If you read my blog, you know that I stand firmly on the side of liberal/progressive theology. I have a deep conviction that a liberal interpretation of faith and scripture gets us closer to properly understanding Christ than available alternatives—and I believe that it leads to not only a stronger, more resilient faith but also a better world. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.
But I also try to maintain some humility and avoid the arrogance of assuming that the interpretations that I favor are automatically superior to others with which I am confronted. At the very least, we ought to be aware of and to understand differing interpretations as a check to our own. We ought also to understand alternative theologies to better understand and live with the people who hold them. As important, though, we need to be constantly challenged in our theology to refine and affirm it—this cannot be done only with echo-chambers of like-minded individuals.
And so, in a microcosm of this tension I try to maintain, this combined confidence and skepticism, I write this post on some of my thoughts about the future of Christianity.
Watching the struggles of my own denomination (the United Methodist Church) with conflicts between liberal and conservative theologies, I wonder whether the Christian Church—as a whole—can sustain itself on conservative theology. I have written, sometimes admittedly harshly, in other posts about the ways in which I believe conservative (to be fair, ultra-conservative) theology hurts the witness of the Gospel.
Recent events within the UMC—the election of Rev. Karen Oliveto to Bishop of the Western Conference, for instance, make it seem increasingly likely that there will be a split between the conservative and liberal elements of the UMC. The actions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association seem to underline the preparation for this split and its inevitability.
I believe that one of the greatest testaments to the love of Jesus Christ would be for the United Methodist Church to remain unified, living and worshipping together despite differences in what should be considered ancillary theological matters (I detect no differences in doctrine on the creedal values and statements). However, I am increasingly convinced that a split is coming.
There is a cynical part of me that believes that this is a good thing, which leads us to the crux of this post: I wonder if a conservative daughter organization of the UMC, and really any church adamant about conservative theology, can survive. I have a growing suspicion that conservative churches will wither and die.
I would like to say that this would prove that liberal theology is a superior interpretation of our faith than conservative, but this does not logically follow. The reason that I believe that conservative churches will continue to see their numbers fall in the coming years until they become unsustainable is that liberal theology has a much better chance of converting the ever-increasing population of unchurched young people. Conservative theology butts heads with many of the social values of younger generations, and I believe that this is ultimately irreconcilable.
But, to reiterate, that liberal theology might be more attractive to future generations (to the extent that any theology is, and that’s a significant question) does not make it correct theology. The Crusades were popular among Christians but certainly un-Christian.
So, here’s the dilemma I have—I really want to say that this perceived (and, mind you, totally unscientific) belief that liberal theology has higher chances of bringing new people into the Church is emblematic of C.S. Lewis’ “natural law,” that it is a subtle but God-breathed recognition of the conscience for the better morality. Wanting does not make it so, and there’s a grave danger of arrogance and the same dismissal of the other side of the argument that I often point out in conservative’s use of the phrase “authority of Scripture.” Hypocrisy is not a look anyone can pull off, myself included.
I think that all sides of the conservative/liberal theological split would agree that theology should never be adapted to become more attractive to potential converts. It should only be adapted when the newer theology seems to be correct for its own sake, without reference to the opinions of others. Unfortunately, I doubt whether we humans can separate those things from one another, and—even if I ultimately deny the claim—it is a question that ought to be considered, wrestled with and fully addressed when conservatives accuse liberals of altering theology to suit what makes them happy. Then again, the liberals might fairly accuse the conservatives of altering theology to suit what makes them feel safe. Ultimately, this just means that humans ought to carefully consider their own motives when reaching theological conclusions.
Despite my skepticism, which I believe should be maintained for a healthy theology (and a healthily low level of arrogance), I do believe that liberal theology is right and that it is a good thing—I refuse to speculate about the movement of the Spirit in matters such as this, for that would be to presume far too much—that what I believe is the better theology resonates more with younger generations. For me, this means a hope that the dwindling of avowed Christians may be reversed and, in the process, create a Church that is more faithful to Christ.
At the same time, it would be problematic at the least for conservative interpretations to die out. This is not a fair comparison, so please do not take it as such, but consider Arianism. The early church had to actually wrestle with and confront this heterodoxy; now we take its inaccuracy for granted. Conservative interpretation is infinitely more supportable than any established heterodoxy (though I find it ultimately insupportable). If we lose faithful, good-hearted people of conservative theology—of whom I’m sure there are many—we lose a “loyal opposition” that forces us to carefully evaluate and defend our own theology. No theology should be taken for granted.
Neither should we seek to maintain conservative theologians as strawmen or zoological exhibits—we must remember that, at least on some issues, their interpretations may be right. Most important, we must remember that our faith has many mysteries that may be unable to resolve, and thus we ought to be willing and ready to live in harmony with those Christians with whom we disagree on certain theological matters.
Because of my convictions, I sincerely hope that liberal Christian theologies will prevail over conservative ones, and that this will cause a revival and re-expansion of our faith. At the same time, I hope that we maintain a diversity of theologies that can challenge us and further refine our understanding of the person and nature of Jesus Christ.
As a final caveat, I have to admit that I cannot be sure that the conservative factions within Christianity will die off—many seem to be doing quite well, and some very conservative factions, such as the Mennonites, have endured for quite some time in the face of competing theologies (albeit in small pockets).