First in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post.
(A) What is “post-Christian”?
At the beginning of his monumental history of American liberal theology, scholar Gary Dorrien (2001, p. xx) briefly addresses the state of liberal theology today, saying: “Today the liberal perspective in theology encompasses a wide spectrum of Christian and, arguably, post-Christian and interreligious positions.” This statement of Dorrien’s raises the interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious position might look like, and the even more interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious congregation might look like.
I would state with some confidence that post-Christian and interreligious congregations do exist, and have existed for some years now. In 1971, Dana Greeley, who was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1961 to 1969, wrote:
A question asked of Unitarians and Universalists again and again is “Are you Christians?” I have spoken and written many times on this subject, but I have no simple answer to the question. Most Catholic and Protestant Christians, until fairly recently anyway, would have said that we are not Christians. Most Jews would think that we are Christians. When I told one Unitarian friend that Anglicanismâ€™s Dean Stanley referred to Channing as “the morning star of the second reformation,” my friend immediately concluded that Channing was heralding or prophseying a new era, and as Protestantism (resulting from the first Reformation) went beyond Catholicism, so the second Reformation would go beyond Protestantism; a post-Protestant, post-Christian era would begin. Numerous people believe that, or interpret Unitarianism that way. It is a plausible diagnosis, though Channing would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Christian faith. (For that matter, Jesus would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Jewish faith.)
In this passage, Greeley begins to develop one plausible definition for what it might mean to have a post-Christian position as a positive, affirmative religious stance. First of all, Greeley’s post-Christian position looks enough like Christianity to be perceived as such by non-Christians; whereas most avowed Christians would deny that the post-Christian is indeed Christian. Today, many Unitarian Universalist congregations could be characterized as post-Christian using this criterion. They retain certain outward aspects of Christianity, such as holding weekly communal meetings on Sunday morning — a distinctively Christian practice. At the same time, they do not fulfill some common criteria for determining whether or not someone is Christian. Speaking from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, Edward A. Cahill (1974) writes: “Christianity calls for the acceptance on faith of a precisely defined belief system,” in contrast to, say Judaism which requires “observance of rigorous social and ritualistic prescripts”; and both these traditions contrast with Unitarian Universalism which requires “the exercise of the free use of reason in an open atmosphere of mutual respect.” Neither Christian nor non-Christian, Unitarian Universalists might best be described as post-Christian.
Greeley’s second point provides a more positive definition of the post-Christian position. More positively, a post-Christian position can be seen as continuing in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, by taking what is perceived as the best of the Christian tradition while rejecting certain aspects of the tradition which are seen as non-essential. Thus, the post-Christian position retains a connection with Christian tradition, but moves outside some common definitions of what it means to be Christian. We might expand Greeley’s definition to include positions that are derived from the moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings of Christianity but which retain an openness to other moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings.
It’s important to remember that some other definitions emphasize that the post-Christian position has lost what it truly means to be a Christian. For example, the term “post-Christian” may be used in certain Christian circles to indicate persons who lack basic knowledge of the Christian tradition; or “post-Christian” can refer to a society which was perceived as formerly being grounded in Christian values, but which had fallen away from Christianity and into secularism. However, in this essay I am using the term in its positive sense.
Next: What is worship for a post-Christian congregation?