Considering half our Christian faithful expect the Second Coming of Jesus within 40 years, why then is church commitment flagging? "Not affiliated" tops America's fastest growing non-religion. Those without affiliation has reached 20%, compared to 15% only six years ago, and a whopping 32% from ages 19-29 are non-churchgoers (compared to only 9% unaffiliated over 65). More dramatic still, according to Pew "strong Catholics" now total only 27%, reduced from 40% since '05 (vs. 46% in 1974), crowning a four-decade low.
If the Jesus sequel, and thus real world-ending "climate change," doesn't flush out the wayward, then the west's most established institution is lost in the desert. If god in the flesh, and the final disposition of souls, won't drive earthlings to the pews, Christianity must do more than "rebrand" its "life-line to immortality" message. Now if Jesus was spotted riding a New Jersey-size asteroid plunging at top speed, churches would sell-out corner rafters.
In fact, befuddled Christians deny the present like fallen,
rightwing fellow travelers called Republicans. Sure, let's rebrand the surface but not the core.
"Superior sound bites," goes this ploy, "will convey our sanctity and
moral relevance. 20 centuries verify that our right beliefs and righteous dogma
will best offset godless iniquity." Excuse me, but for millions it's not the promotion
(stupid!) but outmoded assumptions, messengers, and delivery.
Cross from Life to Death
Beyond pagan fertility rites (bunnies and eggs, if not bonnets), Easter again reinforces what's most unpersuasive about the Catholic, if not Christian core: obsessions with death, sin, Armageddon, and afterlife. That distorts the source, the evolved martyr's compassion and mercy that promoted peace, tolerance, even "love thy enemy." Does the church honor the spirit of its savior's words? Do adherents follow the scriptural Jesus as ardently as some fetishize the unliteral Bible? The ideology suspicious of this world, linking sainthood with eternity, deflects a full commitment to do good in this time and this place. Why bother with daunting dilemmas when ultimate reality looms, with guarantees of personal salvation?
The Good Friday-Easter procession dramatizes Jesus' gruesome agony on the cross, then resurrection, heralding a gospel of death that assures afterlife. But how persuasive is this reconfigured mythos by which a god-man far away and a half-dozen empires ago is crucified to offset mankind's "original sin"? That sin, from the beginning of time, is committed by two figures, with zero historical standing in a paradise beyond any GPS, who nibbled the "Tree of Knowledge." If only a detail shatters, so does confidence. Item: what about that ABC report, on the evangelical scholar certain Jesus didn't die on an actual cross (maybe a pole)? So much for the "crux" in crucifixion or the legend the cross was cousin to the tree in the garden. Christianity without a cross falls like Humpty-Dumpty; western religion stripped of Edenic transgression dies on the vine, as it were (some make the "apple" a grape).
Ultimately, does Christianity not rely on an especially magical, even peculiar exchange? Are not the redeemed those who best sanctify Roman torture, death, sacrifice and victimization of the innocent? Research now shows celebrated "saints" were punished for breaking explicit Roman laws, not for beliefs. No matter, actual life leads to execution delivered by non-believers, which then paradoxically assures heavenly good out from evil. However, the elaborate narrative, though raising Christianity above forgotten cults, breaks down if any portion is rejected. If original sin is a poetic fable, then Jesus didn't die for it; if there's no immortal soul, and no heavenly transport, let alone heaven, then wherefore comes perpetual joy? If any detail falls, or isn't accepted on faith, then Jesus was no deity, simply an enemy of the imperial state crushed along with countless others.
Defeat of Death Terror
True, Easter shows how Christian lore brilliantly improved on Jewish ambiguity about afterlife. Salvation from works or faith resolves the ultimate dread -- what to do about death? -- with enough details to stuff a dead saint (see Dante). We "know" more particulars about the stairway to heaven than ocean depths or outer space. The genius of church scribes -- elevating dying, crucifixion, victimized martyrs and saints, later enhanced with alleged physical reliques -- powerfully bridged mortality with immortality. Talk about staking out the heavenly property first. Who needs personal "near-death" experiences when a mass shines a white light at the end of dark tunnel? While Jews conceded souls return to God, they fell short fleshing in celestial blueprints, nor promising hard linkages between the finale and one's good works, holiness, contacts or temple fundraising.
There's potency galore in a liturgy (and popes) assuring both dominion into heaven and dominion over the earth, especially dealing with outsiders. "If salvation depends on rivals affirming Christianity, and they refuse, then killing fits the crime." Simple choice: die now unshriven or die later, with prospects. And it came to pass superiority of Christian/Biblical "dominion" reigned over lesser beings, especially heretics and non-believers without equal numbers or firepower. As Dubya's born-again mania echoed, "you're either with us or you're against us."
Along the way, Jesus the Prince of Peace got turned upside down, a lever for perpetual crusades going strong today. That's what comes from partnering with the Roman Empire and subsequent like-minded predators. Combining religious consent with technological mastery, church-friendly imperialism brings its crosses and altars, its myths of good vs. evil, to poor suckers otherwise locked out of heavenly gates. Christianity is hardly alone as a militarized dogma but, unlike creeds born after military triumphs, from Moses to Muhammad, Jesus is a most unmilitary figure of mercy, non-violence and love. Improbable, as I stated.
Yes, Dogs Go to Heaven
Incidentally, the primacy of heaven has incredible staying
power, endorsed by huge American majorities as their favorite top resting place.
Only long after 17thC. atheists began to doubt God's existence did iconoclasts openly
undermine heaven. Not until the 20th
C. did wits belittle a fairytale paradise "up there" somewhere beyond musical
spheres. H. L. Mencken compared the impossibility of democracy with equal
fables, "Arcadia, Santa Claus and Heaven." Heaven (and hell) for him reflected
"the puerile egos of inferior men," awarding provincial Christians "a device
for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth."
Unashamed assaults on religion by Marx and Nietzsche anticipated Mark Twain's
wit: "There is no humor in Heaven" and "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for
Finally, widespread current notions that eternal life recapitulates domestic family life are new, emerging in the 19th Century. Before that, no one dared assume (or declared as desirable) spending eternity with fellow family "inmates," especially saintly ones. Then, there's the modernized, if rank sentimentality about pets in heaven, per Billy Graham's stunning logic, "God will prepare everything for our perfect happiness in heaven and, if it takes my dog being there, I believe he'll be there." The mind reels, wondering about chocolate and sex. Even skeptical Robert Louis Stevenson nodded, "You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us." Salute the sainthood of dogs.
Unclear whether felines pass muster, though I expect any moment a special email approving consecrated cats fit alongside divine dogs. Talk about unlimited human projections and a most malleable belief system. "Is this heaven," a perplexed ballplayer asks in Field of Dreams . "No, it's just Iowa." Budge over, Uncle Max, and whose turn to walk the pooch?