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:

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What Crisis in Christianity?!? Andrew Sullivan Reax

The editor of a major newsweekly once told me that if he wanted to double the sales of the magazine for a week, he just had to put Jesus, Mary, or angels on the cover. Newsweek, even after the ousting of its staunchly Episcopalian editor, Jon Meacham, still plays this game more than other newsweeklies. So it was no surprise that the latest acquisition by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, the vaguely Catholic Andrew Sullivan, penned the Holy Week cover story on Jesus and the crisis in Christianity.

According to Sullivan, who often publicly quarrels with his own church, the crisis in Christianity is that the church has become too political, thus corrupting the central message of Jesus. Get Jesus back into your heart, and screw the church. That’s Sully’s thesis.

Many of the bloggers I read disagree. Here’s a round-up of them, including a riposte from Sullivan himself:

Father Robert Barron at RealClearReligion:

The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience.

Diana Butler Bass at HuffPo:

What Sullivan apparently does not know is that some Christians, from pews, pulpits, and classrooms are asking the right questions–and are working toward a spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity. These new questioners make up what I call America’s “exile” faith communities–the creative but often ignored Christians found in liberal mainline churches, emergent evangelical gatherings, and progressive Catholic circles. With growing awareness over the last two decades, they have been engaging this crisis, listening to the grassroots questions of American religious life, and constructing new patterns and practices of faith. For them, the questions are becoming clear–and some answers are emerging.

Paul Pastor at Out of Ur:

There once was a writer named Sullivan
who wanted to give Christ a mulligan,
so he said “people, please—ditch the Church so diseased,
and remember what Jesus taught us again!”

Scott Paeth at Against the Stream:

To be Christian, he seems to be arguing, means to reject the use of power, and he responds to a commentator who notes that we’re always exercising power by saying “well: duh,” and referring back to the fall. But I think this sells the question of power short. Power is not simply the power of coercion, which is how Sullivan wants to use it, and thus not simply a product of the fall, rather, power is constitutive of our very being. To exist is to exercise power, not simply because of the fall, but because that’s what existence means.

In this respect, I think that Sullivan has perhaps drunk a bit too deeply from the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, and not deeply enough from the work of Paul Tillich.

And, at Patrol, all the bases are covered:

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