|The Crisis of Faith
by Duncan Park
In spite of loud protestations to the contrary,
I maintain that it�s actually all over for �The Faith� as we know it.
Forget the evangelical razzamatazz, the fundamentalist bluster, and the
catholic arrogance. The situation for faith is so desperate I believe a
"state of emergency" should be declared in the Church.
Anyone who thinks "The Faith" is doing just fine, thank you very
much, has been living on Mars or in Alabama. Here on earth things don�t
look so good. A total paradigm shift has taken place in the global
culture that will have dire consequences for religious faith and
I am going to suggest, in my anecdotal way, why I believe a radical
response is the only appropriate one for the survival of faith.
The whole "Religious Planet" is in deep crisis. I am certain that
this is not just another crisis in religion. God knows we�ve had any
number of these since Galileo looked through his telescope and did not
see doctrines orbiting heaven. No. What we are witnessing is a crisis of
religion itself - of all religion, from the most self-critical to the
most rebellious - because the "crisis" is not about something rotten in
the state of religion, but about the religious state itself being
This, of course, is the culmination of a whole series of crises that
have battered the "Religious Planet" like a hail of comets since the
Enlightenment - in philosophy, natural science, politics, psychology,
historical criticism, biblical criticism, with the Darwinian comet
coming dangerously close to throwing it completely off its axis. This
relentless onslaught has finally reached catastrophic proportions in a
head-on collision with the postmodern world.
Until now, religion in general and Christianity in particular have
survived largely because strong conservative forces have led the
struggle back to some kind of workable equilibrium. And I mean "back".
The only areas in the Western world where Christianity hangs on by more
than its fingertips are where it has created religious theme parks
isolated from the culture. Here supernaturalists and traditionalists
huddle together like doomed dinosaurs trying to catch the last rays of a
retreating sun. This is a sad place of desperate measures.
This desperation is exemplified in the Alpha Course - a vacuous
enterprise, but one viewed by many churches as the cavalry charging over
the hill to the rescue. Never has so much been owed by so many to so few
for so little. This much-trumpeted "discover the meaning of life"
initiative is little more than Sunday School with nuclear weapons and a
The "course" itself is designed for evangelism - but is being used in
sheer desperation as a revival tool for the faithful. It is as though
the church is eating its seed corn. And still it is starving. It is not
"reviving", nor will it, because the traditional Christian culture has
no residual religious oxygen left within it to allow revival. Any
movement you see is merely the herding of the sheep from one
denominational pen to another. Only a truly radical response to the
crisis facing religion has any hope of rescuing religious faith from
All Church establishments in the West are, of course, in an acute
state of denial. The ecclesiastical machinery clanks away from the
Vatican in Rome to the Bible-Belt in the United States, churning out its
business-as-usual message to a dwindling constituency.
What is its business nowadays? The Western Church is now largely part
of the entertainment or heritage industry with residual, mainly
administrative, care-taking roles in education, health and social
services. One by one its powers have been stripped by the State and it
is left with decaying shrines and a collection of culturally disembodied
rituals. In the popular mind it has been largely reduced to a Gothic
prop for Hollywood�s latest supernatural fantasy.
Even in non-Gothic Western countries like Australia, the majority see
the Church as a place for rather sad people who don�t get out much. More
ominously for Western Christendom, as the entire cosmology of
Christianity disintegrates before our eyes, the post-modern paradigm
shift seems to be establishing itself as the global post-religious
I�m not saying this is bad news for the planet, just that it is the
end of the road for traditional Christianity.
The old-time religion has become unbelievable. Not just "out there"
in the big bad world - where "Church" stands for bum-numbing boredom and
brain-dumbing twaddle - but also on its home turf. Even in once
priest-ridden Ireland the seminaries are all but empty. And it is not
just the more sinister bum-numbing that has emptied Mass of the vast
majority of its youth, but the collapse of credulity in an educated and
And it is not only in the traditionally angst-ridden, hybrid
Anglican-Quaker-Unitarian-liberal tribes that I encounter spiritual
trauma and an anxiety of faith, but also in my own full-blooded
For many, evangelical culture has replaced evangelical
experience. Testimony is thin and unconvincing. Spontaneous prayer is
often forced and clich�d. Sermons are often homilies on feel-good
spirituality - sermonettes for Christianettes. The "I was far in sin"
songs no longer reflect the experience of the largely middle-class
singers who are now only "honorary sinners". Salvation fatigue is
setting in. If even here, in the heartland of Western Protestant
Evangelical Christianity, the old spells are no longer working, surely
the end is nigh after all?
This is not only a serious situation for faith but also for the
world. We still need a usable myth to define our world and give us
meaning, purpose and even the will to live. We are structurally
religious animals with a transcendental gene. Spirituality is as much
part of our humanity as is our sexuality.
Religion has survived previous crises because religion is itself a
survival tool. But can it survive this mother of all crises? I think so.
