In my recent article in Post-Christendom Studies 5 (“What to Do About America’s Nones”), I analyze of the stunning growth of the religiously unaffiliated segment of the American population (the so-called “Nones”) and its implications for the Canadian context.
The sociological analyses of Peter Berger and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor help us understand how the secularization process has rendered Christianity in the United States as just one lifestyle option among many (rendering the US an increasingly Post-Christian Ethos) and how the mainline American churches’ responses to these dynamics have just exacerbated the situation. Various denominations have responded with efforts to make Christianity more “relevant.”
In line with post-Enlightenment theology in the West, they have reinterpreted faith in light of the individualist/subjectivist supposition of Immanuel Kant, along with prevailing therapeutic and managerial paradigms for the good life.
But these approaches have not been working for decades. Poll results on the growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated in the US verify that the prevailing liberal theological models may be making things worse. They seem logically to fall prey to German Enlightenment philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of relation, that it is nothing more than a human creation, the objectification of the best characteristics of human experience.
Because such subjective understandings of reality permeate American pop culture, the American churches are effectively presenting a view of faith which confirms most everybody’s suspicions about the fallacious character of Christian faith! With models like that prevailing in the American pulpit, church life, and the media, no wonder the Religiously Unaffiliated are growing!
To this situation, I want to offer some intriguing, fresh ideas about what to do. In my essay, I turn first to the famed twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth to provide us with a model for theology to refute Feuerbach’s suspicion that religion is just something humans make up to feel better. We need to present a version of the faith that is counter-cultural, which presents Christianity as standing over-against, critiquing, our private experience. This is a theology that is not about our experience, but a vision that actually presents God in Christ to us, contrary to everything that seems to be common sense.
In the Bible stories of the Cross and Resurrection we do not just read about Jesus; we actually meet him. And being placed in the shoes of the disciples, we are transformed by his presence like they were. No mistaking the Christian faith with something we make up on those grounds.
Of course, this insight needs tweaking to reach the religiously unaffiliated (though stories do grab attention). I think that scientific models have the best shot at getting notice from the Nones. Drawing on insights from quantum physicists and their reflections on the scientific quest, in my essay, I offer ways to package Barth’s insights in scientifically credible ways. This exciting, fresh theological model might just get the Nones’ attention. Post-Christendom may demand our theology become more scientific, and science is not just about personal, private experience.
[Editor’s Note: The above is a synopsis of Dr. Ellingsen’s article in Post-Christendom Studies 5. If you are interested in reading this article in full, it is available on the website here.]
Mark Ellingsen is Professor of Church History at the Interdenominational Theological Center
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*