As we enter the twenty-first century, participation in traditional Church life is on the decline as more and more thinking Christians struggle to reconcile the reality of the world they live in with the myths and dogmas of the traditional churches. And yet the traditional church insists that these are fundamental to a proper understanding of Christianity. The churches focus on its myths and dogmas, are clouding what should otherwise be a triumphal message of hope for the world. Why isn’t the world responding in gratitude to the message of the church? The reality for Christianity today is far from positive. The church is seen as increasingly marginal, irrelevant, conservative, bigoted, sectarian and self absorbed and an entire generation has now grown up estranged from any church culture. Can Christianity, which is radical by nature, be radically re-energised and re-oriented, to play a relevant role in the life of the twenty-first century? If Christianity is about connecting people to create a love and hope-filled society, can it fulfil this role, or will it become so marginal, as to loose an effective voice altogether.
Science and the modern movements such as humanism, socialism, democracy and feminism have expanded our notions of the world we inhabit and the values we aspire to. Secularism has permeated much of the modern world. The victory of capitalism over other political ideologies in the twentieth century, has entrenched it as the dominant world system, whose overriding character is materialism and individualism. The key players in our society today are no longer religions, nor governments, nor individuals, but rather global corporations who are the real beneficiaries of our materialist culture.
Since the post war era, we have been told that ‘small government is good government’. This philosophy is driven largely by global corporations. Small government bends to big business. Pressuring the government to ease laws on, for example, pornography, abortion or IVF, enables corporations to create profitable new industries to exploit.
Global environmental damage caused by unrestrained corporate greed, devoid of a greater responsibility to society, is now clearly resulting in significant climate damage. Nonetheless, we’re forging ahead with creating the world’s largest factory - China and India - without regard to the global effect on the environment, all so we can wear cheaper Nikes made by exploited labour.
On the ‘demand’ side of the economic equation, global corporations, through their relentless use of consumer marketing, have created a culture that encourages people to value themselves principally as consumers, where material acquisition is the ultimate definition of ones self-worth. To buy is to be.
Powerful global marketing has created an unprecedented pressure on people to acquire more and more icons of self-worth, be they foreign cars, designer-clothes, mobile phones or expensive holiday destinations, regardless of any wider implications. Acquiring things reassures us that we are worthy participants in the game of life. Individualism and materialism have become the dominate traits of our times and advertising happily taps into this, and the message for today becomes – ‘buy it, you’re worth it’.
Relationships between individuals in a consumerist world, are most valued when they occur as ‘transactions’. To buy is to engage in the world and those that don’t, simply ‘aren’t’. We are also in danger of simply not valuing any other relationships, beyond immediate family and friends, unless it’s commercially oriented.
Perhaps Britain’s Prime Minister Thatcher was correct when she commented on our modern world, stating “there is no such thing as society”. If she is correct, and we’re on the downward spiral towards an increasingly dog-eat-dog consumerist world, the opportunities for creating an equitable, caring and life-enhancing place for our children is being rapidly lost.
No wonder so many young people are escaping society by entering into a haze of illicit drugs and ‘trance’ clubs. Ask any teenager about the pressure to possess the latest expensive trophies of ‘cool’. Advertisers know that image is everything for a self conscious and vulnerable teenager. For the many who fail to achieve the desired ‘cool’ status, especially for those teens that are insecure, escape into drugs is an easy alternative.
Modernism and the rise of individualism, also coincides with the erosion of respect for the social institutions, including organised religion. The dominance of individualism can be linked with a fall from grace of our traditional role models and leaders. Today, human frailties are frequently exposed by a scandal-hungry media (and there's good money in a good scandal). In this climate of growing scepticism, individualism becomes the only certainty. Churches have suffered from this collapse in credibility possibly more than any other institution. This has left a void in our society which marketers are only too happy to fill. Today it is the marketers who tell us ‘who we should be’.
In many respects, the situation today is not unlike the world of first century Roman-occupied Judea. Roman commercialisation was exploiting Jewish peasants, creating a marginalised poor, whilst an elite group of Jewish collaborators lived in luxury, increasing indifferent to the plight of their fellow Jews.
One could argue the influence of Greek culture contributed to the decline in social concern amongst the Jewish wealthy. Greek culture was characterised by consumerism, vanity and individualism. The great character of the Jewish nation, where equality, justice and compassion permeated all levels of society, was now being gradually eroded and a more ruthless dog-eat-dog society was emerging.
It was little wonder that a Messiah was longed for by those who still held true to the Jewish dream of a just and equitable world for all to enjoy. Many saw the institutional religion of the day as being compromised by its inability to ‘move with the times’ and be an effective voice for the people. Many saw the temple priests as collaborators with Rome.
