Tuesday, Aug 28, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, August 28, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What would a post-Christian society look like? Just look at Ireland
We increasingly use the vocabulary of a post-Christian culture. This does not mean of course that every vestige or appearance of Christianity has disappeared, nor does it mean that the society includes none who are professing Christians. What it does mean is that the most fundamental ideological forms of the society, the most basic worldview is no longer shaped in any explicit or perhaps even any significant way by Christianity.
Now, in the nations of the West, both Western Europe and North America, it is virtually impossible to find an absolutely post-Christian condition, but it is more likely to be found, as we have seen in the areas that are more rapidly secularizing for one reason or for another and in generations that are more secular than those previous.
In most cases, that means in the West, every successive generation since the 20th century has been more secular than the one before, and that's particularly true right now when it comes to the generation of young people. In much of Europe, we are told that at this point, there is no default religious identity for the majority of young people that would be age 34 and younger in Europe, but we need to remember that sometimes there are alarms that go off that tell us just what a post-Christian society might look like, even as we see it taking shape before our very eyes and sometimes, taking shape where we might least have expected it. As we have seen in recent months, one of the nation's that is now a laboratory for this post-Christian condition is the nation of Ireland. Speaking of Ireland of this way is so shocking because ever since the Middle Ages, the medieval era in European history, Ireland has been considered one of the most religious nations of the entire European experiment.
Of course, when you think back to the history of Ireland and St. Patrick, you're talking about the presence of institutional Catholicism and you're also noting that in most of Ireland, and especially as you're now speaking of the Republic of Ireland, you are speaking of a nation that has defined itself as more traditionally Catholic than even other regions in Europe and you're talking about an Ireland that steadfastly resisted the Reformation and instead assigned itself an identity of deep Catholicism with a deep Catholic moral instincts but as you're looking at Ireland, even speaking of its Catholic tradition and history, you are looking at the fact that this Irish history so associated with Catholicism was a part of the larger European tradition of Christendom and you're also looking at the fact that if you were to talk to someone, say just 20 years ago in either Ireland or in the United States, and you were to speak of Ireland as an example of a post-Christian condition, well the conversation would have seemed virtually absurd, but the recent visit of Pope Francis to Ireland demonstrates just how much the country has been transformed.
Siobhán O'Grady, writing for The Washington Post, summarizes the reality this way. Well, here's the headline, The Last Time a Pope Visited Ireland, Homosexuality was a Crime. Now, the Irish Prime Minister is Gay. As O'Grady reports, in 2015 Leo Varadkar was serving as Ireland's Health Minister, he came out as a gay man on national radio. The country was preparing to vote in a same sex marriage referendum and Varadkar told the radio host that his sexuality is not a secret but it's not something everyone would necessarily know. He went on to say it's not something that defines me but the article goes on to explain the significance of Varadkar in his election as the head of the party and now as Prime Minister, O'Grady writes, "Varadkar is a distinct example of how what was once an overwhelmingly white Catholic nation is now increasingly diverse, and its laws increasingly secular. It was the first country to have legalized same sex marriage through a popular vote, and this year, the country repealed its restrictive abortion ban."
Actually, I should point out here that it was not just the repeal of legislation. It was actually the amendment of the nation's constitution. The day after the pope arrived, Varadkar said that the church had previously, "Had too much of a dominant place in our society." Well, it was interesting if a bit considered abrupt that the Irish Prime Minister spoke directly to the pope about how the Irish parliament and government had changed the policies, the laws and the Constitution directly in opposition to the teachings and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church but that too simply becomes part of the story.
This past Sunday, The Economist, one of the most influential of all news magazines published in Europe, ran an article referring explicitly to the increasing post-Christian condition of Ireland. The article was of course timed considering the papal visit. The article openly asks and by the way, the major articles in The Economist are not now nor have they ever been named by writer. They are instead named by a continuing column. This is the Erasmus column. The article introduces the decreasing rates of church identification, the baptism of infants, the attendance at mass, and other markers that would have historically indicated just how religious Ireland was, now indicating just how unreligious Ireland is and is becoming, but then Erasmus asked this question, "What about the Irish intelligentsia, a world where both piety and skepticism have deep cultural roots?" One would be hard pressed, said the column these days to name many Irish cultural figures, writers or public intellectuals who are practicing Catholics.
