The Trouble with Liberal Protestantism
Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed page columnist for The New York Times, explained in a recent issue, July 15, 2012, the what and why of the demise of liberal Protestantism.
Mr. Douthat is, I seem to remember from a previous column, a Roman Catholic. That he would dare to diagnose the ills of my Body of Christ might be seen by me as the provocation of an outsider who doesn't know Arminiansim from double predestination. But fool that I am, I too have rushed in and dared to diagnose his Body of Christ on several occasions without as much as an appropriate second thought that it really wasn't for me to say.
I could and shall quibble with opinionator Douthat.
He assigns the Episcopal Church the role as the chief liberal Protestant denomination, in which many of the clergy have adopted Bishop John Shelby Spong's view that most traditional Christian doctrine is superstition. The Episcopalians I know would not accept this dismissal of their take on the Gospel. And the United Church of Christ might argue about who is the leading voice of liberal Protestantism. I will argue with the underlying assumption, an historical one, about Spong, as if he was the one with whom the purported demise of the Episcopal Church (and the rest of liberal Protestantism) was initiated. I remember how in the 1950's, years before Spong and the Age of Aquarius, and all the license the political right attributes to the Sixties, we laughed with a professor's description of a certain Episcopal church in New York City, where bells and smells proliferated, that said church believed there is "no God and the Virgin Mary is his mother." So what's new? I suspect similar heresies have been with us since Henry VIII... at least.
I would also take issue with Douthat's implicit (and probably unawares) assumption that the success of a religious movement is to be measured by the number of adherents. Roman Catholic Fr. Andrew Greeley, a Vatican II priest and novelist, famously (for me, at least) countered that the church is not called to be successful; it is called to be faithful. In Greeley's claim I hear an echo of red letter words paraphrased here from Luke 18:8, "When I return, will I find one with faith?" That's a verse that really grabbed Soren Kierkegaard and provided the theme for his "Attack on Christendom" in 19th century Denmark when Bishop Grundtvig, a Lutheran not an Episcopalian, celebrated a triumphalist (think megachurch: numbers, power, money) version of the Gospel.
The pulpit regularly pays lip service to the line in the Sermon on the Mount, "For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." That warning from Jesus, for openers and maybe for closers too, needs to be remembered by Messrs. Douthat and Howard. John the Baptist, however, provides the countering good news to every predictor of the demise of the church because it doesn't adopt his (the critic's) prescriptions, that "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham"... and disciples to Jesus. Hand wringing about the diminution of the institutional church puts the worrier in the company of Elijah in a cave atop Mt. Horeb complaining to heaven, "I, even I only am left." The Lord forthwith "corrects his arithmetic"NB with the news there are plenty of faithful souls waiting down below in the valley.
Enough with the quibbles! Ross Douthat blames liberal Protestantism for its willingness to conform to the mores of the modern world, at any cost. I offer another diagnosis.
Our problem, our liberal Protestant problem, in this moment is its failure to produce leadership with intelligence, faithful intelligence enhanced by a creative imagination, capable of earning the respect of congregants, many of whom have advanced college degrees and simply aren't persuaded when a turned collar says "Trust me." Back in the day, the parson was the person in the church with an education. The pastor in my growing years, Loyd Worley, wore his academic hood in the pulpit; and in the toils of ecclesiastical plenaries did his level best to insist on an educated clergy. We may not always have agreed with him, but we sure did look up to him, in no small measure because he was learned. Whether by design or luck his generation of clergy inspired those of us who went to seminary in the '50's. Among my fellow students at Union Theological Seminary were graduates from the most prestigious colleges in the U.S.A., Canada, and Europe. My first year roommate was valedictorian at Franklin and Marshall. My best friend at seminary was Phi Beta Kappa at Duke. We were taught by professors featured on Time Magazine's cover. Oxford don and Methodist founder, John Wesley, would approve this insistence on smarts.
In my travels and travails in retirement I have visited sixty different churches, mostly liberal Protestant. You can see for yourself on another corner of this website, the one identified as "Reviews." Douthat correctly skewers some of the pulpiteers I have audited, those who lean far more heavily on the second of the two great commandments according to Jesus, the horizontal one, about loving our neighbors as ourselves. You can usually spot them by their insistence on love, love, love as the Gospel (which it also is!) but only rarely refer to the cross and the cost of discipleship. Lots of well-meaning advice. Lots of feeling. Lots of gimmickry. And, once in awhile, only once in a great while, this ardent pew-sitter reports, have I gotten what I need, the Gospel updated intelligently and faithfully, about Jesus, his life, death and teachings, and what on earth they have to do with me in the agony and ecstasy of this mortal existence.
Equally in my travels I have forced myself to listen to sermons lacking in texture, organization, imagination, and, as in my central complaint, intelligence. Granted, I am not your average churchgoer. I do, however, make allowances. Still the scenario hardly varies: cliché follows theological cliché in predictable pattern. Oh, yes, there's passion and volume. Like MacBeth complained, if not about sermons, "sound and fury signifying nothing." When finally I catch an arresting thought emanating from the pulpit, I embarrass myself with post-service accolades to the preacher... as if the thirsty soul I am, wandering in a spiritual desert, I had at last found a spring of cool water.
Douthat's prescription, never said it but clearly implied it, is to go back to basics, to capture that "old time religion." For him it's probably a return to pre-Vatican II; and for us, liberal Protestants, it would be some combination of revivalism and Social Gospel. Ain't gonna happen.
I am prepared to wait, if impatiently, for the stones to be turned into children of Abraham. In time, if not in my time, God will raise up a generation that recovers in its own distinctive voice the Gospel that has nourished the church and the world for two thousand years. In that day a goodly number of the brightest and best will spurn the enticements of Wall Street for a life of service in the parish, adequately rewarded to be sure, but not necessarily with dollars. New systematics, dogmatics, and summa theologica's will be written and read. Like my father-in-law, a Social Gospel Methodist preacher, I probably would be dismayed, as he was with my generation, by the bent and emphases of these new takes on the old Gospel. But that is the way the kingdom comes, not according to our schedule and our prescriptions but God's. Modern Wesleys and John XXIII's, Luthers and St. Augustines will, by God, rise up from the ashes of liberal Protestantism and a neo-Tridentine Catholicism.
Count on it, Ross... and everyone else.
NB. Offered by seminary professor and mentor Paul Scherer.