“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,…”
Several years ago Linda and I were in Venice, Italy on a Sunday morning and decided to attend worship in the church of Santa Maria della Salute pictured above. When we entered the sanctuary for the principle service of the week, the nave, the main seating area of the church, was empty. A few rows of chairs had been placed in the chancel or altar area of the church beyond the arch in the center of the picture and that is where 30 or 40 of us gathered.
This scene is played out in hundreds of church buildings all over Europe, increasingly in other parts of the world and in the United States. What has happened that could create such a disconnect between the people who invested themselves and their communities to such an extent that buildings such as these could be raised at enormous cost and great effort, and the people of today?
The short answer is that secularism has resulted in this disconnect. And this disconnect is most clearly seen and felt in the failure of the traditional language of the Church to speak to the experience of people today. The hypothesis of God is simply not needed by millions of people today in order to inhabit the institutions and roles of society. This secular self-understanding is quite at odds with much of the Church’s language and it is so difficult to deal with because it embodies axioms we do not even bother to question. They are in the cultural air we breathe. And if you take a deep breath, in Venice, Italy or in Orange County, California, this is what you get:
First, life is the product of blind forces and blind chance. Natural forces are without mind and without purpose. Nothing is necessary. Everything is accidental. It is not hard to see how this cultural axiom conflicts profoundly with the Sunday morning confession, “I believe in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.” For six and and one half days a week we have to compartmentalize this belief in a Creator and then, on Sunday, confess one.
Second, you only go around once. This life is all you have. The good life is here and this is the only place you will find it. Massive amounts of wealth are deployed in the attempt to hang on to life for all we are worth. Death is the ultimate tragedy so we deny it as much as possible. People don’t die, they ‘pass’. The dead are made to appear as if they are ‘sleeping’ or if that is too much we simply cremate the remains. Out of sight. out of mind.
Third, the language of absolutes is to be avoided. We must speak in the terms of relativism, opinions, climates, attitudes, feelings. No one is right. It is the height of folly to make claims for absolute truth. Religion is privatized. I just happen to be what I am by accident, because of the historical circumstances of my birth, etc. In such a climate we are really quite unhappy with anything but pragmatic and temporary solutions. No one size fits all, please.
Fourth, you and I are on our own in the world. We make our own meaning. I’ll do it on my own if I can, in community with others if I must, but meaning is self-created.
With this cultural oxygen passing through our lungs, no wonder it’s easier to find people to serve as church treasurer or on the property committee than lead Bible studies. I can balance the checkbook and change a light bulb but how do I speak the language of God in such an environment?
For many today the churches are perceived as peripheral and irrelevant, where language speaks about a cult deity around whom a few people gather but not a God that necessarily must lead to the use of religious language that speaks meaningfully to all aspects of daily life.
(To be Continued)
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”