I recently came across a book I read a few years ago regarding the demise of modern Liberal Protestantism. The author makes a very compelling, data driven, argument that modern Liberal Protestantism (e.g. The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ, et al.) will cease to exist in any meaningful form by the year 2037. As a pastor of one these denominations, I must confess I see nothing since the book’s date of publication, 2010, that would persuade me differently. The reasons for this demise (whether we like them or not) are many. The biggest reason is a simple one. Low birth rate among the members. A close second he tells us, is the “mainline’s” perceived “reinterpretation of scripture” particularly in regard to sexual ethics. There are others he mentions, but feels these are secondary in importance.
After much thought I’ve come up with my own theory of my demise. My reasons are related to those of the author, but less specific, and by no means data-driven. The first is what I perceive to be a cultural shift within the church. This shift is not necessarily from conservatism to liberalism, at least in the sense we normally think of it in socio-political terms. Rather, I think as it relates to my church and those like her, there has been a theological shift from emphasizing the individual’s responsibility to follow Jesus, to the Church’s responsibility to follow Jesus. Just as Americans have largely forsaken the exaltation of “the rugged individual” and replaced it with a myriad of competing interest groups, so too has the church shifted its mission from “saving souls” to saving society and all of its various “marginalized” groups. The latter sounds, noble, virtuous even, but the effect has been pathologically altruistic, to group and individual alike. This may seem confusing. Aren’t they one and the same? Well no, not really. There has been an undeniable shift from the individual to the collective. Our concern is saving the society through things such as the implementation of “social justice,” rather than, saving the individual by way of personal conversion
I’d say part of the problem with modern Liberal Protestantism lies in the notion that we must somehow reconcile our political opinions with our faith. I’m not sure we can, at least not all the time. Let me give an easy example. Let’s look at caring for the poor. I think I’m safe in saying that Jesus would approve us sharing our wealth with those less wealthy, particularly the very needy. Governmentally we do this with welfare. But just as likely, I think, is that Jesus would approve of the rich helping the poor, I’m equally inclined to think he would not approve the forced (either by ballot, imprisonment, or violence) redistribution of wealth as we now know it. If virtue is forced, it is not virtuous. Virtue is always voluntary. Once the threat of force is removed, so too would be the “virtue.” Jesus, I think, would agree with Jeremiah that the desired behavior of humans would be the adherence to laws, which were “written on our hearts.” To achieve this state, I would think has to be accomplished one heart at a time.
Whether or not Jesus would vote Democrat or Republican I can’t say. I think each of these have a few, very few, positions he might support. I think also there is much about each he would not support. Mostly, though, I think he would think them both irrelevant to his mission. Jesus is far more concerned with you and me, how we live our lives, how we behave, what we value, each of us, as individuals, moreso than he cares how we live, behave, and what we value, as a group. I think he’d say that it is more effective to nurture and feed 100 trees than it is to nurture and feed one forest. Evidence is that Jesus is far more concerned with the individual than with the collective. I say this based on my interpretation of scripture.
There may be examples where Jesus collectively called upon the government to do things a certain way, but honestly I can’t recall one easily, not one. I can, however, recall many examples where he made great demands on an individual. “Sell what you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.” I tell you not seven times, but seventy even times.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Remove first the log from your own eye.” I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Jesus’ commands as I see them are generally directed to me…personally….me. I can’t think of an instance where he supposes to tell me to effect anything through government, or the church for that matter. He tells me, I am the one responsible for my neighbor. When it comes to the Christian’s involvement in government, the only thing I remember off the top of my head, is the “Give unto Caesar” thing. And, the way I read that is that Jesus is pretty dismissive of what we owe Caesar. Oh and then the conversation with Pilate wherein he clearly says, “My Kingdom is not of this world,” further leads me to believe that he really didn’t care that much about accomplishing things through governmental largess. Perhaps Jesus knew what philosophers espouse, the notion that no government is possible unless men first learn to govern themselves.
I think it is quite possible the church has lost its effectiveness and thus is seen by most now to be of little consequential importance, because it long ago shifted the focus of its preaching and teaching from the individual to the corporate. The church, at some point, began to focus on the us, and not on the me. It’s a subtle shift, polite even, but it has the effect of diluting Christian virtue. When we are held accountable, and not I, it is easier to overlook failure. The reason for this is simple. It has to do with consequences. Jesus believed in consequences. He believed there were bad consequences, eternally bad ones, for wrong choices.
So let’s talk about consequences. Consequences, the ones we care about are individualistic in nature. What I mean is this: the only consequences I care about are my consequences. Ask any recovering alcoholic why they quit drinking. If they are honest it’s not because they suddenly quit liking to get drunk. I once heard such a person – a 30 year sober alcoholic – proclaim, “Hell, if I could figure out how to let you have my consequences for getting drunk, I’d be drunk all the time.” Good behavior does come down to the necessity of personal consequences, both positively and negatively.
