Interview with Grace Davie
Thinking in Public
November 9, 2011
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.)
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. What is the fate of belief in the modern world? That is one of the most important questions we can address, and we need thinkers who can help us by means of their research and writing to understand what is taking place all around us, and for that matter also be able to look to the future. Professor Grace Davie began her sociological career as she studied at the University of Exeter. She followed that with a doctorate at the London School of Economics, and since then, she has become one of the most influential researchers in the area of religion, modernity, and secularization. She served as a professor in the Department of Sociology at Exeter, where she also served as the Director of the Center for European Studies. She is also now involved in a major research project concerning the future of religion in the Nordic countries. Professor Grace Davie, Welcome to Thinking in Public.
Davie: I’m very pleased to be with you.
Mohler: Your work has been often cited, and anyone with a concern for the church not only in Great Britain or Europe, but also in North America, is probably increasingly familiar with some of the categories that you have offered us in order to think about these things even if not directly impacted by your work. Can you give us your account of the big story of what has happened to Christianity in general and religion more specifically in the context of modern Europe?
Davie: I can try. I think the most important thing to get a hold of is that the situation is complex, and if you are to understand it fully, you need to take a variety of facts into account. If you read a press account or hear a media clip, all too often one aspect or one factor is isolated rather than the picture in its fullness, which is complicated. Let me suggest that we talk about five, possibly six, factors. We would need to think about the cultural heritage of Europe, which is indisputably Christian. We would need to think about what I call the old model, and if you like, the easiest way to understand this is the notion of religion as a public utility, which is much easier for Europeans to grasp than it is for Americans because we are very familiar with public utility. I also use the term, “vicarious religion” to describe this, which we can talk about in a moment, but things are changing so on top of this public utility, the old model, the state church, the perish system, we see an incipient market where some forms of religion do better than others, and this cut rights across the denominational mix. You can have success in the state church, and you can have success in the free churches. You can have churches or parishes that struggle more both inside and outside the state church. We would also need to take into account, new arrivals into Europe, people of many different faiths, but including Christians. European religion is being replenished by immigration from the global south, but we also have a more pluralist state of affairs than we used to, and we would have to take note of the presence of Islam as a catalyst of change in Europe. Then we would need to consider secular reaction to this changing situation, notably the very shrill in our voices of the New Atheism, but it is a more nuanced picture than that. And the last point I would like to make is that increasingly, Europeans appreciate and realize that their situation is not a global prototype. It is simply not the case that what Europeans do today in terms of religion; the rest of the world will do tomorrow. As Europeans thought for quite a long time, but that is no longer the case, and some Europeans are humbled by this situation and ready to learn from the rest of the world. Other Europeans are somewhat disconcerted. And it is the gather of all those threads that makes the really fascinating and interesting picture that is religion in modern Europe today. If you would like for me to develop any of that, please tell me.
Mohler: Absolutely, and that is a fascinating way of doing it. It is kind of like front loading the conversation. There was so much material there. Before moving to specific points you made, I want to ask you to respond to the inherited model of Secularization Theory that certainly became more or less the common intellectual affair among those in the twentieth century, even those in the late nineteenth century, and certainly through the twentieth century in terms of what was thought to be the inevitable result of modernization. There are people such as Peter Burger, with whom we have had another conversation on this program, who looking at that theory said it didn’t work in many places, but it seems to have worked pretty much according to course in Europe.
Davies: That’s pretty much correct. The way I would answer that, I would say that the questions we have to ask ourselves are, “Is Europe secular because it is modern, or is Europe secular because it is European?” And as soon as you move to the latter question, and you develop specifics, the factors that I spoke to you about one moment ago, and you begin to realize that this is not a general picture, and the secularization story is part of the European story rather than the modernization story, the aspects of modernization in Europe that help us to understand where the misunderstanding came from. For example, the two key factors that I would isolate would be the fact that European churches in the old model, in the public utility model, are embedded in character. Both in the national level, the notion of the state church, even in the notion of the empire. But also at the parish level. And the parish is the key element in European history, whether you understand this as the civic entity or an ecclesiastical one. Of course, very often they are the same. And Europeans lived in parishes and their lives revolved around parishes, and the church was the center to the parish. Now, at the time of the industrial revolution when many people in the population, the majority of the population moved from rural areas to urban areas, you find the church is locked in an older territorial model and cannot move with them. Obviously this is compensated retrospectively by huge programs of church buildings in the nineteenth century, but the way the damage was already done, and the link where people and church was broken, and of course that did not happen in the US. You had no really established pattern of religion before you had urbanization and industrialization. So when new arrivals came to the US to Detroit, or Pittsburg, or New York, or Boston, or wherever, they brought their religion with them.
