On Liberalism...

Is this just a postmodern brand of Christian liberalism?

It’s a good question to ask. And since I’ve confessed in other posts to being liberal (read: my Liberal Confession) I can’t see why someone wouldn’t ask this question… Or make this assumption: emerging=liberalism.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I have radically changed many of my positions and outlooks since starting EmergingChristian.com in 2004.  At the time, I would have been terrified of calling myself "liberal."  I assumed that it not only meant I could not have faith in Jesus Christ, but that I would lose my evangelical friends and the support of my church.  Well, the last fear was well-founded.  I haven't found my way back into an Evangelical church in several years - but that's not entirely there fault.  As I came to believe in the equality of women and homosexuals, I found my own ability to culturally connect with evangelicals diminished.   I grieve this, because evangelicals are my family-of-origin.  But I continue to call myself a "liberal evangelical," because my relationship to and with God retains much of the intimate dynamic it always has.  What's changed, in part, is what I have come to believe God actually cares about... I don't think God cares about the interests of nation states, economic dominance, free trade, military defense, or any issues relating to cultural safety, sterility, or homogeny.  

All that said, I disagree with pundits who state that "emerging equates to liberalism," because I know far more people who participate in Emerging Church conversations and activities, who remain fairly traditional in their theology, than I know outright liberals who came to their liberalism via Emerging Church. For me, however, the Emergent Conversation and the Emerging Church movement served as a "slippery slope" into liberalism. Yes, the things naysayers tell you are true for some folks. Or at least, they were for me.  I was given permission to go places and ask questions that had been previously forbidden.

I am a liberal human being, I am a liberal Evangelical, but I am not necessarily what many might classify as a “Classically Liberal Christian.” First, it depends on what your definition of liberal is. Liberalism itself contains a wide variety of worldviews, ethical priorities, and socio-political goals. I am liberal because I believe in the equality of all individuals, in the right to love, respect and autonomy for all peoples, and in foundational Civil Rights principles like freedom of speech, thought and belief.

I am not a Libertarian.  I do not believe human beings should have complete, individual autonomy that is not balanced by a communal priority toward the greater good of all.  I do not believe in the myth of free markets.  Free markets are not divinely created, inherently equalizing, or even neutral.  "Principalities and powers" - the systems created by humankind - including churches and religious organizations - should be cautiously regulated.  The people should have the ability and power to monitor and supervise the activities of the elite.  Presidents, Senators, Priests and Bishops should not be allowed the power of institutional hierarchy without checks and balances.  In the American nation state, and in the Christian church (across denominations) these checks and balances have fallen away to the detriment of common people.

Of Liberalism, www.Wikipedia.com says:
Cultural liberalism focuses on the rights of individuals pertaining to conscience and lifestyle, including such issues as sexual freedom, religious freedom, cognitive freedom, and protection from government intrusion into private life. John Stuart Mill aptly expressed cultural liberalism in his essay "On Liberty," when he wrote, “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Traditional stereotypes of Liberal Christianity include the following assertions:
  1. There is no absolute truth.
  2. Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”
  3. The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.
  4. Jesus was not born of a virgin.
  5. Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.
I don't necessarily adhere to all these statements. And I certainly don't live my Christian life under their logic. However, I am not threatened by any of these statements, and in some ways I may be closer to them than to traditional Evangelical stances. Let me try to unpack each of the ideas a bit, and how my beliefs conflict or align. You'll quickly recognize that I'm still barely breaking the surface of each topic or question. I could list plenty of liberal Christian bloggers who would more accurately define their viewpoints. But for any deeper digging, you'll ultimately need to go beyond blog content and read some scholarly journals and books.

1. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: There is no absolute truth.
As a postmodern (read: my thoughts on Postmodernism) I do believe there is absolute truth, but I do not believe human beings are capable of comprehending absolutes. We are limited creatures with subjective, existential viewpoints. As a postmodern Christian, I believe that God, through Jesus Christ, is Absolute Truth. And I will spend my entire life seeking to know more of Christ… But I will always get it wrong. I will never fully understand the truth of who God is, and how Christ lives in me, and how I am supposed to function in the Holy Spirit.

