More Thoughts on Polarization, and What It Might Mean

Some (perhaps poorly organized) thoughts on polarization in Catholicism, and Christianity in general, and what that might mean for the future.

1.  Whenever conservatives talk about the polarized debates in Christianity, they almost always frame them as a debate between Team Christianity (i.e. them) and Team Secularism.  There is no question that there is a significant segment of folks in the West who were raised on Team Christianity who at some point have moved to become card-carrying members of Team Secularism.  And it is equally true that the members of Team Secularism often (not always, but often) have progressive positions on the big culture war issues that are similar to those of progressive Christian denominations and progressive Christians.  But it is simply incorrect to group together progressive Christians and Team Secularism.

Progressive Christians believe that their positions on things like LGBT rights or women's rights are mandated by their commitment to, and interpretation of, the message of Jesus.  Their positions on LGBT or women's issues is a product of a broader set of theological commitments and challenges to previously established orthodoxies.  If you look at the kind of stuff coming out of the Emergent Church movement, it's not just about gay folks, but its about structural theological questions (the role of Scripture and the atonement are two big ones), Christian justice, the relationship between Christianity and institutions, etc.  I see many parallels between the things that are happening in the progressive Protestant space and with ideas circulating through the progressive Catholic world, as well as some important differences.

You don't have to agree with their conclusions (and all parties don't agree with each other), but I think an honest assessment compels a recognition that these debates are more often between two different visions of Christianity than it is about Christianity versus Secularism.

2.  Conservative folks love to pull out the numbers trump card when talking about progressive Christianity--"you folks are dinosaurs, and will be extinct soon, leaving us the only ones left!!!!!"

First, I think it is important to recognize that certain flavors of "liberal" Christianity from the last century probably don't have a long shelf life.  I agree whole-heartedly with Brian McLaren on this one, who was speaking of liberal Protestantism but could easily apply to certain kinds of liberal Catholicism:

In more liberal or progressive Protestant settings, because of the whole issue of Biblical criticism, you might say that over the last 150 years more liberal Protestants have been uncomfortable with the Bible. You know, for so many reasons, Darwin, Freud, Marx, a whole lot of reasons they’ve become
uncomfortable with the Bible, seeing it as an anti-science text and anti-sex text and anti-women text, and so on. But unfortunately, what’s often happened and is a kind of suppression and marginalization of the Bible and the sense that as you throw more and more of your cargo overboard, there is less and less reason to stay on the ship.

But I don't think that "traditional liberal" approach is the only element of progressive Christianity.  Indeed, McLaren goes on to say that the key to a vibrant progressive Christianity is to reinterpret and reframe traditional ideas in new ways, rather than simply hacking away at the stuff that seems problematic.  And I see signs of this new progressive approach, both in Catholic and Protestant circles.

Second, conservatives should not throw stones before checking to see if they are in a glass house.  Every major Christian church body is losing people, not just the Mainline.  The fasting growing religion in the U.S. is the "Nones."  Progressive churches and conservative churches are taking the hits, and will likely continue to take the hits.

3.  Phyllis Tickle, a prolific author popular in Emergent Church circles, has been saying for some time that we are in the early phases of one of Christianity's periodic "sortings."  In these sortings, new issues emerge that define the debate inside Christianity, and old issues which were once essential become marginalized.  The last great sorting (before this current one, if Tickle is right) was the Protestant Reformation.  If Tickle is correct, we should see the issues that defined the Protestant Reformation fade into the background, to be replaced with a new set of questions.

I am usually skeptical of these sorts of Hegelian, "iron law of history" theories.  But I think Tickle is on to something here.  I do think the concerns that motivated the Protestant Reformation are becoming less and less relevant; instead, the core divide is looking more and more like the division I discussed in Part One.

If this is true, one of the effects that should flow from it is the disintegration, or at least radical restructuring, of the idea of a Protestant denomination.  Consider the Presbyterians and the Baptists.  The difference between these two groups, seen through a Reformation lens, is significant--Presbyterians are predestination Calvinists, and Baptists are free-will Arminians.  There is every reason, seen through that lens, for the Presbyterians and the Baptists to be wholly separate.

In 2015, however, the American Baptist Church has far more in common with the Presbyterian Church USA than it does with the Southern Baptist Convention.  For one thing, it is fashionable for conservative Evangelicals, including those officially part of the SBC, to be crypto- (or not so crypto-) Calvinists, anyway.  Likewise, on the progressive side, many people in the American Baptist Church and the PCUSA are open to rethinking atonement doctrines in a manner that makes the old divide irrelevant.  And the same is true on the conservative side as well--how different is your average SBC church from your average conservative non-denominational church, anyway?  And, of course, the PCUSA and ABC are on one side of the culture war divides, and the SBC and the conservative non-denominational churches are on the other.

