post

When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism

I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.

Set aside for the moment all the problems involved in defining those highly-charged labels. I think lots of people would find it intriguing if not compelling and attractive to suppose that one’s social liberalism could derive from one’s theological conservatism. It’s a wonderfully peculiar notion and it apparently suffices to short-circuit the otherwise rational brains of journalists (among many others).

The New York Times has now joined both the Wall Street Journal and Belief.net (among other media sites) in providing a rather odd spin on the recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Ross Douthat’s opinion piece is a breath of fresh air after the acerbic screed offered by Jay Akasie in the Wall Street Journal (of course the bar was set rather low…just sayin’.) And while Mr. Akasie’s piece has gone viral in the religious blogosphere, including here, I hope Mr. Douthat’s piece will too. It deserves attention.

Mr. Douthat offers the relief of reasonableness in the current slurry of religious commentary on General Convention, including what I take to be his clarion call for evangelism. I embrace that call, but for reasons that I think are significantly different from his. Indeed, I think he made some significant missteps in his piece; more on those in a moment.

The bottom line: Mr. Douthat argues that liberal Christianity needs to recover a “religious reason for its own existence.” I beg your pardon, Mr. Douthat, but you haven’t been paying attention – those religious reasons (plural) have been articulated aplenty. Take solace, though, in knowing that you are not alone. Hardly any other major media commentator understands liberal theology as theology either.

So I write this as a passionate liberal and a committed conservative, even though those labels are ridiculously malleable. And that’s exactly the point. If what lots of people are seeking (as Mr. Douthat hints at in his piece) are ways to embrace the historical traditions of Christianity while also adopting socially progressive postures toward cultural issues, well, come on over to the Episcopal Church!

The fact that Mr. Douthat would apparently not comprehend my invitation speaks volumes about the evangelistic task now facing Episcopalians following our General Convention. And that’s my point here: We Episcopalians need to be much more proactive and far less apologetic about our love of tradition for the sake of social change. Episcopalians? How about ALL self-styled progressive Christians? Come on folks, that’s what the world is hungry for!

In that light, here’s where I believe Mr. Douthat stumbled:

Misstep #1: Liberal Values Derive from Culture Alone

He didn’t quite say that, but according to Mr. Douthat, the latest General Convention merely confirms that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

That’s an astonishing claim in at least two respects. First, unless he and I were observing different conventions, the materials considered by those gathered recently in Indianapolis required some rather heavy theological lifting just to read let alone to discuss. And second, just because some positions adopted by a church body might align with the values and positions of “secular liberalism” does not, ipso facto, make them non-theological or somehow irrelevant to church life or redundant or…

Actually, I’m not entirely sure what point Mr. Douthat wished to make with that claim. But he does imply (though he refrains from saying so directly) that ostensibly liberal positions indicate a reliance on secular values rather than theological reasoning. He mitigates that charge by referencing the robust theological works that were part of the Social Gospel Movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alas, he doesn’t seem to connect the dots between then and now.

Social gospel tent meeting in the late 19th century.

Misstep #2: The Episcopal Church Eschews Theology

Here Mr. Douthat is not at all coy about his perspective, and this misstep follows logically from the first one. If the Episcopal Church adopts a socially liberal position, it must have borrowed it from culture, not theology. This assumption has been around for a good long while now, and I keep puzzling over it, trying to make sense of it.

I can only suppose that self-styled conservatives are irritated and annoyed when self-styled liberals actually do our theological homework. That’s the only way I can make any sense of Mr. Douthat’s description of the Episcopal Church as “eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”

As a theologian in the Episcopal Church, I certainly find it difficult not to be defensive about that statement. So let’s back up a moment.

It is true that in Christian history theological traditions have frequently served institutional preservation. That historical tendency has made the words “theology” and “conservative” seem naturally and obviously paired, like bread and butter (or I guess for Anglicans, like scones and jam). But correlation does not necessarily mean causation, and that can be annoying if one expects theology to serve socially conservative positions.

