Sabio Says: "Quit Playing With Yourself!"

Just Jerking Around With Liberalism?

My friend Sabio recently asked what I meant by saying I was a liberal, and I answered with a link to this old post:

Sabio wasn't buying it, and wrote:

Though you may want to consider yourself "liberal", you fail by your own words. Here are your 5 characterizations of Liberals:

1. No absolute Truth
2. Pluralism
3. Errancy
4. Non-Virginity
5. No Resurrection
You may want to play both sides by saying "I don't necessarily believe..." but the truth is, you ABSOLUTELY don't adhere to liberal theological positions, as I illustrate each below:

Failed: You believe in Absolute Truth
I believe that God, through Jesus Christ, is Absolute Truth.
Whatever the heck that means? Sounds beautiful (to a Christian), but bizarre to nonbelievers. Here, imagine someone saying, "I believe that Shiva, through Ganesh, is Absolute Truth." Doesn't that seem a bit nonsensical, unless you have been raised with the myths of Shiva and Ganesh?

Sure, you understand the subjectivity of knowledge but you desire an anchor, but gee, what a bizarre anchor.

Failed: Looks I guess you are an inclusivist, not a pluralist.

Failed: Seems you hold a "Well, sure, there may SEEM to be problems but God will clear that all up if we pray. Meanwhile, lets just realize the Bible is "precious" [arghhhh !]

Failed: I want my cake and eat it too. OK, the virgin-birth does not make sense, but I won't reject it. [Read: I still want to stay buddy-buddy with all you who buy this stuff and keep my bible "precious".]

Failed: You believe!

Unfortunately you fail miserably at being a Liberal Christian. (yes, my bias is that I prefer true liberal Christians), You may want to sound liberal and talk cool and make friends with us non-believing type, but you still sing from the same Hymnbook, it seems. Or am I missing something.

Sure, your 10/31/2008 post explains that all you mean by liberal is:
a) some abortions are OK
b) women can have a role in the church
c) war should not be justified by religion
d) it is OK for Christians to be Democrats

Yeah, to conservative fundamentalists, these 4 apples may be gateway beliefs to full blown liberalism. To me you sound like a conservative democrat Christian who wants to flirt with the word "liberal" in a rebellious adolescent way but doesn't really mean it accept in the political sense. But then I guess you confess that you are politically liberal but theologically liberal.

So, I thought my pagan insights might assist in organizing your new treatise on the new Peter Walker... I was in a playful writing mood, nothing meant offensive -- instead, I write knowing your strong confidence and flexibility and look forward to your reply.

Taken in fun Sabio, thanks for the pushback. I'm considering how to respond - you're posing meaningful arguments and I don't take them lightly. I don't want to take an "easy way out," either - which so-called "postmodernism" often does... as in: "if there are no absolutes, I don't have to give you an absolute answer." Which is sort of cowardly at the very least.

But I do think there is a difference being between the definition of "classic" (or perhaps more fairly, stereotypical) liberalism, and my own. What I'm hoping to do is identify a kind of socially AND theologically liberal Christianity that retains fidelity to the historical Christian Church (while cognizant and repentant of that history) AND maintains an optimistically-faithful Evangelical ethos. I haven't yet found what I'm looking for, but I hope I recognize it when I see it. If I do.

Classic theological liberalism is modern and concrete, and in many ways defines itself in reaction to the conservative evangelical metanarrative. What I think is still out there in the wild, waiting to be discovered, is postmodern, fluid and without all of the established-absolutes inferred in existing arguments. But ah, I've gone and romanticized it, which is naive.

And shame on me for using ambiguous language, but I really DO want to distance myself from - as you say - the characterization of "a conservative Democrat Christian who wants to flirt with the word 'liberal' in a rebellious adolescent way but doesn't really mean it except in the political sense."

I've jerked around with that attitude myself, too scared for a long time to really come out of the closet. Most of the folks in the Emerging Church crowd who experiment (behind closed-doors) with liberalism aren't really using the word, though. It's still demonized, indicative of something ominous and even malevolent.

To your specific arguments:

1. Stereotypical Liberal Assumption: There is no absolute truth.
I believe there MUST be absolute truth because I'm an inevitable Western product of ongoing centuries of Hellenism. So I believe in reality. And perhaps there are realities that coincide, intersect, converge and diverge, but even they must (in my assumptive brain) exist within a shared reality of existence. I have not-yet read a liberal theologian who did not believe in an absolute truth - only one different from the conservative Evangelical mold. And usually, that belief is carried with more humility and open-handedness than its opposite counterparts. If you've found a liberal theologian who doesn't believe in some form of absolute truth, please recommend! But I'd suspect they're some form of existentialists, not true liberalisms (as A.D. Hunt rightly observes, liberalism is quite a Modernist structure).

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.”
You're probably right, I am probably more of an inclusivist than a pluralist. Or, maybe more accurately, a Christian Universalist - although I don't know enough to claim that title. And I reserve the right to believe in some sort of annihilation or separation for pure, sane, intentional evil - that may not necessarily entail an entire life or personality, however - but as a liberal Christian, I believe in justice.

3. The Bible is not “Inerrant,” or (more extremely) the Bible is flawed and without value.
Regarding Scripture, I think Scripture is precious for the context, history and perspective it offers. Saying something is valuable is not the same as saying something is totally authoritative. Few Liberal Theologians - not even Bishop Spong in The Sins of Scripture - throw Scripture out. Rather, they keep it in a much more moderated place, along side reason, experience, tradition, culture, history, spirit, intuition, conscience, intellect, relationships, community and countless other gauges and tools we have at our disposal to help us navigate life and spirituality. I don't fail the test simply because I won't throw away my Bible, and even continue to hold it in high regard.
4. Jesus was not born of a virgin.
Virgin birth. Maybe I do fail that one. But to me, liberalism isn't just about what I believe, but about how I believe. I willfully CHOOSE to believe in the Virgin Birth, not because I think it is pertinent to salvation, or because I need others around me to believe it, or even because I think it isn't historically and biblically problematic, but because it serves a spiritual dimension in me. The concept feeds me and my relationship to God, in some way. Like icons, that give us perspectives and views of God and the Saints in ways that stimulate us visually and - it often follows - spiritually, so the Virgin Birth illustrates God's penetration into temporal reality that I find invigorating, enlightening, meaningful and TRUE... whether it's historically/literally true or not. I choose to believe it because, if someone could prove to me that it wasn't, it wouldn't shatter my faith, but only lead me to reimagine what Jesus' conception means to me on a personal level.

5. Jesus was not literally (physically) resurrected from the dead.
The resurrection. Yes, you get that one. I believe it. I still hold that if someone could prove to me it didn't happen physically/literally, I would maintain my faith and recontextualize - as with the virgin birth. But the resurrection means more to me for personal reasons - for the ways in which my life has been infiltrated by the love and grace of God - that only resonates at the level of a good-old-fashioned Personal Testimony. I'm still, in many ways, an Evangelical at heart, because the God I've encountered has been so very personal. And maybe it doesn't make me a pluralist to say I don't begrudge Buddhists and Star Trek fans their personal revelations - maybe I'm just inclusive - but I absolutely believe the God who touches me is the God who reaches through every culture, creed and language.

But I still say "Jesus" when I pray. And I still think the God of Ishmael and Isaac is big enough to pull a dead body out of the ground... I know a lot of folks more liberal than me who believe in the supernatural.

So, Sabio, my friend, we're just not going to see eye-to-eye on this. But I'm glad you called me on some cheap-and-easy answers, and I'm thankful to be pushed beyond half-assed pseudo-liberal-masked-evangelical-schmaltz.

Click here for the back-story to which Sabio and I are referring...


Doug said...

This was interesting reading.

In my 40's when I was beginning to take personal spiritual retreats I asked several nuns and monks at several abbeys and monasterys these very questions: Was there really/literally a virgin birth and ressurection? And they all shook their heads saying no, they are simply metaphors. I remember feeling some relief for that was how I looked at them too. As a biologist and contemplative Christian it made sense. I also want to thank my high school English teacher Ms. Cook for teaching me metaphors and how meaningful they are in literature including the bible.

Peter said...

Doug, thanks so much for reading, I appreciate you!

One of the things I love about Christianity is the freedom within it to take different postures toward dogma and doctrine. Jesus said "by their fruits you will know them" and I think the outpouring spirit of one's life is the clearest indicator of the "truth" an individual has found.

And my fruit is often far-from-ripe.

Sue said...

Hey, Peter,

Hope you're doing well. Are you taking any classes this semester?

I'm very curious about you're talking about choosing to believe in the virgin birth. You choose to believe something because it's personally useful? How does that work? Isn't that overwhelmingly arbitrary?

I'm not trying to pick on you Peter, but I guess I'd like to believe things based on reality. I fear I'm delusional enough the way it is! Maybe I haven't read you correctly.

Peter said...

Sue, great to hear from you! Yes, I'm taking Church History and Theology with Brunner - I love it already!

No, no "picking-on" - that's a very good question! I guess I think of it in the same way that I think of LOVE as a choice. It's not that I'm faking it or that it's arbitrary. It's that I don't always "FEEL" it, "EVERY DAY!" You know? Some days are rough. Sometimes I'm pissy or selfish...

I have experienced a very real and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, and that relationship was introduced to me in a conservative Evangelical context. Though the context has changed, I have changed, and the way I view the world has changed, I choose to keep loving the personality of the God I have known most of my life.

