The Episco-media world is a-buzz about an op-ed last weekend by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in which he dares to ask the question, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Responses have varied, some acerbic and silly, others more thoughtful or contextual, but all rejecting the very premise of Mr. Douthat’s question. These respondents argue that liberalization is not creating the demographic hemmoraging that the Episcopal Church currently enjoys. It is merely a product of our changing culture, or it is something that all churches are experiencing equally, or–in a grand feat of naivete–some even claim that it really is not all that bad.
But what I find infinitely more interesting than the demographic question is a challenge that Douthat poses late in the piece. After exploring the various ways in which the Episcopal Church, along with most mainline liberal churches, has over-emphasized liberal social issues and politics while under-emphasizing things like the uniqueness of Christ, Douthat suggests that liberal churches stop worrying so much about what “they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” The question implied here is not just what scriptural basis underlies modern liberal Christian practice, but more broadly, what is it that the liberal Church offers to the world that makes it different from the world? There are thousands of organizations that help the poor or that advocate for various kinds of social change, many of them secular, some far better at what they do than the Church. Why should a person who currently has no religious affiliation become a liberal Christian? Why be an Episcopalian? Heck, why get out of bed at all on a Sunday morning? What do we have that is unique?
In two of the better responses I linked to above, Diana Butler Bass and Danielle Tumminio both answer that what we as Christians have to offer to the world is the love command, love of God and love of neighbor. Love is what sets us apart. It is a noble sentiment, expressed winsomely, particularly by Tumminio who is a friend and seminary classmate of mine, in addition to being an all around steller human being. Nonetheless, the Great Commandment cannot hold the weight that liberal Christians seek to pile on top of it. Tumminio would have it be the center of the entire Christian enterprise:
I think there is a clear answer to what we can defend and do offer uncompromisingly to the world, and it comes, traditionally enough, straight from the lips of Jesus:
‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” I think that makes their caché for Christians pretty clear. Now, I would wager that most Episcopal clergy, indeed most committed Episcopalians, would agree with me that this is the guiding principle of our faith.
Herein lies the fallacy that sets traditional Christianity and modern liberal Christians apart. Liberal Christians believe that Christianity is about human beings figuring out how to be more loving in an ever-changing world. Traditional, biblical Christianity is about the love of God that is uniquely expressed for the world in the person of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.
There are several intersecting problems with trying to build a faith on our ability to love rather than on the cross. First and foremost, there is nothing unique about the love command. Virtually all of the world’s religions have some version of it. Jesus Himself does not invent it but rather borrows it from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18 (something which was particularly emphasized during one of the Bible classes I took at my liberal seminary). Moreover, if we leave aside the loving God bit and simply focus on loving our neighbors, there are plenty of avowed atheists who excel at this even while rejecting the need for religion of any kind. So how exactly does promoting a message that everyone else in the world already promotes justify our continued existence as Christians?
More to the point, however, is the fact that Christ’s call for us to love God and our neighbor is a word of law, not a word of Gospel. It is meant to convict us, not to set us free. When we hear those words, that we are to love God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, it should make us painfully aware of the fact that we do not do that even a little bit. And the reason we do not do that is because we are self-interested sinners who wish to be our own gods. The same Jesus who commanded us to love told us that we have sin within us which defiles us and prevents us from loving (Mark 7:21-23). “You brood of vipers!” He says to us, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).
For traditional Christianity, this is the answer to the riddle of why it is as human beings that we are filled with longings that never get fulfilled. It is the answer to the question of why we die even though it seems so unnatural and wrong. And what Christianity offers uniquely is the answer to this problem. Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, died on the cross, taking all of our sin onto Himself, so that we might be made new again through Him. He died so that we do not have to die. Only in Him is there eternal peace. Only in Him is there hope. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Or as Saint Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
This is the Gospel, the good news that Christians are called to proclaim to the world, regardless of our demographics. And it truly is good news, because it means that our salvation is not dependent on us. It is not dependent on how good or how loving we can be, on how many good deeds we do, on how many points we score. It is about Him and what He has already done for us. His sacrifice is sufficient to take away all sin for all time, which means I am free to love God and my neighbor without having to continue to build my own personal stairway to heaven.
That is not to say that traditional Christianity is unconcerned about how we love our neighbors. Social justice did not begin with Vatican II. The Church is deeply concerned with how we treat one another and how we care for the world. Scripture is quite clear that we are to love one another, or else (see, for instance, the warning Jesus gives in Matthew 25). But it is impossible for us to love like that without first receiving Christ. John summarizes it this way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). It is only through Christ that we are able to love. If we start with our love and try to work our way backwards to God, we will never get anywhere. God must start with us, and we in turn must start by receiving what He has done for us before we can even dream of being any good to anyone else.
This is the great river that divides modern liberal Christians from traditional Christianity. For liberals, the Gospel is something that we do for the world. For traditional Christianity, the Gospel is something that Jesus Christ alone does freely for us. This is why traditional Christianity and modern liberal Christianity really are not two paths in one wider stream, but two separate religions. Until we understand this fundamental distinction, we will continue to argue over the effects rather than acknowledging the cause.