Neither will you.

As Christian mystics have understood for two millennia, the nature of God is an ever-unfolding mystery that we are invited to participate in, not an equation to solve.

All of us see "as through a glass, darkly," limited to dirty, imperfect subjectivity. I think about the purpose of theology, and the nature of (T)ruth and wonder, as frail, fragile beings: "how much is expected of us?"

Likely, the answer is different for each person. What does God expect of me, my beliefs and my praxis? - Me, an educated [well, semi-educated], white, upper-middle-class dude who has been blessed with very little personal trial, hardship or sorrow (apart from the standard, easily-medicated suburbanite-depression)...

Does God expect more or less from a refugee in Darfur? Does God expect a "Lost Boy" to waste his time with such theological posturing - or does God merely whisper love and hope into that young man's life, by every means available, and reward any goodness or compassion that might flower amidst the horror and wreckage of war?

Our story is the lens through which we see and understand everything else. How can we not be impacted by the cracked and dirty glass held in front of our eyes?

Does God expect us to see clearly?
Does God magically (or divinely) reveal True ("correct") theology?
Or does God recognize the texture of the glass through which we see, and make allowance (grace) for our blurred vision?

In grade school, I prayed to Aslan because he was easier to conjure in my mind...
Although I assert the Absolute Truth of Jesus Christ, I am a Universalist.  I do not claim to know what arrangements God has made with other human beings.  I believe that most human beings are a mix of lazy and afraid, along with beautiful and loving.  The lazy and afraid parts make us all hesitate to really dig for truth.  That means there are lots of Christians and lots of Buddhists who don't really care about what is true - they have settled for what is easy and comfortable.  But if there is truth in the universe, that truth must be approachable and knowable outside of human religious constructs, and outside of cultural barriers and linguistic limitations.    So I believe Jesus Christ is true, and that Jesus Christ is true far beyond the parameters in which we know about Jesus Christ.

2. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Christianity is equal to, not greater than, all other world religions. Salvation can be found through faithful adherence to any of the world’s religions, philosophies, or through merely being “a good human being.”As a religion – a human-constructed organizational structure – Christianity is no greater than any world religion. I affirm that without reservation. One might even argue that Christianity is inferior. It’s certainly caused far more pain and suffering in the world than Buddhism. In fact, any religion that has managed to enjoy the dominance of absolute political and military power (in particular, as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have) is generally guilty of all sorts of atrocities, oppression and human rights violations. The Christian religion is largely a corporate structure designed to be economically viable, effectively marketable, practically transferrable, and easily produced and duplicated (there is plenty to read about here, under the subjects of Christendom and Colonialism, Post-Christendom and Post-Colonialism).

As for salvation, I have not rejected Jesus’ words in John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6) But I like C.S. Lewis’ inference from Mere Christianity: “the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” (p. 65) I could go on, concerning salvation in a pluralistic world and how other religions may fit in, but will be brief, only saying I believe God is far more gracious than any folks I happen to know, and probably likes a lot of Buddhist lifestyles more than my own materialistic, consumerist, bourgeoisie Christian living. I don’t believe easy lines can be drawn regarding “who is in, and who is out.”  Manifestations of Christian Universalism are as old as Christianity itself.

3. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.The Bible is precious to me – New Testament and Old. And there are lots of things in the Bible that piss me off.

Bishop John Shelby Spong is a classic example of Christian liberalism, where frustrating verses are simply thrown out. And I emphasize simply as the problem with this approach. I find the “solution” of picking and choosing incredibly simplistic, and not very thoughtful. Spong lists “immoral Biblical text” in his book, Sins of Scripture. My concern about this sort of judgmental or editorial activity is that it relies on the moral compass of the particular writer/scholar/editor/human who is making the cuts. It suggests: “I understand better than the writer(s) of this passage, what God actually wanted or intended… my morality is superior to this morality.” To me, it feels arrogant and elitist. Even ethnocentric – a modern, Western white man judging ancient, tribal Jews.  On the other hand, I am guilty of this practice in day-to-day living.  I choose what seems right to me.  We all do - conservative and liberal fundamentalists alike.  It is humility, "fear and trembling," that should keep us cautious and thoughtful about the choices we're making.  We cannot speak for God.  I come to some of the same practical conclusions that Spong does in writing, but I am not ready to throw out what I don't like.  I think we can hold onto it, recognizing historical, cultural and socio-political contexts.  Faithful people have always attempted to discern the will and nature of God, and faithful people will always get it wrong.  Holy Bible or not, our interpretations and assumptions are deeply imperfect and unavoidably tinged with our humanity.

