Encouraging Trends?

Michael Metzger

For a small but growing group of folks, a post-Christian age doesn’t squelch religious impulses. It intensifies them.

In the 1950s C. S. Lewis described a coming age: post-Christian. By the year 2000, it was full-blown.[1] But most folks would assume this squelches religious impulses. It does in some cases. But it intensifies them in others. We see this in several trends since 2000.

The first is the findings of Colleen Carroll Campbell, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist in 2001. That’s when she began traveling the country to interview young Christians. Campbell was encouraged by how many were turning to Christian orthodoxy, “not as an escape from world but a lens through which to view it—and a vision with which to transform it.”

Orthodoxy denotes generally accepted doctrine. It refers to older traditions that recite the creeds affirming one holy, catholic (universal), apostolic (evangelical) church. I’m an evangelical catholic, as Irenaeus first used “evangelical” to affirm the Apostles’ teaching.

In affirming one church, Orthodoxy embodies a desire for the church to be one. Hardly happening today. There are essentially three camps in Christianity: @300 million Orthodox, 1.3 billion Catholics, and 800 million Protestants. I’m encouraged if young Christians are embracing orthodoxy to make the church one. I’m also encouraged at what began in 2004.

That was the year Pope John Paul II welcomed to Rome the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I. Both leaders lament the Great Schism of 1054, so they celebrated Mass together in St. Peter’s Square before some 15,000 pilgrims. That’s encouraging, as healing this 1,000-year-old divide moves the church closer to being one.

The wider divide is between Orthodox/Catholic and Protestant traditions (numbering over 40,000). Older Protestants are evangelical as Irenaeus used the term. Newer ones are evangelical as Second Great Awakening revivalists used it, as a disdain for authority and tradition. Older evangelical traditions tend to be mainline churches. Newer evangelical traditions tend to be contemporary churches that feel full of dynamism.

But dynamism doesn’t mean deep. This might be why the Public Religion Research Institute released surprising new polling data showing that in 2020, there were more white mainline Protestants than white evangelicals. This is a striking turnabout after years when mainline Protestantism was considered moribund and evangelical Christianity full of dynamism. Could it be younger evangelicals are returning to older, deeper, more meaning-full traditions?

And there’s another surprising trend in the P.R.R.I. report. In every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the US has been the religiously unaffiliated, those often called religious “nones.” But “nones” peaked at 25.5 percent of the population in 2018. Since then, they’ve been losing ground, now making up just 23 percent of the country.

Does this trend mirror what’s happening in Europe? There, a post-Christian society isn’t squelching religious impulses. It’s intensifying them. Jonathan Van Maren writes about what he calls The turning tide of intellectual atheism. He says a growing number of leading serious intellectuals are recognizing the need for Christianity’s resurrection but haven’t yet brought themselves to embrace it. Still, this is an encouraging trend.

Encouraging, for post-Christian pictures a faith that’s past tense, or dead. But as G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” The way out of a post-Christian grave begins with recognizing a need for the faith. It culminates in believing in Jesus.

Jesus prayed that his church, his bride, would be one, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The sum of these trends might mean that we see those who have turned away from the faith returning to it. And we see those who have embraced shallow versions of evangelical Christianity turning to deeper traditions that are more meaning-full.

If any or all of these trends transpire, I think we’d agree they’re encouraging.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007)

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