Churchless and Secular

ChurchMy world … and welcome to it. (HT James Thurber)

I’m not churchless or secular, but by far the majority of my friends, peers, and coworkers are. Although my university community is not yet the norm for the country as a whole, it may reflect a growing trend. Churchless is an increasing phenomenon in the US.

Dave Kinnaman and the Barna Group have published the results a series of surveys in a new book Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. The surveys themselves lead to some interesting insights. Cathy Lynn Grossman at The Religion News Service reports:

If you’re dismayed that one in five Americans (20 percent) are “nones” — people who claim no particular religious identity — brace yourself.

How does 38 percent sound?

That’s what religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his new category “churchless,” the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.

You can read the full story here: Secularism grows as more U.S. Christians turn ‘churchless’. A summary of the survey results can be found here: Five Trends Among the Unchurched.  Many of the unchurchless were at one time regular attenders – in childhood or as adults – but for a quarter church was never part of their regular experience. This latter group is likely to grow.

This is a story that has been picked up and linked in a number of different places – from atheist sites like to, oh, well, here. Neither the optimism expressed on the atheist sites nor the handwringing of Christian sites (I hope not here) really catch the significance of the results.

Continue reading

Posted in Church, Problems for Faith

It Isn’t Love – But it Should Be

What is the first word that comes to mind when I say Christian?

YanceyThis question, and the answers given by non-Christians shape the second chapter of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace. Yancey is convinced that all people long for meaning, a sense of purpose, that our life actually matters. We also long for genuine community and a sense of being loved and of belonging. Christian faith should draw people in, provide meaning, purpose, and belonging. Yet far too often this is not reality.

When I ask, “Tell me the first word that comes to your mind when I say “Christian,” not one time has someone suggested the word love. Yet without question that is the proper biblical answer.” As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” Jesus commanded his disciples at the Last Supper. He said the world will know we are Christians – and, moreover, will know who he is – when his followers are united in love. (p. 35)

This isn’t an optional command, it is the central feature of Christian community. I collected a number of the New Testament passages that emphasize the centrality of the commandment to love in a post a year ago It is a Conundrum Pt. 1. But what does this mean? To explore this Yancey looks at forms of love.

When have you felt loved?

Yancey provides a list from a friend

When someone listens to me attentively, makes me feel important, encourages me (and sometimes even challenges me), cares for me when I’m hurting, gives me an unexpected gift. (p. 35)

This is a great list. Are these practices we value as Christians and as a church? The answer has to be grounded in reality. Listening, feeling important, encouraging …. these are not easy answers, accomplished in a few sentences before moving on. I reflected on the answers to this question in the context of Christian fellowship. I have felt loved when the listening is genuine – with a real intent to understand (and we can all tell when there is no real intent). I have felt important, and loved, when people value the unique contributions I can make and have provided space for them. Paul teaches that we are all part of one body with different gifts. We need to develop these gifts in one another. I have felt loved when there was genuine concern and genuine rejoicing in the ups and downs and dangers of life – when it was clear that I mattered as an individual. Love for one another needs to be genuine.

Love should be the central feature of our interactions with one another and with others outside the church.

Most conversions come about as an outgrowth of friendship. All the expensive and well-designed programs of evangelism and church growth combined produce only a fraction of the results of simple friendship. In the words of Tim Keller “Don’t think in terms of what used to be called friendship evangelism. Think in terms of friendship. Your evangelism should be organic and natural, not a bunch of bullet points and agenda items that you enter into a conversation hoping to get to so you’re almost like a marketer.” (p. 36)

Yancey has found that many non-Christians fear entering into conversations because they are targets for conversion, not friends discussing significant questions. How many really feel valued when they find they filled a quota for invitation to an evangelistic event?

Continue reading

Posted in Christian Life | Tagged

NOMA and Rocks of Ages

ThinkerA topic that comes up often in the discussion of science and religion is Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA. I’ve read many papers and books that refer to this principle – sometimes agreeing, more often  disagreeing significantly from both sides. There are those who disagree with the concept, wanting to put religion out of the picture all together, and those who disagree, wanting to subject science to religious ideals or because the separation seems somewhat artificial. David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and psychology professor at the University of Washington whose NY Time opinion piece was the subject of a post a few weeks ago Coming Soon … “The Talk”? finds Gould’s argument for NOMA particularly troubling.

I tend to think that the separation into separate magisteria is somewhat artificial, but had never read Gould’s argument directly from his own work. This didn’t seem wise, so I picked up a copy of his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life where the concept is explained in detail. The range in the amazon reviews, almost equally spread from 1 to 5, give a flavor for the controversy over his proposal. Gould is anything from wise and thoughtful offering a useful framework to a fool, out of his depth, misinterpreting religion, and capitulating to those who believe in bronze age myths. The most scathing reviews come from atheist readers. This may be interesting.

