Why Liberal Christianity (Too Often) Sucks

Photo by Courtney Perry (All rights reserved)

Among the most interesting memes floating around the blogosphere this summer is the will-liberal-christianity-survive-or-will-it-die-or-is-there-a-great-liberal-awakening-happening? meme. For those keeping score at home, Ross Douthat published a book and then wrote a much ballyhooed column for the NYTimes.

Then Diana Butler Bass, who also has a new book out, pushed back at HuffPo.

Then Douthat responded.

Now Scot McKnight has weighed in.

For those keeping score at home, Douthat is an avowed conservative and religious (Catholic) traditionalist. Butler Bass is a liberal Anglican who has, until her latest book, been a cheerleader for the sustainability of mainline denominations. McKnight is a left-leaning evangelical who has no truck with nor commitment to any denomination.

Here’s where I think they each score points:

Douthat notes that DBB “stacks the deck” when she argues in book and blog that conservative Christianity is dwindling, too. Douthat says this because DBB is linking the oncoming demise of conservative Christianity to the shrinking numbers in conservative denominations, like the Southern Baptist Convention. Here, I think, Douthat is correct. As has been noted time-and-time-again recently, Americans are deeply suspicious of organized religion, and nothing says organized religion like a denomination. But there are lots of non-affiliated churches, both large and small, that escape the surveys of denominational Christianity. And almost all of these non-affiliated congregations are conservative. Very few — like Solomon’s Porch — are progressive.

DBB responds to Douthat with a question of her own:

The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?

She goes on to ask, though not quite propose, that liberal Christianity just might be the savior of Christianity in America. One of the arguments she makes — and one that I’m dubious of — is similar to what Brian McLaren said to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer: You have a head start on death, so you’ve got a head start on new life.

DBB is less sanguine about mainline Christianity than she used to be, which I think is right. I also agree with her that progressive theology has a foothold in certain parts of American Christianity, and it alone affords the possibility of a fourth great awakening.

Scot rightly points out that there are sociological and demographic factors that both DBB and Douthat fail to address: for one thing, liberal Christians tend to be more highly educated, more wealthy, and therefore have a lower birth rate. For another, the major themes of liberal Protestantism have been embraced by American culture as a whole. It reminds me of a trip I make to Scandinavia a few years ago — after being there, I wondered: If the government supplies everything that the (progressive) church offers, what need is there for the church?

On one thing, all three agree: Liberal Christianity is dying, at least in its current form.

So, now I’ll chime in. I think there are reasons that liberal Christianity often sucks, and I think that there are ways to remedy it.

1) Contrary to the Tea Party narrative, the US is the most “Christian” that it’s ever been: persons of Africa descent can sit at lunch counters with everyone else; women can vote; evangelists can stand on street corners and ply passersby with tracts. Liberal Protestantism is largely responsible for the freedoms we enjoy today, and we should trumpet that truth loudly. “If you love America” we should preach, “You should love the Congregationalists and Presbyterians and Anglicans and Unitarians and Quakers who built America.

2) Douthat basically equates “culturally and politically conservative” Christianity with “orthodox and theologically rigorous” Christianity. That’s the form of Christianity that’s growing, he states. The implication is that liberal Christianity isn’t producing vigorous theology. Progressives would argue vociferously, saying that they’ve got more theologians in more seminaries and universities than you can shake a stick at. Maybe they do, but no one gives a shit about the theology that’s coming out of progressive Protestantism.

By “no one,” I don’t mean me. I actually do care about and read progressive theology. But what progressive theologians have FAILED at is producing populist theology. In Scot’s post, he isn’t able to name a single populist progressive scholar on par with NT Wright.

A couple years ago, I was at a gathering of the “Top 40″ liberal theologians in America. At one point, in a public session, one of them took me to task and said, “Do you know what the emergent church is lacking? Queer theory!” And I replied, “Do you know what percent of the church in America think that ‘not enough queer theory’ is the problem? 0%. That’s how much. 0%.”

