Sunday, February 16, 2014

Literally lost...

This year has been a year of transition unlike all the rest of them, I suppose. But as some readers have noticed, my views have changed or become less rigid as a result of cumulative experience and some additional learning. Much of that evolution has been part and parcel of my faith experience, and how I try to make sense of belief and its purpose.

Perhaps, the ending of my work as a choir director suddenly put in stark comparison how crucial that ministry was for my Christian identity. Choral music was deeply important to my life pattern and a powerful shaping force for my belief system. Its ending left a  much larger hole than I ever anticipated, and a grief that abides today.

Simultaneously, the more history I listened to on my commute the USFR - from history of the early Church, to the Crusades, to the "alternative Christianity's", to the ongoing story of how religion and secular government have evolved, to any number of carefully substantiated historical dismantling of my rather naive lay convictions of who we Christians are and how we got here - the more my understanding was pressured to either give up on reason or bend to the facts.

Additionally, in the past two decades at least, the conflict between politics and religion has been brought into sharper focus and stronger engagement, as the wall between church and state has been questioned by the right. I see this widely evident in disagreement about global warming, diplomacy with other cultures, support of Israel, welfare policy, and perversely, economic theory justification.

For the last few months I have been slogging through the exhaustive (and exhausting) Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

It is a monsterpiece of academic precision and detail, as well as an ongoing challenge to my commitments to rationality and faith. While I highly recommend it, pack a lunch - this is no quick read.

I have been sequentially intrigued , disconcerted, alarmed, and antagonistic toward evangelical Christianity as practiced in the new business model developed over the last three decades.

Apparently, I'm not the only pilgrim wandering on roads less traveled. New research, as well as a spate of commentary from thinkers I respect has flooded media from religious periodicals to popular blogs.

One current subject of contention is what is happening in the evangelical wing. Even I have been startled by the findings.
The common thread in these books is the contention that Christianity, especially conservative Christianity, is rapidly losing strength and cultural authority in a changing America. Charting Americans’ religious beliefs is notoriously tricky, as comparison between any two religion-related polls will attest. Nevertheless, these authors’ argument that conservative Christianity — both evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism — is losing sway in America has become the consensus view of most experts who study American religiosity. In 2012, the Pew Research Center made headlines with a study showing that for the first time, the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (19.6 percent) surpassed the number of white evangelical Protestants (19 percent). Other surveys conducted in recent years (by Gallup, the General Social Survey, Baylor University, and other research organizations) show declines in the number of people who identify as Christian, believe in God, and attend church regularly. American Catholicism has undergone its own similar involution, with nearly half of all Catholics under age 40 now Hispanic and a majority of Catholics favoring same-sex marriage, according to Pew. Meanwhile, the number of Muslims in America has risen rapidly, more than doubling since 1990. In the most recent (2008) American Religious Identification Survey, Islam surpassed Mormonism as America’s fastest growing faith.For conservative Christians, the turnabout has been disorienting. Just 10 years ago, conservative Christianity appeared ascendant, with a coalition of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics twice electing a born-again Christian to the presidency and, in 2004, outlawing gay marriage in 11 states. Today, laws against same-sex marriage are being rolled back and conservatives have failed to budge debate over access to contraception in the new health law. The Tea Party, which pairs evangelicals in an uneasy alliance with an increasingly assertive libertarian movement, is now a dominant force in Republican politics, shouldering aside once-feared evangelical organizations such as the Christian Coalition. Key evangelicals, stung by polls showing younger Americans are turned off by strident conservatism, have begun pivoting politically, as have Catholic bishops in response to Pope Francis’s attempt to reorient his church toward evangelism and social justice. Last year, prominent evangelical leaders, including the political director of the Southern Baptist Convention, spurned the Tea Party and emerged as prominent backers of comprehensive immigration reform. Evangelical leaders told me they were responding to demographic change in America: both the rise of immigrants in their churches and the emergence of a younger, more politically progressive generation of Christians. Yet in a sign of Christians’ diminished political clout, so far evangelicals’ fervent activism on this issue has failed to garner congressional Republican support. [More highly recommended]

Disclaimer: I have grown increasingly intolerant of the fundamentalist branch of the the church, probably because its increasingly anti-intellectualism. This mindset is nothing new, of course. Aaron offered this helpful quote from Isaac Asimov
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Amen. But my intolerance is of the same cloth as those I condemn, and singularly unhelpful as well.

So I find myself simply withdrawing, less willing to dispute of even acknowledge what I consider bad religion and life-damaging practices. This is a path of least resistance, and certainly lest reward as well. At the same time, I find myself more likely to try to help rather than persuade. I am beginning to think I waited far to long for this step.

