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.

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14 Comments on "A response to Ross Douthat"

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4 years 3 months ago
This is a smart response, Craig, and a very good use of Taylor. I do think you’re a little hard on Douthat. While he did evoke too much the decline narrative you mention, I don’t think his advice was as simplistic as you make it out to be. I can easily read your call for a Christocentric Christianity in his final paragraphs. You also forget the somewhat more polemical point that has nothing to do with resisting liberalism: how does it make sense, when you’re bleeding members right and left, to exacerbate your budget problems by costly and unnecessary litigation,… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago
I like Charles Taylor, but I think that Douthat has one slight advantage over your own argument: Douthat is slightly more specific. ‘Epochal’ changes don’t just happen: they are planned, made, and pursued by various folks. Who are those folks today, and who were they in the past? Douthat at least gives us a ballpark period (although the 1960s have become a rather vague cultural mythology). The paradigm shift concept is helpful as a heuristic. But historical explanation must name people and their choices. I would be interested to read your thoughts on nihilism in the Church! Maybe you could… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago
Thanks for the post, Craig. But allow me to disagree somewhat. We’re not all liberal to the same extent; I think there’s a lot to be said for James Davison Hunter’s “culture wars” thesis. If by “liberal” we mean in large part a construal of public v. private such that religious and moral issues are matters of private, individual belief, then mainline churches are indeed often quite liberal. Mainline churches don’t like to tell you what to think about God, they value diversity of opinion and tolerance of a variety of views about the divine, they are non-judgmental and pastoral… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago
Yes, that’s more or less right. Here’s a Hauerwas quote that says the same kind of thing: “It is interesting to note how we—that is, those of us in mainstream traditions–tend to think about the loss of membership by mainstream churches and the growth of so-called conservative churches. Churches characterized by compassion and care no longer are able to retain membership, particularly that of their own children, whereas conservative churches that make moral conformity and/or discipline their primary focus continue to grow. Those of us in liberal churches tend to explain this development by noting that people cannot stand freedom,… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago
The link between post-Enlightenment Modernism and nihilism is well worth pursuing. Whether it is the turn away from ontology to epistemology or the related rise of phenomenology, the bottom line is that these trends lead to a dominant anthropocentrism in both philosophy and theology. If “man is the measure” of everything, we are left to our own devices, and we have no hope of any meaning except the artificially human-created kind. Indeed, liberalism is an inescapable part of who we are now. And this is good and right! The doctrine of the Incarnation leads to a kind of “Humanism” –… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago

that should be “asymmetrical Love of God”…

4 years 3 months ago

Thanks, Craig and Charlie.

4 years 3 months ago
Craig, I am not sure I understand your request, but fools rush in… If liberalism has made an epistemological error, is it not tied to a faulty ontology? The Modern propensity to privilege epistemology over ontology blinds the Modern to the dependence of the one with the other. What is “the self” to the liberal perspective? There is no such thing as will, only action. The Evangelical conservative places too much faith in their epistemology – they live in a WYSIWYG world. They have gone toe-to-toe with the Modern liberal for so long that they have adopted many of the… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago
Sure, Craig. Let me see if we’re on the same page. I cited these lines from SH: “For example, one of the great problems facing liberal and conservative churches alike is that their membership has been schooled on the distinction between public and private morality. Liberal and conservative alike assume that they have a right generally to do pretty much what they want, as long as what they do does not entail undue harm to others.” So, in your terms: the distinction btw. inner and outer self, by which religion is a matter of right inward relationship with or belief… Read more »