Monday, November 13, 2006

Our Vehicle to God?

Al Mohler has a fascinating post that contains an interview with the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori. The snippets of the interview were interesting, but not in the way that Mohler describes (i.e. an indication of the trouble in which the Episcopal church finds itself). Rather, what makes this fascinating is the utter triumph of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism in the life of a church (for more on Protestant liberalism, see William R. Hutchison's The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism).

Schleiermacher in his Christian Tradition argued that "the common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings, or in other words, the self-identical essense of piety is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God" (p. 12). For Schleiermacher, Christianity represented the highest form of this sense of absolute dependence, but other religious also conveyed piety (interestingly, he contrasts Judaism and Islam with Christianity by stressing the latter's less "sensuous" faith; p. 37-9).

When the good bishop claims that Jesus is "our vehicle to God," but that other religions come to God through "human experience," what she is really meaning to say is that we all encounter God through the very human experiences of contingency, relationality, and dependence upon forces larger than ourselves, upon the very forces that press down upon us (to use James Gustafson's language). And in this regard, she is simply articulating a position that Schleiermacher had taken over 150 years before.

What is really surprising is not that the Episcopal Church has a bishop that represents thorough-going liberalism; the real surprise is that it has taken this long, that the native evangelicalism of mainstream Protestantism has prevented liberalism from coming to full flower in its public leadership. In this regard, perhaps the Episcopalians are not as bad off as the mainstream Presbyterians, who can count all sorts of thorough-going liberals among the leadership and far earlier to boot (men such as William Sloane Coffin and Henry P. Van Dusen who led the PCUSA in the 1920s to 1950s).

What makes all of this so bad is, as Mohler points out, how far removed it is from historic Anglicanism and from the native evangelical spirit and doctrinal content that has long characterized Protestantism. It certainly makes the choices of evangelical Anglicans that much more difficult as they see the effects of Protestant liberalism in the church's thought and life together.

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