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.