Religion today is changing as never before, even beginning to welcome uncertainty as perfectly valid in religious experience. Indeed, the growing number of people who admit to uncertainty may well hold the key to the future, for that opens them to new perspectives on belief and practice which could prove fertile ground for the future of their faiths. Christianity is a prime example of that, as Dr Nigel Leaves, canon of Brisbane’s Anglican cathedral, made clear to the Sea of Faith national conference in Hastings last month.
Dr Leaves presented an overview that clusters the bewildering diversity in contemporary Christianity – now comprising an estimated 39,000 denominations around the world – into a smorgasbord of seven major types, each with its own emphasis and ethos. Boundaries are not clear-cut, however. Some people will find elements that appeal in more than one category.
One readily recognisable cluster holds firm to the doctrine that everlasting death awaits all who disobey God’s laws – but fortunately, Jesus bore the penalty for sin on our behalf, opening the way to eternal life. Shoring up that belief is the conviction that the Bible is inerrant, Jesus is a divine being, and the Virgin birth, Christ’s miracles and his bodily resurrection are factual events, and anyone who disagrees with that is not Christian.
A second category shares those core beliefs, but tinkers with church structures in so-called “fresh expressions”, especially lively, even jazzy, worship designed to appeal to younger people. These churches involve themselves in a range of “outreach” community projects. Televangelists and mega-churches built around a strong personality belong in this group. Many in the churches, however, are uncomfortable with that rigid theology. So a third major cluster retains the traditional church structures but recasts the message to take account of the knowledge explosion of the past 200 years.
Liberal Christians are at home here, as too are the “progressive” churches that have sprung up in most western countries over the past 20 years. Both present a more positive interpretation of what Christianity is all about.
Their biggest departure from a more conservative Christianity is their abandonment of the idea that Jesus died on the cross to bear God’s punishment for sin. American United Church of Christ minister Robin Meyers is among those who see Jesus primarily as a teacher, abandon metaphysical speculation, and promote Christianity as a way of being rather than a belief system. Faith is re-oriented towards a search for meaning. Churches in this group are affirmative of women, inclusive of minorities and strong on social justice.
Those categories would all call themselves “Christian”. Others venture beyond Christianity, or reject it entirely.
One centres on world religions considered as a whole. It sees each of them as a valid pathway to the sacred, but none as the only way. The universe of faith experience is wider than any one tradition.
Dr Leaves commented: “Here God is greater than all ‘gods’, and religions merely point to the existence of something greater than themselves.” A fifth group elevates spiritual experience above creeds and institutions, as reflected in the common phrase “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” This has produced myriad small groups, each with its own focus, expression, and label. Dr Leaves also places here those Christians who reverse the traditional pattern of believing, then behaving accordingly, then choosing to belong to a church, to a spiritual sequence of belonging to a community, behaving accordingly, and finally coming to faith. The goal is “a mystic unity with all that is”.
On the opposite side of the ledger, a modern brand of atheist attacks all of the above, insisting that science alone has the answers to the mysteries of life and can even determine human values. That makes of their atheism a total mode of the interpreting and living of life – which, of course, is one definition of religion.
The seventh category merges two other emphases as people try to find a niche for themselves within the modern Christian experience: they strip away all supernatural underpinning, and promote a secular version of Christianity.
That means they abandon any concept of an all-powerful, all-knowing God actually existing “out there”, in favour of a non-realist idea of God as a guiding spiritual ideal. And they promote making the Kingdom of God real in the here and now – with or without the church. In short, “an ethical humanitarianism”.
Not all of these clusters are mutually exclusive. People may well see merit in more than one. That, too, is a feature of modern religion.