A few months ago, I stared into the night sky with excitement and expectation. With the clock striking midnight, I propped my young son up on a stepstool to peer through a small telescope, and we reveled in the totality of our first lunar eclipse together. But as the Earth’s shadow slowly crept across the surface of the moon, I was reminded of an important lesson for today’s North American church.
Long before we actually see the effects of a lunar eclipse, the event officially begins with a stage known as a “penumbral eclipse,” roughly a one-hour period when the moon enters the Earth’s shadow, but not completely enough to see its outline on the lunar surface. At best, a faint dimming can be viewed during this in-between phase. Soon, the distinct edge of the Earth’s shadow can be seen, and after moving through totality, the eclipse again ends with penumbral stage in reverse.
THE CHRISTIAN PENUMBRA
It’s the penumbral portion of the eclipse that has me thinking about the current context of religious faith in America. Author Ross Douthat has spoken of the “Christian Penumbra” as a precarious place of loose affiliation and quasi loyalties. It’s in this place that people identify with a specific faith tradition, but engage in very few practices of that tradition. This shadowy grey space is the place where lifestyle and belief are out of sync with one another.
Recent research has shown that a half-hearted commitment to Christianity—what many researchers are calling “nominal” Christianity—causes more harm than good, even to the point that it might be better to have no faith affiliation at all than to have a casual one. For example, divorce rates for nominal Christians are higher than those of both committed Christians and non-Christians. The same can be said of out-of-wedlock births.
This penumbral effect of Christianity might also explain why the Bible Belt of America contains nine out of ten of the “most religious states” and nine out of ten of the “top Bible-minded cities,” but still has nine out of ten of the least happy states in America and only three of the 20 “healthiest cities” in in the country. It’s here, too, that some of the nation’s worst poverty, health, racism and political corruption can be found. The question arises: Why are the most “Christian” states some of the most unfulfilling places to live? Some researchers are suggesting that residents of these states have a high level of identification with Christianity but not much commitment to Christian practice and lifestyle.
The in-between spaces of Christianity—not quite in the shadow of the faith and not quite clear of it—can be a very detrimental place to live.
RIGID CHURCHES DON’T NECESSARILY CREATE MORE FAITHFUL BELIEVERS
To further complicate the matter, it’s important to consider the role of diversity and religious pluralism. We might conclude, based on the previous information about the negative effects of lukewarm belief, that what’s needed is more doctrinally defined and ethically rigorous churches. Greater loyalty and conformity would surely counter the penumbral effect by requiring increased commitment and participation. Or would they?
It is well known among researchers that strict churches tend to have strong, engaged memberships, and that the strictness of any organization fosters commitment and increases participation. But a highly structured community does not guarantee a healthy one (if that were true, then cults would be the most healthy of all communities). In addition, the more rigidly a community is structured, the more likely it tends toward conformity and homogeneity, and these characteristics come with an unexpected downside: members don’t get along with people who are unlike them.
Journalist Emma Green has reported that countries with less religious diversity tend to be the most violent. The more homogeneous a country is, the more likely it will be embroiled in violence; that’s true for both Muslim and Christian nations. Conversely, the same study verified that religious pluralism and diversity help create peaceful societies. It might seem counterintuitive, but inflexible doctrine and spiritual conformity do not lead to peace and stability.
THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE
The most dangerous place for Christians to live is in the grey area of the penumbra, that lukewarm, shallow space between belief and practice where people claim loyalty to a faith tradition but do not live out the beliefs of that tradition. The corrective, however, is not greater enforcement of doctrine or commitment to narrow, rigidm, homogeneous communities.
C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape advised his demon apprentice Wormood, “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.” So true. Amidst a crisis of declining church attendance and half-hearted faith expressions, what might be need most of all is highly-motivated, faithful Christian communities of varying political, social, cultural and theological traditions, who match action with belief, and work for peace in a diverse kingdom.