Is Liberal Christianity posible?

Devadatta

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The new atheists have often pointed out that liberal Christians tend to cherry pick from the bible, choosing only what fits comfortably with what they already believe, whereas fundamentalists and literalists appear to at least stand by the text.
To me the irony – unless I’m totally off base – is that Christianity has always operated roughly on these two tracks: what one might call the “ideological” and the “open”.
Ideological Christianity by definition has nearly always had the upper hand – it’s what its creeds, dogmas and hierarchies are there for. Open Christianity, on the other hand, is the love that in a sense dare not speak its name. You know it only when you see it: when Jesus takes a child on his knee, certain gestures by St. Francis, etc. Almost invariably such expressions must be framed within the ruling ideology; thus, even many so-called liberal churches still claim to adhere to the old creeds, even while they cherry pick through the bible and preach the social gospel.
For the liberal/open pulse of Christianity to win out over its ideological brother – and I hope it does - it can’t just pick out the good bits; it needs to be more bold and more definitive about the way it reads scripture. And I don’t mean yet more sophisticated theology. There’s plenty of that. Sure, God is a verb, not a noun, but that won’t win the game against the literalists.
I think liberal Christianity needs to develop and propagate basic rules-of-thumb on how to read the New Testament in particular, not cherry picking, but pointing out what parts of the text to privilege over the rest, following clear principles. Of course, I’m hardly qualified to set these principles out with any precision. But I think there are some basics that most people will find self-evident.
But first there’s a serious barrier to deal with: that the New Testament as a whole was shaped and edited by orthodoxy, that is, fundamentally by the ideological pulses of the tradition.
So the game is in a sense already rigged. That means that from the get-go it’s impossible to simply pull the collection of books apart neatly and label them with this tendency or that. One book – if you pardon the expression – bleeds into another. The divisions are not absolute.
Complicating the problem is what underlies this shaping ideology: the idea of the apocalypse, and with that the whole machinery of the end of days, bodily resurrection, the last judgment, etc. We know that this storyline motivated early Christians, along with many other Jewish sects. Without it, many Christians wouldn’t recognize their faith, the most recent evidence being the popularity of the dreadful left behind series. It would be like a Hollywood thriller without the sex and violence.
Unfortunately, the apocalyptic impulse, however fascinating as a phenomenon, represents some of the worst aspects of ideological Christianity. Much “bad faith” in every sense of the phrase is concealed and not-so-concealed in its flights of hope and fancy: the all-too-human craving for escape, rewards, revenge, the humiliation of our enemies. What I’m expressing here of course is a “liberal” point of view, but I think this needs to be the first principle, the first line in the sand of a truly robust liberal Christianity: apocalyptic thought possibly had survival value for Jewish and Christian circles of those days. But millennia later it’s a dangerous distraction from the more (fundamental!) heart of the Christian message.
So that’s the barrier to a liberal/open reading of the New Testament. Nevertheless, the New Testament, however shaped by ideology, remains a repository of multiple tendencies, multiple traditions based on the life and death of Jesus. Without going into minute deconstructions – there is and will be no end to that; some find a different Jesus in every book, a different Jesus for every reader – I think that most common readers, once they read the individual books as distinct wholes (getting away from the always inconclusive battle of the verses) will see three main tendencies: that of the synoptics, the Gospel of John, and the letters of St. Paul.

Again, I think most would agree that in the synoptics we get the fundamental message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and that in the Gospel of John and the letters of St. Paul we get theological/metaphysical elaborations. The question is the order of priority.
I think it’s clear that ideological Christianity, its creeds and structure of authority most privilege Paul’s theological cosmic drama of original sin and final redemption, and John’s theology of the incarnate logos/word. Liberal Christianity, and the social gospel, on the other hand, are clearly more rooted in the synoptics.
But what is the fundamental message of the synoptics? Again, the commonsense reading is that first of all it signals the spiritual, inward turn you find not only in Christianity but in other Jewish sects and in the Hellenistic philosophies of the time. Jesus is the messiah who brings on the kingdom and the fulfillment of the law, but it’s a spiritualized kingdom and a law transformed through love. Through parables and other teaching he exemplified this idea of the kingdom and the transformed law. Through the sacrifice of his life and resurrection (whether literal or metaphorical) he earns his authority as teacher, shows what a spiritual life looks like and demonstrates victory over death.
It seems not just to me but to many people that in general the Jesus of the synoptics doesn’t force you to decide on his ultimate metaphysical status, maintain that all other religions are wrong, or that you must believe x, y and z propositions to avoid hideous eternal torment. Certainly some of those elements can be found there, but surely the emphasis in the synoptics is not belief but action, not dogma but praxis: love, tend to the poor, serve others. Do these things and the metaphysics takes care of itself, is a fair summary, it seems to me.
 
