Holier than Thou?
Over the last few weeks, a number of articles around the issue of the decline of the liberal church have made headlines and generated a significant amount of commentary. First, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wondered if liberal Christianity could be saved from its many and varied capitulations to secular culture and “recover a religious reason for its own existence.” This was followed, predictably, by Diana Butler Bass’s piece at The Huffington Post which argued that liberal Christianity had simply experienced in advance the declines that their conservative brethren are about to experience or are already in the middle of experiencing. She went on to point to signs of renewal in liberal churches, and even wondered if, ironically, it might be the liberal church that would end up saving Christianity in general.
Now, we’ve even had a Canadian voice thrown into the mix. This week, The Globe and Mail‘s Margaret Wente weighed in via her article on the inexorable decline of the United Church of Canada—a denomination formed in 1925 via the merger of the Methodists, Congregationalists, and part of the Presbyterian church. Wente echoes Douthat in many of her criticisms of the liberal church and adds a few more pointed ones of her own. She wonders: If you’re not terribly interested in God or prayer or worship, and get more excited about environmental concerns or protesting the behaviour of Israel, then why not join one of the many secular organizations devoted to these causes? She concludes by quoting a retired United Church minister from British Columbia who, after spending a lifetime in shrinking churches, has taken to hanging with evangelicals who aren’t afraid to talk about their love for Jesus. He’s even begun to pray. Imagine that. Interesting times, in the religiously confused and confusing West.
I’ve mostly followed these articles and arguments from the perspective of a curious bystander. Anabaptists have often prided themselves on offering a “third way” between, first, the Roman Catholic and Protestant battles of the sixteenth century, and then, more recently, between the more familiar liberal/conservative divide. Of course, this is more than a little presumptuous of us—nobody in the church is really immune from the issues causing all the controversy and debate. And it’s hardly as if Anabaptists have managed to remain gloriously untouched by the huge socio-cultural and philosophical realities that have contributed to the polarized responses of “conservative” and “liberal” churches. But, even if only on a somewhat tenuous and artificial—perhaps even imagined!—level, it’s been nice not to have a dog in the tiresome fight of who is declining more than whom and why this is obviously the case (you’ve compromised! well, you’ve stuck your head in the sand and your turn is coming!). Blah, blah, blah…
Whatever might be made of the preceding, I am less interested in the sociological analysis of religious decline (important as this is!) than I am in what these battles say about us as twenty-first century citizens, and about and about how our worldviews respond to the pressures of our cultural moment. Of course, matters are not nearly as simple as they are often portrayed to be. Conservative churches would undoubtedly say that the reason they are not suffering the declines of liberal churches is because, well, they are right. They have stood for biblical truth and not capitulated to culture. End of story. But perhaps the apparent health of conservative churches has as at least as much to do with, say, the appeal of black and white absolutes in a culture characterized by a bewildering amount and variety of change and uncertainty, as it does with anything like “pure” doctrine. Or perhaps conservative churches are just better at marketing themselves. Or perhaps more people like pop songs than hymns. Or perhaps they serve better coffee. The list could go on.
Similarly, liberal churches might offer their own tidy narrative—a narrative of how they have stood for truth in all its forms, how they have refused to sacrifice ethics at the altar of imagined doctrinal purity, how they have chosen to engage the broader culture and refused to retreat into enclaves of misguided and futile resistance to the larger world. They might even attach an element of piety to this—as if they, alone, are following the “narrow way,” and how their dwindling numbers are evidence of this. Again, though, the story is inevitably more complex. Perhaps their views have less to do with fidelity to Jesus or commitment to truth than to a desire to appear relevant and respectable to the intelligentsia of the day. Perhaps it’s just nicer or more convenient to attach some notion of “God” to the social and political causes we prefer (“the NDP at prayer,” as Wente puts it in her article) because, well, it makes the causes seem more important and it makes us feel a bit holier. Perhaps it’s just nicer to have a vaguely undefined spiritual veneer to attach to the things that really matter to us.
Maybe the lesson to be learned in all this is that we ought to be suspicious of narratives that seem too simple and/or convenient to this or that group, whether conservative or liberal. Or Anabaptist, for that matter. These are our issues too, even if it might please me to imagine that they are not. Some of our churches are in decline, some are on the rise. And we are no less prone to adopting simple narratives for why this might be the case than anyone else.
We, like everyone else, need to remember that human beings are complex creatures who believe and do things for a wide variety of interconnected and, often, unarticulated reasons. It is undoubtedly helpful to notice trends and to attempt to tell a story about why these trends might exist. But all of us ought to proceed with caution. And, more importantly, with love, never forgetting that the people we are most inclined to castigate for their unfaithfulness, ignorance, infidelity, or whatever, are human beings just like us, trying to make sense of God, life, love, meaning, and hope in a complex and ambiguous world.
Good post – I particularly appreciate the reminder to “be suspicious of narratives that seem too simple and/or convenient.”
I’d also be curious to hear what you think of Scot McKnight’s “pox on both your houses” hypothesis?
“Both mainliners and conservatives have accommodated themselves to the culture. This isn’t an either/or. Mainliners have accommodated themselves to the elite, sophisticated, and more upper class society. Evangelicalism, or the conservative churches, have accommodated themselves to the populist culture. There are more numbers for the latter than the former.”
Thank you, Michael.
I absolutely agree with McKnight’s take on this. Both sides have accommodated to culture, just to different elements and for different reasons. “Liberals” have probably accommodated more to the ideas and philosophical assumptions of culture, while “conservatives” have done their accommodating more in the “pragmatic” arena (marketing, consumerism, musical styles, leadership strategies, etc). Of course, even this is far too simplistic, for there are ideas and theological assumptions embedded in every pragmatic strategy the church adopts and there are pragmatic implications for every idea or assumption one embraces. Here, too, I suppose we should be suspicious of easy narratives :).
hmm sounds like you need to go for coffee with me again…
Any time, my friend :).
In my own experience with a “liberal” denomination, this is what I have seen:
Most church goers are evangelical refugees. Few grew up in a “liberal denomination.”
The theology is a mishmash of evangelical and liberal theology, plus some new age stuff, generally with low coherence.
Pastors and the denomination hierarchy are overwhelmingly left-wing in their politics and consider anything else un-Christian. (They represent an extreme in American politics.)
Congregations tend to be moderately conservative or moderately liberal and less judgmental about what is Christian than are the pastors and the denomination hierarchies.
An anti-evangelical sentiment is common, more pronounced among pastors, but also common among members. That sentiment appears related to their presence in these evangelical refugee denominations.
I have also witnessed the social class difference to which Michael has alluded. In liberal churches I have seen lower social class members ignored by the leadership and others in the congregation, even while the pastors and some members professed their dedication to social justice, and even while great attention was paid to the most elite members. It is also a racial thing. Non-whites are genuinely not welcomed to the white liberal churches, even while the opposite pretense remains. My wife experienced this directly. I did through her. And I will never forget one African woman in a congregation in which I was part, the only African American in the congregation, who told me that she only attended a white church “to remind them that she was there.” Of course, the problem was she was virtually invisible to the pastor and the congregation. Ironically, this same congregation, hired an African American choral group, to entertain them at stewardship drive, and to celebrate their imagined open-mindedness.