Christianity’s Ebb and Flow in the United States

In 1741, the young Puritan preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758), warned that only God’s mercy prevented sinners from sizzling in hellfire like spiders over a candle flame. Edwards helped launch the first Great Awakening, a revival of Christian engagement and practice that lasted throughout much of the 18th century. Historians point to four waves of U.S. religious awakening between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers. 

I wonder what Edwards would be thinking about U.S. Christianity today. In 2000, 80% of U.S. adults were Christian, with 54% of them Protestant and 25% Roman Catholic. The latest analysis of U.S. religious trends by the Pew Research Center, however, says U.S. American Christians could make up less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades. The 2015 report had projected that two-thirds of Americans would be Christian in 2050. But the 2022 analysis has projected that just 47% of the population would be Christian at midcentury under the likeliest scenario, and 39% by 2070. 

Although it is difficult to get a precise figure, currently in the United States about 4,000 churches close down each year. Some get repurposed as shops, theaters, community centers, or apartments. Others just get demolished. Some are also closed, demolished, and the property sold just because the real estate has become so valuable.

For me one of the most interesting changes in U.S. Christianity concerns Latinos, where Roman Catholicism continues to decline. Although Catholics do remain the largest religious group among Latinos, their share among Latino adults has steadily declined over the past decade. At the same time, the percentage who are religiously unaffiliated has grown substantially over the same period. In 2022, 43% of Latino adults identified as Catholic, down from 67% in 2010. 

When it comes to Catholicism in the U.S., major reconfigurations are already underway, especially when one looks at Roman Catholic ordained ministers (priests). New vocations and seminarians these days come most significantly from outside the USA. As CRUX editor and journalist John L. Allen Jr. wrote in CRUX  on February 13th of last year: “If the church in the U.S. tomorrow had to kick out all the Mexican, Colombian, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, Nigerian, Ugandan, and Congolese priests serving in American dioceses, not to mention all the religious women from those places, it might as well put a ‘going out of business’ sign on the front door of almost every diocesan cathedral in the country.” 

Since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center, weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics has dropped from 55% to 20%, and the number of people who have left Catholicism has increased from under 2 million in 1975 to over 30 million at the start of 2022. 

Thinking and talking about the great decline in U.S. Catholic involvement, one of my bishop friends observed, very much off the record, “My God who will pay our bills?” I chuckled and said “Maybe you have to start down-sizing. Sell your suburban episcopal mansion near the golf course and move into a small apartment in the city near the cathedral.” He was not amused. “But most importantly,” I said “My friend, we really do have to ask why people are leaving.” I also added “And, unfortunately, when speaking about many contemporary issues, church leadership has a credibility problem: politics, women, gay rights, and of course sexual abuse.”

Thinking about Christianity in general, another area where we see significant change is looking at young people and their belief. 

The “Zoomers,” Generation Z, people born mid-to-late 1990s, is now the least religious generation yet. Today 34 % of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among Millennials, born 1981 to 1996, at 29 %, and Generation X, born early 1960s to late 1970s, at 25%. 

Fewer than 18% of the Baby Boomers, people born 1946 to 1964, are religiously unaffiliated. But only 9 % of the Silent Generation are religiously unaffiliated. The Silent Generation, also known as the “Traditionalist Generation,” is the generation preceding the Baby Boomers, people born from 1928 to 1945.

Certainly, new patterns of religious change can emerge at any time. Some of my friends say we have to get ready for the fifth Great Awakening. Could be. There are so many issues in our contemporary society: increasing gun violence, rising authoritarianism, homophobic hatred or antipathy, worsening economic conditions, etc. So many issues that can launch sudden social, political, and religious upheavals.

We always need to read the signs of the times, and then reflect on their implications for contemporary belief and behavior. “There are tranquil times, which seem to contain that which will last forever,” the German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) once observed. “And there are ages of change, which see upheavals that, in extreme instances, appear to go to the roots of humanity itself.” I resonate with Jaspers, and I would say that we indeed are in an extreme socio-cultural upheaval. So far the U.S. is setting a record pace for mass killings in 2023, replaying the horror on a loop roughly once a week so far this year. The carnage has taken 88 lives in 17 mass killings over 111 days.

