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Gospel-free Christianity

National | A sociologist shows how some in the modern church are giving the Golden Rule a bad name

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

The virtual evaporation of Christian conviction is one of the most striking features of postmodern America-and this is certainly most ominous for the church. The larger culture is now a "theology-free zone" in which Christian conviction may be tolerated, as long as congregations resemble little more than special-interest organizations with pretty buildings and religious entertainment.

What does this mean? Nancy T. Ammerman, a sociologist and researcher at Hartford Theological Seminary, suggests that we are seeing the rise of a new form of Christianity in America-"Golden Rule Christianity."

She began her study by looking at "lay liberals," but found that conservative evangelical congregations also included a large (and growing) number of Golden Rule Christians. These persons define Christianity not in terms of beliefs and doctrine, but simply in terms of a basic moral outlook on life, such as that articulated in the Golden Rule. This new development, Ms. Ammerman notes, is not really ideological or theological, for it is occurring in both liberal and evangelical churches. These Golden Rule Christians define their faith in terms of practices, not doctrines.

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Ms. Ammerman found this new faith-style to be what "may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans." That is, the largest number of persons in American church pews may fall into this category.

The Golden Rule Christians want to retain at least some connection to classical Christianity. They want their faith to be "grounded in the Bible, but certainly not in a literal reading of it." Ms. Ammerman continues: "Just because they do not accept traditional definitions of inspiration or inerrancy does not mean that they have no use for Scripture. Like the rest of their religious life, their use of Scripture is defined more by choices and practice than by doctrine.... Their knowledge of Scripture may not be very deep, but they have at least some sense that the Bible is a book worth taking seriously, especially as a tool for making one's own life and the life of the world better."

These church members are not interested in "developing a coherent theological system." Even a matter as basic as salvation "is a bit fuzzy in their minds." Rather, Golden Rule Christians are concerned with the development of their personal lives and spirituality, with helping others to make the world a better place, and with doing good deeds.

Ms. Ammerman and her colleagues are clearly on to something here. Their description of "lived religion" fits squarely into any honest evaluation of Christianity in America. As a group, baby boomers are especially attracted to this low-demand form of religiosity. For many post-secular Americans, the strange world of the Bible is a place to find compelling stories, not special and revealed knowledge about the true and living God.

Golden Rule Christianity is inoffensive to the secular culture, making few demands on its adherents, other than the general principle that they should treat others as they would wish to be treated. Biblical categories such as sin and redemption are out. God is our fellow struggler-not the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of the universe, eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and merciful. Jesus Christ is the great religious teacher who preached and lived the Golden Rule. It is not necessary to believe that he is the pre-existent Son of God, the Messiah promised to Israel, our substitutionary Savior.

This surely explains their "fuzzy" understandings of salvation, for, in their minimalist theological framework, there is no need for atonement. Like God, presumably, we should go along and get along, and help a few fellow strugglers along the way.

Ms. Ammerman asks the obvious question. Since the Golden Rule Christians have given up on traditional Christian doctrine, "could they not be members of a lodge or community club just as easily as of a church?" She offers two reasons why they do not. First, because they want to remain in contact with their friends in the church, many of whom share the same approach to the faith. Second and more important, argues Ms. Ammerman, "Golden Rule Christians have not given up on transcendence."

Here again, their understanding is a bit ambiguous: "They were sometimes rather fuzzy on just what it is they experience, and they sometimes had to stop and think when we asked, but they almost always came up with answers to questions about their experience of God." Unfortunately, those answers often had very little, if anything, to do with the God revealed in the Bible.

Having lost its doctrinal nerve, American Christianity is not well prepared to confront Golden Rule Christians with the vacuity of their "lived religion." They miss the whole for the part, and have created a pseudo-Christianity in their own image. Wanting to maintain some claim to transcendence, they are not willing to know and serve the transcendent God who revealed himself in the Bible-a book they want to take seriously but not literally.

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