Monday, July 10, 2006

One more thing, a/k/a Summer Reading Assignments

I'm bumping this up because the update got a bit out of hand, and I didn't want to split the discussion between two threads.

Start here.

Read it over once or twice. Let me know what you think.

I'm going to read it over, too.

UPDATE: by way of contrast, you can also consider that "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins." Good ol' OT Prophet stuff here! Just try to keep up with the reasoning here:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God's name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ's divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn't take itself seriously, neither do its members. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1960, members of mainline churches — Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and the like — accounted for 40% of all American Protestants. Today, it's more like 12% (17 million out of 135 million). Some of the precipitous decline is due to lower birthrates among the generally blue-state mainliners, but it also is clear that millions of mainline adherents (and especially their children) have simply walked out of the pews never to return.
So, being a female bishop is equivalent to wanting to have gay sex? On whose moral scale? Change God's name to "Sophia"? It happens to be the Greek term for "Wisdom" (and so found in the Septuagint, the oldest version of the Hebrew scriptures), which as anthropomorphized as female in both Greek and Hebrew cultures. The references to "Sophia" are a recovery of the recognition of the value of "female" in Biblical studies, not a replacement. If we're going to bash liberal theologies, let's get the facts right. The "female Jesus" thing has been discussed right into the ground. But let's combine these two "highly controversial" ideas:

And thus in our making God almighty is our kindly father, and god all wisdom is our kindly mother, with the love and the goodness of the Holy Ghost, which is all one God, one Lord. And in the knitting and the oneing he is our very true spouse and we his loved wife and his fair maiden, with which wife he was never displeased. For he sayeth: "I love thee and thou lovest me, and our love shall never part in two."

I beheld the working of all the blessed Trinity, in which beholding I saw and understood these three properties: The property of the fatherhood, and the property of the motherhood, and the property of the lordship in one God. In our father almighty we have our keeping and our bliss as anemptis our kindly substance which is to us by our making fro without beginning. And in the second person is wit and wisdom we have our keeping as anemptis our sensuality and our restoring and our saving, for he is our mother, brother and savior And in our good lord the Holy Ghost we have our rewarding and our yielding, for our living and our travail....

For the first I saw and understood that the high might of the Trinity is our father, and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, and the great love of the Trinity is our lord; and all these we have in kind and in our substantial making.
Clearly Julian of Norwich is a dangerous liberal, and should be expunged from the Church. All the punctuation there, by the way, is as in the original. Capitalizing words is a tradition of 19th century English grammarians; like so many other things wrong with English today.

But I digress....

Why have people walked out of the pews since 1960? Well, dramatic social change would be one reason. Two world wars shattered the church in Europe, but that may have been in large part because the church was so associated with the state, and in no small part because the Enlightenment in Europe dramatically undermined support for the church in European society for centuries, a support that was merely a hollow shell by the 19th century, when the church was maintained as vital in large part merely to keep the populace in line (such was the argument among the intelligentsia, anyway). In America church attendance actually swelled after WWII, but any church historian will tell you that was an aberration, not a reflection of the norm. Church attendance in America was at an all time high when the Baby Boomers were being born and growing up, and that includes the Puritan era in New England. The collapse was not a rejection of "liberal Christianity," it was a return to normal. There is, further, the problem of aging churches, one I have experienced first hand more than once.

Protestant churches, especially, tend to be congregational creatures. As the congreation ages, and in the 20th century we added 30 years to average life expectancy, it holds on to the way things have "always been done." So not only do the hymns not change (not always a bad thing; most modern hymns are simply "praise choruses"), but neither does the theology. The exegesis (interpretation) of Scripture I learned in seminary was, for the most part, rooted in scholarship from the 19th century. Yet in most churches, the congregants' understanding of scripture is rooted in the 16th century, or earlier. The "generation gap" between those members, and their children or grandchildren, is huge. The grandchildren, by and large, prefer the exegesis of Dom Crossan to William Barclay (excluding deeply conservative/ fundamentalist traditions, which are a different issue for many reasons). The mainline denominations identified in that quote have never been as conservative or fundamentalist, but they are increasingly insistent upon "their" view of scripture as the only one permissable. At least, the ones sharply declining in membership can be described this way, more often than not.

There is no, in other words, a level playing field, with liberal congregations dying on one side, conservative ones thriving on the other. Most mainline Protestant congregations are a mix (and the thriving "mega-churches" tend to emphasize experiential worship and what God can do for you over demanding doctrine and orthodox teachings), and the elderly tend to hold the reins of power. If young people leave, it's for a variety of reasons, but there's little evidence they are leaving solely to swell the ranks of more conservative traditional churches (of which, judging by the number of Episcopal dioceses seeking "alternative primatial oversight," there are obviously quite a few).

I know I'm going on a bit, but there's also this:

It doesn't help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark ("The Rise of Christianity") and historian Philip Jenkins ("The Next Christendom") contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents' commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women's ordination.
This is what can be described (by sociology) as the difference between the church of meaning and belonging and the church of sacrifice for meaning and belonging. One demands sacrifice from you, which is of great value when it is made; the other demands no sacrifice, and reinforces what you already know as "eternal truth." This is part of the sociological principle of internal homogeneity:

The key generalization is this: the cost of producing meaning, belonging, and security in internally diverse congregations is usually much greater because of the increased complexity of demands, needs, and backgrounds, and the increased effort necessary to create social solidarity and group identity, and the greater potential for internal conflict. Thus, internally homogenous congregations more often provide what draws people to religious groups/or lower costs than do internally diverse congregations. This is another reason why congregations tend toward internal homogeneity.
Much easier, in other words, to be among people who all agree women should not be ordained, not for complext doctrinal reasons such as "they are incapable of bearing the sacerdotal presence" (who understands such language?) but for the far simpler reason that: "We've always done it this way!" That attitude, of course, reinforces group boundaries, something that openness and tolerance and acceptance of change tends to erode:

Groups that stress tolerance, openness to diversity, and inclusiveness, typically lack the ability to have strong comparison groups by which to define their boundaries (with the exception that they may compare themselves to groups that do draw distinct boundaries). Their boundaries are fuzzy, and they thus find it more difficult to provide meaning and belonging.
The fundamental argument of this column is the "ethical paradox of group loyalty." It's bad to be selfish for yourself; it's good to be selfish on behalf of a group. This is, of course, the opposite attitude from the Desert Fathers, but there you are. What the argument presented here comes down to is basically a utilitarian one: church should produce the greatest good for the greatest number, in order to be a thriving institution. No doubt that statistics about churches in decline are correct; but that may reflect a decline in the dominant Roman model of church which imitated the Empire and established churches much as Rome established cities (the "mission" model of church still thrives among Pentecostals as it once did among Roman Catholics). That, of course, is another issue, but it all comes back to the same question: what is changing? The church, or society? If it is society, isn't the church obligated to change, too? If the change is wrong, will the church die? Only if it is a human institution.

Which puts us back to the issue: what's the problem here? It may be one for pastors like yours truly, who want to earn a living and need an institution to secure that living, but what real difference does it make to the people? If we can kill the church, whose church is it?

If we can't kill the church, maybe arguing about change is like cursing the darkness; and we'd be better off lighting more candles. But that wrecks the idea that the problem is "liberal Christianity," doesn't it? Now, if we could just get the facts right about that, maybe we could have a discussion about it.

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