Over the last week I have seen plenty of commentary regarding the latest Pew study “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”. I’ve seen such commentary cycles before regarding their studies. As usual there is a lot of narrative making by different camps. By those who rejoice in news of any declining of Christian population, the gloom and doomers, the statistic arguers, along with the “this is the solution to the problem” camps. As par for the course there is a lot of noise mixed with useful data.
As a pessimistic/optimist, these types of studies don’t mean much to me. As I have written before Dickens described Church history when he wrote the famous opening lines:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …
Really his description in the Tale of Two Cities reminds me of St. Augustine’s City of God where he compares the City of God and the city of Rome at the time representing the secular world. There have always been swings both ways in which one city dominates the heart of the various cultures.
A lot of what I see are the “if only we do this” group who take whatever they are a proponent of in the first place as the solution. As a both/and kind of person I see positive contributions from many of these suggestions, but not that they are the one solution. Still what really surprises me is that the projections are not much worse. I still find myself surprised at the path my own faith journey took from atheism. When I see fervent young people practicing their Catholic faith I am surprised again. Despite the non-stop and seemingly overwhelming bombardment of messages people still pick up the cross and follow Jesus.
In an odd way it strengthens my faith that the world is not so much worse. Looking at all the despairing signs of the time with the culture of death and the attack on marriage I feel all these points of negative data should point at a much worse cultural situation. That I can discern movements of the Holy Spirit in all the goodness I do see. The modern world seems to be a factory producing crooked lines, yet these lines do not always stay that way. I think of the story of Joseph’s brothers throwing him in the well.
You thought evil against me: but God turned it into good, that he might exalt me, as at present you see, and might save many people.
I am not surprised that it also appears to be an increasing number of people who have some level of faith, but no ties to a community in that regard. But again I would have forecast that “Me and Jesus” and Sola Scriptura where you become your own interpreter would appeal more to our individualist streak. The rebellion towards having any authority over you. Checklist theology where you look for the church that matches your take and POV on the issues. Really this individualist take on religion appeals to much of the American spirit that you would think nones would be growing in leaps and bounds. Yet there is still the sense that this requires some kind of community.
It is always disconcerting when you see people leaving the faith. Especially as the reasons given usual show many misunderstandings. More often something personal than something theological. Seeing the “pearl of great price” I can wonder how they could give it up? Various scandals certainly play a role in this. Yet I have found my own faith to be scandal-proof. I came in to the Church just before the wave of priestly sexual scandals. While horrified at such stories I find myself repeating with St. Peter “Lord, where would I go? You have the words of eternal life.” Still there has been more than one occasion with I repeated this phrase in light of the news of the day. I consider it a minor miracle to have this viewpoint as it is contrary to my native pessimism.
Maybe what has helped me is that I came to believe in the Church before I believed in all she teaches.
“I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.” St. Augustine (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, chapter 5)
So instead of going down an internal checklist to see if the Catholic Church’s teachings matched up to my expectations, I instead struggled to learn what she taught and why she taught it. Not that this was an easy process. Much that I considered true had to be reexamined and that was not fun at all. Sometimes I feel the arc of my life is learning about another thing I was wrong about. Since the scope of my wrongness was so wide I am still funneling down to a point. When you search for truth the annoying thing is that you might find it and have to once again change in response. Even as a Catholic where hopefully I have indeed narrowed this down with the help of the Church; I still find that my prudential reasonings often end up in hindsight as “doh!”.
Often times when I write something I wish I was an actual writer instead of somebody with thoughts who manages to string together words and phrases. This post is an example of this as I try to advance my own “if only we do this” agenda for evangelization. Ecclesiology as a subject for apologetics seems to me a rarity. Usually much focus is on a set of familiar topics. That more focus should be on the authority of the Catholic Church and why this is so. The nature of the Church and her teaching authority given to her from Jesus is bedrock to my own faith. Still I realize that I make the same mistake as everybody else with their own hobbyhorse solutions. In that there is no cookie-cutter evangelism and that it has to be personal to every person. What will appeal to one person could drive away another. The temptation towards the narrative instead of actually listening to another person and seeing where you might be able to help. So with that in mind I try to read the various articles regarding responses in the new evangelism and try to add new tools without aways selecting the trusty hammer I prefer.
There has always been a tension in the Gospel call in that to be able to go out and spread the good news, you must first go out of yourself. I find myself often thinking “if only they would do this” or implement some program. Then I realize that again I am shifting my own Gospel responsibilites to others. Being self-reflective sucks when you are often in the wrong.