3) Finally, mainline Christianity is committing suicide, plain and simple. By gathering every summer at their national conventions and killing each other with friendly fire, they are rapidly precipitating their own demise. No one gives a shit about the survival of your denomination.

By “no one,” I don’t mean the people who go to those meetings and fight and argue and vote. Those people care. But they can’t see the forest for the trees. No one back at home cares.

No. One.

So the faster that progressive Protestants can give up on their denominations — like conservative Protestants did 20 years ago — the more likely they can turn things around before it’s too late.

  • http://www.everything.org Jeff Cook

    Tony – What would you suggest are 5 major themes or positions such Liberal Chrisitans can unite around moving forward that may have strong appeal to the culture at large? What can be announced as, “This is what we are all for! Come join us?”

  • Dan Hauge

    The question of populist level progressive theology is an interesting one. Couldn’t you argue that that’s what McLaren is doing? And Peter Rollins seems to be trying, although I will be fascinated to see just how much traction his full a/theistic program will really get in the larger culture (or how much, as I see, many Christians latch on to certain parts of his program and critique of church culture, but don’t seem to go as far as he actually goes). Scot says that Marcus Borg doesn’t fit this rubric–I’m not sure why.

    I see stuff like what Tony does here, or even many of Bo Sanders’ posts over on Homebrewed, as attempts to provide a more populist-accessible progressive theology. But I’m very dialed into that corner of the blogosphere, so I’m not sure just how much impact it has, or could have, on the broader culture.

    • Steve Wagner

      Interesting. I would also wonder why Marcus Borg does not fit this definition.

  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    You’re getting so close Tony. Your question about Scandanavia and what need is there for the church is just a couple steps away from what need is there for a church at all. No one cares about liberal theology because it is just liberalism with some Jesus language tacked onto it.

    • http://congremerging.wordpress.com/ Alex

      Lausten – You took the words right out of my mouth! When I see comments such as the one you highlighted, I always sense we’re really getting at the heart of what’s going here.

      While I commend what Tony has done in this post, I must criticize the last line; why end in that way? The conclusion doesn’t seem to fit the bulk of the piece. Or, at the very least, the conclusion feels unsupported and lacks direction. I suppose I agree with it in a way, but “giving up” on our denominations is obviously impractical in a completely literal sense, so what does that “giving up” look like in 2012 and beyond?

  • http://questorpastor.wordpress.com/ Dennis Sanders

    I think you were about to put in words what I’ve been noticing lately. I’m getting ready for a Bible Study in the fall and I like to look at both evangelical and liberal commentaries. I can find tons of commentaries from evangelicals- some good and some not so much that are geared towards mass audiences. I can’t find anything like that from liberal or mainline churches. What’s even more shocking is that I can find many evangelical commentaries online, but few if any are online, many aren’t even on Kindle!

    Most commentaries and other Bible books tend to be geared towards the academy or just pastors. There is nothing that helps the common person. Coming from the Restoration Movement (I’m part of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) there was a emphasis on the common person to really study the Bible. That is no longer common among Disciples today.

    For all their problems, at evangelicals at least want people to learn the Bible and therefore their theology is far more populist and accessible. Our problem is that we have made Bible Study and Theology the province of those who happen to have an MDiv degree AND a lot of the theology produced is about stuff is of little use to the person in the pew. I’m pretty sure most of the folk at my church don’t care about queer theory even as they welcome LBGT persons. Hell, I’m gay and I don’t care about queer theory.

    • Luke Allison

      This.

    • http://drewdowns.net Drew Downs

      I totally agree, Dennis. In my church (Episcopal), we have so much interest in Bible Study, but little action toward doing it. And when we do, it is split between those that want rigorous academic work without any faith in it and those that only want to speak about the faith–and get anxious when we even discuss scriptural interpretation.

