Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Currently I am re-reading Thomas Merton's Ways of the Christian Mystics. For those unfamiliar with Thomas Merton, he was in the last part of his life a Trappist monk, who became a modernized eremitic. I say modernized because he remained connected to the world through extensive correspondence and writing, while living a solitary life on the grounds of his abbey. He died, in fact, on a trip to Thailand for an ecumenical  conference on the spiritual life. One of his main interests and focuses of correspondence were with Buddhist monks.

In this little (and it is little: truly pocket sized) book he surveys English (Catholic), Russian and  Protestant spirituality and monasticism. The point of this brief post was prompted by this latter chapter. In it he discusses the surprising revival of Protestant monasticism in the post world war 2 period. He places Anglican monasticism outside of this, noting in an unexplained sentence that it is 'catholic'.

What interested me, however, were his comments on the revival and renewal of Christianity in the first two decades after the end of the second world war. He saw this Protestant style monasticism, exemplified by the Taizé community as evidence for a revival and rejection of arid formalism. In the changes in liturgy, the moves towards a simpler Christianity focused on worship and charitable action in the world, he saw a pan-Christian revivalism and renewal.  Thomas Merton died in 1968, so he could not predict nor see the collapse of Christianity in the western world that began to be evident in the 1970s. Sociologists working in the last decades of the 20th century crunched the numbers and saw slippage as early as the 1950s. The Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby, for example noted that despite the exponential growth in church construction and membership in the 1950s, churches were actually growing slower than the rate of population increase. Vitality hid an inner crumbling it seems. Sociologists have since begun to posit a change to another type of Christianity replacing institutions with individual or even online realities. But this is not a theory accepted by all such. Steve Bruce, the English sociologist sees decline, not change. Historians have joined the debate, attempting to find the time where decline began and reasons why.  Callum Brown the British historian of religion places the collapse as beginning in the 1960s and assigns the reason to the disappearance of women from the institutional church.  Debate rages among scholars of all sorts over whether the United States is the lone hold out or not in this western collapse of Christianity. So, soon after Thomas Merton's death churches emptied, the western world changed laws to root out Christian foundations, atheists began their boldest attacks on Christianity (claiming they were attacking 'religion' but Christianity was their target).

Of course, only time will tell but at this point the future does not look good for Christianity, and I would argue for western civilization as a project. Despite what that curious bunch called 'the new atheists' might argue, western civilization rested on a foundation of Christianity.

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