Now, of course, as you're looking at this, that effectively means those who identify with institutional or historic Christianity in any way. It's also interesting that this very column in The Economist points out that if you were to go to University College Dublin, that's the most prestigious Catholic University College in Ireland, as Erasmus says, you will be hard pressed to find a Catholic philosopher. Now that demonstrates something in contrast we also ought to note. In the United States, arguably, the number of major academic philosophers who identify in some way with the Christian tradition is larger than it was, greater than it was just a matter of a generation ago. That's a stark contrast to what we see throughout much of Europe and particularly as is seen in this article in the nation of Ireland, but what makes this article in The Economist really interesting is the fact that many who are now a part of that secular intelligentsia in Ireland, even as they indicate that they celebrate the overthrow of any kind of Christian authoritarian theology or doctrine or tradition and morality or life, they also go on to say that they fear that losing Ireland's religious identity will lead to other losses as well.
Peter White, cited as a public relations consultant in the article, said, "30 years ago, I was an outsider amongst doctrinaire Catholic religiosity. Now I am an outsider amongst the new Ireland's equally doctrinaire naive materialism, he continued both diminish us as moral agents." That's really interesting. Here you see the testimony from an observer right there in Ireland that when some form of the Christian tradition is overthrown, what follows is not some kind of worldview neutrality, but as this observer points out very honestly, a very doctrinaire, he went on to say naive materialism. That is an absolute affirmation that there is no reality beyond the material reality.
Another observer in this Economist column pointed out that with the decline of Christian identity in Ireland, one of the absences increasingly noted is the absence of decency and courtesy in everyday behavior. From a Christian worldview perspective, that underlines the fact that what's defined here is courtesy or decency just in what we might call politeness or etiquette in society. That's actually a part of the morality. If you change the morality, you are going to change the social conventions. Eventually, it will change the way human beings even refer to one another or greet one another or for that matter, completely fail to recognize one another.
To put the matter squarely, if you believe that every single human being is an individual made in God's image, then even your greeting will be informed by that fundamental belief. If you believe that every single human being is just a cosmic accident, simply material and nothing more, then eventually your social etiquette will conform to that fundamental belief. One way or another, over time, it is inevitable.
Why are newcomers to Canada more religious than those who were born in Canada?
Next, we shift from Ireland to Canada, and note that the very same column, the Erasmus column in The Economist just a few weeks ago, ran an article with the headline New Canadians are Injecting Vigor into the Country's Religious Life. In this case, the article begins with these words, "Something strange is happening to Canada's religious profile. As in many Western countries we are told, the share of Canadian citizens who call themselves Christian is in long term decline. Those who profess no religion, which does not necessarily mean,", says the magazine, "an indifference to the spiritual, is rising, but compared with people born in Canada, newcomers to the country are much more likely to practice a faith regardless of whether they were devout back in the homeland. Young immigrants," says the article, "are more inclined to engage in regular worship than their parents, then we are told and whatever they believe or practice, new Canadians seem to have a more positive attitude towards religion than longer established ones."
Several studies and surveys are then cited but the important bottom line in all of this is that a pattern is detected and that pattern is that newcomers, especially second generation newcomers to Canada are markedly more religious than those who were born in Canada or have a very long history in Canada. Now, we have often noted on The Briefing that Canada, over the course of the last 50 years, has trended in a far more secular direction than the rest of North America, particularly as compared to the United States. Canada has secularized in a more rapid and in a more comprehensive way, mirroring more a European pattern than an American pattern, but what is really interesting in this article is the fact that even in the most historically secular part of Canada, that is British Columbia, there is a revival of sorts of interest in historic Christianity, but it's not amongst people who were born in Canada. It is found instead amongst those who have moved to Canada.
