A Prodigal Culture

The other day my morning prayer included, once again, the story in Luke’s Gospel on the Prodigal Son/Father (Luke 15:11-32). Aware that the sacred Scriptures are “living and active” I saw connections I had not seen before in quite the same way. The reason lie in the fact that just prior to my Scriptural pondering I had read two articles I was still in the process of digesting. One was an unsettling analysis entitled Breaking Faith, the other a cute yet poignant piece on the importance of belonging to a church when one claims to be a Christian. Mixing the messages of these articles with Luke 15:11-32 almost lead to a sleepless night; connections and new insights flew back and forth in my mind like neurons firing at full force.

Breaking Faith suggests the audacious claim that the growth in secularism away from religious adherence could well be contributing to dangerously high levels of isolation, social fragmentation and animosity in American society. Without denying that past, and in places still present, Christian practices have a mixed legacy that include rigidity and legalism as well as virtues and heroic witness, Paul Beinart speculates whether the lack of the social glue of religious belonging and of aspiring to higher values beyond oneself, could well be responsible for fostering silos of like-minded tribal-style subgroups that find themselves pitted one against the other:

Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

Enter the have-to-go-to-church piece: Christianity is a team sport, Paul Prather points out, where we learn to grow and serve after the example of Jesus our Saviour for the greater good of both ourselves and of our neighbours. Yes, we experience great frustration and irritation in church, alongside joy and compassion; yes, we shed tears of sorrow and anger in church but also tears of joy, of comfort and of mercy. All these experiences in community, the good and the bad ones, can grow us into noble and courageous human beings, grounded in a reality greater than ourselves with a vision fed by God’s own promise of salvation in Jesus. Once we disconnect from such a great Source of life we can find ourselves in a social and spiritual vacuum, adrift in an ocean of meaninglessness and purposelessness. Our young people in particular are manifesting this lost-ness as they are often without access to an alternative school for learning these important lessons in the process of becoming fully human. Thus adrift or trapped in a social and spiritual bubble of their own making, we can fall into more primal and irreconcilable ways (Beinart, Breaking Faith).

Against this backdrop I came to Luke 15. The son had the audacity to ask for his share of the inheritance, basically wishing his father dead. In shock I then realized: and the father GAVE IT TO HIM! He gave the son what he asked for, probably knowing full well this would not end well for the immature, arrogant boy. Why did the father grant this rude wish? He could have spared the boy and himself a lot of grief. But no, God allows whatever we come demanding as our right, however erroneous, ignorant and misleading.

And so, I was lead to consider whether the current unraveling of the social and religious fabric is God’s allowing because we as a society have asked for this as if it is our birthright to do so. While religion is so easily blamed for breeding bigotry in judgmental humans, Beinart’s article ventures to wonder whether the current exodus from organized religion is throwing the baby out with the bathwater:
How might religious nonattendance lead to intolerance? Although American churches are heavily segregated, it’s possible that the modest level of integration they provide promotes cross-racial bonds. In their book, “Religion and Politics in the United States,” Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices.

In a subsequent critical assessment of the new movement Black Lives Matter and contrasting it with the Civil Rights’ Movement of the 1960’s, Beinart quotes Barbara Reynolds, a civil rights activist and former journalist: “Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as (Martin Luther) King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.

The recipe for a sleepless night was complete when I realized that God is a fool for letting us stray to the brink of self-annihilation. It is as if our culture is acting uncannily like the arrogant younger son claiming his share of his father’s inheritance. And God allows us, knowing better than we do that this gamble will likely not end well. We as a western civilization are unraveling, because we believe our own illusion that we know better than our ancestors who “needed” church.

I weep at this thought. Not because I want everyone to join my church club, and not because I see the Christian community as the perfect family – far from it. I weep because I see the effects of the social and spiritual fragmentation, esp. in our young people, so many of whom are searching for an anchor of belonging and love and family. Against our better judgment, God allows and gives in to our demands to do it “our way” at enormous human cost.

Yet what choice does a God of love really have? What choice does God have if God bends over backwards to honour our freedom? God did not create robots, God is not interested in robots. And love is not love if forced. Love is only love when freely given and received. And so I weep and pray for all the lost children, both big and small …

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