The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
Liberal Christians experienced this decline sooner than their conservative kin, thus giving them a longer, more sustained opportunity to explore what faith might mean to twenty-first century people. Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus’ command to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations–a form of faith that cares for one’s neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus’ injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.
Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.
There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now. Indeed, I think that the better story of contemporary Christianity is that of an awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith is roiling and I argue for that in my recent book, Christianity After Religion.
She raises some fair points in this rebuttal, but it seems to me she’s still begging some questions: (1) Why did liberal Christianity experience the decline sooner than conservative Christianity? (2) If liberal Christianity is experiencing a renewal, why isn’t that showing up in church statistics? Are individual congregations thriving? Sure. Is the movement thriving? I haven’t seen anything to suggest some macro-level health in liberal Christian institutions.
My friend Tony Hunt pointed me to this response to Butler Bass’s response:
But Bass’s overall question—can Christianity be saved—demonstrates that her true vision in this discussion is something very different. The goal seems not to be to live into the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed, but rather to tear down the Kingdom and build something new—something different with a new savior. Such a project is of an entirely different purpose than that of the “old liberal” tradition Bass claims to celebrate.
The American religious landscape is changing—that much is certain. Also certain: The trust Americans place in institutions in general—including religious ones—is trending downward. But given Bass’s proposal—which amounts to nothing less than abandonment of the identity of Christians with one who has saved the world in search of someone or something else to “save Christianity”—one wonders if such a proposal which admits to being created for the primary purpose of institutional survival will somehow increase trust in an institution.
If “the better story of contemporary Christianity” is a new savior, then the christianity which Bass is trying to save is not truly Christianity at all.