Christians around the world are now in the Easter season and singing "Alleluia!" once again.
But not all of us. Not even all of us Catholics.
Those of the Byzantine or other Eastern traditions -- together with our Orthodox sisters and brothers -- are still five weeks away from Easter.
It’s one of the strangest and most disturbing incongruities of global Christianity that believers in Jesus Christ more often than not celebrate the two most important feasts of their faith -- Christmas and Easter -- on widely different dates.
Only six times in the last 16 years have Christians of East and West celebrated Easter on the same Sunday. And, thankfully, we’ll do so again next year.
This week, we celebrate the first anniversary of the launch of our podcast, NCR in Conversation. Catch the latest episode here.
Leaders of the various Christian denominations are in near-full agreement that our divisions cause scandal to non-believers and cripple our efforts at spreading the Gospel and drawing all people to Christ.
But divisions are only part of the reason why more and more of those who have been baptized into the Christian community -- including, and maybe even especially, Roman Catholics -- are leaving their churches or abandoning their faith all together. And why the un-baptized are not even interested in joining.
No, there is something much more fundamental and troubling at work.
That came clearly to mind while reading a recently published interview with Benedict XVI.
At one point the Bishop-emeritus of Rome lamented that since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) it has become commonplace for people to no longer believe baptism is necessary for salvation.
"Why should one try to convince people to accept the Christian faith when they can be saved even without it?" he asked rhetorically.
He said this was part of a post-Vatican II "crisis" that has had a devastating effect even on people who were already Christians.
"The obligatory nature of the faith and its way of life began to seem uncertain and problematic. If there are those who can save themselves in other ways, it is not clear, in the final analysis, why the Christian himself is bound by the requirements of the Christian faith and its morals," the former pope said.
"If faith and salvation are no longer interdependent, faith itself becomes unmotivated," he noted.
His words leapt off the page.
And what sprang to mind was a natural conclusion to what he had said -- what’s the point of being a Catholic or following the church’s rules and precepts if, in the final analysis, we’re not going to hell? (My words, not those of the retired theologian-pope.)
To put it another way, the fear of hell is no longer bringing Catholics to church on Sundays as perhaps it once did before Vatican II.
That is certainly true in the industrialized or technologically developed world where people have attained a greater degree of security and education with respect to those in developing or poorer countries.
Fear of God. Fear of eternal damnation. Fear of going to hell.
Yes, these were (and, for some, probably still are) strong motivating factors for "believing." But one could argue that a religion based on fear has little to do with having faith in and striving to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
That’s a conclusion so many people in our more developed societies seem to have reached.
When they finally disentangled their supposed faith (or at least their allegiance to a church community) from its connection to fear, what did they find? A church that is largely irrelevant to their lives, apart from being a social group or network of friends -- for those who are lucky.
Benedict XVI often blamed decreasing church attendance, diminishing vocations to the priesthood and just about any other crisis in the ecclesial community on the "lack of faith" when he was still pope.
In his Christmas message to the Roman Curia in 2011 he spoke at length about this, describing it as "faith fatigue" and arguing that a promising "remedy" was arising among a younger generation as evidenced at the church’s World Youth Day gatherings.
Certainly, some very positive and hopeful signs can be witnessed at these events. But there is scant evidence that anything more than a tiny number of the kids who are World Youth Day "alumni" actually are or remain regularly participating members in the church.
The analysis of the crisis that the former pope, and almost every bishop, offers fails to recognize a very basic fact -- our Christian "story" makes less and less sense to people of our time.
Sadly, our myth -- not as in "make believe" but as the overarching narrative of the meaning of life -- is no longer necessary or inspiring for so many people of our time.
Science and technology have provided undisputed answers to questions that remained mysteries, not that long ago in the scheme of things, and were much more easily explained through the rationalization (and manipulation) of people’s faith.
Sociology and psychology have been seen as offering more trustworthy assistance to people dealing with grief, terminal illness, behavioral disorders, the discernment of important life choices and the like than do the Sacrament of Penance or Spiritual Direction.
Furthermore, the churches and faith communities that continue to exclude women from decision-making and ministerial roles and treat them as de facto second-class citizens are seen as anachronistic and unjust by a steadily increasing number of women and men of our time.
These are just some of the things that have turned the greatest story ever told -- the story of God’s loving plan and care for humanity, manifested and modeled by Jesus of Nazareth -- into a boring story and one that’s badly told?
Is there a way that the Christian narrative can become captivating and relative again?
Perhaps one way is by looking more seriously the ancient maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi; namely, that our worship and rituals must faithfully reflect and give expression to what we believe and how we understand our faith.
"We need to rediscover what is essential to the Christian way of life, reinvent ways to ritualize that, and reformulate what those rituals mean in terms that are faithful both to the teachings of Jesus and to the experience of living in accordance with them," says Joseph Martos in an intriguing article published in NCR several weeks ago.
"The traditional doctrines no longer match Catholics’ contemporary experience of church membership, marriage and ministry, not to mention their sense of sin and their experience of illness," he notes.
Professor Martos calls this the disintegration of "the unity of practice and theology." And he argues that our post-Vatican II theologies have failed to repair the rupture because the ideas they express "no longer correspond to the world inhabited by most Catholics."
Unfortunately, neither does the big narrative of Christianity seem to make sense for most people who live in the most developed parts of the world – at least not the way our churches express it.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
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