Hope : Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
I think we have faith, although diverse and divided in its expression. Love, that is Christian self-giving love is evident, but most of us seem to love our own and not necessarily “the other”. Hope, in terms of the future of the life of the Church, seems to be limited and in short supply. Yes, we have the hope of heaven and the consummation of all things; a hope for that time and place that is beyond time and place, in which “we shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise, in the end which is no end”. It is the future “in time” that seems to fly in the face of hope.
Returning from Europe, I had a long plane flight in which to reflect. Apart from some isolated pockets, Western Europe is, by and large, post-Christian in terms of societal norms. In the United Kingdom, there is evidence of evangelical, “Hillsong” inspired mega-churches on the rise, but they have a tenuous relationship with the established Church of England. The divisions in the Church of England itself, are evident as Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals are increasingly divided over societal identification as much as doctrine or styles of worship. Understand, there are good men and women doing good work, but they increasingly marginalized by the population at large. While supposedly LGBTQ and gender issues have been “addressed” in church legislation, rifts remain and the church is shrinking in numbers and relevance.
In the remainder of Western Europe, the secularization of society has for some years been the rule rather than the exception. While this secularization has extended over the course of the last century, in most Western European countries you now have two to three generations for whom this is the norm. The churches stand as monuments and venues for concerts, but little else apart from, of course, exciting the admiration of tourists who come to see what once was, but is no more. In my own experience over the last forty years, I have watched the process accelerate and, at least in my opinion (barring a miracle) become irreversible. While in the United States the reaction to the abuse scandals has been anger and outrage, in Western Europe Roman Catholics have simply “voted with their feet” and view the scandal as an affirmation of what was already suspected. Even the remnants of a “cultural Christianity” have become increasingly scarce.
In the United States, it seems to me that the situation is slightly different and, perhaps, more complex. I think basically we have been a “religious” nation. Note, I have written “religious”, not “Christian”. It has been a cultural distinction rather than a spiritual description. We have used religious vocabulary on every side of whatever political or societal issue that has confronted us as a people and a nation. In the American Revolution, religious precepts were put forward by both loyalists and revolutionaries. The same was done in our treatment of Native Americans and, indeed, in the debates over slavery, reconstruction and women’s suffrage. Religious overtones were extended to our wars as well, even those of colonial expansion. We are used to the employment of religious language, even when we are distant from Christian values. Many White Nationalists quote Scripture, while many of their opponents do the same. Politicians of the left and the right lay claim to “Christian values”, but for many, if not most, the words are mere window dressing and are being used in the pursuit of political power.
Now, while those of us who are older argue about “culture wars”, making use of religious language, a large percentage of those in the two generations below us have checked out of the discussion altogether. Many of the contentious issues which have shaped our lives, from Vietnam, to gender equality, to LGBTQ issues, are not issues to them. I’m not saying that these issues are not important. They are… to us, but not to them. Yet we continue to fight the battles, employing the time honored final card in all such debates that “God is on our side”.
I’m convinced that for the most part, the culture wars are over… and no one has really won. Indeed, all of us have probably lost. Reducing our faith to serve the issues of the moment (whether liberal or conservative) has resulted in a post-Christian, post-Faith society that both sides claimed they were fighting to avoid. It has resulted in the use of religious language that, for many, had become void of meaning or of content.
Sadly, such language has often been devalued by those who, although they can still “talk the talk”, no longer “walk the walk”.
In article after article, post after post, forum after forum, I read the comments of those who name the name of Christ, yet have abandoned any physical community of faith. I find those who are willing to argue the doctrine of inerrancy ad infinitum, yet cannot be a part of a Bible study with other believers. I see arguments about the nature of baptism and the Eucharist from those who barely frequent a communion rail or bread broken with others. We excoriate contemporary praise songs, while we seldom lift our voices in worship with other believers. We decry pastoral failings, all the while lacking a pastor ourselves or, perhaps even worse, being prepared to go somewhere else the moment a pastor challenges our own certainties. Then, of course, there are those who, abandoning any hint of Christian charity, simply love to fight, whether in church or online.
In all too many cases, we have forgotten how to be the Church and yet we rail and scream at the nature of our post-Christian society. Meanwhile, we wonder at the rising generations who have abandoned the Church and wring our hands saying that we just don’t understand what has happened.
It’s Lent, a time for reflection and repentance. Individually, perhaps we cannot change the course of the Church, but we can change our own course. Individually, perhaps we cannot make any difference in the state of the Church, but we might make a difference in some small struggling congregation. Individually, perhaps we cannot influence the rising generation, but we might make a difference by mentoring, helping and praying for one young man or young woman that we know.
It’s time to remember how to be the Church. It may be our only hope, not in eternity, but in time… now.