Mohler That is a fascinating insight, and I am so pleased to have the conversation with someone speaking from Great Britain and from the European understanding of these things based upon your very intensive research there. I have benefited so much by your writings in the past, in particular I think of your book written in 1994 or published then, Religious in Britain since 1945. Davie, in the subtitle to that book was published, I believe, by Blackwell, you really coined a phrase that has become rather indispensible to at least part of the discussion here to the future of Christianity in particular or religion in general in modern cultures. And that is, your term of “believing without belonging.” Can you explain that for us?
Davie: I can, but I would also say that I am moving away from that idea, and maybe I can incorporate my shift in my explanation. The idea was to capture the distance between what I would call hard indictors of attachment, church going, compared with must softer indicators of affiliation or identification. Yes, I believe in God, but I am not very specific about the God in whom I believe. I think that this world is in some way penultimate. Yes, there is a spiritual dimension, but it is not very specific. So this phrase captures what I still think is the most interesting and significant element of European populations, including Great Britain, which is the gray area. The people in between. And I used the term, “believing without belonging” to highlight this focus if you like, on the gray area. We knew more about the extremes and the exotics than we did about the everyday lives of most people. And that is where I placed my emphasis sand the phrase caught your attention immediately. Put it into a search engine and it is everywhere.
Mohler: Well, that’s not a small achievement quite frankly in the intellectual world, and you certainly deserve credit for that, but I want to go beyond your rather modest affirmation of this, and I do want you to trace your thinking after this as a matter of fact. I want to help you do that by references to your later work, but you were on to something there that I think just about every pastor understands and anyone observing contemporary Christianity understands, that there are those who do indeed believe without belonging.
Davie: That is certainly the case, and it is very much one reason why I had a huge number of invitations from church organizations and people in the church who wished for me to speak on this subject in addition to academic presentations or audiences. But what I want to tell you, what I think is worth pointing out, is that I now think it is incorrect to consider belief to be the soft variable and belonging as being the hard variable because what I think now is that both belief and belonging can be hard or soft, and so if you are thinking of belonging first you can have the regular attender, and you can have the identifier. Yes, I am a member of the Church of England, and there are many of them in the European state churches, but I don’t see any obligation or need to attend to my church, but yes I am a member. In fact the Nordic church is to pick up that project that we were talking about at the beginning. Of course they express this in that they pay church tax, and most Nordic people, the vast majority of Nordic people pay an element of tax to the church even though they rarely attend it. Now that indicates to me that they have a commitment, and even if it is not expressed in regular worship. That is belonging. If you turn to belief, there is a big difference between the kind of belief I was talking about earlier when I believe in God compared to the fact I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And so you can have a hard, creedal statement of belief. And you can have a much looser one. And it’s for this reason that I prefer now the term vicarious religion than that of believing but not belonging. But trying to persuade people who read my works that that is the case is a good deal more difficult.
Mohler: Well, I can understand that, and I can even sense some of the frustration there. But I do think one of the achievements of what you saw in that first book and made clear is true not only for Britain but also those of us here in the United States. At the very time, I wrote a review in which I suggested that your subtitle could work in either direction that is we do have the phenomena of believing without belonging. I think most of us probably fear what would be the other direction, which is belonging without believing, and certainly in terms of mainstream Protestantism in the United States in terms of its theological modifications. I think a very good case can be made that not only do you have people who believe who are alienated from the institutional structures, you have people who are in the institutional structures then basically redefine those structures to that it no longer requires hard beliefs.
Davie: I think one thing that the capital research should persist in looking at is the very subtle and complex relationship between believing and belonging which is prior and how they enhance each other or not. But certainly the Nordics did turn the phrase around just like you did yourself. Say Nordic people do belong without believing because they retain this attachment to the church, which is not; I think it is not insignificant. I think that is the most important thing to realize is that nominal attachment is quite different from no attachment at all. And certainly in the European case, that requires a good deal of thought, consideration, and further research.
