In the last 20 years, two seemingly different things have been happening. On one hand, we’re seeing the steepest decline in American religiosity, ever. On the other, more and more people are becoming interested in ancient religious texts discovered in the last generations. What can we make of these two simultaneous phenomena? And what do they have to do with each other?
I think at least three things are clear (although admittedly there are also other issues to think about as well):
- religion and religiosity are not going away,
- the increase in interest in the discovery of ancient religious texts is one sign of the longer-term staying power of religion,
- the current steep decline in religiosity and religion has mostly to do with the failure of religious professional and lay leadership.
First, I’ll explain my reasoning in suggesting the three opinions and then I’ll explore several other factors involved in them. Finally—since I have been a leader in the study of the newly discovered ancient texts—I’ll help us think pro-actively about the public future of the texts and the future of scholarship surrounding them.
Religion and religiosity are not going away.
Although it is quite clear that the decline in traditional American Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity will continue for some time, the current rebound in non-Christian religion and the strength of Latinx Christianity will continue in the United States. Overall religion in America will be more diverse and slightly less influential publicly in the foreseeable future. Looking at these various tendencies in the next 20 years, one can see Christianity becoming a minority religion, but probably still the largest. How strong and vibrant Christianity will be during these next two decades depends primarily on how much creativity and vitality it can produce. If Christianity remains static on the model of European Christianity after World War II, the next 30-50 years might well result—following the European model—in Christianity disappearing, just as most European Christianity has. If the next 20 years of American Christianity does reclaim imagination and ingenuity, there will be less continued decline.
The increase in interest in the discovery of ancient religious texts is one sign of the longer-term staying power of American religion.
The interest in ancient and especially ancient Christian texts in the United States can be a modest factor in vitality over the next 20 years; but the current disenchantment and lack of creativity in American Christianity will need additional kinds of shifts to see substantive growth for religion or Christianity. The connection between discovering these many (mostly Jesus-or-Christ-related) documents and the vitality of American religion is that knowing more about the emergence of a major religion is healthy for everyone, Christian or not. So much new and different information has come out—and is still coming out—in these new texts over the past 170 years these texts may change Christianity itself substantially. Or it may be—as I suggested above—that these texts only make a modest shift in the contemporary meanings and vitality of Christianity.
The current steep decline in religiosity and religion in the United States has mostly to do with the failure of religious professional and lay leadership.
(I include myself in this failed leadership from time to time.) Specifically, religious leaders have not acted courageously and thought clearly enough about the huge changes in life in the United States over the past 150 years. Rather than critically and creatively throwing ourselves into the countless ways human existence has been altered, American religious leadership has mostly simply been frozen. By and large, leaders have not tried to discern how religion can proactively companion humans in growing and learning.
Perhaps the most cogent thinking about the precipitous decline in American religion and Christianity is the very prominent self-diagnosis and American cry: “I am more spiritual than religious.” Interestingly enough, this alleged distinction between spirituality and religion is not at all unrelated to the current fondness for recently discovered ancient religious texts by those who are ‘spiritual but not religious.’
It’s not difficult to see that “I am more spiritual than religious” makes sense to a lot of Americans. Indeed, it is a quite poignant combination of some deep new attraction in the longing of the American population and the anger/irritation of Americans about religious organizations. It really seems to be true that many are quite drawn to non-American religious experience and completely fed-up with American religious rules, rituals, and clergy. That millions of people in the United States have given up on church, synagogue, or prayer in order to practice yoga or Buddhist meditation is undisputed. And, of course, there are a lot of people who like reading The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Thomas, and many other new or very old ancient discoveries.
Early Christian texts can be used creatively to help churches in decline create community.
In my frequent consulting work for declining churches, I often use the “spiritual but not religious” line to help old, faltering churches understand why people don’t like their church but why they might like a new Asian meditation technique. As you may also have heard, the fastest growing spirituality these days is the “nones” (not nuns), as in, “What is your religion?” “None of the above.”
So, in addition to being a professor and scholar of recently discovered ancient early Jesus texts, I am also a church consultant trying to get church leaders to be more creative and open-minded so that their churches might attract ‘nones’ or ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Or, put another way, to flirt with desperate church leaders so that they might produce new worship services from rediscovered ancient Christ texts.
It does sound a little gimmicky, doesn’t it? This brings me to the underside of the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ line. It is my longer experience (as a pastor for 40 years that successfully helped turn a number of declining churches into growing ones) that one of the deepest longings people have is for a viable and authentic community. It seems to me that one of the main things that brings many people into a spiritual or religious community is just that: community!! Americans are lonely, and honest and open community helps many of us be authentic and more alive ourselves. Synagogues and churches—when they are working on all cylinders—do religion, spirituality, and organization. They can also be real and viable communities.