By Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
As more and more people leave the church, I wonder if they are conscious of being part of a movement that is leading to the demise of Christianity in America. Will post-Christian humanity have the creativity and energy to create neighbors; to elevate love, forgiveness, graciousness? Or more likely, will they simply descend into triviality and narcissism. Before I left what has given hope and light to generations, I would ask what I was putting in its place.
Perhaps the passing of Christianity will leave us with nihilism. As David Bentley Hart puts it, “The story of the crucified God too everything to itself, and so in departing takes everything with it: habits of reverence and restraint, awe, the command of the good within us. Only the will persists, set before the abyss of limitless possibility, seeking its way or forging its way in the dark.”
Do those who have deserted the church really believe that our culture’s obsession with acquisition, wealth, celebrity, distraction, entertainment, and therapy is the way to a flourishing and meaningful life? We have embraced every falsehood Jesus warned us to avoid, especially the worship of wealth. There are only two kinds of people left: the wealthy and those who desire to be wealthy. Perhaps our whole political, social, and economic existence will be reduced to that reality. Somehow I doubt that the trifles of a world that replaces worship with television, shopping, and the Internet is prepared to make us a better people.
The descent into the hell of the banal, the trivial, the idiocy of reality television should be feared, but there’s a worse direction a post-Christian world may take. When the only god is the will—the fierce human will of the strongest and the richest—we may be left only with monstrosity. The religion that gave us an eye for an eye granted humanity a reprieve from the unconditional violence of the ancients. The faith that gave us unconditional love gave us hope for a world without monsters. Take away that faith and we are on the edge of our own capacity, as a people, to destroy or corrupt what we once treated with reverence and respect.
Martin Heidegger claims that nihilism arises from human forgetfulness toward the mystery of being aided by the desire to master reality by the exercise of human power. This exercise of the will, with its attendant power, has brought us to the age of technology. The danger, says Heidegger, is that we can view the world as nothing more than a neutral reserve of material resources waiting to be exploited by us. In other words, “It’s just business,” or “It’s just politics,” or “It’s just business politics.” Technological mastery has become for us our only convincing model of truth.
This wholesale desertion of the church allows the false gods to return. Instead of prayer and worship, there’s watching television and trolling the Internet. Instead of service and mission there’s football and basketball and concerts. Instead of God, there is Science. No doubt, science has been good to us, but the scientists and philosophers who now teach that science is to be spelled with a capital “S” and that all moral values are corrigible and elective is a dangerous idolatry. To make a god of Science, to insist that Science alone gives us the objective, literal truth is for Science to become a secular version of Christian fundamentalism. Ironically. fundamentalism was originally an absurd and reactive mimicry of modern scientific positivism. This odd attempt to subject the Bible to the scientific method has given us an array of false ideologies (“a pack of lies”); creationism, literalism, and that elephant in the hall of falsehood, American Christianity, which is more American than Christian.
Leaving church is not the elixir people think it is. As the nation becomes more post-Christian, magical thinking is back in vogue. We treat science as if it were magic. Stanley Hauerwas says that we have placed the burden on medical doctors as our last hope of getting off this planet alive. He suggests that when faced with a life-threatening illness we would rather have a good doctor than a good priest. Our magical thinking also includes our politics where we hear the truth, call it a lie, and kick the can of responsibility down the interstate. Somehow we are simply blind to the false gods creating an environment where real monsters can be bred and real terrors summoned out of the depths of nature.
If we are going to cast off the institution that gave birth to science, that gave hope to millions, that created universities and hospitals and made charity a common thread of decent people; if we are going to throw away the human dignity that arose from the free grace of God, we should at least have enough sense to see that we are replacing it with a big glob of nothing. I’m not sure what people will do, but, as for me, I am going to hang on for dear life to the church in all its fragility and glory.