Religion Today

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Repeating Cycle of Truth

Scientific exploration is designed for debate and working out differences. When studying a problem, different scientists approach it in different ways, studying different data with different methods and, lo and behold, they get different results. Remember when all cholesterol was bad for your heart and then, later, scientists discovered that some cholesterol was good for the heart?
It is not just that different scientists disagree. Sometimes one investigator will come up with conclusions opposite their earlier discoveries. It is good scientific procedure to announce and distribute the new results, but think for a moment of the personal experience. After years of publishing one set of conclusions, you start publishing ideas that contradict the previous ones. Embarrassment and soul-searching accompanies any such change, and colleagues will question the accuracy of your new work because of your previous positions.
In a religion, the same situation is more than embarrassing; it can be catastrophic. Religious pronouncements are often taken by the members as Truth, with a capital “T.” Issued by a god as a guide for belief or practice, such statements become hard and fast doctrines or rules that must be followed. Deviation from them can lead not just to embarrassment, but to expulsion from the religion.
Statements issued by a religion and its leaders in the past become Truth for the future. It becomes seemingly impossible to make a change in the present, even if it will produce benefits in the future. How can Truth change? If Truth can change, then it is not Truth. Right?
Because of this dynamic, it becomes difficult for religions to look to the future. They must always look to the past, and stay in line with their previous pronouncements. So, as the future comes toward them into the present, the Truths expressed in the past constrain their options for meeting it. The longer a religion’s past (i.e., the older it is), the fewer viable choices for future directions.
So, how does a religion change?
The Protestant Reformation provides a test case. The Protestant groups that arose during the 1500s and 1600s followed different paths, but two commonalities appear among the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Calvinists and others.
First, each Protestant movement created a new religious organization. By becoming new, they were able to divorce themselves from Catholicism’s past and, just as important, from Catholicism’s organization.
Second, the new types of Christianity then changed the past. For example, they altered the foundational sacred text, the Bible, by removing 18 books and parts of books from the Old Testament. Once that was done, nothing could remain the same.
Of course, a new denomination cannot stay new for long. To maintain itself, a religious organization must institutionalize its Truth. It must pass itself on to each new generation and transmit its True practices and beliefs. And, so, the process continues. After a century or two, a religious group has built up enough past Truth to begin constraining its future.
To address the future, then, new religious organizations must form. Today there are more than 300 Christian denominations in America, and that is not counting the independent churches. My own small town of 30,000 people has more than 40 different churches.
In recent decades, the “new” evangelical denominations have been on the rise. They separated from “mainstream Protestants” (sometimes more than a century ago). They then changed the past by giving the sacred text, the Christian Bible, a new character, as eternally valid, unchanging and literal.
The evangelical alliance with the powerful political ideologies of the Republican Party has brought them and their Truth into prominence and increased their membership. And they have done this at the expense of the older denominations.
But time moves on and circumstances continue to change. Alongside evangelical denominations, the new mega-churches are becoming more widespread, especially in urban areas. As new, independent organizations they repeat the cycle by eschewing denominational pasts and the Truth of those traditions for the new.
This has enabled mega-churches to adopt new forms of worship, experiment with new ways of building community, and to propound new beliefs and ideas. Freed from the past, they can create their new Truth as they and their congregants see fit.
Are these radical changes? Perhaps, perhaps not. The important point is that they simply continue the cycle of religious change that has been going on for centuries. Truth may not change, but humanity’s understanding of it is continually renewed.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

American Catholicism in Global Context

Make no doubt about it, American Catholics like their leaders. In a 2012 Pew Forum poll, 82 percent said they were satisfied with the leadership of their local priest and 83 percent approved of the leadership of U.S. nuns. Additionally, 74 percent of Catholics approved of the pope, while 70 percent approved of the U.S. bishops.
But, despite overall approval of their leaders, American Catholics do not hold to the church teachings which these leaders propound. More than 90 percent of married Catholic women of child-bearing age use or have used birth control (and thus so have 90 percent of married Catholic men), even though church teachings forbid it. Similarly, 54 percent of Catholics approve of gay marriage, even as the pope and the bishops rail against it.
At the same time, the American Catholic Church is changing. While the overall membership of the church is increasing due to Hispanic immigration, the traditional “white, non-Hispanic” membership (as the pollsters call it) has been declining for years. Fully one in 10 adult Americans are former Catholics; 40 percent of those born and raised in the church no longer belong. The vast majority of these cite the church’s teachings on sex and gender, ranging from abortion and homosexuality to birth control to the church’s treatment of women, as the reason for their exit.
With Pope Benedict stepping down, the challenges of the American church facing any new pope are clear. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among American Catholics over the church’s stands on women and sexuality. To revitalize the American Catholic Church, something needs to change.
Is that likely? Probably not.
American Catholics constitute only 7 percent of the global Catholic Church. Even if you add them to European Catholics, where the same gender and sexual issues are in contention, that totals less than one-third of the world’s Catholics. More than two-thirds of Catholics live in Latin America, Africa and Asia. And Catholic membership in Africa and Asia is growing rapidly.
While European and North American societies are pulling the church toward greater freedom in sexual matters, the societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America tug Catholicism in the opposite direction. The vast majority of nations in these regions consist of traditional societies, at least with regard to the roles of women and men. A few nations in South America, with Brazil being the most prominent, are trying to Westernize by relaxing restrictions in these areas, but they are noticeable as exceptions.
A far more important dynamic appears in Africa and Asia, where Christianity exists alongside Islam and, in some countries, is overshadowed by it. As we have become aware in recent years, Islam has strong traditions about the subordinate role of women in the public sphere. Many countries even have “morality police” who enforce traditions of modest clothing and veiling. Islam also is strongly anti-homosexual.
For their own protection and the safety of their members, all Christian churches in these countries have pursued conservative social agendas with a vengeance. Two African nations are in the process of enacting legislation punishing homosexual activity with the death penalty, with Nigeria and Uganda in the lead. They do not want Islamic vigilantes targeting Christians as morally lax.
The Anglican Church, also a global church with a strong presence in North America and Africa, has found that American advances in gender equality have so angered African Anglicans that the church seems likely to split. Whereas Americans have ordained both female and gay bishops, the African branches refuse to even consider women as ministers, let alone admit the existence of gay priests.
This same dynamic is playing out in the global Catholic Church as well. The pressures from the largest and fastest growing regions of Catholicism suggests that American Catholics will see little reform or liberalizing of the church’s teaching on sexuality and the place of women in the church.
As Benedict has said, perhaps a smaller, more unified church lies in Catholicism’s future. If the present dynamics play out as expected, this will certainly be the case for American Catholicism.

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