In his critique of the Episcopal Church in this weekend’s New York Times, Ross Douthat, a Roman Catholic, offered advice to the Episcopal Church. The advice is this: “Conserve! Resist change. Eschew liberalism or you are destined to institutional death.”
Douthat offers, in brief form, a declension narrative intended to explain where we, the Episcopal Church, went wrong by pointing to alleged philosophical errors made since the 1960’s. If we avoid those errors, he suggests, then the Church could flourish. However, like most declension narratives, what Douthat offers is a kind of subtraction theory: the Episcopal Church would have flourished since the 1950’s had it been liberated from its liberalism.
Yet things are almost always far more complex than subtraction theories suggest.
I am an Episcopal priest. I lament Douthat’s column, and have had to engage it with my congregation today (along with that ridiculously flawed WSJ attack piece, too). Douthat is surely right about many things in his column – the parts having to do with the richness that liberal Christianity brings. But he is surely wrong in his suggestion of cause and effect – the claim that liberal Christianity caused our decline.
I am fatigued by the simplistic pretense that some of us are liberal and others conservative. As a friend reminded me recently, the fact is that all of us are liberal. We are all modern. We share common forebears. The question is not whether or not we will be liberal or modern. The question is about what ideas will be the heirs to the liberalism and modernity that so far has shaped us. If we all remember we have common forebears, perhaps we could forbear from the dualism that characterizes our discourse.
It is certainly true that the decline of the Episcopal Church is due in part to our embrace of women and gay persons. We lost 200, 000+ to schism since consecrating the first openly gay bishop, and likely many more to “just drifting away”. Folks for whom our actions are an offense voted with their feet. But that does not explain much of the decline, because the decline began after a Baby Boom peak in the 1950s, and it has a similar slope for all of the mainstream Protestant groups.
A better explanation is this: The decline of mainstream Protestantism coincides with what Charles Taylor has dubbed “the Age of Authenticity” and its accompanying “soft relativism” in which the prevailing Western ethos is to “let each person do their own thing; and we shouldn’t criticize each others’ values.” Taylor describes this age, which he particularly sees as reaching a turning point in the 1960s, in terms of the rise of “instrumental individualism, which is implicit in the idea that society is there for the good of individuals.” The “buffered identity of the disciplined individual moves in a constructed social space, where instrumental rationality is a key value, and time is pervasively secular.” Westerners “understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order,” an “immanent frame” in which individuals can “slough off the transcendent.” In other words, the last 50 years are characterized by the rise of subjectivity, distinct to the extent that the “social imaginary” of late modernity is radically more dominated by an interiority and immanent frame, with the individual at the center of ethical reasoning. Our losses are NOT due to our Christian liberalism. They are due to an epochal pivot in the social imaginary – like what followed Copernicus – which happened in our lifetime. They are not caused by how we do Church. But they are an effect to which the mainstream Protestant churches have struggled to respond fruitfully.
So far, Western churches have been experimenting with all sorts of old approaches with new surfaces. The non-denominational churches do lots of things with music that draw folks into ecstatic experiences. That’s not new – that’s ancient. It is the medieval cathedral re-packaged. It is a reaction against the excessive rationalism of Protestantism – it is a return to the ecstatic experiences of medieval pageantry. But non-denominational church leaders are now confessing that their experiment has been a failure to the extent that one measures success in terms of edification/sanctification rather than justification; that is, it produces great attendance numbers but not necessarily a lot of transformed lives. And so they are rediscovering the sacramental, as we rediscover what they have taught us.
Sloughing off the transcendent was not a possibility for most folks before this pivot in the social imaginary that happened around Woodstock. We are the first generation to live in world where belief in God is considered a lifestyle option. We are the first to live in a world in which many people admit the possibility of human flourishing without turning to God. Mainstream Protestant churches are losing people because we find ourselves in competition with a flourishing new religion called nihilism, and nihilism allows you to watch ESPN on Sunday morning. Nihilism is an elitist religion, however. You have to be smart to prefer Nietzche. And that’s why the Protestant denominations who historically have been constituted by the most educated of our citizenry are suffering losses disproportionately. We are relatively more vulnerable to nihilism. If we want to survive, we have to incarnate the antidote to nihilism.
So Douthat is right in his reminder of the important ways in which liberal Christianity contributes positively to Western culture, but he is wrong in his diagnosis of our decline. We suffer from a cultural malaise, and its name is nihilism. The right prescription is not an abandonment of authentic Christian liberalism – which, as I said above, is impossible for any of us, including Douthat – but rather to incarnate the antidote to nihilism. And, as Nietsche knew, the antidote to nihilism is Christ himself. The way forward to the Episcopal Church is not a retreat from liberalism, but rather an advance toward the Christocentrism that has always accompanied our flourishing.