I’m told that when a man is drowning, just before he succumbs, he sometimes thrashes violently side to side, believing himself to be swimming upward, all the while sinking lower and lower to his death. Something similar seems to be happening with the Episcopal Church today. Its fundamental purpose is to transcend the limits of life on earth by orienting souls upward toward God, but instead of transcendence it deals in “shamscendence,” thrashing sideways from one earthly fad to another as it sinks into decline. Its end must be near.
No one can deny that the Episcopal Church is experiencing a life-threatening decline. According to its own statistics, the past decade alone has seen staggering drops in confirmations (down 32%), child baptisms (down 36%), adult baptisms (down 40%), and marriages (down 41%). According to an outside report, if the Episcopal Church continues declining at its current rate, it will be dead within 26 years.
No doubt the causes of decline are multiple and complex. But let me suggest what is at the core: the theological swindle of ‘shamscendence.’
Shamscendence is bogus transcendence, earthly fads masquerading as heavenly goods. Of course genuine transcendence stands at the heart of the Christian faith. We seek salvation from the futility of earthly concerns, from the corruption of sin, from the finality of death. And the gospel responds to such longings with powerful assurances of eternal life and deliverance. But how often does the Episcopal Church preach the saving message today? It seems rather to say to its flock that such talk of transcendent life is just old-fashioned, “overly sentimentalized” rubbish, and that salvation comes in reality through progressive politics here on earth.
Consider the “Easter Message” currently playing on the Episcopal Church’s webpage under the tab for the Presiding Bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori. Beginning by championing greenness (because Easter occurs in spring), she turns quickly and somberly to the northern-hemisphere-centrism which leads Episcopalians to think places like Japan are experiencing spring too. Next she reminds Episcopalians that she’d called upon them during Lent to “refocus their loves” toward something very important (and quintessentially shamscendent), namely the United Nations “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs). She closes by offering some empty platitudes about “life abundant” and the “greenness” that can be found, “whatever the season.”
Let me translate: Nature, the green movement, the meliorist goals of the United Nations, and “life abundant” are what salvation means. Earthly life is all we have.
Do not be fooled by the bishop’s ponderous allusions to John 10 in the phrase “life abundant.” For Schori, life abundant means “lower poverty rates,” “better access to drinking water,” and “better access to primary education”—earthly political goals all. In the gospel of John, by contrast, life abundant means “eternal life” (John 10:28)—the very thing for which Christ the shepherd suffered death and rose again.
I do not mean to suggest, of course, that the UN’s development goals are unimportant. To the extent that they steer clear of utopian fantasy, they are worthy of time and energy. But they certainly do not constitute the transcendent salvation that Christ promised his flock, nor should they be viewed as a means to it. The belief that mankind will achieve salvation here on earth through the planning of liberal elites is a form of political Gnosticism that should be denounced as heresy, not celebrated as wisdom.
Here, of course, is where liberal Christians will defiantly cite the Incarnation as the ultimate justification for their schemes. “Sure, eternal life is transcendent life,” they admit; “but in the meantime, we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means attending actively to the welfare of the world. Christ cared for the world—for the sick and lame. So too must we, and failure to do so simply violates the demands of charity.”
This argument is plausible up to a point. But the problem is that it goes too far when it’s used to sanction every form of political idealism, not matter how unrealistic, and to treat this as the chief vehicle for salvation.
The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. A transcendently oriented love is thus the precondition for loving our neighbors in the right way. Without that orientation, we’re too apt to love our neighbors (and ourselves) in a merely earthly way, mistaking material improvements for spiritual growth. Again, the question comes down to what the “welfare of the world” really means. Is “welfare” fundamentally about drinking water and poverty rates, or is there something more—something on a spiritual plane? Christ did not put his faith in meliorism, and he certainly did not put his faith in politics as a means.
It must be admitted, of course, that the genuine Christian message is not for everyone. Some people will never believe in eternal life, because it seems so uncertain compared to things like “millennium goals.” But Schori and her fanatical followers expect Episcopalians to replace uncertain truth with certain untruth—salvation through liberal progressivism. And when the episcopate itself acts as though it doesn’t believe the Christian message, why should the rest of us bother to listen? Even the supporters of progressivism might be forgiven a doubt or two about the eschatological sufficiency of political dreams.
Isn’t it plausible that the Episcopal Church is declining in large measure because parishioners recognize a theological swindle when they see one? Over 175 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the fast-changing democratic trends of America, had some sage words to offer to churches that wished to survive: “As long as a religion is sustained by those feelings, propensities, and passions which are found to occur under the same forms at all periods of history, it may defy the efforts of time.” But as soon as “religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of earth.” When religion aligns itself with political movements, it “shares their fortunes and may fall with those transient passions which alone supported them.”
What for Tocqueville was a cautionary remark has turned out to be prophetic. The genuine desire to transcend the limits of earthly life stands at the vital center of Christianity in general and the Episcopal Tradition in particular. Ignore this fact—replace transcendent aspirations with shamscendent political teachings—and people will look elsewhere for spiritual satisfaction.
David D. Corey is associate professor of political science at Baylor University.
Katherine Jefferts Schori’s Easter Message
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.