Reading Acts of Apostles a few days ago, I read once again: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17) Yes. We need to share Visions and Dreams today. I thought as well about the young university student I mentioned last week. I truly believe we need to support and encourage young men and women to pursue their visions of a future Christian understanding, in times of great change. That’s my dream. I am not a pessimist. Church leaders should have listening sessions, inviting young men and women to share there thoughts about life and church today. We should not lecture to them. We should listen to them. Constructive dialogue begins with listening to the other. Asking “what?” and asking “why?”

Listening to the other was a key element in the ministry of my friend Archbishop Jean Jadot (1909-2009) whom I thought about this past week, while re-reading and sorting some old files. Jean Jadot was Apostolic Delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980. (Two years ago my book about the Archbishop was published and is still available on Amazon: Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington.) From the time he was a young child, his family called him “Mr. Why?” because he was always asking questions. Shortly after his arrival in Washington DC in 1973, the “whys” of appropriate pastoral ministry for Catholics in the United States began to churn in Jadot’s head as he travelled, observed, and reflected. 

Jadot had been appointed by Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978). The more than a hundred men Jadot selected for U.S. Catholic bishops were ordained ministers attuned to the pastoral needs of people in their dioceses. After Pope Paul’s death in 1978, his successor, John Paul II, gradually became more and more  displeased and perturbed at Jadot. He did not like the Jadot bishops. He told Archbishop Jadot he did not want “creatively pastoral” bishops. He wanted bishops who were “loyal and obedient to me in Rome.” Certainly Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI did their best to eliminate Jadot-type bishops.

I remember visiting Jadot after he was removed from the United States by John Paul II. I asked him how he felt. He smiled and said “It is winter now. But spring will return.” 

Jean Jadot, right from the start of his U.S. ministry, was strongly pro-American yet saw major American social problems developing; and he was committed to shaping an appropriate American Catholic response. In my visits and interviews with him over many years, Archbishop Jadot often spoke about his being present at grandiose, impressive, and yet almost medieval liturgies in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. 

The Archbishop said he often looked at the faces of young and older Catholics in the congregation and saw immediately that that kind of liturgy, for them, was just about meaningless. “Why?” he said, “Why can’t we be more creative with liturgical celebrations that truly engage and speak to contemporary people?” I nodded my head in agreement and added “Why can’t we be more creative in many ways: women in ministry, married ordained ministers, lay men and women in leadership positions, dialogue with Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, etc.” Jadot nodded his head in complete agreement.

I look to today’s younger Christian thinkers and activists to answer Jadot’s questions and many others. Perhaps the first thing we need to do is start listening more closely to them and to the disaffiliated. We must humbly admit that we may not have the best answers…and quite possibly they do. We cannot dialogue and work together to resolve problems and shape the future until we first of all practice attentive listening.


Theological Twists and Turns

Not so long ago I met a young energetic and inquisitive university student, when he was visiting mutual friends. He knew I was a retired professor and asked what my field was. I told him theology. He stared at me, then chuckled, and said that he no longer believed in Santa Claus and the old Deity up in the sky. I laughed and said “I don’t either.” Then, surprisingly, we got into a very serious discussion about
belief, Jesus, and God. That discussion, I hope, will continue.

Over the past two thousand years, Christianity has gone through a lot of
theological twists and turns. Most involve a shifting focus on either “orthopraxy” or “orthodoxy.” In a life-centered Christian theology, the primary focus is orthopraxy which means “correct conduct.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, means and emphasizes “correct belief.”

Orthopraxy was certainly the focus in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth: being courageous, compassionate, and inspiring in the midst of life’s ups and downs. And Jesus certainly experienced life’s ups and downs. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) In orthopraxy the Christian is like the Good Samaritan and embodies and lives out the Sermon on the Mount by
caring for the marginalized, promoting compassion and peace, and sharing God’s love.

Certainly in Roman Catholic history the focus on unquestioning acceptance of orthodoxy created an atmosphere of thought control and, quite often, fear for those who dared to question. Growing up as a pious Catholic teenager, I remember regularly saying the Act of Faith prayer, in which I so fervently prayed: “…I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because you have revealed them, who are eternal truth and wisdom, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. In this faith I intend to live and die.” My high school classmates called me “Pious Dick.”

