Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 332 | Marzo 2009



The Crisis of Religion In Christianity

Does religion have a future? The radical cultural change humanity is experiencing indicates that the Christian religions as we know them have no future. Only after several centuries will we be able and know how to see the new religion that will have been born from the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

Joseph Comblin

Within Christianity the crisis of religion is reaching a climax in Europe, and has already reached a very high level in the Americas. And it’s a crisis with very old roots.

The triumph of scholasticism in the 13th century made it possible to think that Christianity was established on very firm foundations. It had eliminated the threat of Joaquim de Fiori and repressed the Albigensian heresy with blood and fire. Orthodoxy reigned. It is true that the very actors who created that scholasticism didn’t feel secure, because they had to fight against very conservative forces, but they did feel very optimistic. With the discovery of Greek philosophy, they had the feeling they had rediscovered the world and placed it within a Christian system. Encouraged by that optimism, they could create a work that could resist for centuries. In fact, it provided the Roman Church with a complete intellectual and social system that would allow the Church to govern the whole world.

Religion as a factor of war

The first fissures, the first doubts and protests, started to appear in the 14th century. Those first rebellious authors were the mystics and the spiritual Franciscans. Rome reacted. The Roman Curia felt that without scholasticism it would be losing the system that allowed it to govern the world, or at least the Church. This ushered in an era of suspected heresies and condemnations that turned the Roman Curia into the center of an overseeing Inquisition that still persists, despite the best wishes of Pope John XXIII.

Anyone who raised doubts about the system intellectually produced by scholasticism was treated as suspicious or simply as a heretic. For 200 years these “heretics” were few and weak, making it possible to repress the rebellious movement. But though the heretics of the 14th and 15th centuries posed no danger to the system, they foretold the coming of much greater crises in the long term.

The beginning of the 16th century saw the explosion of Protestantism that quickly started to convince the learned people of the cities. Erasmian humanism thought that Christianity could be reunited through concessions on the most hard-line positions of the “protestants.” But the popes and Jesuits thought the whole of Christianity could be re-conquered through the missions and, above all, through the Catholic armies of Spain and the Hapsburg Empire. Instead of a council of reform, there was a council of counter-reform: the Council of Trent. This was a council of rupture, of condemnation, which roundly rejected what the reformers were calling for. The application of Trent was still more aggressive, cutting off any possibility of dialogue.

The strategy of Trent failed insofar as it failed to re-conquer the lost half of Europe. Instead of unity, each half of Christianity turned into a war machine against the other half. What followed was over a century of religious wars. Those of the 17th century came to an unforeseen end, although in the light of history it was predictable: they led to a general crisis of Christianity. The conviction was more and more firmly established among the intellectual elites that religion was a factor of war and could not provide the foundations for a peaceful society. Religion needed to be expelled from public life and contained within each individual’s private life.

Two centuries of aggressive coexistence
between Christianity and modernity

Christianity was virtually dead, but the Catholic hierarchy refused to accept the new situation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the population was still rural and loyal to its traditional Catholicism, completely subjected to the power of the clergy. The peasants would provide the clergy with the necessary troops to defend an important place in public life. The Church would be the “conservative” party that would try to stop the movement to secularize society and expel the Church from public life. That entailed another 200 years of battles, all of which it lost in the end. Rationalist modernity prevailed and was at the base of a generalized suspicion that the Church wanted to re-conquer the power it had lost.

For those 200 years the West experienced a pretty aggressive coexistence between the remains of Christianity, which was trying to save its past through its implantation in the rural world, and a new type of society, which received the name “modernity,” implanted among the intellectual class and the new industry. Each sector formed a separate nation, a rural, conservative nation against an urban, republican one.

The second Vatican II Council,
May ’68 and the feminist revolution

After the Second World War, a more peaceful era of coexistence developed between religion—which was increasingly contained in private life—and a more tolerant modernity. The Second Vatican Council was a reflection of those times, which gave the impression of being the start of that peaceful era. During Vatican II nobody would have guessed that just two years after its conclusion an immense cultural revolution would render obsolete all of the doctrines conquered through so much effort. Just as the Catholic Church Council reached its virtual agreement with the republic, democracy and modernity, a revolution was already simmering in the minds of youth, awaiting its historical opportunity.

The student revolts of 1967-8 (Paris, May ’68!), ushered in the seventies with the outbreak of a radical cultural revolution. This revolution was largely led by women, because its first expression was the great feminist revolution, with women rejecting the traditional patriarchy and fighting for equality with men in public life and the family. Women wanted to define their lives in complete freedom and not depend on men. They revealed the intimate links between the patriarchal system and the great institutions of modernity, which reproduced the inequality of ancient Christianity. By wresting legitimacy from the republican institutions, they effectively contributed to the collapse of modern society.

