Ross Douthat, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" July 14
GEE, I dunno, Ross. Can the Times be saved?
IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition —
So did the 19th century German Protestant theologians, Ross. And they were right. Demonstrably right.
You can't be a learned member of 21st century society and insist that half the Old Testament was written by Moses, nor that there's any evidence at all of Jesus Christ, historical carpenter, that the Gospels are contemporary eyewitness accounts, that every species on earth is fixed for eternity and is descended from two parents, that the world is 6000 years old, for that matter, nor that the whole structure one refers to as "Christianity" is anything other than a collection of tales and beliefs which have been shaped to suit their times and political expedience for a couple hundred centuries now. Sorry. You can't. You can get a job at the New York Times, but you can't justify a bit of it in reasonable or rational terms.
but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians.
Apart from the ones which are specific to Catholicism, like "no more using young acolytes' rectums as snooker tables."
It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Ross, let's just remember who started this argument, shall we?
For starters, among people who are currently able to sit up and take nourishment, the only ones willing to speak of the whole of Christendom as a two-thousand-year-old monolith free of contretemps and spray-painted graffito until the Sixties ruined it for everyone are people like you: Americans of a religio-authoritarian bent who, just for starters, have to ignore 50% of their fellow religionists in order to make the claim.
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
I'm not an Episcopalian, but so far as I can recall their sex scandals have been of the "O, Lord, they've got homasexyuls in their midsts and they're not even stoning them!" type rather than the "forcible serial boy buggery by priests who are then shielded by the Church hierarchy" sort. So I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt, and believe that the pronouncements of their theologians and councils have been designed to answer questions of belief, not as a marketing campaign to hook the much desired 18-29 demo.
Which, by the way, I have no idea where, or if, it's going to church, but I'm pretty sure it isn't buying gayness as a ticket to Hell and contraception as the moral equivalent of murder. Not in overwhelming numbers, anyway.
But where's the Catholic Church in America over this period? Well, for one thing, it rather notoriously counts every American with an Italian, Irish, or Hispanic surname as one of its own, in perpetuity. And still, the only reason it shows a net growth is the rise of the Hispanic population, which is, to be sure, giving it a lot more miracles involving tree sap and burned toast than it used to have. Which may count for something, but it's not moral authority.
The number one growing "Christian" cult in America is Mormonism. Mormons, you'll forgive me cutting Gordo's Knot here, aren't Christian. The fastest growing religion in America is Wicca. What their marketing strategy is I don't know.
This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.
Let's just throw all the cards over. It's extremely unattractive in the Rapidly Aging Young to hear them still mouthing their parents' inanities. You wanna blame The Sixties for the evils of sex, respect for ethnic and cultural distinctions, and "relativism", which is religio-authoritarianspeak for "calling out people in High places for hypocrisy"? Go ahead. But "consumerism and materialism"? For fuck's sake, those people were anti-consumerist and anti-materialist. For one thing, they were too busy fuckin'.
You can get away with this sort of shit preaching to the choir, but you're not supposed to get away with it on the Times Op-Ed pages. Mainline Protestant churches have seen their attendance tumble in the past twenty years. So have Southern Baptists. Religious people have gone Full Snake Handler, Turpentine Drinker, Faith Healer, and Jesus Did To Ride A Dinosaur. This may be important information if you're the local Serpents and Solvents distributor, but as to what it means theologically, let alone as a measure of whether Ross Douthat's sex-repugnance is the New Normal: nothing.
Is your own Church supposed to be above this, because it can excommunicate the faithless, the doubtful, and the sass-mouthed? The current regime may be hard-line conservative, but its moral authority with its own people is dropping like the Collection plate take at your local Second Presbyterian, and its claim to the moral high ground is gone for everyone else. How much longer do you think you can ignore that?