I am a Liberal Evangelical

Several months ago I was talking with a friend about faith and religion.  I asserted that, despite my liberalism, and despite attending a Mainline church, I am still an Evangelical.

His question to me was: how, exactly, does one remain an Evangelical after leaving behind the Evangelical church?

It’s over-harsh for me to say I have “left behind” the Evangelical Church.  I wasn't "raptured" out of it.  In fact, I still have a very warm place in my heart for Evangelicalism in many ways.  There are also parts of me that are wounded and sour over the Evangelical worldview/Godview.  But I want to discuss what it means for me to be a Liberal Evangelical…

There’s a website called www.LiberalEvangelical.org that “aims to empower Christians who see themselves as radical moderates and to offer resources to Christian congregations who intend to be both Christ-centered and creatively inclusive. These Christians and congregations have both liberal and evangelical instincts…”

One of the directors is a member of the United Church of Christ.  That doesn't sound too Evangelical to me.  The other two directors do not name their affiliation.  All have theological doctorates.  I have looked through the site several times, trying to find what it means by “Evangelical,” and for the life of me, I can’t.  I don’t want to disparage these guys at all – I agree with their worldview (although they talk about being “moderate,” and Jesus was no moderate) –  I may even end up UCC or Episcopal or something terribly "high church," as I proceed.  But I want to know what “Evangelical” means to them, in the context of their site.  I'm not getting much of a cultural understanding from them.

What Evangelical means and what Evangelical means to me are two very different things.  Wikipedia says:

Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian theological stream which began in Great Britain in the 1730s.  Most adherents consider its key characteristics to be:
·       A belief in the need for personal conversion (or being "born again")
·       Some expression of the gospel in "effort"
·       A high regard for biblical authority
·       An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus.
David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, noting, "Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”

Hmmm… well, I do believe in conversion, but I don’t think of it in the way it’s commonly used.  “Conversion” should literally be about “converting” someone to a new way of being (not only a new way of believing).  In this way, I'd like to convert you.  I'd like to convert my atheist and agnostic neighbors.  I'd also like to convert my Christian neighbors.  And I'd like to be converted, myselfongoing...  Typically, however, “conversion” is generally identified by getting into heaven; getting out of hell; avoiding select sins that conflict with particular cultural-religious mores; behaving in certain outwardly-pious ways (e.g. raising hands to worship, closing eyes to sing, epitomizing conservative, middle-class, nuclear “family values,” and using language interspersed with words like “blessed,” “hallelujah,” “founding fathers.”  The term "Buddy Jesus" is a subcultural joke, but it's all-too-accurate: "Jesus is a friend of mine" (and he is).

I see conversion as not only a spiritual event (which I still think it is: an awakening to God’s presence in our lives) but also as the beginning of personal conversion from the “principalities and powers” of this world: becoming aware of social and economic oppression, the gluttonous traps of consumerism and materialism, the distracting allure of nationalism and patriotism, the social evils of prejudice, fear, hate, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, classism and misogyny.

When I "met Jesus," I was seven.  I can't tell you what changed in me - probably nothing at seven years old (I became an asshole later).  But as I have gotten to know Jesus, a lot has changed, and a lot keeps changing.  Because Jesus isn't a set of principles, Jesus Christ is a person – a living being – who I am in relationship with; who pushes me to keep growing, changing, and seeing old things in new ways.  "Behold, I am making all things new!" (Revelation 21) 

This, to me, is the concept of the "Gospel in effort."  The Gospel is Good News In-Process.  When Christianity is not good news, it is not the Gospel.  In those scenarios, Christianity becomes a hindrance to the Gospel – a systemic perversion of Christ's teaching.

Now: regarding Biblical Authority (listed above) - I admit to you, as a liberal Evangelical: I am still learning what "Biblical authority" means to me.

In the past I've written: What do you do when Scripture makes contradictory statements? Conservative churches have traditionally taken the most patriarchal, oppressive stance. A surprising choice, given that Christianity is supposedly founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Nonetheless, it's important to recognize and admit that right or wrong, it IS a choice being made by Christians. There ARE opposing statements being made. We don't get to reconcile them (of course there are lots of valid "contextual" readings that do help soften some of the harshest language). Ultimately, either Paul is right when he says there is no male or female in Christ, and recognizes women as "apostles," or Paul is right when he says, "women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says." (really, Paul? You're suddenly back to the Law?)  So which do you choose? I mean, really! What's worth fighting for? "Keeping women in their place"? Or freedom?

This example briefly sums up my general thoughts about Scripture, which I revere as ancient, sacred writings, reverently chronicling the history of humanity's interpretation of God's interaction with humankind.  These are stories about a God whom I love, so I am moved and humbled.  But I am not convicted to read literalism where it does not belong.