So rather than discard what is human, I prefer to pray like this:
“Lord, I don’t like this verse. I don’t understand how a loving God – as you have been in my life – could order the extermination of an entire people group. Or how you could fire-bomb an entire city. Or identify women as second-class citizens.  Or demonize people who love each other, because of their gender.

I trust that you are good, through the model of Jesus Christ, your son. I trust that you are good through the convictions of my heart, and the personal experiences I have had through your Holy Spirit.

Because of that trust, I will not tear these pages out of my Bible. But neither will I pretend to understand them, or choose to live by these specific, non-contextualized words, or defend them as good when I do not believe they are. They obviously meant something to your people long ago, so I will wrestle with these words. I will hold them in tension, and I ask you to illuminate my heart and mind. If there is something I can learn from them, help me to see.

In Christ’s name, amen.”
I enrolled at George Fox Seminary because it was the only seminary in Portland that did not use the word "inerrant" in its Statement of Faith. I want room to ask questions. Room for a little disbelief. Room to acknowledge that science is not an enemy of faith. Faith entails believing in something that can't be proven. I have no problem with that! But I have a real problem with trying to forcefully conform science (or history) into a religious worldview that makes certain demands of God - of how God functions.

And therein lies my deepest frustration: trying to force GOD into a box. Suggesting that our theological needs or expectations must take precedence over the universe God created and blessed us with. Denying reality for the sake of an overly-controlling dream.

4. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not born of a virgin.This belief is a non-negotiable for many, perhaps even most Christians today. But that was not always the case. It is easy to take for granted the universal acknowledgement of the virgin conception by the early church, based on the story’s prevalence in modern church teaching. However, objectively supported by scripture alone, it’s somewhat surprising that the writers of Matthew and Luke were so unquestionably convinced of Jesus’ virgin conception, given that there is no other reference to it in all of the New Testament. Mark and John seem uninterested in this point in their gospel accounts, and Paul did not find it necessary in developing or supporting his own apologetics.

Moreover, the prominent differences and conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies create all sorts of problems that are not resolved in scripture. The complexity of these writers’ seemingly self-imposed predicament is even more puzzling as they each simultaneously attest to the Davidic Kingship of Jesus with little or no explanation as to how both could be true.

“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…” (Luke 3:23) So it was thought seems to have been good enough for both Matthew and Luke, but what about modern readers? Was Joseph able to adopt Jesus into the Davidic line? Why do both genealogies build through Joseph, as Jesus’ father? Was Mary’s virginity constructed to emphasize Jesus’ divinity? And why are the two genealogies so vastly different?

Click here to read an overview on research concerning the differing genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke and how they may pertain to the question of the Virgin Conception.

For me, I have not rejected belief in the Virgin conception, but I do not believe it to be a non-negotiable for Christian faith.

5. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.I have less to say about this incredibly important question because I simply haven’t done much research on it.

For me, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ may be only one of two non-negotiables I have.  The first is that God is love. But these are personal non-negotiables, not prescribed for others.  It doesn’t mean I won’t recognize the Christianity of persons of faith who don’t believe in the resurrection. But it’s one of the few areas for me, personally, that I have not found reason to question. I emphasize personally. Faith demands belief beyond reason or proof, and I believe that faith, on many levels, is a deliberate choice. I have chosen to believe (largely based on my own spiritual experience) that Jesus is the only son of God, and that when he died on the cross, he was physically resurrected three days later.

Marcus Borg (among many others) does not believe in the literal, physical resurrection. In a lecture I attended at Oregon State University, he talked about “shared visions” and “collective manifestations” in which disciples manifested the same ethereal images of Jesus. They even heard the same words. To Borg, the disciples’ intense loyalty to Jesus, and their love for him, coupled with their refusal to accept the finality of his death, allowed them to share the same spirituality awareness of Jesus – who continued to live through them in word, mission and deed.

