A surprising number of readers of my previous post have written out of concern for my state of mind, which is kind of them, but I think they have read as a cri de coeur what was meant as a simple summary of the facts. Not pleasant facts, I freely admit, but surely uncontroversial ones. Stating them so bluntly is just one element of my current period of reflection.
The primary reason I am not in despair is simply this: I know some history. I think we will probably see, in the coming decades, the dramatic reduction or elimination of humanities requirements and the closure of whole humanities departments in many American universities, but that will not mean the death of the humanities. Humane learning, literature, art, music have all thrived in places where they were altogether without institutional support. Indeed, I have suggested that it is in times of the breaking of institutions that poetry becomes as necessary as bread.
Similarly, while attendance at Episcopalian and other Anglican churches has been dropping at a steep rate for decades, and I expect will in my lifetime dwindle to nearly nothing, there will still be people worshipping with the Book of Common Prayer as long as … well, as long as there are people, I think. And if evangelicalism completely collapses as a movement — for what it’s worth, I think it already has — that will simply mean a return to an earlier state of affairs. The various flagship institutions of American evangelicalism are (in their current form at least) about as old as I am. The collapse I speak of is, or will be, simply a return to a status quo ante bellum, the bellum in question being World War II, more or less. And goodness, it’s not as if even the Great Awakening had the kind of impact on its culture, all things demographically considered, as one might suspect from its name and from its place in historians’ imaginations.
This doesn’t mean I don’t regret the collapse of the institutions that have helped to sustain me throughout my adult life. I do, very much. And I will do my best to help them survive, if in somewhat constrained and diminished form. But Put not your trust in institutions, as no wise man has even quite said, even as you work to sustain them. It’s what (or Who) stands behind those institutions and gives them their purpose that I believe in and ultimately trust.
The Great Crumping is going on all around me. But if there’s one thing that as a Christian and a student of history I know, it’s this: Crump happens.