In the end, being an Evangelical is not about my subscription to a set of ideologies.  It is about my personal history, and my familial commitments.  I was born an American and I will always be an American – despite my frustrations and misgivings about American imperialism and militarism.  There is nothing I have personally done to choose or earn my status as a citizen.  In the same way, I will always be an Evangelical.  I was born an Evangelical.  I was raised one.  I met Jesus Christ as an Evangelical.  I was "born again."  I AM
born-again (not as bad as it sounds).  My life is new and being renewed through Christ.  The God I know is the God of "Buddy Jesus," for better AND for worse: God is near.  I can feel God.  I can hear God.  I cannot escape the presence (even when I want to).  It is a relationship both casual, as a friend, and humbly distant, as a subject to a King.  I don't seek to justify any of these paradigms, but only to acknowledge that they are at the heart of my relationship with God and my understanding of who God is.

God is someone I raise my hands for when I worship, even in a liturgical Mainline church.  God is someone I whisper wordless mutters to, even when Pentecostalism is worlds-away/

Liberal Mainline Christians want to know why their churches are shrinking – why they aren't growing like conservative Evangelical churches.  There are two reasons – one that should remain foreign; one that should inspire us to grow:
  • The first reason is fear.  Fear drives the growth of so, so many Evangelical churches.  It's a tragedy that defines God as Disappointed Judge and us as hell-bound mistakes, groveling for mercy.  This paradigm prizes groupthink: normative belief is the requirement.  Eternal punishment is the price of divergence.
  • The second reason is passion for God!  A lot has been written about the lack of ideological difference between secular liberals and Christian liberals: Both advocate for peace, civil rights, love, mutual understanding and tolerance, egalitarianism,  kindness, earthkeeping and communal responsibility for mutual welfare/well-being. Hell, both even revere the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  I can get behind all of that!

    "So why do I need to be a Christian if I can believe all of the same things you do?

But what about God?!  What about Jesus, not only as teacher, but as "Master"?  As Cosmic Christ?  As mother, father, priest, friend, guru and lover?

I am a liberal Evangelical because I believe that an intimate, literal, humble, supernatural, MYSTICAL
relationship with Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity.  The teachings of Jesus are beautiful, transcendent and eternal.  And iterations of those teachings can be found in all sorts of places – from all sorts of sources.  And that's fine.  I'm not threatened by that.  But if liberal Christians want their churches to do something other than shrink, we have to embrace a spirituality that sets us apart in some way.  That is absolutely NOT in an elitist way, or in a manner of superiority: I do not think those who reject Christianity are doomed to hell.  But it is in a way that uniquely recognizes the joy and spiritual awakening offered through Christian praxis.  As Christians, we do not only subscribe to ideologies – we practice a way of existing.  This is good news.  This is earth-changing.  This is the soft/hard indwelling/exuding power of Jesus Christ.


Brent said...

Great Post!! So much I agree with.

David Golden said...

Another way of describing lack of passion in mainline churches (where I am) is that they are "reactionary" to the evangelical growing churches. If you ask some leadership and worshipers what it means to them to be a Christian, they might have a hard time putting it into words, and it might come out sounding like something they read in a textbook, but they can quickly and passionately tell you what it does NOT mean to them, because they don't want you to think that they are "that kind of Christian." I first realized this when I heard someone ask a friend of mine if he believed in the Bible (which he did), but the first words out of his mouth were, "Well, it has some inconsistencies..." His answer was already in defense mode, on to Step 3 of predicting and analyzing the asker's theology, and wanting to distance himself from that.

Tobias said...

@Peter: Once again, Amen brother! I feel a lot like you. And you know what: I think this feeling is growing. I can sense it all around. Maybe the Spirit is moving!

The one thing I'm feeling more and more to be true is that Evangelicals are at their best when they learn to become humble, let go of themselves and their pride and learn to become active (not in telling people what to believe but in seeing Jesus in the prisoner, the disabled, the ill and suffering with them).

Actually I wonder if this is really a denominational thing. I seem to see people like this across all denominations. For example, Richard Rohr is certainly no Evangelical but I see exactly the kind of teaching you describe here in his teachings.

Don't stop searching, Peter and continue to share your thoughts.

@David: I don't know if you mean it as you said but the question "Do you believe in the Bible" seems kind of strange to me. I'd answer: "Well, sure I believe in it, it's right there on the table". So maybe your question wasn't all that good. I guess he might have replied differently if you had asked "Do you believe, God speaks to you through the Bible?". Just a thought...

Diocesan Hermit said...

I agree that Christianity is not about beliefs but about "my" personal conversion and mystical life in Christ.
I've heard say that "Christianity hasn't failed, it just hasn't been tried ..." Probably few people have tried it seriously because it is more demanding than all our good intentions put together. And yet those who have tried with their life show us that it is worth going for it all -which is intimacy with God through total surrender. And the place for it is the Cross -that old companion of every human life.

As for contradictory statements in Scripture, the language of paradox and opposites is more apt for expressing the Mystery. This is a difficulty for our minds only if we think that we can have it all defined and black or white ... but Life is not that simplistic.

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