Challenges to Christianity, Old and New – Juicy Ecumenism

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R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, discussed the future of Christianity in an environment which will be, at least in the Western world, very different from the Christian past at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland on May 1.
While Reno sees a different future for Christianity in different parts of the world, in much of the world in which Christianity (or at least some versions of it) is expanding – specifically Latin America, Africa, and Asia (or “the global South”) – it is varieties of Evangelicalism or Pentecostalism which are advancing, varieties of these traditions that have their origin in the United States. This, he believes, amounts to “a religious Americanization of the world.” Because of this, developments in the United States may have a major influence on the development of Christianity elsewhere. But he focused on future trends for Christianity in America, since he is well familiar with it.
There are three major trends that he sees. These are:
Family Cultures in the Culture War
Regarding the first trend, Reno referred to a 2010 study of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, “The Culture of American Families: a National Survey.” It found “four distinct family cultures.” These are:
The last two are not contestants in the political/cultural struggle. The detached families are “unstable, burdened by poverty, and debilitated by violence, drug abuse, and other destructive behaviors.”
By contrast, the “American dreamers are strivers.” In this group “parents want their kids to move up the ladder.” It includes many immigrants. These families must be attuned to study in school and have a strong work ethic. But “the parents take their cues from the dominant culture.” They try to follow the prevailing cultural rules in an effort to succeed rather than striving to form the culture.
But the first two groups, “the faithful” and the “engaged progressives” are striving to form culture. They are “both competent, and assertive, and they are at loggerheads.” Their conflict is the root of the culture war. Paraphrasing Jesus, Reno that “where your children are, there is your heart also.” He added “don’t tell me what you believe, tell me how you raise your children, or where you send them to school.”
Both faithful and progressive families are happy to have their children socialize with people from “different races and ethnic backgrounds.” But neither want their children socializing with the opposite group. Additionally, the faithful are wary of progressive dominated public schools. “Homeschooling amounts to an effort to prevent children from falling under the influence of schools dominated by engaged progressives.”
Reno observed that both of the contending family cultures are “highly functional. Their divorce rates are low, levels of civic engagement are the same for both. These [groups] are contending for the future of American society.”
While we commonly think of the culture war as about a half century old (from the 1960s on), Reno said that the two contending family cultures have roots in America going back many generations. “For most of our history, it was a battle between two strands of Protestantism.” One is “the populist Protestant tradition,” arising from the Second Great Awakening in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, it was variously known as “Evangelical,” or “fundamentalist.” But after the mid-twentieth century this “strand” of American society “has been diluted by the addition of conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews.” He said that this was why the IASC report called this group “the faithful,” rather than using the term “Evangelical.” The latter two religious groups have the same “attitudes and values” as Evangelicals do.
The second strand, the “engaged progressives,” are descended from “liberal Protestantism and its offshoots, such as Unitarianism, transcendentalism, and other forms of nineteenth century spiritualism.” He referred to theologian and ethicist Gary Dorrien’s work, The Making of American Liberal Theology. Dorrien described the “society defining ambitions of liberal churches.” Staff at the University of Chicago, for instance, were filled with persons “who specialized in church mission.” They wanted to understand social science and its discoveries to know “how to have more effective church missions.” As a result of this, American social science “is characterized by an activist mentality, that aims to convert society.”
In the twentieth century, American activist social science “very quickly became a secular progressive agenda, that wound up supplanting the original theological aims.” Multiculturalism emerged as part of the liberal Protestant project “before the middle of the twentieth century.” He observed that in 1900, graduates from Yale and other elite institutions became missionaries. “Their ambition … was to convert the world in one generation.” Making “the world safe for democracy” was part of the same overall program. These missionaries were not very successful, however, and their mission turned to “good works, and social development over doctrine.”
Some of these missionaries turned to becoming statesmen (as they were able to do, being the children of the elite), and commentators on affairs in the non-Western world. He cited Pearl Buck as an example. The daughter of missionaries to China, she essentially denied the need to convert pagans, holding the traditional Chinese culture to have an “integrity” of its own. She “supported all the progressive causes” at mid-twentieth century.
Liberal theologians “pursued a parallel course” to the frustrated missionaries. These theologians held that “God works through all religious traditions, not just Christianity.” This was the theological basis of multiculturalism. Protestant leaders convinced John D. Rockefeller to fund a study of missions in the 1930s. Reno said that “the upshot was [a report] entitled ‘Rethinking Missions.’” This was commonly called “The Hocking Report” (named for the project supervisor, William Ernest Hocking). “The report anticipated nearly every aspect of today’s multiculturalism.”