The end of the kingdom of reason

It doesn’t matter what name is given to the new era—the word neo-modernity was quite successful in Europe—because the facts speak for themselves. First came a crisis in modernity’s rationalism, heralding the end of the great rational systems whose aim was the same as the theology of Christianity: to represent a universal explanation. It was the end of ideologies and orthodoxies and the beginning of the “weak thinking” of Gianni Vattimo.

The pretension of rationalist science was to offer true knowledge of reality. The new critique of the sciences demonstrated the relativity of all scientific concepts; they cannot say what reality is, but can only provide the ability to produce new effects using the elements at our disposal. Science was functional; no longer metaphysical. It doesn’t reveal the world’s reality to us, be it the world of matter or the human world. Science only has a simply operational value, which means it can intervene in the processes of matter or the mind to produce new effects that are more useful for the human race.

This restrictive evolution of science brought down rationalist metaphysics with its objective of discovering reality through scientific methods. Knowing the “essence” became useless. What is now sought is how to manage the identified forces to produce the desired practical effects. With this evolution of science, the republic lost its metaphysical foundation: it had no way to establish the kingdom of reason, as reason was disappearing as a system for explaining the world.

Rejection of the republican State,
its institutions and its symbols

The first consequence that appeared clearly in May 1968 was the de-legitimization of the university and the teaching system in general. The university’s task was to disseminate modernity, modern rationalism, and provide the republican State with the collaborators it needed. It tried to disseminate the ideology of modernity. The university didn’t only teach the sciences, but rather, first and foremost, the ideology of scientism, of scientific rationalism. Today, the universities continue along the same lines in many places, as if ignoring what has happened in the world over the last 40 years. It’s not so much out of conviction as a lack of any other ideology to replace it. For this reason, they act without conviction, following a ritual in which nobody believes.

The republican State was the great victim of this cultural revolution. The State had assumed the task of organizing a just and peaceful society, and expressing the will of the citizens. It was like the successor to the Church; it was the secular, emancipated, free Church based on law and liberty. It had to be the great educator. Its leaders, from the three branches of democratic society, were the priests of the new secular Church. It’s enough just to evoke this past to realize what’s really going on here. To understand, you have only to compare this ideology—which was really lived—with what our contemporaries currently think of politicians.

The critique accused the State of being a pure bureaucratic, irrational, despotic, authoritarian, arbitrary and ultimately inefficient machine. The State knew how to organize the basic functions of society well enough for the economy to function, but had nothing to do with a just or democratic society. The criticism applied to the State in general was also applied to each of its institutions, which were denounced for their irrationality and arbitrariness, destroying the human being, who was treated as an anonymous object. The cultural revolution disparaged the army, the glory of the republican State, the school of the citizenry, the police—which was reduced to a repressive, aggressive body assigned to repress the youth—and prison, which should serve the recovery of the criminal, but was really just a school for crime, destroyer of people.

All religious symbols of the new secular religion were tossed out, rejected, insulted, the object of derision and contempt. The symbols of the republic are now treated the same way the symbols of Christianity were.

We’re currently much further
from the morals of Christianity

Some thought the collapse of the republican ideal would signal a return to Christianity. The end of republican rationalism would usher back in the ancient religion. The society that was rejecting the liberal inheritance would return to religion. The death of rationalist ideology would allow the rebirth of Christianity. Some announced the return to religion and demonstrated certain phenomena that they felt signaled that return. They said the 21st century would be a religious one and announced times of glory for the Church.

The illusion didn’t last long. The new generations of post-modernity are not returning to their ancestors’ religion; they’re simply ignoring it. They weren’t educated in it and they lost the knowledge and sense of its symbols. Even the Lord’s Prayer is a mystery to them and they understand nothing about the religious imagery of our churches. Far from bringing an end to the crisis of religion, post-modernity actually deepened it. The crisis of religion is currently much more radical than in 1970, and not just in Brazil or Latin America as a whole, but in all the territories of ancient Christianity.

Far from returning to the old religion, the postmodern revolution threw out everything still remaining of the Christian inheritance in the republic, which had wanted to replace the Church. But nobody wants a replacement for the Church, because this concept disappeared. No Church of any kind is wanted. The republic was founded on a “great story,” similar to a theology; it was like a secular theology. These days any great discourse is impossible, incomprehensible. The republic had its own liturgy, copied from the secularized Christian liturgy. The new society doesn’t want any liturgy and doesn’t accept any symbols. Its heroes are sports champions, the stars of song or cinema, beauty queens. And none of that evokes religion.

