Ross Douthat in his July 14 New York Times Op-Ed essay ponders whether liberal Christianity can be saved from extinction. He bases his pessimism on three unidentified and incorrect premises.
First, Douthat incorrectly presumes that historic Christianity contains an unchanging deposit of doctrine. Words are earthen vessels, too often equated with the spiritual treasure they may contain. Each era must formulate for itself concepts and metaphors that helpfully point to a reality inherently irreducible to human form. The myth of the incarnation exemplifies this. First century disciples of Jesus, powerfully encountering God in the person of Jesus, relied on the prevailing images of and ideas of their era to speak of this transformative reality. Contemporary textual and historical studies support this understanding. The treasure is not the doctrine but is instead the reality of the ineffable and living God, which humans continue to experience.
Second, Douthat incorrectly presumes that the changes within Christianity, on balance, move liberal Christianity in the direction of less rather than greater fidelity to Jesus. Jesus called his disciples to love God and one another. Christians have slowly grown, over the last nineteen centuries, into a fuller understanding of what obeying those commands entail. For example, in most places the Church required seventeen or more centuries to conclude that slavery was incompatible with loving God and neighbor. Similarly, the Church has only recently begun to live more fully into the reality that women are people and not chattel, that God loves everyone regardless of sexual orientation, and that God's saving love extends to all people and not just Christians.
Third, Douthat incorrectly presumes that statistically measuring the success of the Church is possible. Measuring love for God and others is impossible. Data suggests that while fewer people are in the pews, people may be doing a better job of loving others, i.e., the world is more just, peaceful, and respectful of life than in any prior generation. Indeed, Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity for the Rest of Us and Christianity after Religion) argues in her response to Douthat that liberal Christianity may save Christianity.
Douthat is correct that liberal Christianity has often done a poor job of focusing on the spiritual core at the heart of religion, i.e., the encounter with God. Bishop Spong, in my two extended conversations with him, struggled with this very issue. He cogently presents the case for understanding Christianity mythically rather than literally. He passionately believes in God. But he has failed to articulate a metaphor or image for the divine that captures the imagination, invites one into the light, and functions as a catalyst for encounters with the holy. Identifying such metaphors is, I believe, Christianity’s greatest challenge.