Jun
2015

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Walking the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wendy and I saw this wonderful pub.  Its name has no apocalyptic significance: as its website states,

Back in the 16th century Edinburgh was a walled city. The gates to the city were situated outside the pub, and the brass cobbles in the road represent their exact location. As far as the people of Edinburgh were concerned, the world outside these gates was no longer theirs: hence the name, The World’s End.

By now, surely everyone has seen or heard about the Pew Research Center study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which also signals the end of a world, if not of the world.  The results of this nationwide survey confirm trends identified by earlier studies, and are neatly summarized in this graph:

In the wake of this study, some have been swift to place the blame on the liberal theology and lenient morality of the “mainline” Christian denominations.  For example, an article in Christianity Today headlined, “Pew: Evangelicals Stay Strong as Christianity Crumbles in America” bears the subtitle, “Amid changing US religious landscape, Christians ‘decline sharply’ as unaffiliated rise. But born-again believers aren’t to blame.”  Similarly, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in response to the Pew study:

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

Digging more deeply into the results of the Pew study does not confirm this view.  Evangelical churches are not in fact growing: they too have declined, by about 1% overall as a share of the U.S. population.

As Jonathan Merritt, in an article for Religious Studies News, observes:

Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment. Roman Catholics are declining at roughly the same rate as mainline Protestant denominations. The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC [Southern Baptist Church], is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.

These numbers tell us that America’s religious landscape is more complex than some evangelicals once believed. Conservatism does not necessarily lead to growth, it seems, and liberalism does not necessarily lead to decline.  The waters of change that once overwhelmed mainliners are now lapping at the toes of evangelicalism.

I believe that the best response to the Pew report that I have seen came from my old friend and brother in United Methodist ministry, Michael McKay.  In a Facebook post, Mike wrote:

So, the Pew report is out and its pointing out that non-affiliated folks now outnumber Catholics and Mainline Protestants has everyone’s shorts in a knot.

I will confess it has had me feeling pretty bad when I reflect that I am a part of a generation of clergy that has lead the church into this decline. The drumbeat of decrease and calls to fix it are never ending.

But then I think of Casey Stengal addressing his 1962 Mets at the end of the worst season of baseball ever played (42-120). He said to his players, “Don’t feel bad boys, no one person could have done all this.”

God sometimes speaks from the most unlikely places…

So what might a Casey Stengel have to say to the American church today? If we want to assign blame in the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, there is plenty to go around! But it is much more fruitful to ask, how can we be faithful in this contemporary context?

Perhaps the best conclusion to draw from these disturbing statistics is that we are indeed seeing the end: not of the world, or of the church, but of an illusion called “Christendom.”

It is an old illusion, one that has been clinging to the church since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), when the Christian religion not only became legal but also took on the trappings of official power.  Certainly here in American, we Christians had come to think that we belong with the popular and powerful, rather than the shunned and the powerless. We had come to believe that we ought to be able to dictate our values to the world, rather than demonstrating our values through lives of engagement and service. We had forgotten that we serve a crucified Lord, whose only crown was a crown of thorns.  Perhaps now that “Christendom” lies dead or dying, we can be the Church again, and seek the kingdom of God.

But the end, even of an illusion, is never easy!  In the Book of the Twelve, Habakkuk speaks to the doubt, fear and anxiety prompted by the end of his world, with the rise of Babylonian imperial power.  In anguish, the prophet cries out:

LORD, aren’t you ancient, my God, my holy one?    Don’t let us die.
LORD, you put the Chaldean here for judgment.
        Rock, you established him as a rebuke.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
        you are unable to look at disaster.
Why would you look at the treacherous
        or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous? (Hab 1:12-13).

Yet God’s answer to the prophet is stark and bleak:

There is still a vision for the appointed time;
            it testifies to the end;
                it does not deceive.
    If it delays, wait for it;
        for it is surely coming; it will not be late (Hab 2:3).

The stark honesty of Habakkuk’s struggle with doubt and uncertainty in the face of that message may take us aback. Indeed, one ancient Christian interpreter of this prophet, Theodoret of Cyrus, insists that the prophet never really doubted God, but merely “adopted the attitude” of the doubter, “putting the question as though anxious in his own case to learn the reason for what happens” (Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, ed. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 191).  Since Habakkuk’s book is an oracle (see Hab 1:1) delivered “under the influence of the Spirit,” the apparent anguish of the prophet’s cry (“LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen?,” Hab 1:2) cannot be real: “it is obvious that, instead of suffering that fate personally, he is exposing the plight of those so disposed and applying the remedy” (Commentary, 192).

But surely  this defense is unnecessary.  People of God in all times and places have known that faith and doubt are not opposites: indeed, deep faith and profound doubt can occupy the same heart.

May 24 was not only Pentecost, but also Aldersgate Day, when Methodists the world over recall and celebrate John Wesley’s vaunted Aldersgate experience, when his heart was “strangely warmed” and he knew the assurance that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C.  Outler, Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 66).

Years after that profound spiritual experience, John Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles,

[I do not love God. I never did]. Therefore [I never] believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore [I am only an] honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple” (Wesley, 81; the words in brackets were written in Wesley’s private shorthand).

Yet in that very same letter, Wesley affirms, “I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it,” and urges his brother, “O insist everywhere on full redemption, receivable by faith alone; consequently, to be looked for now” (Wesley, 82).

Looking at our present circumstance through the lens of Habakkuk and Wesley, perhaps we too can at once both acknowledge our fears and doubts, and also seek and celebrate God’s presence in spite of those fears and doubts.  Certainly Habakkuk knew that we need to see God in the midst of doubt, struggle, loss, and pain, and affirmed God’s presence even there – indeed, especially there (something we Christians, who affirm God’s presence and power in the cross of Christ, should recognize).  Therefore the prophet did not simply succumb to despair. His book ends with this bold assertion:

Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
            and there’s no produce on the vine;
        though the olive crop withers,
            and the fields don’t provide food;
        though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
            and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
        I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance (Hab 3:17-18).

We cannot choose our circumstances.  But we can choose how we will respond to them.  The end of a world, particularly an illusory one, need not be the end of our world.  In the immortal words of R.E.M., “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!”

AFTERWORD:

This is the last of an intermittent series (beginning with this post from last October) on the twelve prophets whose books come at the end of the Christian Old Testament.  If you have ideas for a new series, or a question or issue you would like to see pursued by the Bible Guy, let me know!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *