I am not pessimistic, but I want to be a realistic optimist. So, first the realism, then the optimism.
Tomorrow’s world, the world of the planetary era looks like it will be very spiritual but that spirituality will not be based on the Bible. Age–old pagan spirituality could well be greatest threat to Christianity since the Roman Empire.
Why should you believe me? Contemporary sociologists speak of “the subjectivist turn of modern Western culture.” Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) is well worth the read. This study shows that “the turn” is a turning away from life as “established roles” or a “given orders of things” to states of consciousness, to the importance of the inner self as the norm of behavior and to the priority of “subjective wellbeing.” The highest goals are personal health, fitness and methods of stress relief. Books on self–help proliferate, and “life–trainers” are the latest fad. Teachers no longer teach “objective,” “external” facts but specialize in child–centered, outcome–based education in which the child sets the agenda. A school district in Rhode Island canceled its annual spelling bee this year because administrators decided the crowning of only one winner violates the main principle that all children should succeed. A Local YMCA would not let its gifted children compete in the national swimming finals for fear that some kids would feel left out. I recently discovered consumer–centered commerce. Buying razors at Target, I discovered I was a “guest”–even though they still took my money!– and the check out girl was a “team–member,” though she still spent eight hours on her feet. Target touts the work culture of personal development, eliminating the hierarchical command structure of old–style business. Even the military is affected: the new recruitment catch–phrase boasts “an army of one,” whatever that means.
The general societal goal is “feeling and being comfortable with oneself,” especially in the area of morals. Today we speak of an ethic of subjectivity, of “moral individualism” and of “the autonomous self.” Each individual is encouraged to do “what feels right,” and to “follow your heart” because “Your inner You knows you.” This inner You is “truthful, real, reliable and effective.”
This subjectivism is a natural side effect of having moved from the rational structures of Modernity to the Postmodern elevation of subjective truth that destroys life and language. This sociological “turn” has immediate religious implications. It can also be described as a turn from religion to spirituality. In other words, it turns from religion, which gives norms of transcendent meaning, to a kind of spirituality, which celebrates subjective experience. This is “a tectonic shift on the sacred landscape that will prove even more significant than the Protestant Reformation.”
Here are the facts. Since 1980 church attendance in Great Britain has declined by a third to now 7.9%. In the quintessential English town of Kendall in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, church attendance since 1960, except in one instance, has dropped by 50% while the town’s population has increased by almost 50%. At the same time, the “holistic milieu” has grown 300%. A Church historian states: “Britain is showing the world how religion as we known it can die.” The churchman, Peter Brierley, says: “we are one generation from extinction.” The demise of Christianity and the rise of pagan spirituality in Great Britain is called a “major spiritual revolution.” The proof? In Great Britain only 23% believe in a personal God while 44% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force.”
But that is godless Europe, you say. Not so fast! These British sociologists state that “there is more evidence for the spiritual revolution in the USA than in Britain.”
- Church attendance in the USA has fallen from 40% in the 1960s to 22–24% today.
- 15,000 sites advertising yoga programs in New York
- in 2002 15 million Americans practiced yoga, while 35.3 million more intended to take it up in the future.
Personal well–being is the cutting–edge religion of North America. These are the realistic, objective reasons why it is difficult in our time to preach the Gospel.
But that does not stop us from being optimistic. There was a time when even among God’s people “each man did what was right in his own eyes.” The tumult, suffering and moral chaos that such an approach caused were not, however, the end of the story. God raised up deliverers who gave us a glimpse of the one deliverer who would come to show us objective truth – so objective that his neighbors could touch it! That deliverer exhibited a power so strong that even death could not resist him. He is now in heaven, having won the battle against “feel–good” morality. The sacrifice he made for us strengthens us to live for him. Objective truth is stronger than subjective falsehood; holiness is stronger than the unholy; and we wield the world’s only unconquerable weapon–the blood of Christ expressing the grace and love of God. We are optimistic because Jesus is Lord and King, and one day, before him, every knee will bow.