Last week I looked at how our religious language changed, rather abruptly, in the 1960’s. It was only then that we began talking about “experiencing God.”
This week I want to explore that a little further. What other absolutely-central-to-the-Christian-Faith doctrines only showed up in the past half century, and what might have caused their sudden rise from irrelevance to core tenets of the Faith?
As always, here’s a link to the first article in the ngram series that explains Google’s wonderful tool if you’ve never heard of it before.
Well, here’s the chart. And I think it kind of speaks for itself.
Right around 1960 to 1965 the idea that we ought to “experience God” took off like a rocket. It suddenly showed up on the scene and rose very steadily for the subsequent decades.
At around the same time the importance of our “relationship with Jesus” and our “relationship with God” also followed almost exactly the same pattern. These ideas, which today are often presented as so central to the Christian Faith that they are seemingly placed right next to the doctrine of the Trinity, were almost never heard of even half a century ago.
Did the Church seriously not understand the Christian Faith until we figured it out in the 1960’s?
Or, perhaps, something else is going on.
I also included the word sexuality. I have previously examined the importance that sexuality has played in our recent history – to the point where it has seemingly driven the human rights agenda of recent decades. Is it not somewhat suspicious that our new-found priorities about the Christian Faith showed up, and rocketed into the mainstream vocabulary in the Church at almost the exact same point in history that sexuality rose to central importance for society at large?
Such a strong correlation is not easily dismissed as mere coincidence. Then the question becomes, which influenced which, or are they both a result of some other, common, cause?
It would seem absurd, to me, to propose that the church suddenly and inexplicably started speaking in terms of our relationship with Jesus and that somehow caused society at large to suddenly place extreme importance on their sexuality. Does God-talk actually make anybody horny? Though I acknowledge the importance of good theology, it certainly doesn’t put me in anything resembling an amorous mood.
What about the alternative? Perhaps society became inexplicably passionate about their sexuality, and the church paralleled that by placing far greater emphasis on our “experience of” and “relationship with” God. The Church (especially Western Evangelicalism) certainly is prone to chasing after whatever society values – to the point where some modern worship services are starting to look a lot like a weekly music concert – but even this seems like a bit of a stretch. After all, if this is the case then the response time is astounding. “Sexuality” really doesn’t have any head start at all before we began doing our best to compete with it.
I would suspect that both “sexuality” and our new-found vision of the Christian Faith probably arose from a common root. Both of them are, frankly, inwardly focused. The increased interest in sexuality certainly wasn’t because people were passionate about producing babies. It was about the almighty Orgasm. They were looking for a personal “high” of sorts, and many searched for it in their own sexuality.
And our “experience” of God is, to put it bluntly, inherently self-focused. Like sexuality, it is presented as some kind of other-worldly phenomenon that is internal to us. It becomes some kind of weekly “high” that we are supposed to get through Church.
However, our “relationship” with Jesus / God would seem to be less self-centered and more of a two-way street. After all, relationships usually involve more than one party, right? Technically, yes, but the reality of the word “relationship” is that it is extremely vague; perhaps conveniently so. One might have a relationship with their beloved spouse (very much a mutually-beneficial connection) or one might have a relationship with whoever supplies them with their drugs (very much a self-centered “relationship”). The concept of “relationship” is not, inherently, selfless or selfish, but leaves both possibilities open.
So which possibility is at play here?
It’s not hard to imagine that as the Sexual Revolution ramped up in the 1960’s, the church suddenly realized that it had to compete with the drugged up, sexed up, starry-eyes hippies, and that some of those hippies (or at least the self-gratification that inspired the movement) were to be found in the church. As the hippy movement gained force – and likely threads of it were similarly moving in the Church – somehow the Christian message found a different expression; one that seemed faithful to the Bible (on the face of it) but would find some resonance with the self-focused generation looking for the next radical high.
Something like this…
At least that’s my theory.
And if my theory is right, then the Church would probably do itself a significant favour by reconsidering what, exactly, is meant by these phrases that are supposedly central to our Faith, but failed to show up in our vocabulary even half a century ago. To what extent is the Church enabling a me-first mindset among those who attend, instead of inspiring more of a “Him first” perspective?
And if my theory is wrong, I think the Church still needs to come to grips with the reality that some of their central doctrines are, frankly, extremely recent inventions.
Either way, somebody has some explaining to do.
Maybe this lady can clear it all up…