Easter is the Super Bowl of church, the weekend when people who ordinarily pay no attention to religious matters file into the pews in their Sunday finest before enjoying a nice ham dinner. However, even that tradition of occasional, ritual observance of religion is in decline. America may remain the most “spiritual” place in the western world, but organized religion is in its death throes.
As we ponder the mystery of Easter, maybe there is a new resurrection in the air. Is it possible that the death of organized religion with all its attendant trauma may be bring a hopeful new birth in its wake?
The number of people who claim no religious affiliation has been climbing steadily for more than a generation, but that’s not the startling statistic. There is an earthquake building as fully a third of young people now belong to the “nones.”
In his article in The Week Damon Linker asks “Why would a young person today be religious?” and finds few answers.
In responding to the indifference of the nones, religious institutions face two challenges. First, convincing the nones to recognize and respect their own religious longings. Second, persuading them that what the churches teach and demand can truthfully satisfy those longings.
My own view is that the first should be relatively easy to accomplish, but that the second may well be impossible.
If religion is supposed to provide us with simple, straightforward instructions on how the world works, then it’s easy to understand why each new generation has less need for it than the last. It’s getting progressively more difficult for anything to compete with science as a method for understanding reality. In a post-modern setting religion as Christians and Muslims in particular have generally understood it, can seem a bit ridiculous.
Take a look at some of the criticisms leveled by religious fundamentalists against the recent movie Noah and you can get a sense of the scale of the problem. Noah is a Hollywood movie based on a 4000 year old story about a man who built a boat and loaded it with a pair of every animal on Earth.
He then rode that boat for a month through a flood so severe that it killed off everyone else. As a result, every land creature on Earth supposedly descends from that Gilligan’s Island adventure. And what was the fundamentalist criticism of this movie? Apparently it contained “historical inaccuracies.” In an age in which information of any kind is available on your cell phone we shouldn’t be surprised that this religious vision is collapsing. As Linker explains:
Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world. Yes, we long for a coherent account of the whole of things. But we don’t want that account to be a fairy tale. We want it to reflect and make sense of the world as it is, not as we childishly wish it to be.
The tendency toward oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it’s especially acute in matters of religion.
Easter can be the peak of this sort of simplistic denialism; the most explicit and stubborn rejection of a world based on observable facts and empirical reality. And for most that’s what it will be, but there has always been an alternative. Ironically, our oldest and least embellished account of Jesus’ life describes the Easter story as a tantalizing mystery.
The Book of Mark actually ends at Mark 16:8 with this remarkable passage:
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
There’s your Easter. In place of certainty it gives us awe. It is an account so frustratingly complex that early scribes could not resist adding a crudely tacked-on sequel to tie it all up.
Mark’s ending isn’t the only example of this ambiguity. Let’s not forget this tantalizing nugget in Matthew’s conclusion to Jesus’ story:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.
In the final paragraph of the book the author of Matthew feels compelled to acknowledge that some of the disciples weren’t buying it right down to the end. The story was not as neat and tidy as they told us in Sunday School. Doubt was there from the beginning and it never went away.
Why mention this on Easter Weekend? Because there is no better time. Linker describes the challenge facing organized religion:
Until religion comes to grips with and responds creatively to the facts of pluralism, it will find itself embroiled in a battle against reality.
And that is a battle it is bound to lose.
In fact, the battle between science and religion over who can better explain reality is effectively over. For religion to remain relevant to the mainstream of our culture in the next generation it will have to surrender its rivalry with science over the world of empirical facts and focus on its strength – its superior ability to deliver meaning.
The maddeningly strange ending to Mark and the doubt expressed by the disciples over the resurrection are only threatening to a religion that seeks to reduce the complexity of our lives to a single, authoritative reality. Christianity as the pursuit of a tidy answer for each of life’s questions is an absurd fantasy, growing more irresponsibly childish by the day. Christianity as a means by which to wrestle with unanswerable questions and find peace in the presence of the infinite is as powerful and relevant as it ever was.
The death of organized religion, at least as we’ve practiced it over the past century and half or so, may be traumatic, but it need not be tragic. Easter is a story of resurrection and transformation. Perhaps that theme may be more relevant than ever for a religious establishment in deep need of a new birth.