15 August 2006

People of Doubt

My father is in town. He brought with him a copy of "The Christian Century" from last fall. The magazine is aimed at mainline to liberal, mostly Protestant, Christians in the United States. It aptly captures of the doubt filled mood of this group of Christians caught between the non-Christian left and the Christian right.

By page 7 you see quick hit stories with money lines like:
"What can turn a dying mainline church into a vital congregation?" . . . . the painful awareness that if they didn't make radical changes they would die. . . .

The Church of England has become "a club for the old, the resigned and those tired of life." . . . .

"There is a noisy, almost angry, literalism around desires to define and codify who is, or who is not, a 'real Christian,' and what seems to accompany this is a plodding, narrow biblicism which is punititive in tone and joyless in character."
A review of The Exorcism of Emily Rose concludes:
There may be a case to be made that Methodists and other rational types are too wary of the supernatural and too trusting of science. This film does not make that case. . . . For what sort of faith would this film convert us to? One ruled by fear, one powerless against the forces of darkness, one that trusts in the demon-iduced death of a God-appointed martyr. It has nothing to do with the goodness, beauty and piece of God that enchanted Augustine and has enchanted the church for 2000 years.
Augustine, the ancient doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in its formative years is a recurring touchstone in the issue's articles. It is hardly surprising. Augustine was a new Christian convert living at a time when Christianity was still a minority religion in a pagan world. As a result, he didn't have the luxury of merely accepting received tradition. He had to justify his faith and sought to reconcile it with the rational traditions of an urbane Roman. Mainline American Christians today sympathize with his plight. They too are trying to live in a civilized empire in a way that reconciles faith and reason.

Appeals to mysticism are scarce, although they are tucked away deep in the text. Awareness that their faith is not the only one in the country is acute in an article entitled "Local Color: American religion, region by region," written by a sociologist. The story is prefaced with its authors musings on growing up Baptist, while eventually rejecting the conservativism of the Southern Baptist Convention. The article also carries echoes of fear, for instance, in a blurb about New England which states:
only 4 percent belong to the old established church, the United Church of Christ.

Or, in it observation that in the Pacific Northwest:
25 percent of the adults in the region have no identification with any religious tradition. Evanglicals now account for 38 percent of the church-affiliated population in Washington.
The observations are not accompanied promptly by any proclamation that the Pacific Northwest is going to hell in a hand basket as a result. Instead, the observation that follows is that:
Numbers like that [the 38% that are evangelical] may help to explain why conservative political inititatives there meet with success.
Some of the questions asked of an author of a new book about religion and metaphor likewise point to the questions on the minds of the readers:
What would you say to people who haven't been privy to the special spiritual experience you've described? . . . .

You're touching on a popular but questionable myth: that atheism provides the neutral common sense view of the world, while religion is pie in the sky. . . .

It seems you've been campaigning on two fronts: against the limitations of secular reasoning, and against the unacknowledged secularity common in modern Christian thought.
A professor of religion at Smith College embraces evolution by buying her husband a fossil, while at the same time feeling "uncomfortable" that "biologists and philosophers are advancing metaphysical claims . . . that outrun their actual competence." She goes on to argue that:
No biologists can grant us and no biologist can take away from us the privilege of seeing God's handiwork in creation.
One of the books reviewed is "How the Republicans Stole Christmas: The Republican Party's Declared Monopoly on Religion and What Democrats Can Do to Take It Back." (by Bill Press).

The angst expressed goes part way towards explaining the relative public silence of the religious left. When discussing the Christian Right they are as appalled as any secular American. But, they have a hard time defining themselves in any way but in opposition to secular American or the Christian Right. They see themselves declining, and know that change is necessary, but are groping, without reaching a consensus or even a conclusion about where they need to be headed.

How can you build a consensus for change when one of your defining characteristics is that you have held fast to traditional methods of worship and ancient denominational institutions? How can you comfortably deride atheists for looking at life and reasoning in much the same way that you do?

There are consensus religious values in the religious left, mostly social gospel values. But, it is tough to balance a commitment to tolerance with a need to advance your own agenda so that it can survive.

Mainline Christians are people of doubt. They reject the easy, but easily shown wrong, answers of Christian fundamentalism. They wonder if they will ever really have a "special spiritual experience" or if the one they had was really just a figment of their imagination. They want to believe, but are tempted by secular rationality and aren't sure what the downsides of that are, even though it makes them "uncomfortable." In truth, they are probably more comfortable having an atheist over for dinner than a conservative Christian. Basic religious questions like "is there evil" and "is there a Hell" are ones they have to think hard about. They worry that they will go so far in refuting conservative Christianity that they may end up refuting their own version of the faith. They quote the Bible, but aren't immersed in it. They look over their shoulders in every direction, but don't articulate their own vision clearly.

Tens of millions of Americans are in the same boat as the readers of "The Christian Century," although, for most, their feelings are less articulate, mere demi-urges of foreboding and discomfort.

Nobody knows the name of the leaders of the Methodists, or the Evangelical Lutherans of America, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or the American Bapist Church. The organizations are big, but they are led by volunteers, democratically elected, by similar, mild mannered church functionaries. They have no bully pulpit and little freedom to speak their minds in a manner that speaks for the denomination on much of anything. They were elected to write budgets and hire staff, not to articulate visions of radical change from within, or a national social transformation. They are politicians without a platform, trying to broker centrifugal forces within their own organizations.

Everyone is waiting for the trend that will restore them to the place of pre-eminence they enjoyed back in the days when "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" was synonmous with high caste American. They are looking for a middle path and ramming their noses into the cement divider between the lanes. They care about philosophy a great deal, because they long for an intellectual foundation to secure their faith against doubt.

And, it is also worth noting what isn't going on. The wars between the mainline denominations have been halted indefinitely. The differences between Episcopalians and United Church of Christ congregants and Lutherans starts to pale when you have Southern Baptists and Mormons on one side of you, and atheists on the other. Some congregations in Seattle are actually taken ecumenical feelings to the point of de facto mergers across denominational lines, so that they can make common cause with each other about the dual threats they perceive. Just as the Methodists, the United Church of Christ and the Lutherans are all denominational products of repeated mergers, the remaining players are prone to merging again.

This isn't a good sign. Growth spurs division. Decline spurs mergers. Newspapers enter into joint operating agreements because they know that without one, that both will fail. Christian denominations act the same way. The old find tradition a compelling enough reason to stay with what they have always known. Their children do not.


Off Colfax said...

Andrew... For this one alone, I owe you a beer. Join me for the blogger bash so I can pay my debt?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Well considering it is only two blocks from my office, it may be hard to refuse. Then again, I'm always one fax away from a sleepless night of frenzied legal work.

Robert said...

I'm hoping to be there too, Andrew, and would love a chance to do some reminiscing/drinking with another Obie.

imfunnytoo said...

This a great drawing out post...loved it...

Where I grew up, "Christian" meant just such moderate ideas....


Off Colfax said...

Quick followup, Andrew.

Faithful Democrats via that Insta person thing man.

Looks interesting to me.