Monday, July 30, 2012

The Liberal Church: Anything Goes But Nobody Shows?

A few years ago, one of my children, new to the Toronto area, was looking for a church. He visited a lot of United and Unitarian congregations along the way. What he found, for the most part, were small struggling churches where most of the membership was female and older than 65. His comment to me was, “Anything goes, nobody shows.”

Really? Is that the best that can be said of the liberal church? Perhaps. Over the past month the press has been full of similar negative assessments of the liberal Church. This recent spate of articles began with Ross Douthat, a Catholic, writing in the New York Times, on July 15. In an article entitled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved,” Douthat accounts for the steady erosion of liberal church membership by arguing that liberal churches, “often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” Then on July 28, Margaret Wente, writing in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, argued that the liberal church’s move to a “more open, more inclusive, more egalitarian and more progressive” faith has been a colossal failure, in part because the United Church now offers, “intellect, rationality and understanding” instead of spirituality and social activism instead of the gospel.

And then, of course, there is the irascible Tom Harpur, who contributed his nationally syndicated column to the Northumberland Times on July 30. Entitled, “Tsunami Due for Religion as We Know It,” Harpur argues that, “the ‘half-gods’ of the old religion are in the process of being taken apart.” The half-gods Harpur refers to are a witch’s brew of the worst of Christianity: unbelievable doctrines, literalistic understanding of ancient texts, and disgraced priests and evangelists. Interestingly, Harpur doesn’t just go after the liberal churches, but all churches. Before the end of his article, however, Harpur also offers a note of hope for those of us who want the best for the future of faith. He writes that, “the end of religion as we have known it is the beginning of something much greater,” that is, “the evolution of the highest spiritual attributes of human kind.” Unfortunately, he is very vague about what these attributes look like, or how we might achieve them.

The most interesting of the recent commentaries on religion comes from Diana Butler Bass, author of the acclaimed Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Writing in the Huffington Post on July 15, (“Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,”) Butler Bass makes the point that it isn’t just the mainline churches that are declining—all churches are, including Evangelical churches. So, for example, the denomination I left this year has been losing members for years, and is a shadow of what it was twenty years ago. Recent commentators have pointed out that one in ten Americans considers himself or herself a former Catholic. Were it not for immigration the Catholic church would be a shell of what it is now. The most conservative large American evangelical church, the Southern Baptists, have also been declining for at least ten years, having lost, by some estimates, nearly 20% of their membership.

Like Harpur, Butler Bass is nevertheless hopeful, though she’s also more specific. She argues that that the future of Christianity is with churches where “a form of faith that cares for one's neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus' injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life.”

I like the direction Butler Bass is suggesting. In her book she argues that whatever is happening in our institutional churches, and no matter how suspicious people are of those institutions, it is clear that the public at large is still deeply interested in, and engaged in, spiritual pursuits.

But to get to young adults like my son, our churches have to be more than places where anything goes. They also have to be places where he can find warmth, community, friendship, purpose, and a humble longing and awe for God.

And come to think of it, that’s what I’m looking for too.

Friday, July 13, 2012

We All Have Our Moments

We all have our moments.

I remember one, in particular. I was seven or eight years old, and had just graduated from Beginner Swimming at the neighborhood pool on Geneva St. in St. Catharines. A summer earlier I had merely earned a participation certificate for that class--so passing was a big deal.

Privileges accrued to those who passed Beginner Swimming. The largest was permission to dive from the high board--if you dared. Many kids didn't. Some climbed the ladder, walked to the end of the board, looked down, and turned back. Climbing down they had to squeeze by all the kids on the ladder waiting their turn to dive. Not pleasant.

Well, I passed, and so Ernie and John and Art and several other neighborhood kids dared me. Even now I remember clinging to the chrome railings, standing nose to back of shin of the kid ahead of me, and the sandpaper-like feel of the plank. Soon I was above all, looking down at the postage-sized pool fifteen feet below. I see it all as clearly as if it was yesterday.

Then--the moment. Flex knees, bounce up and down an inch or two. Notice friends out the corner of my eyes. Wonder about bright reflection of sun on pool. I think that maybe I can still back out. Maybe I will! But my body is ahead of my brain, overriding my caution. I realize I'm committed. The dive is a go.

