August 26, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, August 26, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Threat of National Cathedral collapse parable of religion in postmodern America
It was a fairly small article on an inside page of the daily edition of the New York Times, the headline doesn’t seem to be all that important. I quote,
“Leader at Washington National Cathedral Steps Down.”Show Full Transcript
Reporter Nicholas Fandos tells us that the Very Reverend Gary Hall, the Dean of Washington National Cathedral, had announced in recent days he would step down at the end of the year,
“To make way for a younger leader who can help guide the century-old Episcopal Church as it tries to overcome financial and demographic challenges.”
As it turns out this is not the first article written by this very reporter on Washington’s National Cathedral even in recent weeks. A news article that appeared back in July was headlined,
“National Cathedral’s Repair Work: Finials, Finance and Faith.”
What we have here is a parable of American religion in the secular age. In particular, we have a parable of mainline liberal Protestantism and there are lessons here nonetheless for all of us. The same reporter Nicholas Fandos back in July wrote an article saying that,
“If the United States had a national church, this would be it. Established by congressional charter and perched on one of the city’s highest hills, the neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral has long been a prominent fixture in the life of the nation’s political elite, who come for rituals of celebration and mourning.”
There’s an historical background of this that is important and it’s in this article. It was indeed United States Congress that officially authorized the building of what became known as the National Cathedral. It is officially known as the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington D.C. and it is officially the seat of the diocese of Washington and unofficially, but quite formally, it has served as something of a National Church in terms of the building. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the National Service headed by the President of the United States was held in the National Cathedral. The funerals of several recent presidents of the United States have been held in the National Cathedral and at least one former President, Woodrow Wilson is buried on the grounds of the very same Cathedral.
The New York Times article pointed to the fact that the National Cathedral as it is most commonly known is now surrounded by scaffolding. Part of this is due to the fact that just about four years ago, an earthquake of magnitude 5.8 struck the nation’s capital and the impact was felt in the National Cathedral, which had extensive damage to the towers and stonework, necessitating a grate over the entire seating area of the Cathedral and massive work. According to the New York Times, workers are currently putting about $10 million into what’s been described as phase 1 of the rebuilding of the Cathedral. But the reality is the problem goes way back before the earthquake when there were already tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance on the building. The Reverend Howard Anderson, who from 2004-2008 led what was known as the Cathedral College, that was a continuing education center, described the peril of the National Cathedral saying,
“That is not even a hemorrhage. That is a total collapse.”
Speaking to the fact that even before the earthquake struck and damaged the building, the National Cathedral was already undergoing a financial crisis and it had to cut its budget in half and layoff almost 100 of its 170 full-time employees, that goes back to the 2008-2009 financial crisis. But the reason we’re talking about this on The Briefing is because this story serves as a parable of religion in postmodern America and as a parable of the decline of mainline Protestantism, but the effects of the story aren’t limited to mainline Protestantism. You have in the story going back to July that the Reverend Gary Hall, whose retirement was announced in more recent days had indicated the what’s going on in the National Cathedral was as he described,
“The macro of what every other congregation in America is going through.”
He continued by saying,
“The culture that produced mainline Christianity is giving way to a new culture, and we need to figure out how to align ourselves with that culture.”
That’s the reason we’re talking about the story. Here you have the Dean of the declining Cathedral saying that the problem is that the culture is changed and the Cathedral is going to have to figure out how to change with the culture if it’s going to survive. In very explicit language he offers a manifesto of what is known as theological accommodationism, the argument is that the church must accommodate itself to the culture. If the culture changes then the church is going to have to change, if the culture changes it’s messaging then the church is going to have to change it’s messaging. And what you have here is the Reverend Gary Hall saying, and I repeat,
“The culture that produced mainline Christianity is giving way to a new culture, and we need to figure out how to align ourselves with that culture.”
Now the bottom line to that statement is that it is profoundly correct. The culture that gave birth to mainline Protestantism is indeed shifting but the problem is it actually shifted a long time ago. As a matter of fact, the numerical decline in the mainline churches goes back at least to the early 1960s and was profoundly important by the 1970s. It was in the 1970s that for instance, the National Council of Churches commissioned a study that was eventually written by Dean Kelly, not only about mainline decline, but about conservative growth, that is evangelical growth. But the culture has shifted. If you look at mainline Protestantism it once stood astride American culture, the mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the mainline Presbyterian Church, the Congregational churches, the Disciples of Christ, those denominations stood at the apex of American culture and their influence. That cultural influence is probably no better depicted then when there was the dedication. During the administration of President Eisenhower of what became known in New York City as the God box, a massive office building in Morningside Heights that became the head of the National Council of Churches and also the New York office of several mainline liberal denominations. That office was put very close to the iconic church of liberal Protestantism, the Riverside Church in New York City. It was also very close to the leading institution of liberal theology in America, Union Theological Seminary. But when you look at the National Cathedral, you see a parable right before our eyes of what happens when a church does it’s very best to accommodate to the culture and then finds that it doesn’t matter.
