A Response to “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”

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…

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  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    While we’re a Liberal Religion, we’re no longer a Liberal Christian Religion. That’s an important difference. A good many UUs might think Christianity of any flavor: Liberal or Conservative, Orthodox or not, might best go.

    • Matt Tittle

      I don’t agree Bill. As Rev. Donald Harrington said at the consolidation sermon of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961, “We are not other than Christian, we are more than Christian.” By more, he did not mean better, just both/and. UUs will have to learn to re-embrace Christianity along with all of the other sources of our living tradition if we are to be successful. To just let it “go” is not consistent with who we say we are. Yes, the more rigid, conservative, or absolutist practices of many religions (and such expressions of atheism, agnosticism, etc.) should be let go, but as I bring out in my essay, these are not the original message of Christianity.

  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    I don’t know Matt. It’s an awfully Humanist bunch in Chicago. They bristle at the notion they might be Christians. We’ve left it and I see now going back. Better we pull the humanist aspects from the other great religions and work on building a distinct an universal Humanism. Not too many UUs keen on looking beyond our borders though either (or just in the backhard in the case of Chicago with 300 Mosques plus Temples and Churches of all the great Religions). For better or worse, UUs have hooked their fate to secular politics and we may well go the way of today’s Progressivism if we can’t sever that link.

  • Tom


    It is important to note that major critics of liberal religion, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Barth and the Niebuhrs, have focussed on the complaint that liberal religion isn’t countercultural enough. Episcopalians accept anything that is fashionable. They believe everything they read in the New York Times. They believe in “the gospel of NPR.” While I don’t agree with much the Catholic leadership has to say, I have to admire their willingness to stand up for unfashionable opinions.

    The result of the blandness and conformity of liberal religion is that it really only appeals to people with some emotional connection to Christian Fundamentalism. That’s why UU churches in places like Tulsa are our fastest growing. But for people like me, whose parents were both Unitarian college professors, just agreeing with the New York Times isn’t very exciting or interesting. After all, I can save a step by spending my Sunday mornings just reading the Times. I don’t need some guy in a stole to sing its praises.

  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    I do think this is a badly needed discussion though. Far more important than what happened at GA.

  • Sarah Nicklaus

    One of the main reasons I was attracted to the UU church was that I could keep the Christian traditions that continue to help guide my path. My best friends within my UU community are Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, and Humanist. I would find it extremely disappointed if Christianity was no longer acceptable. I find that one of the most important things that Unitarian Universalism offers is inclusion. We cannot call ourselves inclusive, if we take out Christianity. I agree that we are more than Christian, and it keeps me coming back week after week. Great post, Matt!

  • Dave Dawson

    Matt, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I have been deeply troubled for some time now with what seems to be “Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism.” And yet, I don’t want to be anywhere else in terms of a denominational connection. I was raised in fundamentalist Christianity and it is indelibly stamped deep in my roots. For me the knowable God is possible through faith and action. But sometimes this seemingly endless battle that I find within UUism is incredibly tiring. It feels like a nursery school of frustrated, angry people and, yes, I too am frustrated and angry at times. But I do believe I am finding my way through it all and doing it as a UU Panentheist. And yes, I will use God talk regularly because as Forrest Church said, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” It is time that we stop insisting that there is “only one way” to move forward and it just so happens to be the way “I see it.” I find strength in Unitarian Universalism when I embrace its roots as well as the plant that is growing as a result of the roots beneath it.
    Thanks again for the breadth of your vision.

  • http://pfarrerstreccius.blogspot.com Bill Baar

    I think you all might be missing the point. Liberal Christianity is in trouble. UUism is in trouble. The UU solution is not “…. to learn to re-embrace Christianity along with all of the other sources of our living tradition…” In fact my experience with UUs is they’re not keen on embrassing much from our past. We’re an ahistorical bunch. The past shackles us, and offers few solutions. I disagree with that, but that’s very much our habit. What we’ve shared with Liberal Christianity is too much immersion in the United States Progressive Politics to such an extent we’ve lost all Universal relevancey. We’ve become a sort of MSNBC of the Religous world.

  • Bryan D

    When I read and hear discussions about liberal religion, I always find myself longing for some historical facts to balance all the opinions. There are several reasons why a return to Christianity or more-than-Christianity is unlikely to make the UU community stronger for the people who are here now or more attractive to the people who check it out. To begin, Jesus wasn’t a Christian and he wasn’t preaching Christianity (I’m sure that most of the people reading this are aware that his name wasn’t Jesus either). Whether or not an actual historical person spoke some or most of the words that are attributed to Jesus in the gospels, there’s no question that the person described in the Bible is a Jew speaking to other Jews about the religion defined in the Torah and known today as Judaism. The religion that we call Christianity was invented and reinvented many times, starting with Paul and the authors of the gospel books and continuing through the invention of the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, and many other variations that most people have never heard of. All of these denominations, sects, cults, or whatever you want to call them have claimed to teach the true meaning of the words of Jesus, even though most Biblical scholars agree that the words in the Bible are not an accurate record of anything. Since no other book from that time is believed to be accurate in the modern sense, why would the Bible be different? More to the point, what is the value of all this speculation for the present UU community?

    For a century or more, there was a strong consensus in the Unitarian community that collective religion was a bad idea. I joined that community in 1968 because I was inspired by the idea of a community that acknowledged the importance of what we call religious or spiritual without attempting to impose a collective religion. These days, many UU ministers, theologians, and lay leaders have decided that a collective religion is exactly what we need. The only reason that people like me still have freedom of personal belief is that they can’t agree on what that collective religion should be.

    I would hope that most of our communities try to practice freedom of individual belief, which would of course include people who identify as Christian. Why Christianity is problematic for many UUs is simply because Christian theology teaches that Christians experience eternity in heaven and non-Christians experience eternity in hell. That kind of thinking doesn’t work well in a community that is striving to include a broad range of spirituality and religious beliefs.

    I don’t have a simple answer to the tensions of a religious/spiritual community that includes theists, atheists, agnostics, and don’t-cares. Enforced secular humanism didn’t succeed and I’m confident that enforced collective religion won’t either. I personally think we should abandon the coercion route, accept that people find meaning in many different ways, and see what develops.

    • http://ensopeace.blogspot.com Ed Proulx

      I am researching this person’s voice for a separate project and came across this conversation.

      Here’s the thing, though. Saved from what? Or is that saved from whom? What a control-freak question – beginning the discussion with the underlying question “Is liberal religion at risk?” a pocketed and foregone conclusion.

      Ah, declining attendance means that liberal religion will go away because this is America and in America real value is measured by how much of a product is consumed. That’s a ludic fallacy embedded into the discussion.

      If you ask me, engaging this shell-game of a dialogue will not work out in our own best interest. Look, right here in this blog, we’re arguing amongst ourselves about definition, path and motivation. That’s THEIR game, not ours. Ours is living our religion, not shaping it like a clay pot – it shapes us! We can’t win because we don’t even know how to play – and we shouldn’t know how to play.

      They can’t win if they’re the only ones playing the game. Let’s go back to living our faith rather than talking about it. That is really all that matters. Build it, and they will come. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell us some 2,000 years ago when he simplified the commandments down to two: Love God (respect the mystery) and love each other (be nice). We added all the accessories.