Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved? July 15, 2012

I shared Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times piece, asking whether Liberal Christianity can be saved, on Facebook, and it has generated quite a lot of response. Let me start by sharing some thoughts of my own, and then share a number of links to blog posts and articles elsewhere that relate to this topic.

First, it seems to me far from a given that conservative Christianity by definition will flourish. It is not as though it is only theologically liberal or socially progressive churches that have seen declines. Hence the title of this post, asking whether there is anything that would lead one to believe that conservatism gives churches more staying power. Many of the dwindling and disappearing institutional churches around Europe are profoundly conservative, and in the case of institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, one has to reckon with the reality that large numbers of adherents maintain a cultural and religious connection with that church, but feel free to individually disagree with its teachings. I hope that in the comments here we’ll see some discussion of whether and to what extent being conservative makes a religion’s persistence more likely. From my own liberal perspective, conservative churches have time and time again found themselves on the wrong side of issues, and yet seem to learn nothing from the experience, viewing the issue of women in ministry, for instance, the same way they viewed slavery, even after they have admitted their forebears were wrong about that issue. They seem not to grasp that the reason why they were wrong about that issue is intrinsically connected to their conservative approach to religion and social norms.

Douthat suggests that there can be a future for liberal Christianity, but it has to be one that sees renewed passion for conservative theology. I disagree – although I realize that only time can tell which of us was right. I think that a church which can embrace those who are theologically conservative, but also those who are theologically liberal, and become passionate about creating conversation between those who disagree, and passionate about the quest rather than adopting a particular stance reflecting a particular stage on the journey. We could even call ourselves “Evangelical Liberals.” We have a good news that we are passionate about proclaiming, and it isn’t about doctrines assent to which allegedly provides eternal fire insurance. Our core liberal convictions should lead us to stand on the front lines against injustice, and create meeting places where passion for our spiritual journeys is fostered, rather than a narrow conservative version which seeks to persuade people that they have already arrived if they just assent with all their heart to a creed or to four spiritual laws or to a particular doctrine of the atonement.

There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.

But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making and argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.

So the time has come, I think, for Liberal Christians to get excited, to get active, and to get vocal – not just about the contemporary issues of equality and justice that we feel passionate about, but also vocal about the fact that what we stand for is something that has always been a part of Christianity, even if it has sometimes been forced to the fringes.

In concluding, let me acknowledge (in a manner that many conservatives will probably not reciprocate regarding my point in this blog post) that conservatism has always been reflected in Christianity, too. But it should not be assumed that the more conservative religious people – for instance, those who actively opposed Paul – were somehow by definition “more Christian” or more on target with respect to Christian values and emphases. And so I suspect that non-liberal forms of Christianity will remain with us. The question is more about whether they will continue to take center stage, or like the early conservative Jewish Christianity that opposed Paul’s playing fast and loose with Scripture to allow Gentiles into God’s people, as small pockets that represent a largely irrelevant holdover from a bygone era.

Here are some other posts from around the blogs and the wider web which have caught my attention and which relate to this topic:

Diana Butler Bass suggests that the real question is whether Christianity can be saved.

Kimberley Knight blogged about Lady Gaga, bravery, gays, lesbians and “traditional values.”

John Shore ended a piece about a gay man’s experience with an expression of hope for “a newer, better Christianity.”

Brian LePort offered a round-up on the future of Christian denominations.

Michael Bird decided that it isn’t a good week to be Episcopalian. Chris Brady emphasized that this discussion is not only relevant to the Episcopal Church.

Eruesso chimed in on an earlier topic on this blog, but which relates directly to this one, namely the passing on of religious identities to the next generation. Hemant Mehta touched on the topic too, and suggested that atheists have nothing to worry about.

Andrew McGowan blogged about same-sex marriage. Here is a sample from the rather lengthy piece:

I believe that the Christian Churches must re-assess their traditional attitude to same-sex attraction and to forms of committed relationship between people of the same sex. I take the Bible seriously, but am unconvinced that the (few) negative references to sexual activity between persons of the same sex in scripture are particularly relevant to what we now understand as homosexuality, or that they provide a basis for making moral judgements about committed relationships between gay or lesbian people.

To come closer to home, I think Australian Anglicans must scrutinize the conservative position we have so far maintained in hope of preserving a fragile unity on the issue, and begin asking far more seriously what damage is being done to gay and lesbian members inside our faith communities, and what damage to the Church as far as those outside it are concerned, by prioritizing our own real or perceived institutional concerns over theirs.

Christian Piatt shared some disturbing conservative church signs, and also blogged about a group that has managed to bring conservatives and progressives together – in opposition to them.

Epiphenom blogged about the correlation between education and religiosity across different national contexts.

Blog on the Way highlighted a pastor attempting to keep the outlandish things he says off of YouTube.

Open Parachute tracked clergy and scientist prestige and confidence in institutional religion.

Reba Riley discusses recovery from post-traumatic church syndrome.

Ken Schenck advised against harmonizing the Gospels.

Joel Watts gained some personal insight into the gay agenda.

Daniel Florien offered a quip on why churches don’t have free wi-fi.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Michael Wilson

    Conservative Christianity seems to be on the way out, but I’m not holding much out for liberal Christianity. I think its mythology has a lot of competition for the young with such fare as Sci-Fi, drugs, Fantasy, rock and roll, competing with it. All the reactionaries were right, the survival of Christianity is imperiled by this. MLK and Bono’s Christianity is very much submeged and secondary to their identity. This is not to say Chrisitanity isn’t there, it is just not called that. In this way Christianity is a kind of Judaism, but nobody calls christianity judaism. I remember someone once say that apan was a chiristian couintry that had no christians becasue christians werre so instrumental in Japanese education systems. They adopted moral norms foom christianity but not its myth.

  • rmwilliamsjr

    From my own liberal perspective, conservative churches have time and time again found themselves on the wrong side of issues, and yet seem to learn nothing from the experience, viewing the issue of women in ministry, for instance, the same way they viewed slavery, even after they have admitted their forebears were wrong about that issue. They seem not to grasp that the reason why they were wrong about that issue is intrinsically connected to their conservative approach to religion and social norms.

    the problem is exactly how much of the context of the Scriptures is also the message to believe and hold onto. a conservative wants to preserve as much as possible, making the Bible teach a young earth, a hierarchical slave society, subordination of women. he justifies not believing in the demon theory of disease as Jesus certainly did, or a flat geocentric not moving earth by sliding those things over into the category of: necessary context in order to transmit the writings but not required for us to believe, by some special sleight of hand that also causes an amnesia that our ancestors believed those things were necessary for the faith.

    the problem happens when the context is somehow so deeply embedding the message that you can’t separate them. like with death-sin and the young earth. another example is where is heaven? the writer’s of Scripture thought the earth was surrounded by a sphere(s) where the sun. moon and stars existed. and just outside was heaven, so it makes sense that Jesus ascended upward through the air into heaven. with our system this is nonsense, Jesus would soon run out of air to breathe. the problem is there is no way to unwrap the ascension from it’s physical context so we just gloss over it and say- he disappeared.

    YEC is the same thing, they can not allow adam&eve to be context, they have to be the message. the message is sin&death. the point is the Fall must be historical and recent, period. it can not be relegated to context without losing their message.

  • Theophile

    Hi James,
    The history of fundamental Christianity, can be found in Foxes book of Martyrs. The false dichotomy of “conservative vs liberal” Christianity, is Institutionalized clergy ruled religion(conservative) vs. religion of the feel good god “personal liberty”(liberal). Neither of these give a crap what scripture says, which is what makes them false.
    A compromise here is like taking red from one end of the light spectrum, and blue from the other, mixing them and expecting to get green, which is in the middle. What you get instead is purple, the opposite of green.
    The deterioration of Christianity is Biblical illiteracy en mass, seriously when I was young at least 25% of the people I knew had read it and did regularly. Today in a church of 100 you can count on one hand the number of those that have read it through, instead of thinking they already know what it says so they don’t need to.

  • aar9n

    From what I’ve heard; both conservative and liberal churches are in a decline, though liberal churches are going at a much faster rate. The fastest growing religious group is “nonaffiliated”. However, if one looks closer there are some conservative and liberal churches that are vibrant and growing. Ironically, it is the very conservative churches and the very liberal churches that are growing and vibrant; middle-grounders seem to be dying the fastest. I think the reason for that is that both very conservative churches and very liberal churches offer a very specific type moral vision, which allows them to maintain a sub-cultural identity.

  • Dave

    Briefly summarized, my reaction is that for centuries Christianity’s dominance was assured in the West as was its relevance, but that has changed. The development of deep spiritual awakening and the work of keeping teaching fresh and culturally accessible was often anathema to Church authority and have atrophied as a result of Christianity’s dominance (in evolutionary terms, they have in some ways become vestigial). And all religions are inherently conservative to some degree anyway (not necessarily in the contemporary political sense), making it hard even under the best of circumstances to keep on top of rapid social and cultural shifts.