Unfortunately, that annoyance can create blind spots, for both “liberals” and “conservatives” alike. Consider, for example, the now infamous Windsor Report, which was prepared by a commission established by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The report called on the Episcopal Church to provide theological justification for that ordination since, apparently, we had not done so. This came as quite a surprise to many of us on this side of the Pond who wondered what had happened to the decades of theological work that we had done on precisely that question. Is there some kind of theological “Bermuda Triangle” in the middle of the Atlantic that swallows up “liberal” texts?

The response to that call came in the form of a document called “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” which was commissioned by the then Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (I was privileged indeed to have contributed to that work). The document provided our biblical, historical, and theological rationale for the ordination of Bishop Robinson and a lengthy appendix detailing the history of that work stretching back to at least 1976.

I’ve heard nary a word about it since (further evidence for my “Bermuda Triangle” theory).

So now consider what just happened in Indianapolis. Those of us who worked on the same-sex blessings project were committed to grounding our work in Scripture, drawing from historical traditions, and providing sound theological arguments. The result was a report that contained theological essays, pastoral care and teaching materials, guidance concerning canon and civil law, and of course the liturgy itself – a report of nearly 100 pages.

I really don’t think I’m being defensive by insisting that Mr. Douthat reconsider whether the document we prepared illustrates an eagerness to “downplay theology entirely” among Episcopalians. Frankly, that’s a cheap shot and not worthy of your journalistic skills, Mr. Douthat.

Misstep #3: Liberal Nuns Dilute Catholicism

In an otherwise cogent and well-written column, I’m a bit perplexed by Mr. Douthat’s nearly gratuitous critique of Roman Catholic nuns. He seems to argue that the Vatican needs to interrupt the socially liberal American nuns lest we lose the socially liberal institutions that they have founded and operate. Maybe I’m the only one, but I find that incoherent.

Here again I can only assume that sound theological reasons for socially liberal advocacy simply scramble the radar for some people. After all, one of the best examples outside of the Episcopal Church for a robust theological liberalism is actually (wait for it) the tradition of Roman Catholic social teaching. I don’t mean the latest declarations from Benedict XVI. I mean the rich resources one can find in: “Rerum Novarum” (a late 19th century encyclical on the rights of workers in relation to capital, among other astonishingly “socialist” ideas); or “Gaudium et Spes” (a brilliant piece of theologically sophisticated social analysis from the Second Vatican Council); or “Economic Justice for All” (the American Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the US economy in 1986, with important sections on biblical and theological reflection).

Media commentators are no less tone deaf to Roman Catholic social teaching than they are to any other instance of theologically informed progressive Christianity. Quite honestly I fear that way too many people today in North Atlantic societies (journalists or not) simply cannot wrap their heads around a “conservative” theological position that has socially “liberal” consequences.

The fault for that lies not with journalists, but with Christians – with people, that is, like me, and with institutions like the ones I work for right now: seminaries and congregations who simply haven’t figured out how to “message their message.”

So I’m grateful for Ross Douthat’s column. I think it issues a clarion call to Episcopalians to do what most of us haven’t been trained to do: articulate loudly and clearly and evangelistically why the theological traditions of Christianity carry the potential to transform society into the Kingdom of God.

Our ancestors in the faith understood the importance of doing that. Now it’s our turn.

Comments

  1. Vanessa Glass says:

    Brilliant – thank you, Jay! I was privileged to be a deputy at this Convention and have been dismayed by the inaccurate reports of General Convention.

  2. Dan Peterson says:

    Reinhold Niebuhr said too that he was theologically conservative but socially liberal. He grounded his view in a “conservative” understanding of human nature (as fallen) which, he rightly said, goes back to the foundations of the Reformation. I get that and Iike it. What I don’t hear in your blog is what makes you conservative. You can bet that a lot of fundamentalists would challenge you and say that “conservative” means affirming biblical infallibility (which is about 300 years old and anything but conservative). Assuming that is not you, can you tell me what makes you theologically conservative (or remind me if you said it in your blog and I missed it!). I’d like to know. And, incidentally, what makes “conservative” a virtue? Maybe the term is just another word for “narrow-minded.”

