10 Questions: Wes Granberg-Michaelson

We’re happy to share Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Wes Granberg-Michaelson. He’s the author of Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century. His book, which I’ve not yet read, is about the social incentives that are changing Christianity. As many know we’ve discussed a lot how rising generations are different religiously (and in particular far more secular) and how this affects retention in the Church. Granberg-Michaelson isn’t a member. He was actually the secretary of the Reformed Church in America, one of the oldest US denominations. While much of what he addresses is an analysis of Christianity in general, I think a lot is particularly relevant for past discussions we’ve had here. He thinks that current changes are at least as important as the conversion of Constantine or the break with Catholicism by Martin Luther.

A few excerpts from his interview that I think particularly interesting.

Theological truths should also be stronger societal beliefs, or else theology would simply be determined sociology. But the relationship between gospel and culture is complex, and always an ongoing dialogue.

Contemporary American society is becoming, in some respects, more secular, at least among certain groups and opinion leaders. For some Christians this opens opportunities for creative interaction and evangelical outreach. For others it creates defensiveness, fear, and tribal loyalties. Those who respond in these latter ways become unloving because they define themselves, and their versions of faith, as “against” others.

This has been a problem in the history of our faith as well. When I was young the Church often had a siege mentality with much of our identity defined against Protestantism. You saw that in things like how grace was discussed or even how we viewed unique doctrines such as the materiality of God. Defining ourselves against others though can be deeply problematic. At a minimum it can lead to us avoiding important truths that have already been revealed. As Granberg-Michaelson notes though this can also lead to conflict and the danger of not loving others. This is something I think we’re struggling with right now in trying to decide how to deal with those who break with key doctrines within the Church.

The reasons [for America becoming more secular] are full of complexity, but generally have to do with the “progress” of Western culture which leads to a growing detachment from an underlying trust in the spiritual dimensions of life, while non-Western cultures, which also are not as economically developed, have more intrinsic openness to spiritual realities.

This plays out in all kinds of ways, but this is at least a starting point for thinking about this question.

I’m not sure I agree with him there, but I suspect that in part that’s due to ambiguities over what we mean by spiritual. What’s so interesting about the rise of the Nones is that while they are quite secular, this doesn’t really entail a rejection of the spiritual. It’s much more a rejection of organized religion rather than religion in a more personal way. However how that gets practiced in ones life does seem to be quite different.

The message of the gospel faces the constant temptation to become captive to the views of narrow nationalism and cultural superiority which conflate allegiance to God and country in ways which do damage to both. God is made into a chaplain of the state, and the nation assumes that it has God’s blessing whether right or wrong.

The current version is “America First,” which, in all honesty, is a theological heresy. This temptation is overcome by understanding that the biblical message is always in tension, at various points, with any nation’s actions and ambitions.

Listening to the voices of the Christian community outside of the United States is also a helpful way of overcoming this challenge and learning how to “de-Americanize” the gospel.

I do think this is a problem, for us as well as American Christianity in general. It’s a danger that we take one view of American exceptionalism and put it above the gospel itself.

It’s important to take the discussion about individualism out of the partisan debate in our country. The point I make in the book is that most all Americans, regardless of political party, begin with the assumption that the individual is the center of political policy, cultural norms, and religious belief.

My argument is that this is not a biblical perspective, for far more importance is placed upon our belonging to a community, and for Christians specifically the body of Christ. Western culture enshrines individualism, and we take this for granted. Non-Western cultures, which now hold the majority of Christians, generally have a different starting place.

I think there’s a lot of truth here, but it seems to me a bit more complex. While individualism is important in Europe, it’s nothing like what it is in the United States. Secularization took place decades earlier in Europe, so I think we have to be careful attributing too much to individualism. That said, I do think that Americans, particularly younger generations, put the individual as the only thing that matters. As I’ve argued before religion becomes defined in terms of what it does for the individual rather than duty for the individual towards the community. That’s a very big shift. Contrast this with Europe where secularism often arose not as an individualism but a different conception of communalism.

Check out the full interview on Kurt’s site.