Sunday, July 15, 2012

Can liberal Christianity be saved?

English: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts S...
English: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori examining a historic crozier from the first bishop of the Diocese of Minnesota, being held by James Jelinek (in red mitre and vestments, facing her) as he prepares to pass it to his successor, the ninth bishop of Minnesota in the Episcopal Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I recently saw this question posed while referencing this recent article in the New York Times.While the article discusses more than one denomination found in the United States, the emphasis is on the Episcopal Church, which recently approved transgender recognition in their non-discrimination policies and adopted a rite to bless same-sex relationships. 

Episcopalians, then, are taken in the Times piece as representative of liberal Christianity in general, which has seen its population aging with fewer and fewer young people drawn to replace them.

To return to the general question of whether or not liberal Christianity can be saved (with questions of whether or not it should or will continue aside), if liberal Christians do want to see their parishes, orders, denominations and ministries continue they need to more clearly and forcefully articulate their bottom line. 

What bottom line? 

I'll give it a go based on my discussions and readings involving liberal Christians. For example, keeping in line with some generalized expressions of liberal Christian views they would do well to clearly articulate:

  • that there is an unseen but felt presence that is both immanent and transcendent and which gives rise to everything which can be known or experienced, a presence called God; 
  • that this presence has been described (sometimes wonderfully and sometimes poorly) in the common language and style of the authors of the texts collectively known as the Bible, frequently borrowing "pagan" imagery and fables and reworking them to express this ineffable presence in terms familiar to their audiences;
  • that this same process of revelation and interpretation went on in the early Church and needs to go on today;
  • that reading such texts operates at different levels, the emotional "Oh!" of the literal interpretation, the intellectual "Aha!" of the symbolic interpretation, the metaphysical "Whoa!" of holding both views simultaneously, and the mystical silence of transcending all interpretations;
  • that one must wrestle continuously with such texts in good faith, honest reaction, frequent reflection, and continual diligence as part of a life-long process of reflection and transformation;
  • that the theme of these texts is that we suffer when we ignore the wisdom and compassion available to us by opening ourselves to this presence and to learning to recognize it in others, but that the option to change and seek this presence is available;
  • that the bottom line of these texts is that this presence is always with us, personified in the Gospels in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and that because this presence is always with us we can face any obstacle, even overcoming death itself;
  • that there is a community that has chosen to dedicate itself to following the example of Jesus, because we rise and fall not an individuals but as community;
  • that this community, the Church, has chosen to take on a special dedication and commitment to freeing people from physical, emotional, and social oppression through awakening people to their own connection to this presence.

(Maybe if they had an outline like this next to one that used the more traditional language of blessings, curses, covenants, etc it might be helpful.)

In other words, if it wants to survive, liberal Christianity (and to be frank any form of Christianity in the West) has to take its own history and theology seriously even as it helps to translate tradition and integrate it with new insights. There has to be a sense that the work of liberating and serving others is not just a nice, pleasant, commitment-free ideal that members can choose at will, but that people really believe in such transformation and are willing to put themselves on the line to accomplish it. This includes prophetic witness to social, civil, and cultural structures and attitudes which are hostile to the poor, the powerless, and the misunderstood.

There seems to be some perception that if you take an educated, mature, and nuanced approach to a particular religion that this somehow amounts to not really taking it too seriously. This is especially problematic for contemporary Christians, where "taking it seriously" is equated with fundamentalism. In short, if they want to attract people to their faith liberal Christians need to stop being ashamed of being Christians and of language that sounds too Christian, to reclaim and proclaim their identity.

The need for relevance 

 As for why liberal Christianity seems to be dwindling faster than the more conservative form, I think this gets back to why religions as a whole and Christianity in particular in the West. Prior to the Church becoming respectable and part of the establishment, authority would come more from personal development and insights and the ability to inspire others by re-telling and re-interpreting teachings according to the culture and capacity of the audience. New converts would come from those who were personally touched in a meaningful way by the Church and for whom its message resonated so deeply they were willing to undergo weeks or months of preparation and ritual as well as risk persecution and death.

