Friday, August 23, 2013

Dying of its own success. . .

...we may be living at a time when we are watching Protestantism – at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America – come to an end. It is dying of its own success...  So write Stanley Hauerwas.  You can read the rest of his words here. . .

Hauerwas has an opinion about nearly everything (I guess I am not unlike him there) so not all his opinions are of equal worth (my own self-indictment).  Yet, here I believe he is on to something (at least the sentence I quoted since the rest of his piece is less clear).  Protestantism (not the classic definition here but the popular definition we use to refer to the odd conglomeration of mainline liberal churches, non-denominational evangelical churches, and fundamental churches) seems to be dying.  It is not for its lack of accomplishments.  It has single handedly shaped religion in America, moving away from a doctrinal identity to one defined by behavior, feelings, and self-interest.  Oh, not in a deliberate sense, perhaps, but the fruits of this style of American Protestantism have been particularly poisonous to dogma, authority, and institution.

What I find so funny is that at one time both Roman Catholics and Lutherans worked like dogs to fit into the schema of American Protestantism.  Both groups lived somewhat contentedly within the ethnic and religious ghettos of their immigrant roots until sometime between the world wars and most profoundly following the second or great war.  It was then that both found the opening to enter onto the American stage and become Main Street American religious folk.  For Roman Catholics that came when one ran and a short time later one was elected to be President.  For Lutherans, normally not in the political spotlight, this came when the fruits of our economic success sent us from our neighborhoods and rural cultures into the cities and suburbs.  We wanted most of all to fit in.  Some of us did.

The great movement to become thoroughly American bore its ultimate fruit for Lutherans when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was born.  Its roots were in a political compromise as much as theological unanimity and it was in love with all things Protestant and American -- social progressivism, size, political activism, and modernity.  The ELCA got what it wanted -- a place at the mainline head table -- only to find out that there were fewer folks there at that table and fewer who actually cared about the table.  In the end, what killed the ELCA was its success in fitting in.

Missouri has always been an outsider but we yearned just as much for a place at some table.  We could not embrace the social progressives or theologically liberal and we were always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to politics, social change, and conspicuous success.  But that did not stop us from eying a place at another table -- this one the loosely fundamentalist and evangelical coalition of the moderately conservative in social values and trending conservative with respect to Scripture.  Though not formally as a church body acting in convention, we have as (at least some and mostly larger) congregations exchanged the stuffy formality of liturgy and hymnody for the pop gospel sound and entertainment ambiance of American populist Protestantism.  Indeed, we were and are at war with the idea of fitting in.  The heart says yes but the theological mind says no.  We fight not others but our own selves in this regard.

Rome (at least in America) thought it had a winner in Vatican II theology, worship, and social teaching.  Whether they corrupted the Council or it was already there waiting for them to run with it, Vatican II provided a platform for Roman Catholics to be almost Protestant Americans.  Sure, it emptied the churches, corrupted the soul, and turned out a corrupt sense of priesthood and doctrine.  Like Missouri, part of this Church got what it wanted with a place at the American table while the rest of the Church worked to remain on the outside looking in.  Rome in America remains a church at war with itself.

My point in this is that we as Missouri Lutherans and Roman Catholics share a common dilemma.  Do we give up our quest to fit in, find a seat at the table, and become thoroughly American?  Or, do we remain on the outside looking in?  It is my fervent hope that we will give up on the dream of becoming authentically American (at least in terms of the grand Protestant ideal (peity?) of size, progressive thought, civic identity, common culture, and worldly influence).  We do not fit in.  The Church never does.  She remains in but not of the world and that is especially true in an America in which a civil religion seeks to co-opt doctrine, liturgy, piety, and morality from the Church and become its own real religion.  Even if we are not fully convinced of the wrong headed goal of this, perhaps the sober reality of the success of American Protestantism that has brought with it the seeds of its own demise should give us pause.

Do NOT believe I am anti-American.  I am truly patriotic.  I pray for our nation, our leaders, and those who make, administer, and judge our laws.  I pray for those genuinely heroic men and women who defend me and the liberty that I so comfortably enjoy.  It is that I believe the success of American Protestantism is as bad for us as a nation and people as it is for American Protestantism.


Anonymous said...

The Eastern Orthodox are not trying to fit in. There is no infighting over doctrine and worship styles, and yet that church is growing.

Imagine that.

Dr.D said...

Hauerwas was an undergraduate, a couple of years ahead of me, at Southwestern University back when when we were both Methodists. He says in the article, "I am a communicant at the Church of the Holy Family, an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina."

He also says that he is a Protestant, and he may well be. That would indicate that he is a Low Church Episcopalian, not High Church. The Episcopal Church has within it both Protestants and Catholics, an endless source of confusion. Some are Calvinist even! (I am not in the Episcopal Church, but I am a catholic.)

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Charles St-Onge said...

The most "successful" groups / companies / etc. in the West are those that are happy being what they are, and want others to share that excitement. Too many Lutherans fail in this regard in that they are either a) angry with what others are instead of excited about who they are or b) not happy with who they are and trying to emulate someone else. McDonalds did not become "successful" by a) telling everyone how horrible Burger King is or b) turning their Big Macs into Whoppers and crowning Ronald king. I'm Lutheran because it is the clearest and most exciting expression of real Christianity. And I'm happy to tell you why!