1000 Wells

Written on November 30th, 2006 by Shawn Anthony

The following statements are quick but very accurate summarizations of five basic theological propositions of religious and/or Christian liberalism (The topic was discussed in a seminary class re: Christianity in America. The points are taken from a class hand-out on the subject). I will be dedicating the next few major posts to each of these five points, individually and chronologically. I will be doing so in a dedicated attempt to not only illustrate the sufficiency of Biblical Christianity, Orthodox/Classical Christian Doctrine, and, of course, Jesus Christ (in contrast to the utter insufficiency of Liberal and/or Christian Liberalism), but also to really flush out the seriously weak presuppositions, assumptions and biases inherent to each point.

1. The Bible is an expression of the religious experience of ancient Israel and the early church. It represents the chronologically extended struggle of a highly spiritual people to understand the Divine reality more adequately. It is NOT the word of God coming to us from some transcendent sphere. A progression can be seen in the Bible from more primitive (and more inadequate) forms of religions experience to deeper, richer, and more profound forms of religious experience. The Bible is a human record of a progressive human spiritual journey, reflecting the prejudices, mistakes, and failings of the people who wrote it. Nevertheless, it is a profound (the most profound, perhaps) record of religious experience. We contemporary Christians most locate ourselves in this story of human religious evolution and extend the trajectory.

2. The Virgin Birth narratives are a poetic and symbolic way of expressing the truth that Jesus was a very profound teacher and spiritual guide. Of course, he was conceived and born in the standard human manner. There is nothing supernatural about his biology or ontological composition, except that he was supremely aware of God and God’s will in the deepest levels of his experience.

3. A loving God does not need to punish anybody in order to be reconciled with sinners. The death of Jesus on the cross, in which Jesus continues to do God’s will and continues to call God “Father,” shows that it is possible to remain in spiritual contact with God in spite of earthly suffering and tragedy. Jesus’ death also shows that we all should be faithful to God’s mission and call, in spite of worldly threats and dangers.

4. The stories of the resurrection show that, in some sense, the spirit of Jesus, and the spirits of all faithful persons, lives on, either in the memory and experience of future generations, or in the mind of God, or both. The language of bodily resurrection and the talk of some sort of novel postmortem individual experience are symbols of this enduring spiritual quality and should not be taken literally.

5. The miracle stories in the Bible are archaic rhetorical means of expressing certain spiritual truths. For example, to say that Jesus walked on water means that the pure of heart can remain tranquil in the midst of earthly tribulation.

I will say, again, that I put very, very little stock - zero, actually - in the above five propositions. In fact, I find them to terribly weak attempts at theological manipulation. I will explain why in this series, over the course of the next few weeks.

24 Responses to “Series: The Five Propositions of Religious Liberalism”

  1. Just curious; where did you get your list of defining views of liberal Christianity. Not being a Christian myself, I cannot speak for any variant, but I have read a few, from the Jesus Seminar types to liberal Christian bloggers, and I notice a lot more diversity of view than seems represented here.

    smijer

  2. I mentioned the source in the post. The list came directly from a handout given to my seminary class by a very, very capable, unbiased and gracious (read: deeply appreciative of all theological positions) United Church of Christ theologian who is solidly credentialed (B.A., M. Div., M.A., Ph.D., Yale University). The list represents a very, very honest and accurate summarization of liberal religious and/or liberal Christian views of the Bible and Jesus. That said, not every individual will claim every point as something they espouse. Some claimed all (uber liberal); others claim one, two, or three. The severity of one’s religious and/or Christian liberalism depends upon the number of propositions espoused. So, yes, there may be bit of diversity, as far as how many propositions are actually claimed, but the claiming of just one of the above points is enough to separate one from Historic, Biblical or Orthodox (Doctrine) Christianity. The acceptance of one or more of the above points supplants the sufficiency of Jesus Christ with … something else. This “something else” is terribly insufficient, and this is the point I will illustrate.

    At any rate, believe me, the list comes from a very, very solid source. It is completely accurate.