The republic taught morals that were virtually the traditional morals of Christianity. The difference was that the Church’s morals were based on revelation, while for the republic they were based on human nature and awareness. In practice, however, there were few changes. The new postmodern society rejected both the entire ancient moral system and the universal norms, considering them forms of repression of the individual. We are now much further from the morals of Christianity. As for ecclesiastical organization, far from recovering its old prestige, the clergy feels marginalized. The reduced participation in religious ceremonies demonstrates the decline in the clergy’s power.

There is a crisis of religion and it’s not on the way to being resolved. The project of restoring the traditional religion of Christianity through certain superficial reforms is pure illusion. The solution won’t come from above. It won’t be an intellectual doctrine or an intellectual discovery. Rather, it will be a way of living the gospel invented by laypeople, particularly the laypeople of the grassroots world, because the others have little interest. We can be sure that the roots of that new way already exist, as does the appropriate way of being Christian in the new society. We can’t see those roots and that new way because we’re not really in the midst of the current world and don’t understand it.

The economy has filled
the vacuum of religion

The crisis of the clerical Christian religion and of the rationalist and secular religion of the republic left an enormous vacuum in society. This space was filled by the economy. There is a historical coincidence between the crisis of modernity and the advent of the neoliberal society. We can ask ourselves whether that advent of the new pure capitalism acted first and provoked or aided the collapse of modernity and all its institutions, or the crisis in modernity was what allowed the advent of capitalism in its radical form, as we know it today.

Naturally, the critique of the State favored neoliberal society, which wants a weak State, incapable of controlling the economy. But it is also true that the neoliberal system triumphed because it was adopted and imposed by the United States, largely independent of the crisis of modernity. Perhaps the United States wouldn’t have been able to conquer the world economy if it hadn’t come upon a universal critique of the State and the great European social story, but this isn’t so important. What’s clear is that the place occupied in the past by religion is currently occupied by the economy. The economy defines the purpose of human life, its values, contents and obligations, and it also defines the social structure.

The motor force of the economy:
consumption and advertising

This isn’t about economy in the abstract, but rather the economic system we know, which is presented as globalization, based on the production of increasingly sophisticated and expensive products. The evolution of technology offers products that are more and more expensive but within reach of those who always need more money. The progress of science and technology consists of discovering new goods and new forms of satisfaction for an elite that can pay for them. This dynamic demands a concentration of wealth. The motor force of the economy is the rich, who always want ever more sophisticated goods. Based on the satisfaction of those desires, the price of those goods starts falling and the middle classes then have access to them. The rich drive the economy and in the end a few crumbs also make their way down as far as the poor. The current economy has a dynamic that requires inequality and the concentration of wealth, and many economists say there is no other path and no other possible economic formula.

What does the new economy offer? A meaning of life: consumption. Living is consuming. New desires must constantly be awakened to produce new goods providing new forms of satisfaction. Consuming produces happiness, wellbeing, the feeling of living life to the full. For the economy, happiness consists of the feeling of wellbeing, of the ability to satisfy all desires that appear. This ideal is only within the reach of a few and they are the new heroes. In today’s world, the heroes are the rich, those who can satisfy all their desires. The ultimate value in life is making all your dreams come true.

The current society and the current economy need constant advertising, which the media take charge of guaranteeing. All media depend on publicity and all are messengers of consumerism. Publicity is the new evangelization within a society directed by a certain economic model.

Will this be the meaning of life?

We all know this very well; it belongs to our everyday experiences. Will these values be enough to achieve a really happy life lived to the full? We don’t know, because fragments of the ancient societies persist in our society and we could assume that humanity is still alive because it still conserves the inheritance accumulated over the previous millennia.

The current economic system destroys families. But families and the remains of families still persist. There are many fragmented families that lack a father or a mother. Even so, all of them try to maintain certain links. When all family links are missing, life becomes unbearable. The poor subsist because some things are still free among them: they help each other for free, practice friendship and form groups of friends. Not all of their life is incorporated into the logic of the new economy. Parts of their life are still preserved, which is something ever harder to find among the upper classes.

If the economy and consumerism were the universal norm and total extent of life, would life still be bearable? Would it still have meaning? Would radical individualism, instilled by the current economics, be viable? Once everyone has the current machines (cell phone, car, computer…) will it be enough to give meaning and value to their lives? These are questions the economists don’t ask. Up to now the cogs are turning smoothly and that’s enough for them. What might happen to humanity doesn’t matter to them because it can’t be measured in dollars or turned into capital.

We’re reflecting on all this here with two hypotheses: that today’s society can’t live purely from the remains of a past that are disappearing with the death of its depositaries; and that it also won’t be able to live with what the global economic system is currently offering it.

When we discover
God’s not in Heaven...

