Christianity’s American Challenge


January 28, 2017

The most striking religious trend in the United States today is the growing percentage of adults who no longer identify with any religious group. When asked about church membership, they reply that they belong to “none.”  According to the Pew Research Center, these “nones” now make up more than 23% of the U.S. adult population. They are about on a par with evangelical Christians (25.4%); and they have moved ahead of Roman Catholics (now about 20.8%) and mainline Protestants (14.7%). The ecclesiastical exodus is strongest in Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism.  

Millennials make up a large part of the “nones.” Millennials are generally much less interested in organized religion — and also, contrary to what one often reads, less interested in spirituality in general. This is a sobering reality when one realizes that Millennials have now surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, and the Millennial generation continues to expand as young immigrants join its ranks. 

Certainly part of the decline in church engagement is due to a growing sense of individualism and a break-down in primary group relationships in American culture. Churches are becoming less and less close communities of faith where people know each other well. I find this particularly true in the Roman Catholic Church where due to parish closings, consolidation of parishes, and the shortage of ordained ministers, people find themselves becoming anonymous participants in services often led by rotating or foreign priests. The American political scientist Robert Putnam called attention to this trend over ten years ago in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam pointed out that Americans were becoming less likely to participate in associations— like joining bowling leagues – and were more often “bowling alone.” According to the National Conference on Citizenship, the trend continues today. In a recent report, they highlight the fact that today only a third of Americans are involved in any kinds of formal organizations. 

Examining surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Barna Group, as well as reviewing my own studies and interviews, I see five more reasons why Americans are dropping out of church. 

(1) Boredom: Increasingly many people, in all age groups, find their church experiences impersonal, shallow, and uninviting. Many long for a supportive Christian community where people know each other face to face. Many long as well for what one of my students called a “taste of the Divine.” Too often church leaders miss this point. A couple years ago a neighboring parish held a concert of sacred music on the Saturday before Pentecost. The church was packed. The music was powerful and deeply moving. When the concert finished, the congregation sat there in silence for a good ten minutes. People had been deeply touched and were lost in concentration. Then a rather nervous pastor stood up, looked at his watch and told people it was his bed time and he asked them to leave. The next morning, Pentecost, I was attended liturgy in that same church. There were only about twenty people present. Most looked disengaged. Without looking at us, the pastor read the same sermon he had given the year before. On my way out of church, I greeted the pastor as he stood at the church door. I chuckled and said that he had had a full house on Saturday night. “Yes,” he replied, “those were the heathens.” I looked at him and simply said “I think you are terribly mistaken. We should talk about this.” 

(2) Reality: Another reason why people are dropping out of church membership is because far too often they find the message of church leaders out of sync with reality. They often find church leaders more concerned about questions that very few people are really asking. And they ignore the questions that really perplex and bother people today. A friend in California wrote me about a young priest who, two weeks before Christmas, launched into a fifteen minute Sunday tirade about the evils of contraception. He told his congregation of mostly retired people that people practicing birth control should not be coming up for communion. He warned them as well about the evils of masturbation and pre-marital sex. He said nothing about where one can find signs of the Sacred in contemporary society, nothing about the questions older people have about life and death, nor how Christian faith can be an anchor and a source of stability in troubled times. 

(3) Sex: One of the big problems for the ongoing church exodus, especially in my Christian tradition, is the great ignorance about human sexuality that is still broadly demonstrated by church leadership. As I have said before, our leaders need remedial sex education. They don’t understand or don’t want to understand that since the 1950s, we have learned a lot about ourselves as sexual beings. Issues of gender and sexual identity must be seen more broadly. Biblical teaching and ecclesiastical pronouncements about sexuality must be understood in an historical critical context. Human identity, we are realizing, is far richer, more varied, and more complex than people realized fifty years ago. Nevertheless, far too often church leadership understands human sexuality as simply a matter of genitalia and procreation. They denigrate BGBTQ people as innately disordered, discriminate against them; and they fire them from parish ministry or from teaching in parochial schools. 