Then along comes Emperor Constantine and the establishment and expansion of what would become known as Christendom. Now there are social and political motivations to join the Church and accept its teachings with less questioning. It becomes easier and more comfortable to be a Christian, with more of an emphasis on rote, fixed orthodoxy than any other factor. And seeking authority in the Church becomes part of the standard drama of civic political maneuvering. As this environment sank in and became normalized in the Church, it's relevance became automatic and was increasingly taken for granted. New interpretations of the teachings and profound spiritual depth became less necessary and at times even threatening to the ecclesiastical power structure.

Fast forward to the last two centuries, and especially the last fifty to sixty years, and the increasing obsolescence of the civic bodies, cultural traditions, and social structures which has previously permitted or enforced Christian hegemony in the West. As these supports have failed, especially in cases where the Church actively resisted social, cultural, and scientific changes that are all but taken for granted today, Christianity has found that in the main in no longer knows how to convey its relevance to modern Western people

This isn't to say it has no relevance, or that it isn't relevant to anyone in the West, but rather that it is more or less skilled at preaching to choir. Those who have left Christianity in their teens or early twenties or who grew up outside of Christian practice and identity are increasingly a mystery to Christianity of all stripes, liberal or otherwise. This is a key to the survival of any Christian movement or institution.

The thing about conservative Christianity is that it still has strong ties to political and cultural forces that are more isolated from mainstream society, allowing it to keep a greater degree of relevance than liberal and mainstream Christianity, which has too often failed to demonstrate what it has to offer that political rallies, charitable groups, and books of inspirational sayings cannot. However, if it can survive in a significant way, liberal Christianity has a definite edge and major head start on learning to convey Christianity's relevance to the world emerging in the twenty first century.

Now, next up, I would like to see an article in a major publication on whether some of what is emerging under the label of Western Buddhism is really Buddhism or a kind of polite materialism espousing a gentle and graceful form of nihilism. Speaking of religions in the West and questions about the connection between their beliefs and long-term viability, that's definitely one to watch.

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  1. Asking if liberal theology can be saved is like asking if thinking can be saved. I suppose thinking is in danger now days, but it's probably always in danger. Yet it it not only goes on but we have a sneaking suspicion that it will always go on.

    Liberal theology is tied more to the academy than to the chruch. It's in every major university in the world. Certain denominations tried to liberalism are badly declining in membership but that doesn't mean there are no people in other in other denomination that don't real liberal theology.

    Of course without any congregations it would be just a matter of time before it dried up in the academy. I think the decline is due largely to the clear simplicity of the fundamentalist message vs. the complex nature of liberal academic thought. Most people not being thinkers are not drawn to the academically based groups.

    They are also boring. the services of liberal groups are very boring. The fundies always have jumping around and lively music and people raising their hands it looks so absorbing and it is. Noting feels better than to get into that sort of worship.

    Without the spirit that sort of worship is just empty mockery and with the spirit the boring kind of service seems alive to the participant even though it doesn't to the outside observer.

    A lot more than just liberal theology is in danger. thought itself, much less the free kind, literature, poetry, philosophy, any kind of knowledge that's not reductionist is in danger now.

    Nature, animals, breathing. all in danger.

  2. btw I really like your summary of what liberal theology is about. One of the many things you are good at is simple direct explainations that are all pretty accurate.

  3. btw I don't have an email address for you anymore. The one that you had for so long with your old screen name must not work because I sent some and you didn't respond. that's the only one i have for you.

  4. You don't need a holy roller service. Many people like more formal or reflective forms of worship, chanting the Psalms, and the like. And the issue wasn't liberal theology but the denominations which embrace it. I mentioned reasons why so-called conservative churches are declining at a slower rate, but Christianity in general is on the decline in the West. As I wrote, Christians got complacent, got used to power and control, and got rigid in how they understand and teach about God. This is what has to change.

  5. Thanks, summarizing without losing the essence of the meaning of things is a challenge I enjoy. And the email should still be valid.


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