Can Liberal Christianity Find Its Own Salvation?
By William E. Smith
Special to The Pilot
A recent editorial by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, "Saving Liberal Christianity," got my attention.
Quoting controversial former Bishop John Shelby Spong and his 1998 book "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," Mr. Douthat proceeded to tell of drastic changes in the governing policies of the Episcopal Church designed to keep the church relevant in a rapidly changing world. The latest is the adoption of a rite to bless same-sex unions.
Taking a wide swath, Mr. Douthat declared that "leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don't seem to be offering anything you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism." Meanwhile, average attendance in local Episcopal churches shows something between a decline and a collapse.
"In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent," he wrote, "and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase."
If misery loves company, there may be some comfort in the fact that the Episcopal Church is not alone. In the early 1970s, 62 percent of Americans identified themselves with a Protestant church or denomination. By 2008, just slightly more than half did.
"If this trend continues," Mark Chaves writes in "American Religion: Contemporary Trends," "the United States soon will not have a Protestant majority for the first time in its history."
There has also been a significant increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. Some still believe in God and consider themselves "spiritual but not religious." In 1957, a government survey revealed that only 3 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. By 2008, 17 percent said so.
We have also become a more diverse society because of the influx of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Yet the majority of recent immigrants to the U.S. still come from predominantly Christian countries. Most recent immigrants from Latin America are overwhelmingly Catholic. Some still think that the United States is a "Christian country," but the increase of non-Christians belies that claim. We are diverse.
The word "liberal" is not as highly respected as it used to be. Political and religious conservatism are interdependent and increasingly powerful. It was not always so.
I attended Methodism's oldest and most liberal theological seminary, which had parted company with fundamentalists who believed that the Bible was essentially dictated by God and therefore is infallible. At Boston University School of Theology, we were taught that God spoke, and continues to speak, through many authors.
The Old Testament is a veritable library of ancient Israelite literature, the earliest writing believed to have been written a thousand years before Christ. The Christian churches did not agree as to which documents should be included in the New Testament canon until the fourth century A.D. Yet we do affirm these writings to be the word of God in the words of men.
Theological liberals were/are also known for their passionate concern for the social gospel - i.e., the struggle to overcome poverty, racism, injustice and war in an increasingly global society. Martin Luther King Jr. and I were in graduate school together. One day, after a class in theology, I asked Martin what he intended to do after he finished his Ph.D. He replied very simply, "I plan to return to my people." The rest is history. A passionate concern for justice.
Yet it is not the liberal mainline denominations that have grown in recent decades, but the conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, whose numbers have increased even as confidence in religious leaders has dropped dramatically - as it has for leaders of other major enterprises: government, financial institutions, college sports.
Bishop Spong was right: The mainline church must change or die. But how?
The April 9, 2012, issue of Newsweek, the day after Easter, had a front cover picture of a solemn young man with a beard, long hair and a crown of thorns on his head. Informally dressed, he stood in the middle of a crowded intersection in Manhattan. Printed on his jacket were the words "Forget the Church: Follow Jesus."
It was a powerful and enticing invitation. But it is too simplistic. To quote my friend and former colleague Stanley Hauerwas, who teaches Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School:
"The truths of Christian faith must be held in a community formed by a shared narrative, which shapes individual character and makes shared moral judgments possible. To follow the crucified and risen Christ demands disciplines of peaceableness, patience, and forgiveness that do not come naturally. Witnesses are formed by living in a community that listens to that narrative (the holy Scriptures) and accepts its judgment upon their lives."
Hope for a transformed community of Christian disciples is inspiringly described in a book I highly recommend: "Christianity After Religion - the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening," by Diana Butler Bass.
I heard Dr. Bass speak in Raleigh at a meeting sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese and was so moved that I bought this, her latest book, and have shared it with friends. Dr. Bass speaks out of a penetrating understanding of church history and a deep and radiant spiritual experience that are truly authentic.
I am convinced that the American Church will not die; but it will, by God's grace, be transformed. What the world needs now, as the song says, is love, sweet love. That transcends all barriers.
Dr. Smith is a retired pastor and educator. He served churches in Massachusetts, Maryland and Ohio, and then for seven years was professor of the practice of Christian ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He lives in Southern Pines.
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