According to George Barna, a religious statistics expert on contemporary American religion, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education”—and our religion. In 1991, 49% of American adults attended religious services in a six-month period and 35% said they accepted Jesus and expected to be saved. Twenty years later, the regular attendance figure had dropped to 40% while those accepting Jesus had “risen” to 40 percent. How can these apparently contradictory trajectories be explained?
One could point to the fundamentalist or evangelical movement, which was growing during the twenty years. Such believers tend to be non-denominational and less liturgically-oriented than Roman Catholics, for instance (for whom the Eucharist is central and necessarily liturgical). An evangelical Christian would be likely to point to his or her belief in Christ and relationship to Jesus rather than to attending church as decisive for faith. For example, the prosperity gospel holds that right belief—not necessarily regular church attendance—is rewarded by God in terms of material riches.
The advent of “rock-concert-like” evangelical services has probably tempered the trend of the evangelical movement distinguishing church attendance from believing in Jesus. The “dead” quality of mainline denomination services, on the other hand, has likely contributed to the decline in regular attendance. I attended a Methodist service in 2010, for instance, only to wonder if the audience was still alive. I was informed that Methodists are about “method” so they don’t like change. Such an approach, while typical in my small-minded (yet never wrong) hometown in the Midwest, does not bode well for the spirit breaking free from the strictures of the letter. It is as though typical Christian liturgies were designed expressly to cut off religious experience—being more about a bunch of things put into a program (with the vested interests, of course) than opening a time for transcending devoid of distractions.
According to Cathy Grossman of USA Today, “Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, ‘Jesus is the answer. . . . People end up bored, burned out and empty,’he says. ‘They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?’” Barna reports that as a result, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’” In other words, denominations are fracturing.
It is perhaps worthy of note that the New Testament has Jesus saying that he came to teach on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God—the Father’s realm—and how we can more fully realize the Kingdom of God within. Simply saying, “Jesus is the answer” stops at the means. I once heard a priest preach, “Jesus is above me, Jesus is below me, Jesus is to the right of me, Jesus is to the left of me, Jesus is in front of me, Jesus is behind me.” At the time, I thought of George Fox’s “empty form,” here verbal form. In other words, has institutional Christianity gotten caught up on the nature of the religious object, which is by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, at the expense of religious experience? Has that which Jesus is portrayed as preaching—how to get into the Kingdom of God—been eclipsed by a fixation on the messenger himself?
In general terms, the constriction of canonical Christian dogma since the first century of Christianity and the fixation on Christology may be why more Christians are splitting off. To be sure, “I believe whatever I want” has a ring of childishness and selfishness to it and a lack of boundaries (e.g., I decide what is good for me, with a result being that I come out good). Religion reduced to the path most convenient is essentially a form of self-idolatry. I witnessed this from someone at a Bahai service. As a scholar of comparative religion, I sometimes attend services of different religions to expand my knowledge of the phenomenon of religion.
After the service, the topic of which was love in the various religions, a woman referred to a certain religion from the Middle East as “of peace.” A man cited a few verses from that religion’s scripture advocating the killing of neighbors who refuse to convert rather than risk the chance that they could pollute the beliefs of the faithful. The woman insisted that the man simply interpreted the passage as not being of peace. It occurred to me that she may have been imposing a value or ideology that is salient in Bahai on the religion in question, with the result that anything in religion at odds with peace is ignored. Religion itself becomes peace—a human moral system essentially limiting that which is divine. The woman’s religious idolatry (i.e., worship of a human conception of peace as a religious object—her conception as the conception) seems to have triggered or involved cognitive distortion without any recognition of possibly being wrong. Her dismissiveness itself evinced the power of self-idolatry—the “I believe whatever I want”—in religion. Lest the phenomenon be thought to be a function of individualization of religion, self-idolatry can also be found among church authorities in the history of Christianity. Such idolatry can go a long way in accounting for the decline in attendance and the fracturing of sects to accommodate the inherent diversity of beliefs, values and approaches within the human family—and even the Christian family.
To assume that one size fits all—that uniformity is necessary for (rather than adverse to) authentic unity—in matters of religion discounts or ignores the nature of the human spirit as well as the phenomenon of religion. Furthermore, constricting an entire religion to one’s own interpretation is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and essentially self-idolatry under the subterfuge of leadership. The process of canonicalization of scripture, which included a willowing-down or narrowing of acceptable religious writings, can be viewed as laying the seeds of the religion’s downsizing by making otherwise viable alternatives extrinsic and even heretical. In other words, the canonical process would have been more credible had the chosen texts not been those favored by the deciders. To be crass, the ensuing religion can be said to be that of the deciders—essentially, “I believe whatever I want” and (literally) to hell with those Christians who favor other texts (e.g. the book of Q—sayings absent the supernatural narrative—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas). It is ironic that a religion of convenience within the Church provokes religious convenience as a reaction. For a religion wherein God is agapé (selfless love) seu benevolentia universalis (or, universal benevolence), self has been rather prominent, even if apparently hidden under a “self-effacing” subterfuge.
Nietzsche, for example, writes in the second essay of his Genealogy of Morals on the religion of convenience of priests, who yearn so much to dominate their flocks in spite of voluntarily weakening themselves (e.g., impotence). The aggressiveness—even intentional cruelty—involved in such dominance is particularly dangerous because the priests (and bishops) having the instinct have tended to be oblivious to it even while under its spell. In the midst of a narrow-minded yet judgmental priest, it is perhaps only natural to retort, “I believe whatever I want.” Essentially, both the priest and the reaction are gripped with self-idolatry in the name of religion. The priest, however, is far more dangerous even if under the subterfuge of selfless love.
In short, trends in American religion (which has been dominated by Christianity) can be interpreted as manifestations of self-idolatry all around in the name of religion. Religion may be far more about us than we realize. If so, we may be taking it far too seriously even as we do not hold it sufficiently accountable. Sadly, religious experience and agape seem relegated or lost amid the power-struggles of self-idolatry imposed through a fixation on religion as belief. Little attention is given to freeing ourselves from the grip of religion in our own images. So little freedom must surely snuff out what little spirit manages to manifest within or between us. It is no wonder that more people are heading for the exits. The wonder may be that even more have not left. What is needed, Nietzsche avers, are more free spirits. Such spirits seek to overcome the power of their own most stubborn instinct—which may be the urge to follow the route of least resistance rather than the road less traveled.
Cathy Lynn Grossman, “More Americans Customize Religion to Fit Their Personal Needs,” USA Today, September 13, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-14/america-religious-denominations/50376288/1