For Easter Sunday the New York Times released an editorial where Ross Douthat implored secular liberal readers to start going to church again in order to save the aging and dying mainline denominations (Think PCUSA). I have to admit, I did appreciate a few of the things he had to say. Such as the benefits of church communities that societies like the Freedom From Religion Foundation will never match.
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.
… Finally, a brief word to the really hardened atheists: Oh, come on. Sure, all that beauty and ecstasy and astonishing mathematical order is because we’re part of a multiverse or a simulation or something; that’s the ticket. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real. Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.
But the real problem and explanation for why these churches are dying in the first place quickly comes to light when Douthat informs his readers that the mainline have done their absolute best to make us comfortable already, so won’t you please throw them a bone and attend already:
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.
You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.
And therein lies the rub. By all accounts, the mainline churches should be booming with growth. Yes yes, they are still the largest denominations in America by a large margin (apologies to my LCMS friends, you are much larger than NAPARC but the ELCA is twice your size) and will continue to be even after they lose half a million more congregants over the next couple years. But by all accounts, they’re doing everything right by becoming as accommodating as possible. Why aren’t the membership rolls growing by flinging the doors open wide and establishing no barrier for entry?
This reminds me of an episode of a podcast I regularly listen to, the Judge John Hodgman Podcast. On this show, author and former minor television personality John Hodgman settles real-world disputes his guests have. It’s a great show because it shows a wide swatch of human experience that is utterly foreign to me. From a dispute about having dinner with the extended family five nights a week to whether or not the master bedroom should be turned into a dedicated VR room (and decorated like the Holodeck from TNG), the problems may vary in consequence, scope or importance, but each is real and Hodgman, while funny, also treats each case seriously and in probing often finds, as he puts it, “the crux of the matter”.
The episode this reminded me of ‘Separation of Church and Date‘ bowled me over because it revealed to me what’s common knowledge (I tend to have my head in the sand on many issues). In this episode the dispute is that a woman would like her boyfriend to attend church with her a couple times a year. The boyfriend has set a limit to the number of times he’ll attend church each year, and would also like for attending weddings with religious elements to count towards this limit. My immediate reaction was “Suck it up. We all do things we don’t want to do for the sake of a healthy relationship and besides, going to your friend’s wedding should be something you look forward to no matter what the circumstances are. Stop being a self-absorbed oaf and go be an actual partner.”
Then I learned more about the exact situation. She didn’t just want him to attend church with her on Easter, Christmas and a handful of other weekends. She was in seminary, training to become a pastor herself. One of the events he didn’t want to attend was her own ordination. The Judge then delved into her beliefs as a future “Minister of Word and Sacrament”. She claimed to agree in “something greater than human kind” and when the Judge clarified by stating, “Right, you believe in God” she retorted with “As a label” and when asked about the afterlife she said she was indifferent (Indifferent about the resurrection of the dead, closing tenets of both the Apostle and Nicene creeds?) and said she preferred, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive, to focus on the here and now and making the world a better place.
Someone award her the Kuyper prize.
And so now she found herself in a situation where her live-in boyfriend of 10 years was ambivalent about attending her ordination ceremony. And really, who could blame him? Of course he’s ambivalent, it’s an ambivalent religion with no stakes that makes no claims that demands nothing of you. What’s the point of a Christian religion where its own ministers and elders won’t even clearly state that they believe in God? That’s why fewer and fewer people are willing to give up their Sunday mornings for a glorified social club with a dress-up aspect. Why miss Easter brunch specials and NFL Sundays for some quasi-belief in next to nothing? The denomination even has ministers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity, in violation of the creeds and confessions they allegedly subscribe to, and no one even blinks at this.
This sort of fuzzy belief at best, and belief in nothing at all at worst has a name and it’s not Presbyterianism, Reformed or even Christianity. It’s agnosticism and atheism. And if the focus is rallying people around political and social causes, that’s what Parties and Committees are for. That’s why Douthat’s pleading to save the mainline will fall on deaf ears. His marks aren’t stupid, they know full well there’s no point in attending these churches and they won’t be conned into it. The only reason that they’re still around is simple inertia.
The great newspaperman H.L. Mencken summed this up in his obituary of J. Gresham Machen in 1937 (1937, remember that whenever anyone tells you this has only happened within the last few years or decades):
What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.
Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.
Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.
These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.
It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.
These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy.
That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again–in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed–but he was undoubtedly right.
I apologize for the length of that quotation, but it really hammers home the point and it’s a criticism we Christians should take to heart when we’re worried about being respectable in the eyes of society and our critics. We cannot win respect by throwing essential doctrine off the ship. Altering our religion to make it appealing will only confirm what they already knew, that it truly means nothing at all. If you want respect then you should emulate Machen and strive for a consistent and intelligent defense of the faith. Attending a compromised church out of guilt, as a matter of merely connecting with community, or because a columnist begged you to because the mainline has tried so hard to be palatable to you, is not just pointless, it’s soulless. You’re better off watching football Sunday mornings instead.