    • Carolyn George

      The liberals Seminaries have worked hard to take the Scriptures out of people’s hands. Seriously. the liberal mainline church has so poo-pooed Scripture that they are no btter than the per-reformation church.

      • Jo Ann

        I graduated from a liberal seminary 9 years ago and I find this statement completely untrue. that is all

  • Dan Ra

    Why are liberal churches rapidly dying? Because they don’t preach and practice emotionally like evangelicals do. People want to believe in something powerful, grand, and cosmic. Liberal Christianity doesn’t do that at all.

    In other news, the massive non-white, population gets snuffed yet again, in these back-and-forth debates between white Christians.

    • Curtis

      There is plenty of progressive ideology in non-white populations. Economic justice, immigration laws, public schools, healthcare are among the many issues that non-whites and progressives have in common. In fact, a recent survey even found Latinos are more sympathetic with gay marriage than the general white population is.

      I think there is a huge amount of progressive Christianity going on, largely unnoticed by whites, when minority groups gather in church basements and fellowship halls. Bridging the gap between white progressives and non-white Christians I think the single most important task in giving progressive theology the numbers and recognition that it needs.

    • http://www.episcopaltwinfalls.org Deb S

      Dan: I believe you have a point in terms of the emotional disconnect and I would expand it: part of what people seek is a transformative encounter with a living Christ. I have found in my own Episcopal Church great fascination with the very things that feed the educated: intellectual openness, a spirit of inquiry and a willingness to live in the gray areas to be exactly what can become our idol. Someone profound once said that belonging to a community alone is not transformative. Few demands are made and so our churches become club-like: “The Rotary with Hymns”. The challenge for everyone to become mystics and to encounter a living Lord is something the fundamental churches do better than we do: a personal relationship with Jesus may be smirked at by high-minded intellectuals and the liberal church but without such a relationship, we fall back into a club mentality and our old selves remain the same.

      • susankay

        Yes — mysticism is available to everyone not just hermits on pillars — this gives emotional content without denigrating intellectual discussions

        • Jo Ann

          And mystics writing today have a decidedly progressive arc.

  • Curtis

    Remember that non-denominational conservative Protestants have not thrived all on their own. They were hijacked by fiscally conservative, libertarian political groups in the 1980s as a way to shoehorn neoconservative political ideologies into power. Much of the money fueling the growth of the conservative Protestant movement is coming in under the table from corporate business interests who hope they can kill government services and regulations by hiding behind a conservative social movement.

    If progressive Protestants want to follow the conservative Protestant model for growth, they’ll have to find a devil to sell themselves to first.

    Or maybe numeric growth on the scale of the conservative Protestant movement is not the goal progressives should be aiming for?

    • http://www.knightopia.com/blog Steve K.

      Very good points, Curtis.

    • http://drewdowns.net Drew Downs

      Amen, Curtis.

    • Annette C

      >>goggles<<
      Wow, how'd we manage to miss that boat? Where can we sign up to get some of that money to fuel our own growth?! Sheesh, maybe we could finally own a building after 15 years…

  • Kevin

    Good post. How much of the problem, do you think Tony, is that Liberal Christianity tends to be more amorphous in their picture of what “mature faith” looks like? A fundamentalist-evangelical would be very comfortable saying something like “asking Jesus into your heart,” “tithing 10%,” “going to church every Sunday,” and “reading your Bible everyday.” Progressive-moderate-whatevers seem to be more fluid about the daily discipline of faith practice like, “Yeah, you should consider sometime maybe possibly opening your Bible, giving some money to the church, or taking serious on what Jesus says, as long as it fits with our leftist agenda.” I say this as a progressive, but one who wants to discover a concretized, yet theologically rich way to teach my youth how to practice the daily discipline of faith.

