Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ross Douthat: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

"Liberal Christianity" in this case means the Christianity represented by the so-called mainline denominations: Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ being the primary examples. There are, of course, conservatives within those groups and liberals found in other denominations. In any case, it is the viability of these American Christians that the New York Times’ designated conservative columnist Ross Douthat wondered about in an op-ed piece earlier this summer. 

It was prompted at the time by yet another story of mainline denominational decline, even as that same denomination was engaging in a favorite mainline exercise: rearranging its theological, liturgical, or organizational deck chairs. In this case the subject was Christian conservatives’ favorite denominational whipping boy, The Episcopal Church USA. This American expression of the Church of England is, of course, the epitome of cultural religious self-importance. As a result, its numerical decline and internal divisions have made it an easy target and the object of more than a little schadenfreude among Christian conservatives.

Theology has never been Anglicanism’s forte, so while its attempts to reshape itself for the modern world have been sincere and determined, they have often been flat-footed. Thus, Douthat’s critical summery is not so far off. The denomination's changes, he writes, have left it

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. Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

As Douthat goes on to point out, this is not a unique experience for Episcopalians. “Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance.”

Douthat does not write off liberal Christianity, however. He is well aware of the valuable role it has played in promoting social justice. He is also aware that the conservative Christianity that has risen during liberalism’s decline has often been “theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.”

Thus, rather than wishing its demise Douthat hopesthat liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence.” Amidst their attempts to modernize their denominations, liberal church leaders need to “consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”

The decades-long numerical decline of liberal or “mainline” denominations is indisputable. The causes, however, are not nearly as simple or clear as Douthat would have us believe. Membership in these churches peaked in the late 1960s and early 70s. If there was an ideological trigger for their decline at this time, however, it was a reaction against the social and political involvement Douthat seems to champion. Most of the theological change came later, at least partly in response to membership loses already evident.

Recent declines within American Christianity have also never been restricted to so-called liberal churches. For example, the decline of moderate and liberal Lutheran churches has been matched by the shrinking of the much more conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. It is widely recognized that overall Roman Catholic membership would have declined had it not been for Hispanic immigration. Recently, more traditional conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention have been reporting flat or even moderately declining memberships.

Then there is the ambiguity of the liberal-conservative distinction. As Douthat says, many successful conservative churches have embraced the so-called “prosperity gospel” which often downplays or avoids much traditional Christian teaching and doctrine. Thus, Joel Osteen’s preaching packs a former NBA arena in Houston and draws a global TV audience in the millions, yet many of his strongest critics are conservative Christians because he avoids taking firm positions on many of their litmus test social and theological issues. On the other hand Robert Schuler, a prosperity gospel pioneer, has lived to see his church empire collapse into internal acrimony and bankruptcy.

Conservative churches, also, have not been above conveniently adapting to social change. As divorce rates climbed and became socially acceptable, it quietly disappeared as one of the favorite topics of hell-fire preaching—especially when the preacher himself was divorced.

There is growing evidence that conservative churches are finding themselves behind the curve in another area of rapid social change: acceptance of homosexuality. As gays and lesbians have become increasingly open about their sexual orientation, like everyone else conservative Christians are finding themselves with growing numbers of gay friends, co-workers, and family members. Many are finding it difficult to accept their church's judgment of people they personally know and like. Many younger evangelicals are challenging their congregations and denominations to change their theology and policies and the voices of some elder leaders are beginning to join them.

The changes in American Christianity over the past forty years have caused much head scratching among both church leaders and more disinterested academic observers. While there is still no agreement about what is going on, simplistic and argumentative explanations like those of Ross Douthat have been generally dismissed. Instead, from the duration and depth of the change, from the research I have seen, and from my own lifelong experience within mainline Christianity, I would say that the decline of American Christianity is more about sociological and demographic change than unfaithfulness or failure of church leadership.

