Did you know that most of what you and I know about Christianity in American today is scarcely Christian in any traditional sense?
Over 100 years ago, William James said the American sense of religion is almost wholly experiential.
Today, it’s much the same.
American religion is dominated by solitude, individuality and the pragmatism of feelings, acts and experiences over thoughts, desires and memories.
Faith for the typical American is the awareness centered on self. Each American makes up his own sect. Individualism marks the American spiritual life.
American Religion and Gnosticism
That makes the American religion like information anxiety…and an improved infancy.
That means salvation for the American then comes through solitude and isolation…not community or congregation.
Experience is king. Loneliness is king. Freedom is king. Self is king.
American Religion and Revivalism
It can be seen in our hell-bent natures towards revivalism, which, in America, Bloom notes, tends to be the perpetual shock of the individual discovering yet again what he always have known: God loves him on an absolutely personal, and indeed, intimate basis.
At this point I hear some of you objecting. But before you bail, hear me out.
It’s interesting to note that our national religion flourished along side Emerson, Whitman, Melville and Hawthorn. That’s why you find a severely self-reliant and internalized romance dimension to our American religion.
Think Barton Stone and the Cane Ridge crusades. Todd Bently and the Lakeland revival. Clearly those involved were persuaded by the sincerity and authenticity of these seizures. Indeed, they retain a grotesque power.
You can trace this enthusiasm, emotionalism and fanaticism from the second century down to John Wesley and his followers to the American shore.
This can be seen in wholly American religious inventions like the Mormons, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals…creed less Christian sects. You can see it in events like Woodstock.
The American religion, paradoxically, is a doctrine of experience. An almost intoxicating, sexual individualism. It’s an unrestrained triumphalism that even shows up in our politics. But what’s missing in all this private, enthusiastic luminosity is most of historic Christianity.
The Problem with American Religion
Enthusiastic religion has few resources to protect itself from itself. This purely personal, violently emotional, totally experiential mode of salvation is appropriate for the exploitation of people.
In the end, the reason I find this so intriguing is because so much of what unbelievers attack today is far removed from classical–even European–Christianity.
This makes for a steadfast, earnest defense of classical Christianity. Do you agree or disagree? I’m curious to know what you think. Brutal and all.
Part of the Quick Facts on Christian Cults series.