Before digging too deeply into Gould’s argument it is necessary to understand what he means by magisterium … which is not to be confused with the similar words majesty or majestic (apparently a confusion he encountered).

A magisterium, on the other hand, is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution. In other words, we debate and hold dialogue under a magisterium; we fall into silent awe or imposed obedience before a majesty.

[The magisterium] of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider for example the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty) (p. 5-6).

Although Gould often has Christianity and Judaism in mind as he makes his argument, his definition of religion isn’t constrained to anything resembling Christian faith (or any other religion). It might be better to use the term moral philosophy rather than religion. But the Christian faith as it provides a moral philosophy is one example of an approach to the magesterium of religion. Continue reading

Posted in Conversation, Evolution, Resources for Discussion

The Embrace of Evil

France_Paris_Notre-Dame-Adam_and_Eve-dsHaving explored the Old Testament view of God and of the nature of humanity in chapters 3 and 4, Iain Provan (Seriously Dangerous Religion) turns to the age old problem of evil and suffering in chapter 5. If there is a personal, benevolent God why do evil and suffering mark the world?

Genesis 3 plays an important role in Provan’s approach to this question … “it is the embrace of evil, our biblical authors claim, that explains much of the suffering that arises in the world.” (p. 106) The word “much” is quite intentional, and quite significant. Provan puts forward a view that many will find surprising. He does not think the biblical authors had any intention of attributing all pain and suffering, particularly so-called natural evil including earthquakes, windstorms, accidents or disease, to the fall of the man and woman.  The proposed absence of these in the initial good creation of Genesis 1 and 2 is an ideal that we read into the text, not one that is derived from the text. So-called “natural” evil then is not the result of God’s upheaval and curse of all creation, with fangs, stings, cancer, earthquakes, and tsunamis just punishment for the sin of a man and woman in a garden. Rather this “natural” evil is simply part of God’s good creation.  Some level of toil and suffering is intrinsic to  the world God made. The biblical authors did not see natural phenomena as troublesome, however much they might concern us. Genesis 3 is not intended to address the problem of natural suffering.

Death is an enemy to mankind, but Provan notes, in common with many other Christian scholars, that death is not foreign to the earthling in 2:17. God does not have to explain the concept, the earthling knows already.  Immortality is a potential state, a divine gift from God, not the natural state of the original humans in Genesis. The presence of the tree of life, and the need to exile the humans from the garden to keep them from the tree, makes this clear.  Genesis 3 is not intended to explain the presence of death or human mortality, although it does shed light on the absence of God-granted immortality.

What then is the question addressed in Genesis 3?

320px-Cerastes_gasperetti_(horned)The Entry and Embrace of Evil. Provan suggests that it is the increase in suffering that comes from the embrace of evil by God’s creatures. The best way to lay out Provan’s argument is to let him speak for himself. The embrace of evil starts with a nonhuman creature.

Genesis 3 opens by facing this reality directly: evil has, indeed, entered the world. It introduces us immediately and surprisingly to a creature of God who is apparently not under God’s sovereign control nor under human dominion but who has apparently already “gone bad.” (p. 109)

The serpent is associated with chaos and darkness in the ancient Near East, but Genesis makes it clear that this snake is merely one of God’s creatures. It carries no divinity or near divinity of its own.

The authors of Genesis, then, are clearly alluding to an image that has deep roots in their cultural setting in the ancient Near East. The Genesis serpent is clearly not a god—that is explicit. Nevertheless, he does seem to represent dark, personal, but nonhuman forces that Genesis 1–2 has not led us to expect can exist in cosmos that is “good.” … For the authors of Genesis, then, the existence of evil in the cosmos is to be attributed to the misuse of something that is intrinsic to the cosmos: the moral freedom of some of its creatures. (p. 110)

The humans in turn exercise their moral freedom, at the snake’s suggestion, to turn from God.  Provan sees the knowledge of good and evil as associated with the idea of adult independence from a parent.  “It is the wisdom that might enable a person to make his or her own judgments—autonomously.” (p. 113)  While it is good for human children to grow up, it is not good when humans seek after independence from God.

They want this other kind of wisdom too, and they are prepared to disobey God to get it. In doing so, they reveal that they have essentially decided no longer to be image bearers at all. They want to be gods, in the fullest sense, rather than representing and mediating God to creation. They want the autonomy that wisdom brings.