Certain elements of the ancient religion can no longer be assimilated. The first is the cosmology underlying traditional religion, which has been shared for millennia, perhaps since the origins of humanity. In this vision, the world is divided into three levels. Heaven is in the upper level and God is there. God is represented as a patriarch or an emperor-king, depending on the social structure of the peoples involved. According to the traditional cosmology, everything that happens on Earth was decided in Heaven. God governs all earthly life according to rules that only He knows and He is not subjected to any rule. He can change when He wants and therefore prayer may be effective, as long as it’s strong and persistent.

In societies dominated by a king or emperor who exercises all powers in a sovereign manner, that king or emperor is the image of God and sometimes identified with God. In tribal societies, there is a multitude of intermediary entities between God and the Earth that exercise God’s power in the different sectors of life, including angels, saints, spirits, inferior gods… They are given different names in each tribe. In polytheism, God makes the big decisions, but the inferior gods have to be invoked in everyday life. If there are societies in conflict, each one has to invoke its God with greater force and also resort to its inferior protecting divinities, then see who is stronger, God or Satan, the angels or devils. In times of war, all saints are needed and up to the 21st century theo¬logians have continued teaching that it is God who gives victory in war, meaning that prayers are more important than armies.

Since the 18th century, millions of young Christians have abandoned religion at the age of 14 or 15, upon discovering that this cosmology was pure illusion and had no value in reality. In the middle of the 20th century, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made a famous declaration that proved to be symbolic. After making the first manned space flight he said he hadn’t seen anyone in the sky, not God or his angels, and that there was nothing up there except other stars. The masses discovered what learned people had known for two centuries: that Heaven was empty and traditional religious cosmology—as well as the Biblical one—was an illusion not based in reality.

In Latin America, the old cosmology still persists in many grassroots sectors, but the same religious crisis is taking place among adolescents who are starting to study. School is the first secularizing factor and destroyer of the traditional religious cosmology as pupils discover there is no God in Heaven.

When we discover we are
the owners of our own lives...

The traditional cosmology also has an inferior level: Hell, which is located under the Earth. Hell is home to destroyers of life, opposed to God and the celestial world. It is populated by a differentiated collection of entities that vary according to different cultures. They are the source of temptations and want to separate human beings from God. Devils are intelligent, astute, dangerous and deadly. The vision of Hell has occupied an important place in Christianity.

In the middle, between Heaven and Hell, is the Earth, where we live. The Earth is a place of permanent conflict between the powers of Heaven and of Hell. The Judaic apocalypses and John’s Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) provide perfect descriptions of this situation of humanity. The celestial and infernal powers are in permanent combat, both wanting to conquer humanity. That combat also takes place within each individual: spiritual combat was a constant issue in medieval spirituality. The battle also takes place among groups of humans representing the forces of Heaven and Hell, with each group believing its enemies are the armies of Satan and that they are fighting in the name of God with the celestial forces.

Life is thus lived as a permanent battle against the forces of Hell, which want to attract us to sin, which amounts to rejection of God. Life is a struggle to avoid sin and practice virtue, to adore God rather than Satan. Human life is a constant tension between two forces exterior to the human being and the battlefield for two unyielding adversaries. Life is not organized by human beings, but rather dominated by external forces.

With the Renaissance, however, it became increasingly clear that human beings make their own lives and that the conflicts humans feel within themselves or in humanity aren’t battles between supernatural forces, but rather personal and social battles among different tendencies. It was the discovery that each person is responsible for organizing his or her own life with autonomy, conquering increasing freedom without being subjected to supernatural forces, whether good or bad.

That same discovery has been made by adolescents for centuries now. Today, that discovery is becoming generalized, also because of the influence of schooling. Young people learn to forge their own lives without concerning themselves about celestial or infernal forces, and although vestiges of that rural, archaic mentality still remain, they are increasingly less active.

This cosmology played an important role in the traditional religion of the masses, acting as the intellectual basis of religion. It was what justified all the practices of Christian religious life, as it also justified the ancient pagan religions. Once this cosmology collapsed, young people became convinced that religion had no intellectual basis and was pure imagination unrelated to reality.

The successful pastoral of
fear of God and His punishments

Another basic element of traditional religion is fear; or as one historian put it, “the pastoral of fear.” Mircea Elíade said that primitive peoples do not believe in their divinities, but fear them. In fact, fear has been a great force sustaining religions for millennia. In a cosmology that teaches that human life is determined by supernatural forces from Heaven and Hell, human beings have a sense of great weakness. They feel that their life constantly depends on the will of supernatural entities; that they don’t dominate their own lives, which are always under threat. They live with fear.

They fear God because God can punish. God is demanding and wants human beings to subject themselves to His domination. The names of God are names of power, something that also holds true in the Bible. It’s true that God tells Moses He has no name; that He simply exists in the practice of the life of Israel, but God is always referred to as Lord, power, supremacy… and human beings as his servants, his faithful and obedient followers. God is the author of law, wants that law to be obeyed and whoever fails to obey is punished in this world or the next. God is a severe judge who won’t let Himself be deceived. This idea is found in various forms in all religions.

