“Does it not seem that…Christianity, true scriptural Christianity, has a tendency in process of time to undermine and destroy itself?” asked John Wesley in the 18th. Century.
Wesley told his followers: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” But he understood this teaching would result in accumulating riches that would tempt them. As they lived frugally and saved they would improve their financial lot and “riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity.”
“Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible in the nature of things for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.” (Southey, Life of Wesley)
Alan Wolfe, writing in the Atlantic puts it another way: “when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.”
Wolfe presents convincing evidence. He uses research data from Pew Global Attitudes to show that where the gross domestic product is increasing religiosity is declining. Europe is the primary example.
Conversely, religiosity is high where the standard of living is low. Wolfe and Wesley arrive at a similar destination, but they get there on parallel tracks. Wolfe sees religion continuing to exert influence, and he advances a fascinating reason why. Religion benefits from secular values such as individual choice, tolerance and pluralism.
Equally fascinating, Wolfe contends secularism and religious belief are not in opposition to each other but are complementary. While this may not be new to Wolfe, it is certainly not the way secularism is viewed by most of the theologians I’ve read lately.
Wolfe bases his claim on analysis that secular values once thought to protect public life from the heavy hand of religion are being employed today to protect religious pluralism from the regulation of government. This creates a free marketplace of religious ideas that allows religion to flourish through competition.
In an earlier post I referred to the prosperity gospel and its attraction in Latin America and Africa. It’s drawing people away from established religious groups such as Roman Catholicism, as Wolfe writes, precisely because it promises rewards in this life. Material prosperity looks pretty good if you’re living from hand-to-mouth. Been there, done that.
As globalization draws more people to cities, and as religious leaders rely upon new media to reach a broader audience, religion will continue to adapt and change. If Wolfe’s analysis is correct it’s possible, as he notes at the conclusion of his article, that the era we’re going though may one day be viewed as a time of significant transition. It could it was the time when religious conflict no longer tore countries apart.
On the other hand, it could also be the time when, as Wolfe projects, secularization took over the world. If that is the case, Mr. Wesley will have been more prescient than he ever could have thought.