Complex Faith: Thoughts on the Survival of Mainline Christianity in a Post-Christendom World

My parish church in Tübingen, Germany, where I went to Uni-Tübingen (2004-2005)

Much has been made recently about whether the so called “mainline” (I prefer the term historic) denominations of Christianity will survive long into the future, or whether they will simply dissolve into the mists of history. The simple fact of the matter is that we, at least in the Western world, are living in a post-Christendom time. That is, Christian institutions’ power is waning (although in the United States this may not appear to be the case, but more on that in a moment). So, how can the long lived historic traditions of the faith survive in the midst of indications that these traditions cannot?

Christianity is perhaps the only religion where its older strains are perhaps among the weakest ones. Catholicism, despite its worldwide reach, is quickly losing its power to fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches in the developing world. Orthodoxy is nowadays essentially relegated to specific ethnic communities and a few angry mainliners unhappy with their previous denominations having done any manner of things from allowing women clergy to accepting openly gay and lesbian people into their congregations. The traditions of Christianity that seem to be gaining sway are the fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal traditions, which, in the grand scheme of the religious history of the world, are infants as compared to the traditions of Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and even Methodism.

When we compare this to other religious traditions, we find a case of opposites. In the case of Buddhism, both the ancient Theravadin tradition (which focuses on what could be considered Siddhartha’s original teachings) and the less-ancient Mahayana tradition (which focuses on the Prajñaparamita literature of the first century CE) are still flourishing and continue to foster deep new roots in Western culture. In Islam, outside of the Salafist / fundamentalist philosophical variant, still clings to the religious traditions of the 5th and 6th Century. Of more recent import, Sikhism has largely remained unchanged since the times of Guru Gobind Singh in the late 17th century. So, why then, in comparison to these other religions’ mainline, is Christianity’s mainline in decline and how can they avoid this decline? I would like to share some ideas.

Offering a Rich Spiritual Practice

From my perspective of the world’s religions (having experienced most of them), one thing that I see missing in Christianity from other traditions is a spiritual practice. Upon entering the practice of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and even Judaism, one is confronted with a spiritual practice or exercise. Buddhists meditate, Hindus might say prayers and perform a puja to a deity, Muslims begin the practice of Salat, and so on. Whereas in Christianity, I see that there is an absence here. What is Christian prayer? What is the spiritual practice of the Christian church? As Christian churches in a Western society, the assumption is often made that people know how to pray, or how to practice spiritually.

In this respect, I see a vast underselling of the rich liturgical traditions of the church. In the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches, there is the magnificent tradition of the Daily Office, which exists in simpler forms in the Lutheran and Presbyterian tradition. These rites of daily prayer compare quite closely in routine to the practice I do in the morning and evening using Buddhist texts. This type of daily practice helps build a routine, and a structure around which to develop a deeper spiritual practice, and it is something that is perhaps undersold, and whose power is underestimated.

It is said that Thomas Cranmer’s vision in writing the first Anglican prayerbook of 1549, that everyone in England would be able to pray Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer) and in so doing recite the Psalms, hear readings from the Bible, and pray. Perhaps there is something to Thomas Cranmer’s vision that the modern mainline Church could use to its advantage. Modern Christianity has become too dependent on the clergy led Sunday service for its spiritual practice. The Mass, or the Sunday Service is a gathering place for the people for mutual support and a gathering to experience the ritual meal of the Eucharist that is so central to the Christian experience, but I don’t think it is meant to replace the heart of any true spiritual practice, that is an individual’s practice at home. As Jesus said “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6, ESV)

Whether one is pursuing a path that is mystical or not, the “secret” work that one performs in the privacy of one’s room or meditation place, is the very work that will bring forth the most fruit in spiritual development, and it is this very spiritual development that people seek. What Christians, I think, forget or overlook in the theology of grace, is, that although God gives grace, we are often not aware of it. Indeed, part of the Christian’s journey towards spiritual fulfillment is the practice of the recognition of the immanent presence of that grace, and the ability to draw upon that grace in any moment. To say that one must perform spiritual work as part of the Christian path is not contrary to the teachings of salvation through grace alone. Rather, it is one of the many dimensions to James’ often cryptic teaching: “So faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17, ESV)

