Whatever Happened to Hope?

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.                                                                —Albert Einstein

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves….Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.                                                                                                                                            —Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Some of you are waiting for me to finally launch into the promised story and have been gently spurring me on. Thank you for your messages; I hear you. Some of you are struggling with difficult family relationships and want to hear more about what I referred to as necessary distance. Some want to hear more about childhood trauma and abuse and its ongoing impact, and what brings healing. Others want to go more deeply into issues I raised in my letter to Beth Moore. If you missed it, that post and all of my previous posts can still be accessed in the Menu. I assure you I’m not just dragging my feet. I’m watching and processing so much that is happening right now that relates to what I have been writing about and what I will be writing about. It takes time to gather all the pieces and see how they fit together.

Let’s go back for a moment to my post, “An Open Letter to Beth Moore.” Three weeks ago the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, and topics I touched on in that letter were once again front and center.1 I’m listening and thinking carefully about what Beth and others are saying and paying special attention to what is not being said. There are much deeper assumptions that need to be examined, questions that need to be raised and explored. This is something I plan to do.

Another significant occurrence that same week was the release of a new report on life expectancy in the United States. For the third consecutive year, overall life expectancy has decreased. That the US is the only industrialized nation where this occurred is especially significant. While the leading causes of death in America are still heart disease and cancer, recent years have seen a huge increase in deaths from drug addiction, suicide, and alcohol-related liver disease. When Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case first wrote about this trend in 2015, they called these three “Diseases of Despair.” Recent public health debates have focused on the opioid epidemic and suicides and the toll they take on American lives. The connection between childhood trauma (ACEs) and these “diseases of despair” has been made, and a great deal of attention is being paid to developing solutions. But, as Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo pointed out, the problem goes much deeper. In a 2017 article titled “The disease killing white Americans goes way deeper than opioids” he wrote:

“So the theory comes back to despair. Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a ‘spiritual’ pain caused by ‘cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.’ If they’re right, then the problem will be much harder to solve. Politicians can pass laws to keep opioids out of people’s hands or require insurers to cover mental health costs, but they can’t turn back the clock to 1955.”2

As I read this article my mind was bombarded with questions. Americans suffering, dying from lack of hope… reflection of a spiritual pain–could this be right? Of course, the length of one’s life isn’t everything. A week before his death on November 22, 1963, author and theologian C S Lewis wrote, “I care more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing the goodness and happiness of individual lives.” I agree with Lewis’s thinking. But if “diseases of despair” are the cause of shortened lives, then something must be missing in the “goodness and happiness” of those lives.

I thought about hope. Hope is without question central to the life and message of Jesus Christ. Churches are called to be “beacons of hope,” to proclaim a message of hope. So where are Christians in this “lack of hope”? What is happening in the churches of America? I started looking again, and what I found was deeply disturbing. From what I have seen, it appears the lack of hope, as well as the loss of hope, extends to those whose essential message is one of hope.

Across the board, in both Catholic and Protestant churches, in all denominations, Christianity is in decline in America and has been for decades. “United Methodist Church Membership Decline Continues”—“Presbyterian Church Membership Drops”—“Membership Crash at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—“Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years”—the headlines tell the story. “By now, Southern Baptists recognize that their movement is in a decline that shows no signs of changing course,” began a May 24, 2019 article in Christianity Today.3 The article goes on to provide research showing that less than half of young people raised in Southern Baptist churches today remain Southern Baptist when they reach adulthood.4

A question that has appeared on social surveys across the years is, “what is your religious tradition?’ People whose answer to that question is “no religion” have come to be known as nones. The percentage of nones in America has been on an upward trajectory since the early 1990s. This year the inevitable happened. A new survey released in March revealed that nones are for the first time statistically even with evangelicals and Catholics.5 Ryan Burge, assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, analyzed the data from the General Social Survey. Commenting on the fact that the rise of nones closely tracks the decline of Protestantism, he said, “The biggest story is that ‘no religion’ is coming from the mainline. Mainliners are jumping ship.” I read all this, deeply concerned not with the numbers but with the people, and I wondered, why? What reasons are people giving for moving from the realm of faith to nones?

