Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why The Church Declines

I have been thinking a lot about history. About why the church grows and why it declines. The growth part is easy to get and exciting to talk about. But history has not been about uninterrupted church growth. One thing about the decline in the last 50 years is it is really a decline of the last few centuries. There have been times over that period where the church has grown. The years right after the depression and WWII are a good example. Certainly the time from 1945-1965 was a great period for the church. But that was a response to some very hard times. People were shaken to their very core by the war. Every life was in such danger. Ever institution was threatened. People turned to God in a big way. But when you look at what happened in the early part of the 20th century and what happened in the later part it is easy to see the continuity between them. That the war caused people to ditch their love affair with modernism and remain faithful for a time but they went back to modernism after the fear subsided. I think that is a much better historical narrative to understand the decline of the faith in the west. Seeing it as a 50 year phenomenon makes us idealize the spirituality of the 1950's. But that was a dysfunctional spirituality born out of fear. Their failure to pass their faith to their children is a sign that all was not well.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about is Voltaire. I was thinking of a statement he made that if we can get rid of the Jesuits the Catholic church will be gone in 20 years. He got his wish. The Jesuits were suppressed. The church went into decline. In fact, the Catholic Church was banned as an organization in France for a while. Of course it was not really gone. But why did God allow that to work? The Jesuits of that time were great. They were showing how Catholic scholars could excel in every area better than secular scholars. They were educating much of Europe's elite and inspiring many of them to become priests. Why would God allow such a beautiful organization to be destroyed? It was even a pope that did it. Certainly God could have prevented that!

The answer comes back to free will. God wants us to love Him. He does not want us to feel trapped in a relationship with Him. Voltaire expressed what many in France were thinking. The Church and the Jesuits in particular were forcing France into religious submission against her true will. They were not revealing the deepest truths about man and God but rather they were suppressing the truth to preserve their own power. That was not the case but the fact that people felt that way was important to God. God never wants to be seen as a brain washer. He is a lover. He wants people to love Him back. Not to resent His power and wish they could escape. That would be an abusive relationship. Even if the relationship is not abusive just the fact that your partner feels it is quite a serious problem.

So God gives us what we want. If we want the to be free from the power of the church He lets that happen. But then we have to deal with whoever steps into the void. Another church, secular politicians, Catholics who are not really that serious about their faith. All of these are poor substitutes for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But God says Yes and gives us what we want because He is just. He says No and gives us what we need because He is merciful. If we got what we want all the time we would be in much worse shape.

The same can be seen in modern technology. When people resent the way God has linked sex and procreation God gives them the power to break that link. Not that it is a good thing to do. But if people feel the link is a torment rather than a blessing God allows us to experience how degrading sterile sex can be. Same with technology used for pornography. God gives us what we want to allow us to see it is not what we need.

This explains why secularism has taken hold in many countries where the Catholic church was dominate. Protestants have hailed this as evidence that their Catholicism is somehow inferior to American Evangelicalism. I have pointed out that dominate protestant churches have gone secular as well. But the deeper question of why still needs an answer. Part of it is the lack of separation between church and state. When society feels smothered by a church there seems to be a bad dynamic. Each generation has to be evangelized. When religion becomes so ingrained in society that people have to accept it whether they believe it or not then religion gets divorced from faith. It becomes a dead ritual. That is not just bad for the people being pushed into something they don't believe. It is also bad for the church. That is when we see God allowing the church to crash.

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