Orthodoxy is not life-centered but doctrine-centered. It is about correct teaching. When orthodoxy is stressed, people are taught the official doctrine and must then unquestioningly accept that doctrine.
From 1910 to 1967, by way of example, all Roman Catholic “clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophicaltheological seminaries” had to take the Oath Against Modernism. Theological modernism interpreted Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasized the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. The Oath marked a high point in Pope Pius X’s campaign against “modernism” which he denounced as heretical. Although Pius X
died in 1914, his very far right influence on Catholic thought control lasted a long time.

In the fullness of time, Pious Dick grew up and became an open-minded professor of historical theology in a “philosophical-theological seminary.” Fortunately he never had to take the Oath Against Modernism. He did occasionally have to confront a couple bishops who strongly resonated with Pius X’s narrow vision and accused him of heretical teachings. One even tried, without success, to get him
fired from the Catholic University of Leuven.

The focus on a strongly enforced orthodoxy in Christianity began actually in 310 CE when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in his Roman Empire. Although he was not baptized until close to death in 337, Constantine was very pragmatic about Christianity and wanted to use it for his own political agenda.

Constantine called the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The bishops had to attend. Most significantly, the Council of Nicaea issued the very first uniform statement of Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. Anyone who refused to obediently accept the Nicene Creed was excommunicated and exiled…or worse. I have always found it noteworthy that the Nicene Creed says nothing about actual
Christian living, i.e. orthopraxy. After Nicaea “faith” very quickly became a matter of intellectual assent.

Actually, “faith” had its original meaning in the Greek word pistis, which means trust, commitment, and personal engagement. Faith in God, therefore, was a trust in and a commitment to God. Faith in Christ was an engaged commitment to the call and ministry of Jesus. It was a commitment to do the Gospel, to be a follower of Christ. Originally therefore, “faith” meant active living — orthopraxy. Between 383 and 404 CE, however, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the Greek word pistis was translated as the Latin word fides (belief): a matter of intellectual assent.

By the late fourth century and early fifth century the church was becoming an authoritarian institution demanding obedience: faithful assent. The church’s understanding of God, thanks to Bishop Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin, became that of a heavenly judge seated on HIS throne. Augustine taught that humans have a sinful tainted nature passed on through sexual intercourse. About
five hundred years after Augustine, another bishop, Anselm of Canterbury, made the perspective on God even much worse with his Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. Bishop Anselm said that God was so greatly offended by human sinfulness that God demanded the crucifixion and death of his own son Jesus to atone for humankind’s sin. A strange view of God. A very severe orthodoxy. Anstrange understanding of the historical Jesus.

A more healthy theological perspective — the Jesus perspective — has no sinister view of God but sees God as the Divine Presence. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” we read in the First Epistle of John (1 Jn 4:15). Jesus revealed the Divine Presence within the human. His dream was for people to see the Divine Presence within them. So very different from Bishop Anselm of Canterbury’s vision of an offended and vengeful God up in heaven who chose to disconnect from sinful Humanity.

In his book It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith, the Australian theologian Michael Morwood stresses: “It is time to break from the worldview of two thousand years ago with its notions of a Supreme overlord God who lived in the heavens and who disconnected access to “Himself” because of some supposed sin by the first human.”

Yes. It is time to make a significant shift in our perspective on “God.” We need to move to an appreciation of the Divine Presence always here, always and everywhere active in an expanding universe, and in the evolution of life on this planet. This changed perspective resonates with contemporary science which finds itself speaking in terms of mystery and wonder, as it tries to explain the how and why of reality. And the problem of evil. Our contemporary understanding of Humanity realizes that Humanity is capable of destroying itself and everything around it.

Indeed, Humanity can give its best expression to the Divine Presence
only when it frees itself from destructive activity and behavior that destroys people and damages the natural world.

Humans can only truly experience and give expression to the Divine Presence within them when they follow the universal life-giving patterns of co-operation and working together. We, not a God in heaven, have to overcome evil. And the only thing needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to stand by and do nothing.


Theology and the Universe Through Ancient Hebrew Eyes


Taking a walk in my yard and staring into the sky on a clear spring night, my thoughts turned first of all to the complex immensity of the universe. What a delight to look at moon and stars after far too many cloudy days and nights.

