"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, February 04, 2008

The world's (comedy) mission to the church

Once upon a time, it was fun to skewer liberal Christianity. In the 1930's, Reinhold Niebuhr famously observed that liberal Protestantism preached "a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." More recently, in one of my favorite lines, somebody whose name I cannot track down said that liberal Christians (among whom we should count Catholic progs) would rather be the world's missionaries to the Church than the Church's missionaries to the world. Witticisms like that were once widely understood, even appreciated, by those with a bit of perspective. They can and should be appreciated by people with a concern for objective truth about matters of universal human concern. You can still find people like that in the interstices of ordinary life as well as in conservative religious settings. A few even read this blog. But that's a blessed minority—even and especially in secular academia. The spiritual devolution of our society has proceeded so far that your typical student, even your typical professor, wouldn't get such witticisms. They're too far gone to appreciate the irony; instead, they provide the comedy themselves. The fun now is to watch them skewer themselves unwittingly. My purpose in this post is to explain both the fact and its importance.

In an "Opinion" column that appeared in last weekend's USA Today, Stephen Prothero, chairman of Boston University's religion department, worries that "religion", meaning traditional religion, "is losing the Millennial Generation." Why? Read on (I've added the boldface emphasis):

For the past two years, I have asked students in my introductory religion courses at Boston University to get together in groups and invent their own religions. They present their religious creations to their classmates, and then everyone votes (with fake money in a makeshift offering plate) for the new religions they like best. This assignment encourages students to reflect on what separates "winners" and "losers" in America's freewheeling spiritual marketplace. It also yields intriguing data regarding what sort of religious beliefs and practices young people love and hate.

The new religious concoctions my students stir up might seem to mirror the diversity of American religion itself. Students tantalize one another with a religion (Dessertism) that preaches the stomach as the way to the soul, another (The Congregation of Wisdom) that honors Jeopardy! phenom Ken Jennings as its patron saint, and yet another (Exetazo) dedicated to sorting out the pluses and minuses of all the other religions so you can find a faith tailored to your own unique personality.

What strikes me most about my students' religions, however, is how similar they are. Almost invariably, they mix fun with faith. (Facebookismianity anyone?) But they do not mix faith with dogma. My students are careful — exceedingly careful — not to tell one another what to believe, or even what to do. Above all, they want to be tolerant and non-judgmental. Most of the religions my students developed were fully compatible with other religions.

They made few demands, either intellectually or morally. Repeatedly, their founders stress that you can join their religion without leaving Catholicism or Judaism or Islam behind.

I doubt that the results of such a classroom assignment would surprise anybody. If they do surprise, they shouldn't. Yet they're worth noting: one might well say that such students are skewering themselves, all the more because they wouldn't recognize the fact. Admittedly, and even granted that they are, their attitude presents traditional religions with a problem. But the surprising thing is that Prothero, a man of the sort from whom one might expect at least a tad of spiritual gravitas, actually thinks the problem is with traditional religions rather than the students.

He makes quite clear his belief that traditional religions are endangering themselves by failing to accommodate such flaccid, frivolous relativism. Thus, if they don't want to lose the Millennial Generation (portentous-sounding, that), their approach had better be more to the tastes of said generation. Now for one thing, such an attitude betrays the sort of blindness that entails a complete loss of the sense of irony. Prothero, of all people, ought to know that the religions which are growing today are precisely those which make the greatest demands on the credence and practice of their adherents. Protestant denominations on the conservative side of the spectrum—especially the more conservative pentecostal churches—are growing at the expense of the mainstream denominations, which latter are precisely those which have made the greatest accommodations to contemporary, secular values. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy gain more and more adult converts each year, and many of those converts are from liberal Protestant denominations. Orthodox Judaism waxes while more liberal strains of Judaism wane. The Mormon Church, with all its dogmas and "family values," is the fastest-growing church in America. And then there's the growing, global influence of the most traditional strains of Islam. Such facts simply cannot escape the knowledge of any professor of religious studies in a secular institution. But somehow Prothero sees fit to ignore them, at least for purposes of his little propaganda piece. Instead, he implies that the more "traditional" religions, if they want to survive and thrive, had better become more "tolerant" and inclusive. In other words, if they want to reach the young they had better become more like the Episcopal and Unitarian churches, which have been losing members for a long time now. Right.

It gets worse. Prothero not only knows, but clearly evinces that he knows, what the real problem is. He begins his article by citing, if not altogether appreciating, the Niebuhrian witticism with which I began this post. Later on, he quotes a student thus:

One of my students, Carrie-Anne Solana, told me that the religions her colleagues presented in class amounted to nothing more than "organized atheism." "They took normal human impulses," such as eating, drinking, sleeping, having sex and socializing, she said, "and justified them under the title of religion while not offering any form of explanation into why we are here, where we came from or where we go when we die."

Of course Carrie-Anne has it exactly right. She recognizes the basic frivolity and irreligiousness of what her fellow students were proposing. One might think that the task of leaders in more traditional religions would accordingly be to help students get more serious about the basic questions of life and actually "get religion" in response to such concern. But here's Prothero's reaction:

Even so, I can't help but think that priests, rabbis, imams and ministers would do well to engage in interfaith dialogue not only with one another but also with this "spiritual but not religious" generation. One of the biggest challenges to any ancient faith is to adapt to modern circumstances and then, as circumstances change, to adapt again. American religious institutions are, as a rule, doing a poor job of listening to and learning from this millennial generation. Far too often, religious services in the USA are of the adults, by the adults and for the adults. And don't think young people aren't noticing.

Perhaps Prothero hasn't taken note of what happens in megachurch services using praise bands or, for that matter, in your typical Catholic "youth Mass." (If he did take note of such services, he might not be so hard on the "adult" stuff.) But once again, I'm sure he knows all about such facts. He just prefers to ignore what he knows in favor of what he wants—or says he wants.

The disconnect here between reality and prescription is so great as to afford grist for the mill of those of us given to cynical, ironic humor. Like his students, Prothero is skewering himself so effectively that all the comedian needs to do, at least for those close to Prothero's level of education, is present the facts. Which is just as well, since no comedian's talent can come up with as good a parody as that which Prothero and his students unwittingly provide all by themselves. A consequent irony is that the world's missionaries to the church, such as Prothero, end up preaching only to their own choir, thus undermining what they profess to be their main purpose. Worldliness in the guise of spirituality makes otherwise intelligent people stupid. And that should be a great source of comfort for those who keep the flame of genuine divine revelation alive.
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