To Believe or Not To Believe. That Is the Question.

Strange times, these times. Many conventional Christian churches have been losing members for decades while mega churches are expanding, and many evangelical churches have gone all out for Trump and are part of the Maga movement. Some believe that Donald Trump is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. While some in my generation have tended to drift away from conventional Christianity, many have stuck with it although we and most of our friends have children who do not attend church regularly or, for that matter, do not have grandchildren who have even been baptized. When asked by surveys why former church members of mainline Protestant churches have thrown in the towel, often the reason cited is something like “no longer meaningful,” or “not relevant,” or “too busy.”

Embry and I have been attending a small, neighborhood Episcopal Church since the mid 1980s though our church has had it s up and downs over the years as have others. Being part of a small but welcoming and diverse religious community which is more than a social club is important to us, and that is certainly one reason we  have stuck with it. Embry has sung in the choir for more than thirty years, and we have both had held leadership positions in the church. Embry is currently senior warden, the top lay position in the church. Maybe another reason is just inertia. We have been doing this for so many years it is just part of our routine.

However, the decline of traditional religion and religious practice is a concern. Why is this happening? Where are we headed when so much spiritual energy is centered on a neofascist who could take the country into authoritarianism? There are lots of reasons for this, most more sociological than spiritual. The divide in our country along class and educational lines has gotten deeper, and many  traditional mainline churches are viewed by Trump supporters as elitists and examples of the establishment. Many right wing, populist revolutionaries see us “mainliners”—especially Episcopalians—as too snobbish and too woke and believe we look down on them.

That explains part of the challenges to mainline churches but does not fully explain why many former church members say conventional religion is no longer relevant in their lives. Part of the reason for this, I believe, boils down to religious practice and particularly religious language. There is a conflict for many between what we know to be true from science and experience and the religious language used in many churches—especially in the Episcopal Church.

For example, in the Episcopal Church what we say we believe does not sync with what we know to be true based on our education and experience. These are laid out in the two main creeds we Episcopalians say every Sunday, either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed: that humans are created in the image of God, that Jesus was God’s only son, that He died for our sins, rose from the dead on the third day (after spending three days in hell, according to the Apostle’s Creed) and that all (and for some, “only”) those who believe in Jesus as their savior will have everlasting life. Given what we know about the scientific understanding of the world, it is hard for many people to sincerely answer, “Yes, I believe all of these things.”

Afterall, scientists mostly agree that the Big Bang happened over 13.7 billion years ago, that our planet is 4.5 billion years old, and that there have been five mass extinctions wiping out over 85% all animals and plants on the planet each time. We humans are newbies since modern humans–and most world religions–have been around only a few thousand years. We also know the world will perish in about a billion years when our sun starts to become a red giant. We know that natural selection is how we evolved from apes.  We now know that the universe is millions of times greater than what we thought only a few decades ago.

The writers of ancient scripture lived before Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein. They did not have modern tools like the Hubble and Web telescopes, space stations, computers, and now artificial intelligence.  

Knowing what we know now, can we really say we believe that we humans are made in the image of God? Does God have two arms and legs and is a “he”? Really? No, we have it backwards: Humans have made God in our own image. Did Jesus really “descend into hell”? Did he really rise again and now “sits at the right hand of God”? Certainly, there was a resurrection experience, but do we know what really happened? And does this really make a difference in our faith?  

To insist or even imply that we should take the creeds and ancient scripture like the Bible literally makes no sense to some people of faith. It certainly makes no sense to me.

While we should take scripture seriously for what these ancient wise men were telling us about the meaning of life in their age and their time and their experience, we do not have to take their stories literally. If the stories are viewed as myths—sacred stories which convey profound meaning– then yes, there is truth in these scriptures and creeds, which have meaning for our lives today. For the contemporary, mainline church to stop the outflow of people who can’t say yes, I believe every word in the creeds and in the Bible, the message from the pulpit should embrace what the meaning is today of those ancient creeds, stories, and myths. And churches should focus on putting into practice what those stories tell us: “Love your neighbor.” “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

To be fair, many mainline churches are already doing this, and I would suspect that there is a high correlation between these “progressive” churches and robust church attendance.

 Of course, it is a completely different story among evangelical and fundamentalist churches, some of whom see Trump as their savior. Religion and religious practice have always been influenced by culture and politics. Our country has never been so divided since the Civil War, and there are no indications that it is going to get  better any time soon. The culture and political wars we are in now also includes a war of religions, or perhaps more accurately, a war of religious beliefs. How we end up is anyone’s guess. As both evangelicals and progressive church people would say, “Pray for us.”


Next installment: “God”

3 thoughts on “To Believe or Not To Believe. That Is the Question.

  1. In a former neighborhood, I used to drive often past a Freewill Baptist Church that had a big signboard out front, “WE BELIEVE THE BIBLE!”

    “Which parts of it?” I always muttered to myself.

    There is much to be learned from writings, sacred or secular, that aren’t actual truth. But that’s literal anathema to many “believers.”

  2. Jesus was poor and homeless, a child refugee from the Middle East. He was humble, against greed and wealth, and probably not light-skinned. He advocated loving your neighbor, even the lowest of them. He was not racist, nationalistic, xenophobic, or vindictive.

    So all those who believe the Bible and follow Jesus should surely follow his example?

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