Me? Me, God? You want to interview me? I am honored and humbled. But I don’t understand.
Oh, it is the Christian Church that you are worried about, and you want the views of someone on the ground, someone who has stuck with it all these years, even though as you know, my experience has been somewhat mixed.
Yes, you are right that the two billion number I quoted in our last interview about the number of Christians on the planet Earth is a bit misleading. I think the source I read said there were something like 40 million Christians in the UK, and we know that is nonsense. Ditto for all the high numbers in countries like Italy and Spain and France where people are nominal Catholics, but hardly anyone goes to church anymore. But you should not feel too bad, God. Christianity is growing in many undeveloped countries and especially in China. But I agree. Many churches are struggling in the U.S. and attendance numbers are down.
Yes, I know that it is not just the Christian Church that you are concerned about. It is about all people and all of humanity and our small planet. Thank you for reminding me. So how can I help you?
So for this interview you want to focus on the Church in the U.S., right? You want to know what has happened to the Millennials and to many GenXers. Why are they staying away? Of course, at my age I am not close to being part of those cohorts, but from personal experience I know this to be true. Our two children—wonderful people, I might add—who were brought up as Episcopalians do not attend church, nor do their spouses, and I am sad to report that none of our four grandchildren are even baptized.
Thank you, God, for being understanding and forgiving on this sensitive matter. Anyway it is not just me. I belong to a men’s group at the apartment complex where we live—about 20 old codgers like me—and during one of the meetings someone asked how many men in the group belonged to a church or synagogue. Almost all hands went up. Frankly, this surprised me that there were that many of us who had stuck with it, but we are of another generation. Then he asked, how many had children who attended church or synagogue regularly. A couple of hands went up. And the killer question was how many had grandchildren who were baptized or had had a bar mitzvah. No hands. And I might add, this situation applies to many, if not most, of our friends as well. So you are right. Something is going on here.
Well, it is complicated. I agree it is not just that soccer games are now routinely scheduled for Sunday mornings or that families are so exhausted from trying to balance work, careers and family. There is something deeper.
Okay, I will try my best to give it a shot. But you must know these are only guesses. I have two initial observations about this, which may seem contradictory. One is that the reason why the Christian Church in the U.S.—especially the mainstream Protestant Church, which is what I know most about—is losing members is that a lot of people think it is too wishy-washy and does not offer a firm spiritual or ethical foundation to give people a reason to go to church. The Church is “too secular.” Their attitude is “why bother” since there are plenty of other ways to pursue spirituality—yoga, meditation, private prayer, nature walks—that sort of thing, and these can be scheduled around Sunday morning soccer games. The second reason is that Christian churches are seen by others as “too extreme, narrow minded, and exclusive.” This applies mainly to perceptions about the Catholic Church and its hardline position on abortion, gay marriage and women in the priesthood and to the Evangelical movement, which takes similar hardline positions and supports our controversial president, who many people, myself included, do not care for. Some people who did not attend any church as children think that the Catholic Church and Evangelicals represent what Christianity is all about and want nothing of it.
No, I am afraid to say that I do not have an answer. I do have some opinions based entirely on my own personal experience, so I will share those.
First of all, I have got to say that most of the time I have not found the experience of worship in most of the churches I have attended very engaging or fulfilling. I understand how the “nones” feel: If you don’t get anything out of the church worship service, then why put yourself through it?
But I also have to point out that there are a lot of other reasons people attend church besides wanting to get good spiritual vibes or to hear a good sermon. (Good sermons are very rare, I might add, and also very, very difficult to pull off.). I believe that a major reason people attend church is to be part of a loving, welcoming community where they feel they belong and are accepted for who they are. Frankly, I think that if you want to get down to it, this is a very important thing that the Church has to offer but also where it often falls short. So if you want to know the reason I have hung in there, it has to do in part with being part of a diverse, religious community where I feel I belong.
I also believe that a church or synagogue or mosque or Hindu or Buddhist temple is not just any community organization like a country club or civic association or a political organization because religious institutions at least try to deal with the big issues having to do with the meaning of life, death and (but too infrequently) social justice. You are not going to get this at a social, civic or political club.
Thanks, God, for your kind comments and for pointing out that the community part applies to all spiritual pathways and religious institutions and that I do not need to apologize. It is part of the human experience.
Okay, here is my next observation—and I think while controversial, it helps explain why so many in the younger generation have said thanks but no thanks to belonging to a church. And this gets down to belief and to what might be called the exclusive nature of the Christian “elevator speech.” This is really sensitive because it deals with the very nature of Christianity itself, the reason for the religion in the first place.
A core message of Christianity–if not the core message– is this: Jesus Christ died for our sins. If we believe in him–and only if we believe in him– we will be “saved” and be assured eternal life. Sure, there are a lot of other important things; but you can’t avoid this central message.
The problem arises when someone has difficulty believing this. A person might see a lot of value in Christian teaching and in the message of love and acceptance as I pointed out in our last interview. But what if someone does not buy into this central message as being the exclusive ticket to being a Christian? What if somebody believes that you, God, provide many pathways to spirituality and that while Christianity offers one pathway, it is not the only one, and that people who are not Christians are not automatically excluded from having a valid spiritual journey or hope for eternal life? What if somebody believes that you, God, are bigger than Christianity or any one faith but have provided clues, like we talked about in our last interview, for all humans to follow? That you are real but your mystery is beyond human understanding.
