Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Two Christianities?

Can differences of degree become so great that they become differences of kind? I recall that issue being discussed long ago when I was in graduate school. But what about it? For example, can different expressions of Christianity become so great that they actually become different in kind, producing two Christianities?

The Christianity of Fundamentalism/Conservative Evangelicalism

In 1923 the eminent conservative Presbyterian scholar J. Graham Machen published a book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Among other things, Machen (1881~1937) asserts in that book that it is “perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity” (p. 160)—and it was theological liberalism he was writing about.

(For a succinct summary of Machen and his position, see my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, pp. 25~27.)

Machen’s rejection of liberalism was nearly 100 years ago, but that same mentality is still around. In the 1920s, the attack on liberalism was regarding Christian doctrines. Now, however, progressive Christians are more likely to be castigated because of their position on social issues such as abortion and/or gay rights.

Within the last week or ten days, I have seen on Facebook scathing attacks by conservative evangelicals on one of my most esteemed Thinking Friends and also on President Carter. Both were attacked because of their position on abortion and LGBT rights.

This is the Christianity that is being espoused by many of DJT’s supporters, and their tendency to think “we are right, they are wrong” often morphs into the position of “we are (true) Christians and they are not.”

The Christianity of Progressives/Liberals

There are other Christians, however, who are as critical of fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals as the latter are of progressive/liberals.

One good example of the progressive rejection of conservatism is that of Chris Kratzer as seen in his book about which I wrote (here) on December 10.

Even though he was once a part of it, Kratzer’s stringent criticism of conservative evangelicalism is so strong, it is hard to see how the expression of Christianity he now embraces is a form of the same Christianity.

Much of the “liberal” criticism/rejection of conservative evangelicalism is because of the latter’s support of DJT. This is seen, for example, in the writings of blogger John Pavlovitz; click here to see his Dec. 5 article “Is Christianity Helpful Anymore?”

Even more explicit is William Saletan in his Nov. 25 article in Slate: “Trump’s Christian Apologists are Unchristian.” (According to Merriam-Webster, unchristian can mean “not of the Christian faith” or “contrary to the Christian spirit or character.” I am not sure which Saletan, who is Jewish, meant; maybe both.)

In reading some of the diatribes against the very large percentage of white evangelical Protestants who support DJT, and seeing some of the demeaning memes and derogatory statements about such people, it is hard not to conclude that there are, indeed, two quite different Christianities now.

Can There Be a Radiant Christian Center?

The last subsection of my book The Limits of Liberalism is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.” There I call for a radiant center “composed of both progressive evangelicals and conservative liberals”—and I still think such a center is highly desirable and deserves the best efforts of all serious Christians, regardless of their theological beliefs or stance on social issues.

But since that book was published in 2010, I have become much less hopeful that such a center will become reality—at least in my lifetime. Rather than any noticeable movement toward a radiant center, the apparent movement has been mostly toward greater polarization.

Thus, it seems that differences in degree have become a difference in kind with the result that now, sadly, it is only too accurate to speak of two Christianities.


  1. It's too bad Christianity is often so limited by human thinking.

    1. Thanks for being the first to comment this morning, David. And, yes, it is sad that Christianity has been and is so limited by human thinking. That is the reason throughout most of my ministry I have pushed for both deeper faith and better thinking.

  2. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shares these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about the liberal/conservative divide in Christianity.

    "I suppose that ultimately the problem is how one defines 'Christian'--narrowly or broadly. I prefer a broad, more inclusive, definition so that wide differences of opinion can still coexist under the Christian tent. Even the early Christians had differences of opinion; some issues have been resolved and some issues remained unsettled to this day. The key point is to treat those with different opinions with respect, civility, a willingness to listen, and the courage to honestly share one's own opinions."

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Eric.

      Yes, I agree that a broad, inclusive definition of Christianity is desirable--and that is the sort of definition I have sought to use for years. The differences in the broad spectrum were only differences of degree, I thought. But now I wonder--and thus the point of the blog article--are those differences now so great there is a difference in kind?

      Of course, it could be argued that after the Protestant Reformation, for example, there were two Christianities. Protestants and Catholics were not only very different, they were adamant in their condemnation of the opposing side. In many ways, it is hard to see how they could have been seen as just being different in degree. And yet through the years, especially since 1965, there was more and more mutual acceptance until it did seem as though they were the same Christianity.

      But I wonder about now. On the extreme side of both conservatism and liberalism there seems to be little desire "to treat those with different opinions with respect, civility, a willingness to listen, and the courage to honestly share one's opinions," so it seems that perhaps, indeed, there are now two Christianities.

      Those willing to do as you suggest are in, or at least close to, the radiant center, it seems to me.

    2. Eric wrote again this morning, sharing the following from an op-ed piece by Michael Gerson:

      "There was a recent column in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson. You may have seen the original column, but I am including below a summary that appeared in 'The Week' (January 18, 2019, issue).

      "When Jerry Falwell Jr. was recently asked if there was anything President Trump could do to lose his evangelical support, his simple answer was 'No.' This tells you why Trump is counting on religious conservative voters 'for his political survival,' said Michael Gerson.

      "While some parts of Trump's coalition have begun to crack under the weight of his chronic lying, vanity, cruelty, and corruption, his evangelical support 'has solidified into something like devotion.' Why? After a century of losing ground to liberal, secular culture, evangelicals see that struggle in 'apocalyptic' terms.

      "'In their battle with the Philistines, evangelicals have essentially hired their own Goliath--brutal, pagan, but on their side.' That deal will have long-lasting cost. Many women, minorities, and young people have come to associate religious conservatism with Trump's sexism, xenophobia, and racism--further marginalizing Christianity.

      "In the past, Christianity has been used to justify segregation, slavery, and other wrongs. But reformers like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King have reminded Christians of the faith's fundamental belief in the dignity of all humankind. After Trump, we'll need new reformers to save Christianity from those who've reduced it to 'a sad and sordid game of thrones.'"

  3. Thinking Friend (and long-time colleague at Seinan Gakuin University) Dickson Yagi, who now lives in California and attends a United Methodist Church, comments,

    "As we speak, the February [23~26 General Conference] of the United Methodist Church is ready for decisive action concerning the Gay, Abortion, Ordination, and Church Weddings of same sex couples. That is, the denomination is ready to split, concluding that their one denomination has discovered that there are two separate Christianities within their one denomination.

    "They are likely to split so these two different types of Christianity can go their separate ways."

    1. Sad, but maybe necessary. I have been United Methodist and many other brands in the past. Back when I worked in Illinois, there was in one town a UNITED Methodist church on one corner, and a United METHODIST church across the street. Both strong and active, and the same Bishop. Both very different. On the other corners were First Presbyterian (PCUSA), and First Baptist (BGC). As for me, I better affiliated with the Anglicans (CANA) and Lutherans (MO) in town. In town here was also the AME, the Congregational church (UCC), the Episcopal (ECUSA) church, two other brands of Lutheran (ELCA and WI), and the Catholics as well. All but the local Catholic priest would welcome me in their door (I was welcome at other Catholic parishes in the Diocese).

  4. And then this brief comment from Thinking Friend Tom Trullinger in northwest Missouri:

    "The article by William Saletan that you referenced in your blog . . . WOW!"

  5. Local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "So painful to read, but you have concluded rightly. Just as the Confessing Church became a beacon of right thinking and courage for a whole generation, so will this Trump-inspired form of Christianity be shamed like the Nazis at Nuremberg."

  6. The following comments are from Jeanie McGowan in central Missouri. I much appreciate her kind and affirming words.

    "Again, thank you for such wise, considerate blogging. Finding our way among the thread of conservative vs. liberal ideology in order to gain a more sane and Christ-like center is not an easy task.

    "I so much appreciate Fr. Richard Rohr and get his daily meditations in my inbox. His non-duality thinking rings true with me, yet I still struggle how to best express my strong vision of justice, selflessness, and staying strong against so many things that hurt people while maintaining a non-dualist mindset.

