Newsweek: The Decline and Fall of Christian America

I read the above named article last night and found it very interesting. I can’t say that I am afraid of that to which the article points, but rather feel a part of that shift in our cultural perspective. I found many points in the article interesting, on which I plan to blog further, but for now I would like to focus on one comment from the article. This comment comes from Albert Mohler Jr., who is somewhat of the test case for the religious perspective in the article…he is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up as a member of that denomination and originally was ordained through that home church. His comment was in reference to what he calls the advent of “post-Christian” culture. There were recent surveys that demonstrated a doubling of people claiming no religious affiliation of any sort and an increase of folks who see themselves as more broadly spiritual. This group troubles him greatly in that they are self-described as very spiritual but not “religious.”

The article defines as follows: “Religion…shall mean for us the feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine.” Now this definition was not a Quote of Mr. Mohler but of William James (author of “The Varieties of Religous Experience”).

Regarding this shift of opinion Mohler says, “The post-Christian narrative is radically different; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority…it is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.”

The above italicized and bolded portion of Mr. Mohler’s article is a point on which I would like to comment and question.   If God truly exists, is not he not our binding authority in a fundamental way, more so than the church in all its magisterial authority has ever really held.  So are we upset that no human source or human interpretation of holy writ holds sway and trump on existential experience of the “spiritual but non-religious” culture that seems to be emerging?  That doesn’t seem to be anything new…the difference is that those with dissenting perspectives are not executed for their “heresy” in our western society, as they used to be.  In reality, hasn’t the “binding authority” of church and religious structures always claimed more authority than it really had?  Has not spiritual experience always extended itself beyond the bounds of religion?  This is so precisely because such reality belongs in the realm of existence and cannot be objectified.  In the same way that a human life cannot be objectified even with the most exhaustive recording of events, spirituality cannot be contained in a theological system, there will always be events, feelings, doubt, belief, interpersonal experiences, supernatural experiences that exceed the objectification of doctrine, and subsequently exceeds the binding authority of religious thought.  

Now I understand Mr. Mohler’s concern from the vantage point that such a spiritual freedom cannot be controlled and contained; and if you truly believe that your sub-group of a particular religion has the whole and complete truth (in actuality has interpreted the world and Scripture truthfully), then to have culture decline to value that perspective would indeed be troubling.  To put it another way, I understand that to feel that you have the ability and place to speak definitively about faith and morality, only to discover that what you thought was a universal truth is, in actuality, a personally held truth, would undermine the framework through which you interpret the world.    

I for one am optimistic of the current spiritual and theological atmosphere  hoping that honest dialogue about our beliefs and the limitations of that knowing will continue to be possible and hopefully will produce an authentic tolerance  and even a genuine acceptance and appreciation for differing perspectives.  And while the diversity of opinion may limit our ability to speak definitively, it will not limit our ability to mutually speak of God in meaningful ways.

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