A pair of stories I linked to a few days ago has been rumbling around in my head. The British writer of the stories was diagnosing the problems of liberal Christianity and providing his prescription for a cure for what ails it.
The articles keep bouncing around in my head because of all the other voices they set to chattering as I was reading them.
The writer argues for a form of Christianity that affirms the liberal nation-state: particularly the separation of church and state and the notion that government exists to preserve and extend human liberty. But he argues that the form of Christianity that affirmed this political philosophy took a wrong turn when it tried to divest itself of “cultic” practices.
The second pillar of the new liberal Christianity is a bit more surprising. For in the past, liberal Christianity has downplayed the ritual side of religion, often seeing it as a road leading to Rome. I prefer the term “cultic” to “ritual”. Of course, I’m not advocating creepy cults that brainwash people. The word “cult” just means worship; I like it because it has a strong and rather exotic aura (whereas “worship” suggests the blandness of Songs of Praise, and “ritual” is redolent of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition). The word has, in fact, a primitive aura, which is appropriate, for Christianity must step away from claiming to be the religion of rational civilisation and accept its affinity with primitive religious practice (this was Wittgenstein’s great contribution to theology).
His great hope is for liberal Christianity to recapture its cultural relevance and influence. He does not really discuss how this form of liberal Christianity would escape the Arianism or Deism that characterizes so much contemporary liberal Christianity. Somehow, it seems, cultic practices would take care of that.
I do not know if other proponents of liberal Christianity would affirm this writer’s thesis, but I did find it an interesting argument. It is one that set off other voices in my head.
As I read his piece, I could hear Stanley Hauerwas jeering in the background. A self-described high-church Mennonite, Hauerwas likes to tell Christians that if they celebrate Mother’s Day or have an American flag in the church they are practicing a form of Baalism. They thing this writer affirms as foundational, Hauerwas names a disease.
As I read, I was also thinking of those problematic passages in the New Testament where Paul and Peter urge the fledgling church to give honor to the emperor. Often these parts of the New Testament are dismissed as overtures by a persecuted church to keep the storm-troopers at bay. But I do wonder if giving honor to the emperor and affirming the liberal nation state might be more or less the same kind of move. Is the church called the way Jeremiah called Israel to settle down and work for the good of Babylon during its days of exile?
And here the third voice emerges. American Methodists have always been put in an awkward position by John Wesley’s Toryism. He wrote in strong language against the American Revolution and was a firm defender of the king and the close bond between the Church of England and the state. (Jason Vickers has written a poorly titled but interesting book on Wesley as an establishment Anglican.)
If liberal Christianity is at all what the writer in the British newspaper argues it is, it is no wonder that John Wesley fits so awkwardly into contemporary United Methodism. We are a denomination created to be a stalwart of liberal Christianity — just when all forms of Christianity were losing their cultural ascendancy. Wesley can’t be shoved into the liberal Christian box without making a bloody mess of him. This does not stop some people from doing it, of course. That they then parade around the bloody corpse of Wesley as a banner for liberal Christianity is either tragedy or farce.
These are the voices I carry around most of the time.
I came to the church through liberal Christianity. I was introduced to post-liberalism by Will Williion and Stanley Hauerwas. I discovered the Bible only well into this process, and I met John Wesley when I discerned a call to ministry. This chorus of voices still spend a lot of time in my head. There are others, but these are the loudest.
And here endeth the tour for today. Please stop by the gift shop on your way out to pick up a T-shirt or postcard.