Religion in the New Millennium

Christian Evangelicalism is changing. The changes are happening slowly but will be substantial in the long term. Will Evangelicalism become more liturgical or postmodernist?

Moving to the top for the updates.

7/24/2010 UPDATE: A friend sent me a link to an excellent article by noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas titled, “America’s God is Dying”. This is both an historical and ideological analysis. Hauerwas writes, “America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the society Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. Put as directly as I can, I believe we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success.”

7/20/2010 UPDATE: I just came across this interesting bit on CNN Belief Blog in which “progressive” Evangelical leader Jim Wallis makes the claim that the Religious Right “is over” because they no longer attract the younger generation. According to the article’s author, Wallis believes that “a younger generation of evangelicals . . . care more about how their leaders live than what they say.”


A few years ago, I made a prediction to some close friends that Western Christian Evangelicalism had roughly about ten years left. This intentionally provocative statement did not mean that Christianity was over and would die off. I mainly meant that the way Christianity is practiced and understood will undergo a fairly radical change and will look very much different from my parents generation. My reasons were based on a number of factors. The impact of the new atheism (which was just emerging) would be sociologically devastating. I noticed that the generation that followed mine was eschewing doctrinal commitments and what is know as “exclusivism” and biblical literalism—tenets on which existing Evangelicalism was firmly grounded. The flattening of the world was making the world very small religiously and more young Christians would be introduced to other ways of believing not as an exception—many of my peers had been exposed to committed believers in other religions though “mission trips” and the like—but as the rule. The technologicalization of social constructs would reduce the impact of peer commitments to a given religious belief and allow divergent opinions to flow more freely and openly (it’s a lot easier to disagree in email or a text message than it is in person). I also saw the scandals in the Catholic church as having a negative impact on religion in the West in general. Finally, the sociological impact of evolutionary theory in academia was in full bloom and would marginalize the explanatory power of most religious arguments.

A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to this Christian Science Monitor article entitled “The coming evangelical collapse”. The author, Michael Spencer opens the article with the words, “We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.” His reasons differ from mine as he places the locus of the problem mainly on political and familial breakdowns. I view his reasons as symptoms and the problems themselves as deeper and more substantial. Nevertheless, he sees a problem and offers a picture of Western protestant religion in the post-post-Christian era. In his view, large, centralized churches will fade away and give rise to smaller, home-based churches. Charismatic and Pentecostal churches will replace doctrine-heavy, “Book-based” churches (I think he’s correct and for good reason which I note below). Evangelical political activism will give way to more of a discipling approach focused on local rather than national change. These are interesting predictions and its difficult to say exactly how things will evolve. The theological and philosophical impact that will provide the foundation for these changes also interests me.

At a faculty retreat a couple of years ago, I ran a discussion session that had the title, “What will the church look like in 10 years?” I had a number of members of the theology and philosophy department in my group. I started the discussion by claiming that I believed the church would be much more postmodernist and oriented towards more Pentecostal expressions. The theologians disagreed. They saw the church turning towards a renewed interest in orthodoxy and liturgy. Interestingly both appear to be true. Some of my own students (many who are studying to be philosophers) are abandoning evangelicalism and becoming committed Catholics (one even considered joining the priesthood). Another student, concerned about the decay of orthodoxy at the school, told me he found a solid place to land in a Pentecostal church. “If God is not acting in this world today in ways we can see and hear” he explained, “there is little reason to be a Christian.”

And there is good evidence to back up these anecdotes. In another article for The Christian Science Monitor, Josh Burek claims, “Christian faith: Calvinism is back”. The subtitle of his article reads, “In America's Christian faith, a surprising comeback of rock-ribbed Calvinism is challenging the Jesus-is-your-buddy gospel of modern evangelism.” While the evidence he cites is weak, he is seeing some interesting trending that I think has teeth. For example, a recent study by the Pew Research Center showed that while more “Millennials” (individuals born in 1981 or later) do not attend church or identify with a particular religious group than previous generations, “Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago.” These data are focused only on people in the United States but they do show some important trending that can be extrapolated to other Western nations with the assumption that the United States is much further behind in abandoning traditional views. See the report at: http://pewresearch.org/millennials/.

