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Saving Christianity

Are we witnessing a collapse of liberal Christianity because it's trying to adapt to contemporary liberal values? The problem with this static view of dogma is that God doesn't work that way.
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"I didn't know I had a quarrel with him."
--Henry Thoreau's answer to the question, "Have you made your peace with God?"

"The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism."
--Barry Goldwater

To read "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" (Ross Douthat, New York Times, July 14), you would think the more conservative Roman Catholic Church -- more dogmatic and less liberal than its Protestant siblings -- would be over-flowing with priests. Douthat thinks that it is "self-consciously progressive Christian" that has caused an implosion in the Episcopal Church. Even though an "immensely positive force in our national life," the Episcopal Church is too caught up in what he calls relevance to accept that they are going out of business.

What's led us to that precipice? It's simple, goes this assertion: flexibility that is possible only due to indifference to dogma. Be more dogmatic, the argument goes, stand for something, and you will grow as a parish or diocese or denomination. Otherwise, secular liberalism sets in, and attendance declines.

The problem with that static view of dogma -- as an unchanging anchor that keeps faith pure and true -- is that God doesn't work that way. The mighty acts of God, which break into the human condition, bring heaven on earth. Being surprised by God in those ways has led people of faith not only to personal conversation but to social reform as well. Check the history of communities of faith -- in the Bible and across time. Again and again, efforts to categorize faith into systematic dogma had to give way to a faith that was applied to unfolding situations. Christianity has had to adapt. Perhaps more importantly, thank God it does, because it can also be wrong.

The recent decision of the Episcopal Church in America (ECUSA) to bless same-sex relationships did not follow a script, as some might think, written as if every reform ever urged by liberal pundits and theologians was in the story line and animated what has become a denomination adrift. Douthat says ECUSA was "eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes" even though "younger and more open-minded" folks haven't joined and don't attend our parishes, and Douthat and others say that's proof of failure or impending death.

Are we witnessing a collapse of liberal Christianity because it's trying to adapt to contemporary liberal values? To accept that argument you have to go along with Douhat in thinking that the Vatican's clampdown on progressive nuns is really because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation, having already turned over their hospitals to "bottom-line-focused administrators." I am a hospital overseer in New York City, and I can promise you that it's more complicated than that.

Actually, the core of liberal Christianity, and its grounding, is that Incarnation means that God dared to become human. Viewed comprehensively and radically, the mighty acts of God, animated by Divine Love, are boundless. And revelation continues and is encountered when people come to us and reveal something of the Divine in their lives.

For me, being open to those miracles has meant that I see more clearly something I had been unable to see before -- usually because dogma had excluded it from the dominant theological world view. But not from God's love.

God breaks in dramatically when we have seen how wrong we have been regarding race, gender and human sexuality. That may cause internal and external conflict -- and cost us dearly in attendance and funds. It may also draw us and others into the Dream of God, where together we delight in the diversity of God, who hates nothing God has created.

Douthat's caveat is timeless and shared by many: We "should pause, amid [our] frantic renovations, and consider not just what [we] would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world."

Yet, we have been there before. As Mark Twain said, "Man is a Religious Animal ... the only Religious Animal ... the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them ... the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother's path to happiness and heaven."

These are not frantic renovations. They are efforts to discern how that loving God acts again in our midst. I hope we will all walk more humbly, as we take our shoes off and celebrate that we are again on holy ground.