Quick show of hands. How many of you think the Christian church in the United States has lost credibility with a growing segment of our population? It is a rhetorical question. You would have to be blind, deaf, and oblivious not to notice that institutional religious orders have been in decline for quite some time. And those few aberrations that are growing are doing so as much out of politics and partisan values as any confession of faith. The wide and divided spectrum of theological perspectives, interpretations of scripture, and moral imperatives are indicators of pathology, not health. Some on the more conservative and fundamental wing of the Christian faith blame cultural accommodation and disobedience to the Word and Will of God for the decline. I take a significantly different approach.
Without engaging in simplistic reductionism, I look at the Pentecostal influence on all approaches to the Christian faith in the first half of the twentieth century. Following World War I and throughout the Great Depression, a simple and basic rule-based belief offered great comfort, security, and affirmation to a world torn by fear, anxiety, and lack. The strident and unsophisticated messages of such evangelists as Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson connected with those most damaged by the War and Depression. The Pentecostal dualistic challenges — sacred or secular, faith or science, good or evil, saved or lost — provided a forced-choice definition of the Christian faith. Either you are in or you are out. The popular evangelistic question of the eighteenth century, “are you striving in all ways to be Christlike in word, act, and character?” was displaced by “do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” The corporate nature of the Christian faith, central to our relationship with God for 1900 years, suddenly became individualistic and private. Concepts such as “personal salvation,” and “personal holiness” gained traction and obliterated social holiness and the meaning of baptism and Holy Communion. Church became an option rather than an identity. Many people stopped being the church, opting instead for going to church. Church as activity destroyed church as essence.
All this was happening within organized Christianity at a time when great strides were being made in physics, biology, geology, astronomy, medicine, communications technology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, genetics, and a host of other disciplines. For centuries, the Christian faith was in conversation and engagement with all of these subjects. Most Christians in the United States were first exposed to the thinking of Isaac Newton, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, and Sigmund Freud from American pulpits. New thinking and scientific discovery was not viewed as threatening, but simply as new waves of God’s revelation as humankind became more educated and sophisticated. The philosophy of religion and the interplay of world religions was viewed as necessary to strengthen (not weaken or refute) Christian belief. As the world aged in millions of years rather than thousands of years, and the universe expanded from hundreds of heavenly objects to billions, Christian leaders celebrated the greatness of our God.
Biblical scholars applied developing literate and scientific methodologies to their study, and a new blossoming of criticism and critique gave millions of people a deeper regard and respect for the ancient writings of the Hebrew and Christian people. Pastors and preachers were generally among the most highly educated and scholarly participants in each community of faith. Then, a weird, yet completely understandable rift emerged that is still impacting us in some horrendously unfortunate ways until today.
A recommitment to a mediaeval and premodern biblical inerrancy began to spread through the less educated laity. Those who could not read and translate the scriptures from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin began claiming a strict literal reading of poor English translations, resulting in a twisted view of the infallibility of scripture. Everything in the Bible was true, and it was an absolute and objective truth, interpreted through the naïve and uneducated subjectivity of untrained preachers who cherry-picked favorite passages to prove their reading was the correct reading. Under the darkening cloud of world war and again through the riotous and overly-permissive roaring twenties, crashing into the Depression of the thirties, then jumping again into world war, a simplistic, rules-based faith that distrusted some of the very advances that fueled the war machines and allowed economic collapse made perfect sense.
So, the other disciplines and intellectual advances continued in arts, sciences, philosophy, and business, while the Christian faith hit a crossroads that split the intellectual from the anti-intellectual. The intellectual headed to the seminaries and universities; the anti-intellectual headed into the local congregations. Today, the Christian faith in the United States has lost its credibility through theologians who don’t study theology, Bible study leaders who don’t study the Bible, and preachers who think The Message is the best “translation” of scripture.
The salvation of organized Christian religion depends on some necessary heresies. Heresies are those thoughts and teachings that challenge orthodoxy and oppose common beliefs. The necessary heresies we must embrace are:
- Science and learning are gifts from God
- Preachers and religious leaders must read and study across a wide variety of disciplines and topics
- Principles of faith and the teachings of our scriptures must hold priority over our politics, biases, and worldviews
- Social engagement and service must guide our faith for the transformation of the world
- The corporate nature of the church must replace the individualistic and private beliefs of the faithful; we are to be the incarnate body of Christ, not detached body parts
- Solidarity and unity must become our witness to the world, even in the face of diversity, disagreement, and division. Right now we proclaim to the world that the church is no different than every other polarized organization
- Pastoral leaders must reclaim the title and role of “resident theologian” and reject anti-intellectual biases and approaches to biblical interpretation and theological reflection
- We must take a place at the table with contemporary philosophers, physicists, astronomers, geneticists, entrepreneurs, and other scientists as colleagues and partners rather than opponents
- We must catch up. We have allowed so many other disciplines to leap ahead of our religious thinking and innovation. While the rest of the world has grown up, we have remained stuck in a pre-pubescent naivete that has fundamentally lowered the bar, making an insipid, judgmental, selfish, exclusive, and petulant faith available to way too many people who want nothing more
- Make sure that people know that discipleship is substantively different from belief; discipleship is active, challenging, and difficult. Belief is easy.
- Stop cheapening the freely offered grace of God. Stop placing conditions on unconditional love. Stop judging.
I hope and pray you will add to this list. We must raise the bar, redeem the integrity, resurrect the meaning of life in Christ. Prosperity gospels, Christian nationalism, imminent millenarianisms, the usurped evangelical right, and neo-fundamentalist hate groups need to be exposed for what they are, and for what they are not. They are not Christianity in any biblically or theologically rigorous sense. God has given us so many amazing gifts. Among these gifts entrusted to our stewardship, few are more valuable than our minds, and the opportunity to learn, to reason, to understand, and to grow in our awareness.
Nicely said! Thank you. Just tried to explain this to a fellow member of our progressive congregation who finds me “ too hard” one conservatives.