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A response to Ross Douthat

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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.

14 Responses to “A response to Ross Douthat”

  1. Fr. Sam Keyes says:

    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, and to cater all “mission” to the smallest possible demographic (à la Ephraim Radner’s recent rant)? That has nothing to do with a false decline narrative; it’s more a question of suggesting a rather obvious way of more fruitfully directing the resources of a potentially good institution.

    The nihilism stuff is right on, though, as well as the fact that our over-educated church is more vulnerable to it. I recall more Taylor here, as well as a Michael Buckley’s complementary narrative of modern atheism: much of this modern turn came from within the bosom of Christianity. With that in mind, I want to caution you against implying something to the effect of: It’s not our fault, it’s the culture! Because our Church — and liberal Christianity in general — has been intimately involved in the transformation of the modern social imaginary, the creation of the modern moral order, etc. What I think you’re right about, therefore, is the remaining possibility, even within the “liberal” Christianity that we’re all (even a rabid conservative like me) part of, of challenging that modern order and provoking further imaginary possibilities centered on Jesus Christ.

  2. Craig Uffman says:

    I quite agree with everything you say, Sam. I thought of the charge you mention – the potential reading that I am saying “It’s not our fault, it’s the culture.” But then I chuckled to myself, recognizing that I built in a response to that, because I am saying the problem is not liberalism but nihilism, which is to say the problem is our belief in nothing. That, of course, is indefensible. So I hoped some folks could see the irony here. It seems like I am taking Douthat on, but instead I am offering a corrective, and, in my view, saying, “no, the problem is much worse than you think; the problem is our (temptation to) belief in nothing.” I really learn from Douthat. I read every column. So if I overdid the argument against declension narratives, I back off of that to the level you suggest, while maintaining my basic point.

  3. 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 explain more of what you mean by this?

  4. Craig Uffman says:

    Ben, I couldn’t give an account of the epochal change in 900 words, but Taylor does in 834 pages of his A Secular Age. With shifts in the social imaginary, it is quite difficult for Taylor to be specific about a single point in time, but he does name the key players and events from 1500 to the present in tracing our movement to the particular kind of secularity that is his concern.

    With regard to nihilism, I wrote an essay on Covenant called The Condomization of the Church that gets at this a little. But I am channeling John Milbank in my allusion to it. I commend to you his chapter on that and liberalism from Theology and Social Theory.

  5. Jordan Hylden says:

    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 about issues of private morality such as what happens in the bedroom. What they do moralize about are those who reject liberalism; e.g., those who would “put God in a small box” by restricting the divine too strictly to Jesus of Nazareth, or who would impose moral disciplines that presume to set limits upon the irreducable individuality and privacy of personal judgments.

    And all of this put together winds up not being very different than the New York Times editorial section. So why go to church? It’s a culturally vestigial practice that no longer is necessary. People in places like Vermont, Oregon, and England know this and so they’ve largely stopped. People in North Carolina still go, but that’s often because of a vestigial Christendom culture. Meaning: liberal churches, just insofar as they have little to offer that’s different from the surrounding culture, are indeed dying at higher rates than conservative churches (viewed over the last few decades).

    “Conservative” is a loaded word of course, but following Radner I think it’s a good descriptive term. In one way or another, conservative churches are trying to conserve something that liberalism is eroding away. And many of them (not all but many) assume that Christians ought to be a distinct people, to have different norms and practices from the world around them, that faith ought to make a difference in the whole of life. They have not of course done this flawlessly, but then who has? Roman Catholic and Evangelical subcultures (marked by home schooling, NFP, pro-life groups, alternative media, youth groups, True Love Waits and WWJD wristbands, village-like megachurches, etc.) I think are instances of this, however imperfect. And these kinds of communities are indeed lively and thriving in a way that mainline churches most often are not.

    My wife had a good sermon illustration this morning that I think gets at the issue. There are tons of reality shows out there that showcase the intriguingly different lives of various religio-cultural communities: Amish, Mormon, and Gypsy. Reporters or filmmakers from the coasts often set out on anthropological expeditions to the heartland, to report on the strange ways and customs of evangelicals or Pentecostals (e.g., Jesus Camp). But who would ever dream of doing an Episcopal reality show? We’re not different enough for anyone to care.

  6. Craig Uffman says:

    Great points, Jordan. Am I correct is thinking they depend on your construal of “liberal” of public vs. private? That’s not really the way I meant it when I said we are all liberal. My point really was the cultural-linguistic point that Americans can’t stand outside of a liberal perspective and judge it because we all have been shaped by the fact of our immersion in a liberal society, where liberal is here a term of political theology describing the values enshrined in our American Bible, as Prothero puts it, of the Declaration of Independence and like documents. That’s not the same as “modern” though liberal and modern coarticulate each other in my usage.

  7. Jordan Hylden says:

    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, and therefore, in a confusing world devoid of community, seek authority. Conservative churches are growing, but their growth is only a sign of pathology.

    Yet this very analysis of why conservative churches are growing assumes the presumptions of liberal social theory and practice that I am suggesting is the source of our difficulty. The very way we have learned to state the problem is the problem. The very fact that we let the issue be framed by terms such as individual and community, freedom and authority, care versus discipline, is an indication of our loss of coherence and the survival of fragments necessary for Christians to make our disciplines the way we care.