Liberal Protestant “statements” and proclamations of how we think the government should address issues such as poverty or refugees exacerbates the problem, as I see it. While not following these lofty calls to corporate virtue outline many societal consequences, there are no personal consequences attached to these lofty epithets. If good christian individuals are let off the hook for personally caring for the less fortunate by the church, and the church then defers its position to political advocacy, the individual christian is even more relieved. “Well I voted for hope and change. Guess it didnt work out. Oh well, but at least I voted as Jesus would have me vote, because Jesus felt sorry for poor folks.” Sorry folks, this is all just hoping to look virtuous, and be perceived as being virtuous, it has NOTHING to do with actual virtue such as charity or mercy. It is simply an affirmation that we should be this kind of society and we did our part. “Should” is such a totally useless word. It shouldnt even be a word.
Your statements, resolutions and yard signs are useless, ineffective indications of your self-righteousness and feigned moral superiority. I’ll admit they show good intention, but they change no one’s mind, they do not feed a single person. And you know what they say about “good intentions?” At best these signs and statements may dump a small layer of diluted guilt on someone, but it will be quickly forgotten.
So what should we, the church, and particularly we the clergy do, if we hope to remedy this? Well I’m just “spit-ballin’” here, but something comes to mind. Some of y’all gonna hate it too. But we do have a history and track-record of success with a strategy that worked from Luther until the 1960s. Maybe it’s time to start giving God’s people a little Hell. I mean literally, Hell.
Again, just thinking out loud, I may not even agree with it theologically but Hell may not be such a bad thing. I mean it probably is, a bad thing, a really bad thing, to be sure, but maybe the threat of Hell might need to be re-introduced….even if it isn’t real. Luther (who, by the way, in my hierarchy of spiritual giants is #3, behind Jesus and Paul) certainly believed in Hell’s reality. He also believed it was eternal. Further though, whether it’s intellectually honest or not – preaching this concept of eternal Hell – I think is at least intellectually “fair” to do if we are going to preach “Heaven.” That said, whether or not either Heaven or Hell actually exist in eternity is less immediately important as the belief that they exist. Their theoretical existence provides the consequence for what is desired now.
But the modern theologian asks the question, “How could a loving God consign someone, anyone to an eternal hell?” I, for one, have doubts that such a loving God would, and I do believe that God is love. Maybe this is in fact true. Maybe not. I’ll know soon enough, but in the meantime I have to come up with a system that works better than the one which has been failing for the past 50 years. Perhaps the answer lies in the implied Hell of Miss Roberts’ paddle.
Bess Roberts was the principal of the elementary I attended. I was terrified of her. She ran our school with an iron fist. There was no talking allowed in the halls as students moved from one part of the school to another. The apostle Paul would have admired the “decency and good order” of my elementary school. Even the conversation in the cafeteria was to be quiet and respectful. If things got too loud in the lunchroom, she would emerge from her office which was across from the cafeteria, grab the spoon from the child nearest her and scream “quiet” as she banged the spoon on the table. We immediately and frightfully shut up. Every. Single. Time. It never failed. I was terrified of being sent “to the office.” I was terrified of this fate for a number of reasons. First was the way she acted in the lunchroom. Secondly, laying on her desk for all to see – and we could see it – as we walked by her office’s always open door was a big paddle. It was laying right out there like one big threat of hell that I wanted nothing to do with.
One day I was sent “to the office” probably for talking too much. I cried all the way down there. I walked in and immediately my eyes were drawn to the paddle. She asked why I had been sent. I told her, tearfully. Oddly, she very very quietly told me that she was disappointed in me. She expected better. She looked at the paddle, back at me, and even more quietly said, “now go back to Mrs. Howard’s room and behave. Do not be sent here again.” I never was.
Year later I ran into her as an adult. I was still a bit intimidated, though by now I was a 6’3” 250 lb. man, and time had withered her into a small, frail, old woman. She recognized me. We spoke for a bit. “Hey” I said, “just curious, but how often did you have to use your paddle. I was scared to death of that paddle. I never really knew of any of my friends that got paddled but we all heard stories. I was sure I was going to get it the one time I was ‘sent to the office’.” She looked at me and smiled and said, “As best I recall….never.” The paddle had done NOTHING. EVER. The threat of it, in part, led to my doctorate, I’m sure.
So I guess what I am saying is this. If our faith, or better said, my faith, is going to have any meaningful effect in my life, or in yours, maybe it’s time to refocus on our own individual responsibility to practice this faith. Maybe it’s also time to recognize our individual consequences, be they Hell or something like it, for not doing so.
I dunno. It’s at least food for thought.