In early May the Pew Research Center published its latest report: “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Since then articles and comments have clogged the blogosphere and social media in response.
The study is long and detailed. But what seems to have gotten the most attention is one particular finding. From 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans self-identifying as Christian has declined from 78.4% to 70.6%.
Some have hit the panic button. “Christianity is dying!” they say. This is generally followed by finger pointing and claims that we haven’t been trying hard enough to convert people, haven’t been doctrinally clear enough, or haven’t been morally pure enough. Well, strictly speaking, we most frequently hear that “they” have not been Christian enough in these ways to grow the faith’s market share.
|Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1888)|
I really don’t buy this.
My own sense is that God the Holy Spirit is radically reshaping his Church. Christianity is not dying at all. Some of its 20th century forms and practices have grown stale and have proven to be superficial. Notably, a substantial number of people are returning to ancient spiritual practices, and to sacramental worship in particular, and abandoning the seemingly endless and fruitless search for relevance and novelty.
Even though I am not hitting the panic button, I do think that our changing landscape presents us with pressing spiritual challenges. Chief among them is getting clarity about the nature of belief. Unlike some, I do not think that our challenge resides most fundamentally in clarifying what we believe. Instead, many of us misconstrue what it means to believe.
Of all the Sundays of the Church Year, there is no more appropriate day to reflect on Christian belief than Trinity Sunday. Along with the Incarnation, the Trinity is our central, non-negotiable belief. Now you might think that I’m about to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. And you would be mistaken.
Instead, I’m going to remind us that the Trinity and the Incarnation are Mysteries. We root our lives in and bank our lives on Mysteries. And yet some of us erroneously approach Christian belief as if it could conflict with natural science. We are mystery people, and yet some of us treat belief as if it were a kind of scientific knowing.
The kind of knowing that we have in the sciences and the social sciences will never slake our spiritual thirst and quell our spiritual hunger. Only believing in the way appropriate to Mystery will do that.
|William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s “Thirst”|
In the sciences and the social sciences, we describe and explain what we can observe. When we talk about mystery in a scientific context, we just mean “unsolved problem.” Our mind is up to the task of accumulating the data we need to solve the problem. Eventually. We will believe a scientific theory precisely because the evidence has proven it to us. Scientific truth is simply out there waiting for the mind to discover.
Spiritual and theological mysteries are nothing like this at all. In spiritual and theological reflection, we are not seeking to understand a thing whose nature we can discover through our own intellectual activity. Instead, we are opening ourselves to a deeper relationship with a person.
God is a person. Well, three persons with one being, actually. But the point is that what you can discover about a person—especially the person of God—is not the stuff of belief. Discovery finds what a person is. Belief is about who a person is. Knowing “who” happens only when the other person—when God—reveals himself to us.
God in his Godiness is a mystery. He is beyond our full comprehension. He is infinite. We are finite. This is not to say that attempts to understand God are fruitless. Instead, it means that belief in God is more than merely assenting to a set of propositions that we or some set of experts have demonstrated on the basis of evidence.
As I have explained elsewhere, “believing” in the context of faith is derived from a word that means “beloving.” To believe as we confess in the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creeds is not merely to agree with a list of concepts. Believing is to love the person that we are fumbling to describe. Our words winsomely suggest but never exhaustively capture the infinite depths of the God with whom we are deeply entangled.
|Jamie Wyeth’s “New Growth”|
Over time, and into eternity, we can grow in our belief. But our growth does not consist of accumulating more and more facts about God.
Growing in belief means to be increasingly inhabited by God. We develop our doctrines—our beliefs—by reflecting upon and articulating our relationship with God community.
God stretches us so that he may increasingly infuse us with himself. In the Incarnation, God remained God and became the man Jesus. And now the risen Christ—through the work of the Holy Spirit—is infusing us with himself.
That’s what Jesus was getting at with Nicodemus. Seeing the kingdom of God—in other words, living a God-saturated life—involves a transformation that only God can pull off.
God is infinite. We are finite. To receive God our souls must be stretched. The hunger we feel for God cannot be sated in the way that our hunger for food can be satisfied. Our stomaches are a certain size. We fill them. We don’t want any more.
Even as our souls have been filled to overflowing with God, we yearn to receive more of him. There is always more of the infinite God. And that infinite God wants to give more of himself to us. So he stretches us to receive more. We hunger to be stretched as we hunger to receive more.
This is what it means to believe in Mystery. To respond to God’s offer of himself to us.
Which brings us to a vital lesson that Nicodemus teaches us. He comes to Jesus at night. In John’s Gospel being in the dark means ignorance or lack of understanding. Nicodemus respectfully calls Jesus a Rabbi from God. Only, there’s much more to Jesus than that. And Nicodemus will have to stretched—will have to born from above—to receive the more that Jesus is.
People who believe in Mystery should live in this world as if we are approaching Jesus at night. What we have to say about God and what we think about God should always be spoken and thought in genuine humility.
|Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus”|
No matter how much God has poured of himself into us, we have received only the tiniest portion of infinite goodness and mercy and justice and wisdom and beauty. We can speak only in incomplete sentences, even though we believe them with all of our heart.
To paraphrase Richard Rohr, the truth is eternal. How we express that truth is not. God is triune. God became Incarnate in Jesus. But how we finite creatures can talk about these truths will always fall short of their infinite glory.
And this brings us back to how we can respond to the challenge of belief in light of the Pew Report. We can listen to others as they describe their own spiritual hunger. Living as mystery people in the world, we needn’t tell them how they have to think. Instead, after listening with compassionate hearts, we can share our love of Mystery with humility.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Cheneyville, Louisiana.