It's not blind love. I know there are things about Christianity I might not like. Or might not even know about. I may have doubts, at times. I may wonder "what if things had turned out differently..." I may find Sufism or Buddhism attractive from time to time... I start to visit philosophically "suggestive" websites... but I come back to my first love. My first love is Jesus.

I don't mean to be caddy, disrespectful, or arbitrary. I don't want to pick and choose based on convenience and my own selfish personal needs (though, inevitably I do from time to time). I don't know if that's a great answer, but it is absolutely the attitude I take though, Sue.

Sometimes choosing to believe is like choosing to love. It's no fairytale romance, but it's real and true and still beautiful and life-changing.

Sabio Lantz said...

At your points:

I have to read more on the different streams of post-modern Christian, for there are many. We can see that you are politically liberal, so we can let that go -- In my opinion, what ever theology you embrace, you will make it fit your political insights and not the other way around.
Now, on to the theology stuff and see if you are theologically liberal (admittedly a loose term:

(1) Truth
OK, you are an absolutist. Yeah, lots of different positions of liberals here. I don't think it matters. The next 4 are more important.

(2) Soteriology
OK, you are mildly liberal in this sense.
You are an inclusivist with universalist leanings. Better than an exclusivist. So, do you believe a devote Hindu or Muslim or Atheist who has heard the perfect story of Jesus, presented by a wonderful person at a great time in the person's life but who rejects it may still be allowed in "heaven"?

(3) Errantist
You may be liberal in this sense.
But it depends, because your words seem vacuous -- I could apply them to any text.
So, do you feel that the Bhagavad Gita or the Koran or the Buddhist Sutras are "precious for the context, history and perspectives" they offer. I have those books on my shelves too and don't "throw them away". Heck, I do the same with my Math texts.
Also, we can't tell till we see passages and you run to your "precious" stance and say, "I want to keep that one", but then offer no more of a reason than your feelings or some other bible verse. So we don't know how you are an errantist.

(4) Virgin Birth
You are conservative and a protestant (feeling based) one at that.
The word translated "virgin" means "young maid". If you are running to virgin because it "feeds me and my relationship to God, in some way." We know your theology is based on whatever makes Peter feel warm and fuzzy. And we know what makes us warm and fuzzy is part temperament and cultural upbringing. Wow, now THAT sounds like absolute truth.

Yep, conservative.

So you are a conservative Christian Democrat who wants to think they are also theologically liberal because that would be cool. OK, a bit of an exaggeration. But you are, it seems, as far as taxonomy goes (and I am poor at it), A conservative evangelical in the emergent stream that likes to swim and play in secular intellectual and pop culture.

Have you read any Christian mystics. Have you read any Christians who consider themselves also Buddhist?

Remember, to me, the key is the mind. Your theology is all make-believe any way. But I believe that the way you hold all these make-believe in relationship to each other and to your fellow humans and how you nurture your emotions is what is important. So to me, right belief is not essential -- right heart is critical.

Remember, your first love, "JESUS !" , is exactly that, Jesus is the stories you were told as a kid. We never escape those.

Next time you might want to object to ONE item. It takes a big chunk of time to respond to the whole list ! Smile. Take care Peter.

Peter said...

Sabio, I think we're at an impass of both semantics and assumptions about the other. I promise I'm not as nearsighted (or subversively conservative/rigid) as you think, and I trust you're a good guy with the best of intentions in stretching me. So I'm taking it lying down ;)

I still think that if you applied your argument across the board, there could be almost no Liberal Christians at all.

Thanks for the conversation,

Brent said...

Sabio, a liberal Christian defined by your negatives sounds more like the definition of a non-Christian.

I'm curious to know. How would you box up an absolute true liberal Christian, one that would appease your tension?

But, beyond that, I challenge you to question your own strong desire to subvert Peters thinking.

I don’t think he is any more hypocritical than the rest of us.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Peter -- after the time I put into my reply, I am disappointed by the brush off.

@ Brent -- I am curious about the definition in general of "Liberal Christian". There are Christians who use the term derogatorily for Christians who deny the resurrection. There are others who use it for simple political or social stances. Some use it for the non-literal stance on scripture. So, it is word that people use either derogatorily or boastingly, it seems. But you are right, it doesn't tell us much about the believer. Thus I was probing to see what sort Peter was and asking him for his stances at present -- though I know they will change as he goes through seminary.

Peter said...

Sabio, I really appreciate the dialogue, and I would hardly call my investment in the conversation a brush off. I felt like I answered your challenges to the best of my abilities in the initial post - above. We could keep going in circles, but I respect you and your time enough not to keep rehashing - which is what we'd be doing if I respected to any one of the 5 points we've been arguing from the beginning. And I don't relish the fruit of that sort of back-and-forth.

I look forward to subsequent, possibly only tangentially-related topics of discussion ;)

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