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Is Western Christianity Suffering From Spiritual Amnesia?

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In the 1990s, I taught history and theology at an evangelical college, a place where the students were serious young Christians. One day, lecturing on the medieval church and the Crusades, I explained how in 1095 Pope Urban II launched a holy war against Muslims. Most of the students took notes. One young woman, looking very worried by the idea of Christians starting a war, shot up her hand. "Professor," she began, clearly wanting to blame Roman Catholics for the affair, "what did the Protestants say about this?"

"Well," I answered slowly, "there were no Protestants in 1095." I did not have the heart to tell her that Protestantism would not exist until more than four hundred years later.

Puzzled, she blurted out, "But where were they?"

At the present juncture of history, Western Christianity is suffering from a bad case of spiritual amnesia. Even those who claim to be devout or conservative often know little about the history of their faith traditions. Our loss of memory began more than two centuries ago, at the high tide of the Enlightenment. As modern society developed, the condition of broken memory -- being disconnected from the past -- became more widespread. Indeed, in the words of one French Catholic thinker, the primary spiritual dilemma of contemporary religion is the "loss and reconstruction" of memory.

In some ways, understanding the loss is easy. Many modern thinkers wanted to forget. To them, European Christianity was a trash heap of magic, superstition, and repressive tradition, a faith needing to be enlightened by Reason and Science. The medieval world was like a stained-glass window in one of Christendom's ancient cathedrals -- pretty, perhaps, but you cannot see through it. As the Middle Ages ended, rationalists and revolutionaries smashed the cathedral windows to let in the clear light of human progress.

In the case of Western Christianity, people shattered memory because the past was too painful, too oppressive, and too violent for modern sensibilities of tolerance and equality. Better forget than remember. Many Western people, even a good number of Christians, I suspect, secretly agree with the atheist Christopher Hitchens when he claims, "Religion poisons everything."

Thus we inhabit a post-traditional world -- a world of broken memory -- in which some tell history badly, others do not know it at all, and still others use history to manipulate people to their own ends. All contemporary faiths struggle with lost memory. Some may protest that certain religious groups, such as various conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist, or Roman Catholic communities, possess a strong sense of tradition. One need only listen, however, to the jeremiads from evangelical leaders or cries from the Vatican bemoaning the biblical illiteracy and ahistorical sensibilities of their young people to know that all is not well among even those groups claiming with faith-filled assurance that they will never forget.

Moderate, liberal, and progressive religious people have suffered most dramatically from spiritual amnesia. Unlike Enlightenment window smashers or those asserting certainty, these people, like Reform Jews, mainline Protestants, and liberal Roman Catholics, took up the challenge of trying to reconstruct memories of faith in a changing world. Attacked by both secular humanism and their self-assured religious cousins, these groups wondered if trying was worth the effort, often vacillating between rejecting the past and bearing its weight. What to remember? What traditions can be retained? What should we teach our children?

About a year ago, I heard Newsweek's Jon Meacham say, "History is to a country what memory is to an individual." The quip seems particularly apt to American religious groups. To paraphrase, history is to a religion (or a denomination, church, or faith community) what memory is to an individual. To lose memory is neither funny nor sad; rather, it is a path to profound brokenness, a loss of self, meaning, and God that leaves us in darkness unable to act in purposeful ways in the world. Thus, I wonder: Is spiritual amnesia a precursor to religious Alzheimer's, a fatal loss of memory for which there is no cure? I hope not. And I hope that religious people -- especially my progressive brothers and sisters -- can tether their passion for contemporary faith to ancient wisdom.

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These comments are adapted from Diana Butler Bass' book A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, recently released in paperback by HarperOne (2010).