The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part One]

About the Author
David Wagschal

There’s hardly a week that goes by where I’m not somehow reminded of the pressing need for Reformation 2.0 in the Christian church. A bitter sermon; a conversation with a frustrated Christian friend; a depressing news story about this or that church; the silly or embarrassing behaviour of a church leader. I can’t seem to escape it. Everywhere I look I see evidence that the old synthesis is fraying: pastors seem to be regularly and systemically burnt out; theologians are angry, cynical and uncertain; the laity is tired and perplexed; churches stand empty. Sadness, anger and frustration linger everywhere. Distortion and exaggeration seem to be on the rise. Most of all: people seem oddly disconnected from church, even when they don’t want to be. It’s like no one exactly fits the old mold anymore. We’re all standing “outside” of the system now, in different ways. It’s weird.

The atmosphere is so strange. I feel like I can almost smell the storm coming. It’s not all negative: there is a kind of new, almost wild hope in the air too. But something is going to give; and soon.

I think, in fact, we are on the cusp of a new Reformation, and this one is going to be much more radical than the last. I think a lot of people feel this in their gut, but it’s very hard to get people to talk about it. But we need to.

This series of posts is my first serious attempt to come to terms theologically, on a global, systems-level, with what I think is happening to Christianity, and what I think will soon emerge. It is an attempt to give theological articulation to a set of changes that I think have already been set in motion – and which are going to challenge us to the very roots of what we’ve come to believe.

A new catalyst for change: something is different now

People have been talking about radical change in Christianity for the last three centuries (even longer). Secularism, the Enlightenment, the emergence of the modern “individual”, the philosophical bombshell of Hume/Kant, developments in science, history, and technology, and social/moral changes – all of these have presented profound, and well-known, challenges to traditional Christian worldviews.

But in the face of these challenges Christianity has remained, in a way, remarkably unscathed. Externally, Christianity has been pushed onto the defensive, and has been undoubtedly marginalized in terms of size and political, social and cultural influence. But internally the classical doctrinal “shape” of Christianity, as it has existed since about the late 3rd century, has remained surprisingly intact – across the denominations, despite (superficial?) variations.

But I believe this is soon going to change. I believe that, very recently, a critical, if subtle, social shift has occurred in Western societies that is going to catalyze a profound transformation.

What is this shift? Since the 1990s, a generation has emerged that, for the first time in centuries, has not, in the main, grown up within the old synthesis. This is something very new. We now see a generation, the first beyond any living cultural memory, that hasn’t existentially experienced the world of socially and culturally established religion.

My generation, the late Gen-Xers (rather conveniently the last full generation of the last millennium) was probably the last for whom, when we were young, it could be taken for granted that most people at least notionally belonged to a church. Church was simply “in the air”. Stores were closed on Sundays, national holidays were still overtly Christian, clergy were recognized public functionaries, and there was a certain lip-service to traditional Christian morality. People may not have been active church-goers, even in the majority, and church and state may have been separate, but people “got” the idea of going to church, participating in formal religious structures and rituals, as a social norm. They understood the idea, and at least notional value, of an established, communal, religious synthesis. Church was just a normal, if perhaps not terribly important, part of the social fabric. It was just there.

But this has now passed – or at least is passing.1 A whole generation has emerged for whom that whole church-world is both unknown and alien – certainly archaic.

This change is extremely significant. Yet its importance lies not so much in its impact on Christianity’s external situation: i.e. as representing another step in our marginalization. (Although it is that too.) That’s a comparatively minor issue.

Its real significance comes from the effect this change is having on Christians internally – i.e. how it is changing our own thinking. For the first time in practically forever we suddenly must explain and justify to the world what we’re doing, and why, in a completely comprehensive and non-polemical way. It’s now impossible to take the plausibility, truth or value of any of our beliefs or practices for granted. We must start from square one and build the entire argument for Christianity from the ground-up: intellectually, culturally, socially.

Previously, we had the luxury of speaking through and with cultural, social and ethnic conventions. We also had the luxury of speaking to generations, and societies, who, if not positively disposed to us, could still be relied upon to be intelligently critical of us – i.e. who were still sufficiently familiar with us to accord us the respect and attention, and perhaps hatred, of true opponents. We had, in effect, the luxury of being on the defense. But now the reaction to us is simply: “Huh?” Defensiveness, or apologetics, doesn’t work as a response to this. We have to explain what we’re about in a level, reasoned, and very honest, even heart-felt, way – not just to our enemies, but to our own children, our friends, to ourselves.

