Yesterday I had a one-on-one lunch with sociologist Peter Berger. He invited me to lunch with him to discuss Calvinism. We had a very good discussion for about 90 minutes. I’ve known of Berger’s work in sociology of knowledge and secularization theory for many years and was delighted to meet him and talk with him. He feels as I do about Calvinism (at least five point Calvinism). He’s Lutheran and, by his own admission, somewhat liberal theologically. I did my best to inform him about the social significance of the “young, restless, Reformed” movement among evangelicals–something he was not aware of (at least not thoroughly familiar with). I had the opportunity to ask him something I’ve long wondered about: Why give up the secularization thesis about modernity and its effects just because religion seems to be making a come back? My own view is that much of the religious resurgence is quite compatible with secularity in that it does not seem really to affect people’s lives all that much. For example, evangelicals experience divorce just as often as do non-Christians. Is there a “secular Christianity?” (I’m not talking here about Bonhoeffer’s meaning of that.) I think so. Many churches that experience explosive growth seem not to inculcate the idea of costly grace (now I’m talking Bonhoeffer) in their adherents. The members seem to live pretty much like their non-Christian neighbors. My question is, is the giving up of the secularization thesis an example of bean counting? Are sociologists simply counting frequency of church attendance, etc.? Perhaps and perhaps not. But as a theologian looking more deeply into issues of discipleship and belief, I’m not all that impressed with the alleged resurgence of religion in America.
This week a brouhaha has broken out over a Baptist church in Kentucky that banned interracial marriage. That is, the Free Will Baptist Church passed a rule that interracial couples could not join the church. The secular media are having a field day with this–another opportunity to bash Baptists. an AP article published in the local newspaper (with the byline Dylan Lovan) attempts to explain Baptists and utterly fails. Just a little self-education via the internet could clear things up. First of all, Baptist churches are autonomous; Baptist denominations are not really denominations but conventions or conferences or associations. The most they can do is expel a congregation and that takes time. But the media seem to be blaming the National Association of Free Will Baptists, if not Baptists in general, for the racist attitude and action of that single rural congregation in Kentucky. The media people frequently display their ignorance about religion. This is another example. The article also dares to comment on the Free Will Baptists, suggesting they are a minority among Baptists. Here’s the direct quote from the AP article: “Free Will Baptists trace their history to the 18th century. They emphasized the Arminian doctrine of free will, free grace and free salvation, in contrast to most Baptists, who were Calvinists and believed Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.” Well, at least the writer spelled “Arminian” correctly! Why was this written in the past tense? That’s one puzzling thing about it. But also, it fails to mention that the FIRST Baptists were Arminian or at least synergists. Thomas Helwys and John Smyth and their followers most definitely were not Calvinists. The “particular Baptists” came later. I don’t know that anyone really knows the statistics regarding what “most Baptists” believed about predestination and free will at any point AFTER the mid-17th century when particular (Calvinist) Baptists came on the scene. Personally, I doubt there was ever a time when “most Baptists” believed in the whole TULIP scheme.
One line in the movie especially hit home to me. An American woman in Paris is conducting research into French participation in the holocaust. A young French woman who works with her says something very disparaging about her near ancestors who did these things or at least did not speak up for the Jews of Paris as they were being taken away. The American woman says “Would you have acted differently?” The young French woman is stunned into silence.
This is the problem with making the holocaust unique. Some months ago I reported on a holocaust conference I attended where a young Israeli woman expert on the holocaust (she is somehow connected to Yad Vashem) condemned one speaker for using the word “holocaust” for other massacres in history–including the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem by Herod. She called him a “holocaust denier.” The problem with this habit is that, while it seems to bring special attention to the holocaust and its intention is to prevent another one, it actually undermines the prevention of another one. IF we say the holocaust is unique, then we are implying that it could never happen again. The people who did it were simply monsters, not normal human beings. While there’s some truth in that, it can be taken too far and often is taken too far. Yes, of course, there were unique aspects to the holocaust, but to set it aside as completely unique so that anyone who compares it with other massacres and genocides in history is a “holocaust denier” could have the unintended consequence of setting it up to happen again by deluding people into thinking THEY are incapable of doing things like that.