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The Chimera of Relevance
by James Hitchcock
June 20, 2003
A Methodist bishop describes traditional teachings about Jesus -- His divinity, His resurrection, the atonement -- as "myths." Even the word "God", according to Bishop Joe Sprague, does not mean a supreme being "out there in the beyond". In one form or another such revisions have been going on for three centuries, and it is not only a Protestant phenomenon -- there are Catholics saying much the same.
The purpose for these revisions is supposedly to "help confused believers" who cannot accept "the stilted theological language of the ancient creeds", the chief rationale for liberal theology over three centuries.
There are indeed people who cannot understand the traditional doctrines of Christianity. But the jury brought in its verdict on this strategy some time ago -- the continuing watering down of Christian beliefs does overcome this skepticism but in fact has the opposite affect.
The clearest evidence is the fact that for decades the "mainstream" churches which adopted theological liberalism have been losing members, some of them hemorrhaging badly, as more conservative churches have continued to grow. Sometimes the doubters of whom Bishop Sprague is solicitous undergo conversion and ardently embrace orthodox belief. Most do not. But there is little evidence that skeptical modern people are being attracted to liberal theology.
It is significant that in Bishop Sprague's address, at a Methodist seminary, he appears to have spent more time dismissing the historic creeds than expounding what is true about the Christian faith. Liberal theology is primarily a way by which troubled Christians can come to terms with their doubts, not a way by which they can be brought to renewed faith. Such theology often serves as a way station on the road on which the doubters finally free themselves from belief completely. Hence the steady loss of membership by liberal churches.
There is nothing in Christian doctrine which revisionists are unwilling to deny (remember the "death of God" theology?), until finally there is almost nothing left. I suspect that most non-believers would read Bishop Sprague's claim that God is "the sound image we humans employ to point to the very essence of it all..." as a desperate attempt to salvage something by using pretentious language for things the skeptic thinks are best understood without reference to God at all.
Recently I read about Protestant congregations that have introduced lively contemporary music and informal styles of worship as a way of attracting members. The battle over liturgy goes on in the Catholic Church as well and shows no sign of being resolved this side of the Second Coming.
To some extent this is a matter of taste, but there is more to it. Do we really want to say that Bach's music is not better than that of ....? (Fill in the blank. I won't get personal.) But what struck me was a Lutheran pastor's explanation for these new forms of worship -- "serving people who think traditional worship is boring".
No doubt for some people it is. But reference to Bach puts this in perspective -- most worthwhile things in life are boring at least some of the time. Even the best students probably find Friday night in the pub more enjoyable than physics or philosophy, poetry or painting. Ordinary human responsibilities -- to family and other human beings -- often seem like drudgery.
Abandoning traditional forms of worship because some people find them boring is to surrender to the spirit of the age in a way which can ultimately be fatal, not because newer forms of worship are without value but because churches should not cater to the contemporary addiction to excitement.
The difference between art and entertainment, between real literature and thrillers, is that the former makes strong demands on us, and the more we respond the more rewarding is the experience. Entertainment simply washes over us, drawing us without effort into a fleeting excitement.
The historic creeds of Christianity are "meaningless" to many people who have never made an effort to understand them and do not even see why they should. An approach to religion which promises to "meet people where they are" runs the risk of simply leaving them where they are, which is scarcely what is meant by preaching the Gospel.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.
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