    • Jo Ann

      Leftist agenda? Please. The difference your comment exemplifies is that conservatives live by rules, and progressives are willing to stay in ambiguity. Conservative: This is what you must do each day/hour. Progressive: Be open to the movement of the Spirit each day/hour. The conservative approach is easier, safer, more comfortable. But it misses the heart.

  • Wendy

    i was raised in the united methodist church in nj in the 70s/early 80s. when i became a “christian” (attending an evangelical megachurch), i became so critical of my little home church. they didn’t preach the Word enough . . . they were too relational and not evangelical enough . . . on and on. at 44, having been a christian (identifying as such) for almost 20 years, i’d give anything to go back to those classrooms with the flannel graphs, where they gave us copies of The Way and we acted out the gospel stories. never any big push to have us be born again . . . no worrying about bringing your friends to get them saved. all the grey-haired ladies making cookies. i’d go back to those days anytime. we even sang morning has broken in church! conservative christian culture did not exist then and i know i am all the better for that. i was wooed back to my roots, which were positive and not political.

  • Tracy

    What is “progressive theology” as in:

    “I also agree with her that progressive theology has a foothold in certain parts of American Christianity, and it alone affords the possibility of a fourth great awakening.”

    I’ve read your critical comments about Marcus Borg, for example, who some think of as a popular figure in “progressive theology,” so I’m betting that’s not the sort of theology you mean. If there is a consensus about what “progressive theology” is, can you define it?

  • Tracy

    I should have added, I don’t understand how “it” affords the possibility of a fourth great awakening if, as you say here, — nobody cares about what is coming out of progressive protestantism, ie, your example, queer theology.

    Maybe there is more than one “progressive theology?”

    • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com Howard Pepper

      Tracy, thanks for reminding us, and Tony, that “progressive” needs some kind of definition… not necessarily a thorough, academic one (tho that’s fine with me). I contribute to the “ProgressiveChristianity.org” website myself, and read varying theologies all the time. But I don’t know quite how to define it myself!

      That said, I do think the lack of theological knowledge all along the church spectrum (conserv. to liberal, or whatever) is one of the difficulties of communication on such a topic. By that I mean knowledge of systems of organizing spiritual concepts, not just knowledge of the Bible, though that is sadly minimal also. We don’t have much common language beyond a few generalities (also poorly defined, as in the case in point).

      But my sense of things is that “progressive” for a self-labeled Evangelical is quite different than the same for a Mainline or “liberal” person. Personally, I have come to be o.k. with the “progressive Christian” label only after preferring to be “spiritual but not religious” after about 27 adult years as an Evangelical. Only a good bit of looking around helped me realize that some true (to me) progressives, theologically, not just in style or emphasis were saying things I could align with… people like Crossan, Borg and a few others. The other input helping me get comfortable with a broad Christian label was personal study in the many hundreds of hours (literally) over several years. That allowed me to get a new (and I’m confident more realistic) sense of earliest Christianity (“Christian origins”). It doesn’t HAVE to take that much study, but the issues are indeed complex, even building on a lot of formal theological education as I was.

      From that context, I can’t see the spectrum of churches getting much “straightened out” and de-confused until we get a lot more education (and understanding) of the development of Christianity, its relation to emerging rabbinic Judaism, etc. It won’t come easily or quickly, and is not the full answer in itself, by ANY means, but it’s important!

  • Robert

    Im not sure anyone gives a sh*t about what theologians say, liberal or otherwise. Your conclusion that progressives will start growing once they leave their denominations is faulty. When your beliefs are no different than society in general, what need is there for church?

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick Oden

    Tony, I’d be curious about your conception of a progressive theology Great Awakening. The other great awakenings were very evangelistic, contrast messages. There was a very clear change in lifestyle that was being awakened.

    The messages were also very much geared towards the poor, both in style and in content. The poor needed a message of hope that went beyond society’s expectation and determinism.

    Liberation theology is about the poor, but as the old saying goes, they go to the poor but the poor go to Pentecostalism. And it is in those Pentecostal churches we see the biggest kinds of revivals among the poor. Progressive theology, with it’s lack of substantive hope, just doesn’t have a message.

