The latest Sightings column comments on a new Pew study and the changing “quality” of religious committments. Read on at the jump.
Searching for God
– Martin E. 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 clichés.” 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.
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.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
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