Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shall we smooth the ruffles in dying liberal Christianity's pillow?

I think Tim Stanley makes a good argument here for the conclusion that, despite many protestations against a recent article by Ross Douthat, liberal or progressive Christianity is dying in the States, and no more glaringly so than in the ebbing life of the Episcopal Church.

Remembering that this is a journalist speaking and not a sophisticated theologian and ecclesiologist, Stanley puts the situation in this way:

"In fact, giving up your Sunday morning to sit in a cold temple listening to a kazoo band playing Nearer My God To Thee is, for most people, a perverse thing to choose to do. Ergo, it is not enough to get them into the pews by saying, “We've driven out the bigots!” – ministers now how to convince the public that church attendance is in their personal interest. And conservatives are better at doing this than liberals because the product they are selling makes a stronger claim for its value to the individual. 
Think of faith as operating within a highly competitive marketplace of ideas. Faith is no longer a product that people presume they need and are looking to buy (soap or shoes). Instead it has become a luxury item, or something that they have to be convinced that they might want (a sports car or a puppy). What kind of luxury is more likely to sell? Liberal Christianity is wracked with doubt, ducks strong conclusions and often seems to apologise for its own existence. Its liturgy is a confusing blend of styles and belief systems – just take a look at this colourful consecration of an Episcopalian bishop in Los Angeles. What do these people believe, and how is it relevant to me? 
By contrast, the conservative Christian product is a zinger. It screams loudly that it is the only way to Heaven, its Protestant services tend to be packed and charismatic, and its theology is straight-forward and uncompromising."

What about life in the Anglican church in these islands? I suggest it is pretty much the same situation. Liberal or progressive congregations are small, getting smaller, and on the way out. And that's a worry because we are talking about some pretty big swathes of parishes through our dioceses and hui amorangi. In part, the debate I have highlighted here at our General Synod re the 50:50 split in control of St John's College Trust Board funds is a consequence of a church with falling congregations and declining offertories. The real response of General Synod to tino rangatiratanga as a body of leadership in our church should be an examination of mission and evangelism strategy for the 21st century.

As with many matters touched on here, the biggest question before us as a church is the question, What is the gospel? If our 'gospel' is, in Stanley's terms, about a 'luxury' and not a 'necessity' of life, then we have no future in the post-modern world where many luxuries are available and few choices about necessities cannot be put off till another day. For all conservative Christianity's faults, it still conveys a conviction that the gospel is (pun intended) crucial to life. Ergo, in the two cities I have lived in over the last twelve and a half years, the largest churches have been conservative in theology (including healthy Catholic churches). I have said it before here but will keep saying it, the state of Anglicanism relative to Christianity in these islands is such that if all Anglicans disappeared tomorrow (in the rapture?) then Christianity would carry on strongly, healthily and mostly conservatively.


POSTSCRIPT: In connection with the above, Kendall Harmon is worth a watch-and-listen here.

25 comments:

carl jacobs said...

Instead it has become a luxury item

This is not strictly speaking true. There is no such thing as a faithless man. Every man has presuppositions in which he puts his faith. There is strictly speaking no crisis of faith in the West. Men still believe - but just in different things.

What has happened in the West is an epistemological crisis. Men no longer believe in revealed Truth. They no longer believe Truth can be apprehended. They sought to search for Truth in Science, but the search failed. So they sought to search for Truth in themselves, and that search failed as well. Now they have given up searching for Truth. They sacrificed the meaning that is found in truth and settled for freedom instead. So long as they have the time and money to indulge their freedom, its a workable settlement. But it's an empty nihilistic settlement. Yet the desire for meaning is powerful, and this is what True religion provides. Especially when life is a road marked with suffering.

Liberal religion meanwhile is still back in the 60's trying to sell the search for meaning within the Self. "It's the journey and not the destination." That's why it dies. It is offering the failed answers of a failed god. And no one is listening anymore.

carl

Bryden Black said...

A timely post, Peter. Ross’s clarity of vision is welcome - if it were not so stunningly obvious in the first place! Sadly though, such self-righteousness as that exemplified by the PB’s 2006 (corrected date) comment is innately blind: incurvatus in se is the traditional [sic] diagnosis.

Father Ron Smith said...

"...By contrast, the conservative Christian product is a zinger. It screams loudly that it is the only way to Heaven, its Protestant services tend to be packed and charismatic, and its theology is straight-forward and uncompromising."

- Tim Stanley -

Stanley's take may be a little strident about the 'conservative Christian product' 'screaming' its exclusive view of the way to heaven; but the absolute certainty often asserted by protestant dogma can be disturbingly unsettling - especially to those whose search includes the application of human 'Reason' along with the Scriptural fundamentalism that accompanies such 'certitude'.

