Religious Identity, Religious Community: More Thoughts on the Pew Study and the Memorial to the Church

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my post last week and the conversations around both the Memorial to the Church and the Pew Survey. We’re in uncharted territory as the Episcopal Church (and Mainline Protestantism) collapse. All sorts of people from all over the theological spectrum will offer analyses of the reasons for this collapse but it will require historical distance to gain the necessary perspective from which to judge what happened and why. At the same time, with the rise of the percentage of people who no longer identify with particular denominations or traditions, one of the things the Pew Survey has made clear is that Americans are creating new ways of being religious. A number of commentators have made this case, among them Kaya Oakes and Peter Manseau. Something Oakes wrote is especially pertinent:

The new Pew Survey should not be giving people who are creating their own religions and communities something to think about. They’ve already thought about the role religions should play in their lives.

Manseau puts it like this:

Religion, however, is not a zero sum game. Just as any individual’s life might include periods of greater and lesser religious interest, every tradition is home to remarkable diversity of belief and practice. Church pews may hold nonbelievers; a chanter of mantras may still recall the bat mitzvah prayers of her youth. To claim one religious identity is not necessarily to forsake all others, no matter what a pollster’s multiple choice options might imply.

It is this development, individual creativity in response to America’s religious marketplace, that I consider the greatest challenge to those who want to create (or restructure) Christian community on the other side of Christianity’s collapse. With multiple commitments and engagements, people’s attention, interests, and desires have multiple claims on them—and each of those claims may be important and life-giving. I doubt very much that a Christian perspective that remains open to culture (in the Niebuhrian sense) can hope to claim the sole allegiance of many people in today’s world.

The problem is that we have few models on which to draw as we think about what Christian community (either local or national) might look like on the other side. Obviously, fundamentalism is a no-go and even the Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist models seem to draw too sharp a line between the community and “the world.” Over on the Catholic/Orthodox conservative side, there’s been considerable talk of adapting monasticism for the present moment. Rod Dreher calls it The Benedict Option:

This is the gist of the Benedict Option: creating the conditions and habits necessary for our faith to live on in an anti-Christian society in which the dominant culture is so overpowering. Going along to get along is not going to suffice. How do we do this? I don’t think there is one set way.

While such alternatives may be attractive to some, there must be other options. In essence, I’m asking what open and inclusive Christian community might look like in a post-Christian culture. I suspect we’re already seeing it coming into existence in congregations across America, with a core of significantly committed members and wider circles of people with lower levels of commitment and engagement. The congregational development gurus are all about increasing the engagement and commitment level of the people in those wider circles. But what would happen if we were to see this pattern as evidence of people fashioning their own religious identities rather than their lack of commitment to our community (congregation) and their resistance to accepting the identity we wish to impose on them? We would have to engage them on their terms, listen to their questions and needs, and respond to them where they are, rather than set preconditions on their involvement.

I suspect this is why I had such a negative response to the Memorial. While its calls to prayer, bible study, and evangelism are all laudable, the language it uses often sounds more like a manifesto for a nineteenth century missionary movement than a strategy for engaging the world in which we live. The movement in the document, for all the talk of decentralization, networks, and local initiative, is from center to periphery: “laborers into the harvest,” “learn to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.” Do people in those neighborhoods understand themselves as fields readied to be harvested—commodities to be exploited, if not as pledging units, then as data points?

How do we proclaim a gospel that demands ultimate allegiance to people who cannot give their ultimate allegiance, who may not even be able to spare an hour a week? How do we share the Good News with people who want it, but on their terms, not ours? Do we abandon them and form our little communities, whether neo-Anabaptist or neo-Monastic, or do we continue to engage them and risk that in our encounters and life with them, we are transformed as they are?

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