An administrative decision by a Catholic university in the United States is a good illustration of a major reason why Christian churches, with some exceptions, are rapidly losing their relevance in society.
Marquette Catholic University, in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, has decided to ban acts of proselytism on campus in a document that instead encourages acts of evangelism. The move has sparked debate because the distinction made by the institution between the two terms (“proselytism” and “evangelism”) does not correspond either to the dictionary, which considers the two words to be synonymous, or to the popular understanding (or dynamic language) that “to proselytise” means to manipulate in order to impose a particular religious belief/practice.
The restriction imposed by Marquette University in its Religious Activities Policy, a regulation intended to govern the activities of religious organisations on campus, states that “the university does not allow any other individual or organisation internal or external to the university to proselytise its members using facilities, programs or activities controlled by the university.” Conversely, the university also reserves the right to “limit or restrict the on-campus activity of any organisation or individual whose purposes are directly contrary to the university’s stated religious values and purposes.”
In other words, in the university’s view, “proselytism” is not only the use of “exploitive techniques or manipulative appeals which bypass a person’s critical faculties” or the use of “physical coercion,” “psychological pressure” or “moral compulsion” to convert someone, as the policy explicitly states, but can also be evangelism conducted by groups with different values from Catholic ones, as the document implicitly states.
The internal policy document details and describes proselytism as, for example, “comparing faith traditions by emphasising only the achievements and ideals of one and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other,” or “ignoring the religious realities and identities of other faith traditions or their particular approaches to pastoral practice.” Despite such strict regulation, university officials claim that the measure is not intended to “discourage or inhibit the sharing and discussion of religious values or beliefs between members of the university community in the variety of contexts the educational community provides.”
The contradiction of the regulation, as noted by the publication Campus Reform, largely reflects that paradoxical nuance of Western culture, also known as the “tyranny of tolerance”; i.e. the aggressive imposition of an artificial and superficial equalisation of values, which in fact stops before one’s own values are considered equal to those of others. In other words, we are equal, so you cannot criticise us, but we are not so equal that we cannot impose our views on you because, after all, it is our university.
The idealisation of tolerance is actually a paradox, because by advocating the equality of all religious beliefs and traditions, tolerance pushed to the absolute will level their values, and levelling actually leads to the devaluation of all beliefs. If every pebble on earth were a diamond, diamonds would cease to be considered precious stones and become commonplace. (This is just a simple example, leaving aside the fact that the diamond industry is an artificial one, based on superficial social constructs). In economic terms, diamonds would lose their utility. In economics (but also in psychology and sociology), utility is based on the properties of a good. But as an abstract concept, utility cannot be precisely measured. However, economists do measure utility based on people’s willingness to pay different amounts for different goods. So if diamonds were everywhere, people would no longer be willing to pay much for them, indicating that diamonds no longer have the same utility in the marketplace.
Of course, people’s willingness or unwillingness to pay for a diamond does not affect its properties. However, this is not the point; the point is how the same mechanism works in the religious space: if all religions are equally valuable, if all religious values are equally true/useful, with how many religions there are today…it means that we live in a sea of good beliefs and authentic values, visible everywhere we turn, so what need do we have for them?
The gospel of marginalisation
Naturally, when it comes to religious belief, choices are not necessarily as rational as the economic utility mechanism I described above. But the effect is similar: from the religious marketplace, so to speak, more and more people are choosing the option of “functional atheism,” in the words of the theologian James Emery White. That is, they don’t reject the idea that there might be a God, they just don’t believe that He would meet their real or present needs. In other words, religion is no longer useful to them.
Sociological studies are full of sobering information about generational changes in religiosity. Young people are much less religious than older people, but that is not all. Millennials may be the first generation that does not become more religious as they get older. And many countries in Western Europe, the “born Christian” world, have not only non-Christian but even non-religious majorities. A whole generation of people is being born into this cultural context, and Eliza Vlădescu has provided an in-depth analysis of the scenarios shaping their future in the article Reformation 2.0.
Many religious observers note the superficiality of conclusions about religion, and are tempted to predict that the world is becoming an unfriendly place for faith (especially Christian faith) as it secularises. In particular, followers of minority religions often have to live with the secularisation of society, with discrimination against them and with many restrictions on their religious freedom. In this context, many Christians see secularisation as synonymous with dehumanisation by denying the spiritual inclinations of human beings. In this vein, the psychologist Jordan Peterson, a contemporary Canadian thinker whose ideas have gained international attention in recent years, said in one of his many public lectures that the removal of religion from an individual’s life is an emotionally destabilising factor.
An important nuance in this picture is provided by a study by the Barna Group, according to which the relativism of the new generation’s values is not based on an assumed philosophical position, but rather on a lack of information about what truth is and how to find it. This is both bad news and good news. How can a lack of information ever be good news? Only if it is seen not as an inexorable fate but, on the contrary, as an opportunity to respond to a need: the need to know, to obtain clarification, solutions, and answers.