Mohler: Well, speaking of research, you have done a great deal of that. And in your first book, the major book I mentioned, Religion in Britain Since 1945, one of the things you look at is generational change, and I am sure you have continued your thought since then, but I think a lot of us would be interested in to know if you were tracing as you did in this book that kind of generational change in terms of the understanding of faith and its priority and its place and the role of belief or belonging, can you trace the generational shift that took place in Great Britain and Europe since World War II?
Davie: Yes, you could do that. There is quite clear mapping you could do. Quite clearly the 60’s turn out to be a pivotal decade, and if you think of in terms of the market research, you would think of the World War II generation, and the one born immediately after it, which is mine, the baby boomers. We were raised in the 60’s or came to age in the 60’s. And then generation X, generation Y, you can see very distinctive parts with the shifts coming around the 1960’s. I mean the 1950’s were quite a conservative generation because I think there is a real aspiration in a continent that had been devastated by the war to put things back and to see how much stability you could reassert after the war. But that all comes a part in the 1960’s when every single institution in our society, including the U.S. of course, was challenged radically by all sorts of people. Now the 1970’s become a very different kind of decade because of the oil crisis at the beginning of the decade, which really kicks in towards the end when employment begins to rise and the global economy becomes very insecure. The confidence of the 1960’s diminishes, and then I think you get a different mood, which made people reflect differently if you like about the sacred. So not necessarily in the form that it took prior to 1960. And although this is talking more about decades and generations, I have come to realize increasingly that the really key date if you are studying religion both in Europe and in the wider world is 1979. But we didn’t realize this at the time, of course.
Mohler: And why was that?
Davie: 1979 is for British people, it is the election. It is not entirely a side issue because the premarket begins to dominate, but more directly it is the year of the Iranian revolution, which was for western people, a complete turn up for the books. This was not anticipated, but it is also the election of John Paul II within a month or two, which led in turn of course, though it is a complex story, and I don’t want to oversimplify it, for communism, for the Berlin wall in 1989-1990. I think one of the most interesting things to reflect on is that no political economical social scientist anticipated those events, saw them coming. I’ve often thought for social sciences that claim to be predictive this requires attention, now what went wrong. I don’t want to oversimplify the story, and I would ask you to consider this with some subtlety, but I do think that if we had paid more attention to religion, we might have been closer. We might have been closer. I say it once, but of course the thought of Communism was a deeply complex affair in which the failure of the command economy was substantial. So there are many, many factors to take into account, but somehow our eyes were on the wrong goal, I’ll put it that way. And then of course it continues to 9-11.
Mohler: Oh absolutely, and you might say even beyond. And right now, because this book was written, or at least published, in 1994. If you were to take that generational analysis just one step further and speak about the generation of young people today, how would you describe them in contrast to the generation that came before?
Davie: Different. Young people say my children’s generation and younger, which would be people in their 20’s or 30’s now, feel absolutely no sense of obligation to attend a church. There is no passion or feeling or right or respectable thing to do. You can live perfectly adequate lives way outside the church and that is the normal situation in Europe. I think you need to be very careful when you think about secularization in these terms because what it also means is those who do go to church, young or old, are probably going for much more purely religious reasons than for social or respectable reasons. So you have got to be careful what you are measuring. So what I would add is that the young people who do go to church, and there are some, are probably highly committed. What we are losing is, let me explain this as if I were to think about the right of confirmation in the Church of England. In England that would have been the kind of teenage rite of passage for not huge, but significant numbers of people, around 13 or 14. And still is in the Nordic country. But in England now, the numbers of young people being confirmed are minimal, 1-2%, maybe less. But, if you go to a confirmation service in the Church of England now, you might find people from nine or ten up to ninety who have decided for one reason or another to make a public commitment to something that was until then, private. So the numbers are fewer, but the commitments are higher.
Mohler: Defined by conviction rather than so much by age.
