Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
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*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

The biblical case for same-sex relationships isn’t new

It’s great that some theologically conservative evangelicals are making the “biblical” case against Christianity’s historic anti-gay position. There are certainly many people–and not just in evangelical churches–who feel in good faith that they can’t accept a revision of the traditional view without sacrificing their trust in the Bible or other bedrock convictions.

But at the same time, most of the arguments mentioned in the article linked above boil down to saying that

(1) what the biblical authors (especially Paul) condemned is not the same thing we are talking about when we discuss monogamous same-sex relationships and

(2) the Bible’s “moral logic” or its “underlying values” point toward an affirmation of loving, mutually enriching, stable relationships, whether they be opposite- or same-gender.

I happen to think this is basically correct, but it’s also what more liberal scholars have been arguing for decades. It’s understandable that evangelicals would want to make the case to their co-religionists in a cultural and theological idiom that they’re more likely to accept, but this isn’t a substantive departure from the “revisionist” case that has been made in mainline Protestant churches. Framing it that way reinforces the view that mainline scholars and leaders don’t take the Bible and Christian theological tradition seriously and have just capitulated to “the culture.” But in fact, the decisions of churches to embrace full equality for gays and lesbians have typically been informed by painstaking biblical scholarship. This scholarship has led to essentially the same conclusions that are now being used by evangelical revisionists. Obviously not everyone has been convinced, but that’s not because the case hasn’t been made until now.

Paul Tillich for Reformation Day

On “justification by grace through faith”:

A word must be said about the expression “Justification by grace through faith.” It is often used in the abbreviated form of “Justification by faith.” But this is extremely misleading, for it gives the impression that faith is an act of man by which he merits Justification. This is a total and disastrous distortion of the doctrine of Justification. The cause is God alone (by grace), but the faith that one is accepted is the channel through which grace is mediated to man (through faith). (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 179)

On the “Protestant principle”:

How can a faith which has doubt as an element within itself be united with creedal statements of the community of faith? The answer can only be that creedal expressions of the ultimate concern of the community must include their own criticism. It must become obvious in all of them–be they liturgical, doctrinal or ethical expressions of the faith of the community–that they are not ultimate. Rather, their function is to point to the ultimate which is beyond all of them. This is what I call the “Protestant principle,” the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith. Neither the doubt nor the critical element is always actual, but both must always be possible within the circle of faith. From the Christian point of view, one would say that the Church with all its doctrines and institutions and authorities stands under the prophetic judgment and not above it. Criticism and doubt show that the community of faith stands “under the Cross,” if the Cross is understood as the divine judgment over man’s religious life, and even over Christianity, though it has accepted the sign of the Cross. (Dynamics of Faith, p. 33)

Needless to say, contemporary Protestant churches frequently fall short both by treating faith as a “work” we perform to earn God’s favor and by absolutizing expressions of their faith–doctrinal, moral, institutional, or whatever. But the Reformation message of God’s free and unconditional grace is meant to free us from reliance on our works–including our religious works–and our tendency to turn them into idols.

A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

A few points on “liberal Christianity”

The events at the recent general convention of the Episcopal Church have generated a wave of the usual outrage/concern-trolling/Schadenfreude over the supposed demise of liberal/mainline Christianity. Conservatives have been riding this hobby horse for years, arguing that while churches that espouse more liberal theological or social positions have seen declines in membership, more conservative churches have been growing (or at least declining at a slower rate). The lesson–sometimes explicit but more often implicit–is supposed to be that embracing conservatism is the key to growth (which is in turn understood as virtually synonymous with success).

As is so often the case, the reality is a bit more complicated than this narrative suggests. Certainly all is not well in the mainline, but there are a few things we should keep in mind:

–Most major church bodies in the U.S. are experiencing some degree of decline, including the Roman Catholic Church and the famously conservative Southern Baptists.

–Churches labeled “conservative” aren’t necessarily growing because of their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxy; many of them downplay theology in favor of various self-help, personal growth techniques; “prosperity” preaching; or right-wing politics that have little to do with the historic Christian faith.

–Churches that take “liberal” stances on political or social issues aren’t necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to worship.

–Mainline denominations are actually not as liberal as people think but contain a wide range of theological and political views. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama got only 44 percent of the white mainline Protestant vote (see, e.g., this study). Similarly, a review of official church statements on issues like marriage and abortion would show that mainline churches have hardly bought into “sexual liberation” hook, line, and sinker.

–Liberals are often accused of “capitulating to the culture,” but many positions espoused by liberal churches (on the economy, war, or immigration, for example) are actually “countercultural” with respect to the dominant American culture.

None of this shows that liberal Christianity has a bright future–or that mainline denominations don’t have major institutional problems that need to be addressed. But I’m not convinced that “liberalism” explains these churches’ problems or that being less liberal is a panacea for what ails them.

Do the evolution

As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.

Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.

But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”

Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:

when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

Posner goes on to contend that

Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.

Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:

Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.

So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.

Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.

Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.

What ails the mainline? (part the millionth)

A speech Rick Santorum made in 2008 has resurfaced in which he laments Satanic influence on many of the institutions in America. In addition to raising the alarm about the usual bogeyman of liberal academia, he opined that mainline Protestantism “is in shambles [and] gone from the world of Christianity.”

