I shared Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times piece, asking whether Liberal Christianity can be saved, on Facebook, and it has generated quite a lot of response. And so I thought I would post some thoughts on the topic, under an intentionally-provocative title that asks whether there is any reason for conservative Christians to read Douthat’s article in a spirit of self-congratulation.
First, it seems to me far from a given that conservative Christianity by definition will flourish. It is not as though it is only theologically liberal or socially progressive churches that have seen declines. Hence the title of this post, asking whether there is anything that would lead one to believe that conservatism gives churches more staying power. Many of the dwindling and disappearing institutional churches around Europe are profoundly conservative, and in the case of institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, one has to reckon with the reality that large numbers of adherents maintain a cultural and religious connection with that church, but feel free to individually disagree with its teachings. I hope that in the comments here we’ll see some discussion of whether and to what extent being conservative makes a religion’s persistence more likely. From my own liberal perspective, conservative churches have time and time again found themselves on the wrong side of issues, and yet seem to learn nothing from the experience, viewing the issue of women in ministry, for instance, the same way they viewed slavery, even after they have admitted their forebears were wrong about that issue. They seem not to grasp that the reason why they were wrong about that issue is intrinsically connected to their conservative approach to religion and social norms.
Douhat suggests that there can be a future for liberal Christianity, but it has to be one that sees renewed passion for conservative theology. I disagree – although I realize that only time can tell which of us was right. I think that a church which can embrace those who are theologically conservative, but also those who are theologically liberal, and become passionate about creating conversation between those who disagree, and passionate about the quest rather than adopting a particular stance reflecting a particular stage on the journey. We could even call ourselves “Evangelical Liberals.” We have a good news that we are passionate about proclaiming, and it isn’t about doctrines assent to which allegedly provides eternal fire insurance. Our core liberal convictions should lead us to stand on the front lines against injustice, and create meeting places where passion for our spiritual journeys is fostered, rather than a narrow conservative version which seeks to persuade people that they have already arrived if they just assent with all their heart to a creed or to four spiritual laws or to a particular doctrine of the atonement.
There is a version of Liberal Christianity that it is easy to get excited about. And I am excited about it. Perhaps the time has come for all of those of us who see things in this way to unite, and to take back the identity of Christianity from the loud and prominent self-proclaimed spokesmen (yes, most of them are men) who have so managed to persuade the media and popular opinion that they represent “true Christianity,” that Liberal Christianity has come to be viewed as a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither.
But that is not how things stand at all. Those who claim to be “Biblical Christians” are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with “what the Bible says.” And they are prone to miss that there has been liberal Christianity from the very beginning. When Paul set aside Scriptures that excluded Gentiles on the basis of core principles of love and equality, and arguments based on the evidence of God’s Spirit at work in them, he was making an argument very similar to that which inclusive Christians make today. The fact that his argument eventually became Scripture itself should not blind us to the fact that when he made his argument, his words did not have that authority.
So the time has come, I think, for Liberal Christians to get excited, to get active, and to get vocal – not just about the contemporary issues of equality and justice that we feel passionate about, but also vocal about the fact that what we stand for is something that has always been a part of Christianity, even if it has sometimes been forced to the fringes.
In concluding, let me acknowledge (in a manner that many conservatives will probably not reciprocate regarding my point in this blog post) that conservatism has always been reflected in Christianity, too. But it should not be assumed that the more conservative religious people – for instance, those who actively opposed Paul – were somehow by definition “more Christian” or more on target with respect to Christian values and emphases. And so I suspect that non-liberal forms of Christianity will remain with us. The question is more about whether they will continue to take center stage, or like the early conservative Jewish Christianity that opposed Paul’s playing fast and loose with Scripture to allow Gentiles into God’s people, as small pockets that represent a largely irrelevant holdover from a bygone era.
[The above article first appeared on the blog Exploring Our Matrix]