Davie: By age or by habit or by obligation. It’s by choice and commitment. This is what I term in my analysis if I move from the old model to the new model. A shift from obligation to consumption. Now the term obligation is a nice one because it has a resonance of priest of obligation, a Catholic socialization would imply. Consumption, I don’t like so much because it has the wrong kind of connotation from secular consumption. But what I mean is choice, and I mean seriously made choice, which has huge implications in public as well as private life. So what you are seeing in Europe is fewer actually committed religious people, whether it is Christians or other, but the level of commitments are higher.
Mohler Well, those are fascinating insights. I think the very idea that we can talk about believing without belonging and also belonging without believing points to the fact that there is a great deal to think about here. Those of us who care about Christianity, and for that matter about evangelization and our own children, the fate of Christianity in the modern world, need to understand that there are temptations at every side when it comes to both believing and belonging. Davie, you have not only coined the phrase, “Believing without belonging,” but you have also pointed to something to what you call “Vicarious Religion.” I think most people looking at that instantly see that we know exactly what you are talking about. You were speaking of course of the context there in the United Kingdom and in Europe, but it could be generalized to other places as well. What is “Vicarious Religion?”
Davie: Now, this is very interesting that I am engaging with an American and an American audience because I think it is very much a European feature, but maybe I can make it resonate for you as well. It comes from the term, “Vicarious,” which means to do something on behalf of. And what really interests me is the relationship between the relatively few number of people who are active in their faith, and the larger penumbra that surround them. Because I have this sense that is why the group of people, that is the number still, though it may not last for too much longer, still have a relationship with the active minority who they recognize as doing something on behalf of them. They are sustaining the organization and institution that a larger number of people may require at some moment in their lives. And that moment may appear unexpectedly. One of the best moments to observe “Vicarious Religion” is what happens in the society when something shocking happens or something goes seriously wrong, or to be more positive, a moment of celebration. How do people respond in that situation when the banality of everyday life is suddenly stripped away?
Mohler: Now, you make the point, and I think our audience would understand this immediately, especially those who were alive at the time. You make the point that in Great Britain perhaps, the crystallizing moment to see this was the aftermath in British society to the accidental death of Princess Diana.
Davies: It was certainly a great example at the time. I have to remember now when I am teaching younger students that they don’t really remember it. It happened in ’97, in March I think, so they were small children when it happened. The footage you can use to remind them. A very good example, which is right up to date, is what has happened at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I guess you are familiar with the anti-capitalist protest.
Davies: That has taken place outside the cathedral. The real dilemma of the chapter in the cathedral to address these issues. I find it is very interesting because when the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury joined the conversation, he started it by saying some commentators in society indicate that the church is a place where the wider community work out issues that they are puzzled by, implying the term “Vicariously.”
Davies: Doing the thinking on behalf of the wider society. I have talked to the Arch-Bishop about “Vicarious Religion,” and I am sure that is what he had in his mind.
Mohler: Well Professor, you mentioned the British and the European context, and I understand when you said it might be more difficult for Americans to understand this, but I think the American category of civil religion largely implies the same reality. For instance, in the aftermath of 9-11, many people who did not have any specific religious faith, any specific theistic belief nonetheless were very glad that there were commemorative events, that there were prayer services, that there were gatherings, and both in Great Britain in the case of Princess Diana and her funeral or in the United States in the aftermath of 9-11 or similar things, there is even a desire on the part of rather secular people for the formality and weight of very traditional religious services.
Davies: I think you are absolutely right, and I certainly felt that echo after 9-11 myself and when I went to ground zero myself. I felt it very strongly. Where I would wonder, where I would put a question mark is that I think that “Vicarious Religion” is in many ways a residue or a spin-off of the state church, and the notion that the state church is a public utility and therefore, all of us at the point of need. Very much like our National Health Service or welfare system. And all those elements of public utility, national health care, or welfare system, are rather different in the United States. I have a sense that the state church in the welfare states in that respect are mirror images of each other. I think what very much struck me in the European states is when I have lectured all over Europe from the north to the south from Greece or Spain or wherever, and in many cases I have had to use an interpreter because I don’t speak the language. The interpreter has to translate “Vicarious Religion,” which is not an everyday term in most languages. He or she finds a way of doing it, and you see the resonance or the audience, and afterwards they will come and give me examples of “Vicarious Religion” in their own communities, their own families, their own countries, their own situations, and when I do the same in America, I do get a resonance, but I don’t get anywhere near as strong of one.
