Is the race over? Is Christianity done for? Have enough of its pillars been so weakened or rusted through with doubt and new knowledge that it no longer speaks to any but in an increasingly desperate and fanatical few?
Having spent the better part of 60 years in the embrace of the Church, I don't want to think so. But let's lay out the facts for a candid world to review.
The first Christians were convinced of a few things. One, that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that his resurrection proved it. Two, that the existing world order was rapidly coming to a close and Jesus would ride in on the clouds of heaven to destroy God's enemies and raise up his defenders -- a kingdom brought about by God and ruled over by Jesus and the Apostles. Three, that their allegiance to Jesus and his teachings would guarantee them a place (maybe even a high one) in that Kingdom. Jesus, then, was the Savior, who, while non-believers and sinners perished and suffered, would rescue his people from the terrible Day of the Lord.
That's the wide brush. In the finer strokes, the people that Jesus left behind would try to wrangle as many others to his cause as possible. Peter, Paul, John Mark, Barnabas and Luke were just a few among the many who crisscrossed the Roman Empire to gather recruits for the new Kingdom. They enthusiastically left home and security for the missionary's life of danger and death. The tales of their adventures and trials are still captivating and inspiring.
Aside from expecting the Apocalypse, Jesus's people also tried to carry on his other teachings, living the life that would be commonplace after God's intervention. They cared for each other and for the poor. They avoided war and conflict. They gathered together weekly to celebrate a meal. They sought to be hopeful, egalitarian, moral and joyful. They stood together in times of trial and persecution. They impressed their countrymen with their dedication, their sense of community and their fearlessness in the face of death.
In broad strokes, Christianity spent the next 1500 years building on this foundation, with interesting results:
- The church became a worldly power in its own right, dedicated to defending itself against outside threats and to spreading its influence, generally through violence
- Jesus the Messiah became Jesus Christ, God incarnate
- The Father trifurcated into the Trinity
- The rule of the Twelve morphed into a stratified hierarchy
- Care of the sick, forgiveness and holy meals became strictly defined sacraments
- Prayers, rituals and holy books became regulated
- The Kingdom of God, an immediate hope for a reversal of power in favor of the poor, became Heaven, where mistreatment was tolerated in this world since it would be rectified in the next
- Enormous amounts of time and effort were spent fighting for one version of the Truth or another, or arguing about the most authentic way to practice the faith.
Now, close to 2000 years after the Cross, we stand before ornate old churches that attract only a few grayheads. The resurgence of "faith" in the conservative churches bespeaks a nation that is falling back on the certainties of biblical literalism, fear of strangers and intolerance of diversity rather than the love and inclusion preached in the gospels. People are claiming to be atheists with unprecedented boldness. People are turning to scientific medicine for healing, electronic entertainment to fill their empty hours and drugs (licit and illicit) for keeping the demons at bay.
The threat of Hell, once the surest way to fill churches, is thankfully no longer being taken seriously -- except for those who are certain they aren't headed there. Prayer seems rather useless. A sick back is better treated by a handful of pills and a hot pack then a fistful of rosary beads. A sick mind is treated better with cognitive therapy or psychotropic drugs than with exorcisms and prayer. Geology, cosmology and paleontology are better tools for understanding our present and past than the Bible.
You don't need church to be kind to your neighbors. Kind-hearted people of good will are found in every faith and in no faith. "Do unto others" is not a Christian invention as much as a common recognition that we are all brothers and sisters. Church leaders and poster children -- like Kim Davis, the county clerk who won't give out marriage licenses to gay, or Pat Robertson who blamed 9/11 on lesbians, or Billy Graham, Jr. who is up to his neck in culture wars issues -- are distasteful to many and bring the religious world view into disregard.
Even death, the old enemy, does not absolutely need a churchy overlay to be made tolerable -- at least as seen by my experience of non-Christian wakes and funerals.
As the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercials once proclaimed, "You come a long way, baby."
So where do we go from here?
In twenty years, when the current crop of elderly churchgoers is devastated by illness and death, will there be enough congregants to keep Christianity going? Will it transformed into a hateful and paranoid cult that threatens peace and stability of families and nations? Will the apocalyptic message of ancient messiah continue to inspire people to perform feats of unimaginable goodness, strength and dedication? Or have we reached the point where the biblical worldview that has held sway for 3000+ years no longer satisfies, no longer impels and no longer inspires -- except for a fanatical remnant?
St. Paul's picture of the Jewish Law in Galatians 3:24 was that it was a pedagogue -- a slave who tended to children's education and safety -- who is no longer needed now that Christ has given his perfect law. Maybe the same can be said of Christianity. When devoted Christians run gay-conversion companies, reject negotiations with adversaries and threaten their peaceful Muslims with death and, conversely, when atheists are running charities, defending peace and talking in complete sentences, maybe we need to admit that the religious viewpoint is no longer relevant to solving the world's problems and may actually contribute to worsening them.
This is where I am today -- wondering if Christianity has enough gas in the tank to keep on puttering down the road. Tomorrow, I may feel a renewed energy to get up, re-lace my running shoes and do another lap. In the meantime, it feels so good here, lying flat on my face in my lane.