DECEMBER is the darkest month. The sun is lowest in the sky. The nights are longest. Yet in its midst—perhaps in their hunger for warmth and light in the nadir of seasons—believers of the Western world have immemorially celebrated hope. In recent years, God has seemed to many as dim as the winter-solstice sun on the horizon. It has been a December of religion. Now, as the days grow longer into the new decade, believers and those who would like to believe are hoping that the long, bleak month is over.
Is God coming back to life? Was he ever really "dead"? Perhaps he was eclipsed during a period of dizzying social change. And if he returns, will it be to the familiar life of church and synagogue or to another locale? The marketplace? The slum? The commune? The barricade?
The most notable fact in religion today is that ministers of all denominations are trying, somewhat desperately but with immense energy and imagination, to find new ways to carry God back into the everyday life of society and to make him, in the prevailing cliche of the day, "relevant." This is not primarily a theological movement. Still, important new trends in theology suggest that God may best be met in the co-creation of a more humane society or, internally, in the deepest structures of our own psyches (see box, page 42). As so often in the history of faith, this new effort to build a new ministry is a reaction against past failures.
Titanic of the Spirit
Churchmen have been visible enough: Martin Luther King preaching his dream, Dan and Phil Berrigan raiding draft boards, William Coffin marching for peace, Father Groppi summoning his people out of the ghetto. Even so, the failure of the churches at large to deal with the social and psychological condition of mankind seems to many to reflect a decline of decision and direction. The prevalent eroticism in the arts, sexual permissiveness, the drug culture, the rise in crime and other violence, the increase in petty dishonesty —all point to the erosion of the churches' moral authority. With gallows humor, a Catholic priest dismisses reforms like lay parish councils as "shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic."
The Gallup poll records a slippage in U.S. church attendance on an average Sunday from 49% of the population in 1958 to 43% in 1968. The young are not as irreligious as they seem —far from it. But most fail to recognize their religious impulse, and they satisfy it far away from the churches —in Eastern (or pseudo-Eastern) mysteries, in drug reveries, in the noisy trance ,of rock, or sometimes in the touchable realities of nature.
Protestant seminary enrollments are slightly up, but Catholic enrollments in the U.S. and elsewhere are dropping drastically. More disturbing is the departure of experienced Catholic priests. According to a conservative estimate, as many as 4,000 U.S. priests leave the formal priesthood each year. Often they include some of the ablest men in the priesthood: college presidents, heads of monasteries or religious provinces, teachers and philosophers.