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The Future of Liberal Christianity

by Donald E. Miller

Dr. Miller is assistant professor of sociology of religion at the University of Southern California. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 10, 1982, p. 266. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission.  Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In this era of political and religious conservatism it is appropriate to ask: What is the long-term future of liberal Christianity? We know the short-term future: decline in attendance and retraction in the budgets of many mainline Protestant churches. But what are the prospects for liberal Christianity in 20, 50 or 100 years?

First let me state some assumptions about religion in general. More than a few social commentators are of the view that religion will, in the long term, disappear. As evidence for their position they note the way in which religion is losing its functions to other institutions. Education is no longer done exclusively under the auspices of the church; marriages can be solemnized by civil authorities; counseling is dominated by psychologists and psychiatrists, the contemporary doctors of the soul -- and the list could be continued.

Sociologists also look to the relatively low church attendance rates in Europe as evidence of the decline of religion. In England, for example, only 10 per cent of the population attends church on a typical Sunday, and in Scandinavian countries the figure is closer to 2 or 3 per cent. The United States, averaging over 40 per cent, is a strange anomaly for sociological commentators -- one often explained by denying that the higher U.S. rate is an expression of greater national religiosity, and suggesting that in America religion fulfills certain nonreligious needs: for sociability and community, for example.

One’s view of the future of religion, however, rests not on statistics regarding church attendance but on a definition of what is meant by religion. In my view, attendance at religious services may be one index of religiosity, but in itself it does not offer an adequate definition. Better to define religion as that set of symbolic expressions and activities which reflect an individual’s attempt to (1) give ultimate meaning to life, and (2) justify one’s behavior and way of life conscious of the certitude of death and the pervasiveness of human suffering. According to this definition, changing patterns of church attendance do not signify the decline of religion; they only indicate that the church is not the place where people are working out the problem of making their lives meaningful.

I do not see a religionless future. The quest for meaning is fundamental to being human. The question, then, is not whether religion is fading, but instead where ultimate questions of life’s significance, and of one’s moral responsibility, are being asked. The future of liberal Christianity depends on whether it can provide a context for pondering, celebrating and working out the problem of life’s meaning. Clearly this activity will be taking place somewhere, because human existence is too problematic for people to stop searching for ideas and ways of living that will make everyday life meaningful.

Evidence that the drive for meaning is still alive and well in contemporary society is to be found in a number of current social movements (interestingly, some of these groups find it convenient to use church facilities as their meeting place). Groups that reflect a concern with ultimate values include peace movements (specifically the growing resistance in Europe and America to nuclear armaments), ecology organizations (concerned with the preservation of nature), utopian communes (seeking to realize perfect community), psychological self-realization groups (seeking new levels of awareness and self-actualization), and revolutionary and terrorist organizations (whose members are willing to die for a political ideal).

What all of these groups or movements have in common is that they reject aspects of the dominant culture in their search for ultimate values. Their members are morally serious and genuinely seeking a better life. They are committed, sometimes almost ascetic in their devotion and practice. Above all, these movements are confronting the issue of death, an essential element of every quest for ultimacy.

The groups just mentioned are profoundly religious; they are the settings where some individuals are seeking salvation, personal and communal. The people may not talk about God, but they are committed to ideals and are not afraid to preach their gospel, often in the form of absolutistic declarations. Given time, such groups may provide the roots for a broader cultural interest in ultimate values. There are a number of cultural trends, however, which militate against the religious impulse and hence have implications for the future of liberal Christianity.

Any list of cultural trends is somewhat arbitrary. Inevitably they overlap, but by way of identifying what is happening in our everyday life it is useful to enumerate some of the forces at work in changing the character of contemporary life. My list of cultural trends is not distinctive, and perhaps therein lies its cogency; there is a great deal of consensus among social commentators regarding a number of directions of social change.

