In a December 19 opinion piece “A Tough Season For Believers” Ross Douthat of the New York Times presents a familiar but tiresome complaint against people whose practice of the season” he judges inadequate.
Many Christians at this season of the year find, Mr. Douthat contends, that, in the midst of our holy season, our
piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Mr. Douthat does not stop, however, with this familiar bleat about how poor Christians have had their holy Christmas kidnapped by awful materialists and sentimentalists, from whom he presumably excludes himself. He goes on to outline two recent books that suggest Christianity in America, where it was once a cultural force to be reckoned with, has squandered its potential as a transformative force in society.
He concludes with an important challenge to Christians.
this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
Douthat’s challenge is similar to one I proposed in my post “Religious Decline #2″ where I wrote,
Christians must come to grips with the reality that our spirituality operates today in the context of a bewildering array of faiths. Immigration projections for Canada indicate that in the future Christians are going to make up a diminishing percentage of the population in this country.
What will it mean for Christians to hold a robust faith in the reality of God manifest in the person of Jesus, while at the same time, honouring the profound faith and conviction of a Hindu co-worker?
A good place to start addressing the dominant culture that has no use for church might be to find ways to respect even people whose values appear to differ from those of traditional Christianity. An attitude of respect sadly appears to elude Mr. Douthat when he refers to “once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews” who “regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’”
Would we not be in a better position to address those “once-a-year churchgoers” if we began by affirming the faint embers of faith that cause them to bother being even a “once-a-year churchgoers”?
In a society where there is so little cultural support for even “once-a-year” appearance in the pew, can we not see a small seed of faith even in this gesture of faith?
If the voice of the Divine speaks only faintly and occasionally to those who feel some inner stir to attend church over Christmas, it is surely a better strategy to encourage them to heed that faint voice, rather than crushing it because they do not appear to hear it throughout the rest of the year.
In his long poem JerusalemWilliam Blake wrote,
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
The end of that “golden string” is everywhere. The job of the church is not to bash people for refusing to seize that string but to affirm its presence in their lives and encourage them to “wind it into a ball,” with the absolute confidence that “It will lead in at Heaven’s gate.”
Every Christmas carol played in every mall, every Christmas light decorating every Christmas tree, even every “holiday” card written with love is a touch of that golden string. The seeds of faith are present everywhere. The job of the church, especially at this holy season, is to find and support those tiny seeds that they may be nourished into a fully flourishing tree of life-transforming faith.