Three Religious Elephants

Nov 7, 2018

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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