From declinism to discovery

23 Aug

There has been some historical (as well as sociological) attention of late to the so-called Protestant mainline. (I’ve preferred “oldline” Protestant to “mainline” in my own discussions of things.) Historian Martin Marty has provided some reflections at the Christian Century about mainline Protestants: From declinism to discovery | The Christian Century.

What most interests me, however, about Marty’s post is the first part, on decline:

Everything and everyone dies, is subject to accidents and change, and all human endeavor will pass and be forgotten. What can a church historian do with this obvious insight at such a time as ours? Given my parallel calling as a peregrinating lecturer, I use the vantage acquired there to try to sense the comings and goings of topics for inquiry. One way to measure public curiosity is to listen to questions asked after a lecture. 

Here are some samples of stories about once obsessively covered clusters of events or topics that “declined” in the passage of time. For years audience questions were urgent about sects and cults and NRMs. Though these left a mark and are still present, I haven’t been asked about them for years. Have you? Try televangelists. For a few years they were observed and noted as emerging and durable presences. No more—unless you are a specialist, you are not likely to be able to name more than one or two of their successors. Add fundamentalism. I spent years chronicling its domestic versions. Of course, it remains and still attract millions, but “decline” has marked its career in recent decades.

Name any empire, establishment or experiment which, after prime years, did not experience decline. In the United States, Puritanism may remain with us as a cultural subtheme, but not as a dominating movement, old-New England style. Awakenings—as in Great and First and Second versions—leave a deposit, but as preeminent themes they all declined. Anti-Protestant Catholicism and Anti-Catholic Protestantism have certainly declined since the days before President Kennedy in 1960 or Pope John XXIII after 1958 or 1962 and the Second Vatican Council. Add movement ecumenism. We historians also have to busy ourselves discerning reasons for the decline of American voluntary associations and fraternal orders.

You read me wrong, or I have stated things inelegantly, if you think that I think that phenomena which experience decline simply disappear. Just the opposite: historians note how they leave deposits, traces, influences, legacies, or renewable forces that get interwoven into the cultures we now inhabit long after their “decline.”

Amen, I say, as a historian and a Christian. Of course, I could be especially sensitive about all this as I age and plan for retirement … but, even so, I’ve often thought that we Americans are collectively very good at distracting ourselves from some realities about decline, finitude, and mortality that are starkly obvious, both in historical experience in general and in the Bible in particular. Nothing in this life is eternal–not victory, not power, not empires, not nation-states, not businesses, not political parties, not colleges, not books, not churches, etc.

Of course, in Christ, mortality is not the last word. But that is another topic that I won’t get into here. In the meantime, see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.


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