Global Religious Change

First Sunday after Easter

According to a new Gallup poll, the percentage of adults in the United States who belong to a church or other religious institution has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, hitting a low of 50%. Church membership was 70% in 1999 — and close to or higher than that figure for most of the 20th century. Since 1999, however, the figure has fallen steadily.

Among Americans, who identify with a particular religion, the sharpest drop in institutional membership is among Catholics: from 76% to 63% over the past two decades. Membership among Protestants dropped from 73% to 67% percent over the same period.

Most interestingly, among Hispanic Americans, church membership has dropped from 68% to 45% since 2000. Bad news for Catholic church leaders who have been counting on Hispanics to keep their church alive.

So what is happening? I suggest there is an increasing erosion in the level of trust people have for institutions in general and for churches in particular. Just look at the current U.S. political landscape….This trend will continue until institutional credibility is restored. If and when. Institutions and institutional leaders become credible only when they speak in a helpfully meaningful way about contemporary life issues.

An important factor in the the examination of contemporary religion is being clear that “religion” and “faith” are not the same thing. Major complications arise when this distinction is unknown or ignored. Religion should support and promote faith but doesn’t always do that. Faith is a person’s relationship with the deepest heart of Reality, called “God,” the “Divine,” or in the language of theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) the “Ground of Being.”

Religion is an institutionalized interpretation of the faith experience, expressed in a system of beliefs and practices. Ideally it should point people to the Divine. In practice it sometimes points only to itself. Then a form of idolatry takes over: not the Divine but the institution, with its doctrines, power bosses, and structures, becomes the object of veneration.

Another contemporary example of the use of religion. Back in 2016, many journalists pointed out a stunning change in how religious values were understood. They noted how white evangelicals perceived the connection between private and public morality. In 2011, a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Religion News Service found that 60 % of white evangelicals believed that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” But in an October 2016 poll by PRRI and the Brookings Institution — after the release of numerous revelations of sexual immorality by a key political figure in Washington DC — only 20 % of evangelicals, answering the same question, said that private immorality meant someone could not behave ethically in public

Sometimes religions serve politics more than God.

Where there is religion there is a continual need for healthy criticism and reformation. European Christianity experienced a big Reformation in the sixteenth century. An even bigger one is underway right now but its extent and shape are still evolving. Things like, former pope, Bishop Ratzinger’s recently published reflections and trouble-maker Steve Bannon’s attacks on Pope Francis are mere distortions.

Back to some recognizable trends….Across 27 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, more people in North America and Europe say religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago: in the U.S.A. (58%), in Canada (64%), in Germany (51%), in Poland (46%), and in the Netherlands (61%), by way of examples.

Note well, however, that adults in the Asia-Pacific region have a very different perspective on the role religion plays in their societies. In Indonesia (83%), the Philippines (58%), and in India (54%) believe that religion has a bigger impact on their nations today than it did 20 years ago. However, in South Korea, Japan and Australia, people tend to say religion has become less important or there has been no change.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, a 65% majority thinks religion plays a more important role in their country, and 60% of Kenyans say the same. Significantly, large majorities in these countries (96% and 93%, respectively) say religion is very important in their lives.

How does one interpret these trends? That calls for more research and reflection. Much, I believe, has to do with the cultural and political roles that religion plays in people’s lives. In the Putin era in Russia, by way of example, the Russian Orthodox Church is extremely powerful and strongly supportive of the government. If you want to move ahead in Russia, you must be Orthodox. Only 18% of today’s Russians think religion is les important that twenty years ago.

This will be an ongoing discussion in various says.

Personally, I am still a believer but much less “religious” than twenty years ago. Some of my old religious practices just don’t make sense to me anymore. But my daily prayer and contact with the Divine are stronger now than ever. I scratch my old head about to speak in contemporary language about God. Nevertheless, I am hardly a saint but I do truly believe I journey with God each day and that with the love of my wife, son, and friends keeps me going.

Next week some thoughts about Christianity and world religions…..

