BY MAX FERNANDEZ
Recently, a church member handed me a March 6th article from the Middletown Journal titled “Future of Religion Will Always Be Part Sociology, Part Supernatural,” by Ross Douthat. The title caught my attention, and I am not sure why the church member handed it to me; but the article is a brief, general consideration of historical, Western Christianity considering the recent Asbury University revival events. The question that I have, as the title suggests, is whether religion is “part sociology” and “part supernatural.” A second question arises from an affirmative response to the author’s assertion. That is, if religion is both sociological and supernatural, what does this mean for how we think about our present activities?
Before addressing the author’s assertion and how we should consider our present activities, we should all be grateful that this kind of discussion is made public and that Douthat is willing to risk his beliefs about Christ in the public square. Douthat is very clear on Who the Person of Christ is and why he is a Christian. We need more people who speak clearly, not just about issues but about the Person of Jesus Christ. The author clearly presents Christ as a historical and divine Person. Praise God!
Regarding Douthat’s thesis, I would encourage a little more thoughtfulness. First, what is true religion, and should we allow history and culture to define this rather than the scriptures? James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” If the scriptures are the authority for how we think about Christianity, particularly Jesus Christ, then we should thoughtfully consider what true religion is and what it is not. A revivalist movement does not constitute true religion.
A second area for more thoughtfulness is the ministry of Charles G. Finney, which Douthat sites as evidence of a historical, supernatural working of God – in contrast to Thomas Jefferson’s refusal of the divinity of Jesus. While Douthat rightly calls Finney’s movement revivalism, Finney and his movement are hardly tests for true religion. We again must return to the scriptures and allow them to give us the lenses necessary for discerning true religion in historical events – be they religious or not.
We again must return to the scriptures and allow them to give us the lenses necessary for discerning true religion in historical events – be they religious or not.
Granted, one could look at the history of the Second Great Awakening and say that it was a successful, religious movement; but, in my experience, that kind of assessment is largely pragmatic and often overlooks a wealth of documentation that exposes the problems with the Finney Movement. By pragmatic, I mean that we tend to see large-scale results as automatic evidence of a movement of God. The ends seem to justify the means used to employ or bring about those ends. In his book titled Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray addresses the problems of Finney’s approach and the aftermath of Finney’s revivalism. Murray not only sites many historical sources, but he also establishes a biblical grid to aid the reader’s discernment of the Finney Movement.
So, how should we think about religion, sociology, and the supernatural? Think scripturally rather than pragmatically. Big numbers and heightened emotions do not automatically mean that it is a movement of God. Think Christo-centrically. To Douthat’s credit, he does this latter part well, but I would take it a step further than he does. The life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ confirm the providential working of God. God providentially worked despite those with good or ill intentions. We can also expect that God still works in this way. If the providence of God is true, then we must be careful to place too much faith in the sociological component that Douthat seems to highlight. Sociology has to do with the study of human society. We admit that there are sociological symptoms, but these symptoms do not work as an equal partnership with the providential God. God works despite and through societal structures, and what Christianity will be in the future will be according to His purposes.
Christian, believe more in the sovereignty of God. Trust Him, and do not live in fear of the future. Believe more in the scriptures of God. Trust His Word at all points. Believe more in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and live as Jesus’ kingdom subject now.
Believe more in the finished work of Jesus Christ, and live as Jesus’ kingdom subject now.
 Douthat, Ross. “Future of Religion Will Always Be Part Sociology, Part Supernatural.” Journal-News [Middletown], March 6, 2023, p. A5.
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