Why Religion Persists

THEOLOGIAN H. Richard Niebuhr years ago pointed out how different were "inner" and "outer" views dealing with sacred histories. There could be good or bad writing of either sort; authors could be fair or unfair, accurate or inaccurate, ept or inept. But whatever each did, they were likely to be discerned either as people who took the view of the insider, giving expression to what was profoundly their own, or the outsider, doing justice to an entity from a distance.

Richard A. Nenneman's "The New Birth of Christianity" is an insider's view of his subject, an accounting of how and why religion persists in an age of science - from the viewpoint of Christian Science. His definition of "Christianity,religion,science," and even "new birth" is different from what we might expect from a Hans Kung for Roman Catholics or a Billy Graham for evangelicals.

Nenneman's version will be read less for an answer to the question of the subtitle than as an explanation of how Christian Science, or how a very literate and informed Christian Scientist, gives an accounting. He knows that, and shows himself to be uncommonly aware of the surrounding culture. His movement is on the defensive, thanks to some recent court cases, which "have raised questions in the public mind about the practice of spiritual healing in Christian Science." These questions, if answered one wa y, he says, would push Christian Science outside the American mainstream. He answers them another way and would see it in that mainstream.

The editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor does not refer to one other element that colors outsider perceptions of Christian Science: that its church is declining; that it attracts fewer and less intense followers than before. (Christian Science is not alone in that: Much of "mainstream" Christianity is experiencing the same.)

I bring an outsider's question to the book, which it only partially answers. Why, in a time when "spiritual healing" has more advocates than ever - from New Age devotees through holistic physicians to pentecostal healers - is Christian Science, the serious veteran on this scene, not prospering? My theory: While Christian Science "works an outsider uses quotation marks, not out of disrespect but as a mark of outsiderhood - it demands great discipline. Meanwhile, one can get an apparent "quick fix" of heal ing on the cheap, as it were, from the New Age holistic healer.

Most praiseworthy in Nenneman's critique is his assault on, or at least regret over, the narrowing or diminishing of life on the part of people who let technical reason or science dominate. Second most praiseworthy is the way he draws on philosopher William James and "The Varieties of Religious Experience" to show how for a century of this "scientific age" resources have been available for enlarging the life of people who give alternatives a chance. Third, Nenneman, like James, knows that the religious q uest is both self-interested and practical, and he does not scorn the searchers or undervalue the search.

Nenneman's analyses of what went wrong, or got complicated, about American religion during this century - secularization, privatization, and pluralization, to use the standard "ation" words - is a faithful summary necessary for understanding what follows. He then deals with the paradoxes evident to those who also find signs of spiritual vitality in the people Nenneman has seen called secular. In his treatment of physical sciences today, he argues, not alone, that there must be "room for multiple realitie s."

All along, Nenneman is trying to keep readers off-balance enough in the face of science, and alert enough in the encounter with religious possibility, to take the Christian Science version of a "new birth" seriously. Such readers must "discover" a new way; the chapter on the nature of discovery is the best in the book and helps provide ground for showing Christian Science to be plausible.

The book closes with substantial, clear expoundings of the metaphysic and practice of Christian Science. Its "Afterword" is as explicit an invitation to Christian Science as any altar call by Graham would be to evangelicalism. Will readers respond? I doubt whether many people move from outsiderhood to insider vision to "New Birth" as a result of historical review and clear exposition. What Nenneman succeeds in doing is stating the case for Christian Science being a credible address to a time that is not merely a "scientific age," but also one in which the spiritual search remains lively, often passionate.

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