Calling Churches Back to Their Roots the Decades-Long Experiment to `Modernize' Christianity Has Failed, Say Two Radical Thinkers. That Effort Has Brought Humanistic, Even Atheistic Trends into Religion, and the Church Is in Danger of Losing Its Soul, They Say. Series: GOD AND SOCIETY. Five Voices in Today's Religious Dialogue. Part 2 of a 5-Part Series

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STANLEY HAUERWAS and William Willimon are not shy Christians. Nor is the message of these two Duke University theologians a meek and mild one: It is a strident warning. Christianity, they say, has been so busy in recent decades trying to please the world and accommodate the world's habits and tastes, that churches are in danger of losing their souls.

"Being a Christian is not just synonymous with being a good human being," says Dr. Willimon in a Monitor interview. "It's more serious than that."

Much of what Drs. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics, and Willimon, the Duke University chaplain and professor of ministry, object to is a vague drift in the mainline American churches away from what makes them distinctively Christian.

The drift is nothing new, they say. It has taken place through much of the 20th century. Mainline Protestant theology is often less concerned with God than with immediate social and personal needs. Pastors and theologians have sought new languages to speak to reach the children of a more scientific age.

Yet the two renegade theologians - both of them Southern-born baby-boomers educated at Yale, both from the Methodist tradition - say the "secular" church approach has failed.

The heart of the failure, they argue, is that the experiment to make church and theology more "relevant" and "modern" has actually made the basic Christian message of God and His healing and saving Christ less relevant.

In a much-copied Christian Century article titled "Embarrassed by God's Presence" (September 1984), the pair wrote about a "new mood" they felt: "Ultimately, it all comes down to the issue of the centrality of God's presence. The central problem for our church, its theology, and its ethics is that it is simply atheistic. It builds its social structures on the presupposition that God doesn't really matter. We endow pensions for our clergy and devise strategies for church growth as if God were not here."

Such comments have made the pair both popular and controversial - and a hot topic in divinity schools. The thesis of the Christian Century piece has been expanded into a book: "Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People who Know That Something Is Wrong" (Nashville: Abingdon Press), has sold 23,000 copies since August. That's a raging best-seller in a market of scholarly religious books, where 5,000 copies sold is considered successful.

The book questions conventional Christian ideas about language, politics, belief, prayer, theology, ministry, economics, and what Hauerwas says is the prime mistake of Christianity since Roman emperor Constantine's mass conversions in 313 AD: the effort to make the gospel credible to the world's powers-that-be.

Accordingly, "Resident Aliens" is loaded with rhetorical salvos such as: "The Bible finds uninteresting many of our modern preoccupations with whether or not it is still possible for modern people to believe. The Bible's concern is whether or not we shall be faithful to the gospel, the truth about the way things are now that God is with us through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth."

Or: "We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world.... The most creative social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here we show the world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social coercion or governmental action."

Some critics say Hauerwas and Willimon come across like fundamentalists - a tag they reject. They are not theological liberals or conservatives, they say, but "radical followers of Jesus."

As Hauerwas says, "If you talk about justice, that's OK. It's Jesus people don't want you to talk about."

Too many pastors and denominations have given up on theology, on the church's distinctive place in culture, and even on their congregations, the two argue. …