    • Nancy D. says:

      Christians are called to conserve The Truth, The Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth, and apply The Truth of Love, The Word of God, liberally. To deny any element of The Truth, or to add a false element to God’s Truth, is anti-Christ. To call Christ a liar when He stated “Have you not heard from The Beginning, that God created them male and female, and for THIS reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”, is a recycling of the Arian Heresy.

      Who is the anti-Christ? Those, who, because of the sin of pride, believe they can declare what is Good, and create a god in their own image. Everyone who is with Christ professes that we have been created inThe Image of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as male and female. One cannot be with Christ and anti-Christ simultaneously. To deny that only a man and woman can live in relationship as husband and wife, is to deny The Word of God.

      • Thanks for taking the time to respond here, Nancy. Obviously, you and I disagree about some of these key points. But I think it’s important that all of us try to listen carefully — we learn the most, it seems to me, from those with whom we disagree. Blessings to you…

  3. Actually, I was a little disappointed in Mr. Douthat’s column…much of the thought behind it was straight from his recent book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” in which he conects the fall of the “Main Street” churches to their historical decision to follow the “Social Gospel” path. I find this column of his rather a lazy rehash of those ideas, with a few current embellishments such as the situation with the US nuns and our own convention. But nothing that happened in Indianapolis is going to change his mind, simply because he is not thinking about it that hard right now. Episcopalians are already in his “Liberal Christianity” box and that is where they will stay. I must say I’d hoped for better from him. But he’s an opinion columnist, not a reporter, and he wasn’t there. Had he been (or at least watched the video streams like I did), he might have witnessed a little of “what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”

  4. Absolutely wonderful! I there too, as a visitor—and I too wondered where the research and theology went re Bishop Robinsons consecration. Is it possible to get a copy of “To Set Our Hopes on Christ”? Thanks, Jay!

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Barbara! Another poster here provided an online link for “To Set Our Hope on Christ”: http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/documents/ToSetOurHope_eng.pdf

    • Dear Barbara and Rev.Dr. Jay: I have been an Episcopalian for 20 years. When Gene Robinson was made Bishop, I saw churches in my area get ripped apart. I was not against it, but I am not a theologian so I asked my Rector all the way through our Bishop for an explanation of why the church had done what it had done. NOTHING. I spent years trying to find a respnse (and I’m pretty good at the Internet and in research). NOTHING.

      THANK YOU for providing that answer! I had not idea this existed and I am so relieved. I get it!

      The author of the article is wrong about one thing. The Bermuda Triangle isn’t just over the Atlantic… it’s right here in America.

      • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Edward. I’m sorry that you had such difficulty in finding those theological resources. Alas, I fear that is not uncommon. And that’s why, in part, I wrote my blog post. The perception that those who hold ostensibly “liberal” position do so without any theological rationale is perpetuated by the situation you describe. I see this often in seminary classrooms too, when students are impatient with doing theological work because they want to get on with the “practical” stuff. Socially liberal advocacy that is not informed with rigorous theological reflection will simply sound hollow and eventually fail to gain traction, in my opinion. And yes, that would be the Bermuda Triangle right here… :-)

  5. Although only there as a visitor and a member of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, I too found General Convention and the “Blue book” of resolutions to be grounded in solid theology, prayer, scripture, and worship…pretty traditional stuff – and yet, a call to be progressive in our response to the world around us. I have read the blue book section written by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and was astounded by the work that went into both the creation of the blessings and the alternate worship materials AND the theological underpinnings that support them. You on the SCLM have been very busy these three years! I appreciate your perspective here as it helps me articulate more clearly how I too, as I said on a Facebook page last night, Preach from the Bible and the cathechism and on the themes and issues before us. In other words socially liberal/progressive and theologically conservative/traditional. Thank you, Jay!

