All oxymorons. Ross Douthat asks whether “liberal Christianity” be saved. The more appropriate question is What about liberal Christianity is worth saving?
I say stick a pitchfork in it. Hose it down with a flamethrower. Good riddance.
IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.
Sadly, they blew it on what constitutes relevance.
In the Early Church, Paul exhorted the Churches in Asia Minor–Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians–regarding issues of relevance. He admonished them to eschew sexual immorality (including homosexuality), idolatry, deceit, and malice. He exhorted them to exercise discretion in the eating of food that had been sacrificed to idols. Peter admonished believers about false teachers. James admonished believers who insisted that faith and works had no connection. You get the picture: there is no Biblical precedent for God permitting the acceptance of evil in the name of relevance. In fact, relevance was about admonishing people about the cultural trends, calling on them to flee evil. In Proverbs, wisdom presents a personified “howling reproach” against the backdrop of the world.
But mainline Protestants–Episcopals in particular–didn’t bother to heed that memo. So here we are, with the ECUSA heading for the dunghill.
Having said that, Southern Baptists can’t afford to get particularly comfortable in their holy huddle. Recently, MrsLarijani and I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary campus–that was when Lisa Anderson and Martha Krienke of Boundless were there for a conference, and we were dropping in to meet them–and noticed something very peculiar.
While we were at the cafe, enjoying a coffee and reading the campus newspaper, we noticed a stunning announcement: professors were going to be ensuring that they incorporated Biblical spirituality in their presentation of their courses.
That announcement carries the tacit admission that they hadn’t been doing that before. I almost had coffee coming out of my nose.
Oh, and you can’t blame the liberals for that one: the housecleaning that led to the ousters of Molly Marshall and Frank Tupper–among others–is long over.
It’s long past time for Southern Baptists to clean the inside of the cup. Otherwise, they are kidding themselves if they think an Episcopalian (or Presbyterian)-style demise can’t happen to them.
Douthat goes on:
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
Sadly, Douthat is suggesting that liberal Christianity was theologically deep. He’s right, but the question is “deep in what?”
In reality, he’s missing it: both sides tend to be quite shallow. Evangelicals are a Heinz 57 mixture of perspectives, ranging from hardcore Reform Theology to the nether regions of Open Theism and everything in between.
That said, bodies that preach a Biblically-conservative theology–and the practice thereof–are hardly experiencing decline let alone collapse.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
The Catholic world is still reeling from the fallout of the sexual abuse scandals. Hopefully, this will lead to some larger changes, but the discussion of those is beyond the scope of this thread.
As for the collapse of mainline Protestantism, the surprise is that the falloff didn’t happen sooner. The “contemporary liberal values” are not compatible with Scripture.
At the end of the day, why should I be a part of a church that stands for nothing that the Bible affirms? To say, “We oppose greed and lying”, but insist on affirming gay “marriage”, requires that one lie about God. To say you oppose war on the grounds that it involves killing innocent people–even if they aren’t targeted–and then support abortion, which involves targeting innocent people, then you’re a liar.
If you say you’re for more compassion, and then use that as a canard to insist–from the pulpit–that the government steal more money from people under the pretense of compassion, then you are a liar: you’re not compassionate; you are simply using the government to mask your greed, all under the pretense of Christianity. (In fact, religious conservatives are more theologically deep–not only in theory but in practice–as they give overwhelmingly more to charity than liberals.)
So even in the conservative world–where the Gospel gets clouded with prosperity peddlers and easy-believism–the footing is more solid than the Mainline Protestant world, which has chosen to jump off the cliff.