    Shawn Anthony

  3. I see. Thanks for the clarification on the source. How do you measure the “severity” of conservativism in Christianity, I wonder ;)

    smijer

  4. Correct doctrine is the measure; as is love for neighbor. Yes, both can be accomplished simultaneously in relationship to others, socially speaking. One need not be sacrificed to accomplish or live the other out in real time. In fact, I’ll argue one can not happen without the other, authentically. So, I have to wonder why anyone would really want to call themselves Christian if both of these principles are not present in their real time expression. :)

    Shawn

  5. Yeah… well whatever works, as long as you really *don’t* let “correct” doctrine cause you to behave unlovingly toward your neighbor (thinking gay marriage bans, opposition to stem cell research, this sort of thing). We live in a world where *no one* treats their neighbors as they truly should. It seems, though, that sometimes “correct” doctrine can be an impediment to it. Those are my two problems with “correct” doctrine - that it rarely strikes me as being *true*, and it sometimes seems to impede moral conduct. I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong about this. Anyway… I’ll be reading with interest to see where your approach goes.

    smijer

  6. P.S., I’ve often wondered why “uber” liberal Christians wanted to call themselves Christian. But, I figure they have their reasons. I see liberal Christianity divided into two camps: The majority I perceive are those that believe the Bible is the Authoritative message from God to Man, but it is written from the perspective and with the fallibility of its human authors, who took inspiration but not dictation from God. The other camp, of course, mirror your five traits - and I see them as a minority. It is this second group whose use of the self-description of Christian seems odd to me… but I guess it’s their business. I certainly have no dog in that fight.

    smijer

  7. I’ll leave that fight up to “orthodox” Christians but I am not impressed with people who call themselves Christians when they don’t even believe in the religious concept of the “Christ” or “messiah”. Such “Christians” are just muddying the waters. Of course I feel pretty much the same way about atheist “Unitarians”. . . “Atheist Unitarian” is an oxymoron AFAIAC.

    Robin Edgar

  8. “Atheist Unitarian�? is an oxymoron AFAIAC.

    Why? It wouldn’t be the first time I was called an oxymoron, but I can’t see the conflict, unless one is relying on the historical rather than current usage of the term “Unitarian”.

    smijer

  9. No offense is intended smijer but I am indeed referring to the historical and traditional dictionary definition of the word Unitarian to indicate a person who believes in One Supreme Being commonly known as God, but who does not believe in, or even outright denies. . . the “orthodox” Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

    Robin Edgar

  10. BTW Just what *is* the current usage of the term “Unitarian” in your opinion?

    Robin Edgar

  11. I use the term as a shorthand for Unitarian Universalist - a reference to members or friends of that association. I’m aware of the historical definition, which of course is tied to the historical name of the UU church. It is, indeed, an anachronistic name - even UU Christians seem as likely to be Trinitarian now as Unitarian in their theology. But, a rose by any other name & all.

    smijer

  12. Well I also use Unitarian as shorthand for U*U these days too. And vice versa of course. ;-)

    I do not consider the dictionary definition of Unitarian to be “anachronistic” however.

    Robin Edgar

  13. Proposition 1 re biblical authority is the most offensive thing I’ve ever read; not because it discounts the factual authoritativeness or divine inspiration of the Bible, but because it is utterly disrespectful to those who wrote it. The idea that we know more than the people who wrote the Bible, stated quite blatantly by the author that it goes from primitive to more enlightened world views. It is by no means clear that we know more about God than ancients, I would posit it is quit the opposite.

    The problem with looking at the Bible and thinking about its authority is that there is a tendency to have an all or nothing attitude about it. I can take the Bible quite literally sometimes, but there are times when it says things that are so stupid or contrary to my experience of God I wonder what to do. I am convinced that as much as we want a consistent belief about the contents of the Bible, it is not what is intended, wise, or desirable. Inerrancy makes no sense, because the Bible is clearly not always literally correct. Infallibility makes no sense, because, for example, speaking positively of genocide, as is very prominent in Joshua, and other places, is clearly not consistent with our understanding of Christ’s teaching. Neo-orthodoxy is wishy-washy, and does little more than create a big tent that is unsuitable for a unified, systematic theology, but was perfect as a ecclesial theology if you want to include everyone but the craziest of the crazy fundamentalists (liberal and conservative). The liberal view posited outlined in the handout certainly lets the Bible off the hook, but it opens the question “what good is the Bible then?”

    More to say, but energy wanes

    Joel

  14. In response to Robin’s statement:
    P.S., I’ve often wondered why “uber�? liberal Christians wanted to call themselves Christian. But, I figure they have their reasons. I see liberal Christianity divided into two camps: The majority I perceive are those that believe the Bible is the Authoritative message from God to Man, but it is written from the perspective and with the fallibility of its human authors, who took inspiration but not dictation from God. The other camp, of course, mirror your five traits - and I see them as a minority. It is this second group whose use of the self-description of Christian seems odd to me… but I guess it’s their business. I certainly have no dog in that fight.
    ———————