But in my view, the movement towards postmodernist and Pentecostal religion will be the dominant trend. This is because views about God and the role of religion both socially and personally are changing. While many metrics in the Pew study—like religious exclusivism, belief in specific doctrines like life after death and miracles, and belief in God remain fairly consistent with a generation ago, other aspects are shifting. Certainty is declining. The study notes that “ young adults are less convinced of God’s existence than their elders are today; 64% of young adults say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, compared with 73% of those ages 30 and older.” The personal importance of religion (I understand this as distinct from general spirituality) is declining. “Less than half of adults under age 30 say that religion is very important in their lives (45%), compared with roughly six-in-ten adults 30 and older (54% among those ages 30-49, 59% among those ages 50-64 and 69% among those ages 65 and older).” The view that the Bible is the literal word of God is also trending lower: “Although younger evangelicals are just as likely as older evangelicals (and more likely than people in most other religious groups) to see the Bible as the word of God, they are less likely than older evangelicals to see it as the literal word of God. Less than half of young evangelicals interpret the Bible literally (47%), compared with 61% of evangelicals 30 and older.” (emphasis in the original). While it’s important not to draw too dramatic a set of conclusions from these data, they do show trends that support a shift in the foundation of Western attitudes towards religion. And these trends are consistent with a shift taking place in theology and philosophy of religion.

Johns Hopkins graduate student Kenneth Sheppard attempts to anticipate this shift in an article for Patrol entitled “Faith After Religion”. Drawing from the work of Paul Riceour and Ricoeur’s student Richard Kearny, Sheppard sees religion “passing through” atheism and emerging on the other side stronger in some ways but certainly different. Religion of previous generations grounded faith on a belief in what Ricoeur called the “ontotheological” God—a God who grounds morality on “obligation and proscription.” “Anatheism” (Kearney’s term) will move away from a robust theology of positive assertions about God back to the “negative, apophatic, mystical theology.” As postmodern thought becomes the de facto epistemology culturally, religious epistemology will be less inclined—at least for the person in the pew—towards certainty and positive assertions about what God must be to talk of hope about what He might be. As Sheppard notes, “This return, however, is not to a mysticism shrouded in murky darkness, but, as Kearney frames it, a kind of wager in the absence of illusive certainty.” While traditional evangelicalism most likely won’t evolve into a fully naturalized spirituality like the vision expressed by Stuart Kauffman in Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, it will move away from logos and more towards praxis.

This is why postmodern epistemological trends in theology will force a more experiential ecclesiology. If believers can’t, or at least are not willing to, say much that is certain about God (where such proscriptions are largely objective and public in nature), they will need to at least subjectively experience God in their own way in order to remain committed believers. People will focus more on spirituality (see Harvey Cox’s analysis in The Future of Faith) and this is also why churches will decentralize and believers will form smaller communities where they will fellowship will smaller and smaller groups with whom they can find experiential affinity. Even current Evangelical mega-churches are focusing less on promoting doctrinal conformity and more on creating a set of “small church” communities and orienting corporate worship towards music, theater, video, and other types of dramatic expression.

These shifts are happening more dramatically in Christian Evangelicalism than they are in Catholicism and certainly other monotheisms like Judaism and Islam. And this is to be expected. Catholicism, while changing, is changing much more slowly because theological decision-making happens in a hierarchical model with the main theological pronouncements coming from a single person. Islam controls change through rigid conformance to external constraints and a very low tolerance for deviation. But western Evangelicalism is not centralized in these ways. The whole protestant movement was founded on the autonomy of the individual both with regards to the interpretation and application of religious texts and with regards to the believer’s relationship with God. Without external constraints, the evolution and diversity of beliefs can change more rapidly and the loose and ambiguous label “Evangelical” will encompass fewer and fewer individuals over time.

One obvious takeaway is that Western religion is evolving again as it has so many times in the past. Many vocal atheists writing today appear to hope that religion--I should say faith--ultimately will give way to a particularly narrow version of science and reason. I have no doubt this hope will go unfulfilled. Still, the expression of religion will change and is changing. Evangelicalism already is substantially different in many ways than it was two and three generations earlier. Regardless of where it ends up, I think its almost certain that the philosophy and theology that forms the foundation for the popular expression of faith will change along with it.

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