That’s the real issue from a Christian biblical worldview. If the church does its best to accommodate itself to the culture, it doesn’t find itself with the new invigorated message, it doesn’t find itself with a new and growing membership, it finds itself increasingly marginalized and increasingly irrelevant. Fandos in his article goes on to remind us that the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul as the National Cathedral is formally known,
“Has for generations had a privileged position in American public life.”
It was Pierre L’Enfant whose design for Washington D.C. came at the invitation of George Washington himself who in 1791 proposed,
“A great church for national purposes”
Now that is a culture that has also largely completely disappeared. When you go back to the founding era, virtually everyone who would’ve had any kind of major voice in terms of American political life would’ve been speaking with reference to Christianity. There is no question that if there were to be a National Church in terms of Washington’s design, it would have been a Christian church, but a vaguely Christian church, a generically Christian church and even though this is an Episcopal Church, it has done its very best to be generic and generally representative of the country from the very beginning and that country has changed profoundly, not just 1791 when L’Enfant designed the city, but even in terms of just the last several decades in terms of the radical transformations that have taken place in American culture. And liberal Protestantism set as its goal to try to meet the culture on its own terms to accommodate itself and to the culture so that it would adopt whatever the frame of reference of the culture might be in order to remain relevant and thus you see the radical theological shifts that took place in liberal Protestantism. The miracles were largely out if not denied then simply not mentioned, the virgin birth was seen as ancient mythology. By the time you get to the radical theology movement of the 1960s and 1970s and their successors there is no doctrine that wasn’t openly denied, there is no heresy that wasn’t openly embraced and it was all done, as was argued going back to the origins of Protestant liberalism in the early 20th century United States, it was all done in order that the church would remain relevant.
But here you have in two different articles in the New York Times proof positive with the National Cathedral serving as a symbol here, that a church that is determined to remain relevant to the culture ends up losing that very relevance because it loses its message, it loses from a theological understanding what’s most important of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In what ways has the National Cathedral sought to remain relevant? For instance, Fandos tells us the Cathedral is trying to position itself as a major center of interfaith dialogue in education in the United States. It hosted a national prayer service as we said just after September 11, 2001. More recently, Fandos tells us,
“The space has been opened to nontraditional religious services and voices. Last year’s firsts included Muslim Friday prayers and a transgender priest.”
As we are so often tended to say, we are not making this up. Here you have an article in the New York Times, not just one, actually two, in which this parable is being played out before our eyes in which you have Bishop John Bryson Chane, he headed the diocese from 2002-2011 saying,
“The big push was we got to build this thing. It was like the Field of Dreams: If we build it, they will come. So then, once it was built, it was a national house of prayer for all people, but what does that mean?”
Well if the Bishop of the church, and remember he was that from 2000-2011, himself asked the question, what does that mean? Here’s an alert – you are in big trouble. But I do want to come back to Bishop Chane and say he’s onto something here. Because if you’re trying to be a generic church, if you’re trying to be a national symbolic church, if you’re trying just to be a place for interfaith education, if you’re going to allow Muslim prayers and if you’re going to invite a transgender priest and if you’re going to say you’re the National Church for an increasingly diverse and postmodern nation, then I’m simply going to ask the question with them – what does it mean?
One other insight from the Bishop’s statement, he said that the Cathedral was built with a field of dreams philosophy. If we build it they will come. As we’ve noted before, the National Cathedral is not the first church to believe that that is the way it defined its ministry. If you build it they will come, that might’ve been a winning formula for a movie, it is not a winning formula for a church. The more recent article that appeared just in recent days about the retirement of the Reverend Gary Hall of the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral suggest that he became eventually frustrated with the fact that he was facing such a daunting challenge and thus his resignation in order that a new leader may take the role and perhaps lead the Cathedral into a new future. Fandos writes,
“Mr. Hall said that he hoped his tenure would prove to have been pivotal for the cathedral — the seat of the Episcopal Church and the site of presidential memorials — helping to reorient it so that it can remain relevant in an ever more pluralistic religious landscape.”
Well the answer of the New Testament to that is quite straightforward, the only way to be truly relevant is to hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the same yesterday, today and forever. The only way of survival as a church is to remain faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The promise if you build it they will come often turns out to be an empty promise. And the plan to accommodate the church to the culture ends up with the culture not needing the church, because there’s nothing distinctive the church represents, or believes or teaches.
But finally I have to make very clear that this story has messaging not only for liberal Protestantism but also for evangelical Christians. We too can buy very easily into plans and schemes that turn out to be just as empty. It is just as true for us as it was for the National Cathedral that the motto, if you build it they will come is often nothing more than an empty dream. That is not the way the church is actually built. And when it comes to the assessment made by so many of these leaders of the National Cathedral that the world is changed around us, and that the church has been displaced in this new postmodern world, we have to recognize they’re not wrong. They are wrong in what they say the church should do in response to that reality. They’re not wrong to point to the reality. It’s a reality every single church and denomination, every Christian institution is going to face. The culture has profoundly changed. The big question for the church is, does that mean that our message changes? If the answer to that is yes, then the message of the church is up for grabs. If the answer to that is no and the Bible profoundly answers that question with no, then the church has one message, it’s the message that saves, whether or not it draws a crowd.
