Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.
Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.
Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.
Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.
I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.
If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Word on the street has it that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has given Marilynne Robinson its first Commission of Faith and Work. Doesn’t Robinson know that Tim Keller is kind of toxic? Has she no sense of solidarity with her mainline Protestant women and LBGT+ ministers and church members? (Or, didn’t Princeton’s president know that Keller was about to approve an award to Robinson?)
Better question: why is a church whose officers subscribe the Confession of Faith and Catechisms recognizing a woman who sometimes preaches and whose theological reflections, while thoughtful, hardly line up with the PCA’s confessional teaching?
Here’s the explanation:
The commission aims to address the tide of uncertainty that the humanities now face with distinctly Christian support. Historically, in times of uncertainty and transition, the humanities have provided reminders of hope and grace to combat our fear and doubt. They center us in the miracle of the Imago Dei, sounding the peal of God’s presence in our lives. As Robinson so wisely states in one of her many erudite essays: “I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”
The logic is that the humanities are on the ropes. The humanities need support from Christians. The humanities need such support because they testify to God’s “presence in our lives.”
Imagine the testimony to God’s presence if a pastor proclaimed that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Why clutter the gospel with the valuable though limited insights of the humanities?
Humanities are valuable. So are the social and natural sciences. But the humanities are not divinity — duh. The church doesn’t gain status by hanging out with celebrity writers. It reduces God’s saving power to human aspirations.
Which novelist can say she does this?
Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)
Postscript: Do humanists of this sort need the support of a confessional Presbyterian church?
Do you believe in sin?
Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.
You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?
Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.
Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.
So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.