    Conservative Christianity still speaks to those who often feel marginalized from mainstream society and maintains a stronger connection to political structures, giving it a bit more relevance. Yet at the same time, it is the liberal aspect of Christianity that may stand a better chance (if it doesn’t implode) of getting outside of Christianity’s “preaching to the choir box”. But that requires liberal Christians to be clear about their own fundamentals, to show that they are serious and committed, and to stop being uncomfortable with their own symbols and identities ad Christians. There are other important factors as well that don’t split down the conservative/liberal dichotomy, but that goes beyond a brief summary.

  • spinkham

    Conservative Christianity will live on, as it is a powerful form of existential solice. However, it will almost certainly shrink to something more like the size of the Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other authoritarian reality denying meaning systems.

    The most powerful book about the furture of Christainity in my opinion is still Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. Despite bing 60 years old, it has aged remarkably well against the findings of fields of psychology and neuroscience, and is just as relevant today as the day it was published, if not more so.

  • Pseudonym

    Of course conservative Christianity will survive. But it won’t be conservative Christianity as we know it today. It never is, because today’s conservative is yesterday’s liberal. Today’s conservative politicans are fine with women voting and owning land, just as today’s conservative theologians are anti-slavery.

  • William T.

    ‘Gentiles’ what’s that? That’s an imaginary word.

    Do you mean ἔθνος, a Greek word that means only ‘nations’, a word that Christianity has imparted false meaning to, and built false doctrine off of? No, I don’t think you should use Paul as having anything to do with Gentiles doctrine wise, when in fact he only spoke of nations. If that’s your evidence of his liberalism better look again.

    Want proof you say? Sure. Take every single of his OT quotes in the NT that mentions Gentiles and see if the quoted OT quote also mentions ‘Gentiles’. Not a single one does because it’s not Paul’s doctrine, but that of translators.

    (For the less motivated, compare:
    Romans 2:24 quoting Ezekiel 36:21
    Romans 15:9 quoting 2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 18:49
    Romans 15:10 quoting Deut 32:43
    Romans 15:11 quoting Psalm 117:1
    Romans 15:12 quoting Isaiah 11:1
    Galatians 3:8 quoting Genesis 12:3, 18:18, and 22:18

    • You seem to be missing the point. The issue is not “nations” vs. “Gentiles” in translations, but Paul’s setting aside of circumcision as a requirement for participation in the covenant and household of Abraham, articulated so unambiguously in Genesis.

  • I’m not sure about “conservative” Christianity surviving, but as long as we have social insecurity (economic, physical or the like), superstitious-magic Christianity (or any other religion) will prosper — or so it seems many studies say so. A miracle-seeking Pentacostal or New Age crystal-hugger may not have conservative theologies, but their magical worldviews will thrive.

    But if you mean by “conservative” just views toward gays and abortion, I think those could dwindle and atrophy while the others grow. So there seems like two fights: (1) against bigotry and hatred , (2) against superstition.

    But hatred of other nations, other peoples — the “not us” reflex — will always gather religious clothing and in that way, conservative Christianity (and other religions) will not disappear. I think education works against superstition, and that will always be with us too. But hatred is obviously the biggest threat.

    • spinkham

      It is for this reason the fundamentalist/modernist(now termed progressive) debate is much more interesting to me than the culturally conservative vs liberal debate.

      It seems to me the most fundamental divide is whether you take evidence and scholarship seriously, or are willing to defend your pre-existing cultural narrative at all costs.

      Whether it’s ok to be gay or not is a side effect of how you evaluate the evidence about the Bible or other claimed revelations from the deity, and focusing on the cultural issues seems to be only playing at the surface of a much deeper problem.

      To frame it in another way, epistemological concerns seems to me to be a much bigger concern than the cultural ideas of the day or even the ontology of a deity when it comes down to it.

      • I think I get what you are saying, spinkham. Progressives care more for the moral life than they do for blindly obeying an ancient document.

    • chaz

      “But hatred of other nations, other peoples — the “not us” reflex — will always gather religious clothing and in that way”…oohh hold on there hoss…are you sure that is true? The massacre of preists and religious by secularists during the French revolution would seem to suggest that hatred can be clothed in secularism as well.

