This recent New York Times column by Ross Douthat, on the decline of “liberal Christianity,” has sparked some very interesting online debates about the state of the church. (The Public Queue’s Matt Johnson blogged about it here.) As a self-identified Anglican/Episcopalian with (if I may generalize) decidedly left-wing social and political views, and one who has a fair amount of experience in the liberal wing of the U.S. Episcopal Church (the institution explicitly criticized by Douthat), I found the piece to be highly astute in its observation and analysis, and a warning the church would do well to heed.
Some quick thoughts:
(Disclaimer: Generalizations Ahead. It’s difficult to talk about the topic at hand without resorting to reductive, simplistic terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Of course we are all more complicated that these words denote, but for the purpose of the present discussion, they are useful for conveying a certain set of attitudes and worldviews.)
- Douthat articulated something I intimately felt whenever I used to show up at theologically liberal Episcopal parishes on Sundays. The services often ran like secular progressive rallies playing Christian dress-up, where heavy advocacy for progressive values (which I happen to embrace) was often done with minimum, superficial appeal to Christian theology, which, by the way, was rarely ever subscribed to in any form that resembles traditional orthodox Christianity when you really dug deep into it. What are these churches offering the world that a purely secular progressive event can’t? Indeed, given the philosophical orientation of those who are often in leadership positions at these churches, why do they still bother with faith language at all- why not just drop the Christian brand entirely- apart from the easy ammunition it provides and a vague sort of attachment and nostalgia about being in the lineage of a grand religious tradition? Now, I am in no position to deny the importance and usefulness of these gatherings to some (I believe God is present wherever His name is called upon, after all), but these are honest personal frustrations that inevitably arise whenever I’m in the middle of a particularly self-congratulatory and insufferable sermon (normally on the evil of some form of social conservatism). If you have any inclination to take orthodox Christianity and scripture seriously, you can’t help but start having these questions once you’ve been to enough services of this kind.
- I’d submit that the lack of spiritual rigor and the failure to substantiate radical political and social engagement with robust theology, along with the not-uncommon smugness (“look at how enlightened we are compared to our misguided brothers and sisters in the conservative evangelical wing”), are quite precisely why secular people don’t care to bother with mainline churches. I certainly wouldn’t if I were an unbeliever. I’d much rather go to an actual political gathering – and have much more fun in the process, mind you- if all I’m interested in is advocating for liberal causes. But I want more, just as most people hungering for faith and spirituality do.
- In offering the secular world less and less to disbelieve in, many mainline churches have become more and more uninteresting. Whereas conservatives make the terrible mistake of ignoring the radical dimensions of Christianity theology, theological liberals make the equally regrettable mistake of practicing laudable progressive values apart from serious wrestling with faith and scripture. Both approaches are of course inadequate, but if we are talking purely in terms of the number, conservative churches will always attract more followers because they offer something the world won’t and indeed can’t (e.g. faith, salvation, a personal relationship with God). The same cannot be said of theologically liberal churches. And this, in essence, is why they are dying.
- The church can and *must* offer robust theology, salvation, personal relationship with God- i.e. all the thick, serious Christian “stuff” that are lacking in many mainline churches today- *along with* prophetic values that testify to the peacable kingdom of God, that translate into radical social actions and political engagements. The church must retain its “saltiness” and be willing to offer the world something “uncompromisingly,” as Douthat put it, even at the risk of ridicule. Apart from that it will be of very little interest and relevance, and I for one would not lament its death.