Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Doctrinal Fidelity Buffet

For whatever reason, Commonweal keeps me on their mailing list, and so I see a smattering of their articles as part of my "read the other side too" diet. A recent article discussed trends the Episcopalian author believes he sees towards doctrinal fidelity among mainline Protestant denominations such as his own. He begins by referencing the much discussed Nicholas Kristof NY Times column in which Kristof interviewed theologian Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary just before Easter. The author summarizes and quotes the Kristof/Jones interaction as follows:
In the interview Kristof, Nicodemus-like, tiptoes toward Christian faith with hesitation but sincere interest (as he has before). “For someone like myself,” he says, “who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” “Well,” Jones replies, “you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” In another part of the interview, she elaborates:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.
The author argues that this kind of theological modernism is more typical of mainline Protestantism of the Baby Boomer generation, and that among his own generation things are different:
The evangelicals I follow were rightly, albeit predictably, upset. But I also follow a lot of fellow Episcopalians and other progressive, mainline Protestants. The ones I have in mind are, for the most part, young, educated, left-of-center in their politics, LGBTQ-affirming, and committed to all manner of other progressive social-justice causes, and mostly uninterested in the latest trends in worship music or church-planting, preferring instead the stability of venerable institutions and formal liturgy. And, virtually to a person, they took Jones’s comments as an occasion to affirm—nay, celebrate—the traditional doctrine of the empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily life after death. They were saddened and bewildered by Jones’s views and ready to proclaim their own confidence that, on Easter morning, “if he rose at all / It was as His body.”

To some observers, this “turn to orthodoxy” looks like the product of a generational shift. In a 2016 survey of then-current LGBT students enrolled at Episcopal seminaries, Ian Markham and Paul Moberly Mazariegos found that virtually all (92 percent) of the respondents agreed with the claim that the “creeds teach that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, which has traditionally meant that the tomb was empty.”
It’s fair to ask whether this blend of political and ethical progressivism and old-time theology is coherent, let alone sustainable. Might it be that the real dynamo of mainline Protestants’ faith is left-wing activism while belief in the resurrection is a kind of unrelated accessory, sincerely held but mostly disconnected from the rest of their convictions? No doubt that’s the case for some. Yet one of the striking things about the reactions I saw last Saturday and Sunday to Jones’s comments was how tightly many mainline Protestants intertwined their belief in the bodily resurrection with their concern for social justice.

This, for example, was how Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal seminary at Yale, responded to Jones: “If Easter really meant just that love is more powerful than death but Jesus didn’t rise, how’s the love-death score today?” The “today” in question was the day terrorist bombs killed hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka. “Is it coincidental,” McGowan asked, “that liberal Protestantism grows in the soil of privilege?” Later, when President Trump took to Twitter to use Easter as an occasion to celebrate the booming economy, McGowan quipped that that’s what you get “when Easter is about niceness, spring, or even ‘love’ without a sense of how the resurrection disrupts our idols and fantasies. This empire will crumble, and if you base contentment on its falsehoods, enjoy them while you may. A different world is coming.” That’s an accusation calculated to sting a progressive constituency: to surrender belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to aid and abet Trumpism!

In short, if my online friends represent any bellwether, the future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection. Lose the latter, and the former will ultimately be lost too.
I don't want to shortchange the fact that it is a good thing that people are taking seriously the idea that Jesus really is God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. And, clearly, it is good for people to root their ideas of justice in Jesus's divinity. It is also doubtless worth turning a more skeptical eye at the memories of the last few generations in terms of religious thinking. It's interesting that the author cites Episcopal bishop Spong as an example of the "boomer" theology in the piece, since Spong was apparently born in 1931 and thus was more a later member of the group sometimes called the "greatest generation" than the baby boomers. Unbelief in the resurrection among self described Christians is the sort of idea that's been knocking around prominently since the Enlightenment. It's certainly not something new to the aging 60s generation.

At the same time, I'm not clear how coherent this supposed fidelity to creedal Christianity of the author and his friends necessarily is. They believe in the resurrection and that is obviously a good thing. However, the fact that they seem to feel authorized to pick and choose which teachings of Christianity to accept and which to ignore is underlined by the fact that he uses "LGBTQ-affirming" as a shorthand for "modern and right-thinking progressive people".

Now clearly, that's a phrase that could be parsed a lot of different ways. People who are gay, lesbian, etc. are children of God made in his image, and they are as such as worthy of affirmation as people as any other human being. At the same time, given the source, it's hard not to conclude that the author probably means "affirming the morality of same sex marriage, gender transition, etc." This has continued as a major flash point between the kind of progressive Christians that the author discusses and those who affirm something more like orthodox Christianity. For instance, in my own town, several of the United Methodist churches have put up signs and banners proclaiming the fact that they reject the decision of the worldwide United Methodist gathering in which votes from the African members tilted the majority in favor of rejecting a plan to introduce same sex marriages.

Christians need to ask themselves how much they really believe in a risen Christ if they do not allow the Church's teachings to pull them away from the secular political alignments to which they would otherwise pledge their allegiance. It's legitimate to ask whether politically right wing Christians are forming their attitudes towards the poor and the vulnerable based on the teachings of Christ or the teachings of secular right wing political leaders. But it's also essential for Christians who consider themselves politically progressive to ask themselves whether they are followers of Christ or of the secular progressive movement when it comes to issues relating to sexuality, marriage, abortion, and contraception. These are no less moral issues than what are often labeled as "social justice issues" and often they touch on our own behavior much more directly.

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