Easter 2019

(A field by Park Abbey close to home….)

An Easter reflection by one of my theological heroes: Jon Sobrino.

“The Resurrection of Jesus is…a symbol of hope…I don’t see how you can show love…without being in solidarity with the victims of this world. And if you are in solidarity with the victims, I don’t see how you can avoid the cross. The theology of the cross is the theology of love in our real world.

“There is a reality of sin, which has structural causes and kills a majority of the population, and an evident need to overcome this situation of death. Without doing this task, theology was neither human nor Christian. From here I re-thought the reign of God—as justice and fellowship—as the core of Jesus of Nazareth. I re-thought the historical Jesus, and the following of him, including centrally his compassion towards the poor, the announcement of good news to the oppressed and the denunciation of the oppressors. I insisted that for this he died on a cross, and I insisted that the risen Christ is a crucified Christ. The resurrection of Jesus was the reaction of God against the victimizers who killed the innocent. From the love of the crucified and from his rehabilitation on the part of God emerges hope. God is the God of life in a struggle against the idols that demand death for survival.”

Happy Easter!

Jon Sobrino SJ (born 1938) is a Jesuit Catholic ordained minister and theologian, known mostly for his contributions to liberation theology. Born into a Basque family in Barcelona, Sobrino entered the Society of Jesus when he was 18. The following year, in 1958, he was sent to El Salvador. He later studied engineering at Saint Louis University, and then theology at Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt in West Germany for his Doctor of Theology degree. Returning to El Salvador, he taught at the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, which he had helped to found.

Palm Sunday 2019

With the arrival of Palm Sunday, we are now ready to commemorate the final week in the life of the historical Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth experienced firsthand – and dramatically to say the least — the religious and political polarization in Jerusalem around the year 30 CE. The enthusiastic crowd of Palm Sunday joyfully shouting “Hosanna!” and the mob on Good Friday yelling “Crucify him!”

In Another Voice, last week , I stressed the optimism brought by the Resurrection and our trust in Christ. Many readers appreciated that. I remain optimistic.

Nevertheless, I am also a realist. These days, polarization is my big concern. We see it in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. As an American expat, I am concerned especially about my native United States, where polarization is sharper and stronger than at the time of the nineteenth century “Civil War,” or as one of my cousins in Virginia still calls it “The War of Northern Aggression.”

Polarization is often based on toxic ideologies and twisted thinking. It is just as pernicious and nasty today as it was back then, when Jesus was the victim.

The historical Jesus was a bridge builder: between people and between people and God. He was not into building walls. His virtues were compassion, forgiveness, and healing. In Ephesians 2:14, we read “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,”

Our contemporary challenge is to emulate Jesus and tear down today’s walls of hostility. That is hard work. Polarization is easier. If I disagree with someone it is easy for me to self righteously condemn the other as stupid, ignorant, or just plain evil.

Polarization gives short-term pleasure but its lasting impact is deadly. Our contemporary religious and political polarization is a social virus. We find it in progressives and conservatives, in Republicans and Democrats, in Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in Protestants and Catholics, and in believers and non-believers. When polarization is promoted, death and destruction are sure to follow. Divided houses self-destruct, eventually.

The characteristics of polarization are clear. Polarization absolutizes one’s preferred values. It says “my position is always the correct position,” and it relies on the approval of an in-group (“my side”) to guide one’s thinking. Polarization says one should never question his or own position because uncertainty is a mark of weakness and sin. People who ask questions are dangerous. Polarization encourages selective reasoning: always and only looking for evidence that supports ones own position and denigrates the position of opponents. Polarization presumes that one’s opponents are always motivated by bad faith, and it suggests that many opponents are truly evil people.