This is of course nothing new, as Sarah Morice-Brubaker pointed out in an article at Religion Dispatches. Mainliners are quite used to hearing from conservatives that they are too liberal, too accommodating to the surrounding culture, and are failing to uphold the integrity of the gospel. The numerical decline of mainline Protestant churches (which include the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is often taken by conservatives as evidence of their slackening faithfulness.

The reality, as usual, is probably a little more complicated. For one thing, mainline churches are experiencing demographic shifts that are affecting pretty much all religious bodies in America, albeit at different rates. Second, numerical success is not necessarily a reliable indicator of theological faithfulness, as any number of suburban megachurches and prosperity-gospel TV ministries prove.

Moreover, the decline of mainline churches is almost certainly due in part to the increasing obsolescence of church membership as a matter of social respectability. Once upon a time, people went to church because that was what respectable, middle-class people (or people aspiring to be respectably middle-class) did. The fact that this expectation has largely vanished, at least in many parts of the country, is, on balance, a good thing. The conflation of Christianity with middle-class respectability is something we’re well rid of.

That said, liberal, mainline churches have plenty of self-inflicted wounds: shallow theology, a lack of economic and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social reform to the exclusion of personal piety and devotion being the ones that spring immediately to my mind. Not all mainline churches have these problems, obviously; but they’re common enough to have become cliches.

Note, though, that none of these are matters of “liberalism” per se. And this is where I agree with Sarah Morice-Brubaker. There are good Christian theological reasons for embracing liberal social and political views. This is what Santorum and other religious conservatives often miss or ignore: the social ethics of liberal Christians, at their best, are motivated by the gospel. In my view, too much mainline preaching and social action fails to make this connection explicit, and mainliners too often surrender the mantle of “orthodox” Christianity to social and political conservatives. But the connection is there.

To the extent that I agree with the conservative critique of mainline Protestantism, it’s that I think mainliners have failed (not always or everywhere, but often enough) to make their churches places where people encounter the holy and loving God of the Bible. When this encounter happens, it often results in radical transformation–both personal and social. But when it doesn’t, the church becomes little more than a social club, an amateur social-service agency, or a political lobbying group.

(Re)birth of the Reformation?

This is a very interesting article about the efforts of the Evangelical (that is, Lutheran) Church in Germany to reestablish itself in the east, after years of suppression under Communism. One idea being floated is to turn Wittenberg into a kind of “Protestant Rome” and to amp up the public face of Protestantism with more pomp, ritual, and ceremony. Another pastor profiled in the article has a more low-key approach, one that involves simply “being present” with people during the various occasions in their lives, offering advice and counsel, and so on.

Many Christian thinkers have assumed that people naturally feel a pressing thirst for transcendence, a “God-shaped hole,” to use J.P. Sartre’s expression. Sartre’s view was that we should heroically suppress this need and bravely face up to the meaninglessness of the universe. But what if, after decades of secularism, people no longer feel that thirst? What if it’s not as ineradicable as we’ve thought? There are some hints in this article that the church in Germany is facing this very situation: many people simply have no interest whatsoever in religion (even the woman who works at the “Luther House” in Wittenburg!). How do you minister to people like that?

The political theology of mainline Protestants?

This article at Harper’s argues that the rejection of the McCain/Palin ticket by mainstream Protestants that Steve Waldman described is a matter of theological as much as political differences (via Andrew Sullivan):

For the mainstream Protestant, Palin is engaging in what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “the idolatry of America.” As Niebuhr would have it, an American Christian may be patriotic and love his country, but he must also remember that his true home rests outside of these bounds fixed by geography and time and in an eternal community with Jesus Christ. The Christian’s commitment to his faith must come first, and it must transcend a commitment to the nation-state. This means that patriotism is, in the mainstream Protestant view, a fairly complicated matter. In particular, again in the Niebuhr tradition, a Christian must guard against the risk that vanity, haughtiness and hatred towards the balance of mankind enter into his heart under the guise of patriotism; he must retain a skeptical and critical attitude which recognizes the imperfection of human works. The perspective of Religious Right figures like Palin that elevates America—as their political blinders conceive her—to some sort of sacred object is therefore little short of an act of idolatry. Jesus Christ, as Charles Marsh reminds us, “comes to us from a country far from our own” and requires that believers lay their “values, traditions, and habits at the foot of the cross.” Or, as John Calvin says, “the heart is a factory of idols,” and a primitive noncritical form of patriotism can be a particularly troubling and entrenched idol.

I would love to attribute this level of theological sophistication in thinking about politics to my fellow mainliners, but color me skeptical. My guess is that mainline Protestants prefer Obama for much the same reasons as other people: the economy’s in the tank; we’ve just had 8 years of catastrophic Republican failures; and Obama has convinced them that he’s likely to be a steady hand on the ship of state.

Mainliners breaking for Obama

Interesting column by Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget–what with all the talk about the “liberal mainline”–that mainline Protestants in the pews are not necessarily all that liberal (Bush won the mainline vote in 2004).

Indeed, according to Waldman, a little over four in 10 describe themselves as conservative, while 16% identify as liberal, though, overall, they seem to skew more toward being fiscally conservative and socially liberal or moderate. Waldman attributes the surge for Obama (pardon the expression) to concern with the economy and discomfort with the rhetoric of the Religious right. Not to mention the Obama campaign’s religious outreach, which has specifically targeted mainline Protestants and “moderate” evangelicals.