By Julia Polese
The dismal outlook on the mainline’s future has sparked a discussion about the future of the “institutional” church between New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and progressive Christian author Diana Butler Bass. Douthat responded to Butler Bass’ rebuttal today. He emphasized that the culturally and doctrinally orthodox churches are still the fastest growing in the US:
“Some of these congregations, it’s true, are more theologically and politically liberal than the evangelical norm, in the style of ‘emergent church’ figures like Brian McLaren and hip pastors like Rob Bell, and to the extent that liberal Christianity seems to have any kind of future at the moment it’s more likely to be found in the liberal wing of evangelicalism than in the faded Mainline. But overall, most of the vitality and growth in American Protestantism is still concentrated in congregations that are culturally and politically conservative, if not necessarily orthodox or theologically rigorous.”
I went to an event with the DC “Emerging Meetup Group” last night at Busboys & Poets on U Street. A table discussion kicked off the night in which I found willing progressive dialogue partners who were enthusiastic about hearing what I had to say and we parted ways at the end of the night expressing appreciation for discussion. (One man commented something like “If you’re here and you call yourself a conservative and sitting next to me, who is one of the most progressive people around, we’re off to a good start.”) The main question of the night was about Diana Butler Bass’ new book Christianity After Religion: “In your personal experience and in the experience of your friends, which is the more powerful trend we’re experiencing: the increasing irrelevance of institutional churches or increasing numbers of people interested in spiritual topics and experiences?”
This question definitely revealed a lot about who our friends are. Most of my close friends embraced the church in college. We tend talk a lot about justification and sanctification, joyfully submitting to authority, words like “inerrancy,” creeds, vestments, and deeds. We malign the Enlightenment and growing individualism. My conversation partners last night were mostly men significantly older than me and most talked about the danger of creeds, the reluctance of religious people to embrace science and, of course, the discontents individualism. No one likes individualism.
Whatever they thought the solutions might be to the decline in the institutional church, we could agree there was something wrong with the mainline. But, like progressives and conservatives have since Francis Bacon, they tended to look forward for a solution while I tend to look back. One of them argued that the future of the church lies in “social justice,” another in embracing what makes his daughters feel good about going to Mass. While we all claimed the name of Christ and were troubled by what is happening to the Church, our grander philosophies revealed themselves to be vastly different. I think of this Chesterton’s little vignette about the “grey-clad monk.” I quote it here at length because everyone needs to read lengthy passages of Chesterton:
“Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, ‘Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—‘ At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.”
Most of Diana Butler Bass’ argument about how to save the church flow from sociological studies. She wanted faith to be lifted “out of polarity [between liberal and conservative] into sociology” so people of faith could work together. While her work studying the sociological trends of religion and spirituality is thorough and well-researched, she misses the key “philosophy of the Light” questions that still divide us into liberal and conservative. The sociological viewpoint answers these questions about how to keep young people by embracing trendy social justice causes on one hand and, in some more “conservative” circles, extensive marketing and entertainment-driven feel-goodery. These two approaches still flow from the same philosophy behind holding sociology as authoritative: that human nature is not the same throughout the ages and that the “old-time religion” has to “change or die.” Like I argued in my discussion of “creative liturgy” in the last post, repackaging beauty to fit our needs does not automatically give it new meaning. A “New Spiritual Awakening” without much substance or philosophy to be awakened to is rather unsatisfying and ends up being a mere affirmation of the individual passions. As Douthat writes “an individualistic faith is more likely to encourage solipsism and narcissism, in which the voice of the ego is mistaken for the voice of the divine,” and that is not solely a liberal issue. It’s a “spirit of the age” issue.
I asked Ms. Butler Bass about the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement that is embracing the trappings of the institutional church more than ever (Full disclosure: I am one of these people). She dismissed it as a small movement of people looking for certainty, which, she mentioned, always happens in times like these Great Awakenings. At one point my table partners said Christianity is not about providing answers. It made me wonder what we were doing there. We can dialogue all we want, but focusing solely on the simple practicality of getting along or becoming more attractive without any sense of certainty of the character of our God does not show true love. Jesus did not tell the woman at the well that her lifestyle was interesting and that they should talk about it some more. He lovingly forgave her past and revealed himself as the true source of living water. She was so joyful about her meeting with him that she went home and told everyone she saw. Engagement is the beginning, it is not the end.
Tearing down the lamp-post of the institutional church won’t do us much good if we don’t discuss the purpose and substance of this “new spiritual awakening.” Butler Bass’ argument is effective when she points out that the “progressive movement is the political expression of the third Great Awakening” and that it is, plainly, the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel has a reason for tearing down the lamp-post of the institutional church that can be engaged and has clear philosophical origins. Its “deeds, not creeds” rallying cry can be broken down to tangible questions of authority, materialism, and the primacy of this world, among others. Without such a mooring to the “new spiritual awakening,” it seems we’re just tearing the church down to smash something.