Jenkins on the Modus Moriendi of the Church

Pá 09 července 2021

(my comments on the blog post “What if the Nones Really Do Herald the Decline of Religion?” by Philip Jenkins)

It is unbelievable! I have been thinking for the last couple of weeks exactly about this (preparing on preaching a sermon as a guest in my old church). Here in the most atheistic Czechia (which is quite incorrect, there are not even atheists here much; atheists fight against God, most people here just don’t care, and most of them are quite friendly), so here in Czechia we were thinking about the end of religion (or at least of our religion) for some time already.

In 1650, Jan Ámos Komenský (in English usually known as Comenius) wrote his “The Last Will and Testament of the Dying Mother The Unity of Brethern” (I have never found its English translation, so I have just translated it), which is his saying farewell to the dying denomination (dying because of the persecution during the Thirty-years War). The Unity of Brethern then truly died, but seventy years later emigrants from the current Czechia re-established into new Moravian Church, which then erupted into the biggest non-state Protestant mission ever to the whole world. So, that’s one text about the dying church.

The middle of the 1970s was a very dark time in the history of our nation. All hopes of the 1968 attempts to humanize Communism were lost, and the country was firmly under the control of the Soviet-controlled Communist Party. There were not even many dissident movements and everything looked bleak. A Vatican diplomat Agostino Casaroli was supposed to say at that time that the discussion about the relations between the Church and state in Poland will be about modus vivendi, in Hungary about modus vivendi vel moriendi, and in Czechoslovakia, it will be only about modus moriendi. A Czech dissident Catholic priest, formerly professor of the Catholic ethics, Otto Mádr got angry by this statement and wrote then very influential article “Modus Moriendi of the Church” (originally in German, later published in Czech, translated by me to English), where he follows this Czech line of thinking started by Comenius.

The Communist oppression of the Church is gone now, and we, Czech Christians, are freer than we ever were, but this line of thinking is unfortunately still relevant. All measurements of religiosity and participating in the religious life (of any religion) are going down, and the age structure of some denominations is ridiculous (this is the age structure of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church based on the 2011 census; 68 % of members were over 60 years of age).

Age structure of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church

Modus moriendi is quite an acute problem right now, but there doesn’t seem to be anybody talking about it much. Reactions seem to me two: either a believer tries to cling to hope that the revival is coming and everything will be all right (combined with the flagellant thoughts how the decline of the Church is all their fault, and how bad Christians they are) and other, mostly unbelievers, are with Schadenfreude observing how the Church will (finally?) go away. I believe that neither of these approaches is helpful (well, the second one doesn’t even try to be).

I think a more helpful question on how to start deal with the current situation is exactly stepping out of assumptions that are behind those two approaches. The first one seems to me the idea that success is the measure of the quality of a Christian, which seems to me completely wrong. We are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful, and success if hoped for but not required consequences of our faithfulness. And the second is that the major (or even only) influence on the growth of the Church is the quality of our action. However, that is going straight against the word of the Scripture: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused it to grow.” (1Cor 3:6 NET) Yes, we should faithfully plant and water, but the growth is the gift of the Sovereign Lord who gives “grace upon grace” (i.e., God gave for free, and we return freely, not as a payment, but as an expression of our thankfulness).

To get down to the practical level. I don’t expect any surprising change in current trends of decline of religiosity. On the other hand, we are currently living in the middle of the biggest societal upheaval since the time of Gutenberg and Luther (or perhaps even earlier), so the world may change so much, that it will turn towards religion again, but I don’t see any current sign of happening so. So, the question for us is not how to make such revival happen, but how to be faithful to God even in a situation where it won’t.

On the more positive side, it is never a good idea in social sciences to extrapolate current trends to infinity. All these trends plateau somewhere. Or to say it biblically: “I still have left in Israel seven thousand followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal or kissed the images of him." (1Ki 19:18) There will always be a group of believers who will be waiting for God to return. And not waiting while being paralysed, but waiting while happily enjoying their life.

Category: faith Tagged: theology sociology christianity blogComment