Movement in search of strong leadership

Posted July 10, 2009, at 6:09 p.m.

In my last column, I argued that liberal Christianity lacks a strong voice in the popular culture and is viewed by most Americans as a form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is a type of religious belief that focuses on personal happiness and tolerance for others.

While that brief description may not sound so bad, MTD is actually deeply problematic in its tendency toward egocentricity and passivity. Conservative Christians and New Atheists, on the contrary, ask their adherents to follow genuinely active beliefs and have very strong spokesmen for their causes. As a result, most of the religious conversation in America today consists of arguments between those two groups, with liberal Christians largely on the outside looking in.

As a result, liberal Christianity has begun to slip in numbers, with people who in earlier decades would have called themselves liberal Christians turning toward secularism.

If the demographic trends continue over the coming decades, liberal Christianity will become further marginalized, as New Atheism grows and conservative Christianity holds steady. America will become more secular, but also will contain an even more polarizing religious discussion.

To some, this might not seem like a problem. The New Atheists, for example, would surely consider it a win, and less strident secularists probably would like the outcome as well. Conservative Christians might look on all this with ambivalence, as they are hardly friends of liberal theology, but it’s doubtful they would be fond of an even more secular society.

To a genuine liberal Protestant, though, one who finds neither MTD nor a more secular society appealing, the current state of affairs is deeply disconcerting.

Correcting this disconcerting state of affairs is the topic of this column, as well as one that I touched on briefly in my last column, which I ended by imploring you to Google Terry Eagleton’s review of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”

To reiterate, “The God Delusion” is one of the founding texts of the New Atheist movement, and it is one of the more shallow and oblivious pieces of religious thought ever published. That said, the writing is forceful, and the statement of belief (or disbelief, as it were) is assertive, clear and full of what Dawkins takes to be righteous anger. It builds upon a modern, materialistic understanding of the universe and reduces God to a scientific hypothesis.

Eagleton’s review eviscerates the book and the entire New Atheist movement, pointing out that Dawkins just doesn’t understand the way religious people think about God. Writes Eagleton, “[Dawkins] seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is … He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”

Eagleton posits that Dawkins doesn’t understand this because he hasn’t bothered to actually read much of any theology. Dawkins, to his credit, admits as much, arguing that one doesn’t “have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns.” Which is true, of course, right up until the point one decides to write a book about them.

If Eagleton’s review merely refuted New Atheism, that would be enough for me to point you to it, but in addition to that great service, it offers up a remarkably straightforward, if slightly reductive, summary of popular liberal Protestant theology.

He writes: “Salvation … has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich,” and this is right. Christianity is more than anything else a faith of action. As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead.” It is not enough to simply believe in a metaphysical salvation, to say a prayer and be saved, because to truly believe is to act on that belief. Works may not be able to save us, but without them we are surely dead.

The main difference between this liberal theology and MTD should be fairly clear. Whereas MTD is about being vaguely nice to people so that you can feel good about yourself, the type of Christianity Eagleton lays out is about genuinely doing things for others, with no consideration for yourself whatsoever. One might ask how far we should go to help another person. The answer is, so far it kills you. “Here, then,” writes Eagleton, “is your pie in the sky and opium of the people.”

While quite a lot of mythology is wish-fulfillment, the teachings of Jesus for the most part are not. We are to feed the hungry and care for the elderly. We are to reject material wealth and favor from the world. We are to go to the most desolate places and become one with those who live there, to become the lowest of the low. And we are to do all this right up until we die.

Now, of course, I haven’t done all that. Neither has Eagleton, and neither have you. This is why works can’t save us. We can never do enough. But if we truly believe in the gospel, we have a responsibility to try to affect these outcomes as best we can.

As much as I like his religious writing, and as much as I’m looking forward to reading his new book on the subject, Eagleton probably isn’t going to be the cultural voice that liberal Christianity needs. He is first and foremost a leftist literary critic, and Christianity to him always will be a means to political ends.

But a spokesman with his clarity and verve is necessary, because while spokespeople tend to be slightly obnoxious and reductive, without their presence, movements tend to lose their way, and then lose their adherents. New Atheism and conservative Protestantism have strong voices that assertively state active beliefs. Liberal Christianity doesn’t, and that needs to change.

In the meantime, though, there are any number of liberal churches in this country that still hold to this kind of theology and a belief in social justice. They ought to take a cue from their conservative brethren and evangelize. Not by going from door to door with Bibles in hand, but just by practicing those works in which they claim to believe.

Christianity, after all, is a faith of action. And if said conservative brethren would like to stop focusing so heavily on barely scriptural culture war issues, and shift at least some of their focus to all of those fine acts that Jesus actually demanded we do, that would probably be a good thing, too.

Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached via justin.fowler@myfairpoint.net or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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