The Rev. Jesús Reyes, Canon for Congregational Growth & Development in the Diocese of El Camino Real reflects the questions raised this weekend by Ross Douthat, saying “Yes! Liberal Christianity…and many forms of Christianity…can be saved!”
Canon Reyes shared this with us via e-mail.
Can liberal Christianity be saved?…
Yes, it can, and many other forms of Christianity can be, too.
Many of you may have read or heard of the New York Times article/opinion written by Ross Douthat, titled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” My immediate gut reaction to the article was, “well, everything depends on who is asking the question and why this question is being asked.” Douthat’s query is in line with the famous paradigmatic question, “Is the cup half full or half empty?” It depends on who is serving the water and who is drinking it… don’t you think? But, we could also add up a whole series of questions relevant to this very same issue of the glass being half full or half empty; for instance, how thirsty is the person? Why is this person drinking water? Did the person pay for the water? … And the list of contentions can continue on and on.
My point here –without intending to either disregard Mr. Douthat’s query or his persona- is that the question is a lot bigger and much more complex than his answer. In fact, his answer destroyed the intensity and good potential of his question. Can liberal Christianity be saved? What about conservative Christianity, orthodox Christianity, fundamentalist Christianity, etc.? What are we talking about here? Is one better than the other? Does one deserve Divine grace more than the other?
So, can Liberal Christianity be saved? Without going into the merits of Mr. Douthat’s argument in the article, the question by itself reminds me of the many moments in which Jesus was challenged by his contenders with dubious inquiries. The chief priests and elders questioned Jesus about His authority (Matthew 21:23). They asked questions about their political life, “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17b); they asked whether or not he was paying his own taxes (Matthew 17:24). Some attempted to bring him into their then current theological controversies; for instance, the issue of a man’s brother marrying the brother’s widow (Matthew 22:23-28), the question about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36), or even the healing on the Sabbath (Mathew 12:10). Jesus’ daily practices of who he ate with or visited were questioned (Matthew 9:11), and the Pharisees questioned Jesus on His disciples’ hand washing conduct (Matthew 15:2). Then, comes the very important moment when the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman and asked, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” (John 8:4-5). So the question is, who is asking the questions and why? The fact of the matter is that the “pharisaic” mindset is well and alive. Maybe the issue here is not about being curious, as Nicodemus was, but about having the intention to “exclude” the other from being part of the owning of one “common truth.”
Thus, can Liberal Christianity be saved? It depend on who is providing the salvation. Certainly Christianity -like any of us- will not be saved either by its own theology, practice or relevance. Christianity will be saved by God’s Love and Grace. We can agree and disagree as much as we can and want, but disagreements will not warrant a lack of charity. Until now, in all that I have seen, what I can say is that arrogance and a lack of institutional transparency are some of the main factors that keep Christianity crumbling down in credibility and cultural relevance. So, our institutional life is being called to exercise a new understanding and approach to the common life. This new approach must include the exercise of biblical justice and compassion if we want to keep the Gospel’s message alive and relevant in a rapidly changing world.
I think Mr. Douthat –beyond the depressing depiction of Christianity he presents to us- is reading well the challenges that our churches face today. Yes, there is a decline in church attendance. Indeed, most traditions have gone through some failed cosmetic changes. Of course, entrepreneurial Christians have gained a buck or two offering a new kind of “wondrous religion” that provides its followers with promises of riches and eternal satisfactions. But this is not what is “shaking” Christianity. As many theologians point out –i.e. Diana Butler-Bass, Phyllis Tickle, etc.-, the big issue challenging Christianity is that our cultural context is changing. These changes are creating a whole series of personal and social reactions that go from inquisitive hope to paralyzing fear. In other words, this is a time in which we all exercise either a “hopeful imagination” or an “apocalyptic imagination.” So where are we standing?
Something that I have learned about culture is that culture is like the “incarnate sense of time.” Yes, our age and what it means. We are born, we grow up and then we die; but this is just an external depiction of the cycle of life. The meaning of life, and we know this, is a lot more complex and deeper. We experience changes and, often, we know that those changes are not a matter of choice but simply a fact of being alive. Changes in life cannot be stopped, and resisting them is pointless. We can either accelerate or delay the appearance of aging, but we cannot escape from it or stop it. Life continues its course and the best thing we can do is be in a constant learning curve. Nonetheless, despite the fact that we do not have control over all the factors of life around us, we still have a voice and a choice. I think this is the fascinating, lively and eternal good news of Jesus’ Gospel; we still have a voice and a choice. Thus, the main purpose is not about creating spaces of “certainty”, but spaces for love and grace. I am firmly persuaded that the challenges we face as a church are of a spiritual nature, not of appearance.