    As someone who occasionally steps into “uber liberal” category, I want to respond. The people who subscribe to the five traits are Christian because in some way the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth or his teaching is so central to their worldview that Christian is a fairly accurate descriptor. Perhaps Jesusite or something is more apt. Sean can discuss the problems with this more thoroughly than I, because he is a truly converted Jesusite =)

    Joel

  15. Ah ha! There you are Joel! I’ll just add this: There are a handful of essentials - historic essentials - that are foundational to the very idea of Christianity and what it means to be a Christian. Discarding any of them would make one something else … other than Christian. Jesus may be important according to the liberal religious idea of what is important, but he is no more important than, say, Martin Luther King or even Abe Lincoln. This distinguishing characteristic definitely removes one from the historical foundations of Christianity, whether admitted or not. Separating oneself from the very essentials of Christianity is an individual decision backed up by personal autonomy, but it is separation nonetheless. I simply wonder why it is happening? Jesus isn’t the Christ? OK. So why use the title Christian then?

    LOL! Yes, I am a truly converted “Jesusite.” Joel would know (he is a classmate at seminary).

    I began my Christian journey as a follower of Christ. I then began to think Jesus was just an important figure. Well, that idea failed miserably in real-time, so I repented for reducing Jesus to the ranks of a George Washington. I am a truly repentant and converted “Jesusite,” as Joel so colorfully says. Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world. :)

    Shawn

  16. Joel, you also wrote, “Neo-orthodoxy is wishy-washy, and does little more than create a big tent that is unsuitable for a unified, systematic theology, but was perfect as a ecclesial theology if you want to include everyone but the craziest of the crazy fundamentalists (liberal and conservative).”

    Poor Neo-orthodoxy aside, I think you are really onto something right there. The present condition of much of mainline Christianity seems to imply that so much more than a hit and miss ecclesial theology is needed for substantial sustenance, growth and practice. A unified, systematic theology seems to be in order, especially today. Interestingly enough, I thought Christianity had one of these things not so long ago. There were small divergences, to be sure, but the “Center” was identifiable, accessible and solid nonetheless. The longer the dizzying array of competing theological movements, expressions and flimsy options are permitted to blur the authentic “Center” of Christianity, the more diluted and weaker it will become, at least in the larger market place. Again, all I have to say is that orthodox Christianity is enough.

    Shawn

  17. Joel, Shawn - my two bits: each of you seem very interested in deciding what to think of the Bible. The approaches are different, but both seem to include some baggage about whether a view is “properly Christian” or “respectful of the authors”, etc… I think that one should try to believe about the Bible as close as possible, given the information we have about it, to what is true about it. I think that one of the least useful - even counterproductive - methods of doing so is to start with a piece of dogma - like “the Bible is inerrant” (or “infallible”, or “God’s message”) and then trying to use reason to sort out in what *way* the Bible is inerrant, or infallible, or God’s message… It might work - if in fact the Bible’s nature coincides with dogma in some way - but it might be just as useful as trying to figure out in what *way* the Titanic is indestructible.

    The Bible is a book - something that is a part of nature. We have one tool for discovering facts about nature that works consistently, and isn’t terribly prone to self-reinforcing wrong answers over the long term: critical observation. I don’t think critical observation of the Bible and its history would ever lead anyone to a position that could make sense in terms of any of the orthodox dogmas (or neo-orthodox ones for that matter, if there are such things). My suggestion is to worry about what is true first, use critical observation to do the best job you can of finding that out, and then - if your answer jibes with some religious theory, fine. If it doesn’t… also fine. An untrue religious theory is at best unhelpful; at worst harmful. Truth first - then theology. That’s my motto.

    smijer

  18. smijer - The Bible is the Word of God. I have very valid, historic and theological correct reasons for stating as much … but for now I’ll just play (it’s more fun). The Bible is the Word of God - in the classical sense of the word - because I said so! In other words, my experience - my personal experience - informs me of the fact. So, there you have it! How can I say such a thing? Simply because religious liberalism is built upon a postmodern philosophical idea that raises personal experience to the highest priority. So, religious liberalism affirms my belief regarding the Bible. In fact, religious liberalism is the philosophical door which sings open towards a personal experience which not only says the Bible is the Word of God, but the Bible is also true! So, if the Bible is true when it says that religious liberalism diverges from spiritually edifying and sound doctrine and practice, and it is religious liberalism itself affirming my personal experience of such detriment, then I must be correct in all of my positions regarding the Bible … or religious liberalism just ate itself (much like del.icio.us)

    After all, smijer, the point of this post and the upcoming posts re: each subject is about religious liberalism and the problems inherent to it. The subject matter will not be re-framed.

