Strange as it may seem, I want to defend the claim that Christianity is, for all intents and purposes, no longer a vital force in this culture. I would say at the outset, however, that even if it is true that Christianity on life support in our postmodern culture, there are certainly many good people who profess to be Christians and attend church regularly. And there are Christian communities around the world that still share the deep beliefs of bygone days. Perhaps this is true even in this country, here and there.
But when we consider that a study conducted in 1993 concluded that only 19.6 percent of the Protestants and 28 percent of the Catholics in America were in church in any given week, we must pause. If we contrast this with that period of 1000 years in Western history when Christianity was a vital force, say, up to the Renaissance, I think I can make my case without repeating more than necessary what I have said in previous blog posts.
In the so-called “middle ages” atheism in Europe was practically unknown. The majority of men and women attended church regularly, sometimes daily and two or three times on Sunday. In addition, the invocation of saint-protectors, the cult of relics, the division of the day by the bells that sounded regularly from parish or monastic church permeated the air and threaded a sense of security through life’s many uncertainties. But one thing that was not uncertain was the assurance that a good life would be rewarded in heaven and a wicked life would be punished by eternal damnation. This was assured and it gave medieval people a center to their lives and a hope that is greater than anything we can compare it with these days. As Carl Gustav Jung said in his intriguing book Modern Man In Search of a Soul:
“How totally different did the world appear to medieval man! For him the earth was eternally fixed and at rest in the center of the universe encircled by the course of a sun that solicitously bestowed its warmth. Men were the children of God under the loving care of the Most High, who prepared them for blessedness; and they knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves in order to rise from a corruptible world to an incorruptible and joyous existence. . .
“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brothers, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”
Modern man, as Jung goes on to argue, seeks to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of this all-encompassing spirituality by amassing wealth and engaging in such fads as scientology, encounter groups, therapy, T-groups, creativity workshops, meditation, est seminars, and the like. These replaced the certainties of medieval life and the pervasive influence of the church with its many clerics, priests, monks, friars, nuns, lay members of various religious orders, all identifiable by their costumes — to the tune of from one to three percent of the entire population. The lives of these people were filled by the church and, as Henry Adams argued convincingly, much of the certainty they shared was due to the loving influence of the Virgin Mary whom they considered their own mother who would forgive them, regardless how great their sins, and lead them to eternal joy in the life to come.
There can be no question that religion generally pales today in contrast with the religion of those years. The causes of these changes cannot be identified with ease, but there do seem to be a series of factors that have brought about the retreat of Christianity and religion generally from the lives of the great majority of us Westerners today. As Adams argued, the Protestant Reformation severed the ties medieval men and women had with the Virgin Mary and, as a result, the Church began to retreat from their lives and seem somehow remote and abstract, though some might argue that the Great Schism and the widespread corruption within the Catholic Church created a sense of growing uncertainty. There was also the invention of the printing press, which made available to a great many more people the written word — especially in the form of the Bible which they could read for themselves: they no longer had to rely on someone else to determine how to live their lives. Further, the birth of modern science that lessened suffering and prolonged life on this earth while relegating religion to the dust bin of “superstition” had a powerful influence as well. And, of course, the birth of industrial capitalism, as I have argued in previous blogs, had a powerful impact, especially given the impetus of thinkers like John Calvin who insisted that material prosperity was a certain sign of God’s grace and love, whereas it had previously been regarded as a sign of earthly corruption. Add to this two world wars, recurring plagues and pestilence, especially as modern cities grew more heavily populated, and one can understand why many began to regard this world as “absurd” and ceased to believe in anything but what they could see, hear, and grab for themselves.
What resulted was a growing unwillingness to make personal sacrifices together with the retreat, slowly but surely, of a life centered around thoughts of the world to come as a release from the suffering that seemed inevitable in this world. These were replaced by a world view centered on the self and the security in this world that could only be assured by wealth and a solid social structure shielded by a strong military presence. Perhaps it goes too far to say that Christianity (if not all of religion) is “dead,” because, as noted above, there are sincere believers who seek to live good lives according to the commandments of God. But the number of such people has shrunk to meager proportions as the desire to gain material advantages has increased and spread throughout the Western world. To be sure, there are pockets of resistance to the spread of materialism, and entire communities that can still be called “religious” in a meaningful sense of that word — especially in what we derisively call the “third world.” Furthermore, there are certain elements of the Christian religion lying buried in whatever is left of our sense of charity, duty, and right and wrong. But as a generalization I think the case can be made that religion, for the vast majority of people alive in this century, is a faint shadow of what it once was: it simply does not comprise the center of most lives; it survives, if at all, on the periphery.