Cultural pluralism is a fact of modern life, resulting from the explosion in mass media technology in the past 100 years. We are becoming increasingly aware of different belief systems within the varied cultures of our world. To the observer, it appears that there is little agreement, either in the realm of values or in that of political forms. Peter Berger has argued that pluralism breeds a philosophical relativism in which the average person stands confused as to whether any single voice among the contending options lays claim to the truth. Many a liberal minister appears as a reed in the wind, his or her sermons being virtually reviews of books championing the latest cultural fad. No claims to ultimacy issue from these pulpits.

The breakdown of community is another phenomenon of modern urban life. The “secular city” was hailed by Harvey Cox and many others for the autonomy it offered. Persons were no longer bound by the constraints of family, community or tradition, but instead were free to be artists of their own lives. Yet with the breakdown of community came not only loneliness and alienation but also the dissolution of the structures of socialization. The result is the dramatic increase of violence in our cities. Fragmentation of community produces a war of all against all. Today there is little to celebrate in many cities. Anomie, alienation, violence and loneliness overshadow the liberation that urban life was to promise.

But just how much community is there in the average liberal church? Loneliness and alienation, it would seem, are not the exclusive property of the city.

The celebration of individualism is a third cultural trend. Judging by the number of psychological self-help books that populate drugstore and supermarket shelves, one would think that the greatest moral failure of our time is to be bound by another person’s wishes and desires. What is of ultimate value is one’s self-fulfillment. nothing should stand in the way of self-expression and self-determination. “Doing your own thing” and “Looking out for Number One” would appear to be creedal summaries of the contemporary ethic. Little is heard of self-sacrifice or self-denial -- apparently old-fashioned virtues.

Even in the liberal church the appeal of “the man for others” has a hollow ring. We would appear to be more concerned about our investments, our upcoming ski holiday in Colorado or the gloss on our newly purchased BMW.

A spirit of antiauthoritarianism is a fourth feature of contemporary life. The final authority is oneself, one’s feelings and desires. A self-satisfied narcissism overshadows any authority claimed by the community over the individual. Tradition is cast off, not respected as our mentor. Police, teachers and clergy are deemed mere functionaries of oppressive institutions, suppressors of individuality. Indeed, the traditional identity crisis of adolescence has turned into a broad-scale cultural crisis in which few within society recognize authorities higher than themselves. Surely the resistance to authority is a reflection of both individualism and pluralism; when there are no absolutes, there are no authorities. One must wonder what kind of authority the liberal church today represents for many of its members.

Materialism is a fifth hallmark of contemporary life. By materialism I mean both the passion for spending money and accumulating possessions, and the view that the material world is the only reality, with belief in a spiritual dimension being considered a throwback to primitive superstition. Consumerism and metaphysical naturalism are related. If the only reality is the physical world, then one does well to realize the kingdom here on earth.

Looking at the physical structures in which many liberal churches are housed, the outside observer might wonder whether liberal Christians have not also sought to realize an earthly heaven.

These trends could be observed with nonchalant detachment if they did not violate what it means to be human. Precisely at this point -- the nexus between contemporary trends and values and the universal and transhistorical needs of humankind -- it is, I believe, possible to make an assessment regarding the role and future of liberal Christianity. If liberal Christianity merely accommodates itself to contemporary culture, it will cease being a religion, for religion must offer ultimate meaning.

To a point, however, accommodation to culture is appropriate to the liberal church, particularly in attempting to understand the Christian faith from the perspective and insights of the arts and sciences of the time. But to compromise too thoroughly with many current trends is to deny the very character of what it means to be human. I am of the opinion that while cultures change, human nature does not. In other words, there are certain human needs and inclinations that are constant amid the sea of societal change.

Stated differently, certain features of human nature will surface and seek expression and satisfaction whatever the cultural setting or era. The future of liberal Christianity lies in its ability to provide an answer to certain basic human needs. What are these elements that define humanity?

