Wednesday 18 January 2012

Message for Desperate Churches

A veteran organist who has witnessed several churches close is one of many respondents to a recent column here headlined “Desperate Churches Lose Message.” He agrees that the growing collapse of faith in general and of Christianity in particular in the western world calls for a truly relevant shift of approach. Specifically, he asks for constructive thoughts on “How desperate faiths can talk about God” in a way that makes sense to today's men and women, including our youth.

That's a fair request and I'll try my best to comment honestly. I serve warning that there will be those who may judge my convictions to be heresy. But one thing I have discovered in a lifetime of writing about spirituality and religion is that one person's heresy is often another man's Gospel!

I believe that the churches are dead wrong to go on preaching about how we are all “sinners” and about the extraordinary (when you stop to think about it) idea that the supreme Mystery we call God somehow has a unique Son who had to die on a Roman gibbet in order to save us all from eternal damnation in a place of torment called hell. They call this “Good News” but it seems to most outsiders to be anything but good or newsy. Nevertheless, this kind of thinking still runs through the theology of every major denomination today.

The dogma that goes back as far as St. Augustine that humans are a “lump of damnation” that needs the shed blood of a Saviour for cleansing or atonement is totally unworthy of a loving Creator and is not even the plain, central teaching of the four Gospels themselves. In them the chief enemy of man is fear. Trust and compassion, not the holding of right beliefs, is the Way of the faithful.

For me, the plainest teaching of the New Testament is at the same time the churches' best “card” to play. It affirms that everyone of us is the bearer of the Kingdom or of the Spirit within. We are each endowed with all the rights and privileges of being the children (sons or daughters) of God. We are spiritual beings and the Spirit of God, the Christ within us, is our ultimate “hope of Glory.” This, I believe is fantastically Good News since it means nobody, whatever their rank, color, looks or station in life is truly unloved or alone in the world.

We belong to the same family. We are one in each other and in God. We have one simple calling—to love God and one another. There is one mission—to live our lives as fully as possible, showing kindness to the planet and others as we champion justice and healing here and abroad.

All religions are not the same but if you examine them closely you'll find that all of them in their own way proclaim this truth of our divine inheritance—the image of God, the Atman, the Inner Light, or a host of other names – so that none of us can claim to be “right” or “more right” than another. Thus, all forms of smug superiority are signs of insecurity and an infantile immaturity doomed to fail.

Here at any rate is where I would begin.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

crisis for the faith

Heraclitus said that “nobody steps into the same river twice.” It was his way of underlining that everything is in a state of flux. Only change itself endures. We are reminded sharply of this on the eve of another New Year. But it's also evident all around us as weather patterns find new extremes, global financial markets are rocked and old regimes collapse as protesters storm the gates. New technologies mushroom up in every field making yesterday's innovations seem old-fashioned, even na├»ve.

Few things, however, have seen more drastic change than overall patterns of religious belief and churchgoing since the end of World War II. In the early fifties, church attendance in the western world was at an all-time high. Even a decade later when I was the minister of an overflowing Anglican parish in a Toronto suburb, almost everybody attended and brought their children with them. New churches were going up everywhere.

Today, many churches are on life-support. Many have been closed. Congregations consist mainly of the elderly. Statistics show that the fastest-growing demographic in North America—including our much more religiously inclined American neighbours—is that of those now reporting to census-takers that they “have no religion.”

The roots of this phenomenon lie closer to home than most church leaders wish to admit. Many still remain in total denial. They attempt to sustain their current orthodoxies by full-blown inertia. It's sad but true that most religious attempts at communication at this historic moment are virtually incomprehensible to modern adults and even less so to the young. The result is a palpable indifference.

No amount of obvious gimmicks – such as the recent fiasco where the Anglican bishops paraded in their archaic robes in front of Union Station handing out invitations to rush-hour crowds begging them to attend services—comes anywhere close to enticing people to go back to something that has not changed since they left it behind. At Halloween it was reported that Evangelical Christians here and in the US were seizing the opportunity to proselytize. The tactic was to “shell out” Bibles or info packs when the kids came knocking. This reeks of desperation.

At this time of crisis for Christianity, a time that is also one of immense opportunity and hope, nothing less is called for than a total rethinking and recasting of the core message to be presented to this and future generations. Old ideas and formulae (dogmas) from distant times have either to be dumped or radically reinterpreted so that they actually connect rather than turn off potential listeners. Concepts and words like salvation, sin, redemption, heaven and hell, eternal life and judgment need to be restated in a wholly transformed modality. Most people see themselves as spiritual beings. It's religion that they can't handle.

Ultimately every religion is a metaphor for God, the sacredness of all creation, and the innate divinity of ever human being on the planet. We need to hear about this from the pulpit. We need to be told about the ongoing evolution of our species to a higher state of being, a maturity of wisdom where we enter into our full inheritance as God's children. None of this possible, however, if a heedless religion keeps speaking a language few if any really understand.