In yesterday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist, Ross Douthat, published “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” My first reaction upon reading the article was to launch a strident refutation. Other people of liberal faith already have. But as I thought more deeply about Mr. Douthat’s indictments, I found more truth and realized that my own reaction was just that–a reaction to some of the unfortunate realities that liberal religion has brought upon itself. I’m not in complete agreement with all of Douthat’s criticisms. His final premise that liberal churches, “often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism,” is painfully accurate. However, I think Douthat misses the mark on why this is. There are, at least, other possibilities to consider. The foundation of Douthat’s concern seems to consist of liberal reforms, primarily in the Episcopal church (although he makes the connection to other liberal faith communities). I’m just not sure when reform became a bad thing. The slower moving Catholic Church certainly hasn’t been winning any awards for it’s resistance to and failure to adapt to the modern world. When I read Douthat’s words that the Episcopal Church:
is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths…
I wanted to swell with pride. These are bad things? I think where Douthat misses the mark is somewhere in his concept of “traditional” religion, which he mentions at least twice. He seems to equate “traditional” with conservative and unchanging, but doesn’t ever define the word, except to invoke foundational practices mentioned by liberal theologian Gary Dorrien. As a person of liberal faith, I have come the understanding that “conservative religion” is an oxymoron. To be religious is to be generous, especially in the Christian context of Jesus’ teachings. There was nothing conservative, traditional, or status quo about what Jesus taught. Quite the contrary, he challenged the religious and political authorities and laws of the time repeatedly and stridently. Jesus taught generosity. Jesus challenged tradition.
So which “traditions” is Mr. Douthat holding up as more sound than the liberal reforms that have been the norm in societies and religions across the globe since human history has been recorded and preserved? I don’t think he meant the tradition that Jesus taught or that his immediate apostles followed, or their followers in the early centuries of Christianity, which was a time of oppression from without and debate from within. The earliest traditions of Christianity were to be counterculture. I imagine, from his own words, that Mr. Douthat means the traditions of the Catholic Church, which rejects the reformations that have been challenging the church for at least a millinium, which still dogmatically calls itself the one true Christian church. I wonder if he also means the fundamentalist interpretations of Jesus’ teachings that have infiltrated many corners of Christianity and subsequently dictate that there is only one path to the divine, through Jesus as lord and savior, all others being damned?
I find none of this “tradition” in Jesus’ teachings, in the early church, or in the liberal faith that I practice today.
Nonetheless, as Mr. Douthat accurately describes, liberal Christianity has moved uncomfortably close to a secular liberalism, and liberal faith communities are declining. But as any good social researcher knows, correlation does not equal causation. The claim in this article that the decline and imminent death of liberal Christianity is inherent in liberalism itself, is unfounded.
So what do liberal faith communities need to do to survive and thrive? I believe, like Mr. Douthat, that we need to offer religion again. Not conservative, traditional religion that is unchanging and uninviting, but the inclusive, radical religion that Jesus taught in his first sermon. A religion that binds together all people in a single garment of destiny. A religion that does not change the law, but fulfills it by holding it accountable, and by breaking the status quo. A religion that invites and creates social change, not because it is becoming more secular, but because change is human nature (thank God), and because social issues are moral issues first, not political.
We also need to reintroduce discipline into our faith practices. As liberal faith communities have progressed we have lost focus, not so much of our history and traditions, but of our discipline. Religion is ultimately grounded in practice. Practice requires discipline. Discipline creates disciples. Not blind followers, but informed, radically-prepared change agents.
This week, I promoted increased discipline in the faith lives of my Unitarian Universalist congregants using the example of the coming month of Ramadan and the five pillars of Islam. Even modern adherents of Islam practice the discipline required in the five pillars. I asked my congregation how they could introduce a regular, practiced, discipline of more reverence, more restraint, and more responsibility in their lives. None of this is counter to the ideas of religious liberalism. All of it will be necessary for us to get back on track with being successful reformers.
So, I absolutely agree with Ross Douthat when he says, “What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence,” we just see different paths toward that goal. His are grounded in an undefined tradition and conservancy, mine are grounded in an unabashed liberal spirit and generosity within a healthy practice of religious discipline.
There are many paths…