We read in the column and I quote, "For decades, British Columbia was the most secular part of Canada, Quebec was a bastion of French Catholicism, now in vertiginous decline. Scottish Presbyterianism made its mark on the ethos of Toronto and Alberta had an evangelical Christian subculture, along with many others. Compared with all that," says Erasmus, "the Pacific Coast was a place where people could live and believe much more freely."
Well, looking at that reality, let's just remind ourselves that the same pattern pertained in a similar way in the United States, that is to say, the Pacific Northwest in the United States, Northern California and the states of Oregon and Washington have historically been far more secular than the rest of the United States. News was actually made a matter of about a decade ago, when the Northeast in the United States, that's the region of the U.S. that was first Christianized or evangelized was actually marked as equally secular with the Northwest.
That was a shocking development, but it points out the fact that the default position in the U.S. Pacific Northwest has been very secular as compared to the rest of the nation. It turns out that the same thing is true across the nation's border with Canada, British Columbia very much like Oregon and Washington. The Economist also points to an interesting development not in Christianity but in Islam, particularly in Islamic immigrants to the nation of Canada. Olivier Roy, identified as a French scholar of Islam, says Erasmus, "has identified a broad tendency among Muslim families moving to the west. The second generation rejects some features of the old country's culture, but embraces the religion with intensified fervor." That is exactly what is being seen throughout much of Europe, in Belgium, and in France, for that matter, even in some parts of Scandinavia as well as Germany, and especially in England in cities such as London, where it is the second generation of Islamic immigrants who seemed to be far more intense in their religious fervor for Islam than the generation that made the trek first into European territory.
Now, before this Erasmus column concludes, the writer goes on to say, "Don't worry, you secularists in British Columbia or elsewhere, the area is not being turned into a third grade awakening. Instead, there is still found within British Columbia and throughout much of Canada a basic secular instinct and identity.", but make no mistake, the article is appearing in The Economist simply for the reason that something is happening, something that has drawn the attention even of a major news magazine in London, and that is the fact that if there is a trend in younger generations, it isn't at least amongst immigrants a trend towards the secular. It seems to be almost exactly the opposite, but from a worldview perspective, the most interesting and important aspect of this article is the final paragraph and I read, "Somehow or other, well established Canadians who have become disillusioned with religion and with the behavioral norms that religion tries to impose, will have to coexist with the newcomers for whom the flame of faith burns bright."
The magazine concludes with this sentence, "that challenge will be especially acute on the west coast." Well, let's think about that for just a moment, not so much the West Coast dimension but let's think about the fact that we are told that somehow or other, established Canadians as they're identified here, that means those who are born in Canada or who immigrated less recently ago, they're going to have to find a way even as they are, and again, these are the words of the article, disillusioned with religion and with the behavioral norms that religion tries to impose, they're going to have to find a way to live with newcomers. Again, here's the description, "for whom the flame of faith burns bright."
Now, what's so significant there? Well, on the one hand, what we find is an open admission that's pretty rare, and that's the admission that there's going to be an inevitable conflict between those who understand morality to be real and objective and revealed and those who see morality and the deeper questions of the meaning of life indeterminate relative or just socially constructed, but notice exactly how this magazine puts the issue when it describes those who have become disillusioned with the religion.
The next words are so important, "and with the behavioral norms that religion tries to impose." There's something that's missing from that, and what's missing is the acknowledgement that every single worldview tries to impose behavioral norms. Traditional biblical Christianity is hardly alone in that. The secular worldview comes with its own imperative to impose its own moral and behavioral norms. There's no worldview that lacks in attention, even a demand, even an ought to the behavioral and moral norms that it demands. That is simply a part of every worldview and the lack of recognition of that fact leads to a certain warped understanding of the real challenge that Canada or for that matter, other Western nations are sure to face.
