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A Church Without Theology? A Parable of What Happens When Politics Replaces Christianity

A Church Without Theology? A Parable of What Happens When Politics Replaces Christianity

Sept. 9, 2019

There is not much religion news in most of the mainstream media these days. That's for a couple of reasons, but they are all tied to the general pattern of the secularization of the culture. And, of course, the greatest degree of that secularization, the leading edge as well, is found where you have the very people who are in charge of the mainstream media.

Just to take one example, the journalistic class. Every sociological study indicates that when not looking at individuals but at the class, you're looking at the leading edge of secularization and often a political and ideological liberalism as well. And often when there is religion coverage, it's not very good coverage, but these days, it's almost always interesting. That was especially the case in an article that appeared in yesterday's edition of the New York Times. Just pause for a moment. The New York Times: that is the leading newspaper, probably the most influential in the world in one of the most secular cities in the world, and one of the cities that in the United States most represents this secular trajectory.

What would be the story? Well, the headline would be, "A Congregation That Is United By Cause If Not Faith." Well, let's just think about that for a moment. Now in the headline, we're being told of a congregation that is united in political cause rather than in any kind of theological conviction. The story looks interesting. I guarantee you it is interesting. The article is by Rick Rojas, "Observant Presbyterians are always part of the gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church, but much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is in fact an atheist."

I told you this was going to be interesting. What could be more interesting than the throwaway line here that the message of the morning in church was about the dangers of genetically modified vegetables. Well, as you might imagine, the story continues. I quote, "It's something I never thought would happen," she said of the bond she has forged with the church's community. This is again the woman cited in the article, Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, the atheist who is going to church, which is one of the points made in the article. She says she didn't expect this to happen, "She was drawn to the church, she said, by something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world."

The article by Rojas is basically telling us that this church is part of something like an influential religious left in the United States. It's an interesting example because as presented in this article, it has replaced theological conviction with passion for social justice issues.

Rojas understands what's going on here when he writes, "Typically a congregation's connective tissue is an embrace of a shared faith. Yet, Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God, any God at all isn't necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless, and a task force to help refugee families."

Rojas further elaborates, "Houses of worship including Christian churches from a range of denominations as well as synagogues have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the LGBTQ community," but according to the article, "Religious scholars said Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadows its religious one." Now, that's an understatement. You're not talking about a social justice platform overshadowing the religious conviction of the church. There isn't any apparent religious conviction that establishes the core identity of this church.

The article begins by telling us that the sermon is about the dangers of genetically modified vegetables, and then later in the article, we are told that alternatives even to the most central components of historic Christian worship are supplied so that those who believe anything or basically nothing, any kind of religious belief or no religious belief, can even participate in what is called here worship, but there's also really no indication of who is being worshiped.

James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University said, "Rutgers," meaning Rutgers Presbyterian Church, "has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this." He continued, "This isn't the first reinvention. It's one of their more interesting ones."

The article by Rojas then explains that the approach represented at Rutgers Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, "Reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways." The article goes on to tell us that, "Those who enter the unassuming brick and limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfast fundraisers, activism, and developing ties to a neighborhood." Rojas also notes the fact that mainline protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA, of which Rutgers Presbyterian Church is a part, they are experiencing a hemorrhage of membership.

"Mainline protestant denominations like Presbyterianism has seen their followings diminish in recent years." He puts in parenthesis, "Leaders of the Presbyterian church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving declaring that they were encouraged by the slowing trend downward." The pastor of the church described the congregation as having a, "Unapologetically progressive outlook." The church building itself evidently makes the statement as Rojas tells us, "A large Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the front of the church and nearby are colorful Tibetan prayer flags. Inside, there are buttons for worshipers to wear to declare their gender identity: He/him, she/her, they/them. During services, worshipers recite alternatives to the Lord's Prayer. They use more inclusive language."

One woman cited as attending the church said that she does not consider herself an observant Christian, "I believe he was a good guy," she is speaking of Jesus Christ, "but she found comfort in finding people who hugged her, asked about her health and joked with her. 'I'm more into the social aspect,' she said. 'I care about a lot of the people and they care about me.'" The subhead in the article by the way set out within the text is this, "At Rutgers Presbyterian in Manhattan, a belief in God isn't strictly necessary."

The professor at Vanderbilt mentioned that the Rutgers Presbyterian Church has had an interesting history throughout its years and that this isn't the first transition within the church. Indeed, its history goes all the way back to the year 1798. The church had an existence of its own by the time you get to 1909, and at one point by the year 1830 -- that's almost 190 years ago -- the church had 1,157 members. The history of the church on the church's own website says that by the time the church had celebrated its 100th anniversary, it was already in significant decline. Remember in 1830, it had over a thousand members. By the time the church reached its anniversary in 1898, it had 386 members, "Many of whom were prominent in civic circles."

The church merged with another Presbyterian congregation in 1942, and the current pastor is the church's 22nd. The church's website isn't exactly what you would call up to date, but it did have a newsletter dated October the 1st, 2018. The newsletter appears to be ample evidence of the kind of liberal direction the church has been taking for some time. Groups identified as officially networked with the congregation include Lambda Legal and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. The church also officially networks with the National Women's Law Center and International Planned Parenthood.

The church has a YouTube channel that includes a series called Theology Unhinged. No, I didn't call it that. They called it that. The episode that is advertised in this newsletter from 2018 is entitled "Theology Unhinged: Ask a Bisexual." The church's order of worship for July 8, 2018 is still posted to its website. The theme is rainbow celestial theology. At one point in the official order of worship is the Gloria Patri identified as the Gloria Patri, which after all in Latin means "glory to the Father," but you won't find "Father" in the words of the song as listed here.

The same thing is true with the doxology that historically ends "Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost." Instead, it is "Praise Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost," and there is no "Father" in the Lord's Prayer either. Instead, as it is listed for congregational reading in the order of service, it begins, "Gracious God, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." In the confession of sin, according to the theology of the congregation, the prayer includes these words, "We have hurt the sky, O God. We have polluted it. We have clouded it with light pollution. We have burned holes in the ozone layer through our carelessness and greed. Forgive us. Teach us ways to treat the sky more gently that it may be a source of wonder and of life. We pray in Christ's name. Amen."

At the official website of the Presbytery, that's the association of PCUSA churches there in New York City, we are told that those churches together have 17,000 members in 97 churches. You can pretty quickly do the math. There was, believe it or not, a live stream available of a recent worship service at Rutgers Presbyterian church, and I decided that I would view it. At one point, the camera panned the congregation. I counted less than 30 people in the entire facility.

It is possible I can see that there were persons there who did not show up on camera, but the point I want to make is this: Evidently, what the New York Times finds interesting in a story like this is a congregation of just a handful of people who evidently are supposed to represent a resurgence of the theological left in the United States, but the words "resurgent" and "theological" and "left" just actually don't go together. There's much more publicity about a theological left than there is an actual audience for it.

What we also see here is a crystal clear lesson of what happens when this kind of leftist political agenda takes the place of an evacuated theological agenda, but the point I want to make is that this very leftist political vision didn't really displace any orthodox theology. The orthodox Christian theology had to be gone for a long time before this kind of political nonsense could show up. You're not really talking about some kind of church that shifted from preaching about the substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ to the dangers of genetically modified vegetables. You're not talking about a small or a quick transition here. You're talking about a congregation that for decades and decades has demonstrated the theological damage, indeed the deadly nature, of a liberal theology that eventually ends up being no theology at all.


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