Not long after I earned my doctorate in the history of Christianity, someone asked me, "What do you think will be the future of faith?"
I replied, echoing Dr. McCoy from the original Star Trek, "I don't know. I'm a historian, not a soothsayer."
Strangely enough, people think that historians know the future and believe that past holds some insight to where we might be heading.
Last year, I finally gave in to the pressure of prognostication and tackled the question of the future of faith in my book, "Christianity After Religion." In it, I suggested that religious traditions -- most particularly Christianity -- are being reshaped through an intense global interest in spiritual experience and personal faith. As old structures of religious life erode, new patterns of faith are forming. These new patterns are changing the way people engage established religions, in everything from congregational life to theology to doing justice. Across the religious spectrum, many people have no language to describe their longings, using instead the term "spiritual" to indicate their frustration with the current state of religious institutions and their hopes for new connections of meaning, purpose, and faith. In the book, I offered a framework for understanding the transformation of faith around three basic questions: How do I believe? What should I do with my life? Whose am I?
Throughout, I explored past movements that remade religious life -- the Franciscan revolution, the Protestant Reformation, the Wesleyan revival and the three Great Awakenings of North America -- and concluded that the conflict, confusion and dismay around contemporary religion might not signal decline but a new awakening. Awakenings, however, do not arrive on chariots of fire from heaven. Indeed, for genuine reformation to occur, people of faith must work to make it so.
Over the last year, it has become increasingly clear that there are two significant cultural forces reshaping the religious future: 1) the rise of the "unaffiliateds," including atheists, agnostics, humanists, "spiritual but not religious" and post-theists; and 2) the rise of religious pluralism and immigrant faith in everyday life throughout the West.
The first group, the unaffiliated, is largely uninterested in conventional religion, embracing humanism, non-specific forms of spirituality, or post-institutional forms of community. Their concern with old-fashioned religious questions is waning, as is their commitment to religious structures of the past. They are, by all reports, angry at the admixture of religion and politics that has roiled American life over the last three decades, and prefer more inclusive, less dogmatic but more pragmatic politics.
The second, those from other world religions and immigrant faiths, are more -- rather than less -- convinced of the importance of religion in society. Minority religions are surging into the public square building new worship spaces, wearing distinctive dress and pressing for rights in public schools. As is often the case in American history, immigrants become more committed to God and the church upon arrival here as traditional faith provides avenues of comfort and security in a new world.
The American religious future will be made as Christians engage these emerging cultures in meaningful, life-giving ways. It would be possible to ignore humanists, atheists and the "spiritual-but-not-religious" and insult them as lazy, boring, individualistic or uncommitted; to call them a-moral. But what good would that do? Confirm the idea that Christians are narrow minded bigots, that's what. And others might -- as a person I recently encountered suggested -- want to limit the constitutional protections of religious freedom to only Christians and Jews. And what would that accomplish? A new crusade? Of course, we could always hunker down and wait for our children to get married and have families and return to church. Not going to happen. If history tells us anything, it would be that these are not good choices. Act in these ways and it will guarantee that that people will have less patience for religion rather than more.
Instead, I suggest that those who care about that their churches survive to the future try something new: Listen to the new voices, hear what is being said about conventional religiosity and church life, and change thoughtfully and wisely. Right now, the church does not need to convert the world. Rather, the world needs to convert the church. The unaffiliated, I suspect, would like to see a more humble form of faith from churches and denominations, an active, authentic way of life in line with biblical practices of hospitality, forgiveness, friendship, service and generosity. New immigrants, I am certain, would benefit from a display of the same! It is time for people of faith to be our very best, most creative, most open-minded, most neighborly selves, not otherwise.
What if the path toward awakening is simple? Embracing faith as if we really mean it, not worrying about institutional power or rich congregations, living out the teachings of Moses and Jesus, sharing with others, seeking to be at peace with all, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
Sometimes we say, "whatever the future holds," but perhaps we must believe, "the future is ours to make." History cannot tell us what the future will be, but maybe it can surely empower us to act.