As someone whose religious views are Hitchens-y (I mean Peter, the good Hitchens), let me take an opportunity to praise the Religious Left — I mean, the Religious Left we used to have in this country, not the gaggle of twee narcissists we too often have now.

The debacle involving the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious (LCWR), the liberal organization representing 80 percent of American nuns, highlights how decadent many on the Religious Left have become in recent decades. Look no further than the choice of the California New Age loony Barbara Marx Hubbard as the LCWR’s keynote speaker at its annual conference this week. Her talk was not a one-off in an otherwise normal gathering of nuns; in fact, the nuns themed the entire conference around Hubbard’s notion of “conscious evolution,” a restatement of old-time religion if the old-religion is Gnosticism. In fact, imagine the Gnostics reincarnated as a giddy granny roller-skating her way to a rave via the Venice boardwalk, and you’ve got Barbara Marx Hubbard.

There will always be an audience for the Barbara Marx Hubbards of the world (and, bless its heart, there will always be California). Hubbard is not a Christian, and doesn’t claim to be. It’s important, though, to observe that what she preaches is radically un-Christian, and that despite that, these Catholic nuns invited her to give their keynote address. Had they invited a Protestant or Orthodox theologian, or even a Muslim, Buddhist, or Jewish theologian, it might have been odd, given that, you know, they’re a bunch of Catholic nuns. But at least that speaker would likely have been someone from a serious, substantive religious tradition.

That’s not what they did. They invited a New Age flake who says things like this:

The way you really get going to create in the world is you want more of the joining of genius. It feels good. Nature put pleasure as it did with sexuality. She put pleasure into supra-sexuality. It goes on to say that this would lead to a more co-creative society. I think the post-menopausal women over 50 are entering regeno-pause. Most people who find a life’s purpose and stay alive will start to feel regenerated. Like me—I am totally amazed to be 79 years old and feeling this way. I don’t know what word you use for men—it’s not regeno-pause—but it’s the evolutionary man and the evolutionary woman who get turned on. Then our creativity joining with each other creates a world. The old
system can’t do it.

“Regeno-pause.” Good lord. Is there any wonder, then, why a bunch of aging nuns who have lost the intellectual substance of their faith would fall for crap like this? In fact, if you watch the Hubbard video linked to above, her shtick is all about “me, me, me.” It is quite telling that despite the persistence of poverty in the world, the economic hardship America has been going through these past few years, the collapse of the family (especially among the poor and working classes), and all the real and pressing social problems around us, American nuns choose to hear from, and to give a standing ovation to, a speaker who flatters them with the following statement (from the National Catholic Reporter’s dispatch):

“You are the best seed bed I know for evolving the church and the world in the 21st century. … That may be a surprise for the world, but new things always happen from unexpected places. Let’s think of it … that God has given a seed bed that is capable of helping to evolve the world and the church of the 21st century. Why not? Where else would it come from? It has to come from the women.”

To restate this more bluntly and realistically: You are all old and your numbers are collapsing, and by every meaningful metric the world is lost to your message, whatever is is, but you really really really are the most important thing going. The future belongs to you!

Really? I mean: Really?

The LCWR is not an organization that is interested in honest self-examination, much less following Jesus Christ in the Catholic faith. If nothing else, this week’s meeting of the LCWR exposes the sham media narrative that the American nuns are nothing other than selfless servants of the poor and the marginalized, who only want to get on with works of mercy and love, if only the mean old men in the Vatican would let them.

The tragedy of the LCWR is also the tragedy of religious liberalism, which, having severed itself from a creative but genuine commitment to the Bible and the Christian tradition, finds itself dissipating into nothingness. I wonder to what extent this is an educated liberal white person thing. I’ve had some contact with liberal Latino Evangelicals, and they are not at all caught up in this kind of airy-fairy nonsense. Their concerns are almost all about poverty and problems caused by the culture of poverty, and when they talk, you can tell that the Bible is a living, binding presence in their lives. They sound like what white liberal Christians sounded like in times past. The last time I talked to an inner-city Latino Evangelical preacher, he gave me a lot to think about regarding my own religious convictions, and how I thought and acted about poverty. But see, we both share a real belief in the Bible, and had common ground for dialogue.

In 2007, the LCWR keynote address observed with mild praise (“courageous”) that many of the nuns were dealing with the collapse in vowed women’s religious life by “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus.” That’s the difference between old-style religious liberals, and many of the ones we have today.

Two generations ago, the Religious Left was at the forefront of calling the nation to repentance and reform over the question of civil rights and racism. Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic who praises the good religious liberals did in the past, quotes the liberal Protestant historian Gary Dorrien on how the Religious Left lost its way. Excerpt:

To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God’s holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?

When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship. Today the loss of the transcendental, biblical voice in liberal theology is one important reason that much of it gets little notice.

There is no there there, not in Barbara Marx Hubbard’s noodlings, and not in the vacuous, touchy-feely, ersatz spirituality embraced by the sisters. To be sure, religious conservatives have their own very real problems in trying to maintain vitality and relevance in a world that is increasingly deaf to their own version of the Gospel. But at least they’re building on something that’s there, that’s real, that lifts them out of the miry clay of the Almighty Self.

The problem with today’s religious liberalism is that it privileges individual desire and individual experience so radically that it gives away any solid ground from which it might stand to move the world and to change it. For that matter, how in the world are these nuns going to be the seedbed for any kind of change when they can’t even convince anyone to join their own ranks?