I recently wrote about how church is good for you, the subject of considerable media attention since Harvard’s Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell released a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
Their review of recent research about religious life in America outlines three “shocks” that have impacted the modern American church: 1) the cultural revolution of the 60’s, that undermined respect for authority, 2) the rise of the evangelical church as a backlash against that, and now, 3) a backlash against that backlash, in which young people reject that solution, politically at least, and abandon organized religion altogether.
But the encouraging news here appears to be that faith is alive and well. And good for us. Church going Christian appear to make better neighbors than non-churchgoing Christians and their secular counterparts. They are more altruistic, more engaged, giving more and volunteering more. And generally they manage to do it without the sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal in other cultures.
And that’s the bad news too, not the absence of conflict but the absence of zeal.
Rod Dreher, writing for the Dallas News, says:
“Achieving religious comity has come at the price of religious particularity and theological competence. That is, we may still consider ourselves devoted to our faith, but increasingly, we don’t know what our professed faith teaches, and we don’t appreciate why that sort of thing is important in the first place.
There is no virtue in solving the problem of religious pluralism by losing our religious identity altogether. Or as Dreher puts it:
It is difficult to see how a religion that jettisons core teachings for the sake of popularity can endure. Nothing becomes a cheesy relic more quickly than the Church of What’s Happening Now, as demonstrated by the withering away of mainline Protestant churches that changed their theology to conform to cultural trends….. A religion that makes no demands on people other than that they follow their bliss and be nice to everybody else is a religion that has no power to change minds and hearts. It will not inspire people to heroic deeds of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Nor is it likely to endure.
Put differently, are we religiously tolerant or simply theologically ignorant? It’s an important question, because ultimately we are motivated by our particular beliefs. More general ones lead to apathy. There is no urgency and no responsibility in a faith that lacks certitude.
When we don’t clearly understand what we believe and why, it is easy to love our neighbor in the abstract. But a particular theology motives specific action for specific reasons. It requires an actual cup of water in Jesus’ name, rather than a metaphorical one.
More than that, a particular theology suggests specific answers to specific questions—like what must I do to be saved? Bread is not our only hunger.
And satisfying our spiritual hunger requires conversations with edges on them. We can love our neighbor, even if we disagree with him. We can even love him while we warn him of the wrath to come.
We can love him in deed and in truth.
Because truth is good for all of us.