According to Douthat, American Christianity has lost its moorings from the harbour of the orthodox faith. We are in an age where “the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.” [i] Where accommodationists imitate Jesus’ “scandalously comprehensive love, while ignoring his scandalously comprehensive judgments.” [ii] A period when conspiracy theorists “feed a powerful interest in religion, but… tend to discourage real commitment.” [iii] The fundamental neo-orthodox teachings that once held Christendom fast amidst moral and theological battles through the centuries, are no longer the backbone of the American nation, and the whole country is reaping the consequences of it:
“Americans are less happy in their marriages than they were thirty years ago; women’s self-reported happiness has dipped downward overall. Our social circles have constricted: declining rates of churchgoing have been accompanied by declining rates of just about every sort of social ‘joining,’ and Americans seem to have fewer and fewer friends whom they genuinely trust. Our familial networks have shrunk as well. More children are raised by a single parent; fewer people marry or have children to begin with; and more and more old people live and die alone.” [iv]
As Douthat goes into excellent detail in explaining, the reasons are manifold but mainly due to the rise of Modernism, which has taken the institutional church by the horns and transported it into the heretical arena. In other words, the foundations of mainstream Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism) have been shaken, producing a big, fat exit door at the end of a downward sliding ramp for those within the institutional church.
Clearly Douthat is a firm believer in the orthodox teaching of our apostolic fathers, holding up Catholicism and Calvinism as the lighthouses that guide our ships to safe harbour. As he rightly points out, one’s fundamental beliefs, one’s theology, has everything to do with the quality of Christian life lived. Indeed, one cannot separate one’s personal theology from the subsequent ‘style’ of Christianity experienced. Many desire a religion that delivers the goods, for want of a better expression, ‘goods’ that do not include a watering-down of orthodox beliefs despite Modernism. After all, weakening of good theology results in a compromised faith, and as Jesus showed clearly through His teaching and interactions, one cannot sincerely and honestly follow God if one is compromising how one lives.
Knowledge is power, and a robust theology produces a robust Christianity, and in turn, a robust Church (and vice versa). Tim Keller’s church being a prime example. It’s more than the eloquence of liturgies and services, the blessings of the community or fellowship. As the author states, “renewal can’t come just from outside this country; it has to come from within as well.” [v] That’s where renewal begins and where we must place our focus if we are to turn back the tide in American Christianity.
At the end of the day, there are reasons why people turn away from the Christian faith, or from attending church. It’s not just that there is no cause to passionately fight as there was in the 60s. It’s about the authenticity of one’s relationship with God, grounded on a healthy theology. I firmly agree with Douthat that we need to revisit our theology and lay our anchors in the correct theological sea. I don’t necessarily believe that Calvinism is the way, the truth and the life, or the Institutional Church for that matter. But I can wholeheartedly agree with Douthat’s sentiment. We need to get back to the correct teachings of Scripture, and do something radical like, say, believing God’s promises, and start living like we do. After all, it’s only a solid confidence in Biblical teaching that prevents us from being blown about by the winds of modernism in the first place.
I would like to go even further and say that the re-strengthening of the Institutional Church is not the primary goal of our efforts. It’s about helping people find the authentic Jesus, the very Jesus who made “wild claims about his relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but a sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.” [vi]
I count myself as a follower of Jesus Christ because of my experience and encounters with God. He speaks to me through His Word, has saved and healed me, guided and provided for me. My experience of God is real and He’s made a huge difference in my life. People need to realise in our twenty-first century that the beverage in the red can is not the real thing; it’s actually Jesus. It’s time to point people back to Him and His promises.