The comment by the Barna Group sociologists reinforces the impact of a statement made by Rice Broocks, author of God’s Not Dead, in his latest book, Man, Myth, Messiah. In the book’s introduction, Broocks confesses that he wrote under the impression that our generation is experiencing a misunderstood cultural revolution, and that millions of people are losing their faith because of this confusion. Specifically, Broocks believes that secularisation should be seen as something other than a “deterioration” of human character in general. He says that secularisation should be seen more as a cultural phase in which millions of Westerners are honestly reassessing their beliefs but, limited by a lack of quality information and well-constructed arguments, are finding it increasingly difficult to retain the faith of previous generations. A sensitive part of the blame (accepting the full emotional weight of the word) lies with the churches, which too often fail to deal honourably with the onslaught of militant atheism, not for lack of arguments, but for their inadequate presentation.
Church as a help centre
Faced with the barrage of atheist literature of all kinds, promoted on all kinds of channels, churches often respond by dusting off their pews, scolding their few remaining parishioners for the lack of many others, or clashing bitterly with their ideological opponents, essentially not turning the other cheek but paying in the same coin. All too often, the call to rebuild the Christian Church is translated into reactive measures to existing trends, or into the sterile preservation of doctrine in outdated forms that no longer speak the language of today’s generation. This “different language” of the younger generation does not mean that young people necessarily have different existential needs from those of previous generations at their age, but that today’s young people formulate old needs differently, with different nuances, with a complexity increased by their access to a vast amount of information. And this requires answers that match the questions. The inadequacy of the answers, sometimes due to their simple dogmatism, makes young people lose confidence in the authority that provides them.
Young people would take God with them anywhere, even “into the wilderness“, to paraphrase another article by Eliza Vlădescu, if their questions were answered in a real and vital way by leaders who understand their concerns, even if they do not necessarily share them. But they cannot take with them a God who is represented by His “ambassadors” in the same way that a multinational company is represented by help-centre operators who have predetermined answers that they are obliged to convey in conversations with customers. Disillusionment with church institutions (especially with the people who make them up and their policies) irreparably weakens the faith of individuals who have already been swayed towards disbelief by a strictly secular, evolutionist-atheist upbringing.
Under the pressure of these elements, some churches adopt new media and technologies to convey their message without adapting it to our times. The same jargon, opaque to the non-religious, shocking or outdated when it resorts to archaisms, does not become more persuasive simply because it is transferred to another medium. New or reformulated troubles require new or reformulated responses. What is needed is an effort of exegesis and interpretation, of analysis on the crossroads of theology, religion, sociology and psychology, of logical, rational and comprehensive answers, formulated with honesty and competence.
The quality of the argument and its completeness are therefore also necessary for an adequate response. The calibration of language is not enough, especially when it is still used in a traditional forum speech. The generation derided as “snowflakes” may not be as oversensitive as this pejorative term suggests, but they will certainly not pay respect to an authority that merely claims to listen without offering anything of substance in return. This is a generation that neither respects nor hates, but rather cultivates a cold indifference towards the object of authority. And this is exactly what we see today in the relationship of young people to the Church. Young people do not have the virulent contempt of militant atheists, but go with the flow, ignoring whenever they can what they feel is of no use to them.
The nuances of the times in which we live (with the globalisation of communication, with maximum access to information) do not force the churches to do anything. They can try to operate within the known and comfortable parameters and continue to serve the generations that originally responded to those parameters. But if the church can stop time on the inside, it cannot stop change outside of it. Entropy will mean that its inaction, or actions that come too late, out of phase with the real needs of the outside world, will divide it to the point of zero relevance in any way (numerically, ideologically, and socially).
Some look at the Church’s lack of relevance and confuse it with counterculture—which brings us back to Marquette University and its “pro-evangelism but anti-proselytism” policy. It’s strange, if not abusive, for a Christian university to restrict free speech while claiming to protect it. But aren’t the churches that say they attract people, but actually turn people away, doing the same thing?
Recently, a preacher in Bucharest took to Facebook to share his disappointment that while he was preaching about “temperance” behind a microphone on a street in the centre of the capital, some young people nearby looked at him with disdain. “Do you see how temperance no longer means anything to young people?” the man concluded, without asking whether these young people had rejected instead the way he had chosen to make himself heard. The incident is emblematic of the attitude of churches that confuse contempt for the way they display their values with rejection of those values. It is convenient and even tempting, after a failed evangelistic gesture, to conclude simply that “the world is bad” and no longer appreciates values. Such an attitude leads you into the zone where you end up unconsciously seeking the rejection of others because it confirms that you are totally different from the value-free world; that you are spiritually well and must do your best to stay that way—even if it means isolating yourself. But opposition to the values of our time, or counterculture as Christianity promotes it, is neither opposition at all costs nor the idolisation of differences (or disputes).
Counterculture is not an end in itself, but a by-product of the persistent and respectful effort to demonstrate what it means to have a relationship with God. This means that I don’t close my eyes to what the other is out of self-protection and turn my back on them because “I can’t agree with what they do/believe/say,” but quite the opposite. This is in fact the model of Christ, who said that He did not come among us for the saints, but to teach us sinners to love our enemies. And He certainly included ideological adversaries when He said that.