(4) Pro-life: Watching and reading reports about the recent March for Life in Washington DC, I thought about yet another reason people are leaving the churches: right to life single-issue barrel vision and the short-sighted political engagement of religious leaders. I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life. What I miss in much of the anti-abortion rhetoric is a strong pro-life agenda. Right now, today, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, is denouncing President Donald Trump’s critics for displaying what he says is an unprecedented opposition to the new president. Chaput strongly supports the new president because he and the new vice-president are (reportedly) strongly anti-abortion. Over the past year, Christian leaders have loudly and enthusiastically supported political candidates whose rhetoric has been strongly anti-abortion. They have been unusually silent however about those same political candidates who are avowedly racist and sexist (in often crude and violent ways) and unwilling to admit that pro-life means pro-child care, pro-health care, pro-housing for the homeless, pro-criminal justice reform, and pro-a-wide-range of humanitarian causes. Why the silence? Why the narrow vision? One Roman Catholic bishop, whom I know, rejoiced the day after the recent presidential inauguration: “I thank almighty God that we no longer have a president who is anti-life and a baby-killer.” 

(5) Cheap grace: Too many church leaders, and too many Christians, I fear, have sold out to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer was a young Lutheran theologian in Germany, as Hitler came to power. In 1937 he published his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was appalled when he saw how Protestant and Catholic church leaders supported Adolf Hitler very openly, enthusiastically, and with little restraint. He said they had sold out to cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he said “was preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.” Cheap grace asserts that the purpose of Christianity is to selfishly protect people’s own self-interests instead of sacrificially serving others. Cheap grace is comfortable and easy, because it offers no challenge. Cheap grace does not demand Christian Discipleship. “Costly grace” on the other hand, Bonhoeffer stressed, is being a disciple of Jesus and implementing the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer worried that in his day church leaders had cheapened the Gospel and that obedience to the living Christ was gradually being camouflaged beneath pleasant sounding formulas and attractive rituals. (Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo; and then executed by hanging on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.) 

In summary: Christianity’s contemporary American challenge is the challenge to us, church members, and to church leadership to accept the cost of discipleship. A church that lives in the spirit of Jesus and follows his teaching and example is a church that promotes community, compassion, and the charity of Christ for all. It is a church that grows in understanding and welcomes those who question. It is a church that seeks and celebrates “a taste of the Divine.” It is a church that proclaims there is no place in the human family for parading falsehood as the truth, and no place for denigrating and punishing people because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual identity. It is a church that will have no fears about losing members. 
 

Inauguration Day Reflection


January 20, 2017

If I could have a face-to-face and man-to-man chat with our new president, this is what I would like to say:



Mr. President:  By way of introduction I am an American and an older academic, a couple years older then you. For more than three decades, my primary research, teaching and writing has focused on religion and socio-cultural values in American (U.S.) society. I consider myself a patriotic citizen and come from a very politically active family.  

Although I have been a Democrat since the Nixon/Kennedy election of 1960, I have strong Republican DNA. Maybe that enables me to engage in respectful dialogue with people who don’t hold my personal political viewpoint? I am happy that, in the United States, we have at least two political parties. Monotone politics can lead easily to despotic dictatorships. Republicans and Democrats, with their differing viewpoints are nonetheless genuine Americans.We can debate, we can reflect; and then we can determine how we can best work together for the good of all in our society. That is an essential part of the American way of life. 

Yes Mr. President I must acknowledge that I did not vote for you; but I speak today with no animosity. I address you respectfully, because I do have some major concerns, as you become our forty-fifth president. 

Mr. President, one of my big concerns, as I reflect on contemporary U.S. Society, is the extreme socio-political polarization that is tearing our country apart. It is worse, Mr. President, than at the time of our nineteenth century Civil War. Sorry to say, sir, you and your election campaign have greatly contributed to this national tragedy. I am not writing today to condemn you or your supporters. I write to strongly suggest, however, that it is now your presidential responsibility and that of your administration to drop the rhetoric of animosity, to build bridges, and to repair the damage. 



I am reminded of the words of our Civil War Republican president. You took the oath of office with your hand on his Bible. Abraham Lincoln was speaking about Civil War America. You, Mr. president, could use his words today: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” 

Mr. President, you have often said you want to make America great again. Personally, sir, I think America is already great.  

When it comes to greatness, however, I would suggest that the genius of greatness is not located in overpowering other people or other countries. Greatness is not an exercise of self-centered power but an exercise of understanding, respectful dialogue, compassion, and humble collaboration. American greatness is reflected in the words of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  



Mr. President, there are a lot of people in our country, and in our world, yearning to breathe free. In 1987, Republican President Ronald Reagan told the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Why don’t you emulate President Reagan and demand that all walls be be torn down when they block people yearning to breathe free. There are concrete walls. There are legal walls. There are walls of ignorance, and walls of racism and prejudice. They all need to be dismantled. You and your administration can do this. 

