Concern about the Collapse of the Mainline Liberal

There is a fascinating conversation these days about what exactly is going to happen to the the ‘Old’line (what used to be the Mainline) denominations and why exactly it has happened. Both John Cobb (a while ago) and Diana Butler Bass (more recently) have had amazingly insightful takes about it on our podcast. 

I find myself in an interesting position as one employed at a healthy and growing Mainline church that is about to begin an emergent expression this Fall with the addition of a second gathering. It has been said by numerous folks that I bring an evangelical zeal to being progressive. But when I read stuff about the bigger picture I feel like I showed up at the prom around 11.

Today I want have a little conversation with David Ray Griffin. His article ‘Postmodern Theology for the Church’ begins with possibly the best opening paragraph I have read. I will post it, break the sentences up and attempt to dialogue. I won’t get beyond the first paragraph in round 1. My comments will be in italics 

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Many believe that the modern liberal church is dying.  Whether or not this is true, it is obvious that modern liberal churches have been in decline in both numbers and influence for some time.  

  • It’s funny to judge life and health by numbers and influence. Maybe it is not the worst thing in the world to lose a little weight! Maybe downsizing and streamlining are not all that bad for the 21st century. I mean, this is not post-WWII America anymore.  These mammoth cathedrals and lumbering bureaucratic structures are from a bygone era. 

This fact has recently received terminological recognition in the change from “mainline” to “oldline” to refer to these churches.  Various analyses have been offered to explain this decline.

  • I’m always nervous when reductive thinking tries to explain a complicated situation with a primary label. I mean, if its true – and obvious – that is one thing.  My tendency is to look to a web of interpretation (anchored at many points) or to use a chemistry analogy about a concoction or mix.  

Conservative theologians offer a theological analysis, saying that the liberal churches are in decline because their theology is vacuous.  I believe that this analysis is essentially correct.

  • This is the point that John Cobb makes in that interview. They basically figured out that no matter what degree or shade someone’s belief had, we all basically did the same things. The system was set up to serve here,  give to this, and show up there. The technical fine tuning of belief didn’t make that big of a difference so … it must not really matter that much. 

Religion is based upon the perennial human desire to be in harmony with the supreme power of the universe, but modern liberal theology has had trouble speaking of the world as God’s creation and of God as providentially active in the world in any significant sense.

It has generally redefined God—indeed, if it speaks of God at all—so that God is not portrayed as the supreme power of the universe, if it attributes any power at all to what it calls God.

  • While we do certainly contend that omni-potent is not the Biblical picture of God (but a Ceasar-esque one imported from Greek philosophy and Roman politics) we can not abandon a God who acts all together if we are to have an Christ at all. I have no interest is being generically religious (a God-ian) or spiritual (a Spirit-ist). I want Jesus. If not, I would just walk away – to be honest. I have better things to do (like Sociology). Maybe that is exactly what people have done… walked away from it.  

Religion is based upon hope for salvation, but modern liberal theology has not provided a realistic basis for hope, either for individuals or the world as a whole.  Vital religion usually involves not only hope for the future but also present religious experience that is salvific in itself, and yet modern liberal theology has little if any room for such experience.

  • Two interesting things here: A) I am all for hope. Once the social gospel collapse (or the government took over many of its functions) I get why folks were less likely to really sacrifice and pour themselves out for the cause. The post-millenial expectation that was predominate 100 years ago was a bust. It was too optimistic about human progress and social change … and not strong enough on anthropology (human nature).  
  • B) Religious experience is a doozy of a topic. It was eye opening for me to move from an environment where we raised our hands, closed our eyes and sang as loud as we could (over even danced) in delight at experiencing God’s presence in corporate musical worship. I love the idea of liturgy, ceremony, and ritual. But you have to admit that epistemology and the expectation are night and day.  People want to argue with my on this point but I’m telling you that evangelical-charismatic worship is more individualist and more faithful to Schleiermacher’s liberal expectation than anything I have found in the Mainline. 

The Christian Church when it has been on the move has had a clear sense of its mission as God’s agent to bring from the power of the demonic, but modern liberal has been able to articulate no such sense of mission.

  • There may be no better point in the whole article than this. I think that greater than the massive sanctuaries, the dogged loyalty to old forms in worship, and anything else you can point to … this may be the most important element of the demise. 

A religious movement thrives when it offers a message that seems both true and important, but modern liberal theology has not been able convincingly to portray its message as either true or important.

  • My goodness this one stings. It actually hurts so much (even as newcomer) that I pour many hours and invest tons of energy into addressing this one. 

Conservative theologians say that modern liberal theology provides little more than a religious gloss on an essentially nonreligious worldview; that criticism, I am saying, is largely correct.

  • Totally unacceptable! We have good news to offer the words – and it is not that everything makes sense. Making sense is good (most of the time) but it is certainly not enough. Our commission is not just to help folks be the nicest, best, most generous versions of themselves. We can’t afford to do group therapy and call it church. Nor can we simply define ourselves and not fundamentalist or not conservative. Negativa will not suffice. What is needed is a solid articulation and dynamic organization of community and a tradition that houses a robust theology and aggressive engagement of the world that it finds itself in. 
Those are some of my thoughts. I would love to hear some of yours!   -Bo Sanders 

 

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