"But there is a lineage here in which each of these so-called secular ideals clearly comes out of a religious tradition. I think that is Taylor’s whole point, that secularism as we know it would make no sense in a society that was not rooted in a Christian history. It’s the reaction to it and, in some ways, a fulfillment of it. As Taylor says, the Enlightenment, modernity, has fulfilled elements of the Gospel that were never fulfilled when the church had more power.
MARK JUERGENSMEYER: In a curious kind of way, it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of religion as Christianity, his complaint that the problem with Christianity was the church. The church often got in the way of the expression of religiosity in a more fundamental moral and spiritual way.
ROBERT BELLAH: That gets us into another theme. En route to that, we should remember
George Bernard Shaw’s saying that “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.”
But the attack on the church, or on what in America today is often called institutional religion, has become very widespread among people who still consider themselves “spiritual.” I’m not religious, which means I don’t go to church, but I’m spiritual, which means I read a book about Zen Buddhism or something.
So that’s another way of slicing up the conceptual pie here, which doesn’t really get away from religion as a sociologist would look at it. But on the other hand, it says something about the nature of our society, that even dignitaries of the church will often attack the “institutional” side of the church as oppressive.
But as a sociologist, I would tell you that if there were no institutional side, there would be no religion in short order, and these people that have their private spirituality—that’s going to disappear with them."
This is an excerpt from an illuminating interview of Robert Bellah, linked from this blog by Mark Juergensmeyer (the interviewer), noted by Andrew Brown. It forms a nice counter-point to my post below about Dave Tomlinson's visit to Nelson a few days ago.
The excerpt picks up a couple of ideas pottering about in the back of my mind. One is the idea that if we look at the New Testament and ask, 'where is the visible expression of an ever-growing concordance between the world and the kingdom of God (or, if you like, God's plan to bring all things into unity in Christ, Ephesians 1)?' then one non-answer is that it is the visible church, which is an ever-fracturing parody of the New Testament vision of the bride of Christ; and one answer is that it is the world slowly, two steps back and three steps forward becoming a more humane, more united world expressed (as noted in the full interview) in an increasing consensus about global values concerning human rights and ecology.
This ties in with Dave Tomlinson's point that the (Western) Christian tendency to understand the world around us as 'secularized' should be revised so that we see the spirituality of this world.
Another idea is that the distinction between church and kingdom of God, and (closely related) between church and mission, is vital to the future of Christianity. On the one hand we (often) miss the point of Jesus that he came to inaugurate the kingdom, not the church; and that the church is a vehicle for re-forming and re-newing Christians' involvement in the mission of God. On the other hand, we can work from this distinction to minimise or even deny the importance of the church, but, in fact, the church is vital to the future of Christianity for it is the vehicle which carries forward the gospel. A point well made in the interview is that 'private spirituality' is lost in a generation. Thus (in a somewhat crude formulation): if the future fulfilment of God's plan for the world is not to be hijacked by (say) extreme religious terrorism or extreme consumerism, it is vital that the gospel continues to be proclaimed, and the church (even the church as 'institution') is necessary for the continuing proclamation.
Something we did not have time to explore with Dave Tomlinson is where the spirituality of the secular age is heading. Is it possible that it is (in Corinthian terms) a 'wisdom' that is closed to the 'foolishness of the cross'?