The Reformation, continued

The Reformation, continued

: The Reformation isn’t over yet. We’re witnessing the struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism in American cultural and political life and in the world. Or maybe we’re witnessing the backlash. I wrote about this essential difference in religious and thus cultural and political worldviews and how they affect the current debate over so many issues here and here. In Sunday’s New York Times, there are two good pieces contemplating the continuing reformation:

: In the book review, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago defines liberal theology:

It includes a critical approach to Scripture as a historical document, an openness to modern science, a turn from public ritual to private belief and a search for common ground in the Bible’s moral message.

He recounts the rise of liberal Protestantism in Germany, then Britain and America, and next its fall in Germany after World War I and into Weimar. And he says it is falling here now:

After the last Great Awakening at the end of the 19th century, liberal theology made steady gains in all the mainline American churches, and by the 1950’s it represented the consensus within Protestantism, and was also softening the edges of American Catholicism and Judaism. Yet it, too, has now collapsed. Over the past 30 years we have seen the steady decline of mainline faiths and the upsurge of evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic and ”neo-orthodox” movements — not only among Protestants but among Catholics and Jews as well. Politics played a large role in this, especially divisions over the Vietnam War and the cultural transformations since the 1960’s. But the deepest dynamics were again spiritual.

It appears that there are limits to the liberalization of biblical religion. The more the Bible is treated as a historical document, the more its message is interpreted in universalist terms, the more the churches sanctify the political and cultural order, the less hold liberal religion will eventually have on the hearts and minds of believers. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in Protestantism, which heightens the theological tension brought on by being in the world but not of it. Liberal religion imagines a pacified order in which good citizenship, good morals and rational belief coexist harmoniously. It is therefore unprepared when the messianic and eschatological forces of biblical faith begin to stir.

The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ”end times,” the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement — all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.

Before I find the wrath of home-schoolers and others coming down on my head, see this as an expression of the other side of religion, the side we don’t hear much about today. Religion is not all fundamentalist; religion is liberal, too. It’s not an oxymoron.

: And on the op-ed page, Nicholas Kristof argues that religous liberals are not but should be talking to religious conservatives on their own terms, verse for verse.

His jumping-off point is the “explosive” book by former Newark Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

This book is long overdue, because one of the biggest mistakes liberals have made has been to forfeit battles in which faith plays a crucial role. Religion has always been a central current of American life, and it is becoming more important in politics because of the new Great Awakening unfolding across the United States.

Yet liberals have tended to stay apart from the fray rather than engaging in it. In fact, when conservatives quote from the Bible to make moral points, they tend to quote very selectively. After all, while Leviticus bans gay sex, it also forbids touching anything made of pigskin (is playing football banned?) – and some biblical passages seem not so much morally uplifting as genocidal….

Bishop Spong, who has also taught at Harvard Divinity School, argues that while Christianity historically tried to block advances by women, Jesus himself treated women with unusual dignity and was probably married to Mary Magdalene….

Some of the bishop’s ideas strike me as more provocative than persuasive, but at least he’s engaged in the debate. When liberals take on conservative Christians, it tends to be with insults – by deriding them as jihadists and fleeing the field. That’s a mistake. It’s entirely possible to honor Christian conservatives for their first-rate humanitarian work treating the sick in Africa or fighting sex trafficking in Asia, and still do battle with them over issues like gay rights.

Liberals can and should confront Bible-thumping preachers on their own terms, for the scriptural emphasis on justice and compassion gives the left plenty of ammunition. After all, the Bible depicts Jesus as healing lepers, not slashing Medicaid.

OK, I’ll confess that I’ve derided some as jihadists but I’ve not fled the field. And it’s not as if Kristof himself isn’t politicizing the hell out of this. But he’s right in the notion that underlies what he says: Liberals have religion, too. Liberals can call on God just as conservatives do. And they (we) should.

: My sister, the Rev. Jarvis, called yesterday and told me she’d gone through media training and I’m glad. I’ve said here before that I’ve lamented liberals’ forfeiture of the pulpit of TV and media.

During their recent fit of Popevision, the networks called on Billy Graham’s son as if he represented all Protestantism. There wasn’t a liberal theologian to be found.

That, I have said, is mostly the fault of the liberals, who disdained the populist pulpit of pop culture.

It’s about time the liberals get media training and find themselves on bookers’ list. It’s about time that liberals engage the religious conversation rather than leave it.

: This morning, I looked out from my spot in the church choir on a sparsely populated congregation. It’s the week between Mother’s Day and Youth Sunday in our church and so, as my wife observed, some folks wanted a break. And that would be disappointing — it’s always better to see full pews — but I, too, want a break sometimes. In fact, I left a more conservative church for many reasons: its homophobia primarily but also because it measured devotion, it measured Christianity by “commitment,” which they counted in the hours spent at church.

I don’t count devotion that way.

And I don’t like it when those of us who don’t count devotion that way aren’t counted as religious in America.

In the media, “religious” is becoming synonymous with conservative, devoted, fundamentalist, pick the word. And that’s not just media’s fault. That is the fault of those of us who view religion differently — the liberal, the reformed — but who do not stand up to be counted, because it’s not what we religious liberals do. I don’t proselytize. I don’t give public witness. I don’t testify. I don’t think it’s my business to impose my religious views on my neighbors. I treasure our secular nation that protects religious freedom. That’s just my view.

And so I’m not counted. The religiously liberal and liberally religious are not counted.

Some may say I’m too casual with my faith. I used to be more casual: I left the church for many years when I was appalled at the petty politics I saw there and had not yet grown to put that in its proper place. I returned when I had children — so they could have the same choice I had — and ended up singing in the choir, heading up the board, teaching church school, even giving the occasional sermon. But while I was gone from the church, I was still religious; my attendance proved nothing. And now that I’m back, I’m still more casual than others.

The casually religious are religious, too. The liberally religious are religous, too. We need to be counted, too. But I suppose we can’t be counted if we don’t stand up.

: MORE: A few weeks ago, I did a truly terrible job trying to address this when I linked to what’s Dick Meyer called the “devoutness divide.” What I was trying to say then was what I just said: casual counts, too.

: One of the sessions I’m looking forward to attending at the Personal Democracy Forum Monday is on religion on the web, with Halley Suitt, Hugh Hewitt, and a founder of Beliefnet. Hugh and I have parried on religion from our different perspectives and I look forward to continuing the conversation in person.