    • Thanks for taking time to respond, Terri. And thanks also for your kind words about the SCLM materials at convention. Yes, we worked hard, but it was definitely a labor of love. I’m really glad that you found those materials helpful!

  6. Dianne Lowe says:

    Thanks for this analysis.

  7. FYI – To set our hope on Christ: http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/documents/ToSetOurHope_eng.pdf

    One failing of “liberal” Christians that I have experienced (and continue to) is that they would rather advocate and lobby for things to be done (with other people’s money, i.e taxes) than roll their sleeves up and actually do something themselves.

    In particular, in the many times I have been into prisons as part of ministry teams, the vast majority of those teams were made up of conservative folks from way more conservative fundamentalist backgrounds than us few Episcopalians. And while I would never be comfortable with their theology, they were not the bible thumping ogres of caricature – they were mostly a joy to work with. And the Episcopal clergy that would participate were never from what I would call the liberal ranks – mostly the more conservative retired ones.

    This is also one of he more irritating aspects of General Convention – all the resolutions calling for things like Israel to withdraw from whatever they did last week and the ilk is all just so much hot air. But that’s safe, of course – nobody’s going to knock on your door and make you do anything about it. Ooh, but then with all our investments, divesting bad stocks is something we can do something about, but meh, who cares if the Episcopal Church’s massive endowment sells a few thousand shares of Caterpillar? Another mere symbolic gesture. Safe, arm’s length Christianity.

    Where are the resolutions calling for individual congregations to take action locally?

    It’s really not as simple as explaining why people misunderstand your theology.

    • Thanks for taking time to respond, Dave, and for the link to “To Set Our Hope on Christ.” I’m note sure I entirely agree with your characterization of liberals, but I think you’re absolutely right that there needs to be more than “just talk.” Of course, my blog post was not a full-scale plan, but something much more modest: to resist the idea that socially liberal postures have no theological grounding, which just isn’t true. I have also found in my experience in congregational education programs that are people are really hungry for robust theological reflection to inform their ministry in the world. Is that all we need? No, of course, not. But it is one important piece of the puzzle.

      • I think one of the ways in which socially liberal Christians can differentiate themselves from socially liberal secular groups is by actively getting involved – not just advocacy and talk. If you’re actually doing something hen you can invite other people to join you – sort of hands-on evangelism.

    • There is a lot in what Dave writes that resonates with my own experience on the liberal end of the pew in Episcopal churches I have been a part of the last 20 years.

      The first 30 years of my life in the Episcopal church was spent on the other end of the pew – conservatives congregations that were a mix of evangelical and Anglo-Catholic. I was struck by 3 things in those communities:

      1. A profound grounding id discipleship, far beyond the book-club or Rector study model
      2. A focus on Jesus as an incarnation of God’s transforming power in lives
      3. A comfort for sharing faith

      There are many things in those congregation that did not track with my own sense of right thinking – patriarchy, a top-down power model, active exclusion of those not like the identified “us”. But those 3 things are a vivid contrast that has pushed at me.

      One other thing: so many mainline congregation have embraced a language set that is therapeutic in nature. I know that there are examples of theologians and seminaries that draw from the deep well of tradition and Scripture. But so much of the normative model at a congregation level can too often for my own POV sounds like an out-take from Oprah. The rich tradition of what Douhat calls out as a “a faith that spurs social reform as well as personal conversion” is often lost in talk of tolerance and bad parodies of group process.

      • Thanks for taking time to post these comments, Bob. I have similar experiences. And I do think your identifying the “therapeutic” is right on target. There’s a kind of “self-help” tone to some liberal forms of Christianity that makes me wonder at times why “religion” is even needed in those contexts. Drawing from the deep well of Scripture and tradition, as you suggest, is surely part of the solution.