I am also growing less discouraged with my sense of disconnection with modern religious practice - slightly more comfortable in the wilderness I wander. I still find meaning in belief and communal worship, but am actively looking for a more cohesive view of my life and purpose. 

This all sounds like I've postponed my hippy phase until marijuana was legal. But it is also immensely absorbing and frankly time-consuming. I find some evidence to support the theory this is typical for my age, but precious little literature to compare my thinking with others. Maybe, as suggested above, these journeys are just beginning to be chronicled.

I'll keep you updated as I think appropriate, but if you are finding your life is taking you places you never really imagined before, be assured it's not just you. 


Anonymous said...

John ,whether it is realizing we are all mortal or seeing our respected elders now struggling at old age in nursing homes or hospitals. The ones that we thought were invincible and a rock in our lives have succumb to old age and we realize we may be in the same place in a very few years has a profound impact on how we look at our lives , families, friends and Church (religion) as we thought it should be . Glad too see you back posting . regards-kevin in Ontario

Anonymous said...

John, I shared your article with a respected acquaintance. Below are his thoughts/observations & a quote in response.

"The great thing is that we are free to think and to express ourselves. I read a book last night that my wife had given me. It's about a father's journey after he suddenly lost his teenage son. Is entitled “Into the Valley and out Again: the Story of a Father’s Journey, By Richard Elder.

Recorded on page 88 is the following “religion is the cup and spirituality is the coffee. Too many of us are walking around empty cups when what counts is the coffee. I no longer care about the nature of someone else’s cup, but care deeply that there is something in it.”

This essay made me think that perhaps the cups are changing but we all need to really load up on lots of coffee.

Dave said...

John I understand your struggle and only you can resolve what you believe. I am a protestant, I am not an evangelical nor am I a traditional protestant. My pastor does not weat his/her collar backward, he/she stand ready to help when needed, cna console when needed and repuke when needed--he/she is a PASTOR. The one thing mt specific pastor told that has stuck more then any other thing is that the emotions of an evanglical are important and desirable BUT when life gets tough and it appears that everything is lost it's knowledge that carries you through.
That helped me many times.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post.
I read that you are asking the 2000 year old question “what is truth”.
I posit you are of a unique age in a historical thinking shift. You are being asked by the culture to wear monovision contacts to treat your presbyopia and you are having trouble adjusting to them. I would ask you to consider looking through each lens one at a time. When you were young the cultural thought process lens was “If it is true, then it works”. Now that you are older the cultural thought process lens states that “If it works, then it is true”. This new mantra is easily used in a way to give credibility to one of your earlier posts by Noah Smith on tribal reality. The knockout punch follows from the same link, there is in fact an extant reality proving that your childhood lens is more trustworthy than what you are being asked to follow today.

The same point Ralph Waldo Emerson was making in his 1841 essay on compensation.

Every act rewards itself, or, in other words, integrates itself, in a twofold manner; first, in the thing, or in real nature; and secondly, in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance the retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing, and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding; it is inseparable from the thing, but is often spread over a long time, and so does not become distinct until after many years. The specific stripes may follow late after the offence, but they follow because they accompany it. Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.
Whilst thus the world will be whole, and refuses to be disparted, we seek to act partially, to sunder, to appropriate; for example, — to gratify the senses, we sever the pleasure of the senses from the needs of the character. The ingenuity of man has always been dedicated to the solution of one problem, — how to detach the sensual sweet, the sensual strong, the sensual bright, from the moral sweet, the moral deep, the moral fair; that is, again, to contrive to cut clean off this upper surface so thin as to leave it bottomless; to get a _one end_, without an _other end_. The soul says, Eat; the body would feast. The soul says, The man and woman shall be one flesh and one soul; the body would join the flesh only. The soul says, Have dominion over all things to the ends of virtue; the body would have the power over things to its own ends.
The soul strives amain to live and work through all things. It would be the only fact. All things shall be added unto it power, pleasure, knowledge, beauty. The particular man aims to be somebody; to set up for himself; to truck and higgle for a private good; and, in particulars, to ride, that he may ride; to dress, that he may be dressed; to eat, that he may eat; and to govern, that he may be seen. Men seek to be great; they would have offices, wealth, power, and fame. They think that to be great is to possess one side of nature, — the sweet, without the other side, — the bitter.
I am asking you to not buy into a variance of Isaac Asimov quote “my experience is just as good as your truth”.
You are asking good questions. Go to the source for answers.

Anonymous said...

stay the course and keep digging. maybe the book you should be reading has 66 books in one cover. things about society and our search just keep getting repeated. the answers always seem to keep coming up the same.

was good to meet Aaron @TP. with he and Marcus could spend some time.