No, I wouldn’t say that I learned this at Union Seminary, but I surely learned enough about biblical criticism and scholarship to make me wary of any literal interpretation of the bible. While few mainstream Protestant churches would say they are fundamentalists, more rigidity creeps in than you would expect. And this is my point: the rigid adherence to what some believe is the “true Gospel” is a turn-off for a lot of people—especially those in the younger generation who were not compelled to go to church as we were in the South (mainly for social reasons) when I was young. Nowadays church attendance is viewed more as a liability than a social requirement. People think you might be some kind of superstitious nutcase.
You are right. I am generalizing again and probably overstating the case. It is also true that many mainstream Protestant churches are trying to deal with this as best as they can, and many have softened the Christian message and provided some spiritual, wiggle-room so to speak. The Episcopal Church—where I have been a loyal member for essentially my whole life–has, I think, been a leader in this effort in some ways, but the fact is we still say the Nicene Creed every Sunday. And I have to tell you, God, I do not believe the words in the Nicene Creed and for that reason do not say it. I just sort of mumble when the time comes.
(For the record I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the history and background associated with the Nicene Creed. It is primarily a quasi-political statement by the Early Church to achieve theological consensus and get Constantine off their backs. I believe it is confusing and counterproductive. They should ditch it. Keep it in the prayer book if they like, but for goodness sake do not require anyone to actually say it!)
Okay, I will calm down.
But you asked why young people are not coming to church. This is one reason: the spirituality of Mellenials and GenXers–and a lot of others–is not rigid and top down. The message they (we) hear from the pulpit and from the prayers must ring true to their (our) experience. Until we address this better, mainstream churches will continue to struggle.
You are right, God. This does run the risk of making churches seem more wishy-washy, watered down, and more secular. But if the spiritual quest is honest, genuine, and sincere, I believe the wiggle-room will be welcomed. I would describe the approach as “more kind and gentle” with a strong commitment to good works and to social justice and a fairer world. The bigger the tent the better.
So,you want to know why I just don’t call it quits and become a Unitarian? Good question. Two reasons: inertia and incense. And, oh yes, there is a third: belonging to a community where I feel welcomed and needed.
Thank you, God, for asking my opinion and allowing me the chance to blow off some steam. I know that I am only one small voice and really do not have an answer. Certainly you will be interviewing many others. I will be interested in knowing what you learn from them.
What? This will be your last interview with Faux News? Well, I have got to say that you have been kind and generous with your time. Thank you for your patience and understanding. I have many more questions to ask but I guess they will have to wait. We humans on the planet Earth must be a thorn in your flesh. Thanks for sticking with us.
5 thoughts on “Okay, God 5: The Final Interview”
Thanks Joe. This was your most provocative essay on the God subject. For what it’s worth, here is my reaction: what you believe is important and all major religion share the same basic ideals of human behavior. What really matters is how one acts. Many people act out their faith in human relationships, in serving others and trying to perfect their behavior. Official religion helps a lot with this, but is not strictly necessary. But a spiritual life is necessary, I believe, in order to experience joy, love life and to act to better the world.
Thanks for the account of your interview of, and by, God. Although all of what He said was “silence” to us readers, He was obviously being received by you. That seems to be His modus operandi, very personal, one on one, and outside the regular five senses. That has been my own experience, one of which was so ultra profound on its own as to leave me a lifetime believer in His existence. Like you, I struggle with (dismiss) some of the language in some of the various creeds, especially the notion that all of the world’s non Christians are a priori goners. I consider such man made difficulties to be unfortunate annoyances in a much bigger picture. I can’t imagine how negatively different my life would have been absent the input of Christianity and the belief and faith in some very wonderful continuum following death, not least of which will be the answers to a lot of pestering and eternal questions.
Crossed fingers for all of our unchurched children and grandchildren!
Excellent! I’m sure God is happy with your explanations.
Living in the Virgin Islands and attending various local churches, I’ve realized the difference between those and your typical congregations. We were taught (yes, many years of perfect Sunday School attendance) to study, think, analyze – to worship with our minds. In the mostly Black churches, it’s obvious they worship with their hearts. No questions, just pure faith, praise, trust and joy. They clap their hands, dance in the aisles, and sing songs with a real beat that can’t help but raise one’s spirits.
When a friend asked his neighbor’s maid if she had carried that large rug out by herself, she replied, “Just me and Jesus.”
God, but this is beautiful
Brilliant, thought provoking, dialogue. You highlight three main contributions that religion makes to people’s lives: community, a concrete theology explaining the world and a moral/ethical code. The problem for Christianity is that not all of these “deliver the goods”.
For community, people now have Facebook. Not that it fully replaces a loving community of fellow Christians, but social networks can fill a void that church might once have filled.
For an explanation of the world, as you note, the Christian narrative is so out of date and at odds with modern science, that it is only possible to accept its version in a purely metaphorical sense.
As an ethical and moral code, religion probably still has plenty to offer. This is something that other institutions do not necessarily offer: a sense of what matters in the world and how we should try to focus our energies.
But I don’t get the sense the Christianity has reoriented itself around the new reality and de emphasize the other elements (especially the theology) enough to make churchgoing feel worthwhile for many people. They prefer to go to a soccer game instead. Or take a bike ride on a lovely spring day…that seems like church to me…