Bonhoeffer Redux: Time to Panic
Church seeks spirituality of youth . . . and doesn't like what it finds - Britain - Times Online
THE Church of England has debunked the widely held view that young people are spiritual seekers on a journey to find transcendent truths to fill the “God-shaped hole” within them. A report published by the Church today indicates that young people are quite happy with a life without God and prefer car boot sales to church...The authors began their work believing that even if the young had little knowledge of Christianity they would still have religious or spiritual yearnings. They were shocked to find that they did not...The researchers were also shocked to discover little sense of sin or fear of death. Nor did they find any Freudian guilt as a result of private sensual desires.
Bonhoeffer said it in Letters and Papers from Prison, c. 1943 so why are we surprised? There is no God-shaped hole--the bourgeois, at home in this world, happy with his family, his work and his hobbies, doesn't need, or want, religion. The Existentialist theologians who try to convince him that he's missing something are wrong, and moreover are trying to create sickness where there's health to conjure up more business for the church. That's a paraphrase because the quote is ungoogleable.
Here's a thesis with significant empirical support, not only in the sincere avowals of secular youth--Sinead Berrigan, 19: “I don’t believe in God and I think, to a certain extent, religions are a waste of time. I don’t like being told how to live by a set of religious rules. I just want to be happy”--but in the global theological landscape. Religion flourishes where people are poor and powerless, and withers away where they have decent this-worldly prospects.
Bonhoeffer's response was "religionless Christianity": we don't need God but God needs us--to suffer with him and work for him in the world. This inspired the Christian Left activism of the '60s in which I was indoctrinated. But I don't think that my mentors, or even Bonhoeffer himself realized the extent to which it undermined Christianity. Why should we work, suffer or sacrifice, as Bonhoeffer did? We have a dilemma. If the answer is in any sense religious, what's in it for me religiously? If there isn't a god who dispenses reward and punishment, why should I bother? If I don't get to enjoy religion--the art and mysticism--why should I bother? I've had this discussion with colleagues in theology who're into "liberation theology" and hold that the whole business is about forming "base communities" for Latin American peasants. Well that's very nice but I keep asking them if the kickback isn't Bach (I'm now listening to Bist Du Bei Mir) and high liturgy why should I bother? If the Church doesn't provide any reward, if you liberation theologians take away all the goodies of religion and then demand all the shit work, why should I comply?
On the other horn, if the impetus is secular--some impulse to promote the good for people, work for social justice, etc.--why should I bother with religion? Yes, Bonhoeffer, a moral hero, had a religious story to tell but lots of other moral heros who resisted the Nazis, hid Jews in their attics and took on risk to do the right thing out of common decency, didn't have religious stories to tell. So what is the point of introducing the religious story into this picture? There's the dilemma if you start with the Christian Left assumption that the whole business is geared up to promoting political action in the interests of social justice.
It was only much later in retrospect that I realized how fundamentally conservative these '60s "radical" clergy were. They were dealing with people who bought the idea that they should be nice for the Kingdom of God's sake but assumed that being nice consisted in contributing to charities, operating soup kitchens and sending condolence cards to the bereaved. The aim of these priests was to push the idea that being nice consisted also in marching in demonstrations, working politically to promote a more just society and boycotting non-union grapes. Well that's right, but it doesn't address the fundamental question of people like me who wonder why we should bother being nice in any way in the first place--or what doing the right thing, whatever it is, has to do with religion.
In their advice to the Church, the report’s authors say that the first thing to do is “avoid panic”
But why? Bonhoeffer was right: there is no God-shaped hole in people's lives. And no matter how much clergy nag and whine they are not going to convince anyone that there really is--that their this-worldly happiness is an illusion or that lives that are good by secular standards are really desperate and empty. The message of the Christian Left has no purchase on anyone who isn't already religious: dispensing with the metaphysics may be a relief for dutiful Christians who've had it beaten into them that in addition to all the obligations of niceness they have an even more stringent obligation to believe metaphysical claims that they find implausible, uninteresting or simply incomprehensible but it's not going to do anything for secular people who never felt that sense of doxastic obligation in the first place or persuade them to buy into the ethics game. There are too few aesthetes and history buffs like me to support the Church and most people who have the yen for romance, aesthetic experience and metaphysical thrills get their jollies elsewhere--in popular music, in science-fiction, fantasy and ghost stories, in computer games, and in New Age products.
Even if the Church, using all that data from surveys and focus groups could reconstruct itself to satisfy a wider range of consumer tastes--and it's very difficult to see what that reconstruction would look like--consumers wouldn't believe it: most wouldn't even notice. After a generation or two of secularism, the Church is so remote that it's off the radar screen. The secular world provides all the goods and services reasonably comfortable people in affluent countries want and there's no point in looking any further.
Time to panic.