Monday, September 28, 2015

The Offer You Can't Refuse (the Secular World)

Every so often Christians of various stripes laud the virtues of Christianity in contrast to the secular world. This is not exclusive to conservative types; it is a tendency as well placed among liberals as conservatives, even among those left leaning in the Roman Church.

There is no escaping it. When the opportunity arises, Christianity will invariably go on the attach against secularism, even when such offensive voices are normally the first in line to propose jettisoning Tradition.

This is especially true when the defense is not so much Christianity itself, but the Church in particular. In these instances, the line of reasoning is particularly Manichean. The secular world is portrayed as cruel and abusive, fixated upon class and hierarchy, where people are valued only for the most shallow criteria or based on worldly merits. The Church, even among liberals, is a bastion of equality, where people are valued for their intrinsic worth (in virtue of being made in the image and likeness of God), and there is no competition, and everyone lives in a society built not upon a systems of wants, law, and punishment, but upon God's love.

The saccharine undertones of this reasoning ought to tell you something is up. Invariably, there is, not the least of which is the anachronism of reading ideas that came out of the enlightenment and the birth of the secular world into the New Testament and subsequent Christian history. No doubt, Christianity espouses some such principals, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking these principles were clearly enunciated from Christianity's origins.

The tendency to ignore how much the secular world has bequeathed its values to the Church, such that some of these values are taken as "a given," demonstrates a sort of willful ignorance on the part of the church-affiliated persons. In place of sobering fact which suggests the Church is not a virtuous alternative to the secular world, certain persons would rather carry on with a post-modern quasi-religious myth in which the Church perpetually alleviates the pain put upon the human family at the hands of secularism.

This notion is not only false, but it is a truly inadequate response to the challenges posed by increased, and unyielding, secularization. While such a (self deceptive) narrative may bolster the camaraderie and commitment among religious adherents, it does not enable the Church to begin to adequately comprehend why (in the Western World) the secular experiment has been so successful in capturing the imagination of masses and defining their world view.

I believe it was Charles Taylor who suggested that this current system did not necessarily have to be. There was nothing about previous eras that concluded this current course was the only possible development. Nevertheless, this is the system we have and there is no real indication that it is going away. True , the non-Western world is growing more pronounced in its resistance, however, in the West, secularism is the presumptive interpretive lens coloring most every one's worldview.

Christianity, particularly any group claiming to be "the Church" needs to propose and honestly investigate two questions if it ever hopes to wrap its mind around secularism in the West. First, what does secularism offer that "the Church" or church association fails to offer? What, if any, need in the human psyche does secularism address that established churches fail to do? Second, and intimately related to the first, what can "the Church" offer that secularism does not? Can it indeed offer something capable of displacing the dominant cultural paradigm?

The quality of the answers will range from very concrete to entirely nebulous. Such would be quite appropriate. When one discusses the dominance of cultural paradigms, one invariably begins to touch upon the more intangible qualities of human life; there are reasons for accepting or rejecting a cultural paradigm that exceed the limits of quantitative analysis. Yet, the intangible elements do not pose the primary difficulty established churches will face when attempting to answer either question. In large part, the primary difficulty is one of perspective. It is difficult, but not impossible, to extract oneself from a paradigm one has received as one's own, whether consciously or unconsciously. The degree that mainline churches read secularism's values into the Christian narrative reflects the degree to which they are enmeshed into the very secularism for which they often struggle to offer a counter-proposal. This is further complicated when the secular world trumps "the Church" in following through on some of these same values.

Proposing a comprehensive solution is not something that will done here. There are however a few points worth reflecting upon.

Any proposal must consider the types of spiritualities and religious movements exerting "pull" in the West. Traditionally non-Western religions, new age/occultism, contemporary analytical and Jungian psychology, and a general popular paganism are all movements vying for a place in the spiritual market. Notable features among all these categories include more precisely defined precepts for observance and a blunt mysticism, relatively untamed by contemporary cultural attitudes.

Perhaps more relevant for established churches is the diffusion of evangelical churches. Evangelical Christianity has literally picked up the remnants left behind by the established churches, entering into the areas abandoned by the established churches and picking up numerous converts among the disaffected members of these churches. Evangelical Christianity often offers its members an intense mystical experience built upon the firmly situated belief in the radical access to God. The extremely high mystical experience is complemented by tight community bonds forged by the experience of adopting a religion that deliberately chooses an open counter-cultural stance on a host of cultural issues.

Undoubtedly, there are other issues that negatively impact the established churches, however, an unfettered mysticism and strong community bonds among coreligionists appear as two major traits defining the various religious movements gaining traction in the West. These are not the only traits, they are however two that make themselves readily apparent. Furthermore, this does not take into account the situation of Orthodox Christianity in traditionally non-Orthodox lands, something that appears to vary between the Americas and Europe. Yet, these two issues remain a good starting point for consideration.

The problem is that community and spirituality/mysticism have been under consideration in established churches for the better part of the last forty or fifty years and the results have been negligible. There is no room to go into all of the details. It suffices to say that there are numerous publications and workshops and even concrete action plans dedicated to these areas, yet somehow there appears to be little in the way of tangible results. Far from demonstrating that either element is inconsequential, the failure to yield sufficient returns demonstrates the problem with the whole approach undertaken by established churches.

Community has been pursued by a range of "welcome initiatives" and socialization events. More often than not, the liturgy functions as the play ground for such theories. From assigned greeters to community building exercises held in the midst of the liturgy itself, there is a dominant assumption that the liturgy is the venue during which community building should in fact take place. Furthermore, there is a presumption that community is build through words and gestures proscribed by an authority in said community. Such approaches, however, are hindered by the sheer artificiality compared to how we actually establish relationships in the "real world," and the direct correspondence to similar exercises in the workplace or education environment. The end result is a "community" devoid of genuine socialization and relationship building and bearing the same connotations of such associations as work and academy.

The risk should be readily apparent. If religion evokes the same connotations as one's associations for employment or education, it will be treated similarly. The church community itself becomes functional only, lacking the intimate associations we would normally see among family or friends. Indeed, that is the main issue. A religion only survives and is propagated to another generation if the intimacy and, dare we say, intensity of the relationship mirrors that of family and friends. These are relationships that can be variously instinctual or born through a long, gradual, and typically uncontrolled process. The relationships built in the church community require a similar quality. In the case of evangelicals, the impetus for such quality is provided by the concrete decision to pursue a church community that is at various points contrary to both established churches and the dominant culture. There is a sense of "we're all in this together" propelling the establishment of fellowship and bonding. The contrary stance is the pointed mission of the community and the mission serves to reinforce the community's identity and complement it with a sense of urgency. This is not a tame "to love the Lord and be a faithful Catholic Christian community through the Eucharist" parish mission statement.

There something all too suburban and sedated in the average parish mission, something all too easy to brush off. Conversely, evangelicals have a mission resounding in gravitas that demands a response. The mission often extends to concrete support systems among members, typically helping other members fulfill open needs. Jehovah's Witnesses have made strides among the Latino community in the US by supplying immigrants with cars and employment. This is achieved by their community allocating all of its genuinely human resources together to help the individual - this is not the prosperity gospel. In truth, the Catholic Church used to excel in this area, constructing an entirely alternative community for its people to meet their needs. This structure was hit hard soon after Rome opened up the possibility of assimilating modernity and the modern socio-political state.

The intense mysticism or spirituality equates to unmediated access to God within evangelical Christianity. There are some unique aspects of this that need appreciation. Spirituality or mysticism is treated as a living fact or phenomenon, as something entirely active. It is not relegated to academic study or confined to theoretical treatises. It is a very real experience and, more importantly in our age when self realization and Jungian psychology are themselves major areas of "secular spirituality", thoroughly transformative. This is perhaps the most allusive aspect of evangelical Christianity that established churches often struggle to assimilate. Evangelical Christianity bases itself not the only the concept, but indeed the real action of transformative experience as a result from direct access to the Christian God. It is a religious phenomenon among evangelical circles, one that is both cultivated by the community association and profoundly interior and independent of traditional Christian sacramentalism. It is not a passive study of Mystical texts from the patristic or Medieval eras, nor is it filtered through contemporary psychology to the point of irrelevance. It is a lived experience believed to produce tangible results in one's way of life, mental and emotional states, and worldview. To the degree that it succeeds effects change, it is a phenomenon that as elusive as it is to established churches is one that many would wish to have among their members with some modification. If indeed it is true, if in fact there is a genuine transformation of the person, it fulfills one of the most ancient promises made by religion to the believer.

These are brief considerations. Any thorough analysis of secularism and its impact on established churches in the West would be, by necessity, substantially longer. It should however be enough to begin illustrating the point: there are ways in which religion or the more uncommitted spiritualities can in fact gain traction and experience growth in the secular world. To do so requires an honest assessment of secularism and what it offers. It also requires established churches to honestly admit how enmeshed mainline Christianity is in the secular world - which may well prove to be the most challenging task at hand.

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