Saturday, September 25, 2010
Giving while it hurts...
Samuel Freedman reports today for the New York Times that tithing and other forms of religious giving are in steep decline. Two reasons appear to be at the base of it: the national recession has led many to see religious giving as discretionary, and the Boomer generation is less inclined than the Greatest Generation to give to organized religious groups.
I can hear the New Atheists issuing woop woops and cat calls. This will confirm their view that the secularization hypothesis eventually will be vindicated. This view holds that as modernity advances, organized religion will decline. On the other side, I can almost see the hand-wringing of the church boards and deacons.
My hunch is that the recession will continue to impinge upon religious giving. It also seems likely that the Boomer generation will continue its navel gazing habits, with its lionizing of spirituality and disdain of organized religion. But I don’t think the secularization hypothesis is given further credence by either of these data points. Nor is that discussion the most interesting.
In the longer run, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the generation being born now, whose parents are being marked by the recession. Their lives are being altered by a tremendous force outside their control. The previous generation’s confidence that all is well, that America always wins, and that the world is their oyster has been forever shattered. What will happen to the children who are raised by this crestfallen group? Only time will tell, of course, but it’s interesting to contemplate the possibilities.
It’s also worth remembering in these tough times that the social contexts in which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were written were not ones of pre-recession American-style dominance. Some parts of the Hebrew Bible, with its glorious celebration of divine power, can lead one to a very mistaken historical impression. It may seem as if Israel was a world power, but it was not. The New Testament context of social marginalization is more front and center, so harder to miss. The Roman state, with its immense power, looms as a diabolical and threatening presence. By comparison Jesus and his small group of disciples are a rag-tag bunch. The early Church was at odds with the Roman state. Christianity was a small, and illegal, new religion. Thus, its language and assumptions are crafted from the standpoint of social powerlessness.
What’s interesting for American Christianity is that these ancient texts, with their background of powerlessness, are read in a new context in which dominance prevails. The new assumptions shape how the texts themselves are read. Ancient meanings become reborn in the new context. A task of theology is to actively shape this process.
The recession and its implications will open up dimensions of these ancient texts that have remained hidden. Where this will take us is hard to say, but at the least we should be aware that the implications of the recession go far deeper than a dip in tithing.