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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3 responses to “Liberal Christianity and its discontents”

  1. Thanks for posting Dr Tait. I generally agree with your sentiments. But i actually wonder if the article misses at least part of the problem in the episcopal church and in many mainline denoms – their liturgy.

    As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

    Douthat sees the problem at the level of dogma while glossing the issue of liturgy. Though I am not up to date on the episcopal liturgy and have very little experience with it, i do know from my episcopalian friends at Candler that it's not exactly flexible or progressive. I have a friend who has written various modern versions of songs like the Magnificat and the Sanctus who realizes that he'll likely not be able to use them once he's in his parish.

    Point being, many of the more conservative evangelical denoms that are seeing growth are much more willing to adjust and change the actual worship service (many still using the forms in the BCP). I believe that worship is formation and that in many ways, the medium is the message. So if church = robes (not present anywhere else in culture other than colleges and judges), music from an organ (again, not really present anywhere else), and heavy "insider" language, then it seems it matters very little what's said from the pulpit, the message has already been presented by the setting, the dress, and the formality of the occasion. I would also say that this presents an understanding of God that is also stuck in the past and perhaps is not living and active as many progressives would like to argue (UCC – God is still speaking).

    Just some thoughts. I've been thinking a lot about liturgy and formation recently.

    **as a caveat, i'm not arguing that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I just question why certain liturgical elements have been "baptized" by the church. If we're going to believe in a God that continues to reveal Godself, then it seems that the Christian community most continually consider how they are presenting this God. And i would argue that this happens first at the level of formation in the worship service and secondly at the level of words during a sermon.

  2. Trent, liturgy varies widely within the Episcopal Church. And it's certainly true that there's a kind of inflexible "we've always done it this way" approach to liturgy that definitely hurts Episcopal parishes. Some of the liberal parishes that are the most active and vibrant (using that term without judging the spiritual value of what they are doing either way, but just describing the level of energy and commitment they manifest) are those that are willing to experiment with liturgy.

    At the same time, Episcopalians are basically a "niche church" for folks who want liturgy that connects them with the past combined with a relatively flexible approach to theology. (By "relatively flexible" I mean that even conservative Episcopalians are generally moderates compared to other conservative Christians–so how flexible we are varies widely from one diocese and parish to another, but compared to other churches we tend to be doctrinally more flexible and liturgically more traditional, and most folks who join us are looking for that).

    Following Stark and Finke's argument, one could argue in fact that liturgical "high tension" is one of the things that Episcopalians need to cultivate. That isn't the same thing as simple conservatism (as I argued, I don't think that's true for doctrine either). But it might include things like daily celebration of Morning and Evening Prayer, an emphasis on the high holy days, etc. The parish where I was confirmed in North Carolina bears out your argument in a lot of ways, because it was liturgically relatively "contemporary" compared to some (we used guitars, which are anathema in some parishes). Yet we were also deeply traditional–the priest was trained in an Anglo-Catholic seminary and there was lots of incense, worship twice a day most weekdays, and an intense celebration of Holy Week that left one drained and exhilarated.

    In the Diocese of Northern Indiana, which is fairly evangelical, there's a certain tendency toward just imitating what more "low-church" evangelical churches do–sing praise songs, use guitars, etc. I think that's a bad path to go down both in terms of intrinsic value and in terms of a pragmatic approach to church growth. We will always do that sort of thing worse than the churches that are already doing it. But I don't think that's what you're advocating.

    But I think the bottom line is that Stark and Finke's concept of "high" versus "low" tension is correct whether you apply it to worship or to doctrine. Would you agree, or do you think they're full of it?

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