Why Christianity Doesn’t Need Saving: A Response to Douthat and Bass
July 16, 2012 5 Comments
Over the weekend, Ross Douthat asked, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” In response, Diana Butler Bass asked the broader question, “Can Christianity be Saved?” My response to both is that Christianity doesn’t need saving in the first place.
Contrary to what many people seem to think Douthat argues, he answers his question in the affirmative. He claims that if liberal Christianity combines its (in his opinion lost) history of deep personal devotion with its commitment to social engagement, it can be saved. Specifically, he seems to mean a renewed emphasis on orthodox Christian doctrines and the fostering of meaningful spiritual lives, that include prayer and devotions, among its members. He says,
“What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
So, what he wants, it seems, is for Episcopalians (along with liberal Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans) to be more like the historic black churches. (Importantly, who don’t seem to be a part of either his story or Bass’s story.) Otherwise, he claims, liberal Christianity will “die.”
In response, Bass says, basically, “Whoa! Calm down … conservative churches are losing members too, and no one is saying that they’re dying. And, in fact, no matter what the numbers and media pundits say, what Douthat says needs to happen in liberal Christianity is actually happening on a “grassroots” level.” She says,
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.
There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now. Indeed, I think that the better story of contemporary Christianity is that of an awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith is roiling and I argue for that in my recent book, Christianity After Religion.
So, Mr. Douthat asks, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity? The twenty-first century has yet to answer that, but I think we may be surprised.
Of course, folks who are familiar with the history of American Christianity recognize in Bass’s last question a question that has been asked for at least a century. [It sounds something like a social gospel redux (not necessarily a bad thing!)] And, apparently, it hasn’t totally happened yet.
What Douthat misses is that dwindling numbers don’t signal a need to be “saved.” And no movement outside of the “halls of power” of any Christian denomination is going to “save” a denomination or Christianity in general, contra Bass. The story of Christianity is that humans continue to mess things up and God continues to save those humans in spite of themselves.
There may be short-term fixes for declining attendance numbers. And “grassroots” movements like the early monastics, the emerging church, the Catholic Worker movement, or simply “good pastors doing hard work,” while vitally important, have never “saved” Christianity. Rather, God has sustained the Christian movement through the faithful witness of those who have endured through persecution and the calling forth of those prophets who claim the radical message of Jesus while most others are seduced by the temptations of power and wealth.
The “health” or “life” of Christianity has never been tied to the numbers of people who sit in pews on Sundays. And no matter what many claimed in the 1960s, “secular humanism,” to take Douthat’s not-so-helpful phrase, has never really been a threat the existence of a 2,000 year old movement of God. The life of the movement has always resided in those who, no matter what its institutions do or don’t do, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Its health is always a result of those who love their enemies, love their neighbors, and choose the path of service. Professors of theology don’t “save” Christianity. Bishops, priests, and popes don’t “save” Christianity. Even popular pastors don’t “save” Christianity. God is already saving the world and uses faithful, though sinful, people to do it. That is all that matters.
Grace. Peace. Love. Justice. Faith. This is how God saves the world whether Christianity is “saved” or not.