While Spirituality is Thriving?
So asserted Steve McSwain in a recent Huffington Post column entitled: Why Christianity is Dying While Spirituality is Thriving. He cited the stats that we’ve all heard: church attendance is down, religious affiliation is down, the rise of those claiming ‘none’ as their religion is on the rise.
He noted that while all of this is the case, Christianity is actually “morphing into something new.”
I do not mean by this a new religion. To the contrary, what I’m seeing is a new and refreshing emergence within the Christian religion itself. Perhaps, as at no other time in Christian history, except perhaps the first few decades following the death of Jesus, the church today is slowly becoming, but in too few places as yet, something that I suspect Jesus himself might actually recognize. There is within this new emergence an affinity for those matters of social and personal justice, compassion, spiritual wholeness and unity within and among all people and faiths. These were the obsessions of Jesus while here on earth.
He notes that churches that exemplify these things as “glimmers of hope” here and there.
So what, Steve asks, does this new emergence within Christianity look like? He makes five observations:
- This new, emerging church is made up of people who are desperately seeking ways of understanding, and in many cases, rewriting Christian theology. It needs to be rewritten. For decades now, the church has sought to survive on a doctrine of salvation that depended on the shedding of innocent blood to appease an obsessively angry God so as to rescue humanity from what would otherwise result in their conscious and eternal torment in hell. It’s crazy theology. It is not what Jesus taught. And as a consequence, it is more pagan than it is Christian.
- These new churches have a healthier view of their sacred text known as the Bible. They revere the Bible without making a god of it. Instead worshipping the Bible as a kind of “Constitution,” as Brian Mclaren dubs it in “A New Kind of Christianity,” they interpret the Bible for what it is: an inspired book, capable of providing inspiration, wisdom and spiritual direction, not a textbook on science or morality or answer-book preachers might use for “Stump the Preacher” talk-shows.
- These Christians no longer feel the enemy is liberalism, even “secular humanism,” as it is commonly labeled in the declining and dying branches within Christianity. Admittedly, they see dangers in any extreme notions, whether in liberal theology or humanistic philosophy, but they have awakened to the realization that the church has met the “real” enemy — and the real enemy is the church itself. Furthermore, these Christians no longer believe gays will destroy the institution of marriage when heterosexuals have successfully accomplished that all by themselves. Waging war against gays, lesbians and those within the transgender community is like trying to defend slavery. Furthermore, these have given up the church’s war with science and psychology, choosing instead to embrace the truths science teaches us, not only about the origins of the universe, but about the complexities of the human mind, human development and sexuality.
- Further, I see this new evolving Christianity being birthed in the hearts of sincere and devoted Christ-followers who are open to what other religions can teach us about spirituality, too. They would regard, for example, Desmond Tutu’s statement “God is not a Christian,” as the truth. While affirming that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19), and cherishing that belief within their own faith confessions, these Christians would embrace and, in fact, do embrace the spiritual insights that may come from Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and scores of other spiritual traditions. They have exchanged the insanity of the dying church that insists “We’re right! You’re wrong,” for the sane “We’re in and you are, too” approach to human and religious solidarity. Together, these Christians seek spiritual awareness — spiritual enlightenment — and they seek the good of all people, too, even those who embrace no religion.
- Finally, this emerging new Christianity no longer interprets Christian “hope” as some “pie-in-the-sky” future paradise that they alone will enjoy, along with those who agree with their theology, their eschatology and their exclusivist beliefs. No, these Christians would view “hope” the way Jesus their leader viewed it; the way the prophets of old viewed it; the way the entire biblical narrative views it: as a vision of the world wherein peace and justice and plenty for everyone exists in the here and now; a world that reflects “God’s will on earth just as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10); a world where all people are treated equally, cared for, respected, fed and nurtured for the wonderful creations of God that they are; a world where all people regardless of color, sex, race, religion, political party, nationality or sexual orientation have a voice and a place; a world where people and nations, as the Prophet Isaiah put it, “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; where nation no longer takes up sword against nation; where war is no longer learned” (Isaiah 2:1-5).
What do you think? Do you see these shifts? Are they glimmers of hope or cause for alarm? Are there other (or better) ways Christianity could (or should) consider in this shifting religious/spiritual landscape?
Some reactions to this in my own circles:
“While I can appreciate some of the insights I find some of it disturbing in many ways maybe even more so in some of the responses and the place of scripture among these new church communities.”
“So the author insists churches must give up the “We’re right” and “You’re wrong” attitude. In fact he calls that attitude “insanity.” Yet, he labels traditional theology centered on vicarious atonement “pagan.” He contends the only “healthy” view of the Bible is to see it only as vaguely inspired. To hold an alternative position on Scripture is “making a god out of it.” I could go on, but it seems McSwain thinks he is uniquely positioned to dismiss views he disagrees with as insane, pagan, unhealthy and idolatrous. Yea, it’s only traditional, orthodox Christians who are intolerant. Sure.”
“Many who leave attempt to find home once again. (See the NYT piece on Boomers coming back to church.) The heady path away from home, when the future seems full of possibility is exhilarating, and people call upon their friends to join them. Actually building a sustainable life away from home, camping if you will, can get wearisome and laborious. Leaving a community that had ideas and notions that seemed to imprison you feels liberating. Building a new community, however is real work, and one can discover that your former group didn’t have a monopoly on bad relational habits, selfishness and immaturity.” (This is from Paul VanderKlay’s response, which I appreciated).
McSwain thinks these shifts (among others) are vital:
It is this kind of church that will emerge and thrive. The others will die a slow and agonizingly painful death.
For all the reasons above, and a host of others, spirituality is thriving both inside and outside these new and emerging expressions of the Christian faith. For me, and a growing number of other progressive-minded Christians, that is a cause for hope.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, and how your own faith (and faith communities) continue to grow and thrive despite what appears to be an increasing disdain for religion, and an increasing embrace of spirituality.
There is much I resonate with in the original article, yet a few questions to close:
- Is there enough depth in individualized ‘spirituality’ to sustain one over the long haul?
- How can faith communities move forward without simply jettisoning what got them where they are?
- Are we on the precipice of some major changes in Christianity, or just at a swing of the pendulum that will soon come back the other way?