Friday, January 16, 2009

Fundamentally Pagan

Earlier this week, the Barna Group released the results of a survey which showed evidence that "half of all adults now contend that Christianity is just one of many options that Americans choose from and that a huge majority of adults pick and choose what they believe rather than adopt a church or denomination’s slate of beliefs." Journalist Jane Lampman of the Christian Science Monitor picked up on this report and correlated it with the Pew Forum's massive US Relgious Landscape Survey from 2007. One of the most striking findings of the Pew survey was that the majority of professing Christians believed that eternal life could be found in other religions. These results were confirmed last year by a follow-up survey conducted by the Pew Forum.

These findings are not particularly surprising, so I do not want to dwell on the details of them here. They merely confirm what we basically already knew - that Christianity in America is a mile wide and an inch deep. However, I do want to use these findings to point out a particularly bad blind spot for us as American Christians.

As is often the case, outsiders can see our blinds spots, and in this case, sociologist Alan Wolfe touches it with a needle. Lampman cites him as saying, "It's just part of a 200-year working out of ideas about personal autonomy and equality that are sort of built into the American experience. The notion that someone is going to burn in hell because they have their own beliefs is just not resonant within our larger political ideals."

Wolfe realizes that there is a built in contradiction between some of our most fundamental American ideals and biblical Christianity. Even more, Wolfe realizes that these tensions have been in place from the beginning of our nation. (For more on this, you can see his book The Transformation of American Religion. For a better evaluation than Wolfe's, see Carl J. Richards, The Battle for the American Mind.) This is what evangelicals in America have been refusing to see. And because we do not see it, we are becoming more and more "evangelized" by pagan ideals.

Many conservative (I use the term loosely here) Christians want to think of our founding fathers as the pinnacle of Christian civilization. But that is simply not the case. Our founding fathers embodied an unstable mixture of pagan thinking with their Christian heritage. The evangelical surge of the early 19th century partially obscured and to some degree mitigated the effects of the paganism, but even then Christianity was being inexorably democratized. The Civil War marked a great turning point, and, in my opinion, our nation gradually began conforming to pagan ideals from that point onward. The notorious Sixties were the culmination of this transformation, and since then our collective American thinking has been decisively controlled by paganism. This paganism has been working its way out into our laws and public institutions for the past couple generations. America today, while still having vestigial Christian influence, is fundamentally pagan.

Until we get this fact, we will not be able to repent and take the steps necessary to keep from being colonized by paganism. I fear that many Christians will respond to these kinds of reports by saying that we need to do a better job of teaching our people what we really believe. Well, this is most definitely true, as far as it goes, which is one reason that I advocate things like catechisms and expositional preaching of the Word. But sooner or later we are going to have to come to grips with the fact that you cannot have both American ideas of personal autonomy and equality and biblical Christianity. Alan Wolfe, who is no friend to conservative Christianity, can see it. When will we?

Update: Tim Bayly has a post on his blog that perfectly illustrates what I am talking about here.


Melanie said...

Pastor, can you give us lay people :) a specific example of "American ideas of personal autonomy and equality"? Or are you referring to Americans choosing what they want to believe from a "denomination's slate of beliefs"?

Jason Parker said...

Hi Melanie, thanks for your good question. The fact that we feel free to pick and choose our own beliefs, regardless of what anyone else says, is one specific example of our desire to be totally in charge in our own lives. Of course, this goes all the way back to the garden of Eden, yet certain societies express it more than others.

The most blantant examples are things like abortion, sodomy, euthanasia, genetically engineered babies, and no-fault divorce. How do we justify such things? "I can do what I want with my own body." "What I do in private is nobody else's business." "I have the right to be happy." In other words, we do not try to justify right and wrong on the basis of what God says, or even on the basis of any other authority above and beyond ourselves. We justify ourselves in terms of personal rights. This shows that the highest authority we recognize is "myself."

Now, this same kind of thinking is deeply embedded in the whole structure of our society. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once said, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is human autonomy at its most brazen and at its most insane. We don't want to recognize the legitimate moral claims that God and other people have on our lives.

Of course, no one can actually live this way consistently because of the way God made and governs his universe. But when we refuse to recognize God, we give it our best shot.

For more on this, you could see our notes on "Building a Culture of Faithfulness" Section 2. There you will find many examples and documentation.