That world is gone now. Most of the United States has exited the cultural Christianity that had been the norm since its founding. Despite the attempts of some politicians and religious leaders to roll back the clock, America no longer even pretends to operate based on "Christian values." The point of reference is the State, the Market and the American Dream - not any particular ideas about Jesus Christ or the nature of God. While the United States is not a secular society like much of Europe has become, we are increasingly living in a post-Christian, pluri-religious society in which each individual is expected and encouraged to make up their own mind on the subject of religion.
When viewed in this light, the "spiritual-but-not-religious" phenomenon makes a lot of sense. "Spirituality" has become code for the benefits that faith has for the individual: reduced anxiety, wisdom, centeredness and expanded awareness. "Religion," on the other hand, represents those aspects of faith that make demands on the individual and require wrestling with a community that may not always affirm and de-stress us.
It would be easy to decry the changes that we have witnessed in American culture over the last 75 years, and I will admit that I have sometimes longed for an imagined past. I dream of an era when finding genuine Christian fellowship was easier, a society that was more focused on the community as a whole, rather than mostly on the particular desires of each individual. Sometimes I am tempted to long for the days of cultural Christianity.
But I do believe that these yearnings are a temptation. I see all around me the consequences of yielding to it: Individuals and congregations that obstinately ignore the wider culture, opting out entirely rather than risking "infection" by the world. Many Christian communities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the real conditions and concerns of their neighbors. We can and do become so caught up in recreating a perfect miniature replica of an imagined "Christian nation" that we make ourselves useless in communicating the gospel in the context of post-modern America.
I see this in our North American Quaker community, which has imploded over the last 50 years and which is poised to enter into catastrophic decline as the Boomer generation moves into elderhood. We have not yet discerned a way out of the cycle of decay and irrelevance that is striking almost all traditional religious groups today. Instead, we habitually shift the blame onto others. "Quakerism is a challenging path; it is not for everyone," we tell ourselves with a strange mixture of resignation and self-congratulation.
I long to be part of a community that is radically engaged with our pluralistic, post-Christian society, ready to speak the truth in love while at the same time listening deeply and understanding the concerns and conditions of our historical moment. I want to break the artifacts of our faith out of their display cases and see how we can adapt them to our present circumstances.
What does it look like to radically engage with our surrounding culture, neither condemning the world nor accepting wholesale its assumptions? How can we discern when we are being called to adapt our religious practice to better share the good news of Jesus in this new culture that we live in? How can we honor the Spirit that inspired our religious forebears while avoiding the false safety of human absolutes that keep us cut off from the living work of Christ in our midst? What would it mean for us to lay everything at Jesus' feet, allowing him to guide us in what we picked back up?