New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently offered a thoughtful piece entitled: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?"
Douthat's primary focus was the decline of the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church, but there are wider implications for other liberal denominations.
There is no doubt that all mainline denominations, but particularly those that embrace a so-called liberal orthodoxy, are in decline. What Douthat ultimately offers, however, is essentially a false choice.
By basing decline on the narrow contours of church attendance does a disservice to the argument. This is market-based analysis rooted not in theology. Preference for a particular orthodoxy means only that. It does not make it right nor does it make it wrong.
There have been widely attended churches over the centuries whose orthodoxy included support for slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the Holocaust, Prohibition and Apartheid, while opposing women's suffrage.
We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that there was at one time a liberal theology that served as the dominant ethos for the church as a whole. From the ministry of Jesus into the present day, liberal theology has found itself on the outskirts against a conservative theology that offered the perceived security of predictability.
But to place Christianity on the linear axis delineated by conservative or liberal orthodoxy cheapens the discourse. Defining Christianity as liberal or conservative is to ultimately offer inadequate precepts for the unpredictability of the human condition.
The warring factions that exist within Christianity have not been liberal vs. conservative, but Constantine Christianity vs. the teachings of Jesus.
Early Christianity was a rebellious underground movement until Roman Emperor Constantine made it his religious practice in A.D. 312. Constantine's conversion was based on what he viewed as a victorious sign from God prior to going into battle. His successor, Theodosius I, made it the official religion of Rome in A.D. 380. These events did more for the spread of Christianity than any proselytizing efforts conducted by the Apostle Paul.
But it was a religion that was subservient to the Roman Empire, bearing little resemblance to the radical teachings of Jesus. It has been this brand of Christianity, which has its roots in the Roman Empire, that has historically sided with some of the worst atrocities in human history. It is Constantine Christianity that stands as the self-appointed citadel in opposition to marriage equality.
It is the remnants of Constantine Christianity that serves as the most pervasive and influential strand of the church today be it mainline or otherwise. Constantine Christianity is void of self-reflective impulses, a prerequisite for humility.
Churches committed to the teachings of Jesus are rooted in what I define as inconvenient love. Inconvenient love represents the church at its best. It is the shared Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian belief about ultimate reality where these differing religious traditions coalesce into a harmonic symphony.
Inconvenient love is understood as a creative, redemptive good will for all. It is a love that is not dependent on liking the individual or agreeing with the position taken, but possesses an overriding commitment to affirm the humanity of others. It is much easier and less time consuming to offer a theological rule than to see value in others, especially those who are different.
Inconvenient love is reflected in the parables of the Good Samaritan and prodigal child, and it is the ultimate lesson offered in the gospel narratives that chronicle Jesus' death on the cross.
I fear most churches, regardless of their theological application, are rooted more toward Constantine Christianity than the teachings of Jesus. The appeal of Constantine Christianity is its conformity to the perceived status quo.
Churches that actively pursue the teachings of Jesus will most likely experience low attendance. Does that make them wrong or irrelevant?
Authentic change invariably begins as the minority opinion, which places the teachings of Jesus at a disadvantage, at least where pubic opinion is concerned. Our posthumous commemorations notwithstanding, it is easy to forget that Martin Luther King's courageous stand in opposition to the Vietnam War caused him to be abandoned by liberal whites as well as black civil rights leaders. Moreover, change creates discomfort, an impulse that most willingly avoid.
Differences between Constantine Christianity and the teachings of Jesus should not be viewed as an either/or proposition. Churches committed to the teachings of Jesus are not immune from the impulses of Constantine Christianity.
But strident claims of vaunted superiority of the theology we embrace ultimately serves to obfuscate what's really at the core of those beliefs. Is it a Roman Emperor whose faith is based on war and domination that we subscribe or that of a Mediterranean peasant from Nazareth who places the radical notion of inconvenient love at the core of his movement?
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