Religion Today

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is American Protestantism undergoing an Evangelical Transformation?

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation created new ways of being Christian. From it arose the Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, and, later, Methodists and Baptists.
The area that would become the United States was settled by Protestants and remained almost exclusively under their sway until the 20th century when Catholic influence began increasing. Even as religious variety increased through the last century, the United States remained predominantly Protestant.
But Protestant Christianity is not monolithic and unchanging. It has undergone an "Evangelical Transformation" in recent decades. This new American Christianity is largely non-denominational, even anti-denominational, in both its institutions and its theology. It is entrepreneurial, rewarding individual energy, but it also shares key theological principles across the many evangelical organizations.
The Evangelical Transformation began in independent churches and small leagues of associated churches. In recent decades, many of these independent churches have grown to become large mega-churches. The leaders of some of them have risen to national prominence, such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren. These have developed almost exclusively outside the mainline denominations mentioned above, with the sole exception of the Baptists.
Alongside this movement have arisen religious organizations that are not churches, but to which members of these churches belong. These include Christian groups on college campuses, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They encompass men's groups such as Promise Keepers and women's groups, like RUTH. More formal institutions, such as Bible colleges and independent evangelical universities like Oral Roberts and Liberty, belong to the evangelical sphere.
We should not forget the radio, television and other non-denominational media ministries that have or have had a following. The most popular include Focus on the Family and the Christian Broadcasting Network, as well as Harold Camping's None are run by denominations.
The members of this increasing plethora of evangelical organizations share a common theology that consists of a few straightforward principles. While they may disagree over details, they are generally united in their primary beliefs. Some of the key ideas that distinguish them from the mainline denominations are:
First, true Christians are "born again." Each Christian has had a spiritual transformation in which they have recognized Jesus as their personal savior who has rescued them from their sinful life.
Second, they believe in the "literal" truth of the Bible. This means both that the Bible contains no errors of fact and that it should be understood literally. That is, evangelicals hold to what they consider to be the plain meaning of Scripture without any "interpretation" or resorting to metaphorical, symbolic or even historical explanations. Even though the theology of literalism denies biblical interpretation takes place, literalism actually constitutes an extensive set of rules about understanding the Bible which most evangelicals share.
Third, another common element is the belief that the Kingdom of God will arrive at the apocalyptic end of time. They believe that humanity is growing ever more evil and that the Kingdom will appear when humans are most depraved, probably quite soon. Most mainline denominations, by contrast, officially hold that God is gradually improving humanity as part of His salvific plan.
Of course, these three theological principles show up in mainline Protestant denominations, but Evangelicalism gives them a particular impetus. Biblical literalism enables evangelicals to accuse mainline churches of placing their distinctive theologies ahead of the Bible. In these denominations, they charge, the Bible no longer constitutes the sole source of authority. Instead, they are built on human ideas which the denomination cloaks as divine.
This has come to a head most clearly where science conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Evangelicals disagree with major conclusions of astronomy, geology and biology, especially human biology. Mainline denominations have often made theological innovations, by comparison, that enable them to accept the truths of science as well as Scripture.
Do these changes brought about by evangelicalism loom large enough to deserve a label such as "transformation?" Certainly. In the last 30 years, the mainline churches have lost their standing as the largest Christian movement in the United States to be replaced by the Evangelical movement. In the 1980s, the mainline churches were fully a third of the American populace, while the Evangelicals made up just 16 percent. By 2008, the Evangelicals had grown to 28 percent, while the mainline churches had fallen to 18 percent. Clearly, the Evangelical Transformation is already underway.
Note: The statistics used above come from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey compiled in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Buddhist Explanation of Extinction

A few years ago, the Smithsonian Institution hosted a major conference on science and religion. One key topic was whether nature and the universe contained evidence of having been created by divine purpose. Irven DeVore of Harvard, a professor of biological anthropology, argued that since nearly all species that have ever lived on the Earth have become extinct, God's plan "isn't working very well."

Professor DeVore's comment makes clear the difficulties when representatives of science and religion have a dialogue. The problem is that however learned people may be in their own area of expertise, their knowledge of the "other side" is usually quite small and is often limited to caricature rather than understanding. This is usually obvious when theologians talk about science, but is less clear when scientists discuss theology. Professor DeVore's comment provides the opportunity to bring out this point.
The idea that God's plan is not working requires the presupposition that God had one and only one plan. The extinction of so many forms of life indicates that this "one plan" is failing. Thus, if there is a God who planned, He does not plan very well. Since the notion that God can fail so completely argues against the idea that God is "all powerful," this must mean that there is no God.
Traditional Christian theology, by contrast, would certainly disagree with the idea that God had just one plan. Most Christian churches posit at least two plans: one before the "fall" of humanity in Adam and Eve, and one afterwards. The failure of the first plan does not make God any less God than He was before.
Although this point overcomes DeVore's argument about "one plan," it does not eliminate the notion of failure. Instead, it argues that God is God even when He fails. But if we look at the extinctions in Buddhist terms rather than Christian terms, we can even get rid of the notion that the extinctions indicate failure.
In Buddhist teaching, life is represented as a journey across rivers, over mountains and through deserts. At each stage, one uses only the assistance they need for that stage. Thus a person crosses a river with a boat, but once across does not put the boat on his back and carry it into the mountains. One may need a warm coat for the high mountains, but does not then wear that coat into the desert.
Using this Buddhist analogy, the series of extinctions are not the failure of one plan, but the use of alternative means in succeeding situations. In the life of the planet, one group of species was needed at one stage, but these were then "left behind" (to become extinct) at the next stage because they were no longer needed. These responses to professor DeVore's comment suggest the discussion between religion and science will continue for a long time to come.