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A Crisis of Faith

Rejection of the “mainstream” is an important part of the polarization and radicalization of America. Socially and politically, movements on the left, right, and whatever else there is measure their stands by how far outside the establishment they are.

For all the bluster, it’s mostly nonsense. Trump supporters often rely on Obamacare, as they are learning, if not social security and other programs. Left wingers usually have jobs like anyone else. Everyone has sold out in nearly every way possible – except one. Religion and spirituality is the one place where the true mainstream is indeed slipping away, caught in an “uncanny valley” where the teachings seem too simple, too childlike, to be relevant.

And this is the one place where America is truly failing.

Sometimes the coming of dawn requires a bit of faith.

If you ask most Americans about Christianity, you’ll probably get a similar answer. For far too long, a harsh authoritarian view of the faith has prevailed. God is vengeful and ready to strike at any moment if we get too far out of line. Opinions about the Christian faith fall around either an acceptance or rejection of this harsh view of a Deity who sits in judgment of us all constantly. Either you live under it or separate from it. There is no middle ground.

This is strange because the “mainstream” faiths of Christianity – Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian – are pretty much united in a different view of the teachings of Jesus. The message is invariably that God is love and rather limitless in his ability to forgive and redeem. It’s stressed differently in each faith, of course, but in the case of Lutheranism in particular the basis of the entire faith is Grace – a universal love which is always there for anyone who needs shelter under it.

How did the harsher view of this faith come to dominate?

Moses Viewing the Promised Land, from the Holton Bible (circa 1890)

It’s far from clear, but radicalization of Christianity as a broader social value does seem to be unique to America. Presbyterians became Baptists early on in our history, believing that God still physically manifest his blessing here on earth. It may be a reflection of a wealthy continent where anyone with enough drive is bound to do well. It also seems to be a reaction to a pluralistic society where each group needs to define itself as clearly as possible to separate and divide in order to avoid succumbing to the formless greater world.

With time, a sense of spirituality apart from the exclusive grasp of Christianity has taken hold. This can only be a good thing in my view, but naturally it has only hardened those who see otherwise. If anything, the “Christians” we see making a lot of fuss in popular media have only gotten more harsh, more insistent, and frankly more mean.

Mainstream churches continue to preach a gospel of love and acceptance, and they are taking a beating for it. Their voices are rarely heard above the noise. Far too many people who would find this message the one which resonates through their hearts are instead turned away by homophobia, islamophobia, and general fear of what appears to be everything.

Except materialism. The most ancient threat to spirituality seems to have been accepted. Mammon made peace with God long ago in the most vocal form of the faith.

Pope Francis gets this.

Pope Francis stands apart as the only real superstar embraced by the media with a different message. He is routinely demonized for it, a process which is pathetic and frustrating. But his message is far from new or radical in any way – it is simply more clearly articulated by a man moved to fill the spiritual needs of a planet hopelessly lost in its own anger and confusion.

That’s not to say that many people will turn away from all views of Christianity. The problem lies with the anger expressed at the faith, or any sense of spirituality, among those who reasonably reject hatred. Beyond even mainstream Christianity there is plenty of room for Sikhism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam as alternatives. A world without any sense of faith is a world which is lost.

Everyone who is reasonably upset by a sense of spirituality based on fear and hatred needs to reject fear and hatred, not spirituality.

It has to start with our own desire to find happiness one way or another. Beyond that, we all have to connect with a greater world every day. Jesus provided a good example as he taught us all that we are each children of God. Buddha taught a way beyond suffering and towards enlightenment, or being one with the Universe. Islam has a careful routine laid out all day long which can keep anyone on the path. Judaism teaches the importance of being a righteous person simply because it makes for a better life.

A little respect goes a long way.

There is a way for everyone. For the vast majority of traditions one thing is clear – be decent to each other and treat everyone with respect. That’s a good place to start for everyone. You don’t have to believe in a bearded figure presiding over the heavens to understand the importance of this.

What is important is that this crisis of genuine faith has to be resolved in America before we can move forward. The mainstream faiths are actually rather good at teaching us what will help us all the most, and there is nearly universal agreement on at least a few things. Let’s start with that. Let’s all be decent to each other and honest with ourselves.

Seeking happiness for ourselves is a good thing. Understanding that happiness around the world only comes from being as kind and decent as possible only increases our own happiness. The alternative is purely noise and nonsense. Religion rarely teaches hate and fear, no matter how popular it seems to be to either embrace it or angrily reject religion for that perspective. Being without religion doesn’t require anyone to be fearful or angry, either.

America is having a social and moral crisis. If I were to say that it starts with a rejection of faith, many people might agree with me for the wrong reasons. But it has started with a rejection of the most important traditions of faith, a process far too deeply ingrained in our culture at this point to easily counter.

