A Provocative Statement for 2007

A friend of mine notes the following statement as passing before her eyes:

"Liberal religion is dying. Kids either secular or interested in orthodoxy"

She wonders if it is true. It's a good enough question to drag me out of my cave and write something here, so thanks.

On the one hand, the question doesn't make any sense. It imagines that "liberal religion", secularity and orthodoxy are all equivalent and mutually exclusive choices. What is the orthodoxy against which "liberal religion" stands? Greek Orthodoxy, Christian orthodoxy, Muslim orthodoxy, Buddhist orthodoxy? Is our commentator saying that there is no one will occupy a space between secularism and orthodox christianity? Or is he saying that globally, there is no choice between secularity and fundamentalism of all types?

People who make statements like this are usually trying to force a choice. The Communists said all through the 30's and 40's that there was no middle ground between fascism and socialism. The choice that they denied even existed -- namely the continuation of international capitalism without open fascism -- was the what was happening right before their eyes, and their greatest fear.

Despite the second statement (kids either are secular or orthodox), for which the empirical claim is absent, isn't the most obvious religious and cultural trend around right now widespread interest in non-orthodox, non-exclusivist spirituality? Especially among "the kids." Is our commentator saying that all those folks who say "I am spiritual, but not religious" really just secularists? His statement is true only if you are allow him to define everything that is not orthodox as secular.

Reminds me of that quiz question: If you say that the tail is a leg, how many legs does a dog have? The correct answer is four, because you cannot truthfully call a tail a leg.

Here is what I do believe about the future of liberal religion, orthodoxy and secularism.

Liberal Christianity and Orthodox or Fundamentalist Christianity have meaning only in relationship to each other. They are competing strategies for resolving the differences between historic teachings of the church (dogma) and all the stuff of the modern world: science, global cultural relativism, etc. etc.

I do not believe that there will continue to be a need for a specifically Liberal Christian dogmatic position. This is partially true because I do not think that the "orthodox" dogmatic position has any real definition anymore. There is no one to define it, no one to defend it, and no danger in defying it, anymore. As Christianity become divorced from state power around the world, orthodoxy is what exactly? There are the historic teachings of the church, and there is this vast intellectual tradition, and every word that we in the Western traditions use to talk about anything that matters is tool formed in the workshop of church. The form and the content of all our theological conversations will take the form of relating the historic teachings of the church to the world as we find it.

Liberal Christianity as a set of dogmatic assertions -- unitarian understandings of Jesus, universalist understandings of salvation etc. -- will die, I think, or to be more accurate, will become dated objects of historic interest.

Where we are going, I think, is this: in a world which is increasingly secular, global, culturally relativistic, and egalitarian, religious identity will become personal and non-systematic. Religious institutions and traditions will be resources to individuals as they grapple with questions of ultimate meaning. Religious organizations (churches, congregations, academies, schools, voluntary communities) will exist, of course, but people will not belong to them forever as a single part of of a larger community. Christianity will be Christianity, and largely representing what we now call Orthodox Christianity to the world. But specific religious communities will be incredibly diverse and take all sorts of relationships to that orthodoxy. There will always be Christian communities which take a generous, tolerant, liberal approach to matters of the faith, just as there will always be Christian communities which are take a harder line. And there will be religious communities that blur the lines between Christianity and other religions as well.

To sum up, the world in the future is going to be like the world is now, except more so. Yes, part of the way that the world is now is that the organizing power of religion over the whole of society continues to dwindle, and that people are intensely interested at certain stages of their lives in the systematic explanation of all reality under one philosophical approach. but it is also very very very true that all the trends that give rise to liberal approaches to religion will continue to gain greater currency: the desire for personal autonomy, the need to respect the diversity of humanity, the voluntary nature of each person's loyalties and commitments.


  1. Thanks for musing aloud on this. Glad I asked. We've missed your blogging. Get on it, bro! ;-)


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