    • Thank you Dave Paisley for your statement. When I read a liberal theologian and this includes Rev Dr Jay, I keep feeling that scripture has been studied to suit their political agenda. I remember one liberal theologian arguing that Paul in chapter I of his letter to the Romans was deceptively representing a conservative view in order to raise money for his planned trip to Spain! The trouble with ‘social reform’ is that we all have different ideas about this and after personal conversion are called in different ways. It is a mistake in my mind, and a divisive mistake at that, to assume that social reform coincides exactly with the dogma of the Democrat Party.

      • Thanks for taking time to respond, Michael! I’m not sure I agree entirely with your perspective here, but you have some important points to consider. Personally, I don’t assume that social reform always or even frequently aligns perfectly with the Democratic Party. (I find Democrats usually far too conservative for my theological sensibilities — but there again, what the heck does “conservative” mean?) I would also suggest that everyone reads the Bible with an agenda. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s given agenda will determine what one reads (and one should always guard against such determinations), but I do think we all bring our histories, perspectives, social locations, sensibilities, hopes and dreams to our reading of the Bible. I really can’t imagine it otherwise. So then the challenge is how to read with others, be in conversation, wrestle through it together, and especially with those with whom one disagrees.

  8. I love the first sentence of this post; it’s exactly how I feel. I will quote it with attribution many times in the future. Thank you.

    Josh Thomas
    dailyoffice.org

  9. Amen, Jay. Amen.

  10. Dear Dr. Jay,

    Someone linked me to this response after I posted the original article from NYT on my FB page. Have you read any John Milbank? I think Theology and Social Theory (his magnum opus) does a really good job of unearthing some of the “roots” of both modern liberal theology and modern conservative theology in the political Liberalism, political economy, and positivist sociology of the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t know if Douthat has read any of the radical orthodoxy folks like Milbank, but his argument that the modern liberal church is synonymous with secular liberalism sounds like something the RO camp might say – of course they’d also point out that the modern conservative church is equally guilty. But their critique of the kind of political discourse which is common in TEC would probably run more like this:

    UNGROUNDED ASSUMPTION: Language actually generates the reality it describes, and can carry with it long back stories which are determinative even if they are unknown or unacknowledged by the signifier.

    FOLLOWS THAT: When the Church describes our charity work as “securing rights for the oppressed”, we are smuggling in a Lockean/Descartean ontology that renders the Doctrine of Creation incoherent – because humans are fundamentally “deserving” or “entitled” to certain privileges, whereas the Doctrine of Creation teaches that every Thing, from breath to death, comes as a pure gift of grace, entirely undeserved. Also, when we self identify as “progressives,” we smuggle in a Comtean account of society, where evolutionary or adaptive change drives “progress” – a refinement or sharpening of ideas/tools/artistic expressions/institutions that came before, so that what is novel is necessarily “more advanced.” “more enlightened,” or superior to its predecessors (Apple LOOOOOVVVES this narrative). “Liberals” (quotes indicate that I am well aware of the dubiousness of all such labels) would also have a hard time theologically justifying what seems like an outright obsession with the political value of “equality” (if only the Declaration of Independence could be smuggled into the Canon…) The Christian narrative seems to endorse instead what might be called a “prudent” or virtuous hierarchy, where power/freedom (because they are really the same thing) is gifted to individuals based on demonstrated or potential achievement in the pursuit of what is Good, Beautiful, or True. Certainly classical Anglicanism seems to prefer such an orientation of persons over the modern society of equal Cartesian selves free to pursue their own flourishing, which seems much more at home in a congregationalist polity.

    An equally involved critique of modern conservative Christianity could be mounted, but it would take a lot more thinking for me since I’m Episcopalian and thus don’t run into those folks very often and haven’t rehearsed it as clearly in my head. But the fact that the conservative church is just as sold out to secular narratives and ontologies as the liberal church blows up Douthat’s argument, but not in the way you are trying to do it here.

    Honestly, I find the argument that “liberal” Christianity has swallowed some really malignant secular values very persuasive, and the excessively political character of General Convention reinforces that suspicion for me. It’s just that I think “conservative” Christianity has the exact same cancer, so the notion that the liberal Church’s “secularism” is its peculiar downfall doesn’t seem valid. Sorry, I know this response is dense, but I’m interested in your thoughts.

