Thursday, January 23, 2020

Christianity may be in decline, but its influence is all around us

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, January 22.)

On a trip to Europe last year, my wife and I visited lots of churches – not to worship in them, but to absorb their history and marvel at their grandeur.

In Hamburg, I rode an elevator – a relatively recent addition – that rises through the skeletal remains of St Nicholas’ Church, once reputedly the tallest building in the world. Most of the church remains in ruins after being pulverised by air raids in World War Two, but the spire was spared because it served as a useful navigation aid for Allied bomber pilots.

In the 17th century Church of Our Saviour in Copenhagen, I climbed a famous external staircase that winds around the towering spire, eventually tapering to the point where there’s barely enough room to turn around.

In Warsaw, we lingered in the foyer of St Hyacinth’s Church, beneath which 500 Polish civilians – the victims of German bombing raids – remain entombed.

We were not alone in these churches, or in the many others we wandered into. Streams of tourists flowed in and out, testifying to the fact that these magnificent buildings now function principally as tourist attractions. Their doorways are prime spots for beggars, who presumably hope visitors will be infused with the spirit of Christian charity.

We saw very few people praying. There was one notable exception in Frankfurt, where we wandered into a big Catholic church in the heart of the city on a Sunday morning to find it packed with worshippers who spilled out into the foyer.

Camera-toting visitors kept drifting in, clearly not expecting to find a genuine working church, and were taken aback to be confronted by a man holding up a sign written in several languages and asking for silence.

It came as no surprise when we realised the mass was being said in Polish for members of Frankfurt’s expatriate Polish community. Catholicism is central to the Polish sense of identity and is likely to survive wherever there are Poles, long after the lights have gone out in Catholic churches elsewhere.

In the Danish town of Fredericia we visited a far less grand church, but one that was significant to me. The French Reformed Church in Fredericia was built in the early 18th century by the local community of Huguenots – Protestant refugees who had fled persecution in Catholic France and been granted sanctuary by the Danish king. They included my own forebears.

We were unable to see inside the church but wandered around outside, admiring its austere but elegant lines. In the impeccably groomed churchyard, we found headstones bearing my own surname and those of families to whom I’m related.

You can’t visit such places without being forcefully struck by the central importance of the Christian faith in the lives of our ancestors. Not only did it impel them to build magnificent churches that command our admiration centuries later, but it inspired great music and works of art that are appreciated as much today by atheists as by believers. 

It also resulted in wars, massacres and atrocities carried out in the name of God, some of which my ancestors experienced personally. Nonetheless, Christianity was a crucial building block – some would say the crucial building block – of Western civilisation.

Today, of course, it’s in rapid retreat across much of the developed world. In the 2018 census, 48 per cent of New Zealanders professed no religious belief – up from 42 percent in 2013 and 29 per cent in 2001. In many churches, the congregations consist mostly of grey heads.

It’s a similar picture in Britain, where Christian belief has halved in the past 35 years and only one in three people now identify with the faith that profoundly shaped their history. Britons of all religious faiths are now outnumbered by non-believers.

These figures suggest that Western democracies have entered a post-religious phase, but some scholars argue that people are simply pursuing alternative forms of spirituality. The English Christian theologian Peter Jones thinks we are seeing the rise of a new form of paganism that conveniently fudges the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong.

The paradox is that while an increasing number of people reject the idea of the Christian God in favour of a range of secular belief systems (including, bizarrely, a resurgence of thoroughly discredited Marxism), Christian values still underpin Western concepts of justice, freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It’s no coincidence that the world’s freest, fairest and most prosperous countries all have Christian roots.

Granted, Christian teaching has been twisted and corrupted for reasons that have little to do with God and a lot to do with human vanity, greed and the desire to exercise power and control. But although no longer a Christian myself, I don’t think we should discount the possibility that our God-fearing forebears recognised transcendental truths that we, the best-educated generations in human history, are too myopic or conceited to see.


Hilary Taylor said...