Mohler: I think that makes sense.
Davies: I think that is because you have a very different packing of religion. You have the notion of a congregation of voluntarism or denomination, and of course in the American constitution there is no state church. There is a wall of separation. I am interested that you can find nevertheless some echo of “Vicarious Religion” in your own situation.
Mohler: Absolutely. I think once again, as with “Believing and belonging,” you have given us an intellectual category, a tool, with which we can in various ways come to understand the realities we see on both sides of the Atlantic. I want to ask you about some specific questions of belief. In all of your works, you have documented a very significant loss of belief, so when you speak of “Believing without belonging,” I want to go back to the believing part and just talk about how you as a sociologist see the status or the future, the fate of belief in highly modern societies. In particular in Britain and in Europe.
Davies: I think it is self-evident that if large sections of the populations drift away from the churches on any regular basis and the content of their beliefs will drift, and if I were to put it in terms of a challenge to the institutional church or churches, which is a better way of talking about it. It is the drifting nature of belief. It is a much bigger challenge than secularism, which is not to say that secularism does not exist and at times can become very strident. The most likely individual that the church leader or pastor will engage with will be somebody with some sense of the numinous or the sacred, but that is largely content. I think it is very striking that younger generations now are not raised on the narratives of Christianity and they have very little idea of liturgy or hymnody or Bible story or early Christian teaching, which interestingly is kind of a major problem if you want to do something like Art History or to study literature because so much art in the European context, at least half or two thirds of your major galleries are Christian art. Believe it or not, if you don’t understand, if you don’t have the information about those stories, you are going to find it very difficult to interpret the art. The same is true in music and in literature. In many ways, students who wish to do this seriously have to do a refresher course if you like, or a basic course in Christianity to bring themselves up to speed.
Mohler In your book, The Year 2000, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates, you think about that memory, and in one paragraph, you really set the stage for a very ominous future and the very prospective from which you are speaking. I’m reading to you from page 97 of your book, you said, “It remains the case, however, that religious illiteracy is wide-spread in modern Europe amongst younger generations. With this in mind, it seems entirely possible that the religious memory of Europe, at least in its traditional form of a basic understanding of Christian teaching, might simply cease to exist except as a branch of specialist knowledge. It is indeed precarious.” Now I have to tell you, I think that is one of the strongest paragraphs I have ever read warning us about not only the loss of Christian knowledge but of a Christian memory.
Davies: It could happen. I don’t think it will because I think the churches though they are a minority, will continue and sustain the memories vicariously. The other thing of course that will happen is that we will have the continual invigorations from the global south, and so even if the European church were to keel over all together, which is not going to happen, Christianity doesn’t lose its presence. What I think has gone is a much more common knowledge, if you see what I mean, but I think you need to think around about this, because when I teach to say, students of 20-21, who have lost this knowledge, I have to remember that they have a very different aptitude to knowledge than I had at their age. They know less because they know how to find out more. I think they hold less in their heads or minds, but they have very, very good means of accessing knowledge. One of the things you do when you teach now is train students how to access knowledge with care rather than to simply look at Wikipedia in a rather uncritical way because they can get it back because they know how to do that. So they retain less, but I think it is also important to remember that this is equally true of geographical knowledge.
Mohler: Yes, that is true.
Davies: I think that is a thing to factor in, but I do think it is true that the average young person in Europe would be unlikely to be able to tell you more than the very basic outline of the Christian story, but they might not be able to tell you very much about the history of their own society.
Mohler: Yes, well and you have been writing about this for a long time, but I think the first thing I ever read of your writing was an article that was published back in 1990. It was titled An Ordinary God: The Paradox of Religion in Contemporary Britain, and you cited a survey in which a gentleman was asked, “Do you believe in a God who can change the course of events on earth?” And he said, “No, just the ordinary one.”
Davies: Which is one of the best quotes in the mixture.
Mohler: Absolutely. And I am much indebted to you for bringing that to my attention. I went back and looked at the Abercrombie study, and that was not a young person. That was, as I understand the study, a relatively old person. This is a process that has begun a long time ago.