    Thanks for your post!

    • Great insights, Patrick – the students at Rice are lucky to work with you (my dad graduated from Rice long ago).

    • Thank you Patrick for this learned statement. I admit I get bothered by the sheer complexity of theology which often seems to me to represent a reply to current philosophical thought, possibly in this case the problem of language. I have noticed in vibrant growing churches really at least two things: one, deals with scripture in such a way to challenge each listener to see how the Lord calls him/her; two, Bible study presses this further. Liberals may be called one way, conservatives another, but they respect and welcome each others’ different calling and the church is richer for that. When Rowan Williams became Archbishop, he saw himself as representing the whole church, liberal and conservative to the, I am sad to say, disappointment of the liberals. I feel that TEC is simply not interested in such a church except in mouthing rather hollow words. It is possibly our structure that causes this . . . . either way it is most unfortunate and in my opinion is one of many reasons for our decline.

      • Very sad that you feel that the Episcopal Church is “mouthing rather hallow words.” The General Convention I just attended and the Episcopal Churches I have worshiped in and worked in are living a prophetic faith informed by the Bible, the catechism, the baptismal convenant, and the issues before us – these include conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive congregations…and Rowan is disappointing because he hasn’t represented the whole church, rather he has compromised his integrity by stifling even that which he believes in order to endorse something he doesn’t (at least doesn’t believe according to what he has written in his academic career) as if that is the way to the greater good.

    • Thank you so much, Patrick, for taking the time to respond with these great comments. Yes, I’ve spend some time with Radical Orthodox material. Some of I find helpful; others not so much. (I prefer Graham Ward’s analysis to that of Milbank’s, for example.) That said, I think you’re right on target to identify the European Enlightenment framework as one of the damaging legacies in contemporary Christian theology (at least of the ostensibly “liberal” variety). To be clear, I’m certainly grateful for the discourse of human rights and social justice that emerged from that framework. The problem, I think, is that 18th and 19th century Christians too quickly adopted that discourse as a way to “keep up” with a rapidly changing world while also chucking much of the “mythological” superstructure that was deemed too old-fashioned for a modern scientific world (that’s greatly over simplified, of course).

      In terms of conversation partners for all this, I’ve been persuaded over the last 8 or 9 years by those trying to bring “queer theory” and some forms of “post-colonial theorizing” into the work of constructive Christian theology. (I’m thinking here of Elizabeth Stuart, Marcella Althaus-Reid, Lisa Isherwood, and Gerard Loughlin). Generally speaking, they see modern western cultural values as infecting both self-styled liberal and conservative Christianity to the denigration of historical traditions, not least in the emphasis on individual “rights,” but also in what could be called the reduction of the cosmological to the anthropological, which tends to make sociology the preferred tool of analysis for Christianity rather than theology. Again, that’s over simplified, but all of which to say that I’m basically on your page here.

      I’d be interested to know more about what you mean by the “excessively political character of General Convention.” What is “political” in your view about it that hasn’t always been the case when Christians have deliberated about their common life?

      • Thanks so much for this response! I really resonate with the narrative you lay out here – worth pointing out that “rights” discourse DOES owe something to Christian theology – what wasn’t residue from the “dominium” of Roman law came from the Christian claim that humans are the imago dei. But the way “rights” discourse is currently deployed veers into darkly Nietzschean territory, as “constituencies” of all kinds sharpen their narratives of injury into weapons that gain power through polemic and emotional manipulation. I am also uncomfortable with the way this discourse has caused us to substitute political advocacy for acts of charity (speaking of Catholic moral theology). Language really matters here – charity finds its clearest expression in the blood of Jesus poured out on the cross. Political advocacy is rooted…somewhere else? I’m not so interested in acquiring political power for the voiceless. I am interested in being a vessel the Holy Spirit uses to bring dead people back to life by knitting them into the redeemed family of Jesus – mind, body, and Spirit.

