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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Last week's must-read religion articles.

Trying to understand what's happening in the American religious landscape these days? You must read these three articles:

Lilla remarks on the tragedy of theological liberalism:

What distinguished thinkers like David Hume and John Adams from their French counterparts was not their ultimate aims; it was their understanding of religious psychology. The British and Americans made two wagers. The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.

That doesn't sound tragic, does it? It sounds exactly like the Unitarian kingdom of heaven! Unfortunately, the second wager which looked so promising throughout the nineteenth century didn't fare so well in the twentieth century:

But theological liberalism collapsed suddenly and dramatically in early 20th-century Germany, for reasons Americans would do well to ponder. The crisis was essentially spiritual but had wide political reverberations. Thinkers and ordinary believers began yearning for a more dynamic and critical faith, one that would stand in judgment over the modern world, not lend it support. They sought an authentic experience with the divine, genuine spiritual solace and a clear understanding of the one path to salvation. And what did liberal Protestantism teach? In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr, that ''a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.'' And if that was the case, why be a Christian at all?

There's hardly a word of comfort in any of these articles for religious liberals. Lilla concludes: "If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge." The crucial issue facing theological liberals is not that Democrats have a "God problem"; it's that many churches and many religious people are embracing illiberalism. That problem is, more than anything, a religious and theological problem and one that can't be addressed by a MoveOn petition, an ad campaign, or a Rockridge Institute conference.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 15 May 2005 at 5:14 PM

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May 16, 2005 02:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree that the Catholic Church may have embraced the "worst of both worlds" option by retaining priestly celibacy. Pentecostal churches in Latin America can be as strict or stricter than Catholicism, but by allowing their religous leaders to have families, avoid the leadership problem that Catholics face.

Big Time Patriot:

May 16, 2005 07:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

The urge to have some one tell you what to think and believe is strong in human beings. Just as horses will instinctively form herds and bison will follow others anywhere when in a panic (a handy biological feature for Native Americans who could spook bison right over a cliff as a hunting technique), humans seem to have a biological proclivity towards becoming followers.

I suppose that is partly what enabled civilization to come about and grow.

But just as the strong desire of bison to follow the leader can lead them over a cliff, we as humans need to rise above our need to follow to at least enough to decide if we are following the correct leaders.

And when the leaders of a large group (Religious or Political) start paying more attention to enforcing following instead of in what benefits the following will bring to the followers, watch out. You can see it in the Catholic Church sometimes appearing more concerned in concealing pedophilia than in curing it, and in the current administration appearing more worried about controlling information than in trying to do their work in a way that will withstand the light of inquiries.


May 17, 2005 10:08 AM | Permalink for this comment

Andrew Sullivan publishes a letter questioning Mark Lilla's emphasis on Schleiermacher as a source for American theological liberalism and on the overall affinity of the British Enlightenment for religion. Good points, both.

The more direct intellectual source for American theological liberalism would be not the English Enlightenment, but the Scottish -- the so-called "Common Sense" philosophers who embraced John Locke but disagreed with David Hume. You'll find excellent treatments of this intellectual pedigree in Gary Dorrien's "The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900" and Daniel Walker Howe's "The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861."

Joe G.:

May 20, 2005 12:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the link and headsup on this article. I think this is what I've been belly-aching about for awhile amongst us Friends. Being a former member of a strict religious movement, I understand the allure, but major pitfalls of these groups.

OTH, liberal groups can learn something of what seems to work in such groups and what seems to build community and a sense of identity. This article seems to offer a few concrete ideas of what those things might be.

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