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The Dim Future for Liberal Protestantism: Douthat and O'Donovan Together

July 16th, 2012 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I haven't said much about Ross Douthat's new book Bad Religionin part because I've found it hard to think straight about a book that commends "mere orthodoxy" as a form of Christian public engagement.

But unlike Chesterton, who gets there through imaginative means, or Lewis's more properly philosophical approach (in Mere Christianity), the strength of Ross's apologetic force lies in his cultural analysis.  He offers a good dose of that sort of thing in this week's column, where he suggests that the future of liberal Christianity is not a bright one:

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.”

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

I was going to set out, believe it or not, to offer a word of gratitude for liberal Protestantism--a word not commonly heard around these parts, but one that I think needs to be mentioned--as I've offered my own thoughts on whether Christianity should change (or die) at points in the past.  Stagnation sets in precisely when we begin to forget the original reason and meanings of those first principles that are handed down to us, and by forcing us to consistently return to those first principles and seek to understand them anew liberal Christianity has opened a space for a renewed and reinvigorated theological conservatism.

But then I realized that lingering somewhere in the background of these hastily formed thoughts was a bit from O'Donovan that I had read some time back from his brilliant book on homosexuality:

When qualifying a religious posture, "liberal" suggests independence in relation to spiritual authorities, scriptural, hierarchical or congregational.  This distance may be no more than a questioning habit of mind, an independence of judgment that may lead back to a new and clarified recognition of authority. It may, on the other hand, be a deep alienation that fosters resentments that never quite proceed to an open breach. There is no way of telling apriori where on the spectrum of distance any "liberal" proposal will turn out to lie. It may be renewing; it may be subversive. The tree will be known by its fruits, and by nothing else. Yet in the lowering gloom of the Liberal Christian evening, we ought to begin by acknowledging the good that has been wrought in its day. No major theological voice of our age has failed to have its intonations deepened by what the Archbishop of Canterbury describes as its "habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly." For what we have received may the Lord make us truly thankful!

O'Donovan isn't done, of course, and he proceeds to analyze liberal Christianity with an eye toward its failure to critique the moral intuitions of our day (at least within the British context, I should note, and add the qualification that O'Donovan's is a "thumbnail sketch" and an intentional caricature).  As he puts it:

In the interests of finding the modern world God-enchanted, [liberal Christianity] closed down on the serious deliberation with which Christians ought to weigh their stance of witness in the world. Potentially world-critical questions were suppressed. Liberal moral commitments, though sometimes urged with a passion verging on outright moralism, were not steered from the helm of discursive enquiry, but set adrift on the moral currents of the day....The tragic fault of liberal Christianity was to have no critical purchase on moral intuitions comparable to that which it had on doctrinal judgments. Precisely for that reason liberalism proved vulnerable when twentieth-century society began to be riven through with deep moral fissures. In affirming the world, liberal theology condemned itself to shipwreck on the same rocks where a unified modern civilisation broke up.

If O'Donovan is right that liberalism "treats the moral questions of the age as moral certainties," then it means Ross's suggestion that liberal Christians should pause amidst their renovations to consider "what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world" will not have an audience that could consider it and still hold on to the core principles of liberalism as such.  As Stephen Holmes puts it, "Giving priority to personal experience will inevitably lead to the embracing of an ethic that reflects the general ethic of the culture to which (the majority of) the denomination’s members belong."

Yes, it does.  But it also makes self-critique problematic, for to do so is simply to call our experience into question and judge it according to a standard beyond it.  The strong self-congratulatory streak among younger evangelicals is as good a sign as any that we are fast down the liberal trail.

Of course, O'Donovan's theological analysis should be offset with Ross's social observations about the decline of mainline Protestantism's prestige.  After all, the moral intutions to which the mainline Protestants have sought to appeal are not any moral intuitions.  They have saved plenty of scorn for conservative ones, after all, some of which doubtlessly count as those included within "the world" that O'Donovan says is at the heart of the liberal theological affirmation.  The broad theological point needs to be more narrowly circumscribed so that it takes into account the institutional influence that mainline Protestants once enjoyed, an influence that the "change or die" narrative must perpetually remind the world of for its transformational force.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.