Losing Orthodoxy in America?: Part III – The Battle of the Heart

In this series, I am arguing that there are three battlefields of human culture upon which orthodox Christianity has failed to successfully contend, and in failing to do so orthodox Christianity will go into rapid decline. Moreover, those who continue to profess and practice this form of Christianity will face actual instances of persecution. I also argued that there is another form of Christianity, Progressive Christianity that will not face the same kind of persecution, if at all.1 Whether or not this progressive Christianity will also go into decline I am not making any argument one way or the other. It seems that the pattern of decline set by mainline Protestant denominations in the 20th century would continue, but it is possible that as the culture changes, new forms of Progressive Christianity could succeed as they adapt to culture. This may be the case too as correlation approaches to theology become more seasoned and accepted at the higher levels of church governance. The three battles that orthodox Christianity has lost, or nearly lost, are the battles for the senses, for the mind, and for the heart of the nation. However, before I lay out why I believe the heart of America has been hardened to an orthodox vision of the Christian faith, a few preliminary thoughts about whether this is all just an exercise in alarmism.

The Rise and Fall of…Just About Anything

The attempt to sketch the decline of something as large as “orthodox Christianity” is, of course, a foolish errand, and would require something like a 1,000 page book to do it justice. After all, anyone who does make the attempt should know that such attempts are made with every generation, and with every successive generation those earlier attempts are usually weighed in the balance and found wanting. They are “over-blown,” “hyperbolic,” and “alarmist,” and, in the end, our current generation is doing just fine. Anthony Esolen puts it this way:

Any man who speaks about the collapse of his culture or civilization must meet the charge that the same things have been said by other people in other places and at other times, and yet we are still here–the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, children are born and grow to adulthood, men and women marry and have children and grow old and die, and nothing is new under the sun. ‘We have heard it before,’ they will say.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option: Clear out the Rubble and Rebuild” (Touchstone, July/August 2020)

Of course, there are three factors which may mitigate the foolishness of my attempt to predict the future: first, I am not suggesting that American culture as a whole will decline, only the orthodox Christian culture in America. This is not an unusual phenomena. After all, there are countries which have strong cultures, economies, and infrastructures but where Christian orthodoxy is actively suppressed, take China for instances or perhaps Canada. Moreover, there are numerous historical examples of orthodoxies being almost entirely lost to whole regions of the globe: Central Asia, North Africa, Russia, etc. The loss of entire Christian cultures is a historical fact, one well documented by historians like Philip Jenkins. Jenkins lays out a basic principle of how Christian cultures have died in his book The Lost History of Christianity:

Churches must adapt, but they face the grave dilemma of just how far to take such accommodation. This is critical when churches are confronted with a powerful and hostile hegemonic culture, creating a society with many temptations to accommodate. Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations.

Jenkins, 245.

Although Jenkins goes on to say he thinks we are “a long way away from any such scenario” like this in the West, I would argue that in the 12 years since the writing of his book things have actually progressed quite rapidly, especially with the ever increasing biases of our political media and the public emergence of potentially hegemonic ideologies like Critical Race Theory, a view that the highly regarded economist Glenn Loury has called “A threat to our civilization,” a civilization all historians agree was grounded in Christianity.2 Loury made this statement in an interview with Al Mohler here. The comment is made around the 51.45 mark. However, that Christian orthodoxy should crumble may mean that the broader culture is not far behind. This, as I noted before, was intimated by the former Cardinal of Chicago, Francis George.

Second, is the fact that much of this decline has, in great part, already occurred and has been documented by others, e.g. the Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher or now the Roman Catholic theologian Ralph Martin who have made strong arguments about the current crisis for orthodox Christianity in both of those ecumenical traditions.

Finally, to suggest that orthodoxy, the kind of orthodoxy I posited in the first part of this series, is in decline does not mean that all aspects of orthodox Christianity will disappear completely or that there will be no activity, intellectual or cultural, by orthodox practitioners, even under an extended period of suppression and persecution. History is far too complex for that, as Esolen points out again when drawing an analogy between America’s cultural demise and that of Rome:

If, then, I point out our cultural decline, I need not deny that we have antibiotics, or that men do not brawl in bars as often as they used to. Cultural decline is seldom universal. You can usually point out some regard in which things have not collapsed. A slave in the time of Domitian enjoyed more legal protection than did a slave in the time of the noble hero of the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, but Domitian was cruel and mad, and the great poet Juvenal, writing in that time, said of the rabble in Rome that all you needed to keep them from rebellion was bread and circuses.

