Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? That’s the question posed by Ross Douthat, the always interesting conservative NY Times columnist and a committed Roman Catholic. Of course, the same can be asked about Liberal Judaism or Islam. Better yet, would be to question if liberal religion is viable in the first place. Taking the long view, a strong argument can be made that it is not. The orthodox across all religions share one thing in common. For them religion is essential to their being, as natural and necessary as breathing air. They make no real distinction between the holy and the profane. Consequently, life is a cohesive and integrated whole where religious practice is not an option but a necessity. In contrast, the non-orthodox (while certainly not monolithic) generally approach religion as something to be done, often at a specific time and place. I like to describe it as by appointment. Appointments are meant to be kept but, the best intentions notwithstanding, they are often to be missed, something that can become a habit, feeding on itself.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that orthodox leaders like the Pope whom Douthat references, stand fast against any liberalization. They pushback against Vatican II-like reforms, seeing them as dilutive and ultimately destructive. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion. And that’s precisely what concerns Douthat even though he recognizes that progressive religion has played a key role in civil rights and other efforts aimed at bettering our society, what Jews call tikun olam.
At the same time, just as taken to its logical conclusion, liberalization may lead to destruction, we should not overlook the chicken and egg question. Liberal religion may be positioned as modernizing belief and practice, but is it rather reactive — aimed at saving something that would otherwise be lost? There is considerable data suggesting that people in the West (including the United States) are moving from religion at an accelerating pace. They may be exiting from liberal churches and synagogues but also from the orthodox. Only the influx of Hispanics can mask the full dimension of Catholic Church losses better seen in the forced closing of many parishes and schools. Only 40% of those brought up as Orthodox Jews remain so as adults.
So the question posed by Ross Douthat may be interesting but it is ultimately the wrong one. Considering current trends — the doubling of the no-religion-at-all group in the last decade — shouldn’t we be asking if religion can be saved? I’d suggest both orthodox and liberal religious leaders, admit it or not, have that question top of mind and have developed different strategies in response to the perceived danger.
The orthodox are turning inward, hitting the reverse button if you will. Their religion is becoming narrower, more doctrinaire and often more militant (in some cases violent). They are closing all windows and drawing all shades to avoid even a trickle of air or light that might disrupt their way. It is why Rome is reining in their nuns, which Douthat sees as something being done for their own protection. I don’t buy it. By the same token, liberals are desperately trying to find innovative ways that will engage their constituents while simultaneously hitting their own reverse button. For them this means dipping into the tradition and in some instances reinstating customs if not ideas that had been previously abandoned. All the while, they know that without embracing modernity they can’t sustain the flock or themselves. A conundrum to which there is no easy response.
These are very different strategies and both may ultimately constitute short-term fixes. The Higgs bosom is not the God particle, but a bit of matter that will give scientists greater insight into our origins; insights that obviate any Let there be. Religion has been around a long time and it is sure survive far into the future. It remains more resilient in some places than others, in some pockets even in places hostile to its teaching. It survived Stalin. But, as life itself, religion — the adherence to what some of us believe — is likely to be finite not eternal. Measured against the rigors of scientific testing, it falls short. The radical idea of religion as finite, is something its followers don’t dare consider because that, not liberalism or orthodoxy, is a real game changer.