23 thoughts on “A Crisis of Faith

  1. I am not one for religion but this is interesting. You’re right in that I never considered the mainstream churches and they are nothing like what we usually hear. They got shouted down. Why?

    • Mainstream churches and moderate faiths demand much of the faithful. It’s one thing to accept a list of rules; quite another to stand before the mysteries of life and accept that there are no easy answers.

  2. Whether I want to be or not I will always be catholic. I am just sooo glad that Pope Francis came along and replaced the nazi Pope. His message does inspire me and your right that it doesn’t make it into the mainstream media outside of when he drops a bombshell. Most of the priests I know agree although a few are pretty mean, but they are mostly old. The church is still dying however because it is still a chore more than it is uplifting. The movie Dogma was the best for that message & I keep thinking about it when we talk about this. That was also made by someone who will always be catholic but can’t connect to today’s church. I am rambling but you know what I mean.

    • Go ahead and rant, I can tell you still care. 🙂 Seriously, you mentioned “Dogma” and I concur that in a way that is a beautiful movie and a statement of faith. But it had to be expressed so cynically – that’s the problem.

  3. Believe in yourself rather than some miserable mythical lie of a single god hiding somewhere behind a cloud. You will find faith in others once you have faith in yourself. Religions inherently spread hatred since Constantine sold the bill of goods to the people in the 3rd century CE. One of the greatest errors of any religion let’s god off the hook by giving people free will. Today those same believers pray before that god asking for a great victory before destroying and murdering people by the 10s of millions. Religions are so full of contradictions it’s no wonder people in America are in crisis mode. You kill, injure, and spread wickedness to the world while it’s all a tax deductible charitable donation. Why are you still living in the good old days of the 3rd century?

    • Sorry, but I think this is just a refelction of this problem. I can see why you feel this way, given what people use religion for. But only a small minority actually see it this way and they have polluted things terribly.
      If all you knew of faith was a way that people felt connected and lived in peace you would probably still reject it, but not really care that much. And the vast majority of Christians in this nation do see their faith in those terms.
      Somehow, the violent minority dominates. That is terrible.

      • Then you must see the KKK as good Christians who simply mass murdered the black slaves. That same thinking under the Christian banner nearly wiped out the entire Aboriginal population with the “American Indian Wars”. As a peace activist, I thought it barbaric to force African-Americans to use, a “blacks only” water fountain.

        It’s easy to brush aside or look away from historical mass murders under the christian flag. Many consider it a “family value” and in so doing make up lists of those excluded. People on the list are murdered, beaten, bullied, tortured and blamed for “sinning” against 4th century ideas. It is a great way to segregate people, the way another Christian, Adolf Hitler did in the not so distant past. The Internet is filled with long videos and articles telling people the Holocaust never happened. Sadly far too many believe it. I am speaking first hand, and not reflecting on the problems, caused by an ancient and incorrect belief system.

      • “Then you must see the KKK as good Christians who simply mass murdered the black slaves. ”
        Do you honestly believe this is my position? if so, how do you support this conclusion based on my words? If not, why did you say it?
        I see nothing productive in your words, which makes me wonder why you write them. I honestly do not understand why someone would say what you do because it certainly does not advance your position by winning over people to your side nor does it make friends across different opinions. So why do you write the things which you do?

      • “If all you knew of faith was a way that people felt connected and lived in peace you would probably still reject it” The comment I wrote was meant to clarify your incorrect assumption about me. I was a devote Christian until I saw first hand how it is used as a destructive force for economic gain. It appears you attacked me, because you see what you believe, as the only truth. If anyone is seeking to win or advance their position it is not me. (end)

  4. I apologize for offending you and making an assumption that you were like many of the atheists I know.
    My own inability aside, I hope you can see that I actually agree with you to a large extent and am equally horrified by what religion has been used for. I’ve written on that topic many times before, in fact. I do think you have an important message to get out into the world, but speaking/writing is one thing and listening/reading another.
    I can see that I did a bad job of crafting a message that can cut through the noise myself, but that is indeed my goal. I believe that there has to be a place for faith in a world based largely on reason – but our attitudes towards faith are definitely going to have to change considerably before that can come to pass. Still, I think it’s not only desirable it’s something that the vast majority of the “faithful” would like to see as well.

  5. Nothing like religion to start arguments and crank up emotions….

    What is beyond dispute is that the mainstream protestant denominations that (somewhat) reflect the complexity and ambiguity of real life have shrunk dramatically in the past few decades, while the churches offering a simple-minded, often intolerant, bible-thumping message have grown. Why? I suppose that in these stressful times many people want to be served up simplicity and mental comfort food.

    • I do think that the US in general has turned to very simplistic answers – which do not compel us to step outside of our houses and cars and actually talk to each other. We see this everywhere.

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  8. “There is a way for everyone.”

    On the other hand:

    Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
    Because strait is the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
    -Matthew 7:13-14

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