In the week or so since New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote his column on Liberal Christianity, there has been a ton of responses from Progressive Christians on the issue- most of it taking umbrage at Douthat’s article. Because Douthat is a political and social conservative, many progressives easily wrote him off and saw his critique as another in a long run of conservative rants against the mainline. As I’ve said before, we in the mainline should take Douthat’s words to heart and not simply brush them off, but many of us still remain in denial, thinking that we are on the cusp of a new progressive renaissance.
Instead of regurgitating what Douthat has already said, I want to share my own observations concerning progressive Christianity from spending 20 years on the inside. There is a lot that is good about the mainline church, which is why I remain here and why I chose at to enter into ministry. There is a certain amount of theological roominess that I didn’t find in the churches of my youth. I like the emphasis on social justice.
But I also think there are issues with progressive Christianity that have caused it to crash that we refuse to address. Because we aren’t owning up to our shortcomings, the downward spiral continues.
Scanning the internet, I happened to stumble on this old article that was the summation of a study done in the late 1980s and early 90s. While data is quite old, some of the findings still resonate today. What they came up with was that people who tended to have more orthodox beliefs tended to be the ones that participated in church. Here’s what they say:
In our study, the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ. Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church. Among those who do not believe it, some are active in varying degrees; a great many are not. Ninety-five percent of the drop-outs who describe themselves as religious do not believe it. And amazingly enough, fully 68 percent of those who are still active Presbyterians don’t believe it either….
Orthodox Christian belief of one variety or other, which the fundamentalists and other conservatives in our sample espouse, seems to impel people to commit their time and other resources to a distinctively Christian regimen of witness and obedience in the company of other believers. Lay liberalism, on the other hand, is not an empowering system of belief but rather a set of conjectures concerning religious matters. It supports honesty and other moral virtues, and it encourages tolerance and civility in a pluralistic society, but it does not inspire the kind of conviction that creates strong religious communities.
I think this lines up a lot with what I have seen, experienced and even at times believed. Evangelicalism has its problems with individualism, but as this study suggests so does liberal Christianity. Encouraging tolerance and civility is good, but it doesn’t make for a lasting community. For that you need to have a faith grounded in some certainty.
What I think we have said over the last 50 years or so to the wider society is that faith and belief don’t matter. I remember a pastor who had a career of being involved in social justice issues once say to me that some people will enter heaven even though their theology was rather screwy. He was trying to get at the point that our actions matter more than what we believe. I would agree with him to a point. Jesus did condemn the Pharisees because they might have had the correct belief (orthodoxy) but had little to no actions to show their faith (orthopraxy). But I think that many in the progressive church have come to interpret this belief to mean it doesn’t really matter what one believes as long as they are doing good deeds. What this leads to is de-emphasizing certain aspects of religious life such as Christian Education. Why learn more about the faith if it doesn’t really matter? A number of mainline churches that I have attended or are familiar with, don’t have vital adult education programs. There are forums on the latest social issue like poverty, but little to none of studying the Scriptures or church history or link our faith the the issues we face today. Yes, our actions matter, but if we run around telling people that thinking about our faith isn’t that necessary, then people will get the message and stop coming the church. If faith doesn’t matter, then why do we need to focus on church?
If Jesus is just a good man who taught us to live a better life and if Christianity is only about how to be moral and is one of many different ways to be moral, then the end result is that you won’t have growing communities of faith. If faith becomes optional, then church is optional. We can as the old saying goes, worship in the forest instead of in church.
So what’s the takeaway? Well, if one took these articles at face value, then the answer would mean becoming more conservative. But I don’t think that’s the answer. What I do think is the answer is to fuse a more orthodox theology with a modern outlook. One of the strengths of liberal Christianity has been to try to adapt our faith to the modern world. I think in the last few decades we have accommodated instead of adapted, but we can bring back this old tradition. My own view is that we need to talk less about Jesus-as-a-good-guy or we-don’t-need-the-church-but-to-love-Jesus and more about what it means in today that Jesus is Lord. We need to talk less about how all religions say the same thing, and more about what Christianity means in a pluralistic culture and how to live at peace with persons of other faiths and still be faithful to Christianity.
I should add that this is not an endorsement to a more social conservatism. But we need to be asking how this relates to our faith. Let me talk about an issue that’s important to me: the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. It’s important to be inclusive to gays and lesbians. It’s important that we support same-sex marriage.
But being church is more than just being welcoming. People might be appreciative of churches becoming more friendly to gays and that might bring a few gay folks and their friends to come to church one Sunday. But offering nothing more than that means that it is more than likely that those people will move on after a while because there is nothing more to hold them.
The Christian life is one of grace, but it is not cheap grace. It demands something of us. We need to have a strong orthopraxy and a strong orthodoxy. Otherwise, we will end up continuing our downward trajectory.