I'm all for the beauty of the liturgy, with time for thoughtful consideration of the applicability of the Biblical narrative. This is, more traditionally, the Anglican Way.

carl jacobs said...

Peter Carrell

btw. About this...

if all Anglicans disappeared tomorrow (in the rapture?)

Bad Amilenialist! Bad! Bad! Bad! Letting dispensationalism creep onto your weblog. We know the Rapture is properly located on the Last Day. And anyways, a Pre-trib or Mid-Trib rapture would scoop up all Christians so the church wouldn't go on strong and healthy.

carl

Peter Carrell said...

I am fully expecting to be left behind, Carl!

Bryden Black said...

Ron, I think this is an appropriate thread on which to call you out re your raising the role of “sweet reason” - yet again.

Certainly, you are correct to insist we use this God-given faculty. Yet, like every facet of our human nature, it’s somewhat impaired by the effects of sin, both collective and individual. So, when Carl explicitly mentions the Western epistemological crisis, he’s pointing out something vitally important. That’s why on this site I have raised two extremely helpful resources before:

1. Paul Griffiths & Reinhard Hütter, eds, Reason and The Reasons of Faith (T&T Clark, 2005), being papers from the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry colloquia between 2000 & 2003; it is a quite brilliant and important collection.
2. JA Kirk & KJ Vanhoozer, eds, To Stake a Claim: Mission and the Western Crisis of Knowledge (Orbis, 1999), which is a tour de force, not least with regards to establishing a due space for Holy Scripture in a post Enlightenment world. And I say this last due to your trying to oppose Reason and its proponents, and so-called fundamentalists, who you often suppose are simply vacuous in their minds.

That is, Ron, I challenge you to address both these texts before you tackle a subject such as this thread’s topic again. Please: for all our sakes!

Shawn said...

” And yet, against the predictions of liberal theologians, the result has been the evolution from a pseudo-national church to a hippie sect. “ -Tim Stanley.

Pure gold!

Anonymous said...

RE your comment:
"I have highlighted here at our General Synod re the 50:50 split in control of St John's College Trust Board funds is a consequence of a church with falling congregations and declining offertories."

I agree that the St Johns debate is a significant one, but I wonder if it is even more significant than you say.

In Acts we find a church that goes to considerable lengths to NOT split along ethnic lines ... ( e.g. making sure that the allocation of money to the poor is managed evenhandedly, the letter of James about the relationship between gentile christians and jewish rituals, the vision of Peter about clean and unclean), and of course this is summarised in Pauls "neither jew nor greek, slave nor free" exhortation in his writings.

Yet somehow despite all of that teaching about holding together across ethnic lines the St Johns debate is about splitting in exactly this way. It appears to the outsider to not be about power sharing, but rather about separate power structures.

So what does this debate say to the community about the relative value being placed on the historic principles of its faith relative to the pressures from current issues?

Margaret

MichaelA said...

"...but the absolute certainty often asserted by protestant dogma can be disturbingly unsettling - especially to those whose search includes the application of human 'Reason' along with the Scriptural fundamentalism that accompanies such 'certitude'."

Since 'fundamentalist protestants' fully apply human 'Reason', we get the best of both worlds!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Margaret,
You are right to draw attention to the deeper and larger issue.

Father Ron Smith said...

Margaret, I think you are touching upon what might prove to be a really raw nerve in the sort of 'tribal' division of community assets here. The same argument, of course, applies to the air we breathe and the water which is the basis of all life - without any tribal preference. The Church ought to be the felloweship of ALL believers - without distinction.

carl jacobs said...

Bryden Black

And I say this last due to your trying to oppose Reason and its proponents, and so-called fundamentalists, who you often suppose are simply vacuous in their minds.

I came very close to making a very similar comment to this. Reason is a process. It is something that every man does. The output of his reason is dependent upon the presuppositions that inform it. So when a Liberal says something like this ...

especially to those whose search includes the application of human 'Reason' along with the Scriptural fundamentalism that accompanies such 'certitude'.

... he means the output of human reason given those presuppositions to which he holds. He will never identify those presuppositions nor state their authority. He simply assumes their rightness to be self-evident. That assertion of self-evident rightness is the foundation for his self-assessed state of enlightenment. And so he envelopes himself in an impenetrable shell of his own authority and his own making.

This btw ...

along with the Scriptural fundamentalism that accompanies such 'certitude'.

.. is a good example of the crisis to which I referred. Any established reader of this weblog will know that FRS has no trouble making statements of certitude. (He means 'sufficiency' btw but no matter.) Just ask him about the morality of homosexuality. He has no doubt. The difference is not in the certainly of his assertion but in the authority behind the certainty. Certain Knowledge of God requires revelation. Certain knowledge regarding moral behavior can originate within man. That is the difference.