My point in bringing this up is that, if Tickle is right (and I believe she is at least partially right), a fairly radical breakdown and recombining of denominational institutions is inevitable, as those denominations reflect issues that we no are no longer focused on and no longer create relevant fault lines.  Just because a denominational structure goes away or changes into something previously unrecognizable doesn't necessarily mean that the people were once part of that grouping are no longer Christians, or that their beliefs have changed.  Keeping a scorecard based on denomination numbers is like seeing the decline in the members of a medieval bakers guild and assuming that soon no bread will be made.

4.  Part of the reason that these Protestant denominations are capable of radical change is because low church Protestantism, in general, sees these structures as ultimately contingent.  No member of American Baptist Church believes that there must be such a thing as "the American Baptist Church," organized as it is, in order for proper Christian life to occur.  If a new form of organization better serves the needs of congregations and individual believers, then there is no theological impediment to tearing down the old structure and replacing it with a new one.

Such is not the case with the "high churches"--Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and certain forms of Lutheranism.  Because these groupings see the form of church as a key part of the faith, I believe you will see recognizable versions of these groupings going forward.

Having said that, two caveats.  First, I think we will see both significant consolidation and significant splits in and among these groups.  Indeed, we are seeing it already.  On paper, the Anglican churches of Europe (including, most importantly, the Church of England), the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, and many of the state Lutheran churches of Europe are united by the Porvoo Communion.  Sure, they are not completely integrated, but stitching together parishes and dioceses is necessarily a slow and contested process--ask the Orthodox in North America about that.  On the flip side, there is the GAFCON movement in Anglicanism in which is teetering on the edge of splitting from the European and North American branches of the Anglican church.

If Catholics and Orthodox think that this process is something that will only impact the Protestants, they are deluding themselves.  Suppose Catholicism moves in a more conservative direction.  The German church--the richest in the world--has more or less signaled that they are willing to go their own way if that comes to pass.  It's not unthinkable that they might integrate themselves into the Porvoo framework at some point, with similarly minded folks in North America making a similar accommodation with the Episcopal Church and the ELCA.  It is equally not unthinkable that the GAFCON folks might take up the "Anglican ordinary" option under the umbrella of a firmly "conservative" Catholicism.  Likewise, if Catholicism moves in the other direction, you might see conservative Catholic dissidents and the GAFCON group making common cause.  On the Orthodox front, you might get a divide between the (at present) more progressive Patriarchate of Constantinople and the more conservative Patriarchate of Moscow, perhaps over what level of rapprochement with the Western churches is appropriate.

None of this is going to happen over night, and I think it is impossible at this juncture to say how each of the various pieces of the puzzle are going to fit together.  But I think some of this sorting is going to occur.  This leads to the second caveat, which is that, however the various pieces shake down, you are going to end up with either one or a couple of progressive high churches and one or a couple of conservative high churches.  In other words, while the forms of church life will be different, the fundamental divide in the high churches will be the same as in the low churches.  The notion, advocated by some looking for common ground, that these "culture war" divides are limited to Westerners with too much time on their hands is in my view fantasy.  As I mentioned in Part One, the culture war questions are the tip of the spear of a much broader set of disputes over the meaning of the message of Jesus.  These disputes are relevant in all cultural contexts, even if the flashpoint issues are different in different circumstances.  Plus, the African churches don't act as if these concerns are irrelevant to them...

5.  All of this makes me sanguine regarding this concern about polarization.  First, I think we are polarized because we have real, fundamental disagreements about the meaning and practice of Christianity.  True, these disagreements are exacerbated by outside elements like the media, but I think it is mistake to chalk up all of the polarization to media, or related collateral issues like "civility."  These are big disagreements, and they necessarily produce big fights.  It is what it is.

Second, I am sanguine because I think some of these fights, and even some splitting, is inevitable.  Just as in the 16th Century, there is a point that is reached where two groups have mutually incompatible understandings of the meaning of the Gospel, and they have to split.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to heal divisions as best we can, or reduce the collateral damage as much as possible.  But there are some divides that cannot be overcome through diplomacy, and I think we are in a period where this is increasingly the case.  Even Francis agrees:

Pope Francis also warned against the avoidance of relevant issues today in the name of ecumenism. Topics, such as the respect for the dignity of the human person, or those pertaining “to the family, marriage, and sexuality,” he said, “cannot be silenced or ignored out of fear of putting the already established ecumenical consensus into jeopardy.”

Some times you have to have it out.  And some times you have to go to your corners and wish the other side well.


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