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The Church and the niceness creed

Here’s another discussion of social trends related to Christianity, this one relating to the themes about which opposition to Christianity seems to be crystallizing: A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration.

From the statistics presented it appears that the long-term trend toward explicit abandonment of Christianity is continuing, with self-described non-Christians now constituting 40% of those between 16 and 29. [Growing Proportion Outside Christianity] In the past few years the trend seems to have brought radical changes in general public attitudes. Just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties now say they have a “good impression” of Christianity. Common negative perceptions are that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%). The best most can find to say is that Christianity teaches the same basic ideas as other religions (82%). Many of the negative images have caught on even among young Christians. Half of young churchgoers said they see Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, and too political, while one-third said it was old-fashioned and out of touch with reality.

When young people were asked to identify their impressions of Christianity, the most frequent unprompted comments were “Christianity is changed from what it used to be” and “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.” These themes were brought up by one-quarter of young born-again Christians (22%) as well as non-Christians (23%). A perhaps related image that has grown in prominence over the last decade is that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual” (91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers). Many young Christians say the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else, and has not helped them apply its teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.

As pollsters and as present-day Americans the authors tend perhaps to believe that “the customer is always right,” and the questions seem to have been worded from a point of view sympathetic to the criticisms. Nonetheless, it’s evident that something important has happened. My general impression is that a post-60s understanding of human life has taken hold, one that reflects modern tendencies of thought much more directly and consistently than previous understandings. That understanding puts free-floating individuals and their feelings at the center of things, and so makes relationships (like family ties) that are objective and therefore sometimes indifferent to individual feeling seem incomprehensible and oppressive. In such a setting Jesus, government, the Church, and indeed all social institutions are thought to have the same job, tending and promoting individual feelings. To propose another standard is to be judgmental, and to suggest that the other standard has a place in our dealings with each other and therefore in our public institutions is to be oppressive and thus a fortiori overly political.

So what to do? It seems obvious that Christianity and indeed human intelligence can’t acquiesce in a reduction of human life to individual feeling, technology, and the formal logic that is at the basis of the ideal of equality. What’s needed is to face the situation, to recognize what’s wrong with it, and to know and live the alternative. Some thoughts from a book on those who survive catastrophe might be to the point:

“The behaviors and actions of those who lived and those who died were measurably different. The survivors recognized the ugly truth of their own imminent death quickly—this early recognition of reality—however harsh and frightful and depressing it may have been—was also at once incredibly liberating, in some ways exhilarating.”

So optimistic interpretations are not the answer. Certainly there’s been a better atmosphere in the Church since The Scandal blew away all the happy talk and forced people to face reality a little. We need much more of that. Very likely we will get it.

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