Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Back Where We Started

Interesting to note that the common thread in two articles in the February edition of First Things is the return to religious orthodoxy and the decline of the modern alternatives to it in both Christianity and Judaism.

Mary Eberstadt has a lengthy piece on the failure of Christianity Lite:

Even so, it is the still longer run of Christian history whose outlines may now be most interesting and unexpected of all. Looking even further out to the horizon from our present moment--at a vista of centuries, rather than mere decades, ahead of us--we may well begin to wonder something else. That is, whether what we are witnessing now is not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself.

By this I mean the multifaceted institutional experiment, beginning but not ending with the Anglican Communion, of attempting to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings--specifically, those regarding sexual morality. Surveying the record to date of what has happened to the churches dedicated to this long-running modern religious experiment, a large historical question now appears: whether the various exercises in this specific kind of dissent from traditional teaching turn out to contain the seeds of their own destruction. The evidence--preliminary but already abundant--suggests that the answer is yes.

If this is so, then the implications for the future of Christianity itself are likely to be profound. If it is Christianity Lite, rather than Christianity proper, that is fatally flawed and ultimately unable to sustain itself, then a rewriting of much of contemporary thought, religious and secular, appears in order. It means that secularization itself may be fundamentally misunderstood. It means that the most unwanted and unfashionable traditional teaching of Christianity, its sexual moral code, demands of the modern mind a new and respectful look. As a strategic matter, it also means that the current battle within the Catholic Church between traditionalists and dissenters must go to the traditionalists, lest the dissenters or cafeteria Catholics take the same path that the churches of Christianity Lite have followed: down, down, down.

All these are just preliminary examples of what is at stake in contemplating the great experiment of Christianity Lite--which is why the evidence for its failure is so compelling and important.

In a review of a book called "Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal" by Dana Evan Kaplan, David P. Goldman finds similar trends at play and even some shared root causes:

Orthodox Jews are having many children while non-Orthodox Jews are having very few and marrying half of those few to Gentiles. An often cited assessment of these trends by Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz has made the rounds for years, showing that within four generations the total number of American Jews will double if present trends continue, and 95 percent of them will be Orthodox. Linear forecasts are unreliable, to be sure, but the one thing on which the Orthodox and Reform communities appear to agree is that the former is growing and the latter is melting down.

Kaplan cannot bring himself to report the despair of Reform Jewish sociologists, but despair nonetheless pervades his pladoyer for an "inclusive," "nondenominational," and "moderately affiliated" Judaism. No stunt is too silly for anti-traditional synagogues to get warm bodies into the pews. It would be instructive to disentangle the cause-and-effect relation between the degraded practice and the deteriorating demographics of anti-traditional Judaism. Are Jews leaving Reform, Reconstructionist, and related congregations because the services ape popular culture, or do the services ape popular culture because "progressive clergy" will do anything to get "moderately affiliated" members in the door?

It's becoming increasingly evident, at least within Christianity and Judaism, that people don't choose to leave religions or abandon their practices because the religious beliefs and obligations are too challenging or demand too much of them. Rather, it's when these beliefs and obligations are watered down, modernized, and popularized to better fit the secular culture that decline in religious affiliation, attendance, and practice take place. As these trends continue play out they will alter the religious landscape in the United States and globally. It's also interesting to consider what they may mean for the future of Islam. Is it too a religion where orthodoxy will ultimately prevail and if so what does that mean for its relationships with other religions?

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