I hate to speak in such colloquialisms, but Diana Butler Bass just doesn’t get it. In her Huffington Post response to Ross Douthat, Bass asks: “Can Christianity be saved?” Her question illuminates much.
But before we deal with the question, someone has to call out the abhorrent reference to immigrants from Latin America. In a fly-by-night analysis of Roman Catholic Church attendance, Bass suggests we should “factor out immigrants.” Just so we’re clear, Diana: Do we factor them out because they’re poor, because they’re immigrants, or because they’re from Latin America? Either way, it seems their decision to remain Roman Catholics upon immigration should still render them as persons for statistical purposes….but more on that later.
On to Bass’s question in chief: Can Christianity be saved? The question seems to take seriously the possibility of Christianity being wiped off the religious map: For what it’s worth, I know of no non-Christian person who takes this possibility seriously on a global scale. I suppose I know a few Christians and non-Christians—including, truth be told, occasionally myself—who wonder if Christianity will disappear from the United States and/or western Europe. Perhaps . . . but that would just leave Latin Americans and other non-white and non-Western peoples where Christianity is thriving. Oh, that’s right; those folks don’t count.
Setting demographic trends aside, it is hard to imagine how any Christian can seriously consider this question. The core of Christianity proclaims that the savior role has been filled by Jesus Christ. That job is taken.
Bass, like Douthat, points to the good that has come from liberal Christians throughout the Church’s history. No one denies that the Church has been blessed often by those who, at the time, were thought of as the liberal fringe of the faithful community. But the key difference is that, unlike Bass, those folks did not see themselves as out to save Christianity.
Rather, liberal Christians of the past saw themselves as called to challenge various social norms of their societies which they believed hindered the fulfilling of the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated through his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. Some of their ideas and approaches were good—some bad. We’re painting “the old liberal tradition” with an extraordinarily broad brush here, but it’s fair to say they saw their ideals and actions as being derived from a life spent on mission for the Gospel—continuing the Kingdom Jesus began.
If “the Episcopal Church’s ever-increasing social and political progressivism” (to again use Bass’s words) was rooted in such a Christocentric vision, then Christians would be able to take such progressivism seriously and engage on the merits and faithfulness of recent decisions. To be fair, some liberal Episcopalians see these decisions as just such a move. While I heartily disagree, we can and should engage with one another over these questions as Christians have done theology for centuries.
But Bass’s overall question—can Christianity be saved—demonstrates that her true vision in this discussion is something very different. The goal seems not to be to live into the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed, but rather to tear down the Kingdom and build something new—something different with a new savior. Such a project is of an entirely different purpose than that of the “old liberal” tradition Bass claims to celebrate.
The American religious landscape is changing—that much is certain. Also certain: The trust Americans place in institutions in general—including religious ones—is trending downward. But given Bass’s proposal—which amounts to nothing less than abandonment of the identity of Christians with one who has saved the world in search of someone or something else to “save Christianity”—one wonders if such a proposal which admits to being created for the primary purpose of institutional survival will somehow increase trust in an institution.
If “the better story of contemporary Christianity” is a new savior, then the christianity which Bass is trying to save is not truly Christianity at all.
At a more basic level, I think it’s pretty clear that Bass’s version of Christianity has all qualities of Niebuhr’s analysis of Protestant liberalism in “The Kingdom of God in America:”
A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.
Bass went to Duke BEFORE Hauerwas, right? Or was her PhD in Church History?
I really enjoyed these insights, Thomas. Well done.
A simple question for Dr. Bulter-Bass is: was Jesus wrong when he said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?
Good post. Her question is hard to take seriously, as you effectively demonstrate. Plus, she doesn’t answer Douthat’s question about liberal Christianity, she simply posits that the entire faith is in decline. On another note, I recently read that a few years ago the annual national Episcopal convention refused to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord. Do you know if that happened? If so, doesn’t that portend the decline of the denomination as a Christian institution? If the church can’t simply affirm the central theme of the Bible, how can that institution be saved without a serious… Read more »
I have always liked that Niebuhr quote!
Responses to Bass are as a whole, filled with the need for dualistic thinking that in turn rewards with a sense of power and control and certainly the required division of corporate religion. Your contradiction has no validity.