“Liberal” Christianity: Can it be saved?

In tomorrow’s New York Times (well, at least its online component), Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved will grace the op-ed pages. In it, Ross Douthat (a convert to Catholicism if wikipedia is to be believed) accuses the current brand mainstream Protestant Churches of advocating for progressive causes while ignoring their own dramatic drop in church membership. Ross describes the current Episcopal church as “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.” This paintbrush covers the Lutherans as well. In it, obviously, are thoughts that each of these things in the list is “wrong.” Indifference in dogma is bad as well as sexual liberation (feminine, queer, etc). And, if this list is to be believed, all of these things are a cornerstone of mainstream Protestant Churches and all are, to some degree, lead to the others. Liberal Christianity, in Ross’s eyes, has been hijacked and its roots lost. For Ross, the true cornerstone of Liberal Christianity is that these branches of faith believe that “faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion.” Ross doesn’t want this type of voice to disappear. For the mainstream churches who are “liberal,” Ross believes that their voice can only continue to play an important role in the nation if they switch where their identity of faith comes from. Ross calls for these churches to ground themselves in an apologetic defense of “historical,” “dogmatic” Christianity, which Ross believes is where the Social Gospel and Civil Rights movement drew its fuel and power.

I think it would be shocking to see any columnist who converted to Catholicism who would not make this same argument. The words “dogmatic” and “historical” are always loaded words and for a catholic op-ed writer, I read his argument to explictly point to a call for a return to Rome. Ross never says this but his use of the phrase, implying that dogmatic and historical Christianity contains the “true” and complete New Testament message, easily points to a Roman centric point of view. And, if you think about it, it should for him. Why belong to a tradition and not support it when you can? Of course Ross doesn’t admit to this bias and point of view. He fails to say that “historical Christianity” is a completely loaded term. In fact, it is just as loaded as the phrase “Liberal Christianity” as well.

I’ve argued before in this blog (and elsewhere) that the political term liberal does not fit when it comes to Christianity. Ross makes the mistake of using liberal correctly (in describing the theology of Bishop Spong) but misuses the term when he applies it to progressive causes. A liberal Christianity does not mean, as it is implied in Ross’s op-ed, that it is a Christianity that fails to take theology (whether historical or current) seriously. Liberal and progressive Christians spend quite a bit of time, energy, ink, and pixels highlighting and arguing their points of view. Many of the liberal Christian thinkers that are currently practicing today (and that I personally know) have always been heavily engaged with theology and thinking about their faith. They have dug into the New Testament, into their traditions, and discovered a form of Christianity that invigorates and gives them life. A serious reflection on Christianity is not limited to only a defense of the thoughts that have been generated in the past. Rather, a life-giving Christianity can very much be a serious, honest, and solid grasp of the present day. A liberal Christian’s theology is not automatically less serious than a more dogmatic one and any article that tries to make such an argument (or give off that impression) is going to fail to engage its opponent truthfully.

And I think that lack of engagement with liberal Christianity is what dooms Ross’s article even if I do agree with directions in his thinking. I think he misses when he characterizes the Episcopalian church, and its leadership, as being too flexible. He fails to point out that liturgy, not theology, is the cohesive core of the Episcopal church and that this focuses allows it to have a bishop like Spong and theologically dogmatic bishops that would make Ross look theologically liberal. What Ross is really failing to do is to contextualize himself – his own Roman Catholicism and admitt that his vision of what’s “historical” is the lens through which he judges the mainstream Protestant Churches. To say that the liberal theology that led to the development of the Social Gospel is the same kind of theology that led to the Civil Rights movement (which neo-orthodoxy helped fuel, in my opinion) is also a failure to contextualize the term “liberal” as well. Ross makes the mistake of removing the history from that phrase. He is left with an empty shell of a term that is then shoved with a political and contemporary identity that it cannot effectively contain.

What Ross fails to realize (and its embarrassing since he’s only a few years older than me) is the demographic reality of the churches that he is talking about. These churches are fueled by the baby boomers, a generation where independence and a running away from institutions was their defining characteristic. The churches that thrived (conservative Arminian theology centers) replaced institutions with their own while the mainstream Protestants lost members because their developing sense of identity threw around the word inclusive while failing to give their communities a reality that there is a cost to be a Christian. The churches lost members because they failed to tell people that there is a personal cost to living and being an active member of this church. These churches, as they grew older, thought that the word “inclusive” allowed people, ministers, and congregants to be passive in aspects of their faith because they saw faith as being private, personal, and isolated from the outside world. We failed to keep members because we failed to take seriously what it means to be evangelists and we left that to the inheritors of the circuit riders, the preaching farmers, and the other arminianism churches that exist now. “What Would Jesus Do” was a Social Gospel generated saying that now lives in non-mainstream Protestant churches. Ross’s lack of historical knowledge paints the mainstream Protestant churches as the holders of the Social Gospel tradition. They’re not. They are the holders of a tradition of changing demographics that embraced a privatization of faith in an institution that is, at its nature is public, communal, and relies on the existence of others. What Ross doesn’t realize is that his call for a dogmatic historical faith is really should be a call for authenticity (an authenticity that Rome, in my opinion, fails at as well). And any true call for authenticity is also going to be a call for individuals, communities, and churches to be places where there is a cost for belonging to them. That is why the Prosperity Gospel churches grew. That is why the non-denominational churches grew. But even they will collapse when their authentic expressions are reduced to personality cults and cultural hopes. The mainstream protestants churches will thrive once they put their feet down and draw lines in the sand. They need to admit where they stand. They might not grow large but they will thrive because the reality is that the millenials, those young folks who are willing to commit themselves to instutitions, they are looking for those places to call home. I have no idea if the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will ever get to that point but I do know that there are quite a few of us coming up the ranks that are gonna give it a try.

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