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.
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.