Anthony Esolen, “No Option:Clear out the Rubble & Rebuild”

Clearly the contemporary church in the West, even very orthodox churches, enjoys all kinds of benefits they did not in the past. And clearly our broader American culture has advanced in ways previous generations could hardly imagine. But, we can also detect with relative ease the crumbling of culture more broadly; the decay in the arts,3 To think that shows like SNL pass for art and entertainment today, is to realize the move from a high to a low culture. the loss of valuable social institutions,4 What ever happened to Rotary club, Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army? Most of their social functions have been replaced by government. and, most profoundly, the rejection of any notion of a national epic or ethos under which all citizens are called to unite and toward which they can strive. Even the loss of the nobility and nature of sport in the modern arenas of the NBA, NFL and MLB shows how far we have fallen from de Coubertin’s vision, the revival of the sacred games of the Olympiad, and how much closer we are to Juvenal’s lament.

For the church in this culture, a point Esolen makes poignantly, there is even a noticeable atrophy in its own language and practice, for just as Pope Gregory after the fall of the Roman culture “was quite aware that his Latin could not match that of the authors in the days of Cicero,” so too we realize today that our English cannot match the English in the days of Chesterton or Lewis, just as our preaching today does not match, or only rarely matches, that of Spurgeon or Sheen. Again, however, this is not to say there will be no Chestertons or Spurgeons in our times, only that they are rare and will continue to become harder and harder to find. And I will only make a passing remark about “skinny jeans and fog machines” as replacements for ecclesial vestments and incense.5 That was my passing remark. Taking these three qualifying observations into account, I find it at least plausible that my fool’s errand may not be quite so foolish.

Losing the Battle of the Heart

Losing the Narrative

“Winning hearts and minds” was a phrase that gained in popularity under the counter-insurgency doctrine of Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq war. The basic idea, although not a novel one, is that it is more important to convince a local population that you are for them, and have their best interests in mind, than actually winning kinetic battles against the armed enemy in that region. In doing so, you pave the way to a strategic victory in an otherwise hostile land and in a war that cannot be won through sheer force. Winning hearts is compelling a hostile, or at least suspicious, people that you are its liberator, not its oppressor. In convincing hearts you also add allies to your ranks, allies with resources that can aid you in your mission.

It is important here to note that my metaphor breaks down when we think of actual hearts changing in such a way that they become captive to Christ, as in, they become saved hearts. What I am saying here does not relate to theological soteriology, a work that all historical Christians believe (and even many progressives) can only be initiated by the Holy Spirit Himself. Anything, or anyone, that says otherwise has a special place reserved in the hall of heresy, next to the likes of Pelagius and Socinus. Rather, winning hearts in this sense has to do with messaging the Christian worldview and the accompanying Christian life in such a way that even those who refuse its ultimate offer of salvation, still appeal to Christianity as a commendable or even indispensable feature of a moral and just human culture. Pascal put it this way “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That said we can find people in the West, some very prominent, who while not believers themselves, do find Christianity attractive, and in finding it attractive, also find it indispensable, and in finding it indispensable become allies in its defense.6 I think here of the agnostic author, Tom Holland, who makes better defenses of historical Christianity than many Christians I know of. Their numbers are few however and increasingly far between.

Of course, if there is a war of wars, one requiring the winning over of hearts and minds, it is the spiritual war over the souls of men; a war, as C.S. Lewis once put it, between a “dark power” in the world and the creator of that power. Some might say it is at this point, the very idea of a dark power that keeps the world in a constant state of cruelty, confusion, and death coupled with the belief in an all-loving creator of that very same power, that the battle to win the human heart is already lost. Still this kind of skepticism has usually been reserved for the educated elite and philosophers of religion. While this “problem of evil” has certainly been pushed further down and out into the broader culture, especially due to the “New Atheists” of the early 2000’s, in the end there is a subtler face of secularism that lures away from Christian orthodoxy.

What does seem to be the point of departure for many hearts, is not the difficulty of reconciling an all good and all powerful God with the existence of free moral creatures, both human and spiritual, but rather the sense that Christianity cannot deliver the goods when it comes to a heart longing to be a part of a greater story, a cause that aims to fulfill our deepest longings. There are simply other stories out there, other causes: racial justice, climate change, fair trade coffee, anti-vaping campaigns, and now mask wearing that seem to offer more legitimate, more relevant, more immediate, and, of course, far less morally restrictive, life goals. Many of these causes and movements, all of them perhaps, operate entirely within what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame.” They attract because, in short, they often are genuinely good moral endeavors that have a sense, or are given a sense, of great urgency. They offer the individual seeker of purpose a meaning that goes beyond their own lifestyle interests and narcissistic wants; at least sort of.7 In my own life, after my conversion as an adult, I became very aware of why I did many of the objectively good deeds I had done prior to that conversion. There is, as Kierkegaard elucidated, a universal ethic of which we are all aware, and which we long to try to accomplish on our own. We also long to be seen as good. But, this desire of the “ethical man” to do good and be good is deficient, for in man’s arrogance and pride he thinks and tries to be it and do it apart from God. It is the originating original sin reproduced in history.