    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. The fact that such a distinction is incoherent even in the wider political society does little to help us challenge an even more problematic character in relationship to the church. Yet if salvation is genuinely social, then there can be no place for a distinction that invites us to assume, for example, that we have ownership over our bodies and possessions in a way that is not under the discipline of the whole church.”

  8. Craig Uffman says:

    Jordan,

    The point of mine to which you are referring is also one Hauerwas makes in his discussion of agency. You’ll find it, as one example, in Character and the Christian Life around pp. 18-29. He denies the possibility of the neutral or ideal observer on the basis that we are not indeterminate: our stories matter. And one of the ways in which we are all determined as Westerners is by our immersion in liberal societies.

    I think it is a category error to oppose conservative and liberal in the way we often do casually. I like Ephraim’s adjective “conserving” rather than “conservative.” Conserving refers to a positive attitude towards established values and institutions that resist their erosion or reduction.

    LIberal, as Hauerwas usually uses it, refers to the epistemological error in Protestant ethics of distinguishing between the inner and outer self, as though our actions are not of a piece with our will; thence comes his move that character is the cause of right actions. That subject/object distinction and habit of distinguishing between private and public morality all are a part of the liberal society; they are part of the habits of thought of our culture. That’s closer to my point in saying we are all liberal: we can’t step out of it and pretend that we are not liberal or modern ourselves. Yes, we can say that some of us are more or less resistant to that cultural habit of thought. In theodramatic terms, one would say that liberalism is part of our setting, one in which all Western actors perform, and denying the ways we are determined by liberalism is simply denying our theodramatic setting.

  9. 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” – the cultures we are embedded in, human history, our very embodied-ness is all gift from God.

    But when the “human cart” is in front of the “God horse,” we find the going very difficult (a horse _can_ push a cart, but the other way around works so much better!).

    Christocentrism then appears to be the way to get things right.

    But I am not sure I am happy with how many would have us be Christocentric. My bishop, Brian Prior, happily uses the term, but I can’t shake the feeling he means something similar to his use of the term “Spirit” – that is, an emergent property of humanity. It is to collapse Christocentrism into Modern, anthropocentric terms!

    I am not happy with how some have used liturgy and especially Eucharist to define Christocentrism. No doubt liturgy and Eucharist play a crucial role in anchoring any Christocentrism. These are the fulcrum of a full-orbed Christocentrism, balancing on the one hand the concept of immanence (God’s immanency with us) with on the other hand transcendence (God’s shear “other-ness”).

    Craig says, “If we want to survive, we have to incarnate the antidote to nihilism.” I think in our immanence-dominated Episcopal church, we must find ways to inject a transcendent perspective.

    The first way (helped by Eucharist!), is to constantly speak of the symmetrical Love of God. God loves us first!

    The second way is to, as transparently as possible, speak of how we know God’s love for us primarily because of our knowledge of our own deep brokenness! This seeming paradox is made possible in the Cross (we are again assisted by Eucharist).

    Finally, we must speak of a “Spirit” that comes from outside ourselves that is the very Spirit of God and brings a power that is not in any way limited by human agency.

    And we discover Christocentrism – Surprise! – must be Trinitarian! Here “conserving” and “progressing” can truly meet and kiss.

  10. that should be “asymmetrical Love of God”…

  11. Jordan Hylden says:

    Thanks, Craig and Charlie.

    • Craig Uffman says:

      Jordan et al, I’d like to hear your critique of this claim I’ve made in my reply to Jordan above: “I think it is a category error to oppose conservative and liberal in the way we often do casually. ” In context, I’ve spoken of liberalism in terms of a culture characterized by an “epistemological error in Protestant ethics of distinguishing between the inner and outer self, as though our actions are not of a piece with our will.”. I’m claiming, I guess, that conservatives are not characterizeby freedom from this error, but rather something else having to do with an attitude towards that which we have received. Thoughts?

  12. 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 same perspectives. Note how activism is on the rise in these circles, because that is all that is left for many of them.

    Then if I understand what you mean by “attitude towards that which we have received” I want to say that their epistemology leads them to say that what they have received is _certainty_.

    The sacramental conservative is somewhat protected from this error, because she is always telling herself that what she sees is only a small part of what is there.

    [I think it was from Parker Palmer that I learned of the complete interdependence of ontology, epistemology, ethics, and pedagogy. Is not critical realism an excellent way to navigate these waters?]

    Well , you asked for thoughts, and you got ‘em. Are any of them worth thinking twice?

  13. Jordan Hylden says:

    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 in God, while in outward actions we “have a right generally to do pretty much what we want.”

    In that sense, yes, I’ll agree with you that it’s the water we all swim in, more or less. But conservative churches are often the ones that resist this, by authoritatively guiding and disciplining their membership, most visibly in sexual ethics. Perhaps they don’t always do a good job in other areas, but to draw a line in our culture about sexual behavior is no small potatoes. Hauerwas, in this article, is defending conservative churches against liberals who would view them as “authoritarian.” To his mind, their authority to discipline their members is precisely what differentiates them from liberal habits and assumptions. He closes the article with an account of a fundamentalist pastor who requires, not asks, a parishioner to take back his wife after she’d cheated on him, since she’d publicly repented and the church had discerned and decided that she should be accepted back into the church’s life.

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