Why Christianity Must Adapt -- Or Perish

There is a fundamental question facing Christian sects in America, an ideological distinction that cleaves the many churches into two different camps: is it better to fit the church and Christianity to the world, or is it better to mold the world to the faith?
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There is a fundamental question facing Christian sects in America, an ideological distinction that cleaves the many churches into two different camps: is it better to fit the church and Christianity to the world, thus keeping the faith relevant, or is it better to mold the world to the faith? Put more bluntly, whose vision of the future of Christianity is correct: the conservative, literal Baptists or the modern, liberal Episcopalians? Which is best for the people? Which is best for the world? Are their dogmas really so distinct?

The non-religious of the world will be quick to point out that this is in fact something of a new question, whether the religion should fit the culture or the other way about. Historically, Christianity's church held much more control and influence in daily lives of people around the world. The question of adapting the religion to better fit a morality in flux (most people would say for the better) was moot. The Bible and the Church were both the guide and the morality.

Modern times have changed the equation. Freedom to practice religion as one wishes implies less central homogeneity among Christians. Without a central core, doctrine can wander. Once you have the freedom to leave to find a better-fitting sect, start your own, or just stop practicing all together, it becomes much more difficult to corral a society. Unless a single sect so dominates a certain area, no specific church or even Christendom can exert enough control to enforce its views. I would posit that voluntary assimilation is no control at all.

This, of course, is why Brian D. McLaren is on the right path in his most recent work A New Kind of Christianity. McLaren is advocating a different, perhaps upgraded form of Christianity that takes a more objective view of history and employs a better interpretation of the Bible. This allows him to take what he finds good and best in that book, rendering it more applicable and accessible to a modern, educated people.

At least he recognizes the challenge. As humanity progresses around the world, unlocking the science of the universe, time seems to move more quickly. The pace of progress accelerates, from the depressed call of "nothing new under the sun" to the doubling of human knowledge every decade or so (estimates vary, pick your number); we now expect change as an inherent, paradoxically stable truth.

How does this fit with the literalist, conservative Christian view? You can see that it is intrinsically opposed; a more liberal interpretation of Christian doctrine could make space for science that promises the great, the life-improving, and the new. A literal interpretation of the Bible offers regressionism and leaves little room for progress. This is exactly where McLaren finds the inherent problem with modern Christianity, and the exact thing that must change: the Bible is a ballast.

What of a new Bible, one that makes more sense examining the past and is pro-human when applied to the future, releasing past dogma for improvements and corrections? As you may have guessed, it is not necessary to replace the physical work and words of the Bible; it is sufficient to have it become a new book via a fresh reading.

Now, where does that leave us? The temperate Christians among us might find that to be a fair idea, already having been employing it in everything but name. Most Christians read Genesis and Revelations as allegory and tale, not as fact. The proportion of Christians who take Scripture to be literal truth declines as the education of a population rises, creating an increasingly irreconcilable tension among intellectuals and the religious. Testament to this is the difference in religiosity shown between scientists and the average citizen.

The relevancy and perceived truth of the Bible among Christians and non-Christians through time has always been changing. But the general trend has long been towards complete repudiation by the non-religious, and reinterpretation among the faithful. McLaren is calling for a much quicker change, a larger, conscious adaptation of the religion's text and therefore the religion itself. This manifests as a firm repudiation of the most odious passages (e.g., how to enslave, when to stone, and so forth are to be disregarded).

Why should these changes be made now? Is there such a dire need here in the United States? In short, yes. The Pew Forum has a rather revealing recent poll that outlines a quick collapse of American religion. Quick, that is, in a historical context. Given that we have long been a majority-Christian nation, the Pew numbers of aggregate religion are a fair look at how Christianity is surviving in the States. What can we see? Of people born from 1981 on, some 26 percent claim no religious affiliation. Among people born between 1965 and 1980, the percentage of non-believers is a lower 20 percent. Heading farther back, those born from 1946 to 1964 are only 13-percent non-religious.

A doubling, that is, between the boomers and the most recent generation. As you know, doubling is a geometric function. If the number of non-believers doubles again in 50 years, then by around 2050, the United States will be a majority non-religious country. Clearly, if Christianity seeks to not only stay relevant but viable, it must adapt. The proof is in the numbers; Christianity is suffering.

The Biblical passages subjugating women to the back of the bus need to be let go to reach the modern woman, who no more expects to be treated as a second class citizen than to be beaten. The passages condemning people born homosexual as abominations need to be released to make the church inclusive. The blatantly incorrect attempts at science and history in the book need to be shut out if Christianity is to attract the educated who could not reconcile the Bible and the real world.

If Christians want to find some sort of hope to reverse the trend in the game that they are losing, they would be wise to listen to not just McLaren but also the person sitting next to them who left the Church because it never spoke to them. That person is the reason Christianity is suffering a silent crisis.

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