Response to Isaac Sharp

It’s a rare chance for me to be the ‘senior’ member in a discussion, but if Isaac Sharp is correct that role has been unintentionally afforded me here. Would that it supplied additional reasons to affirm my points. As it is, I’ve always argued that reasons are an inherently equalizing force, which leaves us where we started. But Sharp’s observation of younger ages of the ‘conservative’ side is a welcome indicative of my general point: conservatives on such questions are not going away any time soon. 

Sharp has done a good deal of work laying out the sociological evidence for the ‘generation gap,’ work that I appreciate and largely agree with. His qualification of what such empirical data supplies is also welcome: this is just the kind of modest, description of the state of affairs that we need a great deal more of. Sharp’s willingness to say in four words what I said in far too many—“[We] have no idea” where we are headed—is refreshing and important. Temptations to triumphalism beset everyone when it comes to demography, and Sharp’s willingness to avoid feeding that sort of atmosphere is both gracious and wise. His acknowledgment of the geographical limitations of the discussion is also salutory: for as much anxiety as North American Christians have about their own peculiar situation, we need as many reminders as possible that the future of Christianity may not hinge upon us or our internal diputes. 

But the most astute observation that Sharp provides is his analysis of the likely condition of conservative Christian institutions going forward. Indeed, Sharp has cleanly articulated a point I was aiming at but said less elegantly. His summation that we will have “increasingly smaller and older Christian institutions that have clarified that they will continue to uphold the “traditional” teachings on sexuality and will…continue the debate as a minority position in a broader culture that disagrees” distills my own thought about the likely future as effectively and efficiently as anything I have read.  Ongoing contestation, but on a plane in which conservative institutions have diminished presence and power, is the best bet about this subject I know. Among the many dangers for the church, and for society, that lie before us is the prospect of a conservative Christianity that retains its convictions with a more belligerently hostile, anti-modern edge than it even now has. Confidently retaining convictions in the face of disagreement is the mark of a mature mind: whether evangelicals will be able to arrive there remains to be seen. 

Questions for Further Exploration

Sharp’s helpful overview, though, raises important questions that deserve further scrutiny. Tying together this discussion with the ‘rise of the nones’, for instance, is an interesting connection. But it leaves me with more questions than I have answers. For instance, Sharp seems to indicate that the traditional account of gay marriage is causally responsible for the abandonment of traditional Christianity. These are the sorts of demographic and social arguments on behalf of a point of view that I think we ought be wary of, as they cut a variety of different ways depending on which demographic standpoint we are willing to stand from. 

That aside, though, I also would simply need more information that the abandonment of traditional forms of Christianity has been shaped determinatively by this particular issue. Barna’s work is, while enormously popular, has always struck me as so commercially oriented that it should be treated with a wary eye—and there are good substantive reasons to call it into question. Still, even a reputed academic sociologist has argued that conservative Christians are disproportionately viewed negatively for their treatment of gays and lesbians. Should the point then stand? 

Causality is notoriously difficult to identify, but if the doctrinal position of traditional churches was uniquely responsible for fragmenting religious beliefs, we might expect to see rapidly expanding youth movements in progressive, gay-affirming churches. But the Episocopalian Church USA, to pick one, has hemorrhaged its membership during the same period that the ‘nones’ have grown. We would need more fine-grained analysis to know whether those declining numbers have been compensated for an exploding number of millennial Episcopalians. (I’d note that none of this is an argument for or against the normative positions about marriage.) But the prevalence of untaken alternative religious options would provide strong reasons to be skeptical of the thesis that gay marriage is substantively due to the rise of the nones. 

A full analysis of why the nones might be a phenomenon is well beyond the purview of this essay. However, alternate explanations are readily at hand: the fragmentation of faith in the conditions of late modernity, the exhaustion of a moralistic therapeutic deism, the consummation of a religious atmosphere that has emphasized individualism over forms, the pervasive effects of a consumeristic mindset that hollowed out the salability of traditional religious life….these, and doubtlessly many more such reasons, are in play when it comes to the broader shape of religion in our world. Whether and what role gay marriage plays in the shaping of our religious environment writ large is a crucial and, I’d suggest, undertheorized area of research. 

But I also would want to raise questions about Sharp’s final paragraph.  There, he write: 

I do hope that Christians can delicately navigate the “present controversies” by avoiding the extremities of attempts to effectively excommunicate those viewed as heretical on the one hand, and an irreconcilable schism on the other.

A few interests come to mind. First, I wonder why Sharp thinks that these ‘extremities’ are so bad. We tend to  assume that because of the New Testament’s obvious emphasis on unity that it should be maintained at all costs. But, the church has always had to draw sharp doctrinal lines, if only for the sake of not confusing the world on the nature and shape of its own witness to the truth. Certainly something is lost within the possibilities that Sharp lays out: but might not something also be gained?  And if not, might not division be demanded of us anyway sometimes?  

Second, I am interested to know how Sharp reconciles this hope with the conviction that he could not, in good conscience, align with an institution that refused to affirm gay unions in the way he deems fit. In that claim, he seems to grant that there is a point at which separation is justified, at least among individuals. Why is affirming gay marriage important enough that Sharp views it as a necessary grounds for division on his part, but denying gay marriage is treated in this final paragraph as justifying “attempts to effectively excommunicate those viewed as heretical”? If good conscience won’t allow Sharp to align with those institutions that are conservative on the question, is there some name or label that he does want to apply to such churches that succinctly expresses his opinion of their views? My aim is not to bate Sharp into saying something stronger than he might want. Instead, it simply strikes me as interesting that Sharp goes all the way by suggesting that he can only align in affirming churches rather than opening himself to aligning in churches that attempted to maintain both positions. I suspect, and would be interested to hear Sharp’s thoughts, this is grounded in a skepticism that such ‘solutions’ are simply untenable. But then, that simply means that both gay marriage advocates and conservative Christians should share the burden of ‘heresy’ and schism. 

But these questions are only meant to be suggestive, and to open up further discussions. I am grateful for Sharp’s thoughtful contribution to this symposium and delighted to discover so many points of agreement. In the face of such divides, that is worth holding on to indeed.

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