Fear of the power of God is the basis of worship. It’s necessary to offer God prayers, expressions of submission and petitions to attain His indulgence, forgiveness or patience; or to ask for what is needed for life, health, peace in the family, clan or tribe, or victory in war. One has to make Him promises, offer Him sacrifices. All this is necessary to achieve the desired goods.

In many religions an extensive cult was born of fear. In Christianity, the cult was extraordinarily developed and needed an abundant clergy and many churches to celebrate it. Many liturgical texts that have come down to us from the Middle Ages still preserve that ideology of fear, power and punishment. There’s also fear of the powers of Hell, which have great powers of seduction and deceit. One must always be distrustful and fight against the devils’ temptations with many religious gestures. For the clergy, the pastoral of fear was the best possible form of publicity. The priests could fight more efficiently against the devils and get closer to God and His saints to obtain goods and favors. It isn’t strange that the pastoral of fear has been so successful.

When we lose that fear

Since modernity, human beings have discovered that their lives aren’t directed by supernatural forces, that they are the owners of their own lives. The threats, dangers and afflictions in their lives aren’t caused by supernatural forces, but by natural factors and decisions made by human beings themselves. Illness isn’t punishment for sin. Victory isn’t given by God. Peace is an effect of human actions... Based on this discovery, human beings have lost their fear. They no longer fear God or the devils, assuming their life with all its limits and possibilities. They learn to have a better knowledge of nature and their own abilities to produce the desired effects by themselves. They don’t ask God what they have to do; they try to do it themselves.

This evolution is now irreversible. Nobody who thinks this way could return to the religious awareness of the past. The cosmology and anthropology born in modernity and developed since then are definitive. There will always be some survivors from previous eras, but from now on a large part of Catholic worship will be nothing more than a spectacle for tourists. Tourists don’t understand anything, but they like the anthropological museum that religions now represent. The cathedrals will continue being visited and pontifical masses will continue to be disseminated on television, but that will be all.

The persistent Vatican illusion
of restoring Christianity

Up until the French Revolution, the Church thought the Catholic monarchs could stop the expansion of modernity. After that revolution, the Church trusted in the Holy Alliance, which tried to restore Christianity. In 1848, the different European revolutions showed that it was impossible to return to the past. However, the long papacy of Pius IX started a few years later and would be a prolonged and radical attempt to immobilize the Church in its Tridentine tradition, condemning all the “heresies” of modernity and excluding any kind of relationship with them.

The Church sought refuge in the remnants of the aristocracy and the peasant class. It created neo-Scholasticism, neo-Gothicism, the rigor of the liturgy and radical Roman centralization, which left the bishops with no capacity for initiative, turning them into pure functionaries of the Roman Curia. Pius IX managed to completely isolate Catholics from the new world being built. He believed that modern society was not viable and was going to fall, that the important thing was to hold firm and wait. But the fall never came. All Catholics who tried to seek dialogue with the different sectors of the new society were condemned and removed. Once condemned, heretics no longer had any contact with their former colleagues or students because they were understood to be in the grip of an emanation from Hell.

León XIII opened the doors and windows a little by accepting the idea of recognizing the legitimacy of the republic. With him at the helm it appeared the Church would be able to find a place in society by making the inevitable concessions. Then came Pius X, who took up the policy of condemning modernity again. Hundreds of theologians were condemned and all of the Catholic movements that wanted to seek dialogue with the new social movements were repudiated. Pius X thought it was possible to remake Christianity and that the Church had the strength to do it. Everything else was “modernism.” The hunting down of modernism didn’t stop with him and continued in various countries until the death of Pius XII, who also lived under the illusion of a restored Christianity. He believed that greater Roman centralization, more rigid discipline and greater isolation from the world could prepare the Church for the day of its return. Pius XII lived outside the world in an unreal world.

Following the Second Vatican Council, some believed the project of restoring Christianity had been abandoned. But the project persisted in the Curia and was taken back up by John Paul II.

Resistence to the Roman model

It is very well understood that the Roman Curia has reacted negatively to every new step in the erosion of Christianity. It defends its power. It tries to increase within the Church itself the power it has lost in society. The victim of historical evolution, it couldn’t stop itself reacting negatively. Christianity peaked in the 13th century and it is normal for that historical moment to remain as an unsurpassable reference point and for all strategies to consist of saving at least parts of that 13th century Christianity.