The first constant I have already discussed; it is the need for ultimate meaning. The very depression and anxiety that haunt so many of us are an expression of this need. It is not enough to live: we want to live purposefully. Consciousness of death is a gift unique to the human species. It is also the basis of our quest for ultimates. To die a “meaningless” death is recognized as the worst of human failures. Ours has been termed the “age of anxiety” precisely because of the fear that we are committing ourselves to trivial values that lack ultimacy. The modern phenomenon of “depression” has religious, not purely contextual, origins. Depression is rooted in the problem of meaning. To summarize, the quest for ultimate meaning goes on, with the future of the liberal church resting on how well it can provide answers with ultimate appeal.

Closely connected to the need for meaning is the need for forgiveness and absolution. I posit that the experience of failure and the consequent feeling of guilt are universal, again irrespective of cultural setting or time frame. And it is precisely because we quest for meaning, and therefore establish values, rules and principles by which to live, that we then experience guilt as we violate our own self-imposed standards. Moral failure threatens our sense of meaning. Therefore we seek ways of purifying our lives, symbolically (because of our violation of ultimate values) and practically (in rectifying interpersonal relations we have damaged). The liberal church’s survival rests on its ability to make confession, the plea for forgiveness, and the rite of absolution central to the act of worship.

Another constant in human nature is the need for identity. We are not strict products of our environment, a mere amalgamation of our experiences. From birth we evolve a self-consciousness of who we are. Our self is created in the act of making commitments, choosing beliefs, and idealizing heroes. The pluralism of modern culture does much to fragment our attempts at a well-structured identity. We are tempted to express a different self with each different reference group. Nevertheless, we have a natural inclination toward an integrity of person, expressing constancy of values within each of the roles we assume. The liberal church’s future depends on whether it can enable its members to be men and women marked by integrity.

Another universal is the need for community. It is in community that we develop a self, as we are nurtured and in turn care for others. Such reciprocal actions -- such giving and receiving -- are the essence of being human. It is in community that identity is formed, because it is in community that expectations are felt, responsibilities assumed and roles tested. The attraction of liberal Christianity to others will be the quality of community to be found within the church.

Finally there is the need to strive for perfection, to overcome the inferiority imposed by the limitations of our bodies, our resources, our minds. We express this striving for superiority in positive ways in our artistic creations, inventions and achievements. We also react against our felt inferiority through the exercise of power in ways that often are not beneficial to the whole of the community or of humanity. The liberal church’s success in the future will depend very much on whether liberal clergy have a vision to express; whether they will be able to appeal to people’s moral imagination.

What shall become of liberal Christianity, the question with which this discussion began? I think it is possible to make some calculated guesses based upon current tendencies within the liberal church. I suspect we will see its splintering in five different directions, only one of which genuinely responds to the human drive for ultimacy and thus has much potential for influencing contemporary culture.

One direction the liberal church seems to be taking is toward becoming an ethical society. For the churches following this course, metaphysics and theology are of little importance. Of concern is what has been called the “civil religion”: those values which are important to the maintenance of the state. Parents of the future will bring their children to church because they believe religion builds moral character. Religion makes good citizens and will enable their sons and daughters to be contributing members of capitalist society.

Another direction for the liberal church (these alternatives may, of course, overlap) is that the church will become essentially a social center. It will be the place where knitting classes, physical fitness programs and yoga are available on weekdays. Lectures on topics of current interest will fill the evening schedule. Children will enjoy the gymnasium and summer youth club. The church facilities will be well used; the minister, as something of a social events coordinator and pop psychologist, may continue to draw a fair crowd on Sunday as he or she, almost at random, punctuates the sermon with references to Jesus as moral example.

A small number of liberal churches may become sanctuaries for mysticism. Here the mysteries of the sacrament will not be forgotten. Young and old alike will find that church rituals still contain a latent power of self-transcendence and openness to “the beyond.” But doctrine and creed will matter less than incense, candles, stained glass and finely embroidered vestments. This will be privatized Christianity at its apex, but surely such a church will not be a communion of saints.

