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Q & R: Famous Niebuhr quote - what do you think? (Part 1)

Here's the Q:

Hi Brian. I continue to appreciate your facebook postings. They are always thought provoking. I also appreciate your efforts to build bridges between different points of view. As I look at theological trends, especially of mainline protestantism, I am reminded of a quote from H Richard Niebuhr, descibing his assessment of liberal theology. He writes, "a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a ministry of a Christ without a cross." I would like to hear your response to this. From what you have seen, do Niebuhr's concerns apply to today?

Here's the R:
Because I grew up in conservative Evangelicalism, I heard this quote quite a lot. It was our way of stereotyping our nemesis, liberal Mainline Protestants (MLPs) - who were essential to our self-definition, since we identified ourselves in opposition to them. From time to time people send me the quote via Facebook or my website, suggesting, I think, that it characterizes me. So let me respond in two ways, first with a reflection on MLP's (today), and then with more personal reflections (next week).

As for context, the quote comes from 1937. By that time, turn-of-the-century "social gospel" liberalism had achieved many if not most of its immediate aims. (For more on this, see Paul Rauschenbusch's new edition of Christianity and the Social Crisis …) Great progress had been made in worker safety, urban housing, and labor organizing. Any movement that achieves its aims either sets new goals or declines, and by Niebuhr's time, the social gospel's new goals were not clear. MLP's settled into being the chaplains of the American century.

Niebuhr stood with Barth as an advocate of Neo-orthodoxy - a middle way between what he saw as a bland social-gospel liberalism on the one hand and a bold but reactionary fundamentalism on the other (the Scopes trial had occurred just 12 years earlier).

The essence of the critique was that liberal theology was like decaf coffee or warm Coke sans fizz. Boring and pointless. If divine wrath, human sin, and divine judgment aren't the problem, what good is Christianity? What does it solve?

Based on my experience, I think Niebuhr's negative diagnosis does describe some MLP congregations today. Words like "nice, pleasant," and "calm" describe them. Words like "exciting, robust, dynamic, effective" don't. Often, they are led by pastors who are nearing retirement; one has the sense that the goal is to hang on for another year or two and let somebody else face the problems of "shrinking and wrinkling" - declining numbers and advancing age. These churches feel like cradles or rocking chairs … comforting, familiar, safe … gently rocking their members to sleep with a lullaby and a prayer. There are fewer and fewer of these churches around, I think. Post-christendom, people don't feel a great need for national religious chaplaincy.

At the other extreme, many people don't realize how many MLP churches are opposed to all things liberal. (Many of these congregations are leaving their denominations for this reason.) People in these congregations may prefer organ music over "contemporary worship," traditional liturgy over the sing-sermon-sing format, charitable acts over hard-sell evangelism, and books of order/discipline over charismatic personality-pastors. But apart from those cosmetic differences, they could be Southern Baptist or Assemblies of God. (I remember a Methodist minister in the deep South telling me that many Methodists in the South were actually "shallow water Southern Baptists.")

These churches have a God with much wrath who brings men (sic) with much sin into a heaven after death* through much judgment that is effectively managed through the penal/substitutionary atoning work of Christ upon a cross. (*Going to heaven after death is the focus, not the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth so God's will is done "on earth as in heaven." In this way, these churches have little in common with the original social gospel as articulated by Walter Rauschenbusch and others.) In spite of these churches' denominational labels, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Mike Huckabee have more practical influence on their values and behaviors than John Calvin, John Wesley, Martin Luther, or Thomas Cranmer.

Often, the clergy in these congregations are quite different from their members. Politically and theologically less conservative, they do their best to stretch their congregations without breaking trust. But many ministers are severely disheartened by the gap between the way of seeing God, the Bible, the gospel, and the world that they learned in seminary and the viewpoint their congregations learn from religious and secular media. An hour or two of songs and sermons on Sunday mornings is no match for five days of religious-right-radio during drive time and Fox News at night. Tension simmers.

In between these two groups, I think most MLP's are trying to find their way forward.

The phrase that describes most MLP churches in my experience is "confused but open." They are coming to realize that what they're doing isn't sustainable. They know that the future will be different from the past and present. They're organized on a denominational level to do much good (e.g. Methodists organizing to eliminate malaria). But on a congregational level, it's not sufficiently clear what purposes their committees and polities are intended to achieve beyond maintenance … and for many, they're even losing ground in that regard.

They think they've left some things behind, but they aren't so sure exactly which ones, and they're less sure what has replaced those things. They dislike the certainty and culture-wars polemics of more conservative churches to their right, and as a result, are more clear on what they're against than what they're for. They're open for new possibilities … more than even a few years ago. But they're going to have to make some bold and courageous choices to turn their statistics around and seize the imagination of younger generations.

In Part II, I'll offer some personal responses to Niebuhr's famous quote.