It is in the experience of this “tabula rasa” that the critical change comes. Suddenly, in these heart-to-heart conversations, we are forced to do something that we haven’t really done for centuries: listen to ourselves talking. We’re suddenly forced to hear our own message, minus the assumptions and polemical posturing. This means we are suddenly forced to re-examine all of those beliefs and practices that we have simply taken for granted, and which have been implanted so deeply in our identities that they have become almost beyond our ability to examine.

What happens when we do this?

Well, I can tell you what has happened to me. I’ve found myself thinking: “What the hell have we been thinking?!”

When I step out of my “Christian bubble”, and start to really listen to what huge swaths of our tradition sound like from the perspective of someone from the “outside”, I suddenly get why Christianity is in such trouble. Why it’s in such decline. I get “the disconnect”. I get the alienation. It’s crystal clear.

Christianity is systematically broken on the inside. The problem is not “them”, “out there”. It’s not “the world”, in its supposed stupidity or arrogance or obstinacy or ignorance; it’s not “secularism” (booga booga!); it’s not a deficiency in the “younger generations”, or any type of external threat; it’s certainly not that we’ve lost touch with our own tradition. The problem’s not even “us” in the sense that we’re simply not faithful enough or holy enough to convey the message today. No: the problem is in our scriptures. It’s in our theology. It’s in our hymns and liturgies. It’s in the very fabric of our received tradition. We’ve been getting a lot of our message wrong. Maybe for centuries.

That is the thought that no one dares utter: we’re getting stuff wrong. No one wants to voice the possibility that central elements of the received tradition – of our core theology – might be deeply flawed. Everyone wants to blame our problems on literally everything else but.

Yet I think the idea, that something quite profound is wrong in Christianity, is beginning to form in the backs of peoples’ minds. The more we listen to ourselves talk, the more uneasy we become. When enough people get sufficiently uneasy, and finally embrace the possibility that something quite profound has to change – then the next Reformation is going to hit like a storm. I don’t think it’s far off.

Next post: Into the Storm: Scripture

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  1. Admittedly, for my readers in rural America, it’s passing a bit slower – but it is passing. Spend some time with the surveys at the Pew Research Center, PRRI, etc. []

Comments 3

  1. Many thanks. Thinking on this myself. Hope to hear part two soon. Peace and all good.

  2. First off, thank you for this series. I’m excited to read more. But, a couple points of critique. You say: “No one wants to voice the possibility that central elements of the received tradition – of our core theology – might be deeply flawed.”
    Have you read any theology in the 20th Century? Basically everyone starts with the premise that the other guys have been getting it wrong for a long time. If you look at the modern German tradition alone (one that’s celebrated and much critiqued), it’s a litany of one departure from received tradition after another, from Schleiermacher to Harnack, Bultmann, Barth, and Tillich… They are basically
    ALL saying, “We got our theology wrong; let’s change this.”
    Secondly, and surely you’re aware of this, you are operating with a very particular geographical-cultural experience: Europe/North America. If you look anywhere beyond that — China, South America, sub-Saharan Africa… — the church is in a very different spot; in fact, it’s growing by leaps and bounds!

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Hi Robin! Thanks again for this. These are great points, and well taken. My context is basically European/North American, so that’s primarily the reality I’m speaking to – and I should probably make that more explicit. I don’t have a ton of experience with other global Christianities, but I would be interested to see how/if some of this plays out in these contexts.

      I would agree that the liberal Protestant theological traditions has indeed been asking some quite fundamental questions for the last two centuries — I should have prefaced that by saying “Aside from certain streams of the liberal tradition…” This reminds me that one of the posts/articles I’ve had on the back of my brain for a while is “Why the Liberal Protestants Were Right”. :)

      I guess my sense, though, is that so many of these streams seem to have become eclipsed in our rather neo-con/neo-traditional environment, even within fairly mainstream churches (e.g. Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics) — and definitely in popular perceptions and presentations of Christianity. I feel like the real liberals have been a fairly silent minority these days, and it is relatively rare to hear voiced in the pulpit, in magazines, from church authorities, etc, the kinds of critiques I’m offering in this series (although in individual conversations, that’s a different story…). My experience is that the dominant instinct is instead to try to recapture and revivify something in the past (this is very much how I read Barth, for example: Calvin 2.0). So I guess that’s where I’m coming from. But, true, I suppose if I were in, say, the UCC, perhaps, I wouldn’t feel this so keenly!

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