Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mainline Protestantism Pt. 1

An odd feeling encroaches, when images of silver chalices full of deep red wine resting elegantly on fine, white table clothes evoke the image of hymnodic worship and recitation of ancient creeds. The feeling is odd because all of these things are good. The rich traditions of ancient Christianity submit themselves for purveyance, welcome and enrichment. Nevertheless, the odd feeling does not dissipate. There is something...either missing, or added--and it is this paradox that causes the uneasy feeling. There is something else: that despite the recitation of the ancient creeds, the Lord's Prayer, the reading of the Scripture, the singing of hymns written with keen intellect and theological acumen long ago in the days of the printing press--despite all these--there is a nebulous void swimming in the air. The void is, paradoxically, something that is really there. It is real, and yet a void is supposed to be absence. But it is that too. What is it? The minister is dressed in a fine robe. The building has stained glass windows. The organ sounds beautiful. The pews are made of mountain ash. Everything seems so good, and yet, there is a void. And the void is twofold: it is a real thing that is there, and it is also a lack of a thing.

Stepping into a mainline Protestant church may leave you feeling this way. Mainline churches: Presbyterian (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), United Methodist Churches, Episcopal Churches, and the United Church of Christ are the top five mainline Protestant churches in the United States. And there is something missing in them. Not all of them--but most. This has been going on for a hundred years, and no new news. However, I have discovered something very interesting about these churches. I go to a United Church of Christ church in Hickory North Carolina, and have studied (a bit) the history of my denomination. I should say as a caveat, that my local church does not fit the scene I have described above. On the contrary, it is a vibrant church, with a real vitality. So, there's the rub: vitality, you say. Well no, because many mainline churches share a vitality regarding social issues, justice, peace, inclusiveness, political action, help for the poor and oppressed, and much more. No, I'm seeing something at the roots.

Mainline churches began merging together in the early to mid twentieth century, during what is known as the ecumenical movement. Denominationalism, which had been so prevalent for centuries following the Protestant Reformation, was seen as a grievous sin against God, and hence churches all over the U.S. and overseas began focusing on unity. During the late 19th century, however, what is known as the Social Gospel began to emerge in the seminaries and pulpits of these prominent churches. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Reformed, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Methodist churches had long held stature in American society, as many of these churches were centrifugal in the lives of those who immigrated to the Unites States from Europe. However, these same churches began to see the ills of the Industrial Revolution, noting the gospel of Jesus Christ should impact society by eliminating exploitation of workers, the poor, non-white races, women, and other oppressed groups. The environment was also considered as an entity that needed to be set free from the exploitation of wealthy industrialists. At the same time, seminaries and churches began to change their thoughts about basic doctrines central to Christian theology like Jesus' atonement for sin, his miracles and resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the virgin birth.

Much of this change in thinking rose during the post Civil War period, as industry and the knowledge of science grew, and man was seen as the Progressor. To wit, the Darwinian paradigm of biological evolution revolutionized the ideas of not only scientists, but also of philosophers and theologians as well. Man, the superman as Nietzsche put it, would rise to the top, if only he could cast off the chains of an angry deity whose wrath against sin produced eternal hellfire for the impenitent. One hundred years before, in the area of philosophy, Immanuel Kant showed how man could know only things in the phenomenal realm--the realm of the five senses, the realm of scientific knowledge. Things in the noumenal realm--things beyond the senses, things like God and miracles, could not be known for certain. Faith, as a vehicle for knowing things about the world, was irrational, and man was best left to a light-hearted agnosticism regarding the existence of God, miracles, and the like.

All of this led to the seminaries to deny the cardinal doctrines of historic, traditional, orthodoxy. If the denial wasn't outright, it came in forms so subtle, that the changes went unnoticed to the untrained mind. For example, even though seminaries like Princeton in the early 20th century may have used words like 'salvation' 'sin' and 'resurrection' in their newly published journals and texts, they meant something entirely different than the traditional view. This difference is manifesting itself as a great fallout in mainline churches, as members within the ranks today hardly look askance at all at an issue like gay marriage, whereas decades ago, such a topic was a no-brainer. My next post will explore some of the key theologians and thought-patterns of the 19th and 20th century which influenced the thinking of mainline churches, and discover what I think is the cause of the "void" we experience today.


Cat said...

Chris, if you're referring to the Episcopal church when you speak of churches "hardly looking askance" at gay marriage (and since mine is the only church that's received media attention on the subject, I assume you are), you are misinformed.

First of all, to date, there is no official rite in the Episcopal church for the blessing of same-sex unions, although the presiding bishops have apparently very recently granted diocesan bishops "some latitude" in the matter, specifically in states that have legalized same-sex unions.

No one actually knows what that means, however, and right now apparently no church or diocese wants to be the first to confront it. Therefore, no same-sex union has been blessed in the Episcopal church. Ever. Tomorrow that may change. I hope not since I don't think there's been nearly enough theological and practical discourse on the topic.

Far more distressing to me, though, is that the liberal and conservative branches of the church leadership severed communication with one another decades ago.

If the conservatives had been willing to hear what the liberals had to say, then the liberals may not have felt thrust into defiance and ordained a gay bishop without approval. If the liberals had been willing to hear the conservatives' side, then perhaps the conservatives would have mentioned that they feared Christians being murdered in the streets in African countries for their involvement in a church that appears to condone homosexuality.

This actually did happen.

The point I'm making is that to say that churches (namely mine) 'look askance' to gay marriage is to ignore the context of what's going on in the world and in that particular church.

In the case of my church, I agree there's a great deal of tunnel vision on this issue. But I also know that it's far more complicated than condoning or not condoning homosexuality. In fact, the decisions reached were the result of much prayer, deliberation and introspection I'm sure. Just not much dialogue.

That's sad.


chris van allsburg said...


thanks for the comments here. I am now better informed about the Episcopal church.