Liberals get very angry if you accuse them of saying that men should live according to a standard of 'doing what is right in their own eyes.' But if you said their guidance was that men should live according top a standard of "doing what is right in the eyes of the Enlightened Ones like themselves" they would struggle to disagree. They would try, because it is so manifestly arrogant. But they would ultimately fail because they know the statement is an accurate reflection of their true position.

What after all is the point of being enlightened if it is not to lead other people towards enlightenment?

carl

Anonymous said...

"Yet somehow despite all of that teaching about holding together across ethnic lines the St Johns debate is about splitting in exactly this way. It appears to the outsider to not be about power sharing, but rather about separate power structures."

The Three Tikanga structure was upheld (along with the divinely inspired Treaty of Waitangi) as one of those incontrovertible facts of the universe you couldn't question, like Aristotle's physics or Ptolemy's cosmology.
The truth is, Maori Anglicanism is only a shadow of its former self, and this looks very much like asset-stripping to prop up a small strand of the church that certainly isn't reaching many Maori. There is no koinonia here.
Martin

Father Ron Smith said...

".. he means the output of human reason given those presuppositions to which he holds. He will never identify those presuppositions nor state their authority. He simply assumes their rightness to be self-evident. That assertion of self-evident rightness is the foundation for his self-assessed state of enlightenment. And so he envelopes himself in an impenetrable shell of his own authority and his own making." - Carl -

Well spoken, Carl. This is precisely what I was trying to say about your entrenched position, but your explanation of what it means to you is more important than what anyone else thinks about you. Your self-analysis here is commendable.

Thank you for being so brave.

Tim Chesterton said...

Ron says:

This is, more traditionally, the Anglican Way.

What exactly is the Anglican Way? Every time I hear this phrase I prepare to be assaulted by someone who wants to insist that their brand of Anglicanism is the 'true' one (so Ron, for instance, is constantly denigrating evangelicals and suggesting that we are not true Anglicans because we are 'sola scripture' types who ignore tradition and reason.

Well, let's take this much-vaunted 'three-legged stool' of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, now often seen as definitive of Anglicanism, and usually associated with Richard Hooker (although, in fact, he never used the phrase 'three-legged stool', and he meant something very different by 'reason' than modern liberal catholics mean). But, which authoritative Anglican formularies have ever endorsed the 'three-legged stool' as the defining characteristic of Anglicanism? In my branch of Anglicanism (Canada), the Solemn Declaration of 1893 (our founding document) points to the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the 39 Articles as normative, but never mentions the three-legged stool. My conclusion is that you can be a perfectly respectable Anglican without it. It is one part of the 'Anglican spectrum', but it certainly does not define 'the' Anglican Way.

To give another example, in the eighteenth century the average church in England had communion four times a year. Nowadays, many people assume that if you don't have communion every week you're not a real Anglican. So were those eighteenth century British Christians not real Anglicans? Or are there, in fact, many different shades of Anglican? Is it, in fact, more accurate to speak of 'the Anglican spectrum' than 'the Anglican Way'?

Father Ron Smith said...

Tim, as you no doubt are aware, there are Evangelicals and evangelicals. In just the same way as there are Catholics and catholics. I certainly don't mean to denigrate your brand of Evangelicalism - which is obviously open to the fact that Gays are actually fellow human beings, worthy of respect and acceptance for who they are. I guess that is one of the big differences between you and others on this blog for whom Gays are anathema.

In fact, at base, we should all be Evangelical - Bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ as Redeemer, Saviour, liberator and Lord. Sadly, in my brief 80-odd years of personal experience, many hard-core 'Evanglicals' are resitant to the catholic notion of inclusivity in the Gospel.

However, I do count some self-defining 'Evangelical' Christians,
for whom the Love of Christ and others is a shining example to all of us, to be amongst my dearest friends. It just seems that not many of them get to comment on this site. (I do count you among them!)

Shawn said...

"However, I do count some self-defining 'Evangelical' Christians,
for whom the Love of Christ and others is a shining example to all of us, to be amongst my dearest friends. It just seems that not many of them get to comment on this site. (I do count you among them!)"

I suspect Ron that what you really mean is that you only accept this "evangelicals" if they are in favor of the Church adopting same sex blessings and marriage.

Are you saying therefore that myself, Carl, Martin, Bryden and Peter do not believe in the love of Christ as an example?

Because surely that is a very judgement claim and , to me, patently absurd.

Bryden Black said...

Ron/Carl. When we are confronted by two opposed and seemingly irreconcilable positions, how might we discriminate between the two?

