Some musings on religious deregulation and the decline of denominations in a consumer culture

In the smooth stream of consciousness that is this blog, I want to connect the last post (on the decline of religious belief) and this one (on religion in a consumer culture).

The link might at first not be very obvious. After all isn’t the fact that many Catholics don’t believe what their church teaches primarily a problem of ecclesiastical reform of some sort? Better catechesis? Better Bible teaching? More personally ‘owned’ faith than an assumed ‘second-hand’ detached sacramentalism? More transparent and accountable leadership structures?

Maybe the answer is ‘Yes’ to all of these. But such a response misses something fundamental and pervasive and this is why a hollowing out of traditional Catholic belief in Ireland poses profound challenges to all churches. Because none the responses above really begins to engage with the contemporary culture in which Irish people live, breathe and have their being.

Here’s a proposal: the most pervasive and powerful cultural force that impacts everyday thought and everyday life is 21st century consumerism. And consumer culture is radically reshaping traditional forms of Christian belief (whether Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian or whatever) that value and are shaped by coherence, reason, systematic revelation and authority.

Vincent J Miller puts it like this,

“The most profound challenge of consumer culture is neither a heretical corruption of doctrine (not that examples of such are lacking in the religious discourse of consumer culture), nor a theology or ontology implicit in such practices. Such problems are familiar grounds for theology … For this reason it is always tempting to lure cultural problems such as consumerism into familiar territory – the seminar room, the heresy trial – where their implicit doctrines, values and anthropologies can be evaluated, found wanting and be declared anathema. The problem faced in consumer culture is of an entirely different order and thus calls for a fundamentally different response. Here theology is faced with a cultural system that shows little interest in censoring, editing, or corrupting the contents of religious belief. Any beliefs, even those most radically critical of capitalism, are embraced with enthusiasm.”  Vincent J Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, 4-5. (my emphasis)

What he’s saying here is important. A consumer culture gratefully adopts pretty well everything. Nothing cannot be commodified. And this all encompassing embrace ‘flattens’ out meaning and significance. We live in a world of bewildering diversity, but one at the same time where beliefs and values are largely detached from communities and traditions that gave them meaning. The result is a Babel of co-existing truths, where nothing is privileged, all are equal and it is up the free autonomous individual to create their own story out of all the choices passing before her eyes every day.

So what develops is a spectrum of individual ‘seekers’, each selecting their own belief systems from a vast and inclusive supermarket of ‘truth’. Some atheists and agnostics will determinedly refuse to put anything remotely ‘religious’ in their supermarket trolley of faith (they just fill it with other faith commitments). But others will be quite happy to select a wide variety from the shelves – Tibetan prayer flags, nativity sets, a statue of Buddha, a sacred heart, incense and candles, crystals, your personal guardian angel, participation in occasional religious events, books on vaguely Christian spirituality by John O’Donoghue and so on ad infinitum.

Miller rightly wants our understanding of consumer culture to get below surface critique. It is not so much that people are necessarily shallow and narcissistic – the therapeutic culture critique – but that people

“… encounter religion in commodified form, where doctrines, symbols, values, and practices are torn from their traditional, communal contexts. In such a setting it is quite easy to construct hybrid religiosities abstracted from particular communities (such syncretism has always taken place; it is just infinitely more easy to do now). Such deinstitutionalized forms of religious practice have come to prominence among a broader transformation of religion. Changes that were once understood as the inevitable decline of religious belief in the face of secularization have in recent years been reconsidered. Sociologists now speak of ‘decline of religious monopolies’ or of religious ‘deregulation’ in which religious belief and practice remains strong, but traditional religious authorities and institutions lose their power to influence both society at large and their own believers. (6-7)

There is a belief and a spirituality for everyone. This does not necessarily mean such constructed spiritualities should be dismissed as superficial. The real issue, says Miller, is that ‘believers encounter elements of tradition in an abstract, fragmented form and are trained to engage them as passive consumers.’

So to get back to the poll on contemporary Catholic beliefs in Ireland:

They represent not so much a decline of religious belief, but a free-market deregulation of traditional Catholic faith and practice. Each religious consumer weaving together a sort of religious patchwork-quilt made up of fragmented pieces of traditional Catholicism and various other belief systems; each quilt forming a unique pattern of individually chosen beliefs and attitudes.

And it ain’t only the Catholics who are busy weaving multi-coloured quilts. All denominations face a crisis of authority and of fragmentation. It’s no surprise that membership is generally in freefall. Miller has things to say later in his book about ‘countering the commodification of religion’ which I’ll post on.

What are some implications of religious deregulation for Christians? Here are some sketchy ideas that come to mind as I write this post – please feel welcome to add your own:

This is not all a ‘bad thing’. In Christendom Irish style, religious institutionalism was pretty stifling. Faith was frequently a dead thing. ‘Deregulation’ opens up stories of personal faith and discussion and debate over beliefs. Like Paul in Athens, this gives space to connect with the religious supermarket and go to the story of Jesus.

Nothing can be assumed anymore in terms of what people believe. And that includes evangelical ‘church going’ people. Each person’s story needs to be heard and listened to.

– Linked to the above point, if nothing can be assumed, then there is a deep need for some form of catechesis, for learning and teaching the story of the gospel and how it calls each Christian radically to reshape their lives around that story.

Denominations face particularly profound challenges in being out-of-step culturally with their bureaucracy, hierarchicalism, slow-footedness, and emphasis on institutional authority structures. How able will they be in adapting to more flexible structures and becoming more fleet-footed?

– Christians have always faced the challenge to negotiate their culture without succumbing to syncretism; to be in the world but not of it. Today perhaps the biggest challenge of all is how to ‘tell the gospel’ as good news without turning it into one more lifestyle choice that will meet the individual need of the consumer (to be happy or whatever). Such ‘consumerist faith’ does not quite fit with the call of Jesus to take up the cross and die to the self!

Comments, as ever, welcome.   

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4 thoughts on “Some musings on religious deregulation and the decline of denominations in a consumer culture

  1. Good points Patrick and I think your last one is the important one: discipleship, discipleship, discipleship! I appreciate your point about the resilience of the church throughout history however I think it would be the view of many Christians outside (and some inside) the West that the horse bolted a long time ago and that syncretism with consumerism is already here.

    On Saturday I am presenting a seminar which discusses how a consumerist approach to faith formation and church impacts the attempts to communicate an orthodox Christian sexual ethic to young people today. Details at http://www.tirzah.ie

  2. Hope the seminar goes well Richard. Those stats on RC attitudes highlight that it is in the area of sexual ethics that the biggest gulf now exists. Fair to say that an orthodox Christian sexual ethic is (or is becoming) almost unintelligible within a hyper-consumer culture?

    • Yes indeed. I will be looking particularly at how an orthodox Christian sexual ethic is unintelligible in the context of a consumerist church. I will be arguing, among other things, that much of the Western Protestant Evangelical church has responded to the commodification of sex by commodifying sex. Should be fun!

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