Sunday, May 08, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 5-7

Since the next three paragraphs pretty much elaborate on the same theme, and the quotes, combined with my own commentary would make this blog entry impossibly long, I'm just going to quote a short bit of it, and refer the reader to the entire document.

As the twentieth century approached its close, therefore, nothing seemed less likely than a sudden resurgence of religion as a subject of consuming global importance. Yet that is precisely what has now occurred in the form of a groundswell of anxiety and discontent, much of it still only dimly conscious of the sense of spiritual emptiness that is producing it. . . . Perhaps the most insistent factor in producing the change is reluctant recognition that there is no credible replacement for religious belief as a force capable of generating self-discipline and restoring commitment to moral behaviour. . . .

The reawakened interest in religion is clearly far from having reached its peak, in either its explicitly religious or its less definable spiritual manifestations. On the contrary. The phenomenon is the product of historical forces that steadily gather momentum. Their common effect is to erode the certainty, bequeathed to the world by the twentieth century, that material existence represents ultimate reality.

As I said before, the idea that religious faith somehow disappeared from view during the 20th century, then suddenly has sprung to life again is simply ahistorical, with the sole exception of the former Communist countries where religious expression was either strictly regulated or banned outright. But Americans have always been religious; in fact, church membership was much higher in the 20th century than in the 18th. From the modernist vs. fundamentalist debates of the early 1900s to the Culture Wars of our own generation, from New Thought to New Age, religion has been alive and well all along -- if what they are talking about is the interest and need of human beings to find some kind of sense and meaning to their lives. Should I name all the religious movements that have emerged since 1900? The very term "New Religious Movement", by definition, means a religious group founded since 1945, and they are numerous enough to be considered a whole specialty among academics that study religion. Of course, if the need for spiritual meaning and experience in our lives is a fundamental part of being human -- and I certainly think it is -- then I would not expect it to disappear during any historical period, but for specific outlooks and beliefs to change.

One of the things that has created the illusion that this search is somehow "new" is that over this century, there have been new tools which enable spiritual seekers to explore a vast array of alternatives that simply weren't accessible before. We've gone from an era of books, to broadcast media, then video and audio tapes, to the Internet, where information about any subject is cheaper than water, and an increasing portion of the population is educated enough to explore their religious options. One is no longer limited to joining a local religious congregation; one can find like-minded thinkers in cyberspace, or one can just live one's spiritual life without any formal affiliattion, as the book *Generations*characterized the Baby Boomers: "They built churches inside their own heads."

Of course, as the House implies, this spiritual seeking has not been all to the good: The twentieth century also saw the rise of fundamentalism -- a phenomenon named, at least for Christianity, at the beginning of the century, not its end, and which was growing throughout it. The big change that has occurred in the last 30 years or so is that fundamentalism has grown more respectable and middle class, while mainstream churches have been in decline. My grandmother has been a bit bemused that a religious outlook that was largely confined to the poor and ignorant when she was young, has suddenly emerged to become a political force to be reckoned with, while her friends complain that their churches have been drained of young people. I would argue that this is not a sign of becoming more religious or spiritual, but the growth of a defensive intolerance. It is not, as I mentioned in an earlier entry , an indication of signifantly improved moral behavior, either.

1 comment:

The Egg said...

I find it amusing that they seem to be regarding the rise in intolerant, right-wing Christian fundamentalism as an encouraging trend in religious revivalism.