Monday, July 16, 2012

Church Labels and Modifiers: Liberal, Conservative, Etc.

A Ross Douthat column in the July 14, 2012, NYT is titled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" It includes interesting data on trends in membership of the Episcopal Church and how those trends may be related to shifting positions on theological and social issues. The bottom line is that, while there is no proof of cause and effect, as the Episcopal Church has relaxed its emphasis on theology and given in to current societal trends and pressures, its membership has consistently declined. The article points out that other mainline “denominations” are suffering from the same disease and that some of the apparently more successful “conservative” churches are emphasizing health and wealth rather than the theological depth of the New Testament.

It seems to me there is no reason to save a Christianity that can be categorized and adequately described by any of today’s political descriptors such as “conservative” or “liberal.” If Christianity does not completely transcend and confuse and render meaningless such simplistic categories, it is redundant and neither needs nor deserves any defense. There will always be political and economic liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians, etc., squabbles among them, and strong defenses of and condemnations of them. But Christianity as revealed in Holy Scripture and through the teachings of The Church is a different category entirely, a spiritual category, and one that certainly includes individuals with secondary interests in or loose allegiances with all those worldly categories.

Considering some major philosophical differences between “liberals” and “conservatives,” reasonable people of faith may differ about which functions are best performed by government and which by private individuals and companies. They may argue about the appropriate size of government and the best ways to raise revenue needed by government to perform its functions. They may and probably will argue about how much debt government should accumulate in the process of performing its functions, though I would hope that all would agree that bankrupting the nation is an immoral choice. Math, after all, is a gift of God not to be ignored.

Such reasonable people may also differ about the extent to which government should subsidize or penalize or even be involved in personal behavior. Should government play a role in marriage, deciding who may marry and establishing different tax rates depending on whether one is married? Should government play a role in home ownership, granting loans to those who cannot afford them and tax advantages to those who chose to bear the burden of home ownership? Should government play a role in sexual relationships, offering free birth control and abortion opportunities or encouraging or prohibiting either or both? From this group of “social” issues, it seems obvious that new life, even more than math, is a gift of God not to be ignored.

But aside from and much more important than such social, political, and economic considerations, the person who claims to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, a disciple, has all those inconvenient New Testament truths from Jesus to be dealt with. We have to try and understand what our role is in his Great Commission and in his two Greatest Commandments. We have to try to understand and comply with what he really meant in claiming to be one with the Father, in telling us we have to be last if we want to be first and that it is almost impossible for a rich person, whatever that is, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to figure out what our sins are and confess them to each other for forgiveness. We have to deal with his statements that he was establishing his church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it, that he was sending the Holy Spirit to us, and that we must partake of his Body and Blood or else have no life in us. And he told us that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Perhaps most challenging of all, he told us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

Well, at least if we get too frustrated or tired, we have his promises that he grants us his peace and that he will give us rest.

But here is the problem. Christianity with a liberal slant, a conservative slant, a patriotic slant, a prosperity slant, or any slant at all is a deviation from or corruption of or at least a selective editing of the fundamental truths on which Christianity is based. It would be much better for liberals, conservatives, patriots, etc. to seek common ground in the Faith, leaving their ideologies outside the door, than for believers to drag the Church into the political and philosophical arenas. Like Jesus, the Church, the Body of Christ, the Embassy of Heaven on Earth, is to be in the World but not of the World. It is to transform the World, not conform to it.

And so, let us go to Church not for political or social activism, not for friendships and business relationships, not for entertainment and pleasure, not for coffee and donuts, but for divine M&M’s, mystery and miracles, including some glimpse of, some foretaste of, the Real Presence of Christ and the Divine Mystery of the Triune God. That is the unique offering The Church can make. And, if that is available, and we receive it, and allow it to show in our lives, people will flock to it just as they flocked to Jesus. And Christianity won’t need any modifiers such as the one used by Mr. Douthat.

Otherwise, churches risk becoming not much more than social clubs, service clubs, hospices, groups of people enjoying each other’s company, doing some projects, singing some hymns, getting some advice, and taking care of each other as they die off, certainly all good things, but just missing the mark somewhat, it seems to me.