Via The Revealer, an article by Warren Goldstein in the Yale Alumni Magazine, about Yale Divinity School. I want to bookmark it. Note to self: update the link as necessary.
The article's Yale-centrism (which was intended, of course) is a little annoying as boosterism within the realm of American seminaries and denominations. But it's also noteworthy as an effort to validate Yale Divinity School's continued existence, to the realm of Yale alumni and the larger Yale community. Warren Goldstein argues that better days are ahead for liberal mainline Protestantism as a force in American society. All I can say is, from his lips to God's ears. Whether the optimism is well-founded or not, the diagnosis of what has happened to the liberal denominations since their peak in the 1960s, is well-stated. In its headline ("What the fuck would it take?") The Revealer highlights Goldstein's account of a 1980 debate, televised on the Phil Donahue Show, between William Sloan Coffin (longtime Yale chaplain, exemplar of theological liberalism) and Jerry Falwell. Falwell eats Coffin's lunch in the debate, largely because Coffin cannot take the Lynchburg upstart and his movement seriously, and perhaps doesn't take the Donahue Show seriously, either, as a public venue. We can read quite a bit about the last few decades in American religion from that encounter.
But there's other good stuff in here as well. William McKinney makes some great points:
Nearly everyone has a theory about what caused the mainline decline; it's the $64,000 question in the sociology of modern Protestantism. One theory emphasizes the mainline's discomfort with emotion in worship, a focus on social issues, and consequent neglect of personal faith. McKinney, of the Pacific School of Religion, cites sociologist Robert Booth Fowler in arguing that however much Americans may like liberalism, they find it "too cerebral" and "spiritually unsatisfying." (Anyone recognize a couple of recent Yale-educated Democratic presidential candidates?) "Americans like liberalism but they don't like liberal religion," he says. "They want it hot, passionate; they want to feel it."
In the sidebar to the story, Lillian Daniel does a great job of encapsulating the problem ministers have when they leave seminary and enter a local church:
"When I graduated I was confronted with hemorrhaging membership numbers. I was associate minister in a suburban church. They were saying, 'How do we grow?' And I had no idea. We never covered that in divinity school. 'How do we attract the kids? Oh, I missed that day. I can tell you about Saint Augustine. I had no idea you would want to grow the church.' It was a huge disservice.
"I liken Yale Divinity School to a liberal arts education. You don't cover the professional and technical skills; the idea is that you will be grounded in the tradition and in learning and reading critically, and the other stuff you'll pick up on the job. The problem with that model, where it breaks down, is that the mainline church is in crisis. There aren't that many healthy, vibrant ministers and congregations to teach you."