Part of the answer of course is, firstly, understanding well the respective premises of each. Then secondly, we need to evaluate those premises. Yet therein lies something of a dilemma: by what criteria may we evaluate contrary presuppositions? For often such criteria are themselves part and parcel of the very frameworks under debate.

That is why I have found Alister McGrath’s three volume work, A Scientific Theology so useful, indeed powerful. For he offers here something I have not found elsewhere: a means of trans-traditional critique. Yet do we avail ourselves of his means ...?!

QED: how robust in the end, when one drills down to bedrock, is the classic liberal stance? Frankly, I have always found it wanting at root - even as it seems so very appealing to a large degree, in the first, and second, and third places. A glaring example: the simple equivalence, held by Ron just here, of “inclusivity” and “catholicity”. A decent piece of rational enquiry will show their respective historical genealogies to be quite different - and mutually exclusively so.


Tim; you are absolutely correct to call out the so-called three legged stool/cord (mantra!) - of Scripture, Tradition and Reason - as some kind of definition of Anglicanism. It is not. Nor was it ever! Many thanks for dispelling this unhelpful bit of anachronistic nonsense.

Far more helpful, even necessary, is a due appreciation of the roles and limits of both Tradition and Reason in any discussion. Careful discernment and discrimination hereabouts is sadly often lacking in our contemporary debates in the AC, where slogans and short-cuts abound, rather than the sorts of “attention to long-term intellectual and ecclesial tasks” called for recently by Michael Poon. See http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=735

Shawn said...

As I have said before I strongly suspect, especially given Ron's comments above, that when many Liberals invoke reason it is not the actual faculty of human reason that is being invoked but a mixture of Liberal political ideology and modern epistemological assumptions.

Carl points this out well in his critique of Ron's ongoing refusal to state clearly the epistemological foundations for his claim that his positions are based on reason, and Bryden once again rightly asks (so far unanswered) the same question.

For the reason stated at the start of this post I do not think we are likely to get an answer.

The irony of all this however is that Liberalism is not rational. It is based on a set of ideological assumptions concerning human nature and society that can only be held by holding to a degree of cognitive dissonance that is truly epic in scope.

Still, at least secular atheist liberals can claim to be consistent. Liberal Christians, and perhaps especially those claiming to be Liberal Catholics most certainly cannot.

To hold on the one hand that we must follow the modern worlds epistemological foundations and notions of "reason", and on the other still claim to hold to the doctrines of the virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection, and the real presence of Christ in the elements, involves a level of cognitive dissonance that makes secular liberals look like amateurs.

Liberal "Catholicism" is an inherently self-refuting, self-defeating and yes, completely irrational notion.

It can only be held by blatantly picking and choosing a set of utterly contradictory positions and beliefs and then pretending to all and sundry that they hold together. There is nothing rational about this process.

Bryden Black said...

Shawn: I've tried to it point out repeatedly - the last creature to ask questions of the water is the fish. And this fish is content to merely blow bubbles at us ...

carl jacobs said...

FRS

This is why it is so frustrating to try and engage you. You can't even correctly identify your opponent's position. If you want to know my presuppositions, then read the Chicago Statement. My arguments proceed from the authority of Scripture. I hold to divine inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy, and perspicuity. Scripture is the Norma Normata.

Now, if you would be so kind, would you please at long last tell us the authority behind the 'sweet reason' to which you so often appeal in order to subvert the Scriptures?

carl

Bryden Black said...

Back to the thread folks. Timothy George has a good line here:

http://www.colsoncenter.org/issues/entry/42/19882

Father Ron Smith said...

"And anyways, a Pre-trib or Mid-Trib rapture would scoop up all Christians so the church wouldn't go on strong and healthy. " - Carl Jacobs -

What sort of gobbledegook is this? Is this really meant to be serious theological speculation. If so, one wonders what sort of institution is teaching such codswallop.

Shawn said...

It's called humor Ron.

carl jacobs said...

FRS

What sort of gobbledegook is this?

It's called Dispensationalism and it traces its roots all the way back to Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. There are three views of the Rapture in dispensationalism: Pre-tribulation, Mid-tribulation, and Post-tribulation. In each case, Dispensationalism teaches that the whole of the Church is removed from the Earth. Think 'Left Behind' and airplanes falling out of the sky.

Otherwise, Shawn was right. I was needling Peter Carrell about using dispensationalist imagery in his post. Anglicans don't have a reputation for dispensationalism, after all. One of my most important teachers was a Plymouth Brethren who tried (and failed) to indoctrinate me into this view of eschatology, so mark this day, FRS. We actually agreed on something.

carl