Mark Sayers points to an article concerning a recent survey on Aussie opinions about Jesus: Australians not so sceptical about Jesus, survey finds. Surprisingly, the survey suggests more belief in the historicity and divinity of Jesus than one would expect. Indeed, Mark observes that Stanley Hauweras described Australia as the most secular in the World, and and points to the description of America by some as post-Christian. He doesn’t mention it, but I thought of the recent Newsweek article on “The End of Christian America.” We’ll get to the society that’s less Christian than it thinks — first there’s the one that’s closer to Christian than we all thought.
MORE than four in 10 Australians who don’t consider themselves “born again” nevertheless believe Jesus rose from the dead, while one in 10 doesn’t believe he even existed.
These are two of the surprising results from an independent survey of 2500 Australians, according to noted author and church historian John Dickson, co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney.
The survey, to be released today, showed that 42 per cent of Australians believe Jesus had divine powers and 54 per cent believe he rose from the dead.
But even among those who do not identify as born again, 45 per cent believe in the resurrection. Dr Dickson said this certainly included agnostics and secularists because the total was far higher than the remaining Christians surveyed.
“We are staggered. We thought the survey would show the profound scepticism of Australians,” he said.
“Instead it shows there is a base-level assumption among the Australian public that accepts the Jesus story even if it has no relevance to their lives.”
This is surprising on several levels. On the face of it is the surprise how many people in such a post-Christian culture are open to the significance of Jesus as more than a little-known carpenter who probably existed at one time. Next, one may be puzzled how many people accept so much of the Jesus account and yet do not respond to it in a Christian context. I wondered briefly about this apparent disconnect, but it seems to me there’s a readily plausible explanation, namely that people are generally open to accept that Jesus existed, that he performed miracles, and that he was who he claimed to be — but there is something about Christianity that keeps them from accepting the version of the facts which they’ve been presented.
Hold that thought while we cross an ocean. According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey,
[T]he number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent. Then came the point [Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler Jr.] could not get out of his mind: while the unaffiliated have historically been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, the report said, “this pattern has now changed, and the Northeast emerged in 2008 as the new stronghold of the religiously unidentified.” As Mohler saw it, the historic foundation of America’s religious culture was cracking.
“A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us,” Mohler wrote in an online column. “The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.” In the interview he did for the Newsweek piece, he said, “Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.” Ultimately the USA is not yet past its religious experience, of course. The Newsweek article points out that being less Christian is not the same as being post-Christian. “there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious–far more so, for instance, than Europe.” We discover that people are trending toward calling themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious” — not news to anyone here, but the survey backs it up with hard data. But just what do we mean by “post-Christian” as discussed in the Newsweek piece?
“post-Christian” characterizes a period of time that follows the decline of the importance of Christianity in a region or society. This use of the phrase first appeared in the 1929 book “America Set Free” by the German philosopher Hermann Keyserling.
The term was popularized during what scholars call the “death of God” movement of the mid-1960s—a movement that is, in its way, still in motion. Drawing from Nietzsche’s 19th-century declaration that “God is dead,” a group of Protestant theologians held that, essentially, Christianity would have to survive without an orthodox understanding of God. Tom Altizer, a religion professor at Emory University, was a key member of the Godless Christianity movement, and he traces its intellectual roots first to Kierkegaard and then to Nietzsche.
And this is where we try to connect the threads. In both Australia and the USA (and elsewhere, we may extrapolate), we find that although the climate is post-religious or post-Christian, there remains an openness or willingness to believe in the essential Christian version of the facts concerning Jesus Christ. As already noted, it is something other this that sees Christianity in decline. A divine man, God in the flesh, walking around doing miracles, dying for three days and rising from the grave? Okay. Astonishing as it may seem, believing in that isn’t the problem.
I think Mohler unwittingly puts his finger on it — it’s the narrative. (Of course, he’s afraid of much of what I welcome.) The way in which the Christian story has been presented and practiced is not holding “true” for people who may still believe what Christians say are the central tenets of the faith. To put it bluntly, people aren’t rejecting Christ — they’re rejecting Christianity… at least, the version of it that we’ve been presenting. Kind of begs the question, doesn’t it?