The late-modern period is a a time of disillusionment in the West and perhaps nowhere else is that disillusionment more acute than in America where, since at the least the early 20th century, the false promises of Modernity (human perfectibility, the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of humanity) have proved hollow. The dreams of Modernity died in Europe in the opening months of World War I. In part because that war was not fought on American soil, the Modern dream persisted in the USA. Who can say when it died but it perhaps it was a long, slow death. The Modernists, those who assumed that man is the measure of all things, who assumed a critical stance (in the sense Marx meant “critical,” meaning, “Modern, enlightened, autonomous) toward all extrinsic authorities (God, the church, nature) laid siege to holy Scripture and did much great damage to its reception in the church. Those who continued to receive the historic, ecumenical view of Scripture were put on the defensive and spent about a century defending its truthfulness (infallibility, inerrancy) and authority while the seven sisters of the Protestant mainline (the UMC, ELCA, PCUSA, EPCUSA, ABC, UCC, and the Disciples of Christ) ingested the higher-critical toxins and began to die. The last time I looked each of them was losing about 70,000 members annually.
By the late 60s the disillusionment with and loss of confidence historic Christianity was fairly widespread. The first sexual revolution of the 1920s was followed by a second and more sustained sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s in which marriage was implicitly re-defined. No fault divorce was adopted leading to a spike in divorce in the mid-late 70s and signalling a loss of confidence in the institution. Roe v Wade was the sacrament of the second sexual revolution, hence the implacable, unreasoning, unyielding, intransigent defense of abortion at any stage, for any reason by its supporters. In the third sexual revolution what was implicit became explicit and the Supreme Court recognized that reality (but in defiance of any genuine legal or historical basis) by announcing that marriage is now to be regarded as disconnected from nature. The minority on the court has predicted the outcome.
Today, unless the proportionally few Americans actually attend church weekly. Years ago George Barna argued that the actual figure is about 10%. More recently, The The Pew Research Center puts the number south of 35% and dropping. Even among “evangelical Protestants,” those with whom religious fervor is most closely associated, only 58% attend services weekly. Consider the state of the second service in the confessionally and (largely) culturally conservative NAPARC world. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the second service is, as they say in boxing, on the ropes.
All this is to offer some kind of explanation of why so many people see opioids as a viable alternative to what Marx called the “opium of the people.” To be sure, there are demographic explanations. The American population is aging and living longer. Perhaps pain management via opioids is quicker than sustained, more expensive treatments? The medical explanation leaves too much unexplained. I think that many Americans are turning to opioids (and other things) as a way of dulling the pain of disillusionment.
What have the Christians to offer to the disillusioned, to those who have lost confidence in the very existence of transcendent truths, in the possibility of salvation, in heaven? All we have is what we have always had: the message that the same Jesus, who is God the Son in the flesh, whose humanity (except for sin) is the same as ours but whose deity is same as the Father’s, came for us sinners, obeyed in our place, suffered all the evil in the world and all the wrath of God for all of his people for all time, died, was buried, and was raised by the power of God on the third day. It really happened. There were sane, rational, reliable. eyewitnesses to it all. They could hardly believe it themselves but there it was before them. The evidence was so overwhelming that they had to accept it. Of course, that did not happen by sheer force of evidence. They believed because God the Spirit gave them new life and true faith but the object of their true faith was real and true. They believed something that actually happened and someone who was actually before them.
To those who have lost confidence, I apologize. I am sorry that your local mainline church let you down, that they chose not to announce those truths to you. Too many of her ministers and bureaucrats long ago lost confidence in the truths announced in Scripture but instead of resigning and taking up honorable employment selling cars, they continued to collect and check and living off the (relatively) ancient financial endowments of the churches. There are hucksters on television making a buck off of false promises, off of a cheap, Christ-less message, offering you a sort of spiritual opioid in place of Christianity.
Their unbelief, however, is not new. There were conical time-serving religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They too opposed him. Indeed, long before the Roman civil authorities got involved, they planned and sought to murder him. Still, after the resurrection the bewildered disciples believed and at Pentecost (when God the Holy Spirit empowered them), they announced it to the world. There are some who, like the Apostles, whom Jesus designated to announce the message, are still announcing the message in obscure, out-of-the way places. They are not powerful or influential. They are not prestigious but then, again, neither was Jesus. He was, after all, mocked by the powerful and crucified among criminals.
Our most fundamental problem is not that the manufacturing economy is declining or that we do not have the newest car on the block. Our most fundamental problem is our sin. Booze and opioids only dull the pain caused by sin. They dull our nagging sense that there is more. They dull our conscience, which testifies to us that God is, that he is angry with sin, that there is a judgment coming and that all of us shall be held to account. Either we shall answer for ourselves or we shall hide behind Jesus the Savior.
Turn your back on your disillusionment. Turn to Jesus. He lives. He hears. He answers. Do it now because he also judges and that day is closer than you want to think.