      • Yes, it can have all sorts of clothing — I wasn’t trying to imply that only the religious do it by any means.
        ~ Hoss

  • VorJack

    Interesting article. He quotes an old article by Dorrien, in which Dorrien argues that the Liberal tradition has undergone a “hidden renaissance” and that “American liberal theology quietly flourishes nearly a century after its high tide.” There are a number of other points where Douthat and Dorrien are at odds.
    And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there’s a false equivalence here. He’s talking about the decline of Liberal Christianity, but describing the decline in Mainline Christianity. The two are not the same thing. The progressive Evangelicals on Patheos should be evidence enough for that.

  • Whitey

    As long as there are poor white people to hate, Liberal Christianity will thrive.

    Go on libs! Tell us how tolerant you are!

  • If P.Jenkins’ research and publications on demographic developments of worldwide Christianity are anything to go by, conservative Christianity is on the rise in the non-Western world and will contribute to global conflict in the 21st century. His revised book “The Next Christendom” has been called “a wake-up call for northern Christians” (Jenkins is Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University).

    • I know from experience that one particular conservative American denomination has been particularly good at exporting its conservatism and its theological bugbears, inflicting controversy over them on churches in other parts of the world where it didn’t previously exist. But in some cases, beneath a concern by some to at least say and perhaps even believe what missionaries say they should (and demand to hear), there has in at least some instances been an undercurrent of a developing distinctive theology, sometimes with facets that might horrify the missionaries who’ve been pouring funds and literature into that nation’s churches. What does your experience suggest regarding this, Oliver?

      • I cannot claim to have surveyed the global scene at all (contrary to what P.Jenkins has been doing – but then, that’s his job), so my perspective is necessarily restricted to two locations of East Africa: one in rural Tanzania, and the other the city of Nairobi (and there only a few albeit quite different Christian communities). My observation is that, regardless of denomination (i.e. traditional mainstream like Anglican, Presbyterian or Lutheran, or small independent like Voice of Salvation and Healing or similar splinter groups), the vast majority of Christians in both locations are conservative with a corresponding literal view of the Bible (and accompanying views like young-earth creationism and condemnation of homosexuality). I doubt that this widespread phenomenon is due to the influence of one particular conservative American denomination alone. Maybe, conservative Christianity sits better with agricultural societies (K.Bailey’s “Through Peasant Eyes” comes to mind, even though his focus is on an entirely different topic, of course). Beats me! ?!?

        • I didn’t mean to suggest that one denomination does all the influencing, but was indicating that my own experience is of one particular denomination’s activity! I wonder how much knowledge of modern biology people tend to have, and how it affects the spread of pseudoscience like young-earth creationism from the English-speaking world.

          • Damn, I can not figure out how to turn of notifications in Disqus.
            Any suggestions? Anyone else complain of that. It makes me never want to comment. Especially on popular blogs like yours, James.

          • No, I don’t see the “unfollow” buttons. Disqus has always seemed one or two layers too complicated. I guess you have not choice on Patheos, eh?

          • Oh, I do have a choice. No comment system is perfect, and Disqus seems to have many good features. I agree that ease of turning off notifications is not one of them. On this thread I do not see such a button but I assume that is because I am the moderator on the blog. If you click the little cog button at the top of the section with Disqus comments, does it give you an unsubscribe option?

          • The browser also seems to matter. I looked around online and the unsubscribe button is not visible on the iPad. I send Disqus a message to say that that is ridiculously unacceptable!

          • Nope, the cog lets me login in, but I can’t see what that allows differently.

            Also, finding comments in a hierarchy system is a real pain. Has anyone else complained about that?

            I have tried Safari and Chrome so far — on a Mac

          • OK, I checked another blog using Disqus and, on Internet Explorer, I was able to see an unsubscribe button. I don’t see it here, and am not sure if that has to do with my admin status or the way Patheos has comments configured. Can you find another blog with Disqus comments to leave a comment on, and see whether you see a subscribe/unsubscribe button? In the mean time, I will check with Patheos. Sorry for this inconvenience!

          • I checked “The Friendly Atheist”-have you heard of him? 🙂
            His site has a “subscribe”/”unsubscribe” option at the bottom of each post. Very easy. So it seems that patheos does not have pathos, but your settings need tweeking. Well, unless you want people trapped into hearing comments. 🙂

          • Sabio, while trapping people has its advantages (look how much we have talked is week as a result!) I really don’t want that. I wonder how many readers I may have lost as a result of that thousand-comment thread on mythicism…

          • LOL !
            You are the man, as always. Thanx James

          • I was going to just go ahead and turn off nested comments and see if anyone complains, but it looks like they are already unselected, and yet still there. 🙁 Ah well, one more thing that hopefully can be sorted out when they upgrade!

