Ross Douthat Asks: Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?

Ross Douthat wrote an interesting article for The New York Times yesterday called, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” in which he criticized the sort of liberal Christianity epitomized by Bishop Spong and the Episcopal Church. It’s definitely worth reading. Douthat is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, in which he makes a similar argument: Everything was much better in the 50s, but the 60s ruined everything (especially if you are powerful white male). His article from yesterday proceeds along the same lines. Douthat writes:

“…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.

It’s not that I disagree with all that Douthat says, but I’d like to change the accent. He critiques Episcopalians saying their theology is bad – exhibit A: they are getting bad results. Then he critiques the theology of the happiologists like Osteen and Creflo Dollar – exhibit A: they are getting great results. What this should teach us is that results alone are an unreliable metric. What we should be talking about if faithfulness. What does faithfulness look like?

Here’s where Douthat’s argument falls down: Shrinking attendance are not a good enough reason to reject liberalism. That’s the sort of pragmatism which led to liberalism in the fist place. If results are the key metric, then the faithfulness of someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer is made unintelligible. Bonhoeffer got terrible results (at least in the short run). But I think he is universally revered as a righteous person.

The conversation about faithfulness must always transcend results. Especially in North American society, faithfulness (def: following in the ways of Jesus, confessing him as the world’s true Lord, pursuing life among those who follow his teachings and live in his life), will often produce confusing results. The way of Jesus was, after all, called a narrow way. The gospel can be quite uncompromising, and this will certainly produce some shrinkage – sometimes shrinkage which can last for generations and centuries. Moreover, not all growth is evidence of faithfulness. The key is to focus on faithfulness no matter the results.

In the main, I want to affirm Douthat’s theological critique of liberalism and of the prosperity gospel folks. The key question, however, is not whether liberal Christian churches are growing or shrinking, but are they being faithful. To that question, I don’t think his one size fits all dismissal holds true. The question of faithfulness must always be asked with great humility, and the confession that we don’t always know or understand what God is doing at a given time, nor do we have the right to judge others relationship to God.

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  • Liberal Christianity, and the Episcopal Church in particular, can be saved if clergy get off their high horses and make some attempt to give us, the laity, what we want. Successful conservative-evangelical megachurches are unabashedly consumerist. They go door to door, send out surveys, and do what they can to find out what potential members want and provide it.

    By contrast the policy of the Episcopal Church has been to push garbage that we don’t want on us in order to promote what priests think of as “faithfulness.” Want fancy Elizabethan language? No, no, no—that’s escapist. Sick of hearing endless politically correct harangues in sermons? Sorry, we’re going to push and push and push this on you without ceasing because we enlightened priests are being “faithful.” Want fancy liturgy? No, no, no: every grain of incense is bread from the mouths of the poor.

    Why should we, the laity, put up with this? If they Church doesn’t give us what we want, why should we bother?

    If clergy are serious about saving the church—which I doubt—they need to take a dose of real humility. Most Episcopalians are as educated as clergy and do not look to them for intellectual or moral leadership. They have nothing of interest to say to us, nothing to teach us. We look to them to give us what we want—which they are not doing. If the Church doesn’t give us what we want there is no reason whatsoever why we should support it. Isn’t that obvious?