dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 298f.
H. R. Niebuhr put his harshest assessment of depleted liberalism into the famous sentence: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." I could just repeat this as a succinct judgment of Gary Pence's article and rest my case, but the editor expects more writing on my part.
Niebuhr was protesting the tendency of Christian movements to blend into the surrounding culture, thereby losing their own distinct vision by supplanting it with more comfortable cultural notions. Christ (the Christian vision/ is subsumed into culture.
It's not difficult to see this process going on around us in various religious communities. Unitarianism is the furthest gone: everyone concocts their own truth. The United Church of Christ follows close behind; current experience and the testimony of the sciences easily overturn classic Christian teachings. (Isn't it great to be in fuller communion with them?) Among the Episcopalians, Bishop Spong fancies himself the harbinger of a new Reformation. He courageously announces that the modern understanding of the world renders theism dead. So there goes theism, along with its sad accoutrements of a divine Son of God who atones for us on the cross. The courageous thing to do is simply to take what the modern world says as truth and change our tradition to suit it. (Isn't it great to think that maybe someday some Lutheran ordinands will be ordained at the hands of Bishop Spong? I do realize that the ordination will be efficacious even if the Bishop is doctrinally and morally lax, but it does make me a bit nervous to think that we believe that orthodox teaching will be necessarily strengthened by having the historic episcopate of which Spong is a part.)
One expects more resistance to this process of accommodation by Lutherans, fortified as they are by a confessional tradition that includes sola scriptura as one of its key teachings. But, alas, in this postmodern world expectations aren't worth a fig. Here we have the great traditional teachings on sin and grace jettisoned on the basis of some negative religious experience in the author's Missouri Synod childhood and on the basis of the insights of several second-rung psychologists. (How long will the ELCA have to pay for the bad experience of some Missourians as well as for psychological insights from a field that has not, as Alan Bloom noticed, talked about the soul for over a century?)
But the shedding of the tradition seemed pretty easy for Pence. Never mind the testimony of the Bible, the church fathers, and the two thousand years of Christian teaching about sin as an essential Christian doctrine. It has to go because it makes people feel bad. Rather, in order to help their self-esteem, we must adopt a psychological-evolutionary view of humans as "limited and unfinished."
Grace in this schema must be some boost to help us along the way of becoming pretty good folks. Grace helps us all reach "above average" status. But on second thought, it doesn't seem we need all that much of a boost anyway. "Actually, in practical terms, the solution to our problem with sin lies with us," the author tells us. We should simply quit berating ourselves and be fairly satisfied with who we are, our faults and shortcomings included, and be confident that God will accept us just as we are.
Now I know that this response is heavily sarcastic, for which I apologize to the reader and to the author, but I have a hard time taking it as a serious proposal by a serious teacher of the church. The article seems like a parody of some New Age version of healthy-minded religion. It reminds me of the Unity Church minister who proposed to lead a local Roanoke congregation in singing "Amazing Grace," without, he said, that insulting phrase about "wretches like me." There are, he opined "no wretches in this room."
I fear that Gary Pence has no wretches either. Nor does he have saints‐either in the form of those who are saints before God on account of the extraordinary grace of God in Christ, or in the form of exemplary figures of remarkable faith and obedience.
He does not think God expects us to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul" or to love the neighbor as Christ has loved us. Those are too unrealistic. They lead to an unhealthy perfectionism in people. If they take those commands seriously they really feel bad about themselves. They might even fall upon their knees and pray for mercy and grace. But that is pretty degrading for us "magnificent works-in-progress."
Pence has lopped off the heights and the depths of human life, the experience of which has been grandly interpreted by the Christian faith. First, he has reduced sin to sins of either a heinous or a trivial character. He has missed sin as the depiction of a state of separation, one which we continue to will incorrigibly and which ruptures all our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us. God judges this state; one simply cannot be true to the biblical and evangelical tradition and yet hold that God is non-judgmental.
Rather than being brought by God's holy Law to judgment in which the terrorized conscience confesses that before God we are all beggars, Pence argues that God is only slightly miffed at us wayward creatures. Indeed, in Pence's view God is the "calm and kindly presence deep down within each of us to help us accept ourselves."
Such mildly off-centered human beings don't need much forgiveness or affirmation "in spite of'" their condition and the sins that issue from that condition. After all, they are not wretches. So there too goes the classic Christian notion of extravagant grace, a grace that reaches out to us while we were yet sinners and offers us forgiveness on account of the cross of Christ.
Now it is likely true that Pence has met many persons in his practice who "berate themselves irrationally""and live in a constant put-down of themselves and others. And it could be that they need to be reminded that they aren't as bad as all that, especially in their day-today encounters with other human beings. I myself like to be confirmed in my belief that I'm a pretty good person in comparison to other persons in the common everyday world.
But such reminders, though important therapeutically, don't get at the heart of the human predicament, which is far more profound. I, and all other human beings, have to come face-to-face with the terminal character of our separation from God. Once I come to that realization, I can be enabled to accept the grace of God, which is freely offered in Christ. And that wondrous gift is offered in spite of who I am before God, not because of what I am and do.
Pence should not trim down the very Christian doctrines of sin and grace that illuminate the profundities of our deeper experience of life. He should rather direct the remarkable and amazing word of grace to the tortured souls who are drowning in those agonizing depths.
Pence's proposal is in line with the many efforts of liberal Christianity to dilute the harder, but grander, truths of the Christian faith. With each effort comes a further blending into the culture and its offerings. Why would I need a Christian church to bear the message he proposes? I can find his message in a myriad of self-help, self-esteem and personal growth groups. Many of them may be helpful, but none really offers the gospel. If the mainstream churches continue along this road, is there any doubt about the reasons for their continued decline? What is being offered in them is a therapeutic culture they can get in many other places.
In commenting on liberal religion, Alister McGrath has suggested that its practitioners really think there is something essentially wrong with the faith that has to be corrected by enlightened cultural notions. But, McGrath says, the classic faith is true and infinitely interesting in itself. Evangelicals believe this and offer the straight stuff. Let's forget Pence's proposal and stick with the straight stuff.
Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia.