The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.

“[R]ising anxiety, suicide, and deaths of despair speak to a profound national disorder….”

Donald Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr. at Liberty University in Virginia

I just read Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? By staff writer for the Atlantic, Derek Thompson. I find The Atlantic to be full of insightful articles, even when I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. This article is no exception.

Thompson recalls those enlightened 19th century pundits who predicted the death of God and advances in “scientific discovery and modernity” that would lead to widespread atheism. Thompson is a skeptic, himself. While Europe has largely gone the way the pundits predicted, The United States has resisted that prognostication – at least until recently.

Thompson blames “America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship” and “stubbornly pious Americans” for the United States not going with the flow of the Enlightenment ascent of man from the superstitious dark ages into the light of science and reason.

While the rest of the western world has been drifting away from religious affiliation, and religion altogether, the United States seemed impervious to those forces working on the rest of the western world – until recently. Things began to change in the United States in the 1990’s, and that trend continues.

The article borrows heavily from Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, for figures and figurings of the reasons why. The shift is clear, though, and the statistics bear it out, that religious affiliation and interest in religion in the United States is waning and going the way of the rest of the western world.

“According to Smith, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” Smith goes on to provide some explanation for how these “events” have triggered the change. He says,

“The marriage between the religious and political right …. disgusted liberal Democrats, especially those with weak connections to the Church. It also shocked the conscience of moderates, who preferred a wide berth between their faith and their politics.”

Thompson’s article got me thinking. He is right about the trend away from religion in the United States. We don’t need data to tell us that. The “nones” are increasing while the committed believers are decreasing. That these observations come from “outside the camp” doesn’t make them false.

Thompson’s explanations for the reasons why this is may be more of a mixed bag. He (naturally) views the changes through a naturalistic lens. He may be right about some of the cause and effect, but he (naturally) isn’t likely to see the more spiritual side of those things.

I “grew up” spiritually during the mid to late 80’s when the marriage between religion and the political right was consummated. I fell out of step with it, and lost track of it, when I went to law school in 1988. Apparently the honeymoon went well.

I count myself (even today) as an evangelical (though I search for a different label). My spiritual upbringing included the experience of the courting of the religious right of the Republican Party. (Or was it the other way around?)   

Law school, however, challenged even my most sacrosanct connections, and the cares and concerns of fatherhood and providing for a growing family distracted me from other relationships. It was all I could do to hold onto God during this time, and the truth is that He mostly held onto me.

Perhaps, that was a blessing in disguise, as I didn’t grow into the religio-politico affiliation that seems to characterize a large segment of the evangelical church today. I am a more distant observer of that relationship today, so I think I have some objectivity left.

I agree (partially) with Thompson’s assessment that the congruence of the religious right and the political right changed the political landscape. It also changed the religious landscape. Perhaps, more than we might care to acknowledge.

Continue reading “The End of Stubborn Piety, and a New Beginning.”

Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World

Down at the bedrock of modern, western values remains a Christian foundation.

Galleries under the central arena of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

I read Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, about a year ago, and I have written about it a few times. Many Christians would not think to read a history about Western Civilization by a self-described secular humanist (once atheist, perhaps now agnostic) historian.

Most non-Christians are likely to be uncomfortable with the chronicle Holland describes of the radically influential role that Christianity played in the development of Western Civilization, providing the foundation, in fact, for secular humanist ideals. When Holland dug down to the bedrock of modern, western values, he was surprised himself to find them anchored on a Christian foundation.

Holland did not set out to write a Christian apologetic, and he seems to remain somewhat uncertain how to process what he “discovered”. What he found, though, changed his mind about Christianity. He gives a brief explanation in the following clip:

Though Holland has had a turnabout on his view of Christianity, he finds himself caught in an odd position wrought by the unexpected discovery that his lifelong, secular humanist values flow from the radical catalyst of Christian influence and remain embedded ubiquitously in its very fabric. This awkwardness of his current position is evident in his interviews and discussions about the book.

Christians and secular thinkers, alike, wrestle with his book. Holland doesn’t hide any warts, and he doesn’t pull any punches. Neither does he obfuscate the thoroughly paradigmatic shift in Western thinking that Christianity worked into a society that once proudly and unashamedly championed strength and privilege over the poor, the weak, and the lowly.

Holland exposes the metanarrative developed during the Enlightenment and thereafter that belies the foundation on which the Enlightenment structure was built. Far from advancing the progression of human values, the Enlightenment threatened to undo the distinctly Christian concern for the poor, weak, and lowly while attempting to wrest western civilization from the hold of the Divine. Humanism saved the Christian ethic, albeit divorced from Christ.

Consider the full title of Darwin’s great tome which staked out the ground of a scientific (and social) revolution free from God’s interference:

“The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”

The title of Darwin’s book championing the evolutionary paradigm, harkens back to the Greco-Roman value system that despised the poor, the weak and the lowly. That value system did not just turn a callous eye at wanton and discriminate cruelty, it cheered on strong in snuffing out the weak.

The very reason the full title never “stuck” (I now believe) is due to a fundamental, pervasive, and thoroughly entrenched counter-value of the intrinsic worth of human life that is uniquely Christian in its source.

The intrinsic value of all human life, from the greatest to the least, from the wisest and strongest to the weakest and most imbecilic, from the fittest to the most infirm, is traceable to the Christian belief that all human beings are made in the image of God. That the survival of the fittest did not take hold as a western value is attributable to the deeply ingrained Christian ethic that survived yet.

Modern humanists may attempt to recast Darwin into a humanistic mold, but the idea of “social Darwinism” bears his name through no model of random, unguided selection. According to John G. West, Charles Darwin, himself, laid the groundwork for eugenics that was associated with social Darwinism:

Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory.

While the defense of Darwin from the charge of social Darwinism has been largely succeeded in popular and polite company, the very title of the Origin of Species (by means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) belies the success of that effort. The fact that the full title is merely a parenthetical today is evidence only of a concerted rescue campaign.

Christian values survived despite the Enlightenment coupe, not because of it. Humanism today assumes the evolutionary paradigm for its science alongside the uniquely Christian paradigm of the intrinsic worth of human beings. That the two assumptions do not fit seamlessly together seems to be lost on modern consciousness

Continue reading “Pulling at the Threads of the Christian Paradigm that Uniquely Influenced the Western World”

Separating the Church from Babylonian Morality in the Race Discussion

If we fall into a politically partisan conversation, the Gospel takes a back to secular politics.

The following thoughts and observations come from and are inspired by a conversation between Preston Sprinkle and Dr. Ed Uszynski. (See Episode 877: Race, CRT, and Evangelicalism of Theology in the Raw.)

Sprinkle and Urszynski are in agreement that Christians generally are doing a poor job of grappling with the issue of race in the United States. Most Christians are vocal in their criticism of secular solutions, but few Christians are really engaging with the underlying issues.

Critical Theory, CRT and Marxist ideology and terminology are fueling the discussion in the secular culture. Identity politics, systemic racism, police brutality is the language commonly used in the secular world to frame the discussion. Whether Christians are condemning these concepts or aligning with them, Christians are not offering much in return.

In the podcast, one the two men (I can’t remember which) said that we should have different language inside the Church. We should have Gospel language that addresses injustice.

“We should have a theological understanding of the concept of justice…. We should be immersed in care and concern for vulnerable populations, regardless of color, regardless of gender, regardless of background. We should be robustly able to think about what it means to care for the least of these, to watch out for people who are being taken advantage of…. That’s a biblical idea that we should be deeply immersed in theologically and biblically.”

That, however, isn’t happening in most Christian circles. People who are engaging in the conversation are engaging in it with the secular terminology and don’t recognize that we need to separate ourselves from that secular perspective. We are defining ourselves in relation to secular concepts, rather than driving the conversation from a biblical perspective with biblical concepts and biblical terminology.

Christian are either adopting CRT in church, which is the primary, secular approach, or Christians are rejecting CRT without offering a Gospel orientated alterative. People address CRT (by opposing it), but they are largely not addressing or effectively engaging the race conversation on a theological level.

“We have done a horrible job, generally, in embracing, and believing and obeying the rich theological theme of what the Kingdom of God is designed to look like and how it is designed to function in terms of its multiethnic backbone.”

Continue reading “Separating the Church from Babylonian Morality in the Race Discussion”

A Critique of Some Reasons Why Christians Oppose Critical Race Theory

Has CRT has become a scapegoat that masks and exasperates the real problem?

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has caused quite a stir in Christian (and conservative) circles, while racial tensions remain inflamed in the United States after a summer of COVID fear and racial unrest. While we are currently in a period of relative calm, it seems like the volcanic activity continues churning under the surface, and it’s only a matter of time before another event leads to an eruption.

Since last summer, I have focused often on issues of race in my writing, and race continues to occupy my mind. Thus, when a friend recommended some episodes of Theology in the Raw on the subject of CRT and race, generally, I followed up to listen to them. I was thrilled to find the discussions civil, intelligent and enlightening.

I have listened to several episodes now, but the one I am writing about today is episode #844. I am going to summarize parts of it with some of my own comments, but I highly suggest listening to the whole discussion if you have the time and inclination.

In this podcast, Preston Sprinkle’s guest, “Pastor T”, explains some of the frustrations that black people have with white people (conservative and progressive) in the national conversation about race. Pastor T explains that the black Church is more aligned with conservatives on theological lines, but they tend toward progressives on political lines because of silence a lack of engagement with the black plight in America by white evangelicals.

Take a moment to listen to Pastor T explain (listen approximately 24 minutes):

I will pick up the conversation in the context of the reasons why Christians oppose CRT. Pastor T identifies at least areas of expressed Christians concern: 1) it leads people away from the Gospel and causes people to deconvert; 2) it is a false religion that threatens Christianity; and 3) it is a progressive ideology that threatens conservative values and the country.

The first group of people oppose CRT because they see CRT drawing people away from the church, away from Christianity and away from the Gospel. They see people “deconstructing” and leaving their faith. They believe that CRT is partially to blame.

A slightly different reason that people oppose CRT is a concern that CRT is a false gospel that is advocated with religious zeal. This is a worldview concern – a battle against a competing worldview.

This view sees CRT as racializing the world because CRT divides the world into oppressor groups and oppressed groups. It posits that people in the oppressor group can never be justified; and the people in the oppressed group are justified simply by virtue of their grievances. These are secular constructs, not biblical ones.

The third group of people might use the language of theology, but their focus is more political. They would say that CRT is not good for society or the country. They view the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement to defund the police and other policy positions as unwise, unhelpful, destructive and contrary to the Bible.

Pastor T began the discussion by acknowledging the legitimacy of these concerns. He affirms that we should be concerned about rival claims to salvation and eternal life and the basic teaching of the Gospel.

Pastor T is a conservative Christian, as many black Christians are in their theology. His observations suggest that we are separated more by race than by theology in the American Church. Perhaps, the disconnect between the black Church and the white Church over CRT in America has more to do with racial experience and perspective than the Gospel.

Continue reading “A Critique of Some Reasons Why Christians Oppose Critical Race Theory”

Risky Living: Tempting Death

Most of us try to avoid risks, but the risk of death for all of us is 100%!

Evel Knievel (Robert Craig Knievel), an American motorcycle daredevil and entertainer. Photo from http://cliffordsphotography.com/

This is a continuation of Risky Living: God Risk and Bad Risk. In that piece, I explored the difference between good risks and foolish risks. I was prompted to begin writing on the subject by a dream that I explained in the previous piece and the “lockdown” order covering most of the United States in April of 2020.

It is now April 2021. Much has happened, though much remains the same. This article I started a year ago has evolved. The path these thoughts have lead me down end in death, which is where the path of each of us will end. Before we get there, though, I will pick up again with the subject of my reckless youth.

I should have known at a young age that I had an affinity for recklessness. As a pre-teen, I loved the idea of somersaulting from a high dive, and I was even tempted into thinking I could jump extremely close to the edge of a concrete pool from a high dive without hitting the edge. Fortunately, I never attempted it, but no one who knew my thoughts or inclinations would be surprised at the series of unfortunate misadventures I experienced in high school.

I was no Evel Knievel, but I totaled two cars before I was 18. I climbed three water towers in the dark after nights of drinking. I don’t remember driving home after some of those nights of drinking. I once jumped from a dead tree overhanging a cliff into the dark waters of a quarry in rural Vermont. I was run over by the car I was riding in driven by a 15-year old with no license.

There is more, but the point isn’t to glorify anything that I did. The point isn’t to beat myself up for it either. I was seeking. Maybe I was seeking a little harder than other people. It may have started out as attempts to gain attention, fit in and be noticed, but it became much more than that.

I was trying to fill a void. I was fighting back against the apparent meaninglessness and purposeless of the world. I just didn’t know it, then.

I thought that gaining the attention and what I thought was the respect of my peers at the time would be fulfilling. I thought the thrill of overcoming fear would satisfy me. I thought that drugs and alcohol would fill up the emptiness in me and drown out the self-loathing.  None of the things accomplished those nebulous goals (or much of anything for that matter).

Evel Knievel took risky living to a whole new level, of course. My run-of-the-mill recklessness doesn’t hold a candle to Evel Knievel and the fame, fortune and international attention he gained by his precipitous endeavors (at significant cost to his own body). But, for what purpose? For what ultimate end?

I don’t presume to know what his answer might be if he was still alive to tell us. According to Wikipedia, Evel Knievel died in 2007 of pulmonary disease at the age of 69. He wanted a museum to be built in his name that would contain all of the memorabilia from his career, but that dream was never fulfilled. His memorabilia is scattered among transportation museums and private collections. In a generation or two, he will likely be just a footnote in history.

Continue reading “Risky Living: Tempting Death”