In a book by Robert Putnam (I mentioned him in my last post, “Changed and Changing”), I found an answer, a partial one at least. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked a large national sample of nones why they now identify as having no religion. Their answers had nothing to do with science or theology. They responded that they “think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere,” focusing “too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.” These answers came as no surprise. They were reasons I had heard before, and no doubt that has been the experience of many. But there was more. Putnam went on to report that these new nones expressed “increasing opposition to religious influence in politics and government.” He explained that “during the 1990s Americans of all ages became increasingly uneasy about mixing religion and politics.” As a result, many have begun to see Christianity as “representing a noxious mixture of religion and political ideology.”6 Only 22% of the nones surveyed pointed to a lack of belief in God as the most important reason for not affiliating with a church.

Maybe these answers sting a bit, but I believe they do represent honest answers to the serious question, why have you walked away from religion? I believe this is something we need to think carefully about. The tendency of many is to immediately begin to offer answers as to why this is true, to begin to strategize about how to “fix” this problem. Some will immediately begin to call for more evangelism and begin to develop new programs. Some will say the answer lies in revival and redouble their efforts in that area. But in reality, the problem goes much, much deeper, and is tied to the loss of hope.

So don’t be too quick to offer a “fix.” I’ve provided a lot of links to articles so you can do some reading. It’s important to sit for a while with the questions raised, and with those questions that are raised within you. Listen to what people are saying without offering answers; think. Strive to go deeper. Why make the effort? Because this matters.

C S Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”7 I understand and accept this statement as a sincere expression of faith from Lewis. While a large part of it resonates in me, my expression would have some distinct differences. I can’t say I believe in “Christianity”; this word has so many different usages, many negative even to me, that I’m not sure what it means. What I can say is this: I believe in Jesus Christ as surely as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see him, but because through him I see everything else.

What do I see when I look at Jesus? That’s a huge question, not one I can answer in a few words. What I can point you to is the description of Jesus that is most meaningful to me:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12: 18-21, NIV)

I find this a beautiful picture of who Jesus is, packed full of the reality of him. This is a picture that needs sitting with for quite a while to unpack its riches. I know there are a lot of bruised reeds who feel as if they are completely broken, wicks whose spark of life is so low they can do no more than smolder. Their hope is gone. I know; I’ve been there. But through his name, meaning the character of who he is, hope can be restored. I know that too. Accurately recovering the message of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of hope and love with more than words, will be essential. Many people are starving for honest, meaningful talk. Let’s go there. I for one am tired of simplistic answers and platitudes, and I know I’m not alone.

1 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june-web-only/beth-moore-southern-baptist-convention-abuse.html https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2019/06/09/southern-baptist-convention-beth-moore-sparks-debate/1332128001/

2 “The disease killing white Americans goes way deeper than opioids”—Washington Post, March 24, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/24/the-disease-killing-white-americans-goes-way-deeper-than-opioids/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d2918b592f24
“American is losing ground to death and despair”—Washington Post, November 30, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/america-is-losing-ground-to-death-and-despair/2018/11/30/77c6b38e-f45a-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html?utm_term=.0b8f77ccf8c2
“’Diseases of Despair’ Contribute To Declining US Life Expectancy”—Forbes, July 19, 2018.

3 “Southern Baptists Down to Lowest in 30 Years”—Christianity Today, May 23, 2019.

4 “Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” –Christianity Today, May 24, 2019. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/may/southern-baptist-sbc-decline-conversion-retention-gss.html

5“‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US”—Jack Jenkins, Religion News Service, March 21, 2019. https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/

6 Putnam, Robert D. & Campbell, David E. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010, Simon & Schuster)

7 Lewis, C. S. “Is Theology Poetry?”, The Weight of Glory. (1949, C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)