A new and radical faith might seem a pretty Spartan, minimalist
creature compared with the baroque splendours we have known. But
it can survive the near zero climate of the religious void into which we
are moving. It is very robust.
I believe there is another constituency in waiting for this new faith
to emerge. Christianity is slowly yet determinedly renewing itself from
those who have fled to the margins. A new religious life-form has been
evolving in the cold intellectual regions of our "Religious Planet".
While those exotic religious creatures that depended for their spiritual
life on the heat from the supernatural sun out there are facing almost
certain extinction, the time has come for newly-evolved creatures to
emerge that can generate their own spiritual heat .
The trick is to survive the transition. Some argue that only a truly
radical response to the faith crisis which includes an embracing of the
death of supernaturalist, realist religion in all its forms will
However, others still think that a visible, yet radically reformed
Christianity is possible. It will require subversive loyal disobedience
on the part of those who value the Christian tradition if a radical
Church is to have a place in the new order. The irony is that although
the traditional Church wants radicals like a hole in the head, they are
precisely what it needs if it is to survive.
In this respect I am indebted to Bishop Richard Holloway for the
following comments, taken from his recent farewell charge to the
Scottish Episcopal synod in Edinburgh:
The duration of a tradition is important to societies that prize
stability and continuity, but the price they pay may be a level of
stagnation that ends by threatening the safety of the tradition
itself, because they inhibit its evolution and development.
�.. it is precisely those who deviate from the tradition, because
of their proneness to doubt and reflection, who provide the means for
its development and continuance. The very people who are persecuted
for their heresy may be the agents that preserve whatever is
enduringly sound in the tradition in question. A deeper aspect of the
same paradox is that the founders who became the passionate focus of
fundamentalist loyalty in a later era were almost always heretics in
their original context, as was certainly the case with Jesus.
Personally, I believe - Lord help my unbelief - that the Church can
facilitate the whole spectrum of religious need. It can be all things to
all men and women. There are at least three ways of looking at it.
The Church can be a kind of Spiritual Health Service. Yes,
literally at point of need - rather like a twelve-step programme for
people who feel powerless before the mystery of life. It can be a
vehicle for the lost sheep to hitch a lift back to the ninety nine that
need no repentance. Real suffering can�t be healed by a virtual God,
though. Despair, pain, grief, panic don�t respond well to abstract
theories. Healing needs people. But, when health is restored, there is
no longer any need for supernaturalist drugs. They then only produce
spiritual hypochondriacs and religious junkies.
The Church can be a kind of Spiritual Education System where
stories of the Christian myth can be told to children - without
qualification. At six years old, a literal Father Christmas or Father
God, Noah�s Ark or Jack and the Beanstalk is not a theological problem.
At sixteen years, it is a mental health problem. So there must be a
deliberate process, on Piaget�s model, to take children from concrete
realism to adult abstract non-realism.
The Church can be a Spiritual Theatre where metaphysical drama
allows the emotions full play. We don�t have to keep putting inverted
commas around the script and continually remind ourselves that the actor
on stage isn�t really Hamlet. We can enter unselfconsciously into an
agreed dramatic reality. Of course, if anyone starts to think he really
is Hamlet, it's time for the lights to go on.
There is no need for radical Ramboes to "take out" every non-radical
enterprise. If individuals want to baby-talk with the Almighty and have
a big cosmic cuddle, let them. If teenagers fall in love with Jesus and
want to sing and dance a Rave-in-the-Nave, let them. And if some people
want to stay romantically involved with a Mills & Boon deity, let them.
If others want the grand opera version of religion, with outrageous
costumes and the whole theatrical bit, fine.
But, and it�s a big but, the Church must also allow the
radical alternative. It must also let its children grow up. It must let
the healed leave the casualty ward. It must let the actors exit stage
left. It must not withhold permission. It is on this point that a new
radical faith must be uncompromising.
This is where radicals must get political, because the religious
establishment will not gracefully give permission. Religious dependency
is big business. The princes of the church, the evangelical fat cats,
the fundamentalist Mafia, will need to be faced in battle. In this war,
the Pope has many more divisions than the radicals, so those who want to
liberate people from the tyranny of inferior knowledge and emotional
bondage will necessarily have to employ guerilla tactics.
It will also need martyrs. Martyrdom is not the career move it used
to be - which is why most clergy have not passed on to their people what
they learned at theological college. This gets worse the further up the
totem pole you go, so you can be sure a radical faith will not start at
the top. In a recent tour in the United Kingdom with Robert Funk,
founder of the Jesus Seminar, I witnessed ecclesiastical and academic
privileges that were worth lying for. One forgets.
No, the new Reformation will be fought at street level, as Jesus
fought his reformation and radicals must fight theirs.
I believe the Church can re-mythologise. I think the global culture
will eventually force it out of the nineteenth, fifteenth and maybe even
the first centuries.
It might come kicking and screaming, but I think those who love it
can persuade it, especially those who are already on the far side of
This is an edited version of an address given at a Sea
of Faith conference in Australia in 2000