Second thoughts about God’s return

In their book God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge provide a compelling narrative concerning the vigorous role of religion in modern societies. In group discussions and responses to my recent posting about the book, three dissenting points of view have come to my attention.

1) The unholy alliance of religion and money: A major theme of the book is that the alliance of religion and political power is at the center of the distress. When the power of the sword is used to advance the power of the holy book, oppression and other forms of gross injustice are bound to occur and people tend to turn away from faith.

Faith also is subverted, I have been reminded, when it is aligned with economic systems and used to justify the unequal, unjust, often-destructive use of financial power. Classic sociology of religion has shown that this connection is prevalent in middle and upper class portions of society and often is used to keep the system the way it is.

To their credit, Micklethwait and Wooldridge discuss the way that capitalism and religion are codependent and they show that the recently aggressive forms of Christianity demonstrate that relationship. The book would be more helpful if it offered a more critical analysis of this relationship.

2) Evidence that religion is going extinct in nine countries: A reader of my column has called my attention to the work of two engineers and a physicist, all three university based, who have developed a model for studying census data generated during the past one hundred years. Their conclusion is that “organized religion will all but vanish from nine Western-style democracies”: Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Switzerland.

Because the U S census does not ask about religion, they could not include this country in their studies. Other indications can be cited, however, suggesting that a similar trend is present in the United States. One explanation is that this country has been going through the fourth “great awakening,” the fourth widespread revival of religious affiliation.

The signs seem to indicate that this movement is dying down, as it always has in the past, and a new period or normalization is developing when aggressive, emotionally charged religion will give way to a calmer religious mode, and perhaps less religion all together.

3) Anecdotal evidence: Many families have experienced the same pattern that one reader of God Is Back reports. His children were reared in what he describes as “a more or less liberal/progressive home ambience in terms of religious, political & social justice affirmations, and in at least a moderate church environment on a conservative to liberal scale, & all with some level of ‘higher ed’ exposure.” Now well established in adult life and careers, all are “basically religiously unaffiliated,” as are almost without exception their circles of friends in three widely separated metropolitan regions.

The religion that reportedly is coming back, this reader continues, falls short in nurturing an integrative worldview nor does it represent an adequately nuanced Christian understanding of God. More important, the current revival of religion does not speak to “the viability of the heart of the gospel as good news.” Rather, much of the resurgence in Christian circles, he proposes, continues to focus attention upon a theology of redemptive violence, the very theme that is central to the church’s liturgy during the Holy Week-Easter cycle and its central sacrament, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The challenges of these elements of classic Christian faith are made even more difficult when they are taken literally as, it could be argued, they are in many of the churches that now are thriving.

The situation facing leaders of progressive/liberal churches is well stated by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen: “I see why lots of people turn to religion — fear of death, ordering principle in a mysterious universe, refuge from pain, even revelation. But surely it’s meaningless without mercy and forgiveness, and surely its very antithesis must be hatred and murder. At least that’s how it appears to a nonbeliever.”

Despite these second thoughts, God Is Back is an important contributor to the understanding of the current cultural context. The above rejoinders serve to remind leaders of classic Protestant churches, that our DNA does not allow us to embrace any old religion just because it is moving. Nor does our DNA require us to embrace any old religion just because it is classic.

Finding the right relationship between religion and culture has never been easy. We have our work cut out for us!

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