The new atheists have often pointed out that liberal Christians tend to cherry pick from the bible, choosing only what fits comfortably with what they already believe, whereas fundamentalists and literalists appear to at least stand by the text.
To me the irony – unless I’m totally off base – is that Christianity has always operated roughly on these two tracks: what one might call the “ideological” and the “open”.
...
What is this? Christianity is this. Jesus is Lord and savior. Do unto others as you would have done to you. Love God with all thy might, and love neighbor as self.

Pretty simple stuff actually. Tell the atheist if he/she doesn't stand for something, they'll fall for anything.

v/r

Q
 
Atheists don't like so called liberal Christians because we DON'T read the bible literally. It isn't that we pick and choose but when you are out to hang your hat on the contradictions, discrepancies and seeming impossibilities as well as the murder, mayhem, and genocide...if you take that out of their hands their arguments fall like a box of cards. So they've got no use for someone who reads between the lines for a deeper understanding. They can't pull out the rug.
 
Atheists don't like so called liberal Christians because we DON'T read the bible literally. It isn't that we pick and choose but when you are out to hang your hat on the contradictions, discrepancies and seeming impossibilities as well as the murder, mayhem, and genocide...if you take that out of their hands their arguments fall like a box of cards. So they've got no use for someone who reads between the lines for a deeper understanding. They can't pull out the rug.
I see. No, I don't. If you don't read the bible and accept it as it is written, you ain't a Christian. One simply fools themself. Either God is his word or God isn't his word. The good book states that it is God's word. Who are you to state it isn't? And what contradictions do you refer to?

Be careful wil. You're in Christian territory...:eek:;)
 
Atheists don't like so called liberal Christians because we DON'T read the bible literally. It isn't that we pick and choose but when you are out to hang your hat on the contradictions, discrepancies and seeming impossibilities as well as the murder, mayhem, and genocide...if you take that out of their hands their arguments fall like a box of cards. So they've got no use for someone who reads between the lines for a deeper understanding. They can't pull out the rug.

Hi Wil. It turns out my full post didn't make it here. Please see full version. In the meantime, you have a point. But I think the atheists do challange we liberal types to be more rigourous. And in battle with the literalists, I think we need that. Cheers.
 
What is this? Christianity is this. Jesus is Lord and savior. Do unto others as you would have done to you. Love God with all thy might, and love neighbor as self.

Pretty simple stuff actually. Tell the atheist if he/she doesn't stand for something, they'll fall for anything.

v/r

Q

I agree. It is simple. But there's more than one idea of simplicity. Please check my full version, and welcome further comments, since I admit I don't fully understand your point of view. Cheers.
 
Why must one side or the other "win out?" Does this not further the internal strife? Does this not add fuel to the fires of inconsistency that also serve all of Christianity's detractors, not just atheists? Does this not add to the stress of individual believing Christians of either persuasion, ultimately pushing some out of the faith?

Orthodox versus liberal, so often we see this as some battle and couch the process in military and belligerent terminology. Why does this need to be? I would offer an alternate point of view...two sides to the same coin, both having their respective values. If orthodoxy is the "black and white" of the matter, and liberal is the "color," it requires both to paint a coherent picture. Without the other, the picture painted is incomplete and incoherent.

While you point to some interesting considerations, I find your piece far too one-sided. That is a struggle I see too often. We tend to choose up sides, point fingers and end up screaming obscenities at the other side. There is no need for such. We need to embrace each other and realize the value of both sides. The values may be different, and each individual may require differing amounts of the one or the other. That does not lessen either. It only makes them different. It is this objection to accepting "different" that strokes the obstinate tendency in Christianity to damn any not like ourselves.

Perhaps, if we could teach the orthodox and the liberal within our own to play nice, that tendency might begin to extend beyond the confines of our faith into the larger world.

At least, that's how I try to see it.
 
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Why must one side or the other "win out?" Does this not further the internal strife? Does this not add fuel to the fires of inconsistency that also serve all of Christianity's detractors, not just atheists? Does this not add to the stress of individual believing Christians of either persuasion, ultimately pushing some out of the faith?

Orthodox versus liberal, so often we see this as some battle and couch the process in military and belligerent terminology. Why does this need to be? I would offer an alternate point of view...two sides to the same coin, both having their respective values. If orthodoxy is the "black and white" of the matter, and liberal is the "color," it requires both to paint a coherent picture. Without the other, the picture painted is incomplete and incoherent.

