The latest church membership numbers are out, and aptly visualized here. There are no big surprises (basically, liberal denominations are continuing to hemorrhage), but it has still sparked off a lot of conversation, most notably from Ross Douthat. This paragraph stands out in particular:
But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
Since I still have church history on the brain, let me take you back some one thousand and nine hundred years. Christianity was still brand-new, and churches still contained people who had personally known the apostles. The church was growing, but with that growth came problems. A lot of people found themselves attracted to Christianity, but also had difficulty letting go of the ideas that were currently popular in their culture.
Enter the Gnostics. What the Gnostics essentially did was take Christianity, empty it of all its content, and replace it with ideas more congenial to the pagan and Platonic mindset. Where the two conflicted, Christianity had to yield. Christianity said the world was good, albeit fallen; Platonism said matter was evil, so clearly matter was evil, as was the god who created it. Christianity worshiped the god of the Jews, but nobody liked the Jews, so clearly their god was the aforementioned evil god. Preaching Christ crucified was clearly foolishness, so he must have just been pretending to die on the cross. Christianity claimed to bring salvation to everyone, however humble, when obviously such a prize should go to philosophers, so Gnosticism offered salvation through secret knowledge, for the select few. Gnosticism was in the end little more than paganism with Christian terminology thrown on top.
Liberal Christianity1 is the modern-day Gnosticism. Liberalism is a religion like any other, and for most liberal Christians (and certainly for the liberal denominations) it is their primary religion. Like the Gnostics before them, they are more attached to whatever ideas are currently popular in their culture than what is taught in the Bible. And so, like the Gnostics before them, where liberalism and Christianity conflict, Christianity must yield. Christianity urges you to learn to keep it in your pants, but that’s hard, and sexual license is practically a sacrament in liberal theology, so that’s out. Homosexuality falls under the same umbrella, plus questioning its intrinsic goodness will get you called names, so that must be embraced. And though defense of society’s oppressed is something loudly trumpeted, it must not extend to opposing abortion, because that would mean standing with Republicans against the Democrats, perhaps the greatest sin of all.
All of these are of course just symptoms of the real problem: liberal churches long ago let go of their commitment to the Bible, whether in the form of sola scriptura, the long tradition passed down to us from the apostles, or some combination of the two. Without a firm grounding in scripture, where else were they going to get their theology except from whatever’s popular in their culture at the moment? Once this step was taken, it was inevitable that they would move from being influences on the culture to being echoes of it-and fading echoes at that.
You never see one of the church fathers being upset at the loss of their heretical competitors. (Rather, they employ rather harsh invective against them: “I considered it necessary to show you, beloved, their portentous and profound mysteries, which ‘not all understand’ because not all have sufficiently purged their brains”). Nor, contra Douthat, should we mourn at the loss of liberal Christianity. There is nothing to cry about when error ceases to be taught, especially when that end comes about peacefully. Mourn instead that they chose error in the first place.
1 I do take issue with Douthat’s “defining idea” of liberal Christianity. I do not have a great definition to offer in its place. Personally, I am not in love with taking the political term and throwing it into the religious realm, but the fact of the matter is that there is a very large overlap in the two groups, and that pretty much everybody knows what you mean when you use the term.