First Things on “Christianity Lite”

Mary Eberstadt’s fascinating article on “Christianity Lite” — which she describes as an attempt “to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings [i.e.,] those regarding sexual morality” — was posted back in February, but I only discovered it today.

…in the longer run — say, over the coming decades — [the Catholic Church’s welcoming of Anglicans] looks consequential in another way. It is the latest and most dramatic example of how orthodoxy, rather than dissent, seems once again to have taken the driver’s seat of Christianity. Every traditionalist who joins the long and already illustrious history of reconversion to the Catholic Church just tips the religious balance more toward Rome. This further weakens a religious communion battered from within by decades of intra-Anglican culture wars. Meanwhile, the progressives left behind may well find the exodus of their adversaries a Pyrrhic victory. How will they possibly make peace with the real majority of Anglicans today — the churches in Africa, whose leaders have repeatedly denounced the Communion’s abandonment of traditional teachings? Questions like these are why a few commentators now speak seriously about something that only recently seemed unthinkable: whether the end of the Anglican Communion itself might now be in sight.

Even so, it is the still longer run of Christian history whose outlines may now be most interesting and unexpected of all. Looking even further out to the horizon from our present moment — at a vista of centuries, rather than mere decades, ahead of us — we may well begin to wonder something else. That is, whether what we are witnessing now is not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself.

By this I mean the multifaceted institutional experiment, beginning but not ending with the Anglican Communion, of attempting to preserve Christianity while simultaneously jettisoning certain of its traditional teachings — specifically, those regarding sexual morality. Surveying the record to date of what has happened to the churches dedicated to this long-running modern religious experiment, a large historical question now appears: whether the various exercises in this specific kind of dissent from traditional teaching turn out to contain the seeds of their own destruction. The evidence — preliminary but already abundant — suggests that the answer is yes.

[…]

Does the relaxing of dogma drive people from church, or does the decline in attendance push leaders to relax dogma? As with the previous discussion of dissent, we do not really need to know the answer in all its causal complexity. All we really need to know — as the brilliant convert and teacher Monsignor Ronald Knox observed in an essay some eighty years ago, “The Decline of Dogma and the Decline of Church Membership” — is that “the evacuation of the pew and the jettisoning of cargo from the pulpit” have been going on side by side for as long as Christianity Lite has been attempted. As with doctrinal dissent, it seems, where one appears, the other is sure to follow.

Christianity Lite has left enough evidence in its wake for us to judge the final outcome of that great experiment: It is a failure. The effort to throw out the unwanted bathwater of the sexual code has taken the baby — the rest of Christian practice and belief — along with it.

[…]

But the one thing we can spy as of this moment is noteworthy enough: the beginning of the end not only of Anglicanism as the world has known it in the past century but also of the other churches that similarly joined their fates to that of Christianity Lite. It is hard to overstate how momentous their unraveling is — or how bracing a slap in the modern face. After all, if there is a single point to which modern, enlightened people have been agreeing for a long time now, it is that the antiquated sexual notions of the Catholic Church are an anachronism that had to go for the sake of a kinder, gentler Christianity.

It would be more than passing strange if, at the end of the day, that very anachronism were to turn out to be something that could not be sacrificed after all — not without having everything else fall down, anyway. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time in Christian history that a piece rejected by the builders turned out to be the cornerstone.

On a sidenote, Christopher Hitchens’ interview with Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell, in which Hitchens calls Sewell out on her lack of adherence to Christian orthodoxy, was in the back of my mind throughout Eberstadt’s article.