    "What can I learn from my more conservative friends? How can I speak up without sounding as judgmental and mean-spirited as they often do? Should I seek to continue to post things hoping that some might be influenced for good? (I have actually had 2 people tell me that they are now rethinking their previous right-wing stances because of my posts! Wow! Wish there were more.) Should I remain more silent and hope and pray that things will become better? Disturbing questions.

    "I'm grateful for folks like you, who continue to challenge our values, concepts and vision for the future.

    "Have you read Brian McLaren's 'The Great Spiritual Migration'? I love his writing and he often puts words to what I've felt but been unable to succinctly express. This book sheds incredible light on stages of maturity that we go through (or get stuck in) in such a clear and insightful way. I recommend it for your library.

    "May the new year see you thriving and continuing to inspire and prompt us, as the Holy Spirit continues to nudge also. You are truly a blessing."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jeanie. The questions you raise in the third paragraph are good and important ones.

      I also get Fr. Rohr's daily meditations and, like you, I also like his non-dual emphasis--and I guess that is one misgiving I have in talking about two Christianities. But still . . . .

      Thanks for the recommendation McLaren's book, and I was glad to learn that you had read it and are a fan of his. Actually, in the fall quarter of 2017 I led an adult study class on McLaren's book at my church and found is quite meaningful.

  7. I also much appreciate the following rather lengthy comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you, Leroy. I enjoyed reading both your books cited below, so much so I have encouraged friends to read them. And they have! Both are great seedbeds for discussion. I really enjoy the historic flow with which they present their respective contents, the best I have read to date.

    "Personally, I expand beyond the work of J.B. Phillips, "Your God is Too Small," and Deidre Sullivan (Compiler), "What Do We Mean When We Say God?" Speaking as a panentheist, the Divine is beyond all that we humans can describe or imagine limited by our cultures and languages filled with the reductionisms of symbol or metaphor. No two people, even within the same faith tradition, have the same understanding of the term 'God' or 'the Divine.' We are all like aboriginals trying to understand and describe a Rolls-Royce Merlin two-stage two-speed supercharged P-51 Mustang engine shot down in the Jungle. All our understandings are “meta-physical” (approached and described standing outside the actual/real phenomenon we seek to understand). The problem is when we try to absolutize our 'ideas' of 'reality' for the reality itself (another discussion).

    "I say this not to discourage conversation about God, one of the most important human exercises we can engage in. But limiting and absolutizing our understanding of “God” to any one religion, Christianity (regardless of what persuasion) seems misguided to me, and actually discourages honest talk about “God,” and the eternal mysteries of the Divine or Eternal or Other. Although I was reared in the white Southern Christian version of 'God,' all religions now contribute to my understandings of the Divine. To limit 'God' (neither male nor female) to any one human understanding or construction sets us up for Gnosticism, absolutism, and ultimately high potential admixtures of conflict, as evidenced in our world today. Any monolithic human construct of 'God' is indeed too small. For me, the mysterious Divine is 'much bigger' than the absolutized 'God' constructs of aggregate mainline faith traditions, etc.

    "In short, I espouse a 'radiant beyond,' so that we do not get lost in a convoluted understanding of the Divine – e.g., 'God' is the prerogative of Christianity but in which version do we find it?"

    1. Thanks for your comments, Tom, and to a large extent I agree with you. On Friday I am to receive the proof copy of my new book, "Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now," and I hope it will be available to all at Amazon.com in a week or two.

      The first chapter of the book is "God is Greater Than We Think, or Even Can Think."

  8. Interesting- I just keep pluging along trying with our Holy Spirits guidance to share the Good News with the lost and try not to get too philosophical.

  9. Yesterday evening I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Dan O'Reagan in Louisiana.

    "Machen, like all of us at times, was wrong, wrong, wrong. All of us like people who agree with us. But to judge a fellow Christian so harshly is beyond the pale. Shame. This is one reason I believe in the Judgment Seat of Christ spoken of in 2 Corinthians 5:10. Christ is not going to let us bring such bitterness into heaven with us. I believe that the Judgment Seat of Christ is where all divisive differences will be dissolved, and we will be united around the Lordship of Jesus who died, and rose again, and loves us with an everlasting love."

