2011-12-20

What does Christ have to offer a post-Christian world?

This is a reflection on the Pew research which shows a diminishment of global Christian population share from 35% in 1910 and 32% in 2010. At first, if one looks at raw numbers, it appears as if Christianity is growing like crazy. This is because there were only 612 million Christians in 1910, but there are now 2.18 billion: An apparent increase of 353% in 100 years! However, in that same time world population has increased 383% from 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion in 2010.

This is interesting because Christianity is supposed to be a growth religion- a missionary religion- not a maintenence religion. This stat does not seem problematic until one factors this lack of statistical increase compared to actual population growth. It shows that even though more total people are Christians, the message and vitality of Christianity is slipping as a proportion of culture as a whole.

See the Pew Religion research stats here: http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-worlds-christian-population.aspx?src=prc-headline

Even if one juxtaposes the diminution of Christian dominance in Europe and the USA with the rapid growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa, the problem still stands. For on one hand: What culture has not been evangelized more, and in more ways, than the USA? And yet, the "market share" of Christianity here has STILL decreased from well over 90% in 1900 to just under 80% today.

And in many (not all) African and Asian countries where Christianity is growing, it must be noted that Christianity is socially favored and politically expedient in those cultures, in similar ways to how Christianity was culturally favored during the epoch of European "Christendom". In a century or two, when Christianity is no longer a novel or liberating force in those countries, but rather the religion of status quo, will it also cease to grow? As sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins writes in several works- notably "The Lost History of Christianity"- the fate of Christian churches and Christian populations is often tied to being on the "winning" side of political and cultural power. When Christianity ceases to be tied to the powerful, it historically has died out (especially in Asia in from 700-1400 CE).

So, if one looks at the last century of statistics in an admittedly pessimistic way (as I am now), it seems like Christianity as an organized cultural form is on a long spiral downward. This means that the discredited "secularization" hypothesis of the 1960-70's (which said that all advanced societies were heading toward irreligion as spiritual categories were filled by post-enlightenment thought and practice) is not entirely discredited. It may not be that people are leaving the Church in droves to be atheist or agnostic, but it does appear a slow statistical trickle of Christians are leaving for something else.

So, if we live in a world that is slowly becoming post-Christian- at least post-Christian in a communally organized sense- what does Christ have to offer that merits a reversal of this trend? Note I say Christ (the person, and the organic body through which he works today) and not Christianity (that cultural instrument which has allied with political powers and cultural principalities throughout history).

What does Christ have to offer a post-Christian world?

I want to hunch the outline of an answer to this question. And note that this is a hunch, not a well researched hypothesis, and an outline, not a nuanced exposition.

My hunch comes from the following sources: The perpetual discomfort that sensitive people have felt as regards cutthroat consumer capitalism, ranging from the anti-slavery movement of the 1800's to the social gospel movement of the early 1900's to the hippie protests of the 1960's to the Occupy movement today; The constant drive that cultures seem to exhibit toward a recognition of the sacredness of human life, and the rights and responsibilities that entails, from the women's movement of the early 1900's to the civil rights movements of the mid-1900's to the Arab Spring of today; The revolutionary communal movements of the late 1800's-mid 1900's, which led to a brief flourishing of socialist and communist states, but which have collapsed completely (as the Soviet empire) or partially (as in the socialist-tinged capitalism of Europe and China).

What I see in all of these diverse movements is a general drift toward a dual recognition of the sacredness of the individual person, as well as the need for interdependence as a community, in which all work together, all are valued, all are responsible, and none can manipulate, control, use, or abuse "the Other". With this dual personal/communal ethic comes the economic ramifications of distributive justice, in which the just society makes sure no one is left out in the process of rewarding the achievements of the leaders of society. This distributive justice is the social outworking of interpersonal love: A love which values and welcomes "the Other" in whatever forms she or he may present themselves to us.

So human culture seems to have an inherent yet flawed, identifiable yet stuttering, movement toward the following values:
- Personal sanctity
- Communal interdependence
- Distributive justice
- Interpersonal Love

What does Christ have to do with this striving? Put simply: Everything.

I would argue that the gradual realization of these values is what Christ's Holy Spirit is pushing God's people toward throughout the entirety of the Scriptures. I would say that these values are exactly what Jesus lived and taught. And I would go further and say that Jesus' bodily resurrection is a kind of "down payment" or promise that it is precisely these values that win in the end. These values are vindicated by Christ's defeat of death, and thus we can stake our life on these values.

Furthermore, the trajectory of Christ's life and teachings, as well as the later New Testament, as well as the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, point us to a God who is the Source and Wellspring of these values. In fact, these values are a reflection of the mutually self-giving, other-centered, interpenetrating Love which is the eternal nature of the Triune God.

SINCE God is, eternally, three sacred Persons, sharing in an utterly interdependent life together, as they distribute the nature of God equally to all three, by sharing in the same Love, THEN we have an eternal basis for striving after the values of Personal Sanctity, Communal Interdependence, Distributive justice, and interpersonal Love.

