Is Christianity on the way out, not to be taken seriously, as some have alleged? Whatever your opinion, few deny that Christian faith does not easily coexist with Western culture at the present time.
James Davison Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia, wrote To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Recently, he spoke to a symposium at Seattle Pacific University and suggested three ways Christians wrongly engage our present culture.
The first, the “purity from culture” way, pits Christians mostly in opposition, expressing themselves in anxiety, anger, or fear. Its adherents withdraw from the culture.
The second Hunter called the position of “relevant to culture.” This position, he says, risks the church and the world becoming indistinguishable.
The third is similar to the first. Hunter calls it “defensive against” the world. Instead of withdrawing, however, Christians become hostile to the world. They aim to win at all cost, often politically.
Hunter suggested a fourth way: “faithful presence in the world,” which emphasizes the practice of faith. In this mode, Christians become a presence in the world as they live out faith, hope, and love toward all, including their enemies. This presence is lived out in families, communities, classrooms, marketplaces, and workplaces.
In a talk with his disciples, Jesus said that neither he nor his disciples belonged to the world. However, he did not ask that his disciples be removed from the world. Hence the phrase “in the world but not of it,” another way of indicating “a faithful presence.”
According to a recent article in The Economist, a quarter of 15-to-24-year-old young people in the world are NEETS, not working or preparing for work. Other youth not counted as NEETS are underemployed or working in low level jobs where they learn few skills.
Perhaps fifteen percent of this age group in the more developed countries are NEETS, their numbers increased by the recession. Particularly in southern Europe, where growth has all but stopped, the jobless rate of NEETS is much higher than fifteen percent.
Studies in the United States indicate that joblessness among youth adversely affects their careers all their lives. They earn less, are more subject to intermittent unemployment, and develop fewer skills. They are less able to save for old age. The longer the joblessness, the more traumatic the results and the more likely these results are to harm the next generation.
Yet, in some surveys, more than half of companies surveyed in the developed world say they cannot find enough skilled workers for their entry-level jobs. Many commentators have warned that our economy will be permanently scarred and will suffer permanent decline if we do not invest more in the education and training of our youth.
The U.S. State Department recently released the annual Religious Freedom reports. The reports measure the freedom to worship or not, according to one’s conscience, in nations around the globe.
Sudden conflict and shifts in population movements bring us into greater interaction with those whose beliefs differ from our own. We may feel threatened, even angered, by the realization that our beliefs are not as widespread as we thought.
How do we remain firm in our own beliefs while allowing others to believe differently? Allowing religious freedom does not mean that we must live an amalgamated religion, with the unique particulars of our personal faith stripped out. Such a system is like an “established” religion, eliciting lukewarm response.
The early Christians in the Roman Empire lived in a pluralistic world much like our own, yet remained firm in their faith, even in persecution. They followed a Christ who refused to use political means to bring in his kingdom, even if it meant crucifixion. Without political power, they lived their faith and attracted others. Their very powerlessness to force their religion on others was a blessing. Indeed, when they later gained power, the faith of many lost meaning, becoming merely a superficial part of their culture.
The best way to destroy the heart of a religion is to force it on others. When we act as God, we usurp his power. If he is God, he is more than capable of working through the lives we live and our nonviolent witness. We do not need to take up the sword for him or use laws and prisons as cudgels. A person sure in his or her beliefs lives by faith, not by worldly power.
My computer picked up a virus even though I have anti-virus protection. I took it to our local techie to clean it up. Some of today’s powerful viruses, she said, can make it through normal anti-virus software.
One who wishes to cause harm can now perpetuate wrong against nameless, faceless victims in record numbers. Was the person who caused the infection to my computer angry at a wrong done to him or her? Were they in rebellion against society or the government? Simply a hacker who does these things for the fun of it? Safe to say that they did not know me, had never met me.
The damage to my computer data was minimal and quickly repaired. But people’s lives can be threatened if power outages happen in more serious circumstances: to electric grids or hospitals.
The news is full of the new combat, cyberwar. Enemies fight through the ether, striving to destroy vital networks.
Perhaps in a society where we increasingly communicate through devices instead of face-to-face, such developments are inevitable. Human nuances and vulnerabilities are filtered out.
What can alleviate our detachment from others? We need more than ever the small face-to-face groups. Families, faith nurturing, and communities are as essential to survival, surely, as the digital grids we depend on.
A monster storm in the Midwest takes lives, including those of babies and children, and destroys multitudes of homes. A neighbor’s house burns and she loses all her possessions. A report in The Seattle Times outlines the fault lines for earthquakes in our region. Refugees in various parts of the world carry a few pitiful belongings as they leave homes and vocations, fearing for their lives.
It becomes less of a cliche now to talk of the impermanence of things. Where, then, is the non-thing center we hold to?
Impossible to know how those of us still blessed with sufficient physical possessions will react if we become those people we now examine through the news and social media. With varying shades of sympathy we pause. We may shed tears or even contribute to the Red Cross before heading off to find out about the Arias murder trial or the latest political hype.
But what’s left if we lose all except our lives? Will we bemoan the loss of our wide screen television if our loved ones are taken? If loved ones are, thankfully, accounted for, we might then concern ourselves with finding a secure place to eat, wash, find a bathroom, and sleep.
If those basic needs are met and family safe, what remains from former lives? What is the center that remains?
I don’t know, of course. I can only speculate. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but I’ve been reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Christian pastor who was hung by the Nazis in 1945 for his opposition to Nazism. His discussion about giving up all one possesses for the one “pearl of great price” begins to penetrate.
A recent survey found that fewer people use email now. The survey didn’t say, but presumably we use cell phones to text or leave messages more than we send emails.
How long has the general population used email? A little over a decade? And already it’s passé.
We ceased writing letters long ago. For some of us, letters seem on a par with medieval manuscripts. Now email is equated with the old snail mail, as texting takes over.
From both email and texts, we delete much of what we receive, and much of what we send to others is deleted. We live in a send/receive/delete world
We form and delete relationships as well. Americans have always been on the move, changing houses and jobs. Now we pass from one relationship to another with little thought.
Perhaps this generation should be called the Delete Generation.
Yet a yearning seeps from our millions of electronic words—for permanence, for “a city not made with hands.” We seek lasting community