However, this seeking for a cause in the world to which one can attach their existential hopes and alleviate their existential angst, if Christianity is true, is merely apparent. For while any one of those narratives, stories, or causes could be incorporated into the grander narrative of Christianity, Christianity cannot be reduced to fit into their overarching narratives (even if some, like Critical Race Theory, are trying to do just that). The problem of course is whether or not the vast majority see Christianity as the story in which all others come together, cohere, and find their ultimate meaning, or whether Christianity is just one option among a smorgasbord of purpose-giving pursuits.8 It reminds me of the 1965 George Stevens movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told with Max van Sydow as Jesus. The cast was incredible, even if the film was a dud. Many are accustomed to hearing about the “bigness of God” in kids’ classes and young adult ministries, but are we able to defend the bigness of Christianity as God’s story? This is often where the heart of the matter lies. This story cannot be detached from the life of the mind and the rigors of the intellect, but the mind and the intellect alone cannot do the cultural lifting necessary to win the war.

However, far be it for me to cast stones, for many great men and women have tried their hand at this task of weaving the art of the Christian faith and their works have done just that. Whether it be Augustine’s City of God in the 5th century or the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien in the 20th, there have been defenses of the Christian faith that have compelled millions. It is in this creative work that the wonder of Christianity becomes very real to many, the kind of wonder that we only rarely glimpse in America today. Andrew Davidson puts it this way:

It is the work of the apologist to suggest that only in God does our wonder reach its zenith, and only in God do our deepest desires find their fulfillment. The apologist may labour to show that the Christian theological vision is true, but that will fall flat unless he or she has an equal confidence that it is supremely attractive and engaging.

Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics (xxvi)

It is no wonder that many today are drawn to the musings of men like Jordan Peterson, another valiant defender of Christianity who nevertheless remains agnostic. For while Peterson is not inept as a philosopher, it is clearly his trafficking in the register of Jungian archetypes, and his ability to weave back into modern parlance the art and myth of the past that has made him such an impactful prophet of the post-modern era.

However, there is another arena of the heart that is not won on the battlefield of the imagination, but rather on the battlefield of relation. How the orthodox Church has related to the culture it lives in has not been without its problems. In fact, many have earned orthodoxy a justified bad name.

Losing Relationships

Inevitably orthodox Christians will lose relationships and that due to their orthodoxy. Jesus told us as much,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

John 15:18-20

However, there are ways that one should lose relationships and ways that one should not. Several factors play into any relationship, and the nature or quality of even one relationship usually has a degree of complexity too hard for any single mind to fully grasp. If we could, there would rarely be divorce as therapists would have long ago discovered the secret formula for marital success. Children and parents would never find themselves estranged from each other and fights among siblings quickly resolved.

But, in spite of this complexity, there are always relationships inside the orthodox church that will spoil the story it intends to transmit. This, again, is an inevitability of spiritual war. However, when we see messengers of God, trusted voices of the Gospel, fall from grace, and that through various forms of abuse, it should not surprise that one result is a turning away of the heart from orthodox Christianity itself (at least, a momentary turning away). The rejection of Roman Catholicism resulting from the scandal of priestly sexual abuse; the walking away from Evangelicalism on account of sexual immorality or greed among high-ranking members of Protestant churches or ministries; or the myriad other failures of orthodox communities that hold to the high biblical standard all matter greatly. Further, in most cases, healing does not simply occur overnight.

Finally, there are corporate relationships that turn away hearts from the orthodox faith. While I reject the notion that it was unjustified or immoral for Evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics to vote for and support Donald Trump, that that support had a negative effect on the hearts of many Americans cannot be denied. I am not in any way advocating for the idea that “image is everything.”9 A line made famous by tennis great, Andre Agassi several years ago. I have argued elsewhere that images often deceive, and we must discern the truth of the inner core over being satisfied with the outer appearance. Still, I am saying that, whether right or wrong, some things that orthodox Christians have attached themselves to have caused a stigma. Donald Trump, a man I voted for twice, is part of that current stigma against the orthodox family, and how we respond to both his presidency and now his loss of the presidency does matter to the Gospel. It is at least worth us considering very carefully. Good moves in the right direction are begin made by folks who do matter to the perception of the Church in America. Still, that there are rallies being held, ecumenical ones at that, that are calling for some kind of enduring resistance to the legitimacy of the Joe Biden presidency may, on the one hand, be refreshing, while on the other hand deeply upsetting. For while it is good to see a passionate unity of Christian orthodoxy, nevertheless, what we are unifying around and why we are doing it matters just as much.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape, the elder tempter, advise his nephew Wormwood on how to divert the focus of the Christian man from his identity in Christ to his political identity. In the days of WWII, Lewis uses the political images of the “Patriot” and the “Pacifist”10 Today we might say the conservative and the liberal to make his point:

“Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. ”

C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books.