Davies: It’s not so new. I think what I would say is that if you go to church even reluctantly, or for the wrong reasons, or for very mixed reasons, don’t we all, you are kind of dripped for a narrative that becomes part of you. Now, that kind of thinking is less and less the case in most European societies. But be careful not to think of Europe as a single entity. If you went to Greece or to Italy, you would have a rather different picture. As I said to you when we started this conversation, it is quite seductive to dwell on this model and to forget the new shoots that are growing over it. What I did not anticipate in 1994, no way did I think it would happen, is the return of religion to public discussion as has happened from 1990 more from 2000 on. So it now becomes a major news item many days of the week.
Davies: Why is this so? It is at this point that you need to consider the influence of Islam. Now, not because there are enormous numbers of Muslims in Europe, that is not the case. But it is the case that the arrival of Islam in Europe has made it less easy for people in public life or scholars of religion to regard religion simply as a private matter because it is not easy to privatize Islam. It is a different way of being religious, and it is much more of a way of life where politics and religion and law merge. It’s like a catalyst. It is all to terms of debate in Europe. Meaning that we now discuss religion in public in an entirely new way. Now the problem, of course, is that because of all the things we have just discussed, and the loss of a narrative and loss of story in the population as a whole, means that we come to this new public debate without the tools and concepts that we need to discuss religion in an informed manner. This is something that genuinely saddens me about the European debate. A fascinating debate about the face of religion in public light, but the quality of the discussion is very poor.
Davies: For very understandable reasons, but it is not a good combination.
Mohler: I can understand.
Davies: You lose the narrative at precisely the moment you need it most.
Mohler: You helped to trace out not only the problem but the reasons, and finally I want to ask you about an issue that you mentioned very early on in our conversation. And that is the question as to whether Europe is a special case. Is it the shape of the future? The idea at least behind the many secularization theorists was that Europe was how the rest of the world is going to look. You said increasingly Europe doesn’t even believe that anymore.
Davies: It’s not the case. I mean you can find echoes of the European situation in the English speaking dominion, a little bit in Canada, a little bit in New Zealand, Australia, which are interesting cases, but their more populations. Now think of Australia and the future of religion in Southeast Asia is not going to be decided in Australia but in Indonesia. And this increasing awareness that what we have experienced in Europe is not going to be the pattern elsewhere. Think of the U.S. Think of Pentecostals in the global South. Think of Sub-Saharan Africa. Think of the Middle East. Think of the sub continents. Think of the Pacific room. Think of China. It’s not going to look like Europe. The great countries, the economies that are sporting ahead, Brazil, South Africa, Soviet Union, China, are not new Europes, they are something entirely different, and in many of these cases forms of religion from Christianity and other religions are flourishing in rapidly advancing economies. There is no necessary relationship between modernization and secularization. I think that is simply false.
Mohler: And that is a profound way to end this discussion. Professor Grace Davie, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Davies: You are very welcome.
Mohler: Well, in that short statement, Professor Grace Davies simply turned Secularization Theory in one sense, upside down. While acknowledging its legitimate insights, she said very clearly, “We now know modernity does not equal secularization.”
Most Christians are aware that we are a part of a social reality. Many are at least aware that there is a field of study known as sociology. Many Christians are, for that matter, just lay persons in the larger society, tend to think of sociology simply as a descriptive discipline. It is not just a descriptive discipline, and it never has been. In one sense, the field of sociology emerged as a means of giving a secular explanation for human social behavior. Speaking of sociology in the present, it is not merely descriptive, although we learn a great deal by its descriptive task. It is also explanatory, and that is what makes it really interesting. A sociologist like Grace Davie, who has a great deal of intellectual reputation and research behind her, a scholar who is able to look not only at Great Britain and Europe but also to speak knowledgably about the United States and other parts of the world, is someone who brings not only the powerful skill of description but also an incredible skill of explanation. Now her verbiage has been very important here. She has indeed coined some very intellectual tools for us. She is well known in the field of religion sociology, or the sociology of religion for her phrase, “Believing without belonging,” by which we have spoken. I think it is important that we recognize that this is a phenomenon that is simply undeniable. It may not be even now the main way of explaining the main way of what is going on in church life or religious life around us, but it is something we know still continues to be a very important pattern. There are persons. Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, whatever their motivation, they simply want religion on their own terms. This seems to me to merge very clearly with what Davie talks about in this shift of religion from obligation to a consumer mentality. Or from a sense of obligation to a sense of choice. There are many people simply saying, “I choose this belief, I choose this set of beliefs, I choose to believe in this way, and I am not accountable to any institutional reality. I am not accountable to a congregation, to a church, to a denomination, to a theological tradition. I am a believer in my own way, but I am not a belonger.”