    So, where’s the transformative message that could awaken the wider people? I’m genuinely curious about your comment there and think that unpacking that gets at the heart of the issue and the problem.

    Why would someone want to be part of a Christian community if it requires no changes and offers no transformation and, in general, tends to be defined by reactionary stances against their ideological foes. Both Fundamentalism and Liberal theologies are a dying breed because of this. Neither provide a substantive hope.

    I also want to caution against historical revisionism that makes all good things in society led by liberal theology while the conservatives were for keeping all the bad things. There really isn’t that clean of a line, and plentiful examples can be given on both sides that goes against that narrative. Indeed, the Quakers, non-White dominated denominations, Pentecostals simply do not fit hardly at all into the white liberal/conservative divide defined by early 20th century Social Gospel vs Fundamentalism battles. Caricaturization does not advance the discussion, even though it might make us feel like the beleaguered heroes in some great ideological struggle.

  • Frederick Schmidt

    Tony, thoughtful as always…and the kind of conversation that only Americans can have about the church. The issue here isn’t the survival of progressive or conservative Christianity. The issue is the survival of Protestantism, which — in its American form — has somehow forgotten how much common Christian history contributed to both movements in theology and the possibility of engagement with social issues. Are we really to suppose that evangelicalism is at the vanguard of thoughtful orthodoxy, or liberal protestantism is the architect of the Christian concern for justice? Anybody here remember Augustine or Athanasius — Francis or the Poor Clares? The issue is not will liberal, evangelical, or emerging Christianity survive. The issue is, “Will Protestantism survive” as anything other than as congregational and sectarian projects organized around a handful of affinities. This debate is like an argument over the deck chairs on the Titanic — until someone addresses the problem with the iceberg, it’s immaterial.

    http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Affinity-Church-Frederick-Schmidt-07-23-2012.html

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      I agree, Fred. I agree.

      • Evelyn

        Tony, Did you even read what Fred has to say or are you just too “excited” over Lillian Daniel’s and Rachel Held Evans’ passion to think rationally? Fred seems pretty f%$king bitter over the fact that his denomination is f@%king itself by allowing anyone who can co-opt enough people to twist values to suit their whims. It doesn’t stand for anything anymore and it is meaningless and sick. Perhaps you should just tell Fred that you’re sorry that he has to work in that environment.

        • Frederick Schmidt

          LOL….that’s one way of putting it, I suppose, Evelyn. But the problem is larger than denominational Protestantism…I’m sympathetic to Tony’s complaints about denominational Protestantism, but a congregational model / Affinity Church (as I’ve put it..loses notions of catholicity and, therefore, much of what Christianity has claimed to offer over its historicity: a universal message of redemption, for example. The other problem I don’t think that Tony’s solution recognizes is that, against the backdrop of Protestant history, it’s difficult to know how anyone can guarantee that congregational / emerging church formulas will manage to be anything but a microcosm of the challenges that denominational history has suffered.

  • Steve

    He said “feed my sheep”, not “grow your church.”

  • Mariann Budde

    Do you really think we have to dump everything?

  • Brian

    To borrow some language from the post, no one gives a shit about populist theologians. They have the same value as a fabricated boy band, zero lasting long term influence.

  • http://www.mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Just tell me one thing – What do you “progressives” have to offer besides the politically correct religion-of-the-day, conversation, a lot of talk about progress and good works, and coffee klatches? In other words, what do you have worth saving?

    • Steve

      @Daniel Mann

      You.

    • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

      More than talk actually. Do you have a problem with people doing good works? Do you have a problem with progress? I would have a problem with people who talk too much but show no action, but I don’t think you can say that is true in any general sense for liberal churches.

