Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.

 

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Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-three years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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God Sits for His Portrait Again

‘You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that he might renew mankind made after himself’.

– Athanasius, ‘On the Incarnation of the Word of God‘, Chapter 3 (written about 318 A.D.).

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from last year, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-two years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And thank you.

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I’m an evangelical Christian because…

I get a little tired sometimes of evangelical Christianity being identified by what it’s against. “You know, they’re the ones who hate gays, and bomb abortion clinics, and oppose teaching evolution in schools” (For the record, none of those three describes me). I’d rather define ‘evangelical’ by what I’m excited about.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about Jesus. To me he really is the light of the world; his life and teaching shine a brilliant light on what God is like and what human life is meant to be like. ‘Like father, like son’; I feel in my gut that if there is a God, God has to be like Jesus. As someone once said, ‘In God there is no unChristlikeness at all’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the story of the Cross: it shows us how God treats his enemies – with love and forgiveness – and so becomes the the way of reconciliation with God for all people. I also love the story of the resurrection, which tells me that love is stronger than death (love wins!), and that God has made Jesus Lord of all.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about grace – God’s unconditional love poured out on all people, the good, the bad, and the ugly, not because we deserve it but because God is love. Grace is the hope of the world; if there’s no grace, we have no hope. For me, this is bedrock; because God is graceful, I don’t need to be afraid.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about the Bible, in all its mystery and wonder. Evangelical Christianity wants to get back as close as possible to the original story of God’s grace in the life of Jesus and the early church, and we believe that the books of the New Testament are the best window we have into that exciting and foundational time. I love the Bible, even though I often don’t understand it and it regularly infuriates me, because when I take it as a whole and understand it through the lens of the story of Jesus, it is indeed ‘a lamp for my feet and a light to my path’.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about evangelism. Jesus continues to make a huge difference in my life, and as I talk to people who are spiritually curious, I love helping them come closer to the light of God in Jesus. And I love the fact that I can relax and enjoy this process, because at the most fundamental level it’s God’s work, not mine.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I’m excited about conversion. I have a conversion story of my own – the time when the light of Jesus first flooded into my life – and I’ve seen other people get converted too. To me, it’s a beautiful miracle, and there’s no thrill like being a part of it in the lives of others.

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love the vibrant community of people who know Christ and want to know him better, and who want to meet to learn more about him and to share his love with each other and the world around them. Small group learning and larger gatherings for worship with these folks are awesome experiences for me!

I’m an evangelical Christian because I love a simple approach to worship. I’m not against a written liturgy (I’m an Anglican, after all!) – in fact, I love the way a written liturgy gathers all the different elements of worship together in a way that all can participate in. But I don’t like it when it’s too wordy and too full of rituals. I don’t like crowded worship services; I love worship services that leave me lots of room to sense the touch of the living God.

I don’t think evangelical Christianity has everything right, and I don’t think there’s nothing we can learn from other Christian traditions. But at the end of the day, this tradition is my spiritual home, not because of what it’s against, but because of what it’s for. I’ve been blessed to be part of it, and it continues to bring great blessing into my life, and for that I’m very grateful.

Why am I a Christian – Part 2

Yesterday I answered the question ‘Why am I a Christian?’ in terms of the process by which I became a Christian, outlining very briefly the story of my conversion as a young teenager. This is a very important story to me and I have no doubt that without it my life would have taken a radically different course.

But why am I still a Christian today? Why don’t I find the arguments of the new atheists persuasive? Why aren’t I so discouraged by the imperfections of the church that I follow the lead of many others of my generation and drop out altogether?

Quite simply, the most important answer is ‘Jesus’. It is the person of Jesus who is the centre of my Christian life, and it is the story of his life and teaching that keeps me in the faith today.

I find his vision of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God compelling. It’s so much more attractive to me than the Kingdom of the American empire, of the Kingdom of Google, or the Kingdom of Big Oil, of the Kingdom of ‘Whatever makes you feel good…’ The idea that the world is broken by evil but still loved by God, and that God is quietly working through individuals to spread his reign of justice and love, inspires me and gives me hope. And it makes perfect sense to me that this Kingdom is about love, justice, compassion and community, not about profits or power or ‘the one who dies with the most toys wins’.

Jesus has such a knack for getting right to the heart of the issue. When he asks, “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36), we know instinctively that he’s right. Ditto, when he says, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 13:15), or “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 13:25). The way he sums up God’s commandments in terms of our primary relationships – ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself’ – is so profound and yet so challenging (‘all my heart?’ ‘as myself?’).

I love the fact that Jesus walks around quietly ignoring the power structures and authorities of his day. His contemporaries assumed that the best place to meet God was the Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus seems to assume that he is the Temple: if you want to meet God, be forgiven, be healed, come to him and ask! He reaches out to outcasts and ‘sinners’, heals even the servants of enemy soldiers, and forgives those who crucify him. He’s not above speaking harsh words to hypocrites and he’s not afraid to make it hard for people to follow him.

Jesus defies categories. He’s not conservative and he’s not liberal; he’s not capitalist, but he’s not socialist either. He’s not judgemental (except when he is), but he’s not a wishy-washy ‘come to me and carry on living just the way you were’ kind of guy either. Conservatives like to paint Christianity as being all about family, but in fact Jesus doesn’t have much to say on that subject (although what he does say is challenging, especially about divorce). Liberals like to paint him as all about inclusivity, and it’s true that he reaches out to people seen as ‘beyond the pale’ by the respectable, but he sets the bar pretty high for his followers too. He annoys me as well as inspiring me, and I like that. After all, if I think I agree with everything he says, then I’m probably following me, not him, right?

Quite simply, when I look around at the world today, I can’t seen anyone else who seems to understand the root causes of its problems the way Jesus does. I can’t see anyone else who has as compelling a vision for the transformation of the world as Jesus does. Deep down in my heart, I know instinctively that if there is a God, he has to be like Jesus. ‘Like Father, like Son’ makes sense to me; I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, because I believe the vision of God that Jesus gives me, and Jesus himself reminds me of that vision.

Why am I a Christian today? Because of Jesus. I believe that following him is the best way of being human and the best way of knowing God. And I have to say that every day I continue to live serves only to strengthen that belief in me.

Why Am I A Christian? – Part 1

A good question for all Christians to ask themselves sometimes is ‘Why am I a Christian?’

Atheist writers have sometimes challenged us by saying, “Your faith is predetermined by the fact that you grew up in a Christian country. If you’d been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim”. Well, there’s some truth in this, of course, but it isn’t working too well these days. Anyone seen the church attendance statistics in the ‘Christian countries’ of the west lately? Yeah – that’s a thing of the past! Obviously the Christian countries were good at making people who went along with conventional Christianity, but not actual disciples of Jesus.

Being raised in a ‘Christian country’ (actually, I don’t believe there is any such thing) definitely didn’t make me a Christian. Being raised in a Christian country meant I was subjected to ‘Christian worship’ at school, much of which was led by people who weren’t Christian. My first year of high school Religious Education was taught by a man who self-identified as an atheist.

Nor am I a Christian because I was baptized as a baby. Many, many people were baptized as babies when I was growing up, and very few of them went on to follow Jesus. Infant baptism wasn’t enough to bring them to a living faith in Christ; something else was needed. Even those who went to church didn’t necessarily ‘catch’ faith; I’ve talked to many lifelong churchgoers who readily admit that they don’t really know God in any personal way.

No: the main reason I am a Christian today is that, when I was a young teenager, I had a conversion experience. It began with reading Dennis Bennett’s Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and reached its fruition a few months later when my dad gave me a gentle challenge: ‘You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?’ Later that night I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. Not long after that my dad taught me how to have a daily prayer and Bible reading time, and I started attending a midweek prayer and study group.

These were the events that brought faith alive for me. I haven’t had dramatic mystical experiences in my faith life, but I do regularly experience a sense of the presence and peace of God. I have also experienced the guidance of God in terms of ‘hunches’ about what I should do (which have almost always worked out well). So I’m happy to say ‘God is a living presence in my life’ (although I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it really is).

So far, of course, I’ve answered the question in the past tense – not so much ‘Why are you a Christian?’ as ‘How did you become a Christian?’ It’s a valid way to answer the question – how I became a Christian has a lot to do with why I am a Christian today – but there’s more to it than that. Come back tomorrow for the second part…