I don’t buy that explanation. In fact, I tend to think that philosophies that remove the potential for supernatural occurrence are deeply uninteresting and symptomatic of modern reductionism (i.e. I think they're boring!).

But I have spoken with Marcus Borg, and I know he is a man of deep love for Christ, and deep faith in God. Yes, his panentheism sounds a lot like deism – as so many of our American “Founding Fathers” were (we’ve since retroactively baptized them Evangelicals the way Mormons keep baptizing Jewish Holocaust survivors). I will not make a personal judgment about Borg's “salvation” (although I'm sure his soul is in no danger) because judgment is not my role to play in God’s economy. It’s probably not yours, either. God knows the inner workings of Marcus Borg’s heart, and Thomas Jefferson’s heart, and St. Augustine’s [deeply misogynistic] heart, and my own silly, reactionary, temperamental heart. I’ll trust God to be as gracious to them as God has already been to me...

But yes, I do believe in Christ’s death and physical, literal resurrection. And I am deeply humbled and thankful for what it means (only a little of which, I understand).

So! In conclusion: Am I a liberal, a LIBERAL, an asshole, or all of the above?
Only God knows (you might have an opinion, though). Perhaps a bit of each, with an angry little fundamentalist still fussing around in my gut.

Spencer Burke wrote in A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity that his beliefs are malleable. He suggests something is wrong if he believes the same thing tomorrow that he believed today. One might call that “evolution.” And then one might be drummed out of one’s church.

For a long time, I didn't used to like the religious tag of "liberal" because of the baggage it carried - largely unhelpful. But I'm coming to use it more and more, because I think the distinctives of liberalism are becoming increasingly important for our society to readopt - to stop apologizing for - to stop hiding from. This is certainly shaped by my political and social convictions. But as a liberal Christian, I believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I believe that real sin exists, and that there is a real spiritual enemy waging war against goodness. I believe that Jesus Christ offers a way for humankind to be saved from the mire, the darkness, the emptiness and unhealthiness of sinful life. But that's only if we let him. Too many Christians put on a "saved" hat and call it good as they continue to participate in the principalities and powers of this world. I'm still too guilty of this, too often.

One bumper sticker reads, "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven."

I think that's a tacky, unconscionable way of looking at grace.

I'm sure that attitude led to this bumper sticker: "WWJD? He would probably smack the shit out of you."

And he'd probably like to. I deserve it.

I know, I know: this was hardly an exhaustive look at the term "liberal," but I hope it offers a glimpse into the sort of questions many emerging Christians are asking. And how those questions don't lend themselves to easy, black-and-white answers. If you're worried that becoming a part of the "Emerging Church Movement" will eventually lead you to becoming a new kind of liberal - well, you might have good reason. It's what happened to me. And I'm thankful for that, beyond words.

Thanks for reading!


Pickypants said...

This is a great post.

Peter said...

Thanks, bro!

Aaron said...

I think it is best to use great discretion before applying any secular political construct to something so close to spirit as one's religious belief structure. Wasn't Christ pretty radical in an anti-establishment/"let's-all-care-for-each-other and be nice" kinda way??? Those haven't been popular political platforms recently.

RickNiekLikeBikes said...

Well written. I'm not much older than you but I don't find any problem with absolutes. Questions and mysteries do not mean that answers aren't staring you in the face. They're simply answers one doesn't like. For instance, to know that I am going to Heaven is an absolute and doesn't put God in a box. TO those who do not believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again from the dead or that he is the only way truth and life, one does know that Heaven doesn't wait for them. This is not a mystery. We've become so in love with the mystery that we've forgotten to be comfortable with the truth.

Anonymous said...

"if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." - 1 Cor 14:15

I don't intend to rail against someone like Marcus Borg, but it seems to me that an actual Resurrection really IS one of the essentials, as is articulated in the whole of 1 Corinthians, chapter 14.

Peter said...

