The mainline protestant Churches in the United States are in decline, this is news to no one who are paying attention. Some people have bemoaned the decline, some people have delighted in it, most people simply are ambivalent to it, to be honest I don’t know what I feel about it, culturally I think it’s a sad thing to lose, theologically I think they don’t have a leg to stand on. Chris Hedges, liberal Christian activist, has recently put out an article on his take on the liberal mainline decline. As one would expect Christ Hedges doesn’t link their decline to the mainline Church’s theological un-seriousness, their more or less complete secularization or their complete abandonment of the Christian message of the sovereignty of God over all creation. Rather he puts the blame on the idea that the mainline Churches aren’t political enough, that they aren’t focusing on Social issues enough, he says:
The retreat from radicalism—in essence the abandonment of the vulnerable to the predatory forces of corporate capitalism—created a spiritual void filled by protofascist movements that have usurped Christian symbols and provided a species of faith that is, at its core, a belief in magic.
That’s a very interesting claim, historically, the Churches have always been involved politically in one way or another, many on the left, many on the right. In the past, many from the mainline Churches have been involved in social justice or liberation movements, but that hasn’t changed today, as often mainline Churchmen can be found on the frontlines of all sorts of protests. But what has changed?
What has changed is that almost every mainline Church has dropped the New Testament view on sexual ethics, marriage and the sacredness of life (both unborn, and foreign). The mainline Churches no longer have much to do with the actual Gospel, which is quite simple, Jesus Christ has died and been raised and through his sacrifice and resurrection we are redeemed from our sins and the Kingdom of God is both here now and coming. But what happens when a Church becomes basically a social club with religious imagery and language? What happens is what we see, they become irrelevant dying institutions.
Chris hedges said that what has replaced the so-called “radical Christianity” is something that at its care is a belief in magic. To be honest I’m not sure what he means by that, I know he doesn’t believe in a personal God, and as far as I can tell, his religiosity basically consists of being part of a tradition that makes use of religious symbolisms over what is basically a secular humanist worldview. If what he means by “magic” is things like belief in the resurrection of Christ, (which isn’t magic at all by the way, given what magic actually means, which is human manipulation of supernatural powers), then really there is nothing left of Christianity other than a pleasant story. Chris Hedges also criticizes one specific form of popular Christianity in his piece:
The self-identified religious institutions that thrive preach the perverted “prosperity gospel,” the message that magic Jesus will make you rich, respected and powerful if you believe in him. Jesus, they claim, is an American capitalist, bigot and ardent imperialist.
This is, unfortunately true, the Joel Osteen style Religio-Capitalist Hucksters are no more than Hucksters in a suit with a bible they don’t really respect. What that style of Christianity has done has turned it into an individualistic self-help system for success in the Capitalist system of systemic greed and idolatry. But what that starts with is a rejection of the core of Christianity, that Christ has died, been raised, and is Lord of all and that we are to be reconciled to God and love one another. But then again what has the left wing version of Christianity done (not all of it, mind you, but much of it, especially the liberal Church), it’s replaced the core of Christianity with nothing more than a left-wing liberal ideology wrapped in religious language. Christ gets reduced to a kind of failed revolutionary or ethical guru, the Church gets reduced to a political action group.
Now in the end, what is the point of Christianity? If it’s a bible based self-help system, or a political action group with Christian symbolism, then there is no point. There is no reason to wrap a self-help system in biblical language, and there is no point in wrapping a political action group in Christian symbolism, if anything the religious coating holds those things back. People who want self-help should by self-help books (they shouldn’t but you get my point), people who want to protest should join protest groups, but Christianity is about something bigger. People who go to Church do so because they desire to be in communion with God. If Church isn’t based around God, his will, Christ’s rulership and communion, it has no reason to exist; it’s a Church in name only. I don’t think this is a secret, in fact I think Chris Hedges would be pressed if someone asked him why he should become a Christian, why he should go to Church.
As soon as liberal Christianity gave up (for all intents and purposes) the authority of scripture (not biblical literalism, but any kind of authority) they basically gave up their reason for existing. What else could have happened other than what Christ Hedges describes by saying:
The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality.
What else would you expect? Christ is Lord, not Cesar, this was the message of the Gospel, what happens when Cesar is no longer lord, but neither is Christ? What you’re left with is “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality, you end up with identity politics, when there is no Lord the individual becomes Lord. Paul was right, if Christ was not raised, then our faith is in vein. And so are our notions of Universal justice, this de-linking of Christian morals from Christian metaphysics is something I’ve written about when it comes to Zizek’s theology (here, here and here) and in relation to an essay by John Milbank here.
Nietzsche was right when he wrote:
The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit, it is at the same time subjection, self-derision, and self-mutilation.
This is true, self-sacrifice and subjection is at the core of Christianity, and it makes no sense, unless, Christ has been raised from the dead, re-defined power, and is Lord bringing the Kingdom of God. Nietzsche also said:
When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.
This is also true. This is why Paul said that to the Gentiles Christianity is foolishness. Christianity without the eschaton, without the Kingdom of God, without the resurrection of Christ, is idiotic. Self-Sacrifice in a world of autonomous individuals is pointless, in a world where there is no God guaranteeing a Telos is silly, no matter what symbolic façade one puts over it. In the end, the logic of Game theory and market mentalities will take over. It doesn’t matter what the Gospels say, if the individual has the authority to ignore part of the Gospel, the individual has the authority to ignore any part of the Gospel, and it’s naïve to think that Christianity can survive that.
Chris Hedges said it correctly near the end of his article:
Once they stand for nothing they become nothing.
This is true. Nevertheless, a Church standing for social justice, with no metaphysical, Christ centred core, is meaningless, and will ultimately end up in identity politics and pseudo-moral ego stroking in its death throws. People can do identity politics, and moralistic ego-stroking without the Church, what people cannot do is surrender themselves to the supreme love of God and transform themselves to his will, and as long as the liberal Churches are about the former and not the latter, they will continue to be completely irrelevant.