People are looking for a reason to hope. They want hope, and they want a foundation for it. Take a look at the messages around you. The desire is everywhere.
Watch The Man in the High Castle. The theme of the series is the quest for freedom. The definition of freedom is mildly philosophical but mostly reflects our present-day understanding of sexual liberty along with a desire for spirituality. The type of spirituality sought is what we term “Eastern mysticism.” It is presented as fully functional while Judaism and Christianity are presented as traditional and cultural yet ineffective. The Judeo-Christian history is treated as archaic. The authors will not hear its message.
The series also reflects the era when it takes place, when communism (not simply “socialism” as it is called today) was thought to be the solution to injustice. That era, like ours today, was naïve about justice and its solutions. Yet it was a period of hope, a hope that socialism would solve the injustices of our nation and our world. This was the era of the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was the era of revolutionary poets and public preachers not only in the US but also in Latin America and Europe. A sense of hope for something better was everywhere and, it seems, was just about as empty as today’s quest.
Hope had its theological history in the US and Europe. But there was a shift in theology in the late 19th c. and early 20th c. where this hope disappeared. All this talk about a better world went away with WWI. The world would never be the same. War on a global scale was not only possible but was real. It happened. The church had no capacity to stop it for Christendom and its power were now absent. We were left with a weak Rome and a fractured Protestantism that had no capacity to speak to a government, any government, for they would not hear its message.
In politics this loss of hope took place in the 60s and 70s. Hope has been displaced with power. The hope for a world that solves the problem of greedy, impersonal capitalism could not. Movies like Holiday (Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn) that pitted the free-spirited individual against the impersonal and greedy old man. The 60’s revolutionary spirit grew until three things happened. The Beatles’ Revolution told them to stop because everything is going to be alright, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago showed them that violence was unproductive, and the bombing at UW Madison told them that they had lost the moral imperative.
The party of the left then switched by consensus from the soft socialism of Kennedy to the hard socialism of McGovern. This meant centralizing power in the government. The Kennedy ideals of a booming private economy through tax cuts was supplanted by the ever-expanding power of the state through regulation.
Politics touts public works as a political brand all the while giving little unless it leads to the centralization of authority. Positive liberty is for the politician not at all libertarian ideal. It exists as a brand commonly entitled “empowerment” while the actual power moves toward the government. Roe and Doe, for instance, provided the final codification of the power of the state to determine that some are not worth saving. Obergfell moved what was a matter of common law (marriage) to the jurisdiction of the courts. No longer do we define what it means to marry. The state now owns that definition. For more than my lifetime “infrastructure” was a brand that never came to fruition. Likewise “pro-life” is, for many politicians, a brand to be used for a campaign. This unwillingness and inability to deliver is why #WalkAway exists.
We can say “but God defined marriage” and practice our neo-Platonism in public. We treat the spiritual as one kingdom, our current life as another, and practice the principle of non-overlapping magisteria, that the two authorities my conflict in principle but not in practice. We’ve kept the kingdom of God outside of human affairs. We do so to the detriment of the gospel.
The church lost its message with WWI. Why? Because the very soon return of Christ to a redeemed and prepared world just wasn’t going to happen. All this talk for the century and more before the war now seemed like a lot of hype. Those who made predictions always walked away in humiliation, just as they do today. The congregant was worn down by the message of “maybe tomorrow” because tomorrow never came. Though there was a revival of this thinking with Chafer’s Systematic Theology following closely on the heels of the establishment of Israel as a free state, the problem remains. For the past 70 years we have been talking about the soon rapture (anyone remember The Late Great Planet Earth or Left Behind?) but we’re still waiting for the temple to be built. That could be a long, long time. In the mean time we keep wearing people down, not with talk about Christ’s return, but with how we talk about Christ’s return.
In church life it’s also about infrastructure over relational responsibilities. Most of church life is spent managing programs. Sunday School, AWANA, and the such, depending on your church background. That’s where a high percentage of volunteer time is spent. And managing it requires personnel, whether volunteer or career. In either case it is more people working and fewer people engaged outside the four walls. We are distracted from our mission. We have insufficient time to tell the message if someone did want to hear it.
The solution? Stop being a consumerist church. That’s what Sunday School and youth groups have become. We give people what they want. We don’t give them what they need. People generally don’t know what they need and we’re too concerned about filling the seats and collecting enough offerings that we won’t rebuild to a properly working system. The church is as consumerist as the rest of the world. It is we who are too blind to recognize it.