Funny, after just 8 or 9 months of posting this, I've become a lot more comfortable with the word "liberal." I still don't want to pigeonhole myself, or anyone else. And I still agree with pretty much everything I wrote here. But the truth is, I've had to be honest with myself, and come out of the proverbial closet of ambiguity. I'm a liberal. And a liberal. But I don't want to be limited to it. God's still doing something in me, and I'm still listening.

Existential Punk said...


You articulate the points very well and resonate deeply with much of what you say.

i loved it when you said, 'In fact, I tend to think that philosophies that remove the potential for supernatural occurrence are deeply uninteresting and symptomatic of modern reductionism. Boring!' i agree and think liberal Christians tend to throw out the mystical while the conservative charismatic Christians tend to go a bit overboard. At least from my personal experiences! :)

i call Spong a liberal fundie b/c he is so absolute in his conclusions. Borg is more generous as he just presents his case and tells the reader he is ok if they don't agree. BOTH Spong and Borg have taught me much though!

i think you nailed it by saying, 'I could go on, concerning salvation in a pluralistic world and how other religions may fit in, but will be brief, only saying I believe God is far more gracious than any folks I happen to know, and probably likes a lot of Buddhist lifestyles more than my own materialistic, consumerist, bourgeoisie Christian living. I don’t believe easy lines can be drawn regarding “who is in, and who is out.”'

Thank you, Peter!


Paul Douglas said...

I am impressed that at such a young age you have come to humbly understand so well what has taken me far longer, through much anger and travail to finally conclude. I have come to have deep respect for many "non Christian" practitioners of spirituality because frankly many of them are doing it better than we are.
I think John Shelby Spong gets a bad rap, kind of a whipping boy for the fundys. I met him once over lunch many years ago and I was impressed with his humility, warmth and genuine compassion for those in our age who have been so marginalized by the church, specifically women and GLBT people. I suspect that just as you were impressed by Marcus Borg in person, you might have a different take on Bishop Spong if you spent some time with him.
Have you ever heard of Bo Lozoff?
Keep writing, thinking praying and growing!

Peter said...

Paul, thanks so much for the kind words!

You're probably right (re: Bishop Spong - he IS an easy target, so I distance myself in hopes of self-preservation).

Haven't heard of Lozoff, no. Thanks for the recommendation!

Bless you - stay in touch!

Anonymous said...

Pete Walker said he wants to be a friend. Does that include people,who disagree with him I wonder? I'm a Catholic lady,who very much agrees with Glenn Beck. The "Social Justice Committee" at my church is affiliated with MCU and CUCA. MCU and CUCA are affiliated with groups that openly promote and support pro-choice,pro-same sex marriage ideals. They also openly sponsor events,which regale the virtues of a communistic/marxist society. I found this info. on MCU,CUCA and their affiliates websites. Now,do you have the guts to check this info. out or will you take the easy way out and call me a "nut job". Remember,the truth shall set you free. It surely opened the eyes of this 47 yr.old Catholic lady. And believe this if you believe anything,what I learned broke my heart.-God Bless

Peter said...

Anonymous Catholic Lady,
I really do want to be a friend. And I believe - perhaps despite getting in my own way, at times - that friendship (and fellowship) can be possible without agreeing on everything.

I don't think you're a nut job, and I sympathize with your frustration over the anger and vehemence on every side of the debate over faith in emerging paradigms.

I am familiar with MCU, and I do have to say I agree with a lot of their tenets:

--genuine faith is committed to the search for truth, wherever it comes from.
--God invites us to do our believing in ways appropriate to the 21st century.
--we never have absolute certainty; only God is infallible.
(from their website: modchurchunion.org)

I absolutely believe that the truth will set us free. I believe that freedom means liberation for those in captivity. I believe that the Holy Spirit guides us in truth, and that the Word (Christ) is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.

But I also know that you know the rest: what that liberation tangibly means is very different for me than it is for you.

I pray you may tolerate me, as I seek to be more tolerant and loving.

Probably not the response you're looking for, but I'd be happy to stay in dialogue. I really admire the Catholic church, and think Protestants have a lot to learn from you all.

Under the Mercy,

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