        I am unfamiliar with the writers you name here (excepting Graham Ward, whom I have read). But I think the denigration of Christian tradition you mention – including the reliance on “rights discourse,” reduction of cosmos to anthropos, and a preference for sociology over theology (how infatuated are we REALLY with the psuedo-faschism of systems theory, for instance) are some of the “malignancies” I was thinking of in my first post.

        I speak about GC as a total outsider to her machinations, so all nuance is lost to me. But following the proceedings via the Interwebz and the anecdotes of colleagues who were present, it seemed there was quite a lot of politicking going on. I use “politicking” pejoratively in reference to the behaviors described above – portraying political advocacy as a proper telos of Christian practice, uncritically employing “rights discourse” without regard for its suitability as a Christian vernacular, wielding narratives of injury as weapons against opponents, treating the ecclesia as an agon where difference is resolved through rhetorical combat and votes. All of this implies a root secularism – what Milbank calls the ontology of violence – the notion that (policed) conflict generates what unity and peace is possible.

        Your subtle suggestion that such politicking is status quo for the Church through time strikes me as a little dubious – isn’t it a favorite gimmick of the modern west to read ourselves into history? Luke thinks ecclesial difference is resolved through emerging Spiritual consensus, and I suspect a similar belief motivated Archbishop Williams to suspend voting at the past Lambeth Conference. I remember hearing one of my teachers, Martin Smith, bitterly lambast Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem as pure fabrication, I suspect because consensus must be unreachable for democratic politics to be valid.

        Having been accepted to seminary in the rancorous days of 2004, my entire priesthood has been consumed by ecclesial combat. I pray for a new peace to settle on the Church, one which is more than a temporary restraining of violence. I wonder whether the ritual of GC as she currently exists makes such a thing impossible.

        Oh and thanks for your kind words, Bob and Michael! Bob, glad to hear your dad is a Rice alum – if you are ever in Houston and want to drop by Autry House, let me know! I’d love to treat you to coffee or lunch.

        -PMH

  11. Jay – this is a wonderfully written rebuttal – I’ve also been wondering what happened to all that 1970s and 1980s theological work the church did. Now I know, a theological Bermuda Triangle!

  12. Thanks, Jay. I guess now I’m thankful for the Douthat piece if only because it gave rise to your response.

  13. Amen!

  14. Thank you for this wonderful thoughtful piece!

  15. Jay – I appreciate your perspective and addition to the overall melee. I would like to take a different slant on the end of your last full paragraph: “…transform society into the Kingdom of God.”

    I don’t know within which theological or sociopolitical framework my following comment might fall (and it does fall within some, but with perhaps a different take in the midst of our time), but I would venture that we can do absolutely nothing with regard to transforming our society into the Kingdom of God. My take on your statement (and correct me if I am wrong) is more Enlightenment utopianism than necessarily Christian. I would offer, and I think it is more than semantics, that only God can bring about the Kingdom, and God does it through the transformation of individual hearts and minds made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, and as a result of such individual transformation we may find communities that better reflect the principles of the actual Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is within those who wish to live into it, but not in the structures of a society, ala Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritans’ attempts in the New World or democratic-socialism, etc.

    - Bob+

    • Bob, thank you SO much for taking the time to respond! I really resonate with much of what you offer here. I think I was a bit careless in that final line of my blog post, though I still stick by it. I need to expand and clarify in future posts. I do agree that only God can work the transformation all of us hope for (and the hope itself is because God planted the hope in us). That said, I also believe that God has commissioned the Body of Christ (the “Church”) to do the work toward that day, which means much more than personal conversion (though that is a cornerstone). It means analyzing social structures and working hard to reform along Gospel/Kingdom lines. This is a very strong tradition in several branches of Anglican traditions that are quite compelling to me and which echo significant strands in the whole history of Christianity — the 19th century Christian socialists and Anglo-Catholics to name but two. Thank you again for your comments. I’ll work harder on being clearer and also rethinking what I mean to say.