Yes. 2 things...why can't we have cathedral ruins post-quake here in ChCh..I'm thinking specifically of the Catholic basilica, widely-admired in the Sthn hemisphere, since the future of the CofE one is to be restored? Old Bish was in favour of some measure of restoration, new one not so much, and so, very sadly,demolition appears to be on the cards. And..the things that remain with us after childhood Sunday School & family services in the 60s...the hymns, the carols... music first for me, the Lord's Prayer, harvest services & the genial Minister in our Presby church raising his arms at the end of the service, or was it just one arm, and concluding with a...benediction was it? Perhaps I liked that bit because I knew it was all over, or soon. Rituals are quite fun & kids enjoy a bit of rote & adult modeling.

Odysseus said...

I think many people still maintain elements of religious faith but are not attracted to participating in organized religion which in many cases has become so "woke" it no longer offers a credible representation of Christian teachings. Churches need to return to Christianity's first principles.

Max Ritchie said...

"I don't believe in God but I do believe in Church" said one of my old British friends. Such a pity that we've thrown out the baby (principles) with the bath water (pre-science beliefs). Except of course for every public event these days when the stone-age rears its ugly head.

rowang said...

Some of the earliest forms of democracy were pre-christian, notably the early Roman republic. I suspect also that some people think that present day concepts of morality might be derived from christianity when in fact most religions incorporate some moral code. Scholars believe (as did Einstein) that a moral code can and would develop without religion. While it is clear the most robust democracies in the world appear to be in those countries where christianity is strong (but probably fading) it does not apply everywhere. In parts of Africa, South East Asia and South America where christianity thrives, democracy is actually at risk.

Brendan McNeill said...

American Sociologist Philip Rieff believed there have been three phases of human progression:

1) Pagan World - predicated on a strong sacred order that informed the social order.

2) Judeo / Christian world - again social order predicated on a strong sacred order.

3) Present world - Severed sacred / social connection.

He believes this is the first attempt in history to build a social order that is not predicated on a sacred order. His prediction is an unstable and precarious world.

Now you could argue that the world has always been unstable and precarious, and at one level that's true. However, for the first time in 1,000 years we in the West have lost the overarching meta narrative that provided the glue that held us together as a people and a nation.

Absent that glue we have descended into the world of identity politics and victimhood fuelled by the neo-marxist narrative of power and powerlessness, oppressed and oppressor. All the more surprising given the testimony of the gulags is still fresh in our collective consciousness, or ought to be if we taught history in our schools.

Apostasy is primarily a western phenomena. Christianity is flourishing in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America. We would do well to remember the admonition Moses gave from the Lord in Deuteronomy chapter 8 starting at verse 13:

"And when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today."

God is faithful, we however not so much.

khrust said...

The decline of Christian faith in our increasingly secular society has created a spiritual void. There has been a resultant widespread loss of meaning and purpose in life, that no amount of shallow materialism, pursuit of happiness or hedonism can ever fill. Consequently, our society is losing conviction / belief-in-itself and has become weaker and vulnerable. To complicate matters, extreme ideologies rooted in postmodern philosophy (and also Marxism) have found fertile ground in this spiritual void. As a consequence, the progressive left now have confidence to openly subvert our institutions and promote objectionable concepts such as moral relativism and extreme scepticism towards reason and science (except of course climate science). “Wokeness” is the new paganism – the unreasoning, intolerant and shrill behaviour of the woke is evidence that their activism has much in common with fundamentalist religion – in their case a religion which has parted ways with the Ancient Greek/Judeo-Christian/Enlightenment roots of our civilisation.

Vaughan said...

In science, the amazing and provable findings of quantum mechanics make it clear that much of what we assume-- or have assumed-- to be true, are wrong, The truth is often strange and counter-intuitive.

Religion, too, has had a similar challenge. We don't have to be confined in religion boxes with labels that deny other religions. Rather we can see the great faiths are chapters in the one book.

When we eliminate the false theories ( in science) and distorted interpretations (in religion) we can become more and more convinced that science and religion are in harmony.

Unknown said...

We may be the best schooled generation in history. We are decidedly not the best educated.

Paul Collits