Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism

By Ronald P. Byars

The morning newspaper reports that local “Christians” are rallying in opposition because a small, tourist-friendly town in Arkansas wants to pass an ordinance that forbids discrimination against gay people. This is but one more example of how the word “Christian” has, over recent decades, been co-opted by those religious people most likely to espouse traditionalist views with respect to gender equality, same-sex relationships, reproductive issues, and the privileging of their faith in schools and other shared public spaces. Mainstream Protestants—those who identify as heirs of the 16th century Reformations—find that they have become nearly invisible, marginalized in the very culture in which they had enjoyed special status since before the origins of the republic.

Puzzled and even horrified by the narrowed definition of “Christian,” mainstream Protestants recoil from the positions of those who have so successfully displaced them in the public eye. Under the circumstances, it is easy to see the world as one divided between two antithetical parties: the “fundamentalists,” on the one hand (whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic), and those who are not fundamentalists, on the other. Awkwardly, we mainstream Protestants find ourselves lumped indiscriminately with the non-fundamentalists, allies of those who are skeptical or indifferent to any sort of religious faith—including our own.

When it feels imperative to distinguish ourselves from aggressively defensive forms of religious faith, the temptation is to declare open warfare. Open warfare may sometimes be necessary, but it tends to be ugly; and nuanced arguments don’t play well in the press or in meetings of the school board. There are no winners. The alternative is to keep our heads down in hopes that our allies, the skeptics (many of whom are in our pews), may not notice the things we have in common with our opponents, such as: creation, redemption, consummation; incarnation; Holy Trinity; ultimate justice. Keeping our heads down seems easy enough, and unobtrusive besides. It usually unfolds not as an intentional strategy, but an unconscious one, an almost unnoticeable shift of accent in our preaching and teaching, leaning toward those aspects of the faith that are not likely to alienate those of a skeptical mind.

Many of our own constituents find Christianity attractive insofar as it is understood as a moral project, a civic-minded enterprise, doing good in the community; or, perhaps, as a therapeutic movement to counter stress and enhance self-esteem; or even an engine helping to drive a positive political agenda. Americans are inclined to respond readily to calls to build a Habitat house, provide shelter for the homeless, support a soup kitchen or a food pantry, or join in an effort to lobby public officials. Such projects are natural moves for followers of Jesus Christ, while also appealing to well-meaning people for whom theology seems unwelcome, or obscure, incomprehensible, or irrelevant.

However, the poet Christian Wiman provides a useful warning when he observes that “churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall.”(1 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 138.) Wiman may be indulging in a bit of hyperbole, but his observation is a useful shot across the bow. It is easier than one might imagine to fall into a practice of avoiding or softening the hard claims of Christian faith, most especially those that have to do with the identity and authority of its central figure, Jesus Christ. After all, the Bible is full of wise counsel, exhortations about doing good, and observations about human nature that are not typically controversial. Sensitive to skepticism in the pews and among those we might recruit to fill the empty places, and worried about the church’s decline in numbers and influence, those with responsible positions in the church may not even notice the drift toward a version of Christianity that is individualistic, non-doctrinal, eclectic, non-institutional, and immune from objective critique (since it is entirely personal). To advocate for “spirituality” alongside good works is always safe and culturally acceptable, while not requiring any overt denial of the Church’s “official” theology.

Pastors these days tend to become uncomfortably familiar with a certain measure of desperation (something with which I am personally acquainted). But desperation easily leads to hasty decisions, including even decisions that were never really consciously decided. It has become inescapably obvious that the larger culture, though not necessarily antagonistic, has withdrawn its support for religious faith. Centuries during which we presumed that society’s support would undergird the church’s efforts to reproduce itself and its faith have given way to a quite different moment. The fact that the dominant plausibility structure has shifted in favor of the skeptics has left us badly prepared for a new era. The market is overflowing with “expert” advice about how the church might regain influence and make the numbers go up, and a lot of such counsel involves reshaping the church, its faith, and its worship so as to conform more nearly to the tastes and expectations of those already formed by the dominant culture. In short, the desperate are exhorted to get with the program of acknowledging what “everybody knows” to be true.

What “everybody knows” is that, if we want to know something, we need to approach it from a position of detachment, neutrality, distance. In other words, to presume that some version of the scientific method is the only way people can know anything with confidence. To affirm God, then, must require the same sort of evidence as testing the laws of thermodynamics does. And “everybody knows” that it is the individual’s duty to discover and affirm her/his personal authority, distrusting institutions and organized groups. “No one is going to tell me what to think.” (Although there is no evidence that persons learn to navigate the world entirely on their own, as though having had no experience of formative communities.)

But communities cannot be written off as simply oppressive and restrictive. It seems to me more persuasive to believe that communities are essential to our growth toward any kind of human fullness. Tarzan, raising himself in the jungle, may discover useful technologies for survival, but he will not invent a civilization on his own. Insofar as communities enrich our experience and help us to acquire ways of seeing and hearing that might otherwise escape us, they are not obstacles, but bridges. Everyone needs a mentor, whether formally or informally. One of the church’s roles is to serve as mentor for those who sense that there is something more, and could use help in learning a language and perspective that might illuminate what that might be.

To the Christian, Jesus speaks with an authority that is persuasive while entirely without coercion, and Jesus Christ is, in his person as well as in his words, authoritative. It is that person whose voice is meant to be heard, pondered, articulated and embodied by the community that has been called out to serve as a shelter, guide, and communal mentor.

Rather than engaging in open warfare with authoritarian religion, on the one hand; or, on the other, muting or hiding the deepest affirmations of the gospel, it would seem a better path for those churches that value catholicity in a reforming way to identify ourselves by what we are for rather than what we are against. The best antidote to fundamentalisms is the affirmation of a faith that has its roots planted in classical, ecumenical Christian tradition. This faith might be called, in shorthand, “orthodox,” even though that label is out of favor, for understandable reasons. Orthodox Christianity, rooted in worship in Word and Sacrament, Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, and responsible communal governance and oversight, identifies foundational landmarks with which catholic and reforming Christians have to do. Such orthodoxy is neither conservative, liberal, or “progressive,” and yet it may become any or all of those things depending on the context. Easy labels are misleading and irrelevant. The point of classic Christian thought and devotion is not to beat the drums for a God who’s the enforcer, out to stomp on those who are mistaken or on the wrong side in the culture wars, but to point with confidence to the triune God who is both ethically serious and extravagantly gracious: the God to whom Scripture and Church testify with the help of nuanced, often paradoxical language.

A generous orthodoxy is roomier and more spacious than any fundamentalism, whether a religious fundamentalism or an equally over-confident skeptical counterpart. At the same time, a generous orthodoxy takes the risk of linking arms with folks from many times and places who share a community of discourse and devotion, not starting from scratch every time a new question arises, but pursuing the conversation according to its inner logic and imperatives. It will always be necessary to find speech adequate to add to or amplify what has already been said, while honoring what has been said already.

As we feel our way into an era that is quite different from centuries of establishment status, the challenge is to learn how to navigate an environment that is not identical either to the Constantinian or pre-Constantinian eras, but is perhaps coming to resemble the latter more than the former. The New Testament was written to speak to a church that did not expect either to claim special privilege in society, or to conform to what “everybody” in a dominant culture “knows” to be true. The church does not have to be center-stage to listen and hear what God may be calling us to be and do now. There is nothing that we have lost that we have to try to get back, unless it might be a deeper confidence in the faithful God who shows up in a wilderness.

Ronald ByarsRonald Byars is Professor Emeritus in Union Presbyterian Seminary. This essay is drawn from themes in his recent book, Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (Cascade, 2015).