Have you heard the buzz about Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass? The title tells you how alarming are the developments she’s tracking.
Organized religion is in dire shape, while young people are reinventing spirituality. It’s affecting everyone, from Roman Catholics to mainline Protestants to the conservative Southern Baptist Convention.
As Bass reports, some 30 percent of Americans now identify as “spiritual but not religious,” around 9 percent are atheists and post-theists. In 1999, 54 percent of Americans said they were “religious but not spiritual,” while six percent said “spiritual and religious.” By 2009, the percentages had reversed: “religious but not spiritual” fell from 54 percent to nine percent as the “spiritual and religious” rose from a mere six percent of the population to nearly half.
Lots of generalizations in what follows, and lots of things to submit to critical scrutiny, but here is Bass in her own words:
Americans are searching for churches – and temples, synagogues, and mosques –that are not caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma but instead offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world. Americans are not rejecting faith – they are, however, rejecting self-serving religious institutions.
The end of conventional church isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christianity after religion, a faith renewed by the experience of God’s spirit, is closer to what Jesus hoped for his followers than the scandalous division, politics, and enmity we have now.
Here are two article by Bass:
Bass has a hopeful view of all this. I’m trying to share her hope. But it’s hard to see much good news for traditional liturgical Christianity in all this. Ever fewer young people interested in organized religion; some increased interest in spirituality, but mostly cut loose from church and liturgy – is this the future?
It looks like we’re in for continuing drastic declines in institutional Catholicism, marked by declining Mass attendance, parish closings, school closings, and shuttering of things like the National Pastoral Life Center or the liturgy center at Georgetown. There is growth on the (far) Right, represented for example by use of the pre-Vatican II unreformed Latin liturgy, but this remains a rather tiny fraction of the Catholic Church. (As I’ve said before, growth from .5% to 1.5% of the membership looks huge from inside the enclave, but remains rather insignificant for the Church as a whole.)
One diagnosis says the problem is poor catechesis. We haven’t taught the faith since Vatican II, and we’re now paying the price in having lost at least two generations of Catholics. The solution in this scenario is greater doctrinal orthodoxy, with clearer boundaries of doctrinal identity. Usually but not always unstated is the belief that this will somehow return things to an earlier era of greater church engagement.
The biggest problem with this analysis is that it is stuck within the mindset of the one analyzing, without much attention the people actually living in contemporary society. It is the Authoritarian Solution, and it says in effect: “To those of you who have lost most of your respect for me as a credible religious authority, I am going to state more loudly and clearly why you should agree with me.” I have the impression that some of our Catholic leaders are prone to the Authoritarian Solution, and I don’t see it having much good effect.
The larger question is the extent to which liturgical Christianity is intrinsically tied to Christendom – which of course is nearly dead. Some say that liturgy develops and flourishes in the nurturing greenhouse environment of a society almost entirely Christian, with a Christian state and Christian political leadership. Shared convictions in all aspects of life, by most all the populace, forge the connection between liturgy and spirituality, between liturgy and daily life. In different ways and to different extents, Christopher Dawson and Aidan Kavanagh seemed to believe this.
I once read an essay by Michael Davies, I believe it was in Latin Mass magazine, stating that he was emphatically not opposed to continuing evolution and development of the Tridentine liturgy. He just didn’t believe the conditions exist anymore for this to happen. Throughout the Middle Ages, which is to say within Christendom, the western Latin liturgy was ever changing and developing. When western Christianity began to fracture with the Reformation, Christendom was no longer present in order to foster liturgical evolution. Hence the wisdom of the fathers of Trent, and Pope Pius V, in freezing the liturgy at the last point of its natural development.
I don’t share this view, as the reader will already know, but I’m not sure it can be dismissed out of hand. Maybe everything we’ve been doing since Trent – either in the old liturgy or in the reformed liturgy of Paul VI – has been living off the accumulated but declining capital of Christendom. Something similar would be true of Anglicans/Episcopalians and Lutherans and other variants of western liturgical Christianity. For five or so centuries, we’ve all been enjoying the liturgy as a byproduct of the old order of authority, even as we’ve gradually evolved beyond that order of authority. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t last. Now, as Bass’s research would seem to show, we’re at the end-stage in the inevitable collapse of organized, liturgical Christianity, tied as it is to obsolete models of authority.
For Davies, the Lefebvrists, and to varying degrees the proponents of the 1962 rite, the proper response is to hold fast to the old liturgy, and to the vanished order of authority it presumed. This seems to me like so much pretending. It’s like thinking (to borrow an image from Richard Taruskin in Text and Act, on an entirely different issue) that one can reconstitute European unity by re-staging the Battle of Waterloo in original costumes. Ripped out of their original political and societal context, the dignified and stately rituals of the old Latin Mass are rather meaningless, except for those who find consolation in pretending.
For Bass, the proper response is to name courageously the societal developments under way, and to see hope in the spiritual interest of at least some young people. And as I say, I’m trying to share Bass’s hope.
Is there a new spiritual awakening afoot? Is there a way for this awakening to reinvigorate our liturgical life? Is there some liturgical prophet one out there who has a vision of how to tap into the spiritual longings of people today?