While you point to some interesting considerations, I find your piece far too one-sided. That is a struggle I see too often. We tend to choose up sides, point fingers and end up screaming obscenities at the other side. There is no need for such. We need to embrace each other and realize the value of both sides. The values may be different, and each individual may require differing amounts of the one or the other. That does not lessen either. It only makes them different. It is this objection to accepting "different" that strokes the obstinate tendency in Christianity to damn any not like ourselves.

Perhaps, if we could teach the orthodox and the liberal within our own to play nice, that tendency might begin to extend beyond the confines of our faith into the larger world.

At least, that's how I try to see it.

Hi Juan. I appreciate your concern. I think you may be right that my post was more provocative than it needed to be. My original intention was really only to talk about the problems liberal Christians and theologians have of conveying their less literal readings of scripture. So I guess it was bound to be one-sided, especially when the post went a little farther afield.
But you know your two sides of the coin analogy isn't far from the way I was putting things. I think you would agree that there are two basic kinds of Christian impulses that we can observe: the one is primarially interested in enforcing an ideology, the other in simply being of service. Most Christians probably partake of both impulses; perhaps a minority fall purely in one camp or the other.
But I think it's fair to say that outside the orthodox Christian tent, Christian ideology is seen as just that, as ideology, and no more well-founded than any other; while Christian service and the figure of Jesus is almost universally acclaimed, even by the most rabid of atheists (leaving out Christopher Hitchens, who would barbecue his own grandmother!).
Perhaps we only differ in that you may feel that ideology and the gospel of love are inseparable, while I do not. I believe that ideology, even Christian ideology is man-made and subject to alteration in time. What doesn't change is the figure of Jesus, the gospel of love and the realization of that gospel in every act of service.
So I guess in the end I have two questions: First, does the traditional, authoritarian ideology of Christianity make sense anymore? And if it doesn't can Christianity survive without it, can an open, liberal Christianity work in the end?
One final note: I think we should also keep in mind that the two sides as you call them are not equal in their claims. Liberal Christianity, as I conceive it, does not say that individual Christians are not allowed their traditional set of beliefs. It only says that other Christians, with less literal beliefs should be allowed to remain Christians. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is defined by precisely this kind of demand: it will have a single definition of what it means to be Christian and no other.
Thanks again for your reply.
 
My original intention was really only to talk about the problems liberal Christians and theologians have of conveying their less literal readings of scripture.
I guess from my POV liberal theology really has no problem "conveying their less literal readings of scripture." It depends on the audience. Like Paul Simon so eloquently pointed out long ago, "a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."

So what I am interpreting as intended meaning, is the trouble liberal Christians have persuading orthodox Christians of their less literal beliefs. In which case I would have to say, "what is good for the goose is good for the gander."

But you know your two sides of the coin analogy isn't far from the way I was putting things. I think you would agree that there are two basic kinds of Christian impulses that we can observe: the one is primarially interested in enforcing an ideology, the other in simply being of service. Most Christians probably partake of both impulses; perhaps a minority fall purely in one camp or the other.
Is this not a normal personality tendency? Some people are introverts, some are extroverts. Some learn better visually, some learn better via text. Some people intuit, some have to have things spelled out. Some people follow rules to the letter, others follow rules by the spirit of intent. Which is right? Both.

But I think it's fair to say that outside the orthodox Christian tent, Christian ideology is seen as just that, as ideology, and no more well-founded than any other; while Christian service and the figure of Jesus is almost universally acclaimed, even by the most rabid of atheists.
We still end up back at the concepts of journeys and destinations, fingers and moons, menus and meals.

So I guess in the end I have two questions: First, does the traditional, authoritarian ideology of Christianity make sense anymore? And if it doesn't can Christianity survive without it, can an open, liberal Christianity work in the end?
Is one born knowing how to ride a bicycle, or must one first learn how? Is one born with the full knowledge required to graduate high school, or must one first put in the effort to learn? Traditional orthodoxy is a great place to get the fundamental instruction of the Christian faith. And in a perfectly balanced world, this would only be half of the equation. For in that much you are correct, orthodoxy does tend to get hung up in the letter and forgets to do what the letter says.

But liberal Christianity gets forgetful, and often loses sight of the reasons why we are supposed to do what we are supposed to do. In extreme cases I have seen things twisted so much by loose interpretation that it becomes difficult to recognize as Christianity. In such cases why bother trying to remain attached to a faith to whom one is only tