Leroy Huizenga passes along this thought-provoking take on Ross Douthat’s column on the decline of liberal Christianity. The author is Steve Holmes, a Baptist theologian teaching at St. Andrew’s, in Scotland. Holmes thinks Douthat’s definition of “liberal Christianity” as a Christianity that believes in “social reform” as well as personal conversion is “astonishingly misdirected.” Classical Evangelicalism believes that too, Holmes points out, and Evangelicals aren’t liberals. Rather, in Holmes account, liberal Christianity is a more complicated thing to define. I encourage you to read his post to parse all his reasons, which seem sensible to me. Here’s the gist:
If Douthat wants a ‘defining idea of liberal Christianity,’ the idea that attentiveness and fidelity to human religious experience is more determinative than attentiveness and fidelity to Scripture or church tradition would be a much better starting point than the one he offers.
Holmes, writing about the British experience, makes an interesting historical point. He claims that progressive Christianity has always been particularly susceptible to social trends. The problem is that if you build a Christian sensibility on “I feel this way, so it must be true,” then in the end you have nothing with which to convince anybody else. Why should how you “feel” about something trump the position of the person who “feels” otherwise? This is why young people today don’t even feel the need to argue with the tradition, or authority; they don’t take it seriously enough to resist it. Holmes writes:
Classical liberalism has failed to cope with recent intellectual and cultural shifts. To the extent to which the culture is now reflexively postmodern – and my observation is simply that it is – classical liberalism finds itself attempting a self-justification on the basis of attentiveness to contemporary culture, whilst simultaneously being unable to narrate the very visible differing ethical positions of contemporary culture in any convincing way. It appears to be an explanatory scheme that is unable to explain the key data it purports to narrate. It is no surprise that it is failing massively across the world.
The various conservative Christianities may not be fully reconcilable, but they all point to a source of authority, or sources of authority, beyond individual experience and subjectivity. That gives them their force, and their staying power.