Mainline Conviction

Roger Olson blogged today about a New York Times article about mainline Protestantism in the United States as a major historic force which has been neglected in recent years in favor of a focus on Evangelicalism and other vibrant newcomers. He offers a yes-and-no response to the question of the current vitality of mainline Protestantism. For instance, he writes:

First, by embracing inclusivism and pluralism old-line Protestantism convinced many of its own people and outsiders looking in that it lacked conviction—except perhaps with regard to “peace and justice” issues. But you can get those in many secular organizations. Why commit to a church for that alone?

Committing to a church has rarely been for one reason alone. Bad music has driven people away even from churches with good preaching – and vice versa. So the fact that it is not only churches which take a stand on peace and justice issues is scarcely relevant.

But I find troubling the notion that inclusivism and pluralism (normally understood as different options, but I won’t get into that now) are thought to be contrary to conviction. Of course, Evangelicals have long asserted that to be the case. But when Paul the apostle advocated the inclusion of non-Jews in the people of God, without even having to adopt all the requirements specified in Scripture in order to do so, that was surely an example of inclusiveness with conviction.

Being inclusive takes courage. So does standing with the downtrodden. So does standing up to spiritual bullying of the sort that Evangelicalism is infamous for, in which measured thought and nuance are treated as lack of conviction, and it is those who are most adamant that they are correct who are followed, rather than those who are seen to be right after a careful investigation of the evidence.

While Olsen is in principle right to emphasize that simply jumping on cultural bandwagons is spiritually unhealthy, the notion that this characterizes the mainline more than the conservatives is simply false. The emphasis on confidence rather than truth, the definition of belief as accepting without evidence, the sometimes egotistical focus on individual salvation – all of these are elements that reflect recent cultural developments rather than a historic stance. And so, if there is a danger, it is not one that any form of Christianity has sidestepped. And if the mainline has something in its favor, it is the honest recognition that simply rejecting a few select cultural trends does not make one truly countercultural, nor is rejecting the new always the right or the most truly Christian option.

Olsen seems to be aware of this when, ironically, he next criticizes the mainline for rejecting that which Americans desire, the personal and experiential. Olsen also regards Hedstrom’s acknowledgement of the debt of this emphasis to liberal Christianity “ludicrous.” It is true that many Evangelicals are unaware of how much the focus on individual decision owes to Bultmann and others who interpreted their Christian faith in light of existentialism. But his lack of awareness of the contribution of liberal Christianity even to his own tradition, albeit indirectly, does not make that historical reality “ludicrous.” A focus on the personal and mystical as opposed to the doctrinal and dogmatic has often characterized liberal Christianity.

I consider it an honor and a privilege to be part of the mainline tradition, with its courageous convictions about social justice, its openness to innovation in both that area and in theology, and its focus on the individual’s personal experience of God. At what seems to be a decisive juncture in the development of religion in the modern era, I am happy to be part of a tradition which is well poised to know that there are no simple solutions or clear-cut answers about which direction to head next, and that the solution is neither to simply follow popular trends or to keep particular cultural superficialities at bay. It seems to me ironic that a conservative Evangelical would criticize another religious tradition both for being too traditional and for being too ready to modernize. Conservative Evangelicalism has done both, although not always willingly, and rarely acknowledging the process, much to their detriment.

  • John Hawthorne

    James: I’ve been playing with a theory that evangelicalism is on the cusp of the movement identity issues that confronted the mainlines 30 years ago. Disaffection of youth, value of hard tradition over exploration, substitution of cultural Christianity (conservative rather than liberal) for vital faith. What’s your take on this?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      That sounds about right, but I can’t claim to have more than anecdotal evidence to support it. And I suspect that it is in fact a process which is not limited to recent decades.

  • Allan Bevere

    “I consider it an honor and a privilege to be part of the mainline tradition, with its courageous convictions about social justice, its openness to innovation in both that area and in theology, and its focus on the individual’s personal experience of God. At what seems to be a decisive juncture in the development of religion in the modern era, I am happy to be part of a tradition which is well poised to know that there are no simple solutions or clear-cut answers about which direction to head next, and that the solution is neither to simply follow popular trends or to keep particular cultural superficialities at bay.”

    James, as one who has spent thirty years in mainline Protestantism, you are too optimistic. Mainline Protestants are so up to their arm pits in status quo modernism, they have no clue how to offer something of an alternative to the beach on the weekend. That we are in decline is of no surprise to me. We are so dull and boring, it is no wonder that no one is interested in us.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Speak for yourself! :-) But I think that being comfortable with the fact that sometimes we will be boring, and sometimes we will be cutting edge, and sometimes we will be neither is healthy. But I agree that we are as confused as everyone else about what to offer. I think a key element is that it used to make sense to gather people and speak to them in a single gathering place as a means of communication, and that is obsolete. And so we need to explore flipping the church just as many of us have been flipping the classroom. Perhaps we can watch the sermon at home on YouTube, and on Sunday gather to feed the hungry, for instance?

  • tanyam

    I sometimes wonder why we let things like this get under our skin. If we flinch every time a fundamentalist or evangelical calls us — heretical, boring, beside the point, clueless — we’ll do a lot of flinching. I recommend mainline, progressive — whatever we call ourselves — Christians, just get on with practicing our faith.
    I’d also not consider it “an honor and a privilege” to be what I am. But maybe I’m misunderstanding. Whenever I’m in a group and we cheer when “our kind of Christian” is celebrated, it feels quite odd to me.. Is “Team Spirit” really what we need to cultivate?
    There is no way to talk about “mainline Protestantism” in such a generic way anyway. It ranges from the sedate Episcopalianism of the elder George Bush Sr., to Glide Memorial Chapel.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for this. It seemed to me appropriate to emphasize in response to Olsen’s negativity that there are rich and deep resources in the mainline tradition. But I would hate for it to become simply a team spirit, cheering sort of thing!

  • Jason Douglas Greene

    I live in the world of the evangelical and the mainliner. I have a foot in each. Why can’t we be both?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      One can – and it is particularly easy in American Baptist Churches! :-)

  • Lothat

    Hey James, thanks for this interesting response to Dr. Olson’s post.

    I’ve difficulty situating myself on the theological spectrum.

    I completely reject Biblical inerrancy and view Scripture as the thoughts of men about God and their description of their experience of the divine, but NOT as a book which has been supernaturally inspired in a way that, say, the Talmud have not been.

    I’m also angry on these numerous evangelicals who focus all their attention on the imaginary sin of homosexuality and abortion while callously ignoring problems of social justice.

    Yet, I also believe in the existence of supernatural malevolent beings and I am completely open to the reality of miracles. To me, it isn’t implausible that the grave of Jesus was really empty.
    And I am also pro-life, though I would not want to enforce this through the law.

    So James, how would you situate me on the religious spectrum?

    I’ve created a brand-new blog where I’m going to explore all my ideas and hope I’ll receive interesting, constuctive criticism in the future.

    Regards.

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Somewhere in between the extremes! :-)


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