The Future of a Bronze Age Religion

By

David Skeel

  About fifteen years ago, I taught a Sunday School class that cycled through some of the poetry and prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. In what seemed like every class, a middle-aged man with blond hair who reminded me of Bartleby the Scrivener raised his hand and asked the same question: “What is the significance of the ‘remnant’?” While the word remnant literally means the piece of cloth that remains after the rest has been sold, in a biblical context it identifies the dwindled group of people who stay faithful to God. It didn’t matter to this man if the word was in the passage or not.  I confess that his fixation on such a bleak reference annoyed me, especially at a time when evangelical Christianity was on the upswing.  
  I was reminded of him and his persistent question as I read “Can the Meritocracy Find God?,” Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times column about the American “intelligentsia’s” aversion to religion.  The idea of a remnant seems a lot more relevant now than it did fifteen years ago. Evangelicals often point to the waning of theologically liberal Protestantism as evidence that evangelicalism is the true Christian faith. But the newly released data that prompted Douthat’s column—that membership in American churches, synagogues and mosques has declined from 70 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2020—suggests that evangelicals alone will not be able to preserve American Christianity. They, too, seem to be dwindling, or at most treading water.
   Douthat assumes this drop in numbers is a crisis and that a remedy is needed. But the remnant references in scripture mentioned earlier cast doubt on his assessment, at least for the evangelicals and theologically conservative Catholics whom he seems to be addressing. The prophet Isaiah, for example, saw the religious decline of his era as inevitable. At the same time, he insisted that some believers will always exist, and that this remnant “will truly rely on the LORD” (Isaiah 10:20).  Zephaniah, too, foretold of a remnant that will “do no wrong and tell no lies, nor will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths; for they will feed and lie down with no one to make them tremble.” (Zephaniah 3:13)
  Given these prophetic declarations, the precipitous reduction in church membership may not be altogether bad, especially if the drifters are more interested in the political or social dimensions of religious community than in the biblical ones. A small cohort united by the tenets of faith is likely to be healthier and stronger than a bigger one bound together by more diffuse concerns. The Bible calls this purification, akin to the refinement of silver or gold.  
   Of course evangelicals and other Christians will not deliberately sabotage their numbers and discourage new members. A key imperative of evangelicalism is sharing the “good news” of the Gospel. Evangelicals take seriously Jesus’ call (as recorded in Matthew 28) to “go out and make disciples of all nations.” At the same time, they surely understand that robust numerical growth does not necessarily correspond with robust spiritual growth.
  Apparently Douthat imagines growth of both kinds occurring through a widespread conversion of America’s intelligentsia, and though he doesn’t claim that this is imminent, he is at least moved by the thought of a large if improbable conversion. Mass conversions do sometimes occur—we’ve had at least two “great awakenings” in this country—but they’re unusual by definition (you can’t have a “great” awakening unless sleep is the norm), and they were not powered by members of an intelligentsia (an odd word no one would have used back then). During the First Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century, peers of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards were appalled that he defended its “enthusiasms.” Christianity bubbles up most dramatically from below, confounding the “wise,” not following their lead.
  What about individual conversions that take place less dramatically over time? A survey by the Barna Group reveals that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals (64 percent) became believers by age eighteen, with an additional 13 percent converting between eighteen and twenty-one. After people become established in their careers—intelligentsia or otherwise—they are far less likely to convert.  Evidently, it’s better to encourage Christians to enter the leadership class rather than to rely on mass conversions of the non-believers who are already there.  Yet—and here his logic mystifies me– Douthat bemoans the prospect of Christians becoming “psychologists or social workers or professors” rather than “priests and ministers.”
   Douthat sees two obstacles to the conversion of today’s intellectuals: 1) their commitment “to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life;” and 2) their “anti-supernaturalism.” When I engage in Christian apologetics (the formal defense of Christianity) I focus on similar issues, but I frame them differently. To make a case for Christianity in twenty-first-century America, I believe we need to address a pair of issues that currently dominate public discourse: social justice and the myth of scientific progress—the widespread view that God was once the default explanation for aspects of ourselves and of the universe that we didn’t understand, but that science is supplying answers to all the questions we once had.