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  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    It could be that liberal Christianity is where Christianity goes before it dies. I joined a liberal church because I was looking for community, something many people claim is there primary reason for church. My first visit was to volunteer in the computer lab, only later did I find the sermons interesting. But after a while, after realizing that ANY theology is empty, just discussion about what others have said about morality or the possible symbolic meaning of things written long ago, I realized I was spending too much time studying history and philosophy and not enough helping people. And it wasn’t just me, the budget of our church, and every church for that matter is skewed toward sustaining itself and it’s own admin, not toward doing the work of loving and caring for the planet and each other.

    Liberal churches just make that more clear, because they aren’t trying to frighten people with hell, or discussing heaven much either. They don’t talk a lot about accepting Jesus into your heart, they talk about following Jesus as he heals the sick and brings the disenfranchised back into community. They aren’t discussing the end times or figuring out if prayer works or not. They know that giving a starving child food alleviates the starvation. You don’t really need the Bible once you get that figured out.

    Things are only going to “turn around” if the direction of that turning is made clear. The choices for a liberal right now are, stay in a church that has official doctrine that is sometimes counter to your beliefs, make up your own theology and talk about in a house church, or go do whatever the world is calling is you to do.

  • http://www.pats-dublin.org Stephen Smith

    Tony
    Agree completely with 1 and 3, but not 2. What about Macrus Borg and Rob Bell as progressive, populist voices? I hear of them even from people outside the Church–almost household names for anyone who even cares about faith issues. I serve a very lively and full Episcopal Church and almost no one who attends really cares about the survival of the denomination.

  • Brad C

    I think much of the problem still lies in the philosophical underpinning. Liberals and Conservative both tend to be foundationalist. The concept of an irreducible foundation is gone forever – so if you build on this concept in any trajectory it doesn’t work anymore. The shift has occurred and we aren’t going back. Both Liberals and Conservatives can try and maintain their foundational approach, but I think this is what is killing these institutions.

    No Truth anymore. From an American Radical Pragmatist position – it is only agreements that exist. No one has a privileged position based on their interpretation of pure empirical evidence. I think the emergent conversation has brought this to light and has inspired some significant theological thought that is non-foundational and pragmatic – we just need more. That hard part right now is all of our institutions have been built on a foundational approach and most Christians have been trained to think in these ways and it is very hard to let go!

    • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

      “No one has a privileged position based on their interpretation of pure empirical evidence.”
      That is supposed be the purpose of empirical evidence. Foundationalism assumes truths are self evident. Empirical evidence implies some checking has been done so the truth is irrefutable, at least as best as we humans can do. I don’t know what you mean by non-foundational theology. The direction you’re pointing sounds interesting, but unless you can provide some examples, I can’t follow it.

      • Brad C

        Foundationalism assumes truths are self evident. Empirical evidence implies some checking has been done so the truth is irrefutable, at least as best as we humans can do. I don’t know what you mean by non-foundational theology.
        I would suggest that nothing is self evident – everything is interpretation. I would also suggest that concept of Truth doesn’t exist – only cultural agreements. Mostly dispelled by thinkers like Wittgenstein, Quine, many continental thinkers as well as American pragmatist like Rorty.
        I think the development of foundational ideas can be traced to Descartes around the 1500’s and this also coincides with the protestant reformation, the development of print, the gradual reduction of Christian thought into logophilia. I think this is why liberals and conservatives are trapped in their assumptions of the logos.
        The emergent reformation is the hope. These conversations and thought leaders are leading us out of the reduction of God into the absolutes of foundationalism.

        • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

          Okay Brad, you’re just redefining terms and referring to philosophers as if that means everybody has the same understanding of those philosophies. Not follow-able.

          • Brad C

            Well this is a blog – not possible to unpack all these thoughts.

            Sounds like you are a hold over modernist or an Analytic – trying to support your propositions (Christian, atheist, etc) with empirical evidence never considering how weak of a position that puts you in. Human concepts are weak, Language is limited, sensory perception used to validate empirical evidence is even more limited!