I would go on to argue that the reason why the great socialist and communist states of the 20th century failed was, at least in part, because they did not have this metaphysical grounding in God as the source of their communal life. As a result, they had to deify someone or something to take the place of the vacuum of God in the center of their "political ontology" (to borrow from Zizek). Thus they deified the State, or the Party, or the Great Leader, with disastrous consequences which destroyed the sanctity of the person (in mass killings of political dissidents) and interpersonal love (in the paranoia of the police state). These God-absent dreams of a worldly utopia rightfully imploded under the weight of their own inefficiency and injustice.

As a result we have been left to the whims of an equally monstrous consumer capitalism which tries to uphold a charade of personal sanctity (under the mask of greater personal choice and more personal wealth) by destroying all communal interdependence and loyalty to anything bigger than our own selfish desire to consume. The regnant capitalist system uses our God-given desire for freedom and choice, and turns into a system of social control, in which we neatly conform to marketed identities supplied by slave laborers across the ocean, while corporations who are treated like persons exist as parasites sucking out the life of both consumer and producer. All of this while religions of every type are robbed of their prophetic voice by being made into yet another "lifestyle choice" for the individual consumer who goes "church shopping" just like they go shopping for food, clothes, or entertainment.

But, the system is not sustainable, and the cracks are beginning to show. We see financial meltdowns, protests in the streets, debt crises big enough to wipe out national economies, and crises of identity that leave people feeling restless, meaningless, hopeless, and helpless. We see the problems of capitalism, but there seems to be no other solution. The socialist systems have all imploded. And how can we bite the hand that feeds us, or refuse the very tit we suck from?

Yet, just because the socialist movements were often anti-God, we cannot therefore fail to recognize the God-inspired hopes for justice and community embedded within them. Nor can we fail to see why thinkers such as Marx so naively rejected God in the first place: The name of God and the claims of God were so long used to justify oppression and to oppose movement toward justice that it seemed to these thinkers that the only way to get to justice was to jettison God. And in this, at least part of the blame rests squarely on the Church for colluding with the powers and principalities of the world to make God's name a synonym for oppression and abuse. Following Paul, I say: As it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom. 2:24 paraphrasing Isa. 52.5 and Eze. 36.23).

And, as I have shown above, this drive toward God's Love and Justice is still alive today, and still witnessed by mass movements that dream of such Love and Justice. And God's Name is still used as a justification for violence and oppression by Conservative Christian Capitalist politicians in the USA, by Islamic Fascist Terrorists in the Middle East, and by homophobic zealots in Africa.

If we can rescue the Name of God- the Name of God we find in Christ- from cultural slavery to power, oppression, and violence, then the Word of Christ can speak something new to post-Christian culture. I say "If we can rescue" as if we have the power to do it, and we don't. Rather, if we just let Christ be Christ and speak as Christ in Love and judgment upon our culture, then we can hear afresh the Word of God that has been held in cultural oppression.

What Christ has to offer a post-Christian world is precisely a third alternative beyond the traditional "right/left" or "capitalist/socialist" or "conservative/progressive" dichotomies. Christ offers us the very model of servant-leadership which embodies the values which we strive after. But beyond this, embedded in Christ's Life, is the very God who is Love. In Christ's life, death, and resurrection we are offered a window to see into the very life of God. And what we see in God is the Trinity: A God who is the very goal we are striving after when we strive for love, justice, community and individuality.

This Triune God who is a community beckons us, through Christ, by the Spirit, to enter into communion with Godself. This God becomes the Source and Ground for our communal life together, a Source which was denied by Marx and parodied by the great communist states. It is ultimately because they cut themselves off from this Source that they failed in bringing about the values they desired.

And this leads to perhaps the greatest thing that Christ offers a post-Christian world. It is something even beyond the Trinitarian moral and social values outlined above. It is something we badly need, and without it, the cycle of personal guilt and social violence will keep spiraling into destruction. It is forgiveness. We need an ontological, metaphysical grounding for the practice of forgiveness. We need someone who can assure us that forgiveness is really available, really worth it, and really conforms to the nature of reality.

And we find this in Christ. In his resurrection, we see that the Love of the Triune God is stronger than death, violence, or guilt. We see that God can actually heal death, violence, and guilt. And if we are going to "right the wrongs" of culture and re-build something that works, we are going to need tons of forgiveness: For our own mistakes and the injustice of others. Only through this forgiveness, which is only offered through Christ, can we find the strength to reconcile with each other, and begin again to work for justice and love.

Through Christ we can forgive. We can return to the Triune Source. We can find the Divine grounding for our hopes and dreams. And in so doing, we can work together to create the kind of community Jesus taught and lived, a community he called simply "The Kingdom of God".

2011-12-16

Remembering Hitch

RIP Christopher Hitchens. May Christ have mercy on him. He was a good man. Theologically misguided, but fundamentally driven by a sense of justice that is not accounted for by his own worldview. I will miss the challenge his writings brought to me.

http://m.npr.org/story/143595854?url=/2011/12/16/143595854/writer-christopher-hitchens-dies
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.