From soon after the time both he and his mother almost died in the process of his birth, my friend Fr. W. Paul Jones -- once a United Methodist pastor and theology professor and now, at age 91, a Catholic priest and Trappist monk -- has urged the world to take life seriously (but in good humor) and to see reality with great clarity.
Never has that been more evident than in his new book, his 15th, Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World: Plight of the Modern Church.
His critique of the status of American Christianity is sharp. And his suggestions for how it can have any sort of future are fascinating even if they almost certainly will seem radical to some readers.
Jones, now resident director of the Hermitage Spiritual Retreat Center in Pittsburg, Mo., sees clearly that Christianity (and religion in general) in the U.S. is in sharp decline -- and that the future for it is bleak.
Indeed, the most recent polling from the Pew Research Center says that the number of Americans who now declare themselves to be religiously unaffiliated has grown to 29 percent, while the percentage of the population that identifies as Christian has fallen from 75 percent 10 years ago to 63 percent today. (The photo of Jones at a table below was taken last year at the retreat center, on the board of which I served for a few years. The other photo of Jones painting eves at the center is from a few years earlier.)
We've known for decades that Mainline Protestantism in the U.S. has been in consistent decline, but it's now clear that almost all branches of Christianity are in a membership and financial crisis.
Perhaps the only hope, Jones says, is for small groups of committed Christians to become remnants of the faith and to live out the tradition on a fully committed wager that Christianity speaks truth. And even if those self-chosen people are wrong about the truth of Christianity, Jones hopes that, like him, they would not want to live in any other way or be committed to any other spiritual path.
He then outlines what this remnant of Christians would be required to do to rescue the faith so that when others in the population (and in the church) finally give up on secular options and want to seek something authentic, healing, life-giving and redemptive, they will have an answer.
Jones' prophetic voice is insistent (as it has been throughout his career), confident and clear, even as he acknowledges that wagering on the Christian story means a true wager, not something scientifically verifiable.
Churches, he says, need clarity now about their diminished reality: "Mainline church leadership is unable to remain in denial, being forced into realism by the failure of their previously ambitious reversal strategies, acknowledging with growing alarm this pattern of rapid membership erosion."
Not even megachurches can hold together forever, he writes: "As demography inevitably shifts the centers of growth, desirability and affluence, megachurches, unlike commercial ventures, will be financially unable to liquidate their crystal cathedrals and move along with the dynamics, dotting landscapes with boarded-up religious versions of Toys R Us."
A big part of the problem, Jones writes, is that "the churches are increasingly unclear about what the sine qua non of the gospel really is. . .(T)he result is most often a Christianity that falls in upon itself. . .What if that which is gospel no longer sells, and that which sells is no longer gospel?"
Part of the problem, of course, is the reality of postmodernism, when everything is up for debate and all the meta-narratives no longer are convincing or reliable guides: "Ours is a world in which things seem out of control, rudderless in an ethos bereft of certainty about anything, its values shattered into the subjectivity of rival ideologies, society splintered into bewildered selves isolated by competitive individualism, and its institutions invasively controlled by the greed of transnational corporate capitalism."
Jones is not arguing for a return to the unquestioned old religious answers of rigid dogma. Rather, he wants a Christian faith tradition that will stand up against the dehumanizing practices and policies that lead to entrenched poverty in the midst of plenty, to racism in the face of God's insistence that we're all children of the divine and to military answers to almost all questions of conflict -- a faith, in other words, reflective of the divine, redemptive love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.
Without that kind of religion, he writes, "we are passing over a threshold into a post-Christian era that is irreversible. . .So erosively inconceivable for the postmodern mind is Christianity. . .that not only is diminishment of the churches relentless, but even the survival of Christianity itself is in question. I draw this conclusion as a practicing Christian, deeply committed to the Christian faith, but who is being forced to conclude that survival of any authentic vestiges of our faith depends upon our honest recognition of the crisis we are facing."
Having acknowledged that crisis, Jones seeks its causes and finds many -- from the church's failure to accommodate itself to scientific reality to its inability to extract itself from a bewildering economic system that rewards the rich and punishes the poor (the latter being the very people about whom Jesus cared most), to an economic battering of the middle class that historically has been the core of the church to a world in which even verifiable facts are in conspiratorial dispute.
The result, he says, is that "the empty pews are mostly reflecting the incredulous younger generations, but how much longer can the older adult church members continue to believe the literal physical imagery rehearsed in Scripture, liturgy and hymnology? Thus, the major diminishment of church attendance is still to come, because a goodly number of present church attenders are still holding on to this growingly unstable literal Christianity."
The options to respond to all of this are few, and most are doomed to failure, he asserts: "What is needed is a retranslation of the orthodox heart of Christianity into a way of living that has honest integrity in the face of the multiple limitations closing in upon the Christianity and the church that we once knew."
Some of that retranslation will require a recovery of wonder and awe at the gift that the wounded world is and a re-engagement with the ancient god questions that humanity has asked from the beginning: Is there a god? What can we say about that god that's helpful? Why are we here? Without mystery and an accommodation to ambiguity and uncertainty, we're lost. As I've said in other venues, and as Jones would agree, the opposite of faith is not doubt. Rather, the opposite of faith is false certitude.
Beyond that, Jones correctly asserts that everyone -- including atheists and agnostics -- lives by faith because of eternal realities that they cannot scientifically or in any other way verify.
There is much, much more in this book for serious Christians to absorb and to which they should react. But one of Jones' major points is that "Christianity can be true to itself only if it serves as a counterweight to the dynamics of modern society -- resisting external efforts to brush it off as fanaticism and internal ones encouraging domestication. The real diminishment the church needs to fear is that of losing its faithfulness to the God whose authority transcends that of the state."
In the end, Jones proposes various steps he thinks need to be taken and various options that can be used to create pockets of remnant Christianity, willing to hold to the core of the faith and ready to share it with people who finally find life now empty of eternal meaning. There are things in his proposal to debate, for sure, but the future for both Christianity and all of faith in the U.S. seems dire, and thank heavens there are thinkers like Jones out there suggesting ways to move forward authentically.
"Whichever option is chosen," he writes, "there will continue to be church closings, mergers of congregations, selling of church buildings, diminishing denominational translocal agencies, minimization of ecumenical ventures, online clergy training, part-time local pastors and an increasing reliance on lay leadership. This irreversible diminishment of the churches will be demoralizing unless a remnant alternative plan is put into place now."
Unless, of course, it's already too late.
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SOME GOOD RELIGIOUS FREEDOM NEWS
It took way too long, but the U.S. finally has a new U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. By a vote of 85-5, with 10 senator not voting, Rashad Hussain, the first Muslim to hold the post, has been confirmed. The last person to hold the job was Sam Brownback, former Kansas governor, who, the story to which I've linked you says, cheered Hussain's appointment. I found it a bit surprising that even Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), famous for promoting Donald Trump's Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, voted to confirm Hussain, who has been director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council. This ambassadorship is charged with promoting foundational religious liberty around the world.
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P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about an artist who grew up Muslim in India, fell in love with Jesus, makes Christ-centered art but who today is a member of no institutional religion -- now is online here.
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ANOTHER P.S.: I'd like to think it's the power of journalism that made the Pentagon the other day issue rules for stopping extremism by members of the armed forces. After all, I wrote about that very issue recently here. But, of course, the Pentagon has had rules about this in place for some time, though the new ones are considerably more detailed and have been in the works for awhile. Still, I'm glad to see them.