Tag: Religion

Considering Religion in Post-Constantinian Society

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

One of the defining themes of this blog is the changing nature of religion in modern society. Recent decades have shown us some dramatic changes in terms of base assumptions. The rise of the religious nones, the politicization of the conservative church, the challenges of pluralistic ground rules confronting religious particularities, are but three examples of some of these major shifts. At times, I’ve referred to this as Post-Constantinian Christianity (here’s a post from 18 months ago). Lately, following David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, I’ve been more comfortable with talking about “post-Christendom“.

I recently returned from a week in a literal post-Constantinian society. As a 60th birthday present from my daughter, son-in-law, and grand daughter, Jeralynne and I joined them and Evgeni’s mother for a week in Istanbul. It was a great week. I left with a lot more questions to explore.Europe

I realized how ignorant I am about Eastern Europe. Most of what I learned in 20 years of school was limited to the rectangles on the map to the right. I read up some on issues of Constantinople before and after the trip, but mostly came away with more questions than answers.

Nevertheless, there are some patterns present in both historic Constantinople and present-day Isanbul that provide some hints about the changes we’re experiencing in contemporary religion.

1. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the realm, granting it new legitimacy. He commissioned the Council of Nicaea which worked out details of small-o orthodoxy. In addition to Hagia Sophia (above) he built the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Orthodox church designed to contain relics of all twelve disciples (they never got all the relics). These two issues of policing the borders of orthodoxy and looking to the past are issues our contemporary church know far too well.

2. There was a tendency to see religious expression as a sign of social status. Justinian rebuilt Holy Apostles because it wasn’t “grand enough”. Building great edifices were built partly as personal expression. When he finished Hagia Sophia, he said “I am now greater than Solomon.” This pattern continued, as the mosaics in Hagia Sophia illustrate (the picture below is 11th century Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe giving bags of gold to Jesus in support of the church).

Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus
Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe with Jesus

Our contemporary focus on big churches and celebrity pastors has a long history.

3. Schisms and fights over “the real church” are part of this religious history. The tensions between the Orthodox church and “the Latins” (which may have involved much more than religious ideology) resulted in the Massacre of the Latins late in the 12th century. Nearly 60,000 adherents of the Roman church were killed or exiled. Twenty years later, the Fourth Crusade diverted its target from Jerusalem to Constantinople and effectively sacked the city. The resulting weakened empire was incapable of holding off the eventual Turkman invasion, headed by Mehmet II 200 years later. When Mehmet Fatih Mosquecame to power, he replaced most of the churches with mosques (and eventually built the Fatih Mosque on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles).

My takeaway here is that the infighting within the church over who are “real Christians”, who is reformed, who is progressive, who is “Bible-believing”, etc. all weaken the witness of the True Church and leave us at a point where we are weakened in the face of the surrounding culture.

4. Modern Istanbul, especially the part of the city where we were staying, is characterized by secularism. This was part of Attaturk’s intent in creating a secular society. While 99% of Turkey is Muslim and call to prayer is announced from the loudspeakers five times a day, most people seemed somewhat oblivious. I saw a couple of women in traditional dress who turned east at a call to prayer but they were far outnumbered by people simply going about their business. This suggests that there is a strong sense of religious identification that is separate from regular religious practice. If you asked people, you’d learn they were Muslim but it would be hard to tell them from other folks. This pattern of cultural religion is very common to us in America (as my regular rants about polling data illustrate).

In fact, after a week in Istanbul, I came away with the sense that the de facto religion is consumerism. Lots of stores and shops — and don’t get me started on the experience in the Grand Bazaar. But consumerism combined with nationalism may well be a default religion in America (for evidence, just search “Christian responses to American Sniper”).

I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few nuances. And if I were in other parts of the city or the nation, I might have a very different sense of religious diversity. But I’m still struck with the idea that there is much to learn by looking at American religion through the lenses of another culture.

One of my favorite sites was the Chora Church, which had remarkable frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Even though we couldn’t get into the main part of the building, what we saw was stunning. It was some of the clearest illustrations of Christianity’s long theological tradition.

In this illustration of the Trial of Christ, we’re reminded that Jesus stood apart from cultural and political struggles. This is a good lesson for us to remember.

Trial of Jesus

…With Liberty and Justice for [Each of Us]

Rockwell PledgeThe Hobby Lobby decision may mark a rhetorical turning point in the interface between religious rights and individual rights. For decades we have been focused on one part of the Pledge of Allegiance (“One nation, under God”). But now I think our social imagination has shifted to the latter phrase (“with Liberty and Justice for All”). Then we’ve individualized that last phrase, so that the focus is on each person’s liberty and justice. Trying to navigate the space between various people’s individuality leads to the conflicts that seem never ending across the internet and media.