Because church issues so easily become contentious it’s easy to lose sight of the basic reality: more people are leaving churches and fewer people are joining churches. There are a number of factors almost certainly involved. There is evidence that singles and couples without children have less interest in belonging to a church and that segment of the population been growing. Until just recently, our population has been increasingly mobile, inevitably resulting in more fluid church membership roles. New research shows that people in personal or economic distress are actually less likely to be a part of church communities, probably because of the difficulty of maintaining relationships based at least in part on previous states of being (marriage, employment, etc.). Whatever religious needs they meet, churches also fulfilled important past social functions (finding friends, spouses, employment, etc.) which many people no longer need or are meeting in other ways.

All of these sociological issues circle around the more fundamental question which Douthat points to at the end: do people still have a religious need that liberal churches can meet? For a growing number the answer seems to be no. In fact, this has probably been true for longer than we realize but successfully meeting people’s social needs kept churches from realizing it. Now that has changed and such churches’ pews are increasingly empty and remaining members increasingly elderly.

The reality is that liberal/mainline churches stopped believing their own founding religious story a century or more ago. It is what religious modernism and liberalism have been about. Intellectual developments since the Enlightenment have led the church to realize Christianity didn’t fall from heaven fully formed but has a history like every other human endeavor. Its discovery of other religions made it aware that many of its ideas are not unique or very original. Scientific knowledge has made impossible almost any literal understanding of basic Christian teaching. Preachers can no longer speak coherently about heaven or hell, judgment and salvation, or an after-life. Church members’ conceptions of God now have little to do with traditional biblical views or theological teaching. More often they are of a vague, guiding and comforting, "presence" of almost embarrassingly childlike quality. Few Christians can state even basic orthodox church teaching, let alone confess it.

Recently I left my congregation to move out-of-state. Thus, I am temporarily “unchurched” and have visited the two local ELCA Lutheran congregations of my denomination. One is moderate sized, with a middle age and older congregation. The other is small, somewhat younger, but can support only a part-time pastor. Neither congregation could be described as thriving; both are smaller than they once were.

At both congregations I was welcomed warmly at each visit, sometimes almost uncomfortably so. Both used traditional Lutheran liturgy with user-friendly, in-house produced booklets. Sermons (by the parish pastors and guests) were fair and the hymn selection fair to poor. In each instance I found myself wondering how a visiting non-Lutheran would experience all this, what would draw them in in the first place, and what would entice them to come back or join such an organization. Working a normal “9 to 5” job, I am very aware of the value of my limited free time and how choosy I am in allocating it. How much time, if any, would I give to “church” and, if I did, what would I get in return?

In the end, I think Douthat’s challenge to mainline churches is actually the right one: what is the religious reason for their existence? With most of their social functions gone, mediocre worship and preaching centered on antiquated and/or nonsensical theology is often all that churches have left. The “renovations” that Douthat decries have often been silly, and certainly ineffective, because they only served to redecorate a theological structure that actually needs rebuilding from the foundation.

The decline of liberal churches is understandable and even appropriate as they have become organizations functioning primarily to maintain themselves. While Douthat’s answer to this crisis is the wrong one, his framing of the problem is correct. What is to be the religious function of mainline churches? What remains to be seen is whether awareness of the mainline crisis will ever lead these churches to realize they have lost their reason for existing, and that if they don’t find a new purpose soon they will become only the latest chapter of religious history.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mrs. Jesus?

The story, of course, is made for sensational headlines: an ancient fragment of papyrus is revealed with Coptic text containing the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’ ” Enigmatically the sentence breaks off there. Debate about whether Jesus was married has occurred throughout church history, revived most recently by Dan Brown’s fictional bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Does this discovery help resolve that question?

While journalists had to raise the issue, the stories I read all dutifully reported the judgment of the eminent Harvard scholar, Karen King, who disclosed the finding: No. The fragment does tell us interesting things, however. It comes from a time almost certainly two or more centuries after the time of Jesus. It is a testimony, therefore, to a debate still going on in the church over the role of women. It also shows that at a fairly late date the story of Jesus’ life was still fluid, making it possible for writers to creatively build upon the Jesus’ tradition.

The reporting of the story, however, illustrates again how we are culturally programmed to chase after the wrong bus. A century after Albert Schweitzer coined the phrase we are still in our quest for the historical Jesus, a Jesus we will never find. Was Jesus married? Did he have children? Did he go to India? Was he really a space alien? Pick any scenario you like or make up your own; we will never be able to say what is true and what isn’t.

