In his 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe,” philosopher William James described religious beliefs as either “live” or “dead” wires.

A live hypothesis is a real possibility for someone. For example, James wrote, if he were to ask you to believe in the Mahdi, you’d probably not even know what was being asked. There’s no “electric connection with your nature.” No spark of credibility at all. It’s a dead wire for you. But if he were to ask an Arab (even if not one of the Mahdi’s followers), the possibility would be alive. “Deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties,” James said, “but relations to the individual thinker.”

The possibility of a religious belief is like a live or dead wire. “A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones.” For many in James’s time, the choice between being a Muslim or a theosophist was basically a “dead option,” but the choice between being “an agnostic or a Christian” was alive. (And many of his contemporaries opted for agnosticism over traditional Christianity.)

In our time, we’re witnessing the rise of secularism and a corresponding decline in the percentage of people who belong to religious organizations or claim religious faith. And so we wonder this: In the future, will calling someone to follow Jesus make about as much sense as asking the average American in 1896 if they’ll follow the Mahdi? Does secularism make Christianity a less plausible option, a “dead wire” for most people? And if so, how do we respond?

Is Christianity Still Plausible in Secular Society?

In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes describes an interesting moment in the Birmingham City Art Gallery. In a glassed-in corner, there’s a small, intense painting by Petrus Christus of Christ displaying his wounds: “With outstretched forefinger and thumb he indicates where the spear went in—even invites us to measure the gash. His crown of thorns has sprouted into a gilt, spun-sugar halo of glory. Two saints, one with a lily and the other with a sword, attend him, drawing back the green velvet drapes of a strangely domestic proscenium.”

Barnes recalls a tracksuited father and his small son traveling through the gallery. As they turned the corner and the boy saw the painting, he asked, “Why’s that man holding his chest, Dad?” The father glanced back and replied, “Dunno.” The art held no significance because there was no shared understanding of Christianity or the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Despite his atheism, Barnes can’t help but feel a sense of loss at the fading cultural memory of Christianity. And yet he views such loss as inevitable, wondering, “What will it be like when Christianity joins the list of dead religions, and is taught in universities as part of the folklore syllabus; when blasphemy becomes not legal or illegal but simply impossible?” He imagines it will be a bit like a recent visit to Athens where he marveled at Cycladic marble figurines, much like the man in the tracksuit with his son. Whatever we may appreciate about the artistry of the Cycladic figurines, their purpose was to be buried with the dead. “And what exactly—or even roughly—did they believe, the people who produced such objects?” Barnes asks. “Dunno.”

Is Christianity Becoming a Dead Wire?

Returning to William James’s analogy of dead and live wires, we may wonder, Is Christianity—traditional Christianity and its creeds and confessions and congregations and cathedrals—a plausible option for radically secular, never-churched people? Is it a “live wire,” a possibility for most people? Or is it increasingly a “dead wire”?

Asking this question gets to the root of anxiety among believers today. The reason many Christians worry about the decline of Christendom and the loss of widespread Christian values is that it seems to make evangelism and discipleship more challenging. Don’t we need Christendom if we want following Jesus to remain a live option for those outside the faith?

Complicating the question is another cultural development. The “agnostic vs. Christian” hypothesis that William James saw as a “live wire” for educated people in 1896 has been replaced by what Charles Taylor describes as the “nova effect”—an explosion of different options for belief and meaning in a secular age. It’s not just this position or that, it’s this choice among that, and that, and that, and that—a myriad of beliefs and practices, many “remixed” in some way, as pointed out by cultural observer Tara Isabella Burton, who has also chronicled the shift from “institutional” religion to “intuitional” faiths. It’s no surprise, then, that pastors and church leaders today feel as if they must not only answer the question of “Why Christianity?” but also “Why not whatever?”

In this era of religious confusion and decline, we need to remember three truths.

1. Need for Missiological Awareness

If we’re to be good missionaries, we cannot ignore our changing cultural context. If we’ve relied on aspects of cultural Christianity or Christendom in the past to smooth the way for gospel presentation, we can do so no longer.

We shouldn’t assume biblical literacy. We shouldn’t assume a favorable atmosphere for the gospel. We shouldn’t assume the methods we’ve used in the past will continue to bear fruit the same way in the future. Missionaries must adapt to conditions on the ground, and so should we.

2. Plausibility Power of the Church

Don’t underestimate the power of relationships. The church is where Easter comes alive. A renewed fellowship of people who live in relationship and follow Jesus together is indispensable in the conversation about Christianity’s plausibility.

Charles Taylor points out the power of relationships in a world with so many religious options:

This kind of multiplicity of faiths has little effect as long as it is neutralized by the sense that being like them is not really an option for me. As long as the alternative is strange and other, perhaps despised, but perhaps just too different, too weird, too incomprehensible, so that becoming that isn’t really conceivable for me, so long will their differences not undermine my embedding in my own faith.

Unless something happens that suddenly makes another person’s faith option seem viable. And that happens usually through relationship. He goes on,

This changes when through increased contact, interchange, even perhaps inter-marriage, the other becomes more and more like me, in everything else but faith. . . . Then the issue posed by the difference becomes more insistent: why my way, and not hers? There is no other difference left to make the shift preposterous or unimaginable.

Rodney Stark made a similar point about early Christianity. Conversion is more likely when “people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers.” This is still true. Both personal evangelism and corporate fellowship are vital if we’re to show the world that following Christ is a real and viable option in a radically secular world.

3. Supernatural Intervention of the Spirit

We mustn’t be so faithless as to think the gospel needs cultural Christianity to remain the power of God unto salvation. The church before Christendom wasn’t propped up by cultural Christianity, and Christians in many parts of the world today walk with God just fine with no need for cultural crutches. Yes, Christendom may be an asset to Christianity in terms of plausibility structures, making it a “live wire” in a sociological sense, but theologically, we must never assume cultural Christianity is what supplies the electricity. It’s the Spirit who makes the gospel spread like wildfire, blowing when and where he pleases.

Conversion is always impossible without supernatural intervention. Cultural Christianity may be one of the tools that God uses to smooth the path so some will understand the basics of biblical truth before being confronted with the specific claims of Christ. But God isn’t dependent on Christendom, and we shouldn’t be either. Whether we labor in fields where Christianity seems as far-fetched a possibility as becoming Zoroastrian or whether we labor in areas that still bear the fragrance of commonly held Christian values, our call to evangelism and missions remains the same—even if certain methods must change based on cultural context.

No matter what approaches we suggest or methods we use, we must not forget that in the end, the primary reason anyone believes the implausible testimony that Jesus of Nazareth walked out of his grave isn’t because of live or dead wires but because of spiritual awakening.

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