Still wondering after all these years
"Run in circles, scream and shout."
So here's the latest tempest in a teapot: Union Theological Seminary needs money, and is willing to sell real estate to get it.
This has inflamed Chris Hedges who
, in yet another bid to help people, has written an essay critical of UTS. This, of course, will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, because all the people in Harlem affected by the UTS decision will flock to Truthdig to ponder Hedge's invocation of Tillich and Niebuhr and bask in how his righteous written wrath makes life just a little easier for them.
Few of them, I expect, will note how badly Hedges misuses Tillich and Niebuhr, or how much he relies on them as authorities "liberal" Protestants will listen to and be chastened by. Because this, apparently, is where we are: worshipping dead white men whose work is over 50 years old, and whose mere mention (name-dropping!) is sufficient to present an argument against the demons today. Hedges reduces the author of The Irony of American History
and The Nature and Destiny of Man
*[sic] to a complete misreading of Moral Man and Immoral Society
and takes Tillich's warning against idolatry completely out of context, all to make it easier for Hedges to have a whipping boy.
Hedges has prompted responses
which defend the UTS decision, or at least examine it
; but I'm a little more interested in what Hedges actually says, because he seems to imagine himself a prophet; or at least a privileged scold who can stand apart and denounce without denouncing himself:
The wisdom of Tillich and Niebuhr has been borne out in the precipitous decline of the liberal church and the seminaries and divinity schools that train religious scholars and clergy. Faced with shrinking or nonexistent endowments, mounting debts, dwindling memberships, a lack of employment for their graduates and growing irrelevancy in a society that has little use for tepid church piety and the smug arrogance that comes with it, these institutions have fallen into physical and moral decay.
So the liberal idols of Tillich and Niebuhr were the prophets warning of the decline of Jerusalem and Hedges is the Jeremiah (or at least Micah!) who points out the problem is the irrelevancy of a liberal church that practices "tepid piety" and betrays "smug arrogance."
Actually, I think the smug arrogance is his, for imagining he, too, is a liberal Protestant, but not "that kind" of liberal Protestant. As for the decline, as Mark Hulsether puts it, Hedges "echo[es] right-wing talking points about the dysfunctions of the Protestant left: fomenting conflicts, exaggerating weaknesses, and presenting dilemmas in the least flattering light." Hulsether notes:
... let’s grant a steep decline for the sake of argument. Decline to what level? Hedges notes that Catholics, who still have a 21% demographic slice, are “being decimated,” yet this is seven times more people than watched the Democratic Presidential debates. That number, combined with 36 million liberal Protestants (with “growing irrelevancy”), is just a bit below the viewership for the Super Bowl.
Does Hedges, like right-wing Christian leaders, long for a return to an America that never really was? Maybe to the church as it existed in the early 20th century, when a now UCC church in St. Louis (established before there was a UCC) was the major church of a major city, attended by politicians of the city and the state, with its own china and silver, and cooks employed full time to service all the functions of the privileged in the city. There was no "decline" then, but neither was there any liberalism to speak of, so perhaps Mr. Hedges would brush my example aside. Then I'd have to point to the "liberalism" of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and ask how many churches they led, how many followers they had, how much power they exerted in the world.
Or how much power Jesus had, for that matter.
When Tillich called institutions "demonic," he was warning against the idolatry of the institution, against setting it up as "God" and worshipping it as the provider of truth. When Niebuhr pointed out that institutions are not and cannot be moral, he was opposing the idea that societies could be just without replicating Omelas, where somebody has to lose so many can win. Niebuhr said we have to live in Omelas, but we have to do it with eyes open and hearts humble.
There isn't much humility in Mr. Hedge's outrage at what UTS has chosen to do, or with the fact that seminaries are in decline from their glory years. Is this because Protestants are doing it wrong? Or because change is the only constant in this life, and even the institutions of the church have to change? Maybe there is physical and moral decay; then again, isn't there always? Were seminaries and Protestant churches in a prelapsarian state once upon a time? Or has it always been this way?
According to Hedges it all began in the 1930's, and it's all because liberal churches don't feel the Berne. Whoops, wait, that's not quite right; but it might as well be:
The liberal church committed suicide when it severed itself from radicalism. Radical Christians led the abolitionist movement, were active in the Anti-Imperialist League, participated in the bloody labor wars, fought for women’s suffrage, formulated the Social Gospel—which included a huge effort to carry out prison reform and provide education to prisoners—and were engines in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Norman Thomas, a longtime leader of the Socialist Party of America, was a Presbyterian minister.
Irony alert: the reference to Niebuhr Hedges opens his argument with, is a reference to the very work which buried the Social Gospel with a wooden cross pounded into its heart. Matters are never as simple as writers of diatribes want them to be.
Has the "liberal church severed itself from radicalism"? Which radicalism would that be? According to the fundies and evangelicals, it's the replacement of atonement soteriology and "only saved through the blood of Jesus" with a more ecumenical and less soteriological emphasis (and in some cases, as in that of yours truly, rejecting the atonement/blood sacrifice soteriology altogether). The fundies and evangelicals would find Crossan and Bruggemann and the Jesus Seminar "radical," but that isn't the radical Chris Hedges is worried about. His radical is political; but that's precisely where his analysis founders.