Multiculturalism was then a major source of the civil rights movement. Reno said that while it is commonly known that liberal Protestant churches were heavily involved in the movement, it is less well known that “the first call for ‘gay rights’ was first issued by a Methodist Church publication.” The engaged progressive family is today “not at all likely to attend church,” but it nonetheless “descends from the long-standing tradition of progressive Christianity.” The liberal Protestant/engaged progressive strand of American culture has been active for generations. Having an elite background, it “is powerful, and also very much has the loyalty of American elites.”
Reno said that what has been called “the Religious Right” did not begin with Jerry Falwell, but “a generation earlier,” when the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1940 to provide a conservative alternative to the mainline Federal Council of Churches (later the National Council of Churches). Fuller Seminary was founded in 1947, and in 1956 the magazine Christianity Today began as an alternative to the liberal Christian Century. In the 1950s the organizations “that claimed to speak for Protestant America, also claimed to speak for the country as a whole.” He said that for this reason “the struggle between conservative and liberal Protestantism was not merely theological, but also political.”
In the years since, as mainline Protestantism imploded, “the theological element has receded, and the political element has loomed larger … By the 1970s the Democratic Party was more purely the party of the engaged progressives, while the Republican Party became home for the faithful.”
For the last generation, the progressive program has put the LGBT agenda “at the forefront.” This “directly conflicts with Scriptural authority and core Christian doctrines, such as the doctrine of creation.” Political advocacy is fused with religious enthusiasm by the progressives to “make compromise impossible.” Today, the question at issue is the question of “what it means to be human.” In this conflict, the “progressive Anglo Protestant tradition, now entirely secular, at present seeks finally to subdue the conservative Anglo Protestant tradition, which remains religious.” He said of the conflict that “if anything, it’s going to intensify.” Yet the conservative tradition “is not inclined to submit and accept the Progressive consensus.”
A Right-Leaning Observant Christianity
Reno then discussed the “second trend, the rightward movement of Christianity in America.” Liberal Christianity essentially aimed at giving theologians the right to reformulate Christian teaching in line with “modern knowledge.” Thus, liberal Christianity “participated in the modern trend toward greater freedom from old authorities.” He said that “in its classic form, liberal theology balanced new freedom with the old authorities.” Scriptural authority “was not rejected, rather it was reinterpreted.”
However, “the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century discredited” the theological part of the liberal program, This resulted in an “open society consensus, that requires us to weaken all strong claims.” People quit going to liberal churches but continued with the political and cultural program of liberation. This, they had been told, was “the essential meaning of Christianity.” With the departure of liberals, conservative Christians – that is those that continue to affirm Biblical and traditional religious authorities – became the vital church-going part of the population in the United States.
Reno pointed out that when he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Americans “would not have described Christianity as either liberal or conservative … in 2023 Christianity is seen as a bastion of conservativism.” He said, “if you ask a college student if Christianity impedes social progress, he is almost certain to answer yes.” Similarly, college faculty would likely say yes.
Reno believes that the conservatism of today’s religious conservatives is not political, but “metaphysical.” He said that even in liberal churches “a degree of doctrinal orthodoxy has returned.” This concerns such high theology as the doctrine of Christ. Similarly, a more “high sacramental practice has taken hold across every denomination.” Presbyterian churches, for instance, are “more ritualistic now than when I was young.” The trend is toward “thickening or strengthening the church as a divine institution.” In line with this “pious young Catholics in America are attracted to the traditional Latin mass.” Reno summarized by saying that “the kind of Christianity practiced in the United States is on a trend line towards the right, by which I mean the cultural party of authority, not the Republican party.”
The question of authority is also animating the larger cultural struggle. In general, “the open society consensus has eroded all anchoring authorities.” In this condition, people want limits and guidance and meaning, and there is an appeal to the old authorities. But America’s most powerful institutions continue to be dominated by engaged progressives, who continue to pursue a program of liberation and weakening of old authorities.
Conservatives, however, are not “just hanging on.” There is conviction in their contemporary stance. He said that Catholic priests under 50 are likely to be more theologically conservative than their elders. “We are seeing more ‘hard core Christianity.’ The percent of people going to church on Sunday morning may decline,” and there will be more “nones” and people hostile to Christianity. “That’s polarization, folks,” Reno said. But Christianity will increasingly reflect “the logic, rhetoric, and aesthetics of authority.”