  16. So, you’re on board with all the family and marriage stuff in Gaudium et Spes? no contraception, each marital act should be open to procreation, etc. etc.

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond, Albert! That’s a great question. Short answer: No. But by citing Gaudium et Spes I did not mean to imply (though I can see how I may have done so) that I agree with everything in it. I was suggesting instead that it (along with the other documents and more) provide illustrations of how one might go about doing theological analysis of society. I still think the Preface and Introduction to Gaudium et Spes spells out quite well at least the general trajectory of my own theological convictions in relation to culture — and these are not often the convictions one finds among those who identify as “socially liberal,” as I do. Again, not all of the consequences of such theological reflection as are included in GS are ones that I would adopt, but many of them I would. We will never, of course, find a single document or approach that captures everything the way we want it captured (and if we did, we’re probably no longer dealing with theology anymore). My broader point was only to point toward a few examples of the possibility of connecting ostensibly “conservative” theological work with ostensibly “liberal” social values, which are not drawn solely from “secular” political culture.

  17. Nancy D. says:

    With all due respect, Rev.Dr. Jay, your disagreement is with Jesus Christ, The Word of God. I am simply someone who recognizes The Truth of Love, Is Jesus The Christ.

    • And of course when you say, “with all due respect”, you really mean, “with no respect at all”…

      • Nancy D. says:

        Actually, the term with all due respect acknowledges that one respects those statements that are grounded in truth while acknowledging that those statements that are grounded in error, are not worthy of respect.

        Truth begets truth, error begets error.
        I Pray you find Peace in Christ.

  18. Nancy D. says:

    God defines Love. Our call to Holiness is a call to Love. Love exists in relationship. Any act, including any sexual act, that does not respect the inherent Dignity of the human person, is not an act of Love. Why would God Bless any act that is anti-Love and thus anti-Christ and a violation of God’s Commandments regarding Love?

    • Nancy D. says:

      No doubt, at this hour, it is late. The Time has come for Evangelism. The Line has been drawn in the sand between those who recognize that from The Beginning, we have been called to live in relationship as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters…and those who claim we have been called to live in relationship according to sexual preference as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual…in direct violation of God’s Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery. At the end of The Day, when Time is no longer of the essence, as we recognize there can only be One Body of Christ, will you be with Christ or against Him? Those who walk in The Spirit of Love, choose Life.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] necessarily “liberal” on theology or liturgy. Liberal or progressive social positions can be based on “conservative” theology, and many mainline churches are quite traditional in their liturgy and approach to [...]

  2. [...] (A sample of fine Episcopal bloggers, who were actually there, is availablehere, here, here and here.) [...]

  3. [...] the situation for the more liberal Episcopal and more conservative Roman Catholic churches.Jay Emerson Johnson offered a powerful response summed up eloquently in his opening sentence:I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.Jon [...]

  4. [...] problem with the social/political/whatever Christianity that is promoted in some of the responses(such as from one Episcopalian here and this Huffington Post article) is that all the articles, while trying to appear forceful, [...]

  5. [...] in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, [...]

  6. [...] promised, I really am going to write something here about creedal Christianity. I truly am socially “liberal” because of my “conservative” theology. For the latter, I rely on the creedal history of the Christian Church. But my mother’s magnet [...]

  7. [...] (one of the drafters of the Episcopal Church’s new blessing for same-sex couples,) over at peculiarfaith.com: “I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously [...]

  8. [...] When “Liberal” Rhymes with “Theology” It’s Time for Evangelism - An argument for the theological basis of social liberal views in response to Douthat. [...]

  9. [...] When "Liberal" Rhymes with "Theology" It's Time for Evangelism [...]

  10. [...] than numbers, I’m intrigued that men messing with women’s bodily integrity and a robust liberal Christianity appear to have been the topics of most interest to readers of “Peculiar Faith.” I take [...]

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