His radical seeks power, the power to do good as Chris Hedges defines it. And of course that power is the only power that should matter:
And today with most ministers wary of offending their aging and dwindling flocks—counted on to pay the clergy salary and the bills—this is even truer than when Baldwin was writing.
Today? TODAY??!!?? What, in the mythical past congregations were happy to pay pastors to offend them, but now they're too old and small to put up with it?
Written by a man who has never held a pulpit, and never will. Hedges only recently sought ordination in the PCUSA; I don't think he's going to be seeking a pulpit anytime soon, but if he does, I give him six months before they tire of being told how far they have fallen from the ideal Chris Hedges espouses.
Whether, like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, Jr., he even tries to live up to it, is another matter. He cites those two luminaries, among others, as "prophets" whom we have lost. Prophets they were; but what Mr. Hedges forgets is that the prophets did not preach from positions of comfort and ease and privilege. Easier to condemn the church than to minister to the church and try to guide it back to the gospel you think it should follow. Even Dr. King's challenge to the church written from the jail in Birmingham expresses more sorrow than it does anger. Mr. Hedges model is apparently James Baldwin, "who grew up in the church and was briefly a preacher, said he abandoned the pulpit to preach the Gospel. The Gospel, he knew, was not heard most Sundays in Christian houses of worship." True enough, I would say; but if you don't have the stones to stay in that pulpit and do the hard work of creating a relationship with a congregation so you can teach them the Gospel, so they can hear it, then don't brag about your weakness as if it gives you a privilege.
I have far more respect for the pastors who do that hard work, than for the critics who bail out and proclaim themselves superior because they couldn't do it. No, don't do that, advises Mr. Hedges; instead, become disciples of the Chris Hedges school of social work:
What remains of the church, if it is to survive as a social and cultural force, will see clergy and congregants leave sanctuaries to work in prisons, schools, labor halls and homeless and women’s shelters, form night basketball leagues and participate in grass-roots movements such as the anti-fracking struggle and the fight to raise the minimum wage. This shift will make it hard to financially maintain the massive and largely empty church edifices, and perhaps even the seminaries, but it will keep the church real and alive. I had a dinner a few months ago with fellow teachers in the prison where I work. We discovered, to our surprise, that every one of us had seminary degrees.
Well and good, for the people who wish to do that. The old people of the church, presumably, should go off and die, since they won't be capable of doing much of this kind of service. And what of these people?
While self-described atheists and agnostics tend to be highly educated, 77 percent of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” haven’t finished college. Many of these people, largely white, aren’t necessarily hostile to religion; they’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions. Almost half of those who claim no religion but consider religion important earn less than $30,000 a year.
Will they be "dis-alienated" if they work in prisons, schools, labor halls, and shelters, and participate in grassroots movements? Maybe. But if they aren't interested in that, is the church not interested in them?
The radical work of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King was to go to the people where they lived, and to live and struggle with them. It isn't radical work to go to those people and tell them what they must do. That's just replacing one imperial institution with another, and to the extent Americans are alienated from social institutions like the church, the solution is not to force them into the institution built in your own image. And here is where the argument gets interesting, as well as wholly unaware:
The church, mirroring the liberal establishment, busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic “how-is-it-with-me” spirituality. Although the mainline church paid lip service to diversity, it never welcomed significant numbers of people of color or the marginalized into their sanctuaries.
We are speaking of Protestantism, so "the church" is not some entity to which we belong, it is the entity we make up with our faith and presence and struggle to be congregations. If the church "busied itself with charity, multiculturalism, and gender-identity politics, "that is simply a logical outcome of the Social Gospel Hedges praises. It is also ordinary people doing the best they can with what they have. The complaint of the narcissistic philosophy is true, but that's as much a result of the alienation from institutions Putnam wrote about (which Hedges cites approvingly) as it is the logical end of the Romanticism Kierkegaard recognized as the rot in the soul of Christendom.
As for churches paying lip-service to that which they never performed, that is profoundly true. It is also because people are people
,** and church is a voluntary organization (especially for Protestants), and you can't make people truly offer hospitality if they don't choose to. Would a church be truly radical if it had no building but a prison ministry? Or if it had a beautiful building open 24/7 to the homeless, the destitute, the immigrant (legal or "illegal"), the faithful and the faithless, the believer and the atheist, and especially everybody who didn't look, act, talk, dress, or love, the way the "members" of the church did?
One would fit Chris Hedges' paradigm; one would fit squarely in the gospel teachings about hospitality.
Which would be more radical?
*Not to mention Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Niebuhr's semi-autobiography of his days as a pastor. Then again, that's not a book Hedges would relate his own life experiences to.
**and again, you learn quickly as a pastor that as you stand before the people and condemn them, you condemn yourself, too. As Jesus said in a parable, it is the humble guest who is brought up to the seat of honor, and the humbled guest who is led away from the place of honor he thinks is reserved for him.