(First of a two-part series)
I grew up in a church which was concerned with apologetics. We were forever worried about making ourselves credible. A lot of effort went into showing that the faith made sense, that being a Christian fulfilled rather than denigrated humanity. We devised all kinds of arguments intended to impress or discredit non-believers: proofs for the existence of God, arguments demonstrating why the human person needs God, and schemae that tried to demonstrate the validity of the church as an institution.
As a young man studying theology, I often met this kind of question in a classroom: “Imagine you are traveling on a bus and you meet an atheist, how would you talk about God to such a person?” Or, for those of us who were Roman Catholics, we got more specific: “Imagine you are on a train and meet a Protestant, how would you attempt to show that the Roman Catholic Church is the right one?”
Most of these arguments didn’t get beyond the safety of the classroom. I have been in ministry for 15 years and have, rarely, on bus, train, boat, or plane, met that questioning atheist or Protestant. Most talk on buses and trains revolves around sports, entertainment, politics, and food. Despite this, the old apologetics had some value, it helped make the faith more credible to those within it.
We still need an apologetics. However, its audience has radically changed. If I wrote or taught on apologetics today, I would pose the question this way: “Imagine you are sitting at your family table… where some of your own family no longer attend church or take seriously the church’s moral teachings, how would you try to prove that faith and Christianity are credible?” We’ve come a long way from the theoretical atheist on the bus!
The problem of faith in our time is the problem of unbelief among believers. For too many of us, faith in Christ is little more than a hangover…toxic residue from a former activity. What do I perceive as the issue behind this? The problem, I submit, both within and without, is a problem of credibility, the faith is no longer believable to, nor livable for, many in our age.
Why? Why is Christ known, but not really believed in? When I scan religious literature, I see various proposed explanations: Conservatives blame our present malaise upon lack of prayer and the failure of our age to keep the commandments, pure and simple. If we don’t pray and our moral lives are shabby, how can we expect to have a vital faith? Liberals point to slow renewal within the church as the cause. We are not really renewed, they argue. We still pray to God, talk about God, and worship God in mythical and medieval images.
We are schizophrenic in regards to religion. We live modern lives but try to live an old-time religion. Ultimately, this freezes God out of all the important areas of life. Religion becomes the great art form and the church becomes the great museum.
Social justice advocates submit that the problem is one of affluence. If Christ made a preferential option for the poor and Christianity is seeing life from the bottom, it is, quite simply, impossible to live as affluently and selfishly as we do and still have a vital connection to Christ.
There is some truth in each of these, but, in the end, the real reason for the erosion of faith and hope in Christ is something beyond all of these. What, singularly, are we missing today within Christianity that could make us credible to the world and to our own families?
Community. The greatest need in our time is, as Jim Wallis puts it, “not simply for kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel; nor for diakonia; service on behalf of justice; nor for charisma, the experience of the spirit’s gifts; nor even for propheteia; the challenging of the King.
The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be church….to offer to the world a living, breathing, loving community of church. This is the foundation of all answers.” (Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion, Page 109)
In the end, people are as agnostic about faith, Christ, and the church as they are about the experience of community. When there is a strong experience of community there is generally a strong faith. For example, wherever today we see a strong faith, we see, invariably, strong community… RCIA groups, cursillo groups, marriage encounter groups, social justice groups, charismatic groups, Bible study groups, third order groups. These are pockets of fervor within the church and it is no accident that all of them are linked to strong community experiences. As well, even in those Christians who are deeply committed and beyond first fervor, we see that ultimately their strength issues from community, the Eucharist, common prayer, and a shared morality and life within the Holy Spirit.
Christianity, in the end, is a communal endeavor. We believe in it when community works, we stop believing in it when community and family break down. Our primary task today is to live community. If we can do that, then the visible body of Christ, the church, will have an incredible resurrection.
(In my next article I will develop this further, showing how, outside of vital community, we cannot even preach the Gospel.)