Our crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
– Antonio Gramsci
The predominant influence of Judeo-Christianity in Western culture for the past 1700 or so years has been waning for decades, even centuries, and this is becoming increasingly visible.
Yes, the cultural residue of Judeo-Christian moral insights remains, but weakening is widespread, explicit identity with the mythic narratives and participation in the rituals and practices of Judaism and Christianity. These traditions are being displaced by other forms of spirituality as well as various secularisms and ideologies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we in the West live in a post-Judeo-Christian age.
The current situation of Christianity in First World countries is one of declining institutions and congregations, declining financial support, declining participation, and declining relevance and even interest. Entire denominations are on a trajectory to vanish within a decade or two. More than a third of Americans are no longer affiliated with a synagogue or church, the pace of change and effects of this transition are seen even more strongly in Europe. (See the Pew Research Center or Barna Research for studies and figures, and read the latest Gallup poll.)
Fewer people are going to church, and much of traditional Christian theology, at least as commonly expressed, has been rendered untenable, many Christian groups have been tarnished from political overreach and institution-wide sexual abuse scandals, and therefore, what comprises Christianity today is collapsing.
Or is it?
Is the turmoil and decline currently being experienced the death throes of a once great tradition or the shedding of no longer useful modes of organization, structure, theology and practice?
Certainly, significant aspects of Christianity are falling apart – institutional arrangements, the structure of Christian communal life – as well as the rejection of outdated, stale doctrines and positions.
So, what is happening – collapse or transformation? It’s likely too soon to tell with much accuracy.
(Personally, I think Christianity is undergoing a much needed transformation, and will likely survive, albeit somewhat diminished, and rooted in better forms of theological reasoning, and in strikingly less institutional forms.)
Many naturalists, especially those who align with the New Atheists, tend to find the accelerating decline of Christianity as something good. After all, much of mainstream Christianity exhibits adherence to supernaturalism and even forms of magical thinking. It’s hard to argue that there is a benefit to having large swaths of popular culture rooted in such epistemological leanings and influenced by such manners of thinking and seeing the world.
Some analysts and thinkers argue that the poorly formed supernaturalism, wish projection, and magical thinking engaged in by many Christians lends fuel to the fire of conspiracy theories, dangerous anti-scientific attitudes, and even the denigration of reason. Accordingly, many see much of Christianity as a hindrance to genuine social and intellectual progress.
Add to the above that the personal experience of many, although not all, naturalists at one point involved Christianity, belonging to a church, and receiving a more or less Christian religious education – only to discover naturalism and similar arguments which led them to reject Christianity.
For many, these experiences were turbulent, difficult, and even painful. Even more so, the forms of spirituality and thinking they adopted – variations of Eastern thought, Buddhism, Neopaganism, and other variations of religious naturalism – are sources of joy, community, and meaning. So, for some naturalists, rejection of Christianity is an inherent part of their religious, spiritual naturalism.
In light of the above, one could be led to think that the collapse of Christianity and it’s increasingly weakened role in the culture is therefore a good thing and something to be encouraged and even celebrated.
Or is it?
The role of Christianity in Western history presents an interesting puzzle. Despite the inquisitions, crusades, witch hunts, religious wars, and other abuses, horrors, errors, and tragedies, Christianity has been significantly and positively formative of Western culture and progress.
Those who argue that Christianity has nothing to do with the success and progress of contemporary Western society need to explain why the Enlightenment, scientific method, constitutional government, market economics, and the modern concept of human rights arose in Christian Europe rather than somewhere else.
The foundations of Western culture are a hybrid of the influences of the classical world (mostly Hellenism and Roman influences), the religious worldview of Judeo-Christianity, and the pre-Christian influences of the Celts, Gauls, Germanic, Slavic peoples, and others. Each of these sets of influences engaged, clashed, and changed one another.
Yet it’s hard to argue that Christianity, despite its flaws, has not rendered many benefits to the world.
Christianity has been intricately intertwined with the history and formation of Western society. Throughout its long history, the Church has been a major source of social services like schooling and medical care and an inspiration for art, culture and philosophy.
If we turn to the roots of our Western tradition, we find that in Greek and Roman times not all human life was regarded as inviolable and worthy of protection. Slaves and ‘barbarians’ did not have a full right to life and human sacrifices and gladiatorial combat were acceptable, as was putting deformed infants to death. For Plato, infanticide is one of the regular institutions of the ideal State. The poor, the needy, and the marginalized – did not fare well in the ancient world. Most historians of Western culture and ethics agree that Christianity contributed greatly to the general convictions that human life is valuable and worthy of respect.
The Christian West (influenced by the classical vision) developed the humanism of the Renaissance, the focused reason of the Enlightenment, and the later emergence of science, technology, and industrialization. And yes, the Church often resisted these developments. But within these massive cultural shifts were the hallmark ideas of human dignity, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, market-based economy, and liberalism. While many of these notions took time to reach fruition, and are still developing, they remain the hallmarks of the better aspects of the West as understood today.
So, what’s a naturalist to do?
I want to be crystal clear here – I am not saying that Christianity is superior to any other tradition, nor that Buddhism or any other tradition doesn’t belong in Western culture or hasn’t produced positive change culturally, socially, and in individual lives. And I’m definitely not trying to convert anyone to anything. I’m simply reflecting on what the cultural and practical decline of Christianity means while discussing the pros and cons of such.
I, like many naturalists and fellow travelers, welcome the decline of supernaturalism, magical thinking, and fantasy projection that is a hallmark of much of Christianity (while acknowledging that other traditions have their issues, too).
Yet welcoming the decline of superstition, irrationality, and the rejection of important aspects of science is not the same thing as celebrating the decline and potential collapse of a rich, formative tradition that played a significant, although granted mixed, yet often highly positive role in Western culture and beyond.
The secular culture – science, the enlightenment, our social justice movements, liberalism – and our naturalist convictions – are the natural fruits of Christian influences. Acknowledging that evolution and progression is vital for understanding the West and for charting our way forward.
Christianity has been a benefit to Western culture and can, if reformulated, render benefits going forward.
This will require a significant revisioning and updating of Christian theology and practice aligning the claims of the tradition with the best of demonstrative human learning and knowledge. It will likely require the death of the majority of denominations and institutions. And it will require the revisioning of how Christians do community and what is meant by church. To quote Bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change, or die.”
If Christianity hopes to survive, it needs to align and reformulate its theology according to forms of proven reasoning the best of and human learning in general. For Christianity, it’s time for some long overdue, necessary upgrades.
The Christian experience and tradition needs to be revisioned through the lens of evidential reasoning and aligned with the best of human knowledge – evolutionary theory, systems thinking, astrophysics, psychology, biology and genetics, the neurosciences, and the best historical scholarship has to offer.
By evidential reasoning I mean a manner of thinking and analyzing that asks for evidence and rational justification for theological claims made, akin to the reasoning that underlies scientific method, without lapsing into scientism. It owes much to soft methodological naturalism. It requires applying science, social science, historical scholarship, anthropology, cultural studies, neuroscience, and psychology to all forms of spirituality and religious practice.
Such a method of religious reasoning may yield a Christian spirituality that is acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern mindset, one that might appeal to those wanting to move beyond unjustifiable theologies, stale expressions and limiting institutional boundaries, yet one that is authentically capable of transforming those who engage it.
Obviously, I’m not the first to propose such an approach. We all swim through ongoing conversations and writings which provide intellectual context and shape our thinking. The ideas presented here have been gleaned from many authors and sources. This broad project has been engaged in various ways by thinkers such as John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Rudolf Bultmann, Charles Taylor, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Arthur Broadhurst, Gordon Kaufman, and Michael Dowd, to mention but a few.
There are naturalist Christians of multiple varieties and some are involved in our Spiritual Naturalist Society. And these individuals remain convinced that Christianity’s symbols, rituals, narratives, and moral insights and teachings retain value and power if employed correctly and aligned with contemporary thinking.
Naturalists interested or invested in Christianity have a vital role to play in the needed transformation. We must apply our naturalist insights to our Christian traditions and practices. We need to speak up and let our voices be heard in our various communities.
New, reasoned forms of Christian spirituality must be dreamed. Hopefully, the results will benefit us all.
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