There is no longer any doubt that the world – the whole world – is undergoing the most far-reaching religious reformation in at least 500 years. It is too late to arrest the eradication of the way things have been and too soon to predict the way they will be.
First, Christianity, beginning with Euro-American Christianity:
The goal was to civilize the world either by converting masses of people to join the Christian empire, or to impose empire and infuse it with Christianity in due time. This project collapsed in 1920-1970. Empires disintegrated starting with Euro-American ones. (What is being called empires now are fundamentally different in dynamics and structure). Institutional Christianity is dwindling, but there remain robust centers of renewal. These centers are twisting and emerging as protests against the shells and cocoons that encased them, and have barely begun to develop beyond incitement to concern.
There is a trend at this time toward refocusing on God beyond our imagination.
“If we could see others through God’s eyes, their beauty would take our breath away,” one meme says (attributed to Susan Cottrell, FreedHands.org). A Church of Scotland posting prays, “Let us live wholly to our Savior, free from distractions, from being hindered by the pursuit of what does not matter.” “Scripture became my … compass – its authors … directing me to pursue the Person," say Bradley Jersak and Peter Enns in A More Christlike Word. “At its heart, the Christian spiritual life is the process of allowing [the] image of God to emerge from ourselves.” Even more to the point is Kallistros Ware, “God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
These are protests. They are phrased as injunctions, but they are fundamentally arguments against trying to contain God either within institutional structures or human concepts. They are extensions of JB Phillips’ “Your God Is Too Small” from the 1950s. Meanwhile, as sociologists are documenting, the oncoming generation is unwilling to support the monumental architecture and cultural imperialism of the past 10 generations. They, in their multitudes, do not actually care what happens to the churches on the town squares or the cathedrals in the cities. Governments will rescue the most important ones that cannot be done without lest the identity of the nation be blurred. So, a remnant is retreating back to a starting point that does without empire, hierarchy, or heritage. The search is on for a core of insight that is alive and potent.
So, what of Christianity outside the Euro-American cultural sphere?
Overwhelmingly, Christianity is still flourishing or at least carrying-on unperturbed. Many of the institutional churches ignore what is going on to disturb older churches in the north and west. Others, concerned about pernicious influence, are erecting defenses and pulling down bridges. If history is a dependable teacher, this will not succeed. Something is going on that is much more extensive than these conservators are taking into account.
As I see it, the miasma of Postmodernism (or the concept of “me and mine”) is coming to its peak and will now begin to destroy the vessels that contain it. Human beings are the first animals in Earth’s history to be motivated by concepts, that is by structures of thought that have the power to override responses to sensual stimuli. Our “needs” have expanded exponentially and irrationally. They no longer make sense. They are disconnected not only from reality but from nature. These “needs” put “keeping things” ahead of environmental destruction, nation-building over peace, winning above being kind or even being good, and us over them. These are destructive impulses. Destruction is the inevitable result. Any one of them has the power to destroy us all, and we have embraced the lot. This is universal among the dominant cultures of our time.
What, then, of Eastern religions?
Within all of them, the same dynamics can be seen. They are either being undermined of their influence, or they are about to be. The destructive forces are not the same as in the north and west. In China, the bastion of 3 millennia of religious development, a recent report says a full 90% of the people are espoused atheists. India, the undisputed cradle of religion, secularism is on the rise, and religion is being usurped to support supremacism; this never fails to replace religious attention on universal unity with grungy elitism and rebellion. Afghanistan has resisted intrusion (stoutly and sometimes successfully), but religious issues are dangerous there when they suppress human growth and development. Saudi Arabia aspires to be the defender of Islam, while at the same time being the advocate for some of Islam’s most self-destructive practices, and this never works for long. Israel has embarked on a path to nation-building that is at the expense of the very values Judaism has treasured. In brief, Oriental religions are as impotent as Euro-American ones, as they are espoused during this time of de-structuralist post-modernism.
But there is a protest movement. In its hands are the prospects for surviving the coming cultural cataclysm.
To be going forward, what optimists can hope for is a paradoxical emergence of an understanding that the concept that matters is of a Divine Essence which is so far beyond the unimaginable that it comes out the other side. It cannot be imagined at all. Nothing that is conceivable is true or applicable to the Utterly Divine. Our only experience of it is as an astounding wonder. No smaller god can be God. Still, (and this is the paradox) we are not stupefied by this experience, we are impelled by it. We are propelled by it back into hopeful action, action that is only conceivable if it includes everybody within reach. Every. Body. Heart, Soul and Energy.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.