Today I am returning to “For Another Voice.”
I hope that I have something of value to say in the coming days and weeks. My main concerns remain the search for truth and a contemporary understanding of Christian faith and belief. Both can be challenging projects these days. Too many people promote their own fabricated fables as facts, and too many people simply accept such nonsense while refusing to think or question. And far-right Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) is very far removed from the teaching and witness of the historical Jesus.
My June traveling days were a time of genuine delight. (I will forget a few unexpected airport frustrations.) I crossed the Atlantic twice. I gave a much appreciated lecture at a conference of friends and colleagues. My focus was on the church as a healthy Christian community. Participants and I shared visions and concerns about today and tomorrow. My wife, Joske, and I also had wonderful reunions with family and friends, many of whom we had not seen for a few years. And, this summer, as younger relatives celebrated their weddings, Joske and I celebrated our fifty-second wedding anniversary. Still very much in love.
As an older U.S. American, and a long-time researcher about religion and values in U.S. society, my eyes and ears were open everywhere this past month. What I observed first-hand in my homeland raises a lot of concerns. The polarization IS extreme. More extreme than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War. Misinformation and mistrust are rife. It is not always clear who is really telling the truth. Or where one finds reliable sources of truthful information. And, of course, the recent supreme court decisions are promoting even more dismay, anger, and feelings of powerlessness. As I write this, the July 4 weekend in Chicago witnessed a shooting incident in which at least 30 people were injured and 6 killed. U.S. Americans have witnessed too many mass killings and buried too many children, parents, and grandparents.
In my USA journeys I did a lot of listening and observing of church people: members and leaders. I was pleased to get his most recent article from a religion professor at Western Michigan University. He confirmed the Catholic exodus in the areas where I grew up. When asked why people are walking away, he stressed: an increasingly conservative and often unfriendly “1950s style” young clergy, ongoing revelations of clerical sex-abuse, the church’s role in banning gay marriage in Michigan, efforts to limit access to abortion and contraceptives, and the treatment of women as “second-class citizens.”
Big changes are underway and the religious shifts in contemporary U.S. society show no signs of slowing. In 2019, 14% of all U.S. adults said they never went to church. But in 2020, that number jumped to 53%. Today it is about 73%. Many researchers now say that a lot of people who stopped going to church due to Covid-19 are just not coming back. They really don’t miss what they no longer experience. The Roman Catholic exodus continues.
Is the ongoing U.S. cultural change bringing a crisis for Christian churches? Everything depends on how one should understand such a “crisis.” Membership is certainly decreasing, especially among younger U.S. Americans. What some see as a crisis I see as a challenge. I ask: what does the proclamation of the Gospel mean in our rapidly changing cultural situation? And in a greatly polarized USA. For me, the question is whether a person, who is fully integrated into our culture, can be touched by the power and beauty of the Gospel.
The questions I ask about the institutional church are the same kinds of questions I ask about contemporary professional and political institutions. I see a lot of self-protective institutions increasingly out of touch with contemporary reality: not asking how they can be of service to people but asking how people can better serve them. This is institutional self-worship.
We need institutional reform and we need to dismantle oppressive systems.
As the U.S. pastor and author, John Pavlovitz, wrote recently: “Church, people are leaving you because you are silent right now in ways that matter to them. You aren’t saying what they need you to say and what you should be saying—and it makes them sick. They spend their days with a front row seat to human right atrocities, to growing movements of cruelty, to unprecedented religious hypocrisy, and to political leaders who are antithetical to the heart of Jesus. They live with the relational collateral damage of seeing people they love abandon compassion and decency; people who are growing more and more callous to the already vulnerable.”
During a long layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I read the newspapers and then re-read articles on my iPad, especially an article about the English anthropologist Jane Goodall, now 88 years young. She is a wonderfully prophetic and inspiring person. I remember her 1999 book Reason for Hope. The book details her own spiritual journey and her belief that everyone can find a reason for hope.
“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference,” Goodall wrote. “It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior.”
With constructive criticism, mutual respect, and collaborative efforts, we can indeed be “noble, generous, and heroic” in church and in civil society.
I look forward to traveling with you once again. I hope I can ask worthwhile questions and provide helpful pointers toward finding honest life-giving answers.