Almost all of the stars I could see, the astronomers say, are close to Earth in galactic terms. Most are within a hundred light-years or so. Some are visible from 1,000 light-years away. But even then, that’s only 1% of the distance across our galaxy which we call “The Milky Way,” a slowly rotating cluster of more than 200 billion stars! 

Our Milky Way galaxy is one of many. And galaxies like the Milky Way probably have about 17 billion Earth size planets. Just a few years ago, researches estimated that there were between 100 and 200 billion galaxies in our observable universe. Today, however, research astronomers suggests that the total size of the universe is unknown and could very well be infinite, implying there could be an infinite number of galaxies. And, they stress, the universe is still expanding.

Coming back into the house, I thought about Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I thought as well, with fascination and amazement, that with such an immense and expanding universe perhaps we need to expand our perspectives on Creator God.

Despite our contemporary scientific and technological progress, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped. Much of our official God imagery is rather dated and still influenced by the ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe.

The ancient Hebrews envisaged our universe as a flat Earth with Heaven above and the Underworld below. Humans inhabited Earth during their lifetimes and the Underworld after death.

The flat disk-shaped Earth was immovable and set on a foundation of pillars. Above the Earth was the “firmament” on which the stars, planets, sun and moon revolve. Heaven or the realm of God was understood as a set of chambers just above the firmament. A special passage, like a tunnel through the clouds, led from Earth up to Heaven. The firmament dome surrounded the Earth, with its edge meeting at the horizon. (See Genesis 1:7 “Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.”) The firmament was supported by “pillars” or “foundations,” thought to be the tops of mountains, whose peaks appeared to touch the sky. The heavens had doors and windows through which God could send rain and let waters above flow down on Earth. And also control waters from below. (See Genesis 7:11 “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month, on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”)

The Underworld, the realm of the dead was located under the Earth. The most frequent term for this place was Sheol. (See for example Proverbs 9:18 “But he does not know that the spirits of the dead are there, And that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.”) The graves dug by humans represented gateways to the Underworld. Below the Earth and the Underworld were the lower seas or “the Great Deep.”

The ancient Hebrew understanding of the universe had a long-lasting impact on the Christian understanding of the universe. After his death, the  Apostles Creed says that Jesus “descended into the Underworld.” (Most people know only the very faulty translation of the Creed which says Jesus “descended into hell.” Very unfortunate. Good and correct translations are so important.)

The Ascension of Jesus, according to Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:1-9, was a journey in a cloud up to Heaven. In their Hebraic universe understanding, early Christians no doubt pictured the Resurrected Jesus passing through the tunnel in the clouds up to heaven to sit on a throne at the right hand of God the Father.

Much later, in the seventeenth century, elements of the ancient Hebrew universe perspective, maintained by the Catholic Church, led to the trial and condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic Inquisition in 1633. The reason: Galileo supported heliocentrism in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun. 

Some old images last a long time. I remember November 1, 1950, when Pope Pius XII solemnly proclaimed in his apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, that in was: “…a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.” Body and soul.

Well, today we need to move beyond ancient cosmology and ancient theology based on it. So much of our religious perspective has been anchored in outdated ideas about the universe and planet Earth’s place in the universe.

Clearly, a major paradigm shift is already underway: a major re-visioning of Christianity. The older conventional way of seeing Christianity was dominant for hundreds of years. And, in an important sense, it worked. Nevertheless, over the last thirty to forty years, it has become unpersuasive to millions of people in our culture. Certainly young people do not connect with it. But not just young people. Churches are becoming echo chambers.

In an ever expanding universe, we need an expanded image of Creator God and a broader theology about God. That theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do and redirects our minds and hearts. All  religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe and amazement. It is like describing being in love. We realize of course that God is always greater than anything we can understand.

Sometimes people get so wrapped up in their religious words and rituals that they miss what those words and rituals are actually pointing toward.

I believe we all have moments of awe, wonder, and excitement that lift us beyond ourselves. We realize, if only for a short time, that something — someone— is touching us very deeply within. We need to spend more time reflecting on those kinds of experiences. Spiritual reflection. Meditation. And this has to be a major part of the so greatly needed re-visioning of Christianity going on in our time.

Well, this is my first reflection after Easter 2023. And it cuts across all religious traditions and addresses the non-religious as well.