  Regarding social justice, Christianity’s message should be utterly compelling. Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets spoke even more about justice than about the remnant. Few Americans today realize that Martin Luther King’s poetic call to “let justice roll down like waters” is a quotation from the book of Micah. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we are told that we’re all made in the image of God, thus laying the groundwork for universal dignity and equality. In the New Testament, Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our neighbor as ourselves. Later, he uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to identify exactly who our neighbors are (answer: everybody).
  This vision of justice has transformed the world. Christians living in the Roman Empire cared for the sick and infirm during pandemics while the elite Romans fled. Their belief that “there is neither … male nor female” in Christ empowered the women of the day, who were routinely treated as inferior. Centuries later, the concept that each of us is created equal informed our own Declaration of Independence, and it was the central theme of the abolitionist movement.
  Unfortunately, we’re so shaped by the Christian vision of justice in the Western world that credit is no longer given where credit is due. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is often treated as a self-evident secular principle, but it’s actually based on the principle that humans are made in God’s image. Attempts to find a secular basis for human rights inevitably founder. Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer envisions human rights as protecting our ability to “make plans” for our lives, for instance, which suggests that those without this capacity, such as the mentally disabled and very young, do not have rights.
  The Christian message also is impeded by the fact that Christian perspectives are most salient on issues where they are hardest for many Americans to swallow. The Bible clearly teaches that sex is only appropriate in the context of marriage, a view that strikes many secular Americans as silly. And evangelicals have been prominent opponents both of gay marriage and of abortion. These are the kinds of issues Douthat has in mind, I think, when he says that “the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life.”
  Truth be told, evangelicals’ hypocrisy—or at the least, the failure to live out their values—is an even bigger problem than either secular amnesia or Christianity’s countercultural sexual ethics. Evangelical couples live together outside of marriage, just like their secular counterparts. Prominent evangelicals such as my law school classmate Jerry Falwell, Jr. and famous evangelist Ravi Zacharias have engaged in tawdry sexual misbehavior. A majority of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite the gulf between his values and Christianity. And the debates about racial discrimination triggered by the murder of George Floyd have divided many evangelical churches.
  Christians and their churches need to model biblical justice rather than just talk about it. In some respects, this has always been true. As evangelical pastor Tim Keller points out, many converts were deeply influenced by observing Christians whom they admired. The process of conversion nearly always involves more than simply personal reflection on the claims of Christianity, as Douthat’s musings suggest.
  As to Douthat’s second obstacle—the intelligentsia’s anti-supernaturalism, or what I call the myth of scientific progress—I share his view that it’s weaker than it seems. In my conversations with two atheists a few years ago (one was a biochemistry post-doctoral student and the other a philosopher of science), both used precisely the same unusual term to describe Christianity: they called it a “Bronze Age” religion. From their perspectives, a religion that emerged over two thousand years ago can’t have anything meaningful to say about a world as complex as ours.
  Ironically, when it comes to many of the most important puzzles of our experience as human beings, the intelligentsia’s “science without God” perspective is remarkably thin.  Why do we have consciousness?  Why does beauty affect us so?  In his 660-page book How the Mind Works, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker devotes just one page to consciousness, the upshot of which is we don’t know why we have consciousness or how it works.  
  Throughout human history, mathematicians have conjured up abstract concepts that at the time seemed to lack practical significance but later helped others explain the workings of the universe.  A 1960 article by Eugene Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” chronicles how complex numbers, which were invented in the late eighteenth century and hinted at in the late seventeenth (if you’re not a mathematician, don’t ask just what they are) were deployed in the twentieth to unlock the mysteries of subatomic physics. The “science without God” perspective presumes these mathematicians hit the cosmic jackpot, randomly ending up with the intelligence to unravel complexities that help us make sense of the universe, despite the absence of an evolutionary need for such brain power. Christianity, by contrast, teaches that this is no coincidence.
  At some point, science may offer compelling explanations for beauty and consciousness (evolutionary psychologists are much closer to the former than the latter). But it won’t—it can’t—tell us what they mean. And this leaves me optimistic. Today’s intelligentsia may prefer not to take Christianity seriously, and religious membership may continue to decline. But Christianity is booming in China, Africa and Latin America, and even if the numbers do fall further in America, the remnant will be around to make its case.