ERIC HODGENS. Three Religious Elephants.

Is religion on the way out?

Religions have grand narratives with sub-plots and characters. Stories are their medium of expression.

Jesus of Nazareth had a grand narrative – God was setting up a new order of peace and well-being which would be shared by all, including the insignificant and overlooked. Jesus taught by telling stories. People believed in him and followed. They kept the grand narrative alive by re-telling and adapting his stories as their life-situations changed.

Religions have sets of beliefs; creeds are their medium of expression. Creeds are clear and defined – but are limited by the restraints of the local culture and language. They are cerebral rather than emotional. Rather than adapt, they tend to take over and demand conformity – servant becoming master. Society evolves, and they don’t. So, they are prone to become maladaptive and then irrelevant.

Fast forward to 500 A.D. and Christianity is a full-blown church and a major institution of society. Creeds had been defined and rules had been codified into law. They now dominate community discourse. Add a further 1500 years and you have a major problem. The structure looks solid, but there is an elephant in the room.

John Shelby Spong, an American Episcopalian bishop, exposes this elephant in his book: “Unbelievable. Why Neither Ancient Creeds nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today”. It will annoy fundamentalists and hard-liners, but it faces a real question. Will we identify the kernel of the Christian story and adapt it to today, or stick to old formulations and loose the lot? Original sin and atonement theology made sense in a 6th century Roman society. Today’s society is post-enlightenment, post Charles Darwin and has embraced freedom of thought and religion. Galileo had to grin and bear it. We don’t.

Spong asks what is believable in Christianity today. Christians must reshape their story so that the essential message survives, and the worn-out accretions are let go. In an age that takes evolution for granted religion, too, must adapt or face extinction.

But is this already too little too late?

John Bodycomb, an Australian theologian, sociologist and an ordained Uniting Church minister, sees a second elephant. Hence the title of his book: “Two Elephants in the Room”. Mainstream religion is a threatened species. The census figures for Australia show about a quarter of the population declare themselves to have no religion. In Holland it is now over half. Catholic or Protestant makes no difference. He asks whether this is a sign that religion is on the way out altogether? He might be alarmist; or he might be reading the signs of the times accurately.

And his second elephant? Getting full-time religious leaders and managers is at a critical stage for all religions. Bodycomb is a professional sociologist and knows the numbers. Depression is high amongst religious professionals as is their choice to move on from ministry.

He sees religious pockets with better chances. Those he calls Pentogelicals (Pentecostals and Evangelicals) may survive – but as a boutique phenomenon. Another pocket is new, migrant ethnic groups who bring their own religious brand with them. Post-World War II it was Orthodox from central Europe. Today it is Islam from the Middle East and Africa. But these are transitional as the history of past migrant groups shows. Dropping out of religion is the norm across the board.

Some will say Bodycomb is alarmist. They think that it is just a cyclical downturn that will recover. Others say that humankind is essentially religious, so religion will revive. But the stats do not support this view.

How do we handle elephants in the room? We are experienced at ignoring them. But it is harder to do when there are three.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest.

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7 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Three Religious Elephants.

  1. Excellent, as usual from your pen, Eric. For Christians the logical answer is more Jesus, less God. On the way to Church I say to Anne that I can put up with some mumbo-jumbo if we get a good sermon.

    I am a hard judge of sermons but not as bad as my Dad, who took the Sunday Times with him when my mother finally managed to drag him along to Church. The best sermon I have heard was from Ron Ross, an Anglican Minister in suburban Perth.

    Congratulating Ron after the service, I said the two features that jump off the pages of the New Testament are the sheer brilliance of Christ’s teaching method — the intellectual sophistication of the parables — and the radical egalitarian character of his gospel.

    The teachings will always be relevant but not necessarily all the structures, although it would be a shame to lose those cathedral services with their wonderful music.

  2. Kien Choong says:

    Hi, I grew up in a Pentecostal church, but now attend Anglican services.

    I switched traditions (although I would hesitate to call myself “Anglican”) around the time when I started thinking about the historical basis of the central claim of Christianity that Jesus not only died, but he was resurrected. Up till then, I did not realise that there were scholars (historians) who critically examined the central claims of Christianity (including Jesus’ resurrection).

    I think my biggest regret with Evangelicals and Pentecostals is that these traditions do not take history seriously. Whereas the Anglican tradition (or at least many in that tradition) does.

    I have also found that it is possible to take history seriously, and still be open to the possibility that Jesus did in fact come back to life from death. And simply being open to that possibility (as a historical event) has been transformative for me.

    If Christianity wants to stay relevant going forward, I suggest that Christians must learn to take history seriously.

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    VERY Nicely Done.

  4. Wayne McMillan says:

    All religions have been started by human- beings, therefore they are always flawed and fallible . Jesus Christ didn’t start a religion, but a way of life and so did the Buddha. It’s the underlying spirituality that is important not the doctrines rules , laws and regulations. Go to the mystics of all the great traditions and there you will find a treasure trove of spiritual gems.

    • Joan Seymour says:

      I think Eric Hodgens would agree with you. But isn’t the point that, however many spiritual gems we can find in whatever tradition, they’re not helpful in themselves. People need to be inspired by them, follow them, live their lives in accordance with them. Are we, in Australia at least, finding no reason to explore spirituality in order to pose the right questions and find the right answers?Or are we fine without that?

  5. Garry Everett says:

    Eric.. Your elephant analogy bears out the truth of the old saying about:”None so blind as though who will not see.”
    Modern expressions of religion, especially of Christian religion, have submerged all the messages of Jesus under an ever growing pile of structures, positions of authority, titles and policies that he would wonder where it all went wrong. An American religious (Sr Mary Bennet McKinney) once described the Catholic Church as the Church of “thirds”— one third have left; one third has stayed, and one third can’t make up their minds whether to stay or leave
    I agree with your analysis that the contemporary Church has major identity problems, but those in charge wont face them e.g. the Catholic Church and the challenge of its toxic culture.
    You say it is harder to ignore three elephants —- but wait! Can you see the herd behind those three?

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