If Mainline and Progressive Protestantism wants to be anything, it wants to be inclusive. In one way or another that has been a central theme for roughly seventy years. But over time, the definition of inclusion has shifted dramatically.
For much of that time, the inclusive ideal was a church that welcomed people of varied identities. In quick succession and often in overlapping efforts, that quest had a variety of priorities. In the twentieth century through the early twenty-first century, it has involved efforts to include women who had been refused ordination, races that were absent or nearly so from mainline Protestantism, and eventually it included gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Whatever the focus, one might describe those efforts as a matter of social inclusion, meaning that the emphasis was upon welcoming as many people as possible.
At the same time, a second and different kind of inclusion became a priority, an inclusion that might be characterized as conceptual. That trend began early in the Episcopal Church with Bishop James Pike in the sixties and continued with Bishop John Shelby Spong in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Both advanced ideas that were heterodox and clearly broke with the defining creeds of the church, but both bishops were embraced as cutting edge theologians whose ideas would, instead, save the church. Similar developments emerged across mainline Protestantism. In the Methodist Church, for example, “doctrinal standards” in the Book of Discipline gave way to a loosely defined “theological task” that included no obligation to defend the Christian faith.
As a result, classical liberals and old-style progressives are no longer able to say “no” to accepting people whose views are completely at odds with the Christian faith and its creeds. In a church where many believe that the task is to accommodate and curate every possible conviction is the priority, this lack of boundaries was bound to be a fact of life. So, now it is not surprising to hear people report that they know priests who say, “I don’t care what people believe. I don’t think it has anything to do with salvation and I’m agnostic about an afterlife.” Nor is it surprising to find mainline churches that describe their worship as consciously devoid of Christian moorings. The fear of being thought of as fundamentalist robbed Progressive Protestantism of the ability to defend anything as indispensable to the Christian faith.
Pair this emphasis with Post-Modernism, deconstructionism and a new brand of Marxist identarianism and you have a recipe for cognicide: the abandonment of the conviction that there is anything known or knowable that transcends the strident demands of the moment. But, of course, the failure to identify any belief as essential to life in the church also means that there is nothing to belong to any longer. An institution that lacks defining convictions makes no claims upon its members and opens its doors to everyone.
But it also loses any reason for its existence. Over time that rationale is further debased as the vocabulary of the church is increasingly treated as a word game: a loose set of ciphers that can be defined and redefined without attention to their original meaning and inspiration. Inclusion becomes all that matters. “You belong, no matter what you believe.”
Mainline Protestants do not need to be fundamentalists in order to resist the cognicide that follows. There are three kinds of vital theological activity that complement one another and require the church’s constant attention. Rowan Williams defines those three activities as “celebratory,” “communicative” and “critical” theology.
“Celebratory theology” is the “attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used. It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching,” but it can also be found in the church’s creeds and iconography.[i]
“Communicative theology” is what Williams describes as “theology experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment.”[ii] What Williams is referring to here might also be described as apologetic theology. It is the effort to “persuade or comment, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.”[iii]
“Critical theology” arises out of the struggle with the question as to what is “continuous with what has been believed” and with what “the ‘fundamental categories’ really mean.” The task becomes “critical,” Williams notes when the church becomes “alert to its own inner tensions and irresolutions.”[iv]
For all three forms of theology to truly serve the life of the church, each has to has to held in conversation with the others. A celebratory theology that is not made known in fresh ways through communicative efforts can be cut off from the world around it, shrivel and die. A communicative theology that fails to notice the tensions that emerge in conversation with the world can become stale and irrelevant in a different way. A critical theology that is cut off from both the celebratory and communicative task loses its vital connection with the faith that gave it birth and can easily become a heresy serving nothing but its own ends.
That conversation is also antidote to cognicide, and without that conversation Mainline Protestantism is without a meaningful future.
[i] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, Challenges in Contemporary Theology, eds., Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayres (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000): xiii.
[ii] Ibid., xiv.
[iv] Ibid., xiv-xv.