Friday, August 28, 2009

Whatever Happened to Christianity?

I posted this last November but wasn't satisfied with it, so I deleted it after a couple of days. I've now honed it to a laser-like focus, so here it is:

A friend recently lent me a book by Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. Bishop Spong puts forth what I would consider a common sense viewpoint: the Bible is not literally true; it is not the inerrant Word of God; it was actually written by flawed human beings. Spong believes, for example, that the Epistles were written by Paul, not by God. Makes sense to me.

Consider Spong’s predicament: he is now a retired bishop, who spent his entire career in the service of the Episcopal Church. Like many of us, he is too intelligent to believe that the Bible is literally true. But, because of his position in life, he feels obligated to not reject the Bible outright, so he ends up wrapping himself around the axle of his own justifications. A more elegant solution, it seems to me, is to view the Bible, along with other ancient religious texts, as documents of historical interest that contain some valid spiritual advice, but which are of only marginal relevance today. For our present age, in which we are witnessing the murder of our planet before our very eyes, we need to develop a modern spiritual message. We need to enter the Silence on our own, and develop a contemporary version of the universal, timeless spiritual message, using modern language directed toward modern sensibilities.

The original followers of Jesus were cultural creatives, the spiritual seekers of that generation, who weren’t satisfied with the existing dogmas. That’s why they were willing to listen to Jesus in the first place. But times changed. Christianity itself hardened into dogma, and became increasingly unable to fill our spiritual needs. Turn the clock forward 2000 years, and we find that very few cultural creatives now consider themselves to be Christian; in fact, almost without exception, cultural creatives are anything but Christian. Whatever happened?

First, let’s briefly look at a human characteristic that has made the blind acceptance of traditional religions possible: the fact that most people are unable to develop new beliefs in adulthood. Their minds harden up during adolescence. Whatever they are programmed with as children stays with them for the rest of their lives. I’ve seen no statistics to indicate what this percentage may be, but I would guess it to be a great majority – 80% or more. It is the other 20% (or less), the cultural creatives – the people who had been most likely to become Christians when the Church was new – who are now most likely to reject the Christian dogma they were programmed with as children and leave the established Church. A religion that loses its brightest believers each generation is in trouble in the long run.

According to Joseph Campbell in his epochal book, Creative Mythology, this process was already well underway by the 12th Century. Campbell says, “In Christian Europe, already in the twelfth century, beliefs no longer universally held were universally enforced. The result was a dissociation of professed from actual existence and that consequent spiritual disaster which... is symbolized in the Waste Land theme: a landscape of spiritual death, a world waiting, waiting... for the Desired Knight, who would restore its integrity to life and let stream again from infinite depths the lost, forgotten, living waters of the inexhaustible source... For those... in whom the authorized signs no longer work... there follows inevitably a sense both of dissociation from the local social nexus and of quest, within and without, for life, which the brain will take to be for ‘meaning.’ Coerced to the social pattern, the individual can only harden to some figure of living death; and if any considerable number of the members of a civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have been passed.”

(I’ve been asked to translate the previous paragraph. Here goes: Already by the 12th Century, people who knew better were forced to profess Christianity anyway. They were forced to fake belief in something they didn’t really believe in. This destroyed their integrity, which caused them to become empty inside. They became husks of what they could have been, and ended up always searching for “something,” they knew not what. When a critical mass of society is in this predicament, the society is in deep trouble. Or something like that.)

(This search for “meaning” describes not only my own quest, but the lives of millions of other former Christians: the search for the “infinite depths of the living waters of the inexhaustible source” -- which, fortunately, turns out to be the center of our very existence. It’s amazing how hard so many of us have had to search for something so close at hand! It would be far better if children were told the truth in the first place. How elegant it would be if adolescents didn’t have to rebel against what their parents taught them, and to waste so much of their adult lives searching for what they already have!)

The process of dissociation from the Church greatly accelerated in the middle of the 19th Century. By that time, modern geology had showed that the Earth was actually billions of years old. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was in direct conflict with Biblical Creationism. The more intelligent Christians could no longer accept the Biblical worldview of Adam and Eve, Heaven and Hell, Jesus dying on the cross to atone for our sins, and an all-loving God who will lovingly send us to eternal torment in Hell if we don’t profess the correct ideology.

Christianity has been bleeding away its most intelligent believers at a rapid rate for over 150 years now.

Laura and I were raised as Christians – she as an Episcopalian, me as a Baptist. We were sent to church and Sunday school every week. We were indoctrinated as well as the Church was able to indoctrinate us. But we were too intelligent to stay. As we reached adolescence, our response to Christian dogma was typical of cultural creatives – as soon as we were old enough to take control of our own lives, we quietly left the church and never looked back.

Multiply this by the millions of our fellow Baby Boomers who did the same thing, and you have a Church in trouble. Not only is the Church losing great numbers of believers, they are the most intelligent and creative believers. Or ex-believers, actually. One end of the Christian bell curve -- the intelligent end -- is continually being truncated. Sure, many intelligent, spiritual Christians remain. But taken as a whole, as the generations pass, the Christians who remain tend to be the least inquisitive and the most credulous members of society.

Add to this the recent phenomenon of politically active Christianity, and we have an entire planet in deep trouble. When the political process is unduly influenced by small-minded fundamentalists, then we as a civilization are unable to intelligently address the terrible problems – overpopulation, environmental destruction, global warming, peak oil, economic meltdown – now confronting us. Retrograde politics will prove lethal to us and the entire planet.

Bishop Spong is fighting a rear-guard, and ultimately impossible battle. He’s trying to make the Bible relevant for the most intelligent Christians by pointing out that it need not be taken literally. Christianity, in Spong’s view, is not about rigidly adhering to dogma, but is about compassion and love, of becoming an “authentic human being.” As Spong says in his book, “The call of Christ to me is an eternal call to love, to live, and to be. It is an invitation to work for those things that create life, to oppose those people, those attitudes, and those systems that distort life. It is to become aware of the freeing, exhilarating, consciousness-raising experience of the Holy God.” Sounds good to me.

But one need not be a Christian to do this. The Christian filter is strictly optional. There are a multitude of ways to approach spirituality, and Christianity is but one. Once a person admits the possibility that Christianity isn’t the “One True” religion, and that the Bible isn’t the inerrant “Word of God,” the whole edifice starts to crumble. And as millions of ex-Christians have found, once we’re free from the confines of Christian Faith, we don’t miss it at all.