Searching for God -- Sightings

Martin Marty closes out his offerings for 2009 with a reflection on the recent hubbub over the Pew Forum Report on the nation's recent religious proclivities.  That we've been a nation of seekers and switchers isn't really new.  But the trends have quickened, and the switches haven't just been in in-family (Catholic to Episcopal), but crossing family boundaries.  Marty comments on the statements made by Stephen Prothero in the Wall Street Journal.  Prothero sees danger here -- and raises questions as to whether we're just jumping from one religious idea to the next?  Take a look, and offer your thoughts.

By the way, Prothero is author of the excellent Religious Literacy (HarperOne).

Sightings 12/21/2009

Searching For God
Martin Marty

Last week Sightings looked at bearish signs on the front where religion is practiced (a bit less) in post-Christendom.  This week instead of a bear we’ll note the chameleon-like character of religious commitment, or semi-commitment in the same part of the world.  Our source, the survey of the week, came from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a reliable surveyor.  It was much noted and commented upon; we’ll pick up on one of the best of these comments, in the December 11th Wall Street Journal, from Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, who can also be called reliable as well as perceptive.

The Pew summary picked up by Prothero reveals that the U. S. is a “nation of religious drifters.”  In response I could exercise the historian’s yawn and ask, “So what else is new?”  Haven’t we always been such?  Immigrants brought their old faiths along and then often picked and chose among the options other immigrants brought, adaptations of these, or new inventions in the spaces between existing faiths.  Revivals, awakenings, ethnic shifts, mobility, and religious marketplaces have always invited such drifting.  But the Pew people can show that there are reasons to stifle the “nothing new” yawns and say that if there is not a quantitative difference from the past, there is such a big quantitative shift that it amounts to a change in the quality of commitments.

In the Lutheran and Episcopal parishes and their kin we know best, we hear members and clergy say, half-jocularly, that half their members seem to have been brought up Roman Catholic but they changed, just as we know several Lutherans and Episcopalians who turned Catholic.  Still, such moves are ecumenically “all in the family.”  Pew folks find more and more people being equally drawn to Buddhisms, Hinduisms, New Ageisms, and a bazaar-tent full of other options.  Kate Shellnut in the December 11th Chicago Tribune tells how many, many young and youngish post-Christian people abandon Christian practice and hang out almost cultishly brunching at pancake houses, hoping in their “communing” to fill the void that is left as they drift.

Add to these other, similar evidences elsewhere, and you find not only the trails of serious spiritual journeys to new communities but highly individualistic ventures.  As G.K. Chesterton noted, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in everything.

Prothero checks in:  “As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can’t help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred.”  He agrees with philosopher George Santayana that “American life is a powerful solvent” capable of “neutralizing new ideas into banal clich├ęs.”  Prothero worries that “this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world’s religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own. . . The store managers in our spiritual market place seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.”

Prothero notes that at their best, the denominations that had long sustained memberships offered different visions of the good life.  “Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion, as we search, in love, for the next new thing.”

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at

P. S.  Last week we mentioned membership decline in three denominations, including the newish Presbyterian Church in America.  Don K. Clements, a Stated Clerk in Virginia, called a nuance to our attention.  The decline in the PCA resulted mainly from the paring of several thousand names from a bloated membership list at Coral Ridge, the mega- place in Florida.  Apart from that, PCA held its own and even grew a bit.  We thank Clements for this information.

In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Kristen Tobey considers the significance of blood as an element in the nonviolent civil disobedience actions of the Plowshares movement, an activist collective of the Catholic Left dedicated to nuclear disarmament through symbolic action.  Through a careful reading of Plowshares’ rituals of protest Tobey notes that their use of blood, while intended to convey a sense of renewal and the affirmation of life through blood sacrifice, also invokes violence, contributing to a more ambivalent performance that resonates with specific tensions residing at the heart of Plowshares’ mission and identity.  With invited responses from Scott Appleby (University of Notre Dame), Sharon Erickson Nepstad (University of New Mexico), and Jon Pahl (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Dan said…
As a good Christian I of course believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and as a good denominationalist of course also believe that my current denomination is the best way to practice that only way.

I grew up Church of Christ / Disciples of Christ, was ordained Disciples, spent about twelve years in a Foursquare church (not as a staff person) and for the last twelve years in the Church of the Nazarene, so I know something about church jumping.

As a good Christian I also know that when people leave their denomination or the tradition of their youth for another it is generally because of a lack of loyalty on their part; that when people stop attending on Sunday mornings it is simply a matter of backsliding; and that those who have left Christianity altogether for either atheism or secularism or one of the other pagan religious practices of our day have abandoned the faith.

As a bad Christian however I have to ask, if Jesus came back today would he even recognize the church as it is traditionally practiced as anything close to what he intended when he entrusted it to his disciples?

When I read Jesus telling his disciples that "the gates of hell can not prevail against the church and I see the relatively insignificant impact the church seems to be having on the world today I can come to only two conclusions: either Jesus is lying to us, or there is something very wrong with the way the church is going about being the church; and I don't think Jesus is lying to us.

There is growing unrest within the church today with our traditional forms and our values as they conform more to the values of our American culture than they do to the Bible. There are ways and forms of being church which are emerging today which are disrupting the status-quo. As I find in the account of the visit of the Magai and the killing of the childern: whenever the Kingdom of God incarnates itself in the world it always disrupts the status-quo, especially the religious status-quo.

Maybe the reason people are abandoning the church and Christianity today is not because the problem is with them but with us. Risking a gross over-generalization, perhaps the church today has become the temple system of Jesus' day, and as the people look to the church to find God and his community what they are finding is only a weak and distorted characture of what God intended for them to find and so they are looking elsewhere.

As a pastor and a theologian the most critical question I constantly have to ask myself is: do I have more faith in my theology about God than I do in the God who my theology is about? And analogously, is the abandonment of traditional Christian theology and its forms and structures necessarily an abandonment of faith in God or perhaps in reality the manifestation a greater faith?

Perhaps in times such as these the words of Gamaliel to the Council need to resurrect themselves as an eternal caution to religious traditionalists of our day. If [any] plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of
God, you will not be able to overthrow [it]; or else you may even be found fighting against God.

A book which I am currently reading and would highly recomend, which I believe has much to say toward the condition of the church today is REIMAGING CHURCH Pursuing the Dream of Organic Christianity by Frank Viola.
Anonymous said…

One of the best things about the internet is learning there are many thinking and caring people like you in the world. Thanks for the reflection and have a blessed 2010. David Mc

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