Liberal Christianity and its discontents

Liberal Christianity and its discontents July 16, 2012

Ross Douthat published an article this past weekend in the NYT called “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” It’s gotten a lot of response, including this one by Diana Butler Bass arguing that all of Christianity is in the same boat and liberals are just feeling the decline first, and this one by Rachel Held Evans pleading for detente between liberals and conservatives and more room for those “stuck in the middle.”

A specific criticism about Douthat’s piece: He makes the claim that the Episcopal  Church is experimenting with “blending religions.” Now I’m not willing to say that “blending religions” is necessarily bad. Given the difficulties involved in defining religion in the first place, I think that would be a very rash claim. Arguably Christians who incorporated elements of Platonism and Aristotelianism into Christian thought were “blending religions,” and I’m not one of the people who thinks that this was entirely bad. I think there’s  a lot of work to be done by Christians in appropriating the insights of Buddhism, for instance.

But in fact the three incidents noted in the article to which Douthat links (which are the three everyone notes, a bit suspicious if this is really the sort of thing that is happening all over the Episcopal Church) have one obvious thing in common: in all three cases the “blending” was clearly rejected by the Episcopal Church, in a show of the kind of disciplinary authority that people think the Episcopal Church never exercises.

The married clergy couple who wrote prayers to pagan deities (including an explicit rejection of Ezekiel’s condemnation of mother-goddess worship) were disciplined and eventually left the priesthood.

The priest who converted to Islam and attempted to continue as an Episcopal priest was disciplined by her bishop, and again, ceased to function as a priest.

The bishop-elect in Northern Michigan who had received “lay ordination” as a Buddhist was not confirmed and thus was never consecrated as bishop. (The election of a bishop has to be confirmed by at least a majority of the dioceses in the Episcopal Church.) This appears (rightly) to have been based less on the mere fact of his  Buddhist ties than on the fact that he clearly rejected some central  Christian teachings  (such as human sinfulness and the need for redemption by Jesus).

It frustrates me endlessly that conservative commentators use these three stories to prove the very point that they refute: that the Episcopal Church has no commitment to orthodox Christianity and no willingness to exercise discipline. I confess to being rather surprised by the outcome of these incidents, particularly the one involving the “Buddhist bishop.” But in all three cases the Episcopal  Church did what folks like Douthat think it can’t do.

Now to the larger  point: I see no indication that liberal Christianity is dying. It is certainly dwindling, but it will always have a “market share.” Bass may be right that liberalism is  suffering from trends that affect everyone, but I think she’s wrong that liberalism just happened to start feeling the effects first. Douthat is right in the key claim that if a church simply copies the world, it becomes irrelevant. This point has been made most effectively by Stark and Finke in their book Acts of Faith, which argues that churches that stand in fairly high “tension” with the surrounding culture (and make serious demands of their members) tend to grow.

But in fact, as this Unitarian minister points out,  it’s quite possible to have a kind of liberalism that doesn’t just copy secular culture. When I read Acts of Faith, which falls into the trap of  identifying “high-tension” churches with conservative ones and “low-tension” with liberal ones, I asked myself, “But wouldn’t a liberal church in, say, East Tennessee be in higher tension with its culture than a conservative, Southern Baptist one? Wouldn’t it require more commitment to belong to a pro-gay church in a small  Southern town than to belong to a fundamentalist one?”

The bigger question, of course, is whether growth is really the important thing. Stark and Finke are sociologists, and naturally approach things that way. But both Stark himself and many who use his work seem to  identify numerical growth with spiritual validity. Douthat seems to be doing that in his op-ed piece.

The paradox is that if Stark and Finke are right, then caring about growth and about “attracting people” is self-defeating. The trap into which liberalism has fallen (and it’s becoming increasingly clear, as the “Millennials” come of age, that the megachurch evangelicalism in which they grew up fell into the same trap) is precisely the trap of starting out with the question “how can we grow” instead of the only question worth asking: “what is true”?

From a sociological point of view, what you think is true may matter less than that you believe it (at least in terms of the growth/vibrancy of your movement). But of course, to believe anything at all is to believe that what you believe (and not merely that you believe it) is important. In other words, sociology can’t be allowed to have the last word–and Stark and Finke’s sociological work itself demonstrates this fact!

It’s becoming increasingly clear in our culture, in secular as well as religious arenas, that the stereotypical “everything is OK” version of liberal tolerance is not only internally incoherent but practically unworkable. In many ways I’m worried by the rise of “liberal  intolerance,” because combined with the existing conservative intolerance it’s creating a rather toxic environment in American society.  But in certain ways it’s a good sign.
As Chesterton said a century ago:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

If there is one thing clear from the sociological  work of Stark and Finke and the statistical trends to which Douthat refers, it is that these attempts to avoid talking about what is good have failed. It would be tragic if this admirable  body of sociological work became itself (in the hands of triumphant conservatives) an attempt to avoid talking about what is good. Let us not substitute talk of statistical trends and growth patterns and even “high-tension” churches for talk of what is good.

Let us base our hopes for our churches on one thing alone: on our faltering and ridiculous attempts to be faithful to Jesus, or rather in the myriad ways in which Jesus uses  our faltering and sinful communities in order to be faithful to us and through us to the whole world.

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