After Boomer Religion

Serene Jones, Bodily Resurrection & Social Justice
Giovanni della Robbia, Resurrection of Christ, ca. 1500 (CNS photo/courtesy National Gallery of Art)

On Holy Saturday, the New York Times published columnist Nicholas Kristof’s Easter interview with theologian Serene Jones, the president of New York’s famed Union Theological Seminary. In the interview Kristof, Nicodemus-like, tiptoes toward Christian faith with hesitation but sincere interest (as he has before). “For someone like myself,” he says, “who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” “Well,” Jones replies, “you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” In another part of the interview, she elaborates:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.

You might be tempted, on reading that, to cluck your tongue at liberal Protestants—Jones is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ—and launch into a jeremiad about the decline of the mainline denominations. If so, I understand. A few years ago, I would have joined you. But now that I am a member of a mainline Protestant denomination myself—I belong to the Episcopal Church and am currently in the process of discerning a call to ordination—I’ve come to think statements like Serene Jones’s don’t actually represent the future of theology in the mainline.

Anecdotal evidence can be suspect, but consider this: on Saturday, when Jones’s comments appeared on the Times website, it was only a matter of minutes before my Twitter feed was awash with dismay. The evangelicals I follow were rightly, albeit predictably, upset. But I also follow a lot of fellow Episcopalians and other progressive, mainline Protestants. The ones I have in mind are, for the most part, young, educated, left-of-center in their politics, LGBTQ-affirming, and committed to all manner of other progressive social-justice causes, and mostly uninterested in the latest trends in worship music or church-planting, preferring instead the stability of venerable institutions and formal liturgy. And, virtually to a person, they took Jones’s comments as an occasion to affirm—nay, celebrate—the traditional doctrine of the empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily life after death. They were saddened and bewildered by Jones’s views and ready to proclaim their own confidence that, on Easter morning, “if he rose at all / It was as His body.”

The future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection. Lose the latter, and the former will ultimately be lost too.

To some observers, this “turn to orthodoxy” looks like the product of a generational shift. In a 2016 survey of then-current LGBT students enrolled at Episcopal seminaries, Ian Markham and Paul Moberly Mazariegos found that virtually all (92 percent) of the respondents agreed with the claim that the “creeds teach that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, which has traditionally meant that the tomb was empty.” One might lament that the figure isn’t 100 percent, but set against the backdrop of previous generations’ drift, it remains an encouraging sign. As Markham and Moberly Mazariegos put it, “A voting block is arriving that wants to affirm the authority of Scripture, and uphold the historic Incarnational and Trinitarian faith of the Church.” And it’s a block comprised not only of LGBT folks. During the Episcopal Church’s last General Convention, for instance, a diverse group of clergy and lay people—many of them emerging leaders in the denomination—drafted a memorial urging the Convention to “continue in the apostles’ teaching” by hewing closely to Scripture and the church’s creedal heritage. If Bishop John Shelby Spong’s doctrinal revisionism was the face of a significant strand of Boomer religion, the new face of mainline Protestantism may well be someone in a clerical collar who marches for gun control and says “I believe in the resurrection of the body” without crossing her fingers.

It’s fair to ask whether this blend of political and ethical progressivism and old-time theology is coherent, let alone sustainable. Might it be that the real dynamo of mainline Protestants’ faith is left-wing activism while belief in the resurrection is a kind of unrelated accessory, sincerely held but mostly disconnected from the rest of their convictions? No doubt that’s the case for some. Yet one of the striking things about the reactions I saw last Saturday and Sunday to Jones’s comments was how tightly many mainline Protestants intertwined their belief in the bodily resurrection with their concern for social justice.

This, for example, was how Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal seminary at Yale, responded to Jones: “If Easter really meant just that love is more powerful than death but Jesus didn’t rise, how’s the love-death score today?” The “today” in question was the day terrorist bombs killed hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka. “Is it coincidental,” McGowan asked, “that liberal Protestantism grows in the soil of privilege?” Later, when President Trump took to Twitter to use Easter as an occasion to celebrate the booming economy, McGowan quipped that that’s what you get “when Easter is about niceness, spring, or even ‘love’ without a sense of how the resurrection disrupts our idols and fantasies. This empire will crumble, and if you base contentment on its falsehoods, enjoy them while you may. A different world is coming.” That’s an accusation calculated to sting a progressive constituency: to surrender belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to aid and abet Trumpism!

In short, if my online friends represent any bellwether, the future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection. Lose the latter, and the former will ultimately be lost too.

Theologian George Hunsinger has made the case over the years that traditional Christian theology—robustly biblical, Nicene, Chalcedonian orthodoxy—naturally issues forth a concern for the poor and the oppressed and a commitment to political change. “[T]he forced option between progressive politics and traditional faith is wrong,” says Hunsinger, citing Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Óscar Romero, among others, as witnesses. Whether Hunsinger is right or wrong in his judgment, many young mainline Protestants appear to agree with him. (Were he writing today, he might point to the growing number of young Catholics who also wed their adherence to traditional theology with leftist political commitments.) Given the choice between standing with and for the marginalized and holding onto the conviction in Jesus’ bodily resurrection, they are politely refusing the choice and reminting the word “progressive” in the process. You can debate with them, as I do, which social justice causes Christians should prioritize—or else reconceive altogether. But what you shouldn’t do is assume that what Serene Jones told the Times last week represents the only future of the mainline.

I remember a moment, a few years ago, when I was reunited with a friend I had gone to college with. During our student days, my friend had migrated more and more leftward in her political and social commitments, and at the time I wondered whether she might soon decide that a robustly orthodox Christian faith was one more structure of patriarchal and racist oppression that needed to be dismantled. We lost touch after graduation, and years later, when we met up, I expected my friend to tell me she no longer had an evangelical faith. As it turned out, the opposite was true. Having lost none of her progressive political instincts, my friend had become more Christian since when I knew her. “I’ve realized,” she told me, in so many words, “that the world I’ve been working for is the world God promised when he raised Jesus from the dead. What does Nicaea have to do with Selma? Everything, it turns out!”

That friend now attends an Episcopal church. Go figure.

Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters.

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