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The Dying Church

Socially Liberal-Theologically Conservative

 

In a recent article, Gretta Vosper, of the United Church of Canada, was asked, How can you be an atheist and still be a member of the UCC?. In answering that question, she described how that church has become liberal on social issues, but also remained very conservative theologically. She also pointed out that clergy arriving from other denominations further intensified the intransigence of the old theology while also being liberal on the social issues. The result has been a decrease in church membership as well as lost opportunity. As she puts it: “…I watch the many gifts of congregational life disappear as churches close their doors even as the need for meaningful conversation, challenging engagement, and the deeply felt love of intentional community becomes acute in our deeply divided world. The UCC could be a haven for those seeking a place to hold one another in a hope-filled challenge; instead, it failed to protect its own unique integrity and got lost…”. The essence of the old and conservative theology boils down to two categories: first, a theistic God, usually interpreted as a Person who is active in history, answers prayer and performs miracles, and second, salvation attributed to Jesus, usually intended to mean that he died for our sins.

The causes may be different, but here, across the border in the US, a parallel process is taking place. One is almost attacked at churches by the flying plastic banners that proclaim how progressive that church is, banners of Gay Pride, Black Lives Matter, Save the Earth, and Creation Justice. No question, the church should definitely be taking on these causes. The problem is that whereas the church is presenting itself as progressive when it is a matter of social issues, it is still stuck in the thinking of fundamentalist theology. Many mainline Protestant clergy that I have known continue to preach as though decades of biblical scholarship was non-existent. They speak of a virgin birth as the essence of Christmas. They accept the story of the Holy Spirit descending on a crowd at what is called Pentecost as though it really happened. They proclaim the historicity of the Empty Tomb as the only understanding of resurrection. And by the way, Jesus fed five thousand with two fish and five loaves. And in the next breath, these clergy lead a petitionary prayer asking for healing, peace, and better days, as though God was the magician waiting in the next room.

What is the issue with these socially liberal/theologically conservative Protestant church leaders? Are they afraid of losing even more members if they speak in a new way? Are they afraid that those members might take their donations elsewhere? Or does the problem go deeper? Sometimes it seems as though conservative mainline clergy find it difficult for themselves to move beyond fundamentalist thinking, as though thinking new thoughts outside the box is just too intimidating. They have devoted a good portion of their life to believing certain ideas, have been entrusted and “ordained” by the larger church to teach others these same ideas, and seem hesitant to entertain a new and questioning style of thinking. One rarely speaks openly of challenging basic tenets of the belief system, and instead circles around to protect and promote them. 

We live in a world being newly shaped by the Webb space telescope, biological technology beyond belief, and social control via social media that impacts our very sense of community and self-identity. This is who we are. The church will no longer exist if it continues to rely on old ideas that were never the point in the first place. It’s not that the church needs to come up with new answers to age-old questions, but rather that it needs to admit that there is a question in the first place.  A great challenge, to be sure, but a matter of life or death. In responding to this challenge, Christians must see the Bible as an inspiring record of a people’s attempt to understand God and how they relate to this God. Inspiring, but not infallible. The book was never intended to be taken literally, and we do it a great injustice if we do so today. 

The same critical attitude must hold in thinking about God. Anyone who has seen the Webb images of space can no longer conceive of God as the magician in the next room. If Christians choose to think about God, they  must recognize this God as both Person and Being, a dialectical mystery that forms the heart of Christian faith but also transcends the human ability to fathom.

And for those who get their bearings from him and call themselves disciples, Jesus of Nazareth is the focal point of this biblical story, a person emerging from the Ground of Being who incarnated the truth of the humanity that we can become. The mysterious divine action was not a sacrifice on a cross, but the Presence of a man who could shine light on who we are meant to be, and, though crucified, continues to live in a new mode. Again, a dialectical mystery that forms the heart of the Christian faith but also transcends our ability to comprehend.

People who never had any interest in the church, as well as those who leave the church, are rejecting or leaving behind what they cannot accept. That is a powerful message: whatever you are saying, church, makes no sense to me. You can be as socially liberal as you want, but your core story makes no sense. But what does make sense is that whoever we are, we can neither escape our humanity, nor cease to ask questions about the meaning of life, nor turn our back on love for neighbor and planet. This is who we are, Christian and secular humanist alike, and it is to these issues that we must direct our attention. I have often thought that the church could have two congregations in the same building and space, one for those who share an identity grounded in the story of Jesus, albeit with a new theology, and another grounded in the secular humanism of just being a loving human being. They would not be so different, sharing, as they would, a common love for all that is. The alternative might just be more empty white buildings with steeples and crosses and a society with no place to go.

 

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision and  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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