If our Christian faith becomes merely a part of our political loyalty, and the “World” made our ultimate end, then our heart is for politics instead of for Christ–we are living for the finite, not the eternal. This will be noticed by the eyes and the hearts of the culture around us. To be fair to Trump supporters like myself, this temptation to loyalty to politics over Christ clearly cuts both ways, as Progressive Christianity has for some time now found politics to be a golden calf. The alternative, however, is also not the answer, for to do nothing politically may indeed be to allow evil to triumph, something the abolitionists understood well. That a balance between worldly good sought through lawful means and heavenly good sought through unwordly means must be struck is foundational to the Christian life of faith. But, if one had to err on the side of caution, that side should be the heavenly.

In sum, both the failure to capture the imagination of the culture for the sake of Christ, as well as the loss in the realm of relationships has resulted in a major blow to the orthodox Christian story that is, in truth, one of goodness, and hope, and beauty. To use the Hebrew idiom, it is the story of stories.

Conclusion: Winning Hearts, Minds, and Senses Is Not Ultimately Up to Us

As difficult as it may be to accept that our success as orthodox communities to win the hearts, minds, and senses of a nation is ultimately not up to us, and, in some sense, that failure is inevitable, nevertheless it should be recognized as a mystery– a mystery any orthodox Christian must ponder with great seriousness. We, in the end, do not win the war, at least not in a manner that would afford us to boast of a victory we might imagine to have won on our own strength or through our own wits. To depart from this truth would be to move away from the orthodoxy I have been describing and move into the Progressivism I have called its antithesis.

The hope of the orthodox Christian is not to declare victory over a culture or a nation, ours is only to participate in the war for a culture or nation’s souls. Should we overstep our bounds in fighting with other than spiritual weapons, we become like the very culture we aim to see transformed. Should we abandon the spiritual weapons we do have to join the culture, we step off of the spiritual battlefield itself and right into the hands of the enemy.

One lesson I learned in Afghanistan was that one could lose the battle to evil men in two ways: one could fail to resist their aggression with the proper means of warfare and in doing so cede over the land to those who do evil. Or, one could take on the features of one’s enemy and, in doing so, become similarly evil. I’ll admit, there are times in the course of human history, and in particular moments of great moral complexity, when even the most faithful Christian can be tempted to the breaking point and so participate in real evil.11 Do not think that in the West we are not capable of this. We must consider the reality of Christian men and women who have before their very eyes seen their own children raped and savagely murdered. Is everyone of us so certain in our own spiritual formation, that we would not exact revenge upon the murderers if the opportunity presented itself? Is this not why we honor the martyrs who resist that temptation?

Therefore, as was even the case with the ultimate counter-insurgent, Jesus Christ Himself, the Word made Flesh who came to live among the enemies of God, victory in this war is never more than partial. This is reported in John’s Gospel, when the eyewitness writes,

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

John 1:9-11

God Himself came into His own creation, now broken with sin and death, to rescue people from that sin and that death, yet not all believed in His liberation, and still today most see Him as oppressor and not Liberator. Nevertheless, the things Jesus did were the kinds of thing that could and should win the hearts of men and women. Healing the sick, casting out demons, freeing people from the guilt of their own conscience. All acts of genuine love of the other, all expressions of agape love, which seeks the ultimate for the other even at great cost to oneself.

Winning the heart, however, is the victory of Christianity in the world. For as I already pointed out, one could lose both the battle of the senses and the battle of the mind, yet if one wins the heart of an individual or group, then Christ has conquered them. For one can have all of the most beauteous and spacious church buildings in the world, or all of the best formulated and most cogent arguments of the Truth, but if neither affects the human heart, then salvation has not been gained and the individual or her community remains lost.

As orthodox Christianity dies in the West we should take comfort in two truths about Christianity and its historical persecutions: first, it is always for the benefit of God’s true chosen ones that persecution comes. Jenkins points out that the church under persecution has often understood the persecution itself as part of a communal soul-building:

Such punishments could be understood as a form of correction from which the society would learn lessons for the future, and from which it would emerge stronger. This was, after all, a society in which fathers were expected to apply strict corporal punishment to erring children.

Jenkins, 251

And errant children we are. Further, we should accept, as orthodox believers, the wisdom and traditions, and interpretations of the past. For they are not irrelevant or defunct, no matter our post-modern sensibilities. That God Almighty chastises is a fundamental mystery grounded in the revelation of Scripture. The history of Israel attests to it thoroughly. Through suffering we gain in both purity and wisdom, learning what really matters and how to persevere with the saints.