My moment has arrived. It is too late to back out. But the actual terror of my headlong dive hasn't yet begun. Already triumphant in my emotional brain, the rational part of my brain is nevertheless still thinking belly flop, mouth-to-mouth, and giving up the ghost. I remember this moment. It is almost unbearable but also, mysteriously, lovely.

And then it was past. I swam to the edge of the pool, and like an idiot lined up to do it again. But what amazes me, even now, is that I don't remember my (by all accounts, graceless) dive. Or hitting the water. But I do remember my moment before.

I've had a few more since. The moment between saying, "hi," on the telephone and asking her out on a date; the moment between stretching out my hands and catching my first child at his birth. Last night, there was the moment I stood in the pulpit before my new congregation for the first time, just having been introduced, but not yet launched into my sermon.

Once again, it was mysteriously lovely--a reminder that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun; a time for endings, but a time for new beginnings, too. Thank God.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Playing at Doctrine

          The study of doctrine has always been a pleasant preoccupation for me—one of my favorite things. There is no explaining it, really. Why do some people like getting their hands dirty gardening? Why do others spend hours scouring for bargains or researching family roots? I don’t know. But I love reading about, thinking about, and sometimes even writing doctrine. It’s a hoot. Except for one thing.

          You see, other people, and even whole institutions (churches, usually) are also preoccupied with doctrine. Except that for them it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing so much as a weighty thing. Some take doctrine so seriously, in fact, that if you don’t agree with them they will argue with you. They might even send you nasty letters and emails, or publish articles denouncing your views, or even threaten to have you tossed out of the church. All of which seriously deflates the doctrinal imagination and takes the fun out of doing theology.

            Early in my ministry, for example, I was asked to give a talk about God’s creation to a lady’s society from a neighboring church. I broached the topic of cosmic and biological evolution. I had just spent a year of full-time graduate study, at seminary, exploring these topics and so I was eager to share what I had learned. However, a few days after my talk I received a letter from this society, signed by all of its members, warning me that if I didn’t repent of my evolutionary theology I was headed for hell. I had been having fun trying to fit the Biblical and Scientific pictures together; the women were so aghast with my musings that they made sure I was never invited to speak or preach in their church again.

            And that is the problem with doctrine. People take it far too seriously. One imagines that getting doctrines right about creation and or evolution, about infant or adult baptism, or about pre- or post- or a-millennialism—one imagines that if getting these doctrines right was important to God, he would have been a lot clearer about them in scripture than he actually was. Which brings up another doctrine, of course. Is scripture’s teaching about so much that we take so seriously divinely inspired, or is it a result of the limited knowledge of merely human writers—or both?

            The truth is, for the first millennium and a half of Christianity, when most followers of Jesus could neither read nor write, it was sufficient for Christians to know the basics of the story, memorize the Apostles' Creed and Lord’s Prayer, and do as your priest told you—especially when it came to the obligations of neighborly love. And theology? Doctrine? Well, that was the preserve of a tiny minority of scholars who carried on a lively debate about many things that never entered into the consciousness of most Christians.

            These days, a lot of scholars bemoan the fact that people are not reading anymore, and that the doctrines and teachings of the church are therefore beyond most folks’ understanding. As a result, Christians now tend to go to their churches not out of a deep intellectual commitment to its doctrines, but for community or out of habit or for some other reason. I’ve bemoaned this fact myself, in articles published in scholarly journals. I guess, in a perfect world, we’d all wish that everyone had a lot more knowledge and wisdom.

            But there is another, brighter, side to this coin. You see, when people are no longer preoccupied with theology or with making sure that everyone else toes their church’s doctrinal line in the sand, people are freed to focus on the main thing. The main thing isn’t assent to pages and pages of truths Christians in other traditions disagree with. No, the main thing is loving our neighbors. In fact, for most of us loving our neighbors is hard enough all by itself.

            Nevertheless, I have to admit that for the sheer joy of it, doctrine is still my playground. And for the times I mess up I expect God will just pick me up again, dust me off, and say something like, “That’s okay Johnny. Go and play some more.”