… Wisdom itself is not problematic—but grasping after wisdom out of a desire to be like God certainly is. (p. 114)

Continue reading

Posted in Genesis, Humanness, The Fall | Tagged

Bacon’s Bequest

Dealing With DarwinA number of weeks ago I introduced a new book by David N. Livingstone Dealing With Darwin. In this book Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at Queen’s University, Belfast, explores the importance of location and local context on the way Darwinian evolution was received, embraced, or rejected. His chapter on the reaction to Darwin in Canada, specifically among Presbyterians primarily in Toronto, looks in particular at the role a pragmatic Baconian view of science played. The overall reaction was mixed, with some making peace with Darwin and others reacting against his theories – but both approaches reflected this pragmatism and empiricism. Science is primarily, so the reasoning goes, an inductive process of collecting facts and using these facts, not a fanciful theory driven endeavor. Darwin’s theory of evolution departed from this path. Speculative hypothesizing isn’t real science.

John William Dawson – a geologist and a Presbyterian born in Canada, educated in Edinburgh, and settled at McGill in Montreal was explicit, and decidedly negative about Darwin. His complaints were grounded in scientific method, philosophy, and anthropology. First, he considered Darwin’s methodology to be bad – “one that sacrificed the “careful induction” of hard facts to “wild and fanciful” speculation” (p. 92)

Darwin had violated the sound principles of Baconian induction and had too whole-heartedly joined forces with that breed of scientific “adventurers” who, like mythical suicidal lemmings, rushed headlong “into an unknown and fathomless abyss.” (p. 93)

On the philosophical side he found the idea that natural selection, struggle, toil, and survival of the fittest were responsible for the diversity of life appalling. “Nature was not so cruel, so ruthless, so tyrannical; beauty and harmony, not pitiless brutality were her distinguishing hallmarks.” (p. 92) As a geologist Dawson was comfortable with the idea of an ancient earth – he read the days of Genesis 1 as ages or epochs of creation. He was also comfortable with some limited transformation – what today might be called microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. But he was adamantly opposed to the absence of purpose in Darwin’s theory, “he insisted that nature should be read teleologically” and “that evolution was unacceptable because “it removes from the study of nature the ideas of final cause and purpose.”” (p. 96)

Continue reading

Posted in Evolution, Problems for Faith | Tagged

Who Are Man and Woman?

Lucas Cranach the Elder Garden of EdenThe next chapter of Iain Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion looks at the nature of humanity in the Old Testament and particularly at the relationship of male and female comprising humanity. His focus is on Genesis 1-2, but expands to consider the entire OT as well. Genesis 1 and 2 are concerned with proper functions and relationships in God’s good creation, not with a scientific, historical report of the sequence of creation. The different orders of creation present in Genesis 1 and 2 provide a first clue to this purpose of the texts , but there are others as well. Central to this is the proper role and function of human kind in God’s creation.

The first important point is that the biblical view of humanity stands in stark contrast to the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. The Mesopotamian cultures portrayed humanity as created to work for the gods, as slave labor to provide their needs and free them from drudgery. We dug into a lot of this in the recent series on Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image, particularly the post Humans Created to Serve the gods?, so I won’t repeat it here.

The Necessary Gardener. In contrast to the ancient Mesopotamian view, humans represent the high point of creation in the OT view.

One of the ways in which Genesis indicates this is precisely to move them out of the role of being caretakers of the divine image in a temple and into the role of being divine images in a temple themselves. (p. 80)

Clearly this starts in Genesis 1 and 2, but Psalm 8 may summarize the biblical view the best.

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

Provan sees the divine image as a property of humanity as a whole – all human beings together are called to rule creation. This is a democratized and community based function. This is reflected in Psalm 8 where the psalmist “recognizes the extraordinary nature of the situation, and he praises God for it, for each and every has been raised to the status of divinity and royalty from the status of only a slave.” (p. 84)

Continue reading

Posted in Genesis, Humanness, Image of God | Tagged

Is Grace Vanishing?

YanceyPhilip Yancey has a new book coming out Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?. This book tackles a topic that is down to earth real in my world and makes an interesting complement to Tuesday’s post Coming Soon … “The Talk”?. In his NY Times opinion piece David Barash argues that science has undermined any rational basis for faith in God and describes a no nonsense approach that makes this clear to his students. He can get away with this because his view is no longer an uncommon sentiment in our western world. Many (most?) of his peers, while not so abrupt, will agree with his conclusion. In Western societies many go a step further and see Christian faith as a net negative in society. Frankly, Christian faith is losing traction in society. It has lost traction in Europe and Canada where far fewer than half find religion a positive influence. And it will likely continue to lose traction in the US.

This is a situation we should worry about. We don’t need hand-wringing and a persecution complex. We do need to explore the reasons for the current state of affairs and then appropriate responses. This is where Yancey’s book digs in. From the Amazon synopsis:

Yancey explores what may have contributed to hostility toward Evangelicals, especially in their mixing of faith and politics instead of embracing more grace-filled ways of presenting the gospel. He offers illuminating stories of how faith can be expressed in ways that disarm even the most cynical critics. Then he explores what is Good News and what is worth preserving in a culture that thinks it has rejected Christian faith.

Continue reading

Posted in Conversation, Evangelicalism, Problems for Faith | Tagged