Mr. President, I happen to be a Catholic and I was very surprised when I learned that a great number of U.S. Catholics voted for you. The argument I have since heard and read is that they felt compelled to vote for you because you are anti-abortion. I too am opposed to abortion but I am also pro-life. I hope, sir, that your administration will be not just anti-abortion but strongly pro-life as well. And pro-life for all.  

Being pro-life demands reaching out to lift up the poor, giving a hand to those whom you call “losers.” Pro-life is pro-education, pro-child support, pro-health care, pro-living wage, pro-single parents. It is pro-straight and pro-gay…..Being pro-life means that one truly does believe Thomas Jefferson’s words in our Declaration of Independence that a legitimate government must protect the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all.  

Actually, Mr. president I would like to see you establish a strong human rights commission in your administration. I would suggest that your commission insist, at home and abroad, on a strict adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. It was our Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who praised that Declaration for its “recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” and as “the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”  

Mr. President, throughout your campaign and even afterwards there have been a number of questions raised about your competence, your psychological health, your moral rectitude, and your commitment to truth and honesty. These are serious questions. As you begin, your presidency I strongly encourage you to seek the truth, reflect on the truth, and to speak the truth. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong Republican president. As I watched your campaign, I thought of his words. “The man who knows the truth and has the opportunity to tell it,” Roosevelt said “but who nonetheless refuses to, is among the most shameful of all creatures. God forbid that we should ever become so lax at that.” On another occasion, President Roosevelt reminded reminded Americans: “A true patriot must necessarily be a zealot and fighter for the truth.” Good advice, sir. Good advice for all of us. 

Well Mr. President I wish we could sit down and discuss these and other issues. You and your administration are introducing a major climate change in Washington. If the opinion polls and the news reports are accurate, more than half of our U.S. citizens, as well as millions of people around the globe, fear that your winds of change are launching, to use Shakespeare’s famous words, a long “winter of discontent.” Some very big challenges will confront you — and us — before we can all sing “spring is in the air.” 

For my part, in my teaching and writing I will do my best to promote genuine American values. I will endeavor to dialogue, especially when it seems to be so difficult. I will do my best to collaborate in maintaining the common good. I will challenge ignorance. I will challenge bullies who denigrate other people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. I hope, sir, that you and your administration will do the same. We must work together. We will not survive as a healthy and peaceful country unless we do. I remember the words of President Eisenhower: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”  

Mr. President, your presidency comes at a pivotal point in U.S. history. I hope you are up to the challenges that await you. I hope sincerely that the Donald J.Trump administration will be characterized by strong humanitarian leadership and unquestionable integrity. If not, sir, be prepared. I suspect that either the people will call for your resignation or Congress will remove you from office. 





A Quick Update


A very sincere thank you to those readers who have contributed to my blog fund. I am about 1/3 of the way toward my goal.

If you have any questions, you can contact me at my personal email:   jadleuven@gmail.com.

My next blog post will be 20 January…..a pivotal day in U.S. history for sure.

Warmest regards to all!

Jack

Avoiding Shipwreck in Cyberspace


It is difficult to predict the future and I have never wanted to be a prophet of doom. There are some realities, however, that appear rather clearly. A key theme for 2017 will be transition. We have the transition from the Democratic presidency of Barack Obama to the “breaking news” new presidency of Donald Trump. Changing White House residents is a big transition. There is a bigger transition, however, that will outlive any presidential administration.

For me the big transition in 2017 — which will increasingly impact our lives in the coming years — is the now rapid transition from physical space, where morality and civility govern human behavior, to cyberspace, where no one is in charge and words and images fly across the globe in a moral vacuum. Increasingly, cyberspace is where we connect with other people, buy our products, exchange information expressing our content or discontent, find “baby sitters” for restless children; and it is where we watch other people and they watch us. 

Cyberspace calls into question everything we know, what we want to know, or what we think we know. People can move easily from information to misinformation without realizing the difference. Is a comment on Facebook a statement of truth or a prejudicial or biased opinion, reinforced by multiple smiley-face “likes”? What is good? What is true? What people announce as goodness and truth? 

I am reminded of a quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch 22: “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” 

Is it enough to express one’s beliefs and attitudes, without some form of verification that they have an anchor in concrete historical or day-to-day reality? In November 2016, a Stanford University Graduate School of Education study reported that students had a dismaying inability to critically reflect about information found on the Internet. They even had difficulty distinguishing advertisements from news articles.  

