For the better part of the last decade, I have found myself persistently interested in a subject that, on its face, is a rather grim prospect for someone of my personal and vocational commitments — namely, the rapid secularization of Western society, the undeniable advent of a post-Christian era. When I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the ’50s and ’60s, church-going was even then far from universal. But most everybody, as it were, had a particular church that they didn’t go to. And a reasonably well-educated adult could be presumed to be familiar with the broad strokes of the Christian narrative, even if fuzzy on most of the details. Fifty-plus years later, of course, the situation has drastically changed. We’ve probably all heard anecdotes like the one about the department store jewelry counter clerk who, when asked about the availability of cross necklaces, responded, “We have many to choose from. Some are plain and some have a little man on them.”
None of this is new. We have, arguably, seen it coming since the Enlightenment. But we seem now to have passed a tipping point. Twenty years ago (give or take), Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas published their seminal work Resident Aliens, denoting the sign of that tipping point as the day in the 1960s when the managers of the Bijou Theater in Greenville, North Carolina decided to keep it open to show movies on Sunday nights, thus entering head-to-head competition with church youth activities. What may have seemed like a bold observation in the 1990s has now become axiomatic. It seems like nearly every day that there’s a new survey making the rounds in social media with one more prediction of imminent demise for Christianity in Western culture. Christians are certainly having to learn to navigate a terrain in which their faith is no longer privileged and presumptively honored even by those who do not practice it. Actual persecution may not yet be a clear and present danger for Christians in North America and Europe, as it is for our brothers and sisters in central Asia and parts of Africa, but we can perhaps see such a threat from where we sit. Mostly, however, Western Christians face confusion about how to respond faithfully and missionally in this unexplored territory.
Indeed, how ought we to receive this reality? The evidence for the deconstruction of Christendom (the civil-cultural-religious infrastructure that perdured pretty much from the Edict of Constantine until that Sunday night the Bijou Theater stayed open) is irrefutable, so simple denial is not an option. Within my adult lifetime, one might have plausibly hoped that the whole thing would roll out so gradually that the Church would be able to adjust on the fly, responding tactically rather than having to think strategically. But, if anything, the pace of change has accelerated, not slowed. “Best practices” for church growth that were quite standard in the early years of my parish ministry are woefully obsolete now. One could, of course, adopt an attitude of fatalism, and grudgingly accept that which cannot be defeated or resisted. But what fun is that? Rather, I would propose that the secularization of our society be greeted by Christians with a warm and enthusiastic embrace, veritably with a kiss.
Why? Because I went to Cuba. Well, not completely and solely because I went to Cuba, but the experience did crystallize the issue for me.
This past Easter Week, ten of my colleague bishops and I spent five nights and parts of six days on the island at the invitation of the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Cuba. (This trip was planned before the thaw in relations announced by the two relevant governments, and before the Diocese of Cuba voted to rejoin the Episcopal Church, from which it has been separated since 1961, but those two things did indeed happen and had an influence on our experience.)
Upon the ascendency of Communist rule in Cuba in 1959, Cuban Christians experienced a sudden and artificial version of what contemporary North American and European Christians are now experiencing more gradually and organically. The Church was deprivileged. Christian belief was officially ridiculed, and Christian practice was constricted and marginalized. Atheism was enshrined in the Cuban constitution. For any practical purpose, Christendom died in Cuba a half-century before the death throes it is experiencing now in our society.
In the meantime, a generation (arguably close to two generations) of Cubans were born and grew up for which Christianity has not been part of their cultural baggage. There are Cubans now approaching middle age who are not capable of being reactive to Christianity because they’re not in any way wounded or scarred by it; they’ve simply never experienced it. The official atheism of the Cuban state (now since softened into mere secularism) has produced a generation of blank slates with regard to the Gospel.
And now some of these blank slates are starting to get curious. On Saturday mornings, the Episcopal Diocese of Cuba runs a School of Theology at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Havana. This is mostly aimed at its own members, providing a means of adult Christian formation, and, for some, training toward ordained ministry. Yet, the classes are open to anyone who happens to wander by. We were told that there is a regular contingent of university students who show up in considerable numbers, listen voraciously, and actively participate in discussion, not with an antagonistic intent, but out of a desire to learn ever more. Curiosity about Christianity is burgeoning because it’s a novelty, the fresh new thing,
More recently, even the government is getting in on it. Near the end of our visit, we were entertained for dinner at the bishop’s home. Among the guests was the government Minister for Religious Affairs, the one whose office will have approved any visit that Pope Francis makes to the country. She is middle-aged, probably younger than the revolution, and works directly under the supervision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. She spoke with glowing appreciation of the role of churches in Cuban society, expressing a hope for new government-church partnerships that would take aim at the most pressing social ills in the country. When asked what those social ills might be, she wasted no time naming her top concern, without a close second, as that of strengthening marriages and families. I had to remember to pick my jaw up off the floor before leaving.
Is this a glimpse of the future of our own society? By traveling to Cuba, did I get a preview of what will transpire in American society in the decades ahead of us? In the 1960s, Cuba formally became an atheist state. I doubt the U.S. will ever take that same step formally, but one could make a case that we are already doing so on a de facto level. Fifty years ago, the public perception of morality in Cuba was effectively unmoored from the Christian tradition. Can anyone plausibly contend that this has not already effectively happened in our society? After the revolution in Cuba, Christianity lost the privileged status it had enjoyed for centuries. At the very least, in North America, this is a season of similar social dislocation for practicing Christians, with school events and athletic contests for young people now trespassing on the heretofore sacred territory of Sunday morning, forcing Christian parents into what ought to be agonizing decisions. Cuban school children in the ’60s were probably propagandized against Christianity. Yet, my impression is that succeeding generations of students were just never confronted with it, and so did not form any strong opinions one way or the other.
It is at this level of development that the parallels with 1960s Cuba and 2010s America come to an end, because our current crop of young adults, the much-ballyhooed millennials, are not yet blank slates. What they know about Christianity is largely misconceived, but they do for the most part think they know something. The faith is still perceived to be a cultural artifact that is oppressive, something to mock and/or rebel against.
But what about the children and grandchildren of today’s young adults? Will they be like the Cuban university students I was told about in Havana? That is, of course, not a question that can be answered with any degree of precision. My default predisposition is toward optimism, so I choose to think this will be the case. I see my visit to Cuba as a gift — a gift that enables me to encourage others to embrace the death rattle of Christendom in Western culture without consternation or fear. Rather, we should welcome it as presaging the most exciting opportunity for missionary endeavor since sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas each became “open” fields at various times over the last 500 years. (Yes, this happened largely on the coattails of oppressive colonialism, yet, what human beings intend for evil, God can and has used for good.)
So, the question, as I see it, is this: What foundation do Christian Baby-Boomers and Gen-Xers need to be laying now that can be built upon by future generations of Christians? If there is indeed a tabula rasa moment in the future of American Christians who will be alive forty or fifty years from now (or whenever), with a critical mass of blank slate inquirers, what can we do strategically now that will help give birth to that moment what its days are accomplished? My generation will not be around to help reap the harvest, but my trip to Cuba has enabled me to catch a glimpse of it. I want to be about sowing the right kind of seeds in the right way. What are those seeds, and what is that way?
The featured image of Havana was supplied by the author.