Even in the world’s ‘happiest’ countries, pressure to be happy leads to ‘happiness inequality’
Next we turn from Canada to Copenhagen to Scandinavia, the article's dateline from Denmark is by Martin Selsoe Sorensen. The headline that appears in The New York Times, Gloom in the World's Happiest Nations, and the word happiest has quotation marks, air quotes around it. Sorensen writes, "The Nordic countries regularly appear at the top of an annual list of the world's happiest nations, but their reputation as happiness superpowers, mask," he says, "the difficulties of a significant part of the population." That according to a new analysis, but new analysis takes the form of the 2018 ranking of wait for it, the World Happiness Report and where does it come from? the World Happiness Research Institute. That Happiness Research Institute is located right there in Copenhagen. The report is released by the Nordic Council of Ministers as well and it tells us that Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland continue to lead the Index of World Happiness we are told, and Sweden is not that far behind, but here's the warning. In the five Nordic countries, an average of 12.3% of the population is struggling.
That's also put in scare quotes or suffering, and that according to the very report, so what's the big concern here? The big concern is that some people, even in supposedly the world's happiness superpowers, aren't happy. As the report indicates, they are disproportionately young and this points to a new injustice according to The New York Times, and to this institute that the world did not recognize before, and that is happiness inequality. Now, those Scandinavian nations have a relatively low level we are told of economic inequality, and that has a great deal to do with the fact they have very small populations and very huge oil wealth but we are told that there's a new problem showing up in Scandinavia and it's this happiness inequality, and as we have seen, it's weighted towards the unhappy being the un-old, in this case the relatively young. We are told that people ages 16 to 24 are more lonely than our people in their grandparent's generation, that according to a recent study by the Danish Health Authority.
What's really, really interesting in this article, perhaps more interesting than any statistic is the fact that one of the issues raised is that this happiness inequality has produced a situation in which many young people are unhappy because they are under such pressure to be as happy as their peers. Experts in these Nordic countries said that a part of the problem might be the modern age contemporary society and especially social media, but one of the experts threw up his hands and said, "What are you going to do about that effectively?" He said, "These problems are difficult to solve, let's say social media are a major cause, then what are we to do? Ban them? Something else would come in their place.?
That doesn't sound like a particularly happy statement from a particularly happy expert in what's supposed to be the happiness superpower of the earth, but at this point, Christians need to think biblically and carefully just how big a deal, just how great a goal is happiness. Let's all admit happiness seems better than unhappiness but we understand it from a biblical worldview. Happiness isn't a very thick concept. It's actually very thin, it's insubstantial, it's far more affected by our circumstances. The very reality reflected in this article is that this newly declared problem of happiness inequality is at least in part due to the fact that young people in these nations feel a peer pressure to be as happy as their friends, who presumably are stuck in the same cycle of trying to be as happy as everyone else.
Happiness is an emotional state. It's an effective state. It's a state that we use as a convenient term, sometimes referring by comparison to the relative state of others or to a different state at a different period of our own lives. What's the point? The point is that Christians must never settle for happiness. In all brutal honesty, we may be exceedingly happy at one moment and unhappy an instant later. Sometimes, it's simply due to circumstances. Sometimes, it's due to factors internal that we may not even understand within ourselves, but Christians instead are called to joy, to aim for joy. In James Chapter 1 Verse 2, James exhorts Christians to count it all joy. When? Well, as he says, when you suffer.
Now that's counterintuitive to the entire worldview of happiness. Happiness is if you want to be happy, you've got to avoid suffering and you can't even act amongst your peers as if you're not as happy as they are, but Christians understand that the gospel produces joy, an eternal everlasting joy that can't be taken away by any kind of circumstance and a joy that perhaps is most at its essence and is most real to us even under the conditions of suffering.
That's absolutely contradictory and counterintuitive to a worldview that is aiming at happiness. It's not bad to be happy. It's not bad to be happy about being happy but it's not fundamentally faithful to the Christian understanding of the gospel to believe that happiness is what the gospel produces. Rather, the gospel produces joy and joy can't be taken away from us. We can't be severed from Christ if we are His and joy can't be documented by some kind of quantifiable sociological survey. You'll notice this is a happiness index, not a joy index. You would think that the emptiness of mere happiness would become apparent to people who, after all, are trying to measure happiness nation by nation when they have to report honestly, that the supposedly happiest nations are rather decreasingly happy, especially amongst their own young people.
You would think that the point would be rather implicit again in the headline to the article in yesterday's edition of The New York Times, Gloom in the World's Happiest Nations. How in the world do those words put together make sense?
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.