The truth is that Christianity has schismed gradually over the last two hundred years, and it’s a schism that cannot be repaired. I’m not talking about the formation of denominations, rather about a movement that has in some cases cut right through denominations. Nor am I talking about a difference in worship styles, or which version of the Bible is preferred, or other similar superficial yet sometimes significant issues. Rather, I am talking about a basic difference in how we understand the role of religion within Christianity. This difference has left us with three disparate Christianities, each so very different from the other that it is almost impossible to believe they sprang from the same root.
About one hundred seventy-five years ago Fundamentalism came into being in the West. It was joined about one hundred fifteen years ago by its cousin, the so-called Holiness movement. Today, they are almost inseparably linked and so I will refer to them as Fundamentalism/Holiness, or F/H. Fundamentalism holds to a literal Bible dictated by God and certain essential beliefs, or fundamentals of the faith. Holiness holds to a certain set of proscribed behaviors that must be avoided at all costs in order to be acceptable to God – behaviors that most of us outside the F/H movement find to be fairly benign. This movement also sees itself at war with the culture and tends to be unabashedly critical of the social gospel, preferring instead to put great emphasis on the Jewish Law – despite the fact that historic Christianity has seen Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish Law. In fact, F/H tends to ignore the social teachings of Jesus altogether, and sees his value primarily in his being for them a personal friend and ticket to heaven. They also hold an ironically non-biblical “sinner’s prayer” as essential to salvation. This system of beliefs insist on a number of litmus tests of faith and orthodoxy, many if not all of which are extra-biblical.
The second group is the moderate to progressive “Mainline Christians” (or M/C), both Protestant and Catholic. Generally members of historic denominations, this group tends to be less insistent on biblical literalism. They are accepting to varying degrees of the social gospel, tend to participate in the behaviors the F/H Christians see as problematic, but are generally resistant to change. Attendance in these groups have been slipping over the past sixty years, largely because the message and method of delivery haven’t been updated in over one hundred years. When M/C Christians realized their members were leaving in droves, they attempted to mimic those churches they saw as more successful in attracting members. They failed, because they were trying to be something they are not and ended up making superficial rather than substantive changes.
The third group is the eighty percent of Americans who have rejected the institutional Church. They are the Church Alumni Association, or CAA. The vast majority of these people believe in God, and many of them are former Christians who have been driven out either by the narrow-mindedness of the F/H contingency or the rigidity of the M/C faction. In fact, for the CAA the very practices of those two groups are barriers to God. The attention of the popular press to the F/H group and the presentation of their beliefs as normative for Christians has led members of the CAA to become even more distanced from all forms of institutional religion.
I used to believe that there were solutions to at least some of these divides, that those of us in the CAA should work to reclaim some language around our beliefs that has been co-opted by conservative groups. I am now forced to admit that such an effort would be ill-advised because it is doomed to failure from the start. The gulf is too wide between the F/H who want to control others, the M/C who want to uphold their status quo at all costs, and the CAA – many of whom want to follow the teachings of Jesus without all of the doctrine and dogma added on and all of the corruption present in the hierarchy of institutional religion.
The truth is that Christianity as we know it is dead already, and only appears to live on because most of the world has lost interest and doesn’t watch all that closely. There are individual communities here and there with some vitality left in them, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The good news is that a Phoenix will rise from the ashes that used to be Christianity, but for now we live in the interim period. It’s an exciting, but challenging, time to be a person who believes Jesus has much to offer the world, if only the world would be spiritual enough to listen.