A recent Douthat op-edder in the Times has attracted all sorts of attention. "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved," he asks. Basically, he reiterates the old and by now unremarkable claim that "liberal Christianity" has no future -- that it having accepted the notion that it must change or die, it will choose both: to "change, and change, and die."
He picks on the Episcopalians, probably because they are such an easy and colorful target. (We do the same thing, as often as we can.) But his point can reasonably be extended to the ELCA and almost all of its full-communion partners; this is the "liberal" side of mainline Protestantism.
Please note the scare-quotes, though. In a densely-argued post, Stynxno obliterates Douthat on several counts, chief among them the all-too-familiar confusion of political and theological "liberalism." They are both real things, each with its own confusing history and problems of definition; they are sometimes found together. But they are quite distinct from one another, and neither depends upon the other. Failure to separate them makes a muddle of any argument like Douthat's.
For our part, we take issue with this remark:
Today, by contrast [to leaders of the Social Gospel and civil rights movements,] the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.This is unfair, or perhaps ill-informed, on at least three counts.
(1) Unfair to Theological Liberals -- and Conservatives. Theological liberalism as a movement was well under way by the middle of the 19th century, and shaped the movements Douthat is talking about. Walter Rauschenbusch's Theology for the Social Gospel begins with (well, includes in Chapter 2) a slam against those stodgy Methodist conservatives who refuse to adapt their Articles of Religion to the times, even though those very articles were adapted from the Anglican ones. Change or die, he says; re-imagine, he says.
And to be sure, many leaders of the US civil rights movement were moved by their deep and comparatively traditional Christian principles. But among the intellectuals, those principles were often mediated by the great liberal theologians of the time. Notably, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dissertation dealt with, and King corresponded with, Paul Tillich.
Let's be frank: there is a line that runs from Rauschenbusch to Tillich to King to the contemporary forms both of liberal theology and of Christian social vision. But theirs is not by any means the only form of politically "liberal" churchmanship; Anglo-Catholic Socialism offered a compatible political vision based upon self-consciously conservative, even reactionary, theological principles.
(2) Unfair to Episcopalians. There is a certain irony in picking on Episcopalians -- among the Protestant churches most zealous about historical study -- for ignoring history. It is pretty clear that there are a great many things they have determined that they will offer, uncompromisingly, to the world. These include a vision of Christianity which is normed both by the historic episcopate and by the Creeds, which is shaped by the sacraments, and which is fully realized in the care that believers take for the world around them.
Douthat says that they are "flexible to the point of indifference on dogma," an accusation that Lutherans have often made as well, and one which is absolutely true -- if by "dogma" you mean a vast body of systematic theology accepted by the church as if it were of equal value with Scripture. But the fact is that, as Anglicans have maintained since the Elizabethan Settlement, the Creeds and prayers contained in the BCP do provide a minimalistic church dogmatic -- minimal, but still more than Jesus himself ever declared.
(3) Unfair to Historic Christianity. This really burns us up. In what possible world are the Episcopalians, with their bishops and their creeds, changing "historic Christianity" while the Baptists, with no bishops and no creeds, are preserving it? In only one world, dear readers: the world in which "historic Christianity" is not defined by what it has said through creeds, prayers and bishops, but through media spokesmen like Richard Land.
What's really going on here, obviously, is that Ross Douthat, like most of the other "dump on the mainline" crowd, has a very particular vision of what "historic Christianity" is. In this vision, an authentic Christianity is one which supports and proclaims certain specific values; and the values in question are those which one has personally been told, by one's mother, Sunday School teacher or RCIA mentor, are ancient and unchanging.
The problem is that there are very few such values. Close historical study shows, over and over again, that Christians have disagreed from the beginning on nearly every possible subject. Some of these disagreements have been resolved with binding effect -- we don't ask converts to be circumcised, for example. Others, even those supposedly "resolved" by ecumenical councils, will continue until Jesus comes. We're thinking here of the really big things -- Arianism, Pelagianism, Monothelitism. Never mind such petty stuff as who can marry whom or the roles of women in the church, regarding both of which there have been vast differences of practice and little dogmatic decision-making.
Christianity is not, in the final analysis, about values. It is not about social action, any more than it is about ritual. Christianity, in its self-understanding, is about the salvation of souls from eternal damnation. It is about the God who chose to save souls by taking on a body. It is about the construction on earth of a community which can mediate and interpret this salvation. Everything else -- rituals, ethics, dogmatic theology -- grows from the fact of salvation and the reality of the community, and everything else is subject to these things.
To identify historic Christianity with one's own political preferences, even when they have been shared by many or even most Christians through history, is a categorical error. A common one, but a grave one. Christianity is not, and never has been, a political or social movement, much less professed a univocal answer to any political question; it is the community in which the saving power of Christ is manifest, or it is nothing.
In other words, "liberal" Christianity, like any other kind, is not here to be saved. It is here to proclaim salvation. In a familiar bit of shorthand, to save.
So, yes, the Episcopal Church, with all its flaws -- which we will be happy to list ourselves, any time -- does offer something that "purely secular liberalism" does not. In fact, that is all it really offers. The very lack of dogma about which people like Douthat and us are prone to complain can be seen as a reminder of that fact. Are you looking for quick and consistent answers to social questions? Look elsewhere. Are you looking for the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered? Then you've come to the right place.