Are we failing to reach young people? Are we too exclusive/permissive? Should the ancient creeds and formulations of doctrine be discarded? The questions all are asking the same thing. How do we save the Christian faith? The question implies that the faith needs to be saved by us.
Churches as institutions are failing. Congregations and denominations are all in the same position. The temptation they all face is to reshape how church is done (or faith exercised) to become something other than worshiping communities to glorify God. We can dress up the new approaches as “building the kingdom,” or “getting back to the Bible.” But they are ideologies expressed in god-talk.
Christian Faith Dying
The first model I wish to discuss is the death model. Christian faith is dying. Frans De Waal makes the observation that children in Western European countries ask why churches have “plus signs” on the steeples. The response of the citizens of Paris during and after the recent fire that destroyed the roof of Notre Dame in Paris is an example of nationalistic faith and pride being displayed. The response was more about History and Culture than the practice of Christian faith. How did the dissolution of Christian faith in Western Europe happen?
The two World Wars provided the people of Europe with existential tragedy. How could the God proclaimed by Jesus have been with and took part in the wars and the atrocities? Claims of “God with Us” were made by all sides. Churches participated in the pro-war propaganda. This factor is not enough though to explain the decline.
The other factor is economic development of the West following the Second World War. The economic boom gave Western Europeans an appreciation for material blessings. The citizens of Europe benefit from a highly developed social welfare system. The people have a sense of contentment with their lives. Christian faith did not solve the existential tragedy. National Churches are supported by the social welfare system provided by the State. They exist if the people want them. Often, the churches are not needed.
Changing Christian Faith
American Christianity suffers from both the increase of material wealth in society and disillusionment just like Western Europe. But the larger wealth gap in American society and the anxiety of an empire, puts pressure on the churches in American similar to those of Eastern Europe. Church leaders in Poland, Hungary, and Russia openly support the authoritarian regimes of their countries. They draw some endorsement from their governments. American churches are realizing that social pressure from government leaders during the Cold War of the 1950’s and early 1960’s caused the steady growth churches enjoyed. Since there is no national church in The United States, the government has only until recently given direct aid to churches.
Ultimately, governmental authoritarianism will not sustain the churches in Eastern and Central Europe. The Catholic Church in Spain saw a large decline after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. His support of the church eventually caused a backlash among the citizenry. Authoritarian regimes are unsustainable. The USSR only lasted 70 years. Fascist regimes last for a generation at most. Christian Churches cannot support such governments and expect to survive.
The Last Option
The problem of seeing the trees and not the forest best illustrates the difficulty. People do not recognize a shifting paradigm. They experience the anxiety that goes with crises. Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to be the emblem of the Enlightenment. He changed Europe. But Britain, also altered by the Enlightenment in a different way, saved Europe. No one would have believed it at the time. If Christian faith survives, it will do so from an unlikely source bringing an unlikely change. It is the way History works. Is it a teacher/preacher that is needed? Maybe we need a monastic like St. Francis? Maybe we need a political leader like Constantine? The only thing I can say for certain is when someone tries reanimating any of these models they are failures before they begin.
I do not paint an encouraging picture for would-be heroes. A few centuries will go past before someone explains how it happened. I plan to be dead and gone by then. Ironically, I have hope because of that.