The shape of religion is changing rapidly around the world. Africa is becoming the center of world monotheism. Protestantism, progressive Roman Catholicism, and secularism are all on the rise in Latin America.
Christianity is outwardly prospering in the third world, yet perhaps as many as half of these new Christians were evangelized by the "prosperity gospel," which has about as much contact with the real gospel as a fish does with a cinnamon bagel.
In the United States, Christians are deep in the throes of an on-going culture war, one that is slowly tilting away from conservatives. Most Roman Catholics like their nuns way better than they like their bishops, and gay rights is rapidly increasing in public support among all groups, including evangelicals.
For thirty years, the religious right has conflated the terms "Christian" and "conservative," and for twenty-nine years, the mainstream media has abetted them. This gives the false impression that Christians are under assault from a secular culture, and are a beleaguered band of the "pure" lost in a society that is descending into a secularist hell-hole.
That's on the one hand. On the other hand, while Christians do have their problems, some new things are operating under the radar. The "emergent" churches are starting to have an impact. They may not be large in numbers, but they dominate the discussion in all wings of protestantism.
Now, "the new monasticism" is making its appearance. The name, incidentally, is misleading. This is not about going to a convent or a monastery. The "new monasticism" is an attitude of devotion, an appreciation of both action and contemplation, an understanding of, in de Chardin's words, the "divine milieu" in which we live. Thomas Merton:
Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, and fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source.
Good Lutherans, the "new monastics" see "the holiness of the secular." Our world is not split between the sacred and the secular. There is no "pure" and there is no "unclean." All creation is fully capable of being both holy and profane--at the same time, saint and sinner, Luther said.
Sacramental theology makes such a view possible--indeed, demands it. If Christ can be fully present with us in the most common elements of earth--water, bread, wine--then Christ can be present with us through anything in all creation. The reformer Philip Melanchthon once said, "There are a thousand sacraments"--anything in the world can bring Christ.
It will be interesting to see which, if any, spiritual traditions "have legs" as we move through this century. What appears to be "up" right now may not be "up" in the year 2100. No one knows if "emergent" or the "new monasticism" or any other spiritual thread will prosper or fizzle.
Nevertheless, every person is a mystic, whether they know it or not. Every person has what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences," times when the window of every-day reality seemed to crack open and show something more.
Certain strands of the Christian tradition can give expression and encouragement to this phenomenon. Those strands have been there all along, from the earliest days of the church, to the mystics of the middle ages, down to the present day. The names of Origen, St. Theresa, St. Francis, Merton, Teilhard, and many more grace the pages of Christian history.
It's a thin tradition, but a powerful one. It represents many millions of people who don't have ready words for their own experiences. Whether it prospers or not remains to be seen, though none of its advocates care much for "growth" or "success" as they are understood according to the customary models.
This tradition will continue, even when many others have long since faded. The contemplative tradition will still be alive in the year 2100, perhaps vigorously alive, while some others, outwardly prospering now, may no longer even exist.