From Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

[…] today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianitywith other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This is all very similar to what’s happening to liberal Judaism. But why? Focusing on liberal, universal values does seem to dilute the value proposition of a specific religion. You don’t need the particular rituals and practices of Judaism, or Lutheranism to believe in stopping genocides. But the implication of liberal religion is that these rituals are secondary in importance, or perhaps not even intrinsically important at all. That once you’ve oriented yourself towards the proper values, there’s no need to take communion, or sanctify the Sabbath day over a glass of wine.

Since liberal religions often dispense with much of the metaphysics of traditional religion, it’s hard to embrace rituals in a consistent way. Yes, a practice may be beautiful, or deeply meaningful, or inspiring, but typically we experience practices that way when we engage in them intermittently. As soon as those practices become habit, they often lose their ability to impact us as we grow accustomed to them.

I suspect though, that customary practice may be part of the secret of holiness. You see, even if you make kiddush every week without a thought for the meaning of the words, and without any deeper sense of connection to God or the world, the very act of making kiddush every week has an impact that spills over to your entire life. Your life is now organized around this practice, and everything else must make room for this ritual, for this jar upon a hill and should you miss a week, the absence would trouble you.

The ritual is holy. It isn’t for understanding, or for providing access to upper worlds, or for creating conduit for blessing to flow down. It’s a way that we make meaning, not out of our pragmatic minds, or our sensitive hearts, but out of our habit-forming hands, our one-foot-in-front-of-another legs. Taking on these kinds of commitments creates a whole world of mutual dependency with our community-members. It helps us nurture our positive instincts and inscribe them into our lives with the force of habit.

I’m not sure myself. Traditional religion has plenty of its own problems. But it seems like liberal religion has made how we treat one another not just the pinnacle of religion, but perhaps its only sphere. Without god, without a deep sense of the sacred, without a metaphysics, or at least the possibility of one, religion becomes too pragmatic, too technocratic, and too self-reliant. Liberal religion needs to rediscover why it needs God again.

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