As is usually the case on this blog, this thesis came to me due to the contradictions inherent in a number of things I saw on social media. This morning I read a post on The Gospel Coalition blog titled “They Know Not What They Do” written by Greg Forster. He argues that it’s plausible to argue that secularists who oppose religious rights are misunderstanding basic issues about religion and society. He writes:

Such ignorance almost certainly does play some role, but that cannot be the whole story. Given his defective understanding of what religion is—and, for that matter, what a business is—the secularist genuinely doesn’t understand why the owners of a company would feel their consciences were at stake in the company’s actions.

His concluding lessons are fairly optimistic but took some turns to get there. But it was the quote that caught my attention. The “secularists” I read after Hobby Lobby understood that the Greens had issues of conscience. But they also were thinking of the impact of that decision of conscience on other individuals. They were calculating potential harm done to others in the process and found that unacceptable.

My friend David Fitch posted an 2013 article from the New York Times titled “Generation LGBTQIA” (which for some reason was in the Fashion and Style section). It told the story of how the LGBT label became inadequate because it didn’t include enough possibilities to cover each person’s experience. (Q is for Queer, I stands for Intersex and A stands for Ally). The implication is that each personal expression of sexuality and/or affinity must be affirmed as an expression of true individuality.

Still, the alphabet soup of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. may be difficult to sustain. “In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of L.G.B.T. will become quite quotidian [mundane],” Professor Halberstam said.

I read an interesting piece by Derek Rishmawy titled “I Used to Believe X for Reason Y…and the Failure of Intellectual Imagination.” He suggests that our focus on personal story can sometimes lead to overgeneralization and ad hoc conclusions. He says we need conversation with those others to protect us from logical error. Derek was writing primarily about young evangelicals telling conversion stories away from what they used to believe. As much as I think story is really, really, important I’ve always argued that story is only the beginning of dialogue and not an end in itself. But I readily acknowledge that in the broader society we have a tendency to speak only from personal experience and validate that over others’ experiences.

Sociologically, I want to place the impetus for all of the above on the prioritization of individualism within western society. It’s been nearly 30 years since  Habits of the Heart documented the damage that rampant individualism does to community. Over those three decades, what Durkheim called “the cult of the individual” has only grown stronger. As Durkheim predicted, this is a result of increasing diversity and changing bases for social solidarity.

I use Michael Sandel’s Justice in one of my fall classes. Today’s social media had me thinking of his chapter on Libertarianism. Sandel says that Libertarians oppose three things:

1. No Paternalism. Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves…

2. No Morals Legislation. Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority…

3. No Redistribution of Income or Wealth. The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others, including taxation for redistribution of wealth…(60)

In the midst of pondering how we shifted to the last phrase of the pledge of allegiance, about liberty and justice, the whole libertarian thrust came clearer to me. All these years of celebrating individualism in politics, movies, reality television, social media, the blogosphere (hello?), and education (especially higher ed) have taken a toll. It seems to me that we are less interested in liberty and justice for all as we are in liberty and justice for each person.

And that’s an untenable situation. There will be winners and losers. There will be some liberties that are sacrificed for others. Some people cannot pursue their liberties without infringing someone else’s.

GallupAverageAlso today, Tobin Grant posted some very interesting data on the changing role of religion in society. He analyzed five different measures of religion in American life that Gallup has tracked over the years: religious identity, church attendance, membership, religion’s importance in life, and religion’s relevance for today. All five of these show a dramatic decline. Then he statistically combines them into one measure and shows that change. My initial impression was that I’d tell my stats students that the truncated Y axis makes the decline look more dramatic than it really is. After all, it’s only a drop from 78% to 69% over 20 years.

But then I got to thinking that there may be something more happening. Perhaps there’s some tipping point below which religion is no longer the “one nation, under God” factor (more Durkheim). Maybe once we have 30% of the country thinking that religion is okay if that’s what you choose, then all we have are competing individual values.

Finally today, I came across an article written after the Hobby Lobby and Wheaton decisions by Winifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies and affiliate professor of law at Indiana University. In her piece, “The impossibility of religious freedom” she writes provocatively about the  nature of religious freedom in legal terms as recognized by courts. It’s a detailed argument, outlining the importance of religion regardless of its broader acceptability. She calls out liberal critics of the court decisions. Of the justices, she writes:

Their common refusal, together with that of their predecessors, to acknowledge the impossibility of fairly delimiting what counts as religion has produced a thicket of circumlocutions and fictions that cannot, when all is said and done, obscure the absence of any compelling logic to support the laws that purport to protect religious freedom today.


So what do we do? Somehow we have to find a way to recast our argument in ways that speak to common values. That can affirm the multiplicity of voices and interests present in the society. Religion will be one of those voices but perhaps not a dominant voice, at least not one with a language the broader culture is prepared to hear. So when we evangelicals make our claims for privilege, we’ll have to do so in ways that transcend our unique group interests and speak to the broad range of expressions within the society.

Somehow, we’ve got to find our way back to that “Indivisible” which connects the “one nation” to the “liberty and justice for all”.


Millennial Canaries


If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.