    I believe the Bible is the Word of God, and not for the silly reasons offered me by religious liberalism either. I have heard what you suggest about the Bible more than a few *cough* thousand *cough* times. Trust me, none of it is all too convincing (and I have tried).

    Hint of things to come re: this subject: The ancient story tellers and later (but still very early) writers of the texts contained in the Bible did not place the same - zero actually - weight upon the facts and figures you start out with in your comment, smijer. Zero! The facts and figures you hold so dear is largely our thing. You see, the Bible is filled with texts which were expected (authorial intent) to be read in exactly the opposite way that you suggest. You did write, “Truth first - then theology. That’s my motto.” The historic occasion and purpose for the works in the Bible was purely Theological, nothing else. So, to read them as you suggest would be to do the sort of interpretive damage liberals usually scream about … when done to other cultures. Eh …

    More soon …

    Shawn

  19. Smijer,
    I agree with you to a point, re: looking for truth before testing doctrine. The problem with that proposition, however, is that everyone comes to the bible with a socially inherited hermeneutic. Not acknowledging that hermeneutic and trying to read “objectively” is an impossible task. No one can read the bible in a pristinely objective way. The orthodox approach the bible in an orthodox manner, the questions I would ask would never occur to them. Truth in scripture works two ways; on the individual stream and the communal stream. The communal stream for Lutherans is different from that of Calvinists, Wesleyans or Pentecostals.

    Joel

  20. Well I guess its time for me to add my two cents (second time in a week, must be a record Shawn). As someone who for the last year been moving steadily away from Liberalism I find myself actually being more of a Neo-Orthodox Evangelical :) I know what a mouth full. There are several issues I see present in this discussion. First there is a potential problem with Orthodoxy, it can become so stringent that it doesen’t allow for other forms of vibrant Christianity. My example is someone who claims Christ as savior, but finds his/her view of Christ in the incarnation, in other words a Christmas Christian. If Orthodoxy is narrowed to much it could exclude these people in preference of Easter Christians. In my experience both are nessicary for a satisfactory view of the Christian life. Another issue I have here is with claiming that a brand of Christianity is “wishy-washy” because that brand of Christianity is not our own, or doesn’t do what we think it should does not make it wishy-washy. Because I know it will be asked, what keeps a viable Christianity alive so it doesn’t potientially fall into the two traps named above is faith in Christ as savior. As a Weslyian I would also maintain that there is an emotional component of said salvation experience. The problem I have with Liberal Christianity as defined above is that it down plays the significance of Christ in a persons life, and then contrary to its own presuppositions states that if a person has a salvation experience that cannot be right because it can’t be varified. I could go on, but I won’t, I just wanted to raise some cautions, even though have have a tendancy to agree with different points both Shawn and Joel are making.

    Wes

  21. You wrote, “First there is a potential problem with Orthodoxy, it can become so stringent that it doesen’t [sic] allow for other forms of vibrant Christianity.”

    Should an orthodox Christianity ever become “stringent” - as you say - it would be the fault of the believer (his/her misunderstanding), not the orthodox belief. Why? Because an orthodox Christianity is built upon the idea of the absolute sufficiency of Christ, if nothing else at all! Should Christ ever become not sufficient (not sure how this would happen if the believer possess correct understanding), it’s not Christ’s fault! Again, a healthy orthodox faith should be plenty to entertain all of us postmodern, 30-second long attention span having, MTV commercial viewers. In other words, what could be more vibrant than an orthodox approach to Jesus Christ and Christianity!

    Note: We are talking about historic and biblical doctrine here when we use the term “orthodoxy”. That’s a small “o”. We are not talking about the Eastern church, with a big “O”. So, be careful not to capitalize the “o”.

    Note2: The more I think about neo-orthodoxy the less I appreciate it. Evangelicalism and orthodox faith is enough, and then some. :)

    Shawn

  22. Oh … and I just want to say that there is room for all sorts of Christian variety and expression in orthodoxy. I suppose this has been my point all along: historic and Biblical doctrine need not be discarded in the quest for diversity and/or novelty … in fact, it (historic and Biblical doctrine) is foundational to such things. And if you are going to indeed move so far beyond the historic and Biblical tenets of the Christian faith, then why still call yourself “Christian?” Again, this is my only point. Liberalism, as seen in the original post, has clearly moved beyond …

    Shawn

  23. Shawn thanks for the clarification, our conversation before class helped as well. With your last clarification I agree totally.

    Wes

  24. Well, I obviously needed to clarify! Thank you Wes for pushing me toward it … :)

    Shawn Anthony

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