          • Thanx for trying, mate. I guess the “path to god” (“Patheos”) is arduous.

          • BTW, I skip all your posts on reviews of Dr. Who and such episode on TV commentary which is a huge part of your blog. Have you ever thought of doing a separate Science Fiction and Religion blog? Because of all that stuff, I rarely come here. You seemed to have picked up on that stuff in the last year — am I mistaken? I am sure some folks LOVE it though.

          • Also, I wrote here about evil “hierarchy of comments”, I think I have shared that with you. You were doing well on your mammoth links for about one or two posts but you reverted to your evil lazy ways. What is that about? 🙂
            How can we expect people to change their thinking about scripture if you can’t change simple linking habits? 😉
            Another problem with Disqus: when I click on an email which tells the comment who is responding to me, it does not open Disqus at that exact comment, instead, I have to scroll up and down and try to find it or type key words in the search function — pain in the butt. Usually I give up and decide to delete following, but we already found that I can’t do that.Hope disqus fixes that too!

          • On the iPad it takes me straight to the comment. It should do the same for you. When I upgraded to the new, improved Disqus, I left the nested comments on to see (1) whether they were in any way improved and (2) whether anyone would still dislike them. Now I know the answer to those questions! 🙂 Since the new improved Disqus automatically indicate whom you are responding to, that makes nested comments essentially unnecessary, and so I will switch them off, although I will wait until the next upgrade to do so, if you don’t mind.

            I have thought about having separate blogs, but the truth is that my interests often intersect, and I don’t see any reason to try to figure out whether a post that touches on the Bible and science fiction should go on one blog, the other, or both.

            I subscribe to many blogs that regularly touch on subjects that do not interest me. If, to give a random example, I decide I am not interested in reading someone’s posts on toilets, I just skip them. It seems to me easily done, and in no way a reason not to read that person’s blog regularly! 😉

          • Oh, you are right. I linked right to your comment this time. But I am glad hierarchy will disappear. I hope others agree and your change is not because of the obnoxious vocal few ! 🙂
            I too blog on very different material and experimented with splitting but then decided not to. I understand your decision. But since we were talking about blogging, I wrote that.

            You are a fine fellow, James — love your stuff. Thanx

          • I talked with Patheos and it will take a bit of time before it happens, but my blog theme is going to be changed or updated to incorporate the missing button, and several other positive changes related to comments are also in the works. Apologies for the inconvenience, and the delay in getting it sorted, but I am glad you brought this up because, since I want to get all comments n my blog and get them automatically, I had never noticed the problem before!

          • I tried Firefox too. Can’t find it.
            May be simple but I can’t find it.
            The e-mail tempts you to think you can discontinue, but the link only goes to profile.
            At work we have an out-dated explorer and with that I can’t even comment on your site.

          • Science teaching in Africa is quite poor (too lazy now to dig for education reports which I’ve read in the past). Also, African mythology has a time-depth of only a few thousand years, so the average African villager may find young-earth creationism more convincing than evolution. (Remember, the linkage of primates and humans raises the spectres of racism and colonialism in many African minds, à la “we’re NOT related to monkeys!”)

  • ossian86

    Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved? as it stands probably not without conceding on the issues (again), a better question is does it deserve to be?

  • Lucian

    You have a picture of Martin Luther King there… what do you think his opinion, as a black Evangelical Christian minister, would’ve been on this topic ?

    • Martin Kuther King Jr. was a theological liberal, but I know a lot of people assume that his views were akin to their own. Any chamce you might have jumped to such a conclusion?

  • newenglandsun

    Interesting. Sorry to jump in late here again. It depends on how you define conservative and liberal. You might find Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s post to be interesting where he is careful to define terms.

    If you are talking about politically liberal, I would have to say the Catholic Church is actually a haven for political liberals. I mean I support gay civil marriage but not on a sacramental level. There have been anarchist Catholics as well (Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Day to name a couple) and I identify as anarchist as well.

    So if you mean politically liberal, I’d say that that variation of Christianity will be able to maintain strength throughout the future. If you mean though theologically liberal such as relegating supernatural beliefs to a pit (like a stripping down of altars), then I think more and more atheists will wonder why the whole thing hasn’t been thrown into a trash-can.

    Define the terms first and then the discussion can definitely ensue.

    FYI, Dorothy Day and Oscar Wilde would NOT, theologically speaking, among those “large numbers of adherents maintain [who] a cultural and religious connection with that church, but feel free to individually disagree with its teachings”.