Many liberal churches -- perhaps the majority -- will take the form of traditional folk religion and will be honored with the same reverence as a good museum. The church will host marriages, baptisms and funerals; seating will be at a premium on Christmas Eve and Easter morning. Members may pray, rather superstitiously, at moments of personal need. Figures of saints may even come to adorn the mantles of some homes, but the gospel of Christ will occupy little importance. Only the miracles will be hoped for in one’s own life, and these on almost narcissistic self-demand. Christianity will be a matter of ethnic or national identity more than of personal commitment.

That brings us to a fifth expression of liberal Christianity, one which I shall call prophetic religion, recognizing its survival historically in Judaism -- and we hope that it will also survive in Christianity. I believe that there will be a remnant seeking to carry on the true spirit of Christ. These persons will attempt to abolish idolatry from their midst, trying to avoid enthroning any human form as ultimate. They will follow in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets: feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans, attacking economic systems that produce injustice. They will constitute a true community: unselfishly concerned for each others’ needs and rejoicing in a love freely expressed. They will worship grandly and yet will also organize effectively, combating the evils of this world. They will be disciplined persons, almost sectarian in their attitudes and commitments, but choosing to live fully immersed in this world rather than withdrawing from it.

I do not expect prophetic religion to prosper in the future: it never has in the past. But for its members it will fulfill the demands of being human: giving a sense of ultimate meaning, offering release from personal failure, creating a noble identity of integrity, fostering the richness of a caring community, and upholding a standard of perfection which will both judge and inspire. This remnant will not live in utopia. The life of its people together will be complex, the demands of being a Christian difficult, but they will find joy and peace as they seek to embody the symbol of one who gave his life for what he believed. They will form a stark contrast to the communities of violence and to the fragmented persons existing all around them, harried and compulsively consuming.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty for the prophetic church will be the evolution of a metaphysic and a theology that “make sense” within the context of the modern world. As I stated earlier, liberal Christianity is a middle road between Christ and culture in that it seeks to understand culture, not remove itself from modern science or the arts. Yet liberal Christianity must have a message for modern men and women; it cannot simply reflect contemporary values in sanctified form. There are enough social clubs in this world. Mysticism can be purchased from many a guru. If one is looking for ethics unadorned with metaphysics, the membership rolls of the Humanist Association are waiting to be filled. And folk religion offers no permanent meaning, only a salve to get one over the rough spots.

In Dostoevsky’s famous parable, the Grand Inquisitor offers his flock miracle, mystery and authority. In his view, he is accomplishing the priestly task, for these offerings give people the security which they desperately desire. But security is not enough. Meaning is of a higher order than security, and the courageous of this world will attempt to live in the very shadow of ultimate meaning. Only such a quest for ultimacy will break the grip that a vague and uneasy nausea has on the lives of so many of us. But first, perhaps, we will need to experience the ultimate emptiness of our infatuation with consumption, our striving for prestige and personal power, and our attempts to create our own meaning system. Let us give thanks for the depression and anxiety which signal our consciousness that all is not right.

Prophetic religion takes its inspiration from that power which stands beyond persons. The prophet is one who recognizes the difference between his. or her own words and the Word of the Lord. Security is not the object of prophetic religion. Søren Kierkegaard correctly identifies the Knight of Faith as one who lives with “fear and trembling.” Faith requires openness to a realm of meaning which is beyond human creation and therefore beyond human control.

The liberal Christian I have been describing will return to the wellsprings of religious experience. The new metaphysic to be generated by liberal Christians will flow out of their attempt to understand “the beyond” in their midst. Prayer and meditation will be valued as moments when one’s quietness allows for a voice other than one’s own to be heard.

But let us not believe that prophetic religion will exist only in the churches of liberal Christians. There are not a few evangelicals, Muslims and Hindus who also live by faith. It is, finally, not the external forms of religion that matter so much; they are cultural products, vessels (potential conduits) of the holy, not to be confused with the divine (such would be idolatry). What is important is the quality of life that results from one’s concourse with the God beyond gods. Perhaps the future will reveal more understanding and unity among this prophetic minority, gathered from all the great paths to God, than may ever exist within any particular religious tradition.


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