Second, however, is the more hopeful vision of our transhistorical and eternal connection to all of those who have come before us and suffered, the community of the church militant that wars against powers and principalities as well as flesh and blood throughout time. Jenkins references a work by Charles Williams regarding this profound truth:

Charles William’s Descent into Hell, […] also deals with themes of martyrdom and, in worldly terms, failure. One of the book’s characters is a sixteenth-century Protestant about to be executed for his faith, but his fear of suffering and pain means that he dreads giving in to his persecutors. He draws courage from a mystical linkage with his descendants, a woman in the twentieth century. The lives of both individuals find meaning and purpose across long centuries that for us demarcate separate worlds, but which have no existence in the mind of God. Such a connection is absurd in terms of secular thought, as God does a miserably poor job of respecting human precision about time and space. But such a story reminds us that long ages of Christian absence that we might clumsily term an ‘eternity’ might in reality be no such thing.

Jenkins, 256

What is it then to the orthodox Christian who might face persecution? It is to his or her benefit that he or she join into full communion with women like Perpetua in the 3rd century or men like Tyndale in the 16th. It is for our good that we enter into the complete fellowship with the 21 Coptic priests beheaded on a beach in Libya in 2015. For it was the beheaded apostle Paul himself, the one who saw Jesus in the Heavens, who said, such present sufferings as these are indeed not worth comparing to the vast weight of glory yet to be revealed.

Losing Christian Orthodoxy in America?: Part II – Losing the Battle of the Mind

In this series I am arguing that a certain form of Christian faith and practice, an “orthodox” form, will soon find itself under governmental persecution, and its pastors, priests, bishops and laypersons will likely incur concrete instances of state sponsored oppression. The reasons for this are critical losses on three battlefields of culture: the battlefield of the senses, the battlefield of the mind, and the battlefield of the heart or emotions. In the first post I argued that orthodox Christianity is quickly losing the battle of the senses. In this post I will show how it is losing the battle of the mind.

Orthodoxy vs. Progressive Christianity

Before I try to show how orthodox Christians have lost the battle for the intellect in America, let me first return to the notion of “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy in the context of this series should not be equated with Eastern Orthodoxy, an easily identifiable tradition of theology and practice which separated “officially” from Roman Catholicism and Western Christendom in roughly 1054 AD. Here, rather, I am talking about orthodoxy as it relates to the kind of religious beliefs that term might entail, beliefs which can be said to be held in common by all major Christian traditions in Christianity’s roughly 1,980-year history. In other words, the kind of “Mere Christianity” that Vincent of Lerins in the 5th century, Richard Baxter in the 17th, and C.S. Lewis in the 20th century would have agreed upon. I laid out five criteria by which an orthodox, ecumenical church could be recognized. I will not review those criteria here, but try to expound on the term “orthodoxy” so as to get in sight more precisely the kind of Christianity I expect to see fall on hard times.

In addition to the actual beliefs then, orthodoxy refers to the kind of believers who hold such orthodox views, and who arguably will be (or already have been) most affected by concrete forms of persecution in America. For those who think that this cannot or has not already occurred in part in the United States, I would make reference to the following cases: the Jack Phillips case, the Little Sisters of the Poor case, the case of the 2016 Bill 1146 in the State of California. Other examples could be easily multiplied.1 I am bound morally to acknowledge that each of these cases has had positive outcomes for the religious institutions or persons involved. However, these cases show a few things: one, how extraordinarily important it is to have non-constructivist judges on the Supreme Court, and second, that cultural leaders in America are very willing to pursue such litigation against conservative Christian organizations and persons. Third, the idea that such litigation will simply stop, arbitrarily, is naive.

One way to bring orthodoxy more clearly into sight is to look at its main alternative. The primary alternative then to this orthodox form of Christianity, right or wrong,2 I am not arguing about the truth values of orthodox claims vis-a-vis progressive ones. I am only trying to define and distinguish the two. is what we might call “Progressive” Christianity. It is Progressive Christianity that I expect will be less affected by any persecution by the state or through culture. Progressive Christians will be less likely than orthodox Christians to experience any real blow back from secular authorities or pressure from culture.

Thus, let me lay out some possible features of this Progressive Christianity. It is better to speak of “features” here rather than “criteria,” since Progressivism is not something that can be defined apart from its deviation from orthodoxy. Progressive Christianity is itself only clear in so far as we recognize some essentials of orthodoxy, and, as such, there is not a fixed set of criteria by which one could identify as progressively Christian, especially considering that the term “progressive” implies an embrace of change or flux. These features are, therefore, by no means exhaustive, and there will be exceptions in so far as there may be some churches that label themselves “progressive” yet do not display all these features. Nevertheless, here are five features by which we might better understand the distinction between orthodox and progressive versions of Christianity:

  1. Progressive Christianity will likely hold to some form of “correlation” or “correlative” theology. Correlation theology and the methods that define it are known both in the Protestant world and Roman Catholic one.3 I imagine that there are Eastern Orthodox theologians who apply this method as well, I am just unaware of any. A prime example of a Protestant theologian who advanced the theory of correlation would be Paul Tillich, while a Roman Catholic example would be Yale theologian Margaret Farley. In short4And I mean very short, correlation theology is a rich concept and I cannot do it or its proponents justice in this short space., correlation theologies argue that Christians and Christianity are in an open dialogue with the words of the Bible. While the words of the Bible and the propositions found therein might be considered inspired and edifying to any given Christian community, those same words and propositions do not necessarily contain or refer to a fixed, universal, and binding moral or theological content.5 For a comprehensive take on the idea of fixed, universal, and binding theological propositions, see Catholic theologian Eduardo Echeverria’s Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. At a minimum, the moral and metaphysical content and theological truths presented in Scripture must be repackaged to answer the questions of our modern (or post-modern) times. As such, Christian answers are ultimately subject to what drives us existentially today, and what drives us most profoundly today will ultimately determine what we need to retrieve from the Scriptures, or Church History, and what we might conveniently leave behind: what we have in a sense “progressed beyond.”

    This dialogical approach6 This term, I believe, was coined by Margaret Farley to the sources of Christianity that shapes Christian communities often takes broad, biblical themes such as “love,” “justice,” or “liberation” without taking into account the specific moral commands enshrined in the text of Scripture. As such, biblical themes which are still important to us today can nevertheless be detached from specific moral laws found in the Bible or pronounced through the church’s historical teachings.7 One Roman Catholic theologian and personal friend roughly put it this way: correlation theologians and their followers don’t like what might be called “Churchianity” whereby “Churchianity” stands in for fixed, universal, and binding pronouncements of the Church that apply today just as always. The result of a correlation theological approach is often, but certainly not always, an elevating of philosophy and contemporary experience as the norms by which we gauge the validity of biblical truth. In sum, the church today confers authority on those parts of Scripture which correlate best to our current existential experiences and normative judgments about the world.
  2. In light of feature 1, progressive Christian churches will tend to evaluate moral claims differently than orthodox churches. Non-negotiable moral judgments that orthodox Christians make, especially in the areas of life issues (e.g. abortion and euthanasia), human sexuality, and the nature of marriage, will likely find revision among progressive churches that hold to the correlation approach. For these churches, contemporary lived experience and the judgments of certain sciences will demand theological claims be revised to answer the questions which emerge from those experiences and those judgments. Theologian Margaret Farley puts it this way regarding sexual ethics,

“New philosophical links between sex and freedom, sex and power, sex and history, gender and just about everything else, are in some respects so important that there can be no turning back to simpler ways of interpreting human experience.”

Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

In other words, going back to how pre-modern, biblical authors like Paul “experienced” sexuality when he wrote the sixth chapter of his first letter to Corinthians is no longer possible in light of new “philosophical links.”8 Notice, however, that Farley actually goes beyond just sexual ethics here, stating that “just about everything else” is open for revision as well. Philosophy and the sciences have trumped the theological judgments of Paul and maybe even Jesus, each of whom had different cultural experiences of sexuality and no sense of modern science.

3.Progressive forms of Christianity will, unlike orthodox forms, tend to reject the exclusivity of Christ with regard to salvation, instead opting for a religious universalism that allows many (perhaps all) to be saved through means other than Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

4. Progressive forms of Christianity will often see ongoing human experience and the process, or “progress,” of history as equally revelatory of God’s nature and will as the Biblical revelation itself. In other words, the “canon” of revelation is not closed.

5. Progressive forms of Christianity may also be more likely to deny or underplay the metaphysical realities that ground the truth claims of many creedal statements of the historical Church, as well as downplay the supernatural aspects of the biblical witness. In other words, references to demons, angles, spiritual powers or perhaps even a personal God, are often seen as merely symbolic or metaphorical.9 One look at the statements of belief by divinity schools like Wake Forest will demonstrate that the biblical language about God is itself primarily symbolic and therefore contingent upon its historical conditions. As such, it is not a binding revelation to refer to God as “YHWH” or “Father” since those terms are relative to the cultures that produced them. Today we can freely call God “mother” or perhaps just “Ground of Being.”

In sum, any churches or Christian communities that exemplify these features can reasonably be called “progressive.” Moreover, these features of this form of Christianity help us better see what orthodoxy is, and, finally, it is more likely that the churches and communities which exemplify this form of Christianity will not experience the kind or degree of persecution that their orthodox brothers and sisters will have to endure.10 I am not trying to set Christians against each other, I just think it is an obvious truth that churches which are more open or more in sync with the conclusions of the culture in which they live will have a far easier time surviving in that culture. Again, I am making no arguments here as to whether progressive forms of Christianity or orthodox ones are true or false.

With this now in mind, let me turn to the claim that it is on the battlefield of the mind that orthodox Christianity has lost much ground. Perhaps too much to recover the land.

Second Sign: Losing the Battle of the Mind (or Intellect)

The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was truly a shocking turn of events in recent Supreme Court history. Considering what it took to get such a devoted and brilliant conservative Catholic a seat on the highest court in the land, however, shows the resistance in the culture to thoughtful Christianity.11 I am not unsympathetic to the arguments from Christians who found the way in which Judge Barrett was nominated less than entirely virtuous, although this in no way should diminish the obvious excellence and competency of the nominee herself. The fear of dogmas living loudly in the hearts of men or women with equally powerful minds is palpable among many in positions of social and political power. But, perhaps more shocking than Barrett’s nomination and appointment, is the fact that there even is someone like an Amy Coney Barrett– a serious Christian executing serious social functions in the present culture. When one considers, for example, the rates of conservative Catholic and Evangelical voices in high academia today in comparison to liberal, agnostic and leftist ones, it is amazing that women like Judge Barrett even exist. It is perhaps a credit to her alma mater, Notre Dame, that at least some semblance of orthodox Christian faith remains acceptable among the academic elite. References to the evidence of these astounding disparities between conservative scholars and liberal ones can be found here, here and here.

That said, my argument rests on an assumption, that being that Christians who tend to vote Republican or who identify as politically conservative will be more in line with the criteria of orthodoxy which I set out in the previous post. The corollary to that assumption is Christians who are politically liberal and vote Democratic will also tend to find themselves in churches or denominations that display the features of “Progressivism” I listed above. While I think there is good prima facie reason to think that these correlations hold, I also recognize that there will be exceptions: for example, orthodox Christians who for whatever reason find it more appropriate to vote for political liberals, and progressive Christians who vote for or support Republican candidates for office. Nevertheless, there is data that suggests that political views matter to how one views Evangelicalism in America12 I would extrapolate the same to apply to Roman Catholics. Indirectly then, one might infer that if Evangelicals are mostly viewed by Democrats negatively and by Republicans positively, and if the social agendas of the Democratic party line up better with progressive forms of Christianity13We might also call these forms “mainline Protestant”, while the agendas of Republicans with orthodox forms, then we might conclude that in the academy when we see a tremendous disparity between political liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans), this shows that the influence of orthodox Christian voices or ideas in the high academy is marginal.

The President of Ratio Christi, Corey Miller, highlights more directly the fact that there are few Evangelical voices in the high academy:

According to Harvard’s recent Crimson Survey, the single largest religious group of the class of 2019 is atheist/agnostic. 4 Erstwhile Harvard student Bill Gates dubs Enlightenment Now, by Harvard atheist professor Steven Pinker, his “new favorite book of all time.”5  Pinker, like a great number of his colleagues, is a self-proclaimed atheist and liberal. From top to bottom, Harvard isn’t what it once was. He points out that in 1990, 42 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, 40 percent moderate, and 18 percent conservative, for a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 2.3 to 1.6 Today, for those ages 65 and older preparing for retirement it is 12:1; and for younger scholars ages 36 and under it is 23:1.7 In Religion departments it is a whopping 70:1!8  There is extreme bias against hiring evangelical Christians.9  It seems there is an all-out assault on the Christian faith where the major battlefield is the universities. Some professors explicitly target Christian faith: “Employing universities in the struggle against faith is a cornerstone in the larger strategy to combat faith, promote reason and rationality, and create skeptics.”10

Dr. Corey Miller, “How We Lost the Universities and How to Reclaim the Voice of Christ” in CRI online

Further, one Barna survey shows that when Democrats think of Evangelicals they think of very different traits then when Republican think of the same subgroup:

The terms chosen most frequently by Democrats were: politically conservative and religiously conservative, narrow minded, homophobic and uptight. The ones that Republicans selected were: religiously conservative (but not politically conservative), caring, hopeful and friendly. It would almost appear that these partisan affiliations are talking about two completely different religious groups. Democrats seem to be pointing out some of the worst qualities they perceive about evangelicals, while Republicans are quick to emphasize positive characteristics.

Ryan Burge, “The Evangelical Identity Crisis”

At the end of the day, many Christians do vote based on individual persons and specific policies, so any claim here does fall prey to the fallacy of hasty generalization. Still, considering the immense discrepancies in numbers at major universities, it is quite reasonable to think that of those very many liberal or left-leaning professors some may be progressive Christian, while of the very few conservative or Republican ones, some may be adherents to orthodox Christianity. Or there are predominantly atheistic Democratic professors in higher education who despise orthodox Christianity, even if retaining some sympathy for Progressive Christianity. Either way, and in conclusion, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that orthodox Christians have lost the battle of the mind in virtue of losing a place in the university.

But the loss of the battle of the mind has not come solely through the discrimination of Christians by scholarly adversaries, even though that discrimination is real and has been clearly documented here and here. Students of Evangelicalism in America will be familiar with the tragic turn away from the academy in the early 20th century by fundamentalists looking to carve out a subsection of culture for themselves, a section separate from what they saw as an academic will that had little capacity for truth due to the noetic effects of sin on skeptical minds. Rather than contending with the skeptic on the battlefield of ideas, many Evangelicals decided to retreat into their own intellectual realm, a realm safeguarded by common assumptions and orthodox presuppositions. While not an intrinsically bad thing, this move left a lacuna of rigorous academic scholarship to offset the domination of the universities by atheistic naturalists.

Others, like some mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, did stay in the academic arena, but rather than contest the rise of scientistic naturalism, or its atheistic counterpart, post-modern existentialism, they capitulated much intellectual territory, especially in the areas of Metaphysics and Morality, to their more socially acceptable interlocutors. With the exception of neo-Thomist moves in Catholic Theology and the advent of analytic philosophy of religion grounded in the work of thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, the academy was left to be fought over between the intellectual offspring of Betrand Russell and Karl Marx (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Michel Foucault). Conservative Roman Catholics and Evangelicals may have had the better arguments, perhaps not unlike Intelligent Design theorists today, but their social clout was not sufficient to stand up to the all too human pressures of their scholarly peers. In the end the will is more powerful than the mind, and winning the sociological battle is just as important as developing the better arguments.

The result of this loss on the battlefield of ideas between the 1910’s and 1990’s has been a culture that takes naturalism as a given. The classical liberal side of this materialist coin may share some common features with orthodox Christianity, for example in its embrace of instrumental reason as a means to objective knowledge,14 Right now there are strange alliances forming between atheists who would otherwise be contending against orthodox Christianity, but who are now locked arm-in-arm with orthodox Christians in the battle against intellectually harmful movements such as Critical Race Theory. Examples would be philosophers like James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. while the Marxist socialist side of the same coin other ones, like its emphasis on the material care for all people. However, neither is truly a friend or ally of a historical Christian worldview which assumes a reality beyond nature and the truth of transcendent purposes and rewards. In the end each of these worldviews and the manifold causes and movements they birth will inevitably be in competition with Christian orthodoxy in some foundational area. And, as with orthodox Islam, these two cannot peacefully coexist if one becomes too dominant in the culture, for Christian orthodoxy will always attempt to curb, correct, or resist certain flaws inherent in those systems and the (im)moral demands that flow from them. A true Christian orthodoxy will play the prophetic voice to systems not grounded in the reality of God and in the natural law embedded in His creation. This is what Cardinal Francis George was gesturing toward in 2010 when he uttered his now famous phrase. Concrete moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and transgender rights are all examples of cultural phenomena which orthodoxy can never accept and is called to repudiate.

In sum, philosophers like Charles Taylor have made it clear that we no longer live in a cultural context where religious belief, at least not metaphysically significant religious beliefs, appear plausible to the average person. Taylor puts it this way:

The great invention of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms, leaving open the question whether this whole order had a deeper significance, and whether, if it did, we should infer a transcendent Creator beyond it. This notion of the ‘immanent’ involved denying–or at least isolating and problematizing–any form of interpenetration between the things of Nature, on the one hand, and the ‘supernatural’ on the other, be this understood in terms of the one transcendent God, or of Gods or spirits, or magic forces, or whatever.

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 15-16.

And once the metaphysical realities that underlie the moral claims and spiritual practices are undermined, the atheistic materialist of either camp can sit back and slowly watch actual churches began to cave to social pressure. That pressure creates even more skepticism about orthodox moral claims. And, if social pressure is stronger than even the strongest argument, the willingness of those who would otherwise hold to historical Christian dogma is additionally weakened.

While Taylor’s analysis goes far beyond a simple “naturalism” versus “Christianity” narrative, it nevertheless is the case that at one time all of the major educational institutions in America were Protestant universities dedicated to the pursuit of divine Truth and the clear explication of that Truth for the sake of building a more moral and just society. That this is no longer the case has been absolutely undeniable for over 100 years now. In this sense, it really is no wonder that the beliefs of women like Amy Coney Barrett seem incredible to other women, like Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Nevertheless, the gradual loss of the research university and centers of academic engagement in the 20th century have made orthodox Christianity only a near lost cause in 21st century America. For even losing the intellectual battlefield and the battlefield of the senses is not a sufficient condition for the decline of orthodoxy in a nation. For that a final condition must be met, and that condition is the loss of the heart of a nation. In my next post I will argue that in losing the heart of America, orthodoxy must prepare for its inevitable demise.