Indeed, one of the functions of institutional religion throughout history was to teach spiritual practice to its followers. From the ancient pagan religions to the very modern religions of today, spiritual practice is the foundation from which all other religious activities come out. This is not an issue of compromising Christian theology or doctrine for the sake of a novel spiritual practice. Instead, the Church must rediscover, or at least share its spiritual practice with the faithful and show people how they can encounter the divine for themselves. If mainline denominations fail to be places where the Christian faithful can seek out genuine, authentic instructions in the spiritual practice of Christianity, then they will simply go elsewhere.

Offering a Complex Faith

“The answer is Jesus”, or so I heard during a sermon I heard recently. This sermon was actually a moment of epiphany for me. In the sermon, the pastor said that if we ever have any doubts or problems, we just remember that Jesus is the only answer and that only through Jesus can we ever be truly whole. I, being a UU-Buddha-palian, have a whole different take on this than most people, but, for the sake of this particular musing, I will take it at face value. My critique of this is its “all too simple to be true” type of feel. A question immediately comes to mind: If Jesus is the answer, how is Jesus the answer? How do I access Jesus? How do I draw the living water and the bread of life that Jesus offers to me?

No faith and no spiritual path is as easy as it seems. It is indeed a radical act, in our materialistic society, to say that one’s happiness is found in Jesus, the Present Moment, or any “other-worldly” type of experience or figure. But, to say that only through Jesus can we find happiness, ok … I’m waiting for more. Churches need to do a better job of offering a faith where adversity is not met with a pat, easy answer, but rather a compassionate, authentic method by which a person can process the situation they are in and find happiness, if not at least momentary calm or peace of mind. For example, in the Buddhist tradition, when we face sadness, we are invited to look deeply at it. We are invited to see where its roots are and in that process of reflection find out where we made a mistake in thought or interpretation.

Also, while, I know that Christianity is a creedal and doctrinal faith, it is by no means a simple faith, and by no means should it be. Instead, it is a faith that must be encountered again and again by those who practice it, and it should be a source of lifelong reflection. To offer a false security through fundamentalism is by no means compassionate, it is only manipulative and selfish. In faith, there are always questions and the recognition that sometimes, there may not be answers to those questions. A complex faith, taught with a healthy dose of wisdom and practicality, does not leave a practitioner or believer in an insecure, doubtful state. Rather, it presents them with the very tools they need to live their lives and take full advantage of the spiritual path and tradition that they have chosen.

A complex faith does not mean that its members are all intellectuals, or have vast amounts of knowledge about rituals, etc. It is, instead, a faith where its members grow in wisdom and spiritual maturity, and where such growth is not only allowed, but is carefully fostered. Clergy are good at being administrators, public speakers, and ritual performers, but they also need to focus on being spiritual teachers to their charges. People want teaching, they want spiritual depth to their practice of religion. If religion becomes nothing more than watching a ritual performance and hearing a nice public speech one day a week, why would one stay?

In Closing

This has been a bit of a long exploration, but an important piece of reflection for myself, and I hope for my Christian friends, it is something they can ponder. I know that mainline Christianity has within it a rich, beautiful tradition of spirituality that can answer the needs of modern people both now and well into the future. I also take this moment to express my gratitude to the people and clergy of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, who have taught me, and continue to teach me that Christianity is not always as simple as I or others think it is, and for their accepting and welcoming attitude towards all people, wherever they are on their journeys.

Peace,

Ian

  1. Great post, Ian! I think you would have loved the clergy summit today, “Preaching as Spiritual Direction,” that Mark Sutherland and Gil Stafford put on today. The speaker, Kay Northcutt hit on your themes. Thank you, my thoughtful friend.

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