Transgenderism is an excellent example of this. Arguments about it “turn on the authority of our bodies.” There are attendant issues of “parental authority, parental notification, etc.” Christians increasingly recognize that the sexual revolution is not simply an attempt to make certain previously forbidden sexual practices acceptable, but a moral revolution “that wars against the limiting constraints of our bodies … Christianity is likely to lead the way among those who reject the beneficent ministrations of progress.”
A New Neo-Pagan Right
Reno then turned to the third future trend that he believes will affect Christianity. He maintained that “not everyone who rebels against the Left” from metaphysical commitment will identify with Christianity. He said that in this new category people will attack Christianity as “the very source of progressivism.” They will hold to a Nietzschean vitalism. Nietzsche said that Christianity exalted weakness, while “denigrating strength.” He maintained “that Christian culture tends toward a lifeless mediocrity.” He wanted to replace Christianity with a vitalism “that celebrates strength and mastery.”
For those disenchanted with the health, happiness, and safety gospel of today’s progressivism, “a resurgent vitalism is more tenacious, appealing, mysterious than baby boomers like me are willing to recognize,” Reno said. He pointed to a First Things article of earlier this year “What Is the Longhouse?” The “longhouse” is a feminized culture of dependency. It “treats ambition as aggression, it discourages strong views … and dismisses vigorous arguments.” The author says that “the world of speech codes, sensitivity training and endless efforts to promote safety is felt by many to be a suffocating world, and they want something heroic and adventuresome.” Classical liberalism as well as progressivism is attacked as materialistic, focusing on the preservation of life and property. Money is more important in today’s world than honor. There is a hostility to hierarchy and merit, which gives “privilege and prestige” to people who are supposed to be “especially meritorious.”
Reno believes that there are “a growing number of voices on the Right who agree with Nietzsche that Christianity is the source of today’s progressive culture.” It “puts emotionally damaged young people at the center of society,” giving them the power to dictate what pronouns can be used when referring to them. Reno finds “a grain of truth,” in the claim that Christianity is “the source of the problem.” He said that Jesus indeed “preached to the marginalized, to the outcast. This, the progressive Christian argues, should be our paradigm for social organization.” This, however, means “neutering those who are powerful.”
This new vitalism, then, is a relatively new problem for Christianity. In recent generations, Christianity has been attacked from the Left, arguing, as engaged progressives do, that Christianity is authoritarian. But the anti-Christian Right will attack Christianity as conducive to a mediocre culture and tending toward progressivism. There will then be three groups vying for cultural control, power to say what should be praised and what should be shamed. The faithful will adhere to “Biblical norms,” and the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments. The secular progressives will insist on “a new Mount Sinai, one in which history delivers commandments of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” A third Nietzschean post-liberal neo-paganism will exalt strength and not apologize “for treading on those too weak to resist.” This will mean that “Christianity will face a confusing and difficult environment.”
The move to greater authority within Christianity will naturally align traditional Christians with the neo-pagans, but they will find the neo-pagan morality antithetical to Christian morality. This could then drive Christians into “an uneasy alliance with the engaged progressives.” This then will be seen to “vindicate the suspicions … of the neo-pagans that Christianity really does underwrite the longhouse.”
Reno acknowledged that he was only offering speculations about the future. The conflict between the faithful and the engaged progressives is part of a struggle with modernity, that promises a self-directed future liberated from authorities, whether “traditional, natural, or supernational.” The modern promise “is to open up an entirely new way of living.” He said that “the Left functions as the engine to realize this new promise, this new, new possibility.” It is the promise of liberation.
The Right opposes this liberation from authority, holding that there are higher things to consider, to which we should “give ourselves … heart and soul.” The Religious Right demands a final supreme commitment, after which we will then, in eternity, realize perfection.
Reno said that as “the ongoing tension between Left and Right” continues to advance “the stakes get higher.” The Left’s attempt to realize the promise of modernity involves “first political liberation, then social liberation, and then sexual liberation.” This is to be followed by transhumanism, “which is liberation from the final authority of death.” The objective will be to follow “sex assigned at birth,” with “mortality assigned at death.” Vitalism may signal the “final stage of modernity.” Reno sees this potential threat of neo-paganism as “the final expression of man’s unbridled desire to dominate and control every aspect of his own destiny,” represented by the beast of the Book of Revelation. The future of Christianity, he believes, then will be “to preserve the possibility of being human against the dream of being a god.”
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Written by: Christianity Today

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