Using the Internet requires careful observation and critical thinking. I discovered that a few years ago, as I began a genealogical research project about my paternal family. Encouraged by a friend, I went on the Internet. I googled the family name, and bingo I got all kinds of “helpful genealogical information.” What I discovered however was a hodgepodge of legends, conflicting family stories, some bits of history, many inaccuracies, and a lot of just plain nonsense. I discovered for instance that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana, when I know she died in Michigan, because I was there. I discovered that my wife is Belgian (she is Dutch) and that we have two sons. In fact we have only one son. I can make a long list of nonsensical Internet “genealogical facts.” Today I will only accept genealogical information that I can document with a birth certificate, marriage license, property deed, or death certificate, etc. 

One of my university students, told me not so long ago, that she feels increasingly lonely and often abandoned in cyberspace. She fears posting anything on a “social network.” She feels she has become an object of not-always-friendly observation by other students, by her part-time work employer, by her current boyfriend, and by her former boyfriend. She wonders as well about her two hundred Facebook “friends” who never react. Silent observers. She wonders who her “real” friends are and whom she can really trust and confide in.  

I told her we all need to avoid shipwreck in cyberspace. Since she was a student in my “American Way of Religion” course, I reminded her of John Winthrop’s speech, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop, an English Puritan lawyer, was one of the leading figures in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On 8 April 1630, four ships left the Isle of Wight carrying Winthrop and other leaders of the colony across the Atlantic. Winthrop sailed on the Arbella, where he gave a speech to reassure his nervous travelers that they could indeed avoid shipwreck.  

“Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity,” Winthrop stressed, “is to follow the counsel of Micah, ‘to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.’ For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one….We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together…”   

++++++ 

My Travel Advisory for Survival in Cyberspace 

          (1) Remember that all people have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Rights, however, imply responsibilities. Preserving one’s own rights implies a responsibility for protecting and preserving the rights of others.
          (2) Remember that every word and every picture that one sends into cyberspace will remain there. Probably forever. One must be careful about what one posts. It may return to embarrass, haunt, or hurt the original poster. 
          (3) Bullying and denigrating people online is neither mature nor humane. Acting responsibly requires dealing with issues, discussing differences, and respecting people who see things differently. 
          (4) We need cyberspace guidelines and educational programs for children and adolescents. Something like drivers’ ed programs. Well-equipped with smart phones and tablets, they are often playing with something far more dangerous and destructive than playing with fire.  
          (5) Schools and universities must insist on internet research protocols: exploring internet “facts” one needs a healthy skepticism and critical thinking skills; anonymous citations are not acceptable; and original sources must be found and indicated. 
          (6) In cyberspace one can find an enormous trove of religious and theological information. One finds as well an abundance of not so trustworthy religious and theological trash. Pastors, parish leaders, and educators need to help believers separate cyberspace chaff from whole grain Christian belief. 
           (7) Social networks do link people together; but cyber-connectedness will never replace the warmth and assurance of a face-to-face smile or a supportive pat on the back. A lot of people today truly need that supportive human touch. 

Safe travels in cyberspace……..

——

Dr. J. A. Dick — Geldenaaksebaan 85A — 3001 Heverlee, Belgium

jadleuven@gmail.com 



Yesterday has a Future: Christian Leadership in 2017 Epiphany Reflection


5 January 2017

During a New Year’s Eve dinner, a friend asked me if I would be watching the presidential inauguration on January 20th. I said I would of course watch some of it, but that I was not delighted that the Archbishop of New York would be involved in it. I said I do not want to see a Catholic blessing on the new administration, especially by a fellow who had such great disdain for the previous administration. My friend disagreed with me. He suggested it was an appropriate gesture by one of the country’s foremost Christian leaders.

Thanks to my friend, I started scratching my head about Christian leadership in the new year. What should we expect from Christian leaders in 2017?

I will try to be objective. In ten points.

(1) I don’t expect a Christian leader to have a big ego but a big heart. The authentic Christian virtue is love of neighbor not self-adoration. Over many years I have worked in the church and in academia with some great leaders. They were generous, hard-working, and supportive men and women. I have suffered as well under some oppressive authoritarian leaders who allowed their egos to run rampant, trampled over colleagues, and became not only ineffective but destructive tyrants.  