Polarization is a virus that infects our conceptual system as well and gradually destroys our ability to respect and collaborate with others. The symptoms appear all around us. In discussions about Christianity, for example, I still hear people talking about “Catholics” and “non-Catholics.” This defective vision destroys Christian unity and promotes the presumed superiority of one group over the other. It is similar to the defective and polarizing viewpoint of those who see society as composed of “whites” and “non-whites.” Many see it in the policy of Christian leaders who strongly advocate and lobby for “religious freedom and human equality”…..except when it means protecting the freedom and equality of LGBTQ Americans. Are they less human?

Polarizing leaders learned long ago that labeling people eases the transition to public denigration and destruction of the other. The Nazis used the word “vermin” to describe the Jews. In the Rwandan Civil War, the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches.” In the American Civil War, Southern slaveowners called their slaves “animals.” Once people are conveniently labeled as “not really people but animals,” the walls go up, people cheer, and xenophobic violence becomes a necessary and acceptable form of political and public behavior.

In our shared humanity we encounter the signs and presence of the Divine. That is truly remarkable. Once again, the Easter message….. If we lose sight of this we are on a suicidal journey.

Walls, whether, for example, along the Mexican U.S.A. border or along the Israeli West Bank, promote arrogance, antagonism, and often lead to death.

I still recall the words of President Ronald Reagan, in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, when he proclaimed “Tear down this wall!” Today there are many walls that should be dismantled ….

We need to dismantle, as well, certain attitudes, in our national discourse, that prevent a rational conversation about immigration. There is a kind of toxic moralism these days, that tries to sabotage any ability to have a rational and pragmatic conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. Building walls is the agenda. And so terribly shortsighted.

It is tempting, of course, to make a straightforward “us versus them” enemies list when it comes to who’s to blame for polarization. In fact, few of us are blameless. The very impulse to create an enemies list is part of the problem.

Some of us are more inclined to polarizing habits than others. Some who foster polarization are more aware of what they are doing than others. And some people are quite content promoting self-affirming polarization. When that happens, we either forget or ignore who our neighbor is.

In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus asks which of the three – the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan – acted as a neighbor to the robbed man, the lawyer answered: “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said we should love our neighbor as ourself. We can’t love people we’re unwilling to listen to. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, called Jesus “the only completely valid, completely convincing experience Western mankind ever had with the active love of goodness as the inspiring principle of all actions.”


A New Perspective….Spring in the Air

A very brief reflection for the fifth Sunday of Lent 2019.

Our welcomed journey into Spring continues, with its colorful assurances of new life….and we are drawing ever closer to the annual celebration of the Spring of Christian life: Easter.

This past week, I have been reading The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See by Richard Rohr.

I resonate with Richard’s optimism, at a time when so much pessimism is the daily focus in the media.

Many people, Richard notes in his book, are now finding a special kind of solidarity in think tanks, support groups, prayer groups, study groups, projects building houses for the poor, healing circles, and mission organizations. “So perhaps without fully recognizing it, we are often heading in the right direction these days,” he observes. “We are creating many para-church organizations, and some new studies claim that if we look at the statistics, we will see that Christians are not leaving Christianity as much as they are realigning with groups that live Christian values in the world, instead of just gathering to again hear the readings, recite the creed, and sing songs on Sunday.”

Yes. Genuine Christianity is alive in many people, even when some church realities, like the old abbey church pictured above, are crumbling. But if you look closely, there are signs of new life there as well… and around the ruins.

Indeed, actual Christian behavior just might be growing more than we think. Spring. New life. Resurrection.

A broad perspective can change everything we see. Richard continues: “Resurrection is about the whole of creation, it is about history, it is about every human who has ever been conceived, sinned, suffered, and died, every animal that has lived and died a tortured death, every element that has changed from solid, to liquid, to ether, over great expanses of time. It is about you and it is about me. It is about everything. ‘The Christ journey’ is indeed another name for everything.”

The Christian Gospel will never be worthy of being called “Good News” unless it is indeed a win-win reality for everyone: a truly worldview, which means “good news for all people” (Luke 2: 10) — without exceptions.

Safe travels on the road to Easter…….May we all have clear vision and the life-giving companionship of good and supportive friends. Jesus had that as well.