It would be less understandable if the local Churches hadn’t understood the signs of the times and tried to adapt to the evolution of humanity, without wanting to impose the image of the 13th century as a rule for all evangelization. In fact, there were many movements of this kind in the local Churches, including the episcopates. The Curia perceived this danger and stopped the local episcopates from taking local initiatives, subjecting them to strict observance of the Holy See’s political strategy. The popes managed to reserve the naming of bishops for themselves, thus guaranteeing that they were loyal executive agents of the Roman strategy. And with that the doors were closed.

Despite this, there were and still are groups of laypeople who maintain contacts and want to give Christian witness in the midst of the post-modern world. They have the impression of forming a parallel Church, because their project doesn’t coincide with the Roman strategy. Today, resistance to the Roman strategy comes in the form of the work of laypeople. Small groups are multiplying that are going to produce a convergence. They are the founders of a new form of the Church’s presence in the world. One day, lacking any alternative, the hierarchy will have to follow this movement.

One day the story will be written of the relations between Rome and the Brazilian episcopate between 1970 and 1994. It will provide a perfect example of the antagonism between two visions of history. The case of Brazil was exemplary because it had an exceptional episcopacy, which was largely the product of the nuncio Lombardi. For the moment the documents are hidden and we have to make do with oral testimonies. But one day the history will be written of the Church in the second half of the 20th century in Latin America. The necessary conditions still don’t exist and the documents aren’t accessible, but when that story is known it will open a lot of eyes.

New Christian “movements”

The Roman Curia, the oldest bureaucracy in the world, knows how to accompany its restoration project with flawless opportunism. It thought—and maybe still thinks—that it has an alternative in the new “movements”: Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Neocatechumenate, the Schönstatt movement, Legionnaires of Christ... and many others of lesser dissemination. One day the pope proclaimed them the agents of a “new evangelization,” but his program is the restoration of Christianity, which increasingly distances them from contemporary society and makes any evangelization impossible. For them, evangelization means recruiting new members, which they do with all the guile that psychology or the sciences of communication place at their disposial.

These movements are typical of the middle class, which is not a class seeking a new culture, but rather the adaptation of religion to its own culture. The middle class wants a bourgeois religion that shows it can very well adore both God and money at the same time. The word is now with the laypeople. You don’t have to offer them a program, because they will make it themselves. They will react with their Christian conscience amid the sector of the world they occupy.

The Pentecostal challenge from
a movement of urban poor

The 20th century will be known as the century of Pentecostalism, a vast religious movement that gradually enveloped the whole world and all the Christian Churches and denominations; that converted hundreds of millions of Christians. Some sociologists have studied the phenomenon, but unless they are also theologians, they can’t understand the phenomenon from within. They assimilate it to other cultural movements without observing what it means for the history of Christianity.

Above all, Pentecostalism was and still is mainly a movement of the poor. It contains a convergence of two historical movements. First, the Churches didn’t manage to accompany the demographic explosion of humanity, which in the 20th century increased from 1 billion to 6 billion inhabitants. This was accompanied by an immense migration by hundreds of millions of peasants from the countryside to the city, where they gradually lost their traditional religion. The Churches could not or would not have the necessary structures to take in these human masses. Thus appeared the universe of the poor in the cities, abandoned by the traditional Churches, and new communities were born among them.

At the same time, there was a cultural evolution among those masses of former peasants who migrated to the cities. Schooling opened their intelligence and they acquired certain elements of modern rationality. They started to discover that not everything came from God and that prayer was not the only recourse. They learned that human beings have capacities, the possibility to achieve effects and somewhat change their living conditions. They stopped believing in the saints, stopped believing that the saints governed their lives and realized they were made of wood and plaster. Their thinking was liberated. It was a great rupture. They learned to think for themselves, to define their own lives for themselves, breaking their dependency on the clergy.

Arriving in the city, they not only discovered that their Church was absent, but also that the message of that Church didn’t respond to their new situation. Without clergy, they had to seek a new religion for themselves. And so the Pentecostals appeared. Historical experience shows that the great crisis of modernization is produced in secondary school at around 15 years of age. The vast majority of the poor don’t get that far, except in a few countries. The day will come, however, in which the poor enter secondary school and experience the same crisis and the Pentecostal churches will no longer seem so attractive.

Emancipated from the clergy
and liberated from the saints

The Pentecostalists keep the traditional cosmology: God and Satan, Heaven, Earth and Hell, sin and divine punishment, the temptation of Satan, and the problem of salvation as the basic problem of religion. But they abandon the worship of the saints. For them, there is only one saint, one savior, who is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ solves all problems and there is thus no need for the saints to solve life’s problems. Resorting to the saints is an illusion. In this way the Pentecostalists are aware of being intellectually more developed. They have discovered that the supernatural forces of the saints don’t exist and that only Jesus exists.