The people of Judea needed a radical voice with a radical solution that was not going to bring about the destruction of their world, but its salvation. A simple man from Nazareth provided that vision and a liberating voice emerged from the desert seeking to establish a Kin-dom of God on earth that would give hope and dignity to those on the margins of the Roman Empire.
Today, our Christian message, as powerful, radical and relevant as it always has been, has been overshadowed by the crises of credibility and relevance of the institutional church. The traditional church has failed to win over modern people by continuing to be divisive, legalistic, sectarian, anti-modern and self-focused. Just like the first-century temple authorities, the church is failing to win the hearts of the people in the modern world.
The time is right to reassess Christianity in light of the challenges of modernity and present a valid, confident and effective Christian message which offers a real hope of salvation for the world. It is Christianity’s responsibility to engage the world and provide a counter-balance to the dominant ‘isms’ of our time – namely capitalism, and individualism. Christianity must not submerge itself behind its high walls, but actively ‘come out’ and meet the world where it is needed most - in the hungry hearts of modern people.
Christianity can be modern and can ‘dance creatively’ with the times and yet still be that radical voice that offers a unique hope of salvation for society. For Christianity to be accepted by modern people, it needs to be truly modern, truly ethical and speak a language and practice a set of beliefs that modern society might still find challenging, but compellingly engaging.
The first most significant task for modern Christians is to honestly reappraise their faith with modern eyes. This will be challenging and it most likely will be driven from the margins, not the altar. In the spirit of the Vatican Council, Christians need to once again ‘throw open the windows and invite the fresh winds of change through its corridors’. Just as the early Jesus movement rejected the strict legalism and shallow displays of faith of some of the Jews, modern Christians need to seriously consider a creative re-creation of Christianity for our times.
No area of our faith can be left unchallenged. Can we today speak of God as ‘a transcendent and almighty being’, or can we instead dwell in the uncertainty of the ‘source of all that is’? Can we declare that the concept of a ‘God’ is first and foremost ‘mystery’ - the realm of creative imagination? After all, was it not ancient man not God that wrote the scriptures? Does it diminish a religion if we are simply honest that we don’t have all the answers?
Christianity in the modern world will not stand or fall on the strength of its myths, but on the character of its people, the deeds we perform, and the value we bring to society. St Paul declared that ‘God is love’. Is not love the eternal essence of the human spirit? At a deepest level, love is a basic longing for immortality. Our ability to love comes from our primal drive to become pro-creators of life to secure our genetic succession. To do this, our hearts are driven by a desire for intimacy, to find a mate, to pro-create, and to nurture our off-springs. This capacity for pro-creative love, becomes the foundational experience from which we can learn to expand our love beyond pro-creation, to all other people we encounter. If we can love one, we can learn to love another. Is it then not the love for a stranger, for someone in need, or for those who call us ‘enemy’, the real radical cornerstone of Christianity, rather than a set of ancient myths or institutions? Would it not be a wonderfully inviting proposition to suggest that God is love and the rest is mystery? Would that not bring together the atheists, agnostics, deists and theists into a creative dialogue?
And what of Jesus? Does Jesus really stand or fall on whether he was born of a virgin, appeared in a vision with Moses and Elijah, or physically rose on the third day? Or were these stories a creative attempt to help convey the incredible impression that Jesus made on his followers.
More than anything, we today are not first-century people. Can we not separate the man from the myth and allow the greatness of the words and deeds to be our inspiration? Can there be no greater ‘cred’ than being executed for who you are, not for the myths that follow you? The modern world hungers for real people who are true to their word. Do we not continue to admire those in the church who continue in this tradition, such as Father Riley for his work with street kids?
And finally, what of our church? The cynics often state that what Jesus gave us was the Kin-dom of God, and what man created was the church. Nonetheless, the church is a valid human response. Yes, the Christian church emerged out of persecution to become an imperial church and in doing so became more ‘empire’, than Kin-dom. Naturally many of our human shortcomings have manifested itself in the church through history. But not withstanding this, the church can be the vessel through which Christians can continue to offer the message of hope to the world.
Church is effective when it enables all people to get together and create community. Connecting people is what church can do best. It is this engagement of people with each other, from all walks of life, that breaks down barriers and can serve to strengthen the bonds that are needed to sustain a society.
It is difficult for us to step outside our comfort zone and connect with people we may not normally choose to interact with. But the alternative, is an ever more fragmented, individualist and dysfunctional society.
Christianity is also not just about ‘charity’. Christianity is a radical re-ordering of the norms of society to put justice, compassion and equality first. It is through re-connecting us with our community, that we can start to heal our society from the wounds of consumerism, individualism, exploitation, segregation and alienation. After all, the word ‘religion’ (from the Latin, ‘re ligio’), simply means ‘to connect’. Christianity’s unique form of ‘connectivity’ is our unique gift to the world, for the sake of the world. The rest is commentary.