Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat

Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat July 16, 2012

As a progressive Christian, I want to thank Ross Douthat for his reflective piece on the future of liberal Protestantism in this past weekend’s New York Times. Those of us who are committed to a robust, open-spirited, spiritually lively Christianity view with dismay the statistics about our movement’s future. We realize that the religious landscape in North America is changing rapidly: 30% of the population practice multiple spiritualities, 50% of mainstream Protestants claim mystical experiences, the fastest growing religious self-description is those who belong to no religious group, not to mention the growing religious pluralism which levels the playing field between all faith traditions.

Anyone with cable television and the internet can become a global citizen, sampling the religious and self-help messages of thousands of self-proclaimed prophets, gurus, spiritual leaders, evangelists, prosperity teachers, and end-time seers. Once in the center of North American religious life, the church is now at the margins, apparently diminishing in numbers, prestige, and impact. Despite their stridency, conservative churches are also stalled and beginning to decline in social and political impact.  Still, there is hope – the margins can become the frontiers if we rightly assess where we are and seek pathways toward transformation.  Progressive Christians cannot deny or evade our current situation, but must be open to transformation. Though Douthat is dismissive of John Shelby Spong’s vision that Christianity must change or die, change is precisely what is necessary, or in faithfulness to our Protestant parents, “the Reformation is always reforming.”  We need to constantly strive for what Brian McLaren calls “a new kind of Christianity,” speaking to our times, while calling our world forward to new possibilities.

Let me repeat, the margins can become our spiritual frontiers.

As Douthat notes, Progressive and liberal Christian have been played significant roles in many of the most important positive social changes of our times – and these cannot be lost – racial equality, equal rights for women, marriage equality (in some states) and affirmation of sexual diversity, workers’ rights, fair employment, and the social safety net. Many of these are the gifts of the social gospel movement, as Douthat notes, but still others have emerged in a time, Douthat critiques, as being characterized by vapid theology and institutional collapse. Though many liberal and progressive denominations are losing members, they are still at the forefront of movements toward marriage equality, immigration reform, universal health care, social justice, and concern for North American’s most vulnerable citizens. This is not, in contrast to Douthat’s view, merely a reflection of secularity but grounded in theological affirmations of diversity, justice, hospitality, and the image of God.  These are not deviations from authentic Christian faith but the heart of the message of the prophets, Jesus, and the early church. They reflect good news in action, grounded in seeing God’s presence and worth in the least of these.

Still, the reformation must continue.  Ross Douthat’s critique should be taken seriously, especially in relationship to theology and spirituality in progressive and liberal churches. While not all congregations are spiritually and theologically superficial, progressive and liberal churches need to take theology and spirituality more seriously in the pulpit and in the marketplace of ideas and spiritual practices. Pluralism requires more rather than less theological reflection.  We should not downplay theology or be flexible to the point of indifference on dogma (I would say vision). While Douthat is not entirely accurate in his assessment, times characterized by rapid change and pluralism, not to mention the impact of postmodernism in literature, culture, and religion, challenge us to give more emphasis on what we believe and what we practice as Christians.  The fact that there are many possible visions of truth and many orthodoxies in Christianity and the world of spiritual paths need not lead to relativism or shallow theological reflection.  Progressive churches need to emphasize solid, albeit limited, flexible, and non-authoritarian theologies and forms of lively worship and spirituality along with concerns for equality, justice, and earth-keeping.  My own approach to this is to weave three strands of religious practice into a dynamic tapestry of socially conscious faith:

  • Vision – a dynamic and fluid way of interpreting the events of our lives – for example, our understanding of God, God’s relationship to the world, human existence, suffering, faith and culture, authority, revelation, healing and sickness.
  • Promise – the affirmation that we can experience the faith we affirm, our vision of reality, in everyday life and amid life’s crises.
  • Practices – ways that enable us to more fully experience the wonder, beauty, and holiness of life along with God’s guidance, inspiration, and healing. Practices emerge from the dynamic divine-human call and response and may include silence, meditative prayer, healing touch, hospitality, gratitude, generosity, the use of visualizations and affirmations, devotional reading, and biblical study. Practices connect us with the energy of love – the vine and branches – that empowers and energizes our long-haul quests for justice and planetary well-being.

Progressive and liberal Christians have rightly claimed the relativity and finitude of our theological perspectives and practices.  Still, we can proclaim life changing truths, not as tests of faith, but pathways to personal and social transformation.  When we take theological reflection in church seriously and join it with spiritual practices and social concern, congregations will grow in vitality and impact and, quite possibly, in participation.

The margins can be the frontiers inspiring us to formulate robust theologies and insightful spiritual practices.  Among the many possible theologies for the progressive church, let me suggest a broad framework, grounded in a strong and robust theological vision (what Douthat calls dogma):

  • God is lovingly present in every moment of life.
  • God seeks beauty, complexity, and wholeness in each moment of life.
  • God is the most moved mover, shaping each creature and being shaped by God’s relationship with the world.
  • God truly experiences the world, and is shaped by our joys and sorrows.
  • God’s fidelity is revealed in God’s constantly changing relationships with the world.  Love is personal, intimate, and flexible to respond to our dreams and challenges.
  • Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, enables us to know God’s loving nature and serves as the model and energy for personal and social transformation.
  • Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, inspires us to healing, hospitality, creativity, and liberation.
  • Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, frees us to new creation and enables us to be God’s healing partners.
  • God supports our creativity and freedom in ways that are congruent with our well-being and the well-being of the planet.
  • God seeks abundant life for all creation and is accordingly not the source of disease or pestilence.
  • As the energy and intentionality of evolution, God is the source of diversity at every level of life – cultural, religious, sexual, ethnic, and individual. Diversity emerges from the interplay of divine and human creativity.
  • Our actions enable God to be more or less effective in achieving God’s vision of healing  and wholeness.
  • Our vocation is to be God’s partners in healing the world.
  • Our spiritual practices transform our lives and the larger world, placing it in greater alignment with God’s vision.
  • Living or dying, God is our companion and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

(These affirmations come from my book Emerging Christianity: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church, Parson’s Porch Books.)

While this theological framework is not exhaustive and is not representative of all Christians, including possibly Douthat, this is a robust, life-giving vision that provides liberal and progressive Christianity “a religious reason for its existence.”  (Douthat) While not “uncompromising” in a dogmatic sense – liberal and progressive Christianity look for common ground among diverse positions and are always open to growth – this vision is one that we can defend as we seek to be God’s companions in healing this good earth.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.


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