A Facebook friend of mine linked up this interesting op-ed carried by the New York Times this past Sunday. The title of the article, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” What I found particularly interesting from the article is the writer’s claim, “But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed.” “Liberal Christianity has simply collapsed”? The writer’s assessment very much mirror’s that of Dr. Rodney Stark, who is currently a Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University. Dr. Stark had much to say about the decline of mainstream Christianity two years ago in this interview printed at Patheos Evangelical.
The crux of Mr. Stark’s observations is that theological liberalism is slowly killing, or has killed, mainline denominations in America. What really caught my attention from his article is the following quote:
“So, the fact of the matter is, if you look at the leading lights in American Protestantism in the early 20th century, the famous people didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. They were very shaky about the existence of God. They always talked about God, but when you got down into their books and pushed, God was some kind of social value. There wasn’t a one of them who believed in a God who could hear prayers.
Well, they may be right about God. But that doesn’t make for a strong church. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t make for much of anything. If God doesn’t hear or care, if God is not in fact an intelligent entity of some kind, if God is only an ideal, then church is an irrelevancy. Ideals are cheap. They also don’t give you anything. Some of these guys bragged that atheists could embrace their conception of God. Well, that should have told you something! How ecumenical can you get?”
I believe he is correct and would like to provide my perspective in the context of my being a former pagan/atheist. Some years ago I was like a number of people in what is called “post-Christian America.” If you haven’t heard the term “post-Christian America” before, don’t worry. What the term is supposed to signify is that the denizens of the USA are, for the most part, not Christian in their thinking, but something other. Or, as the two gentlemen I cited above would perhaps say, Christianity is no longer the dominant religion in America. Years ago I would have perfectly fit in such a demographic. I was an atheist who held to an Oprah-esque view of spirituality. Perhaps you have heard it before? Even though I didn’t believe in God, I was “spiritual.” Not “Christian spiritual,” but “spiritual” in the sense that everyone was entitled to their religious beliefs and whatever “faith communities” they wanted to construct. I certainly agreed with the motto found on many car bumpers today, “Co-exist.”
I won’t deny that it is possible Christianity is not the dominate religion in America today and I can see why that would be the case, given the pervasiveness of theological liberalism in the mainstream. Isn’t theological liberalism just a form of unbelief? While an atheist with a “spiritual” twist, I simply loved to talk with theological liberals, since they had no real “religious conviction.” In fact, the more I talked with theological liberals, the more I learned that we were just two peas in the same pod. They had their therapy and I had mine. In fact, some of my dialogues with theological liberals, when I was an atheist, were fascinating to me, since there was nothing to “deconvert” the theological liberal from. For example, my conversation with a theological liberal might have gone something like the following:
Atheist Jim (Me:) “You don’t believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus, or any resurrection form the dead?”
Theological Liberal (TL): “That’s right.”
Me: “So, Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead, and you and I won’t be resurrected from the dead?”
Me: “You reject that the Christian Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible word?”
TL: “The Bible is a collection of human inspired documents which point to good moral values and a life philosophy worth living.”
Me: “And sin? What is that?”
TL: “So-called ‘sin’ can be explained in psychological and sociological terms today, but in the ancient world humans needed the concept of a moral law giver who would punish them for breaking the rules in order to survive. We see this need for a moral law giver in every culture around the world. No, there is no such thing as objective morals, or ‘sin’ as some conservative Christians like to talk about.”
Me: “Does the deity as described in the Bible exist? That is, a supreme being who takes personal interest in his creation and will reward those who do ‘good’ and punish those who do ‘evil’?”
TL: “I can’t say if such a being really exists. There might be a ‘god’ like that, but it is doubtful. The ancient mind needed such a deity, but today we can manage with a ‘god’ who is more like a mathematical constant, or even like a theorem in arithmetic. Today’s deity is meant to help us feel good about ourselves; especially during difficult times, but there is no personal divine being in the universe.”
Me: “So, ‘god’, if one should exists, would be an abstract entity like a prime number?”
Me: “To sum up, you don’t believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus, there will be no general resurrection of the dead, there are no objective morals, people will not be punished for ‘sin’ or rewarded for ‘good’, the Bible is a collection of man-made stories, and ‘god’ is nothing more than some abstract entity such as a prime number. Would you agree?”
TL: “Yes, that about sums it up.”
Me: “You’re not a Christian. Oh, you might call yourself a ‘Christian’, but as an atheist I would have little to no problem adopting many of your beliefs and still remain an atheist.”
TL: *shrugs shoulders* “You’re entitled to your opinion.”
Why would anyone who doesn’t believe in Christ want to adopt the theological liberal’s way of thinking? The citations at the top of this article drive this point home and express what is surely the reason why mainstream churches are shrinking. No amount of circus church growth gimmicks can replace sound theological teaching. Churches becoming permeable to the culture around them and then finally surrendering to said culture are not inviting to those who already see themselves as “spiritual.” For example, when God gave me faith so that I might repent of my sins and receive the forgiveness of sins through His life giving Word and Sacraments, the last thing I wanted to do was attend a “church” dominated by liberal theology. Why would I want to climb into a “Christian train wreck” after being pulled out of a horrible “atheistic train wreck?”
The decline and/or death of mainstream Christianity surely has much to do with what others have called a “famine of the Word.” In a post-modern world, living in a post-Christian era, we certainly are facing a crisis where some church denominations do not think their members are really interested in studying doctrine and hearing solid law and gospel preached across the pulpit. Indeed, too many Lutheran congregations have bought into this myth and focus on offering praise bands, coffee shops, and seminars on how to be a “better you” all in the name of being “missional” or growing the Church. Worse yet are those synods which have capitulated to theological liberalism and are now the bastions of so-called “progressive theology” which abandoned the Gospel for a social justice “gospel.” These churches are following the “growth plan” of anything but solid teaching and sound doctrine. And, just like the mainstream, they might just find their program of giving the “spiritual customer” what he wants not only doesn’t work, but drives away those freshly brought to the faith as I once was some time ago.
There’s nothing like having the “Real McCoy.” Why would anyone want a fake?