            No such thing as objective truth – objects have reality that we observe with our limited perception and interpret with our limited conceptual ability and form propositions around using our limited language and if it is agreed upon by most people we call this “truth”.

            How did you come to acquire the vast array of “truth” that you possess? As Rorty points out you enter into these agreements as you are culturized. You enter the agreement of what is yellow – there is no such thing as “perfect yellow” that you compare reality to. You enter the broad cultural agreement and call this truth, and if you have enough empirical evidence and validation from others you feel comfortable enough to say this with “certainty”.

            Christians felt marginalized as the world shifted to foundationalism, empiricisim, rationalism, locical positivism, etc so they shifted Christian theology into this trajectory so they wouldn’t be sidelined for their ideas. As they entered into this trajectory – they became ashamed to believe in faith and that is where Christian thought is stuck. Christian thought has spend so much time defending ideas as “objective”, “certain” and “universal”, etc. they failed to pay attention to the reality that the concepts have been discarded.

            We are limited creatures, using limited concepts and language to form propositions about our reality – it is time to rebuild Christian thought not being ashamed of faith.

        • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com Howard Pepper

          Brad C,

          I’d reply after your 8-6, 4:51 reply to Lausten except that the format is out of reply opportunities. Just wanted to affirm and agree with what you’re saying.

          I would WISH that most serious (or even inquiring) Christians could follow this well, but they can’t…. It’s tough… when one uses some even semi-technical terms or concepts and a couple theorists are cited, most people (not saying necessarily you, Lausten) get lost and/or stop even trying to follow. I’m dealing with this myself in an ebook I’m about to wrap up — summarizing the big flow of ideas in a similar way to what you’ve done a mini version of here.

          The main aspect I try to emphasize, which I’m not seeing clearly brought out here by Tony or anyone, is the “foundational” (not exactly in the philosophical meaning) starting point. I refer to supernaturalism over against pure naturalism (i.e., its 5-senses, materialist/atheist form). That is a framing battle which can never be won and wastes nearly everyone’s energy.

          What is more helpful is searching for “in-between” systems of thought which can make better sense of all the “data” (religious AND scientific observations). Christian liberalism has stumbled around trying to do this, but largely without any good systematic approach or nuanced thinking. (I KNOW, not everyone wants to “do nuance”—cf. George “Dubya”.) There IS a big however (exception): Process Theology.

          A very important basic layout of the supernatural/natural problem and why/how Process is an effective mediating system is found in David Ray Griffin’s “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith.” (Just 120 or so pages.)

          For our current discussion, I believe Process holds a lot of promise, even though it’s been around a fair amount of time and so far not caught on widely or been understood and applied much. What it can/should do is:

          1. Help Evangelicals realize their system is absolutely (more ways than one) tied to supernaturalism, and Liberals realize that older (still existing) forms of Liberalism are either tied to naturalism or have a hopeless mix of the two systems – which doesn’t and can’t work;
          2. Provide a consistent, sensible (if one is willing to think just a bit deeper) system which considers seriously and respectfully both spiritual experiences/hopes and scientific exploration/theory. It is saying, “Stop trying to see God as intervening in physical history,” on the one hand, and “Stop trying to rule God out just because it is tough to measure what God may be doing,” on the other. Rather, Process has found meaningful, helpful ways to understand God as operating, in “personal” ways within natural processes – both “transcendent” and “imminent,” as classical theology has properly had it!

          • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

            Thanks for the book suggestions. I can preview it on Google books, but I’ll need some time. A quick glance tells me it is not being rigorous with its terms, but I could be wrong. I agree that Christianity needs some new ways of integrating with the modern world, but in the end, any acceptance of ideas that are based on no rational or reasonable explanation, are dangerous. If Christianity does not address that, then Westboro Baptist type churches will continue to exist.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    I believe you are correct, even if the language is uncouth. No one cares about denominations. And yet the ability of institutions to reassert themselves is an amazing thing. I am not a mainline guy. Never have been. But my bet is that some of these denominations will make it through and reconstruct themselves as Evangelicalism exhausts itself in its activism and inability to slow down long enough to reflect and bring seriously courageous academic work to its churches. We can’t always be going back to creedal statements that are 500 years old and think that these, in the forms in which they were devised, will address evolving questions, cultural paradigms and serious challenges. I find the Westminster Standards an example of such. We just cannot defend using it as the one expression of our faith as it stands. Too many things left unsaid that need to be said and too many things said in a way that does not answer how we frame questions. Trying to make it work is like watching a circus. All kinds of people taking all kinds of exceptions and making all kinds of caveats and preferring so many other ways of saying it – all at the same time as subscribing to it as true and demanding others do the same.

  • Susan Hawthorne

    Tony, What is your answer to your own good question, “If the government supplies everything that the (progressive) church offers, what need is there for the church?” Thanks! –Susan

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Simple: the gospel.

  • T. Webb

    It’s interesting your mentioned liberal Christianity. I just finished reading “Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen, and I was surprised how liberals 90 years ago were in many ways far ahead of where we, as the ‘post-emergent’ church are. I wonder if we shouldn’t give liberal Christianity more of a hearing and join liberal church. But I wonder if some of us post-emergents are so busy being liberal while trying to say we’re not liberal that we just don’t give a shit.

  • http://blog.rrchapman.us/ Bob Chapman

    What do you mean the conservative Protestants gave up on their denominations? They are just different denominations. A few leaders with a certain point of view call the shots. They are recognized by other leaders with that same point of view.

    What they gave up on was the formalized networks that they had: the networks to which they owed responsibility. Now it is informal networks that doesn’t have a way to hold the leadership responsible or want to (or else Mark Driscoll would have been taken to the woodshed by now). It is an oligarchy of the few.

    I’ll take the messiness of shared, mutual responsiblity. Thank you.

  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    I was simply taking umbrage with your statement “I would suggest that nothing is self evident – everything is interpretation”. It seemed you used the term “foundationalism”, then tried to say something else that did match what my understanding of the definition of that word. I did not intend to start a conversation about what absolute truth is or whether or not we can perceive it.

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  • John F. DeFelice

    I’ve seen this coming for a long time and in my own journey, I’ve fellow shipped at many kinds of churches, ranging from RCC to independent Pentecostal to my current calm Methodist church with many experiences in between . I guess that’s one of the driving forces on me becoming a church historian: looking for what went right and what went wrong. I’m new here so I will not venture too sophisticated opinion. But I’ve always seen liberal Christianity as emotionally distant, some what cerebral, often connecting with left wing politics and issues the way conservatives churches connect with right wing ones. And requiring not question a different set of dogmatic requirements. but where I have found satisfaction is service: repairing and painting homeless shelters, helping paint a food pantry, doing hands on things rather than one more Bible study. We seem to be connected there as a local congregation. I find the Christ I need there. Four years of Greek and I found much of the answer with a paint brush and ladder.

  • http://www.charlestonjourney.org Colin Kerr

    Just my two cents from last week. Pretty much in agreement with you Tony, though I might be looking more at the macro cause than the micro causes. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2012/07/how-capitalism-is-killing-liberal-christianity/

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  • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

    Brian, please don’t write the same comment on two posts, especially when it’s essentially a commercial.

  • John

    The real nature of the applied “conservative” power-and-control-seeking politics of Christian-ISM 101.
    Yes Christian-ISM IS an ideology, and thus, like all ideologies it is about power and control. Also bearing in mind that the “catholic” church pretends that it has a mandate or “great commision” to govern, and thus control ALL human beings on the planet.
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel13.html
    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/cruelty.html
    http://nas.ucdavis.edu/Forbes/CANNIBALS.html

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