(2) I expect Christian leaders to be committed to their own self-improvement. Ongoing education is essential for all of us. A couple years ago, a bishop friend bragged that since becoming a bishop he no longer had to read any books. He started laughing and said he had “the grace of episcopal leadership and teaching.” I chuckled and reminded him that grace builds on nature…..and, pectoral cross and all, he still had to study. 

(3) Along with a commitment to self improvement, I want leaders who realize that they have to listen to others and be willing to adapt. Authoritarian narrow-mindedness is not acceptable. The context and situations in which we live do change. I want leaders so anchored in Christian Faith that they can collaborate, with people from the whole spectrum of religious and philosophical outlooks, in charting a new course in troubled waters. Constructive leadership demands an open, frank, honest, and wide-ranging conversation about what it means to be a human being today, whether gay, straight, male, female, or transgender. 

(4) 2017 is an historic year. We celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. This year especially, I want Christian leaders to be strongly and publicly committed to a truth-based understanding of Christian history, not an ideologically selective reading of the Christian story, nor simply a pious fantasy that makes one comfortable in anxious times. Truth is not the best-selling fabrication on the evening news. We must move beyond old misunderstandings and old myths. A commitment to truth requires that all leaders humbly acknowledge that no one individual, no single group, no single Christian church or confession possesses all Christian truth neatly packaged in particular rituals and approved doctrines.  

(5) As they reflect on the Christian narrative across the centuries, I want Christian leaders who understand the absolute necessity of an historical critical understanding of EVERYONE’s sacred scriptures and religious doctrines. So important for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim shared life together. Historical understandings, cultural interpretations, and a great variety of languages have changed and continue to change. Believers need to ask what a text meant back then and what it means for us today.  

(6) Shortly before becoming president in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt famously said on more than one occasion: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some contemporary leaders still try to emulate him. I want to see, however, a very different kind of leader. Nothing praiseworthy is accomplished by behavior that is meant to trick people and then badger them into compliance. I want to see leaders who base their leadership style on the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth not on Niccolò Machiavelli’s self-centered, crafty, crooked, and cynical manipulation of people and events. 

(7) Good leaders have the trust and confidence of those whom they lead: giving people confidence that he or she is leading them into a bright new day rather than down some dark tunnel into chaotic oblivion. Good leaders don’t demand trust. They earn it. 

(8) I want to see Christian religious leaders who do not position themselves in favor of one political party over another. Prophetic Christian religious leaders critically insist that political leaders in all parties recognize that all people are created equal and all people are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They collaborate in constructing a social morality that supports the common good and enables all of us to live more harmoniously in an increasingly complex and culturally-mixed society. 

(9) Finally….. everything I expect from an effective “leader” is what I expect from effective “followers.” That of course is our “at home” challenge. This coming year, it may be our number one challenge. This year we will either sink or swim, regress, or move ahead constructively. 

(10) And now: what about Cardinal Dolan’s invocation, later this month, at Donald Trump’s inauguration? I would like to see the Archbishop of New York speak and act as a prophetic Christian leader who courageously challenges the new administration rather than benevolently consecrating it. 



+++++

Finally…..

I conclude with a personal request. I am an older retired fellow. My old laptop is about to expire. Last week I was able to resuscitate it after three hours of careful tinkering; but I don’t think it has nine lives. I am basically healthy. I am still clear-headed, and my fingers still connect with my keyboard in a meaningful way. I would like to continue my writing and publications, as long as people believe I have something meaningful to say.  A number of people want me to write another book about faith and contemporary life. 
I hope no one takes offense at this; but, just once a year, I am asking readers of Another Voice if they would like to contribute something to help keep it going. My key areas of interest and ongoing research are: religion, politics and moral values in U.S. society; spirituality; the life perspectives and values of the Millennial generation; and fundamentalism and secularization in Europe and North America.
Perhaps there are readers or friends of readers who would like to contribute? There are no obligations of course. People wishing to contribute to my blog fund can send a U.S. Dollars check, made out to John A. Dick, and send it to me at my Belgian address:
Dr. J. A. Dick,

Geldenaaksebaan 85A

3001 Heverlee

Belgium
People wishing to do an electronic funds transfer into my USA bank account in Michigan or into my Belgian account, can contact me at: jadleuven@gmail.com. I will promptly send transfer coordinates. My sincere appreciation for considering my appeal. As always, my warmest regards to all!

.