Ross Douthat: Why you can’t predict the future of religion

Religious history is shaped as much by sudden irruptions as long trajectories,

In an 1822 letter to the physician Benjamin Waterhouse, Thomas Jefferson expressed his confidence that traditional Christianity in the young United States was giving way to a more enlightened faith, much like Jefferson’s own in its rejection of the divinity of Jesus Christ. “I trust,” he wrote, “that there is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die an Unitarian.”

Less than a year earlier, on “a Sabbath evening in the autumn of 1821″ in upstate New York, a young man named Charles Grandison Finney began a multiday interplay of prayer and mystical experience that led to a moment when, he wrote later, “it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face ... He stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to Him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance.”

This experience set Finney on a path that would help bury Jefferson’s confident hypothesis — toward leadership in an age of revivalism, the Second Great Awakening, that forged the form of evangelical Christianity that would bestride 19th-century America and also encouraged a proliferation of novel sects with supernatural beliefs entirely distant from Jefferson’s Enlightenment religion.

That history is worth mentioning for a specific reason and a general one. The specific reason is that a Christian college in rural Kentucky, Asbury University, has just experienced an old-school revival — a multiweek outpouring that has kept students praying and singing in the school chapel from morning to night, drawn ten of thousands of pilgrims from around the country, captured the imagination of the internet and even drawn the attention of The New York Times.

The general reason is that whatever the Asbury Revival’s long-term impact, the history of Finney and Jefferson is a reminder that religious history is shaped as much by sudden irruptions as long trajectories, as much by the mystical and personal as by the institutional and sociological.

Secular experts writing about religion tend to emphasize the deep structural forces shaping practice and belief — the effects of industrialization or the scientific revolution, suburbanization or the birth control pill. Religious intellectuals tend to emphasize theological debates and evangelization strategies. (Should Christians be winsome or combative? Should churches adapt to liberal modernity or resist its blandishments?)

These analytical tools are always important; the sociological doesn’t disappear just because the mystical has suddenly arrived. In last weekend’s column, for instance, I suggested a link between the apparent crisis in teenage mental health and the decline of organized Christianity, and this past week my Times colleague Ruth Graham, reporting from Asbury, notes that accounts of healing at the revival are “overwhelmingly about mental health, trauma and disillusionment.” Nor, in the shadow of the numinous, does strategy cease to matter: The encounter on the road to Damascus created Paul the Apostle, but his career thereafter was all organizing, preaching, letter-writing and shoe (or sandal) leather.

But the experiences themselves remain irreducibly unpredictable. Why Asbury? Why Saul of Tarsus? Why Charles Grandison Finney?

A unique religious culture exists across the Mountain West because one of Finney’s upstate New York contemporaries believed he received a revelation from the angel Moroni. Arguably the most important movement within global Christianity today exists because of a revival that began with an African American preacher and his followers praying together in a shabby part of Los Angeles in 1906. And I can quote you chapter and verse on the reasonability of theism, but in the causal chain of history I’m a Christian because 2,000 years ago a motley group of provincials in Roman Palestine believed they’d seen their teacher heal the sick and raise the dead and then rise transfigured from the grave — and then because, two millenniums later, as a child in suburban Connecticut, I watched my own parents fall to the floor and speak in tongues.

Whether these experiences correspond to ultimate reality will not be argued here. My points are about observation and expectation.

When it comes to the religious future, you should follow the social trends, but also always expect the unexpected — recognizing that every organized faith could disappear tomorrow and some spiritual encounter would resurrect religion soon enough.

If you’re trying to discern what a post-Christian spirituality might become, then what post-Christian seekers are experiencing and what (or whom) they claim to be encountering matters as much as any specific religious label they might claim.

And if you’re imagining a renewal for American Christianity, all the best laid plans — the pastoral strategies, theological debates and long-term trendlines — may matter less than something happening in some obscure place or to some obscure individual, in whose visions an entirely unexpected future might be taking shape.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.