  10. I know I sent a couple of email responses, which I still stand by, but looking at the bigger view of Christian history, I see plenty of complete splits in the Church. Some have been necessary as theology of "God" got too far afield (what we would call "cults" - they existed all the way back to the earliest history of the Church and were dealt with very harshly). But then came the Councils which anathemized the Oriental Church, and of course in 1054 with Rome and Constantinople anathemized each other (both with firm links to St Peter the Apostle), and the Protestant Reformation in its various formats which were all anathemized. Since then the western Church has specialized in splits, so that we now have around 9000 (although many recognize others as being within their pale). Rome has begun to attempt making amends with some - but their own novel doctrines persist.
    So this latest "split" you see, is just another in the history of One Lord, 9000 faiths, and who knows how many baptisms. And the "Radiant Center" will probably just be another.

    Lord, teach us to again Love One Another, even when we have been mistreated and anathemized; and in self-righteousness we have tried to make a "truer Christianity" in our own image.

    1. 1sojourner, thanks for your comments. Much of what I would like to say in response is included in my response to Eric Dollard toward the top of this comments section. There I mentioned the Catholic / Protestant split in the 16th century as an example of "two Christianities" in the past. Certainly the split of 1054 is another notable example.

      And, yes, there have been a myriad of splits among Protestants, although there have been many efforts through the years at breaching those splits and finding places of agreement of ways to cooperate. The formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, for example, shows that for all the many denominations who joined the WCC the differences were only in degree, not in kind.

      But what about the Orthodox now? The "Orthodox Church schism of 2018" shows that there are serious differences in various Christian traditions.

      My call for a radiant center is not a call for excluding others. Quite the contrary, it envisions a broadening center which can accept, with respect, differences of degree. It is only those who spurn the other side of the theological spectrum, or any idea of a radiant center, who seem to be the purveyors of "Christianities" that are different in kind.

    2. Thank you for the clarification.

      Unity without "essential" compromise would be good to see again. I have seen it with amazing variance a couple of times in the past. But then "In non-essentials, unity" again shows up because the essentials cannot be agreed upon. And charity and grace are forced out once again.

      "Love One Another" is our only viable apologetic to the world. But as a Muslim friend said, Christians do better at loving their neighbors and enemies than loving one another - the reason he never converted. I wonder, sadly, if I was a part of that. But I would never again go to a "harmony" meeting of Christians with significant differences - spectacles for whom the bells toll. We will have to meet in an arena where we are trying to accomplish a mutual end, and maybe learn to trust each other just a little. Until then, give me a Muslim, an agnostic, or a diverse service club, of goodwill, not another self-righteous Christian on the attack. (It is sad to have long-time acquaintances who can no longer be trusted as Christian friends - many of those go back to high school or before.)

      Pardon the cynicism, but I like Craig's viewpoint - what will be Radiant Center's ulterior agenda? (But I hope you are correct!)

      I surely hope God can pull off His unity plan in the end, with love intact.

  11. A Southern Baptist preacher's son told me some years ago that as a youngster he was totally confused by the SBC controversy. Then he finally figured out that "liberalism" and "literalism" were two different words. Apparently "one iota of difference" is still on the loose. The good news is, this is not just a problem for religion. Look at the caucuses jockeying for position in Congress within the two parties. In science, Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is still widely cited today more than half a century after it was first published in 1962, wherein he looked at paradigm shifts in science that sometimes looked a lot like theological fights. So, when the prosperity gospel paradigm squares off with the environmentalism paradigm just remember we are in a struggle as old as humanity itself. The philosopher Hegel saw history as a dialectic, where thesis and antithesis squared off in struggle until somehow a synthesis happened, at which point the synthesis became a new thesis, and against that a new antithesis would arise. We can temper the struggle with the advice of Micah to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God," but we cannot avoid the struggle. Once we know the difference between liberalism and literalism, we have to choose.

    1. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Craig. Perhaps it is a sad fact that those who hold to literalism and those who hold liberalism can't peacefully co-exist in a radiant center. If they are mutually exclusive, then perhaps it is inevitable that are "two Christianities."