Harvard prof argues no moral imperative in bioethics other than progress
Next, we’ve recently been confronted with an entire series of headlines having to do with very important issues when it comes to biomedical ethics. One of the most important of those issues has been the development of new genetic engineering technologies that are being used at least in China on human embryos and a technology that brings the threat of designer babies into a very near future, if not the present. We also looked at the fact that there have been several leading scientists, including some Nobel laureates who have warned that these technologies represent moral boundaries we ought never to cross. But now an article appears at the Boston Globe, in this case by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University in which he says the biomedical ethics and its technological progress should not be impeded at all by concerns about the morality of either the technology or the results. Pinker writes in the Boston Globe, and I quote,
“Biomedical research promises vast increases in life, health, and flourishing. Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity. Given this potential bonanza, the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.
Get out of the way.”
Now, that is a truly remarkable moral statement. Here you have one of the most influential public intellectuals in America, a professor Harvard University saying that the one moral imperative that should guide the future of bioethics and bioethical technology should be “get out of the way.” But this argument also points us to the very seductive kind of arguments that are used in favor of these biomedical technologies and removing any moral concerns about them. For instance, Steven Pinker asked us to imagine loved ones who were alive who otherwise would not be. He asked us to imagine those who overcome physical infirmity and disabilities who otherwise would not be, and he says, don’t you want that? He says, look at the human good that is represented by that and multiply it, he says, by billions of times in perpetuity. Well just imagine that vision, who wouldn’t want that? Of course, the question is not only could that happened, but at what cost? At what cost to what it means to be human? And then comes that amazing statement that Professor Pinker makes in which he says and I quote again,
“The primary moral goal for today’s bioethics can be summarized in a single sentence.”
And then he gives us the sentence,
“Get out of the way.”
Then what follows should have our full attention, he writes,
“A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as “dignity,” “sacredness,” or “social justice.”
Now you need to know he puts quotes around all three of those terms as if they are merely terms of art, as if they are abstract ideas with no reality attached to them whatsoever. No binding authority whatsoever. He puts quotation marks around dignity, sacredness and social justice. So here you have a professor at Harvard University who says that the very idea of human dignity is in his own words, a nebulous but sweeping principle. In other words, there’s no reality to it at all. The same thing for the sanctity of human life, he puts quotation marks around sacredness and even when it comes to social justice he puts quotation marks around that as if there’s no reality to it. It’s just the kind of argument and an argument that he argues will impede human progress by putting ethical limitations upon biomedical technologies.
What we have here is a distillation of a purely secular materialistic and naturalistic ethic. If you take the Christian worldview and basically remove it altogether from civilization, if you take away any notion that there is a special dignity to human life, if you take away any concept of the sanctity of human life, if you even treat as merely nebulous and sweeping the claim of the imperative of social justice then all you’re left with is this, the imperative “get out of the way.” And then you have his argument that first, slowing down research has a massive human cost, and by this he means you’re impeding progress, get out of the way. He doesn’t acknowledge the cost to human dignity that would come by these technologies because he doesn’t admit there is any reality in terms of the dignity of humanity. He says second, technological prediction beyond the horizon of a few years is so futile that any policy based on it is almost certain to do more harm than good. That again is a sweeping statement in which he is arguing that science merely has an imperative all into its own and it’s not even predictable in terms of where these technologies are going. So once again, get out of the way.
Then he says about biomedical research that it is,
“In particular, defiantly unpredictable.”
The developments are coming so quickly that any kind of restrictions you might put on this technology will be rendered in his argument out-of-date by the fact that technology is simply going to develop in unpredictable ways. It’s going to happen somewhere. But that gets back to another argument that is increasingly being made and it’s embedded in some of the earlier articles on this new genetic technology. The argument is this – there may really be threats to human dignity with this technology, there may well be threats when it comes to the use of this technology, it may lead to all kinds of imbalances, it could lead to a weeding out to those who are considered to be genetically inferior, it could come with all kinds of threats to human dignity. But the argument then comes that if somebody’s going to do it, right now the Chinese are probably doing it, and if we don’t do it we’re going to be left behind. The argument comes wouldn’t it be better if we did it, rather than the Chinese without any moral scruples?
Well let’s just consider that argument because right here you have a professor at Harvard University, one of most influential intellectuals in America today, saying that there is and must be only one moral imperative, only one – get out of the way. But let’s think about it for just a moment – if human beings are just a cosmological accident, if human beings are not made in God’s image, if there is nothing to put but quotation marks around human dignity and the sanctity of human life, then there is no moral imperative left, but exactly what he states, get out of the way.