The Pentecostalists are also emancipated from the clergy. Their ministers are messengers of the gospel, counselors, prophets who exhort but have no authority over people, as each person has a direct relationship with Jesus Christ. This implies an emancipation of the human subject. Those who have converted to Pentecostalism feel freer, stronger, better trained and more responsible. They feel better equipped to confront the hard life of the poor in the city.

There have been several attempts to adapt the Pentecostal scheme to an educated middle class public. These insist on the experience of the Holy Ghost and a heightened awareness of being a subject. There are also Catholic and Protestant movements influenced by this idea.

The Pentecostal ministers or guides increasingly learn the techniques of communication and spectacles, which show how to awaken and orient collective emotions. The Pentecostal movements can generate serious neurotic phenomena, and in some groups the leaders keep emotions under control to avoid producing intense situations of psychic disturbance. In the United States these movements developed above all from the 1970s on, achieving great penetration among the most conservative public. They form an important group in the Republican Party and felt themselves to be led by President George W. Bush.

Generally speaking, traditional grassroots Pentecostal¬ists don’t accept or recognize as Christian such organizations as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God or the International Church of the Grace of God, which have spread throughout the world from Brazil, using communication techniques that cause one to question the sincerity of their faith. Cases like these two neo-Pentecostal Churches join the new religious forms born in the US context, which make up part of the new culture of the dominant neoliberal system.

Pentecostalism can grow more, particularly if the historical Churches fail to penetrate into the grassroots world. But it won’t be permanent because gradually the poor classes that have taken it on will become increasingly schooled and run up against the same religious problems of modernity and post-modernity. This evolution will depend on the degree of social evolution. The current system of exclusion could still last for some ten, twenty, fifty, years, according to the resistance of the new capitalist bourgeoisie and its ability to maintain its control over society. Historical prophecies are often realized after many years’ delay.

It’s not the gospel that’s in crisis

The great cultural crisis of the 1970s profoundly affected the traditional religion of Christianity and probably all religions, but it hasn’t affected the gospel. The collapse of traditional religion and the advent of a new society contain nothing that can affect the gospel, which preserves all of its value and wasn’t attacked. Nor was it ever attacked during the phases of modernity. On the contrary, all of the new movements wanted to realize the gospel and all charged that the Church wasn’t announcing it.

The ecclesiastical structure includes the gospel within its religious system, but from the outside it isn’t easy for people to discover the gospel’s message in the Church. The lucky ones might discover it in a certain bishop, priest, nun, monk or lay person, but not in the institution; not in the universal Church nor in the Church’s local institutions, where the religious system occupies all the visible space.

While the gospel sends Christians out into the world, religion calls on them to participate in worship. The gospel announces that the kingdom of God is already present, is already acting in this world, not just in Heaven. The bearers of the gospel are people who live a common and ordinary life among like-minded people, showing them the path of Jesus as a life project that leads to happiness on Earth as well as in Heaven. Religion, on the contrary, offers participation in celestial worship. Worship separates people from this world to give them an entrance into the world of Heaven, so they can participate in the liturgy of the saints and angels. Religion is the dominion of the clergy as a sacred class reserved for worship.

We don’t need eternal institutions

Lay people who are true bearers of the gospel have been appearing since the middle of the 19th century. They form groups and associations and have frequently been censured by the hierarchy. In the 20th century this movement led to Catholic Action. It’s now time to revive something akin to Catholic Action, giving it more space than it had in the 20th century. Catholic Action finally failed and disappeared because it wasn’t given enough freedom. The lay movements and their activities were subordinated to the clergy and to traditional Catholic institutions such as the parishes. In the end, nobody found guidance for a Christian life within the world in those movements and those lay people left the Church to a clergy that was constantly decreasing in number and less interested in the world.

Today, this world feels the need for such movements, with full liberty to carry out in the world those activities most appropriate to the gospel. It’s not a question of founding new, universal or eternal institutions. What is most needed is institutions that don’t remain, but rather last for a generation and leave free space for new developments for the next generation.

Does religion have a future?

Religion belongs to the human condition. There are people who can live without it, just like there are people who can’t play any musical instrument, don’t travel, don’t learn languages; but all of these limitations diminish their human being, their humanity. That’s why religion exists in any culture, and if the culture changes the religion changes, too, and another religion will appear. We are at a crucial moment in history due to the radical change in culture.

While religion does have a future, that’s not necessarily true of the religions we currently know. The traditional religion of Christianity doesn’t have much future because it’s already incomprehensible and the new culture wants to understand. The founding of a new religion could take centuries, but certain signs appear before it actually emerges. Many groups and many institutions are going to appear during those years, and in the middle of it all something is being sought.

Jesus never founded a religion. He left the door open for his disciples to create the religion most adapted to their culture. And that’s what they unconsciously did. Nobody knew they were building a new religion. The religion we now know and practice was formed within the Roman Empire and was a historical possibility. Other religions may appear from the current historical possibilities. We’re at the beginning of the history of a world and an evangelization. Up to now, Christianity—with two variations—only penetrated a single culture based on what there was in the Roman Empire. It was only a beginning, a first stage. The most probable thing is that when something new emerges there won’t be a strong rupture, but rather a progressive evolution. Certain institutions or practices are going to disappear and others are going to appear. And only after several centuries will we know that something new was born.

Four signs of the future Christian religion

We can already perceive certain orientations towards the new form. As we’re talking about the future here, many opinions are possible, but that does not stop each individual from proposing his or her own vision of that evolution.

First, the religion of the future will probably be more mystic than cultural. It will give more importance to listening to the word of God than to worship. The prayer it will practice will be more oriented to listening and welcoming than to asking or adoring. Worship will be much less the celebration of God and more the celebration of His discrete and humble presence in our world.

Second, the religion of the future will give less importance to religious objects and much more to the subjects. It will give less importance to the literality of the dogmas and more warmth to the personal experience of following Jesus. There will be less need to objectivize religion, clearly separating the religious objects from the forces of the universe. The Bible had great fear of the material nature of the universe because it lived in the middle of religions that identified the divinity with natural phenomena. It wanted to make a distinction between God and the natural forces. This vision distanced us too much from nature and its dynamics. There was a lack of integration of religion into the life of the universe, which is not a set of inert objects. We now know the Earth is alive, changes, produces; we know it feels the wounds inflicted upon it by an excessively destructive civilization.

Third, dialogue and human relations will be central to the religion of the future. We know the subject is born of dialogue with another subject, through a reciprocal relationship with other subjects. The traditional religion provides people with a complete religious world in which communication consists of transmitting the external religious world—dogmas, rites, precepts, institutions—to people. Everything indicates that that world of religious objects is going to have to give way to a living relationship between equal people. The priestly status impedes a simply human relationship and it’s very hard to do away with the priest’s sacred character. Therefore, in the religion of the future the priestly caste will progressively disappear along with all the marks of sacredness attributed to it over the centuries.

Fourth, tomorrow’s Christians will need small communities involving relationships of fraternity. The family is losing its importance because children make their own lives and life leads them to very distant places. Neighborly relationships are also disappearing. There will be a need for communities of people who participate in the same religion, for the same purpose and with the same values.

Jesus will be liberated
from the religious apparatus

The era of heresy-hunting has passed and there’s no longer a need for a clergy that constantly watches over the flock so it doesn’t fall into heretical practices. In the religion to come there will still be condemnations, but they will no longer be taken seriously, which is something that’s already happening. Despite the resistance of the hierarchy, the Church’s vertical nature no longer has much of a future. In a Church of the liberation of lay people, creativity will reappear in all aspects of life. The clerics will no longer be responsible for inventing it all and many initiatives and novelties that we can’t even imagine yet will emerge among Christian people.

What we have to do right now is demonstrate the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, as it was at the beginning, free from the whole religious apparatus that covered it for centuries to the point of making it disappear beneath a multicultural blanket. It’s enough to evoke traditional artistic representations, the devout literature of centuries and the grassroots or not so grassroots devotions: all this hides the true face of Jesus Christ. The Christian religion has replaced the presence of Jesus Christ, which was inevitable anyway: he had to disappear from this world to be known the world over and it was his presentation to different peoples that engendered the Christian religion we know.

Signs of the Church of the future appeared during the Church’s glory days in Latin America—more or less between 1960 and 1985. They generated quite a scare and were finally rejected, but they will be models for future generations, once the current era comes to an end, filled as it is with attempts to restore the ancient Christianity, which is an impossible solution that will increasingly lose credibility. I’ve presented Dom Helder Cámara as the prefiguring of the bishop of tomorrow. In Rome, they took him to be a madman, while Monsignor Leónidas Proaño, the bishop of Riobamba, was accused of having “the mania of the Indians,” thinking that putting oneself at the service of indigenous people could only be the effect of a psychological deformation.

Perceiving what’s happening

Religion is necessary, but nothing says it has to be the same in the West, Africa, India, China or Japan. There’s a lot of sympathy for Christianity in those countries, but little sympathy for the Churches. This is also a sign of the future. The minorities that remain faithful to the practices of the ancient religion of Christianity are those that can least perceive what’s going on in the world. They feel no need for any change and are frightened by any suggestion of it. Equally, the clergy has no possibility of perceiving what’s happening because it’s at the service of those minorities. Only people marginalized by the institution understand the present... and are preparing for the future.

Father José Comblin was born in Belgium in 1923 and has lived in Ecuador, Chile and Brazil since 1958.

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