Now, what does make this interesting I think when you reverse it, and I was tempted to do that from the very first time I read her work, is the fact that there are also those that are perhaps in our context who are belongers without believing. They belong without believing. In other words, they would say, “Yes, I am a member of a church,” and this was what at one point in our history might well be described as “cultural”, or “nominal” Christianity, but it also refers to explicit and very intentional revisionist forms of Christianity. Now, for instance I mentioned in our conversation the main stream beliefs of mainline Protestants of liberal Protestantism. And all you have to do is look not only at the creedal transformations but at the theological output and at even the scholarly data concerning how the theological and doctrinal beliefs of mainline protestants have changed, and it remains true that they do belong, but in terms of the historic structures and content of the Christian faith, they in many ways no longer believe.
Now, I also think that the category of vicarious religion is really important. I understand that Davie is really looking at the European context of state industries and state utilities and of course of state churches in its own unique context, and I do understand there for instance, in Great Britain or the United Kingdom, there may be a good many people who say, “I’m very glad that these people are doing this work for us.” But I do think here in the United States we have something that is rather similar. We have people who are actually glad that even though they are not observant themselves, even though they do not believe themselves, they still think there is some utility, that there is some contribution that believers do make and that believing institutions do make. And, as she mentioned in a time of national trauma such as the death of Princess Diana, and just remember, how did the British people then clamor? They clamored for the kind of formality, the kind of tradition, the kind of content, even a rather awkward Christian content to a memorial service and all that went with it in terms of national grieving. The same thing very similarly here in the aftermath in 9-11, and even in more local contexts. People tend to gather together and instantly think in far more perhaps traditionally Christian ways, looking for traditional Christian habits and reflections when that kind of trauma hits, and they are glad someone is at least there believing these things, knowing these things, and stewarding these things. I think that is a helpful category.
I am very much shaken in terms of concern by the kinds of insights that Davie has brought in her book published in 2000, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. The book is brilliant, fascinating, and rather haunting. The subtitle is after all, “A Memory Mutates,” she talks of the mutation of the Christian memory in Europe. That one sentence that I read, which I will now read again, that one very short passage, it remains the case, however that religious illiteracy is wide spread in modern Europe amongst younger generations. With this in mind, it seems entirely possible that the religious memory of Europe, at least in its traditional form of a basic understanding of Christian teaching, might simply cease to exist except as a branch of specialist knowledge. It is indeed precarious.
Well you think about the context of Europe, and it is easy to see that this might not be just a future trend, but what is fairly often a very present reality. Looking at the United States, can we honestly say that we think it is a great deal different? Can we honestly say that we could count on the average person being asked about the basic narrative of Christianity being able to say much, if anything at all about what that means? They might be able to speak of Christian symbolism, they might be able to speak of Christ in some sense, they might be able to speak of good news, or some kind of belief system or morality, but in terms of the actual narrative of the Christian gospel, in terms of the content of the Christian faith, I think it is true that not only among the young, but among those who might be older, even if our context, the loss of a Christian memory is nothing less than catastrophic. And her writing here, her prose, is so very haunting. That indeed, that knowledge, that memory in its tradition form in a basic understanding of Christian teaching, and remember her words, might simply cease to exist. But remember the following words as well, “except as a branch of specialist knowledge.” There could be those out there who could be perhaps the monks in the monasteries, the last scholars on the islands who in their own way, perpetuate the belief and keep the lights burning, but in terms of the larger civilization, the content, the memory, the narrative, the truth, the gospel, will be lost. We are living in very interesting times. A scholar like Professor Grace Davie helps us understand our times. She is writing particularly about the United Kingdom and about the European context, but anyone reading her work recognizes that this is hitting closer to home than we might have thought.
The conversation was very enjoyable. Catalytic. I’d like to trace many things further, including how she spoke so knowledgably how the younger generation learns in very different ways than perhaps previous generations. I’d like to hold that for a future conversation. In the meantime, I am thankful for the conversation we just had.