Sitting on my hillside, awaiting the judgment (cf. Jonah 4:1-5)
Malachi Martin wrote years ago that America was founded upon a consensus achieved by balancing the tensions between those whose values were set by the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This meant that America had a majority of people who approved of the values of (Protestant) Christianity and the free inquiry of the University. What happened in the late 1960s was the collapse of that consensus. The (Protestant) Church no longer believed in the Reformation and the University no longer believed in the Enlightenment. He predicted that the only national institution capable of standing amidst the rubble and still hold up the roof was the (historically marginalized) Roman Catholic Church.
I'd say Martin was very prescient. If you look at the public debate these days, the Catholics have become the senior partner in the Evangelical-Catholic partnership to uphold traditional values. When the two groups quit despising each other and joined forces to address common concerns thirty years ago, it was the other way around. But even as Mainline Protestant Christianity has declined in numbers and influence, so Evangelical Protestant Christianity has also become more and more irrelevant.
Evangelicals are by nature fractious. There are too many groups, all confidently proclaiming themselves to be stewards of the faith once given to the saints. Now, instead of forming new denominations they just form independent congregations and don't even bother with the machinery of church much. Each little group wants to organize its own parade, so the total effect of their public pronouncements remains very small.
Evangelicals also got tired of being different. They used to be dowdy folk who wouldn't go to movies and all that. Now, they want to be cool. Among the results a generation or two later, we find for instance that the vast majority of young adult evangelicals (65% or 80%, I forget which, according to a recent study) have had or are having pre-marital sex even while they say it's wrong to do so.* Which is not to move the whole conversation over to sexual issues; I'm just pointing out that whether in dress or in behavior or in economics, the Evangelicals of today want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to be fully of
the culture, while still standing outside and critiquing it. That doesn't work.
The result of all this is that, even as the Roman Catholic Church is mocked by the arbiters of taste and value, it remains the only religious institution taken seriously throughout the society. Mainline Protestants have become "us, too" supporters of nihilistic progressivism; Evangelicals are like the awkward kid at school who tries too hard to fit in.
Okay, so here I am, a United Methodist elder. I don't want to be a Roman Catholic; if I'd wanted that, I had opportunities to go that way as a young man. I believe in the Reformation, particularly as it played out in England. I joined The UMC because I read the Articles of Religion John Wesley bequeathed to us and said, "I'd like to belong to a Church that believed that." But I found that among United Methodists, most of my colleagues were either Evangelical wannabes or progressives, neither of which is attractive to me. I look around and I don't see a lot of people -- at least, among the leadership of the Church -- who want to be who our foundational documents say we are. Even those who say they want to reclaim our doctrinal heritage most seem more interested in their own patent version of it than in anything that truly belongs to everybody.
The result is, I find myself adrift. I can't get excited either way about what General Conference is going to do later this month because I can't believe any of it matters very much. The best I can hope for is that they won't poke too many more holes in the boat, but that just means that we'll sink more slowly. In both religion and education, I feel like a fossil. The Church and clergy I belong to bear little resemblance to what I joined thirty-some years ago; likewise, what passes for education these days is pretty thin compared to even the leavings of the Enlightenment tradition I got growing up. I continue to gather the seekers and teach them the faith, I continue to pastor the flock, but it all has a Robinson Crusoe sort of feel to it, as of castaways improvising their civilization out of the flotsam and jetsam they have salvaged.
. . . thou didst cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
passed over me.
Well, like Jonah, if I find myself thrown up on the shore naked and covered in whale puke, bereft of all but the message I was given, I guess I'll still struggle to tell Nineveh a thing or two. What else is there to do?*This probably has much to do with the tendency to delay marriage which the whole society is experiencing. As someone said recently, it's one thing to ask young people to delay sex until they're 18, and quite another to ask them to wait until they're 28.