The reason for this is that there simply is no reliable evidence with which to make such judgments. Jesus (like all other the ancient founders of the world’s great religions) is like the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology. He is the beginning point of the Christian “universe,” the place where its historical lines of development converge. Yet while historical Christianity is real, we can only infer Jesus as its origin. Or rather, “Jesus” is the name we give that starting point. As to reliable witnesses to that event and his life, we simply have none. No one saw it; no one knew him. All the testimony we have is after the fact and with an ax to grind.

In trying to shape the story that would be told about her revelation, Prof King told reporters, “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.” Which is true, of course, yet also misunderstands what Brown was about. For what he was doing is really no different than what the anonymous creator of this fragmentary tale was up to, or all the other ancient creators of the Christian tradition were up to: telling a story with a character named Jesus.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Go West (Sunday Reflections for June 3, 2012)

(My blog has languished for several months,. This post is the last Sunday Reflections column I did before leaving my congregation in Illinois. I am now relocated to Santa Fe, NM and working at an art gallery there, while I decide what next to do with myself.  I am also musing a lot and mentally gathering material for future blog posts, which hopefully will begin appearing soon. So stay tuned!)

As many of you know, New Mexico has been one of my favorite vacation spots. Soon it will be my home. Visiting a place and living there are very different experiences, of course, and New Mexico is not perfect. It has pockets of wealth and large areas of poverty. It has a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups that do not always get along well with each other. It can be dangerously dry, with wild fires a constant threat. And then there are the snakes.

Nonetheless, I am excited about moving to New Mexico, and to Santa Fe in particular. To borrow a phrase, it is, I believe, the next thing to do with my life. I look forward to being closer to the natural world, something which is so easily obscured in the city. I look forward to being surrounded by mountains and to the sun shining far more often than not. I look forward to seeing stars at night.

Christianity has an ancient tradition of nurturing and re-energizing itself in the desert, and I have felt a similar pull since my first visit to New Mexico. The desert is not lifeless but it is certainly lean, gently but firmly doing away with whatever is superfluous and hindering. It is this environment which has profoundly shaped and defined the Native American culture and spirituality of northern New Mexico. It has also nurtured the state’s century-old artist community. The spare landscape and thin dry air of the high desert together encourage a unique clarity of thought, feeling, and vision.

So I look forward to this move as an opportunity to do some clarifying and re-orienting, some winnowing and whittling. It doesn’t feel like a retreat or escape but rather a “strategic withdrawal,” allowing me to regain my bearings and set a new course.

One thing I am not doing at this point is looking for a new pastoral call. That could happen later but right now I it seems better to step back and regain some perspective. The church-at-large is a confused mess: directionless, dysfunctional, delusional, demoralized, and depressed. Sadly I see nothing on the horizon to indicate this situation will be changing anytime soon.

I have spoken and written about this many times, in part to provide some context for the challenges faced by our own congregation and an understanding that this is now the norm. The bottom line is that none of this is anybody’s fault. We have become stuck in this downward spiral, however, because it is so hard for the church to understand how profoundly our world has changed. We are completely out-of-step. We want to tinker when what we really need is a complete overhaul. And my conversations with both pastors and denominational leaders show we still just don’t get it.

People keep asking me (often in response to an essay or sermon like this), then what’s the answer? But I have no answer because I know what the questioner really means is, how do we get things back to the way they were? And that is just not going to happen, nor do I think it should. It is time for the church to come to an end which, in fact, is what’s happening. It’s not going to completely shutdown like a defunct factory but it is--slowly--transitioning to something new and very different.

So the issue is not finding “the answer” to the church’s problems, but rather gaining some understanding about what’s going on and some clarity of vision about where we are heading. Then maybe we can do things to nurture the process, encourage it rather than fight it, and perhaps even guide it a bit. 

By getting away to New Mexico I hope to get a little of that understanding and clarity, and if that happens, put it to some good use. In the meantime, I also hope to do some hiking and writing, perhaps some weaving and painting, and just maybe, learn how to make a really good margarita.