Two descriptions of the condition of institutional religion in the USA came this week. They describe conditions separated by more than a century. I am in love with the expressive excellence of both descriptions so I cannot resist providing them at length.
John Steinbeck portrays the establishment of Christian churches at the time settlements were being made. He calls all the churches sects. I’d prefer he called them denominations, but both terms are only partly accurate. Steinbeck tries to be realistic with his faint praise barely avoiding damnation:
The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. They fought at the turn of a doctrine. Each happily believed all the others were bound for hell in a basket. And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built. It took a smart man to know where the difference lay between the sects, but anyone could see what they had in common. And they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt. And any man could make something pretty fine of it within himself. …The honest preachers had energy and go. They fought the devil, no hold barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable. The sects did more than this, though. They built the structure of social life. (p. 257- 258)
The second quote was elicited as part of the build-up to a documentary coming soon, Martin Doblmeier's new film, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story. Heschel wrote:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
Both Steinbeck and Heschel were writing almost at the same time, but Steinbeck captures a time-bound past before churches reached their peak of splendor. Herschel wrote sagely about religion in America in a way that has remained soberingly relevant, especially this week when we saw a report that American people’s membership in religious organizations has dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of keeping records.
The sects, “built the structure of social life” as towns sprang up, Steinbeck says. The churches were social centers and models for social order. They were relevant despite their inadequacies and underdevelopment.
Then the religious “sects” developed and built, and did so gloriously, long past the time when splendor and vast buildings were actually needed. Herschel brooded, “when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past … its message becomes meaningless.”
That is where we are as religious people in the USA and many, many other countries. When institutions become irrelevant they become meaningless. Their message becomes meaningless as it is disconnected from their actions. Their actions are irrelevant when they no longer respond to what’s going on with a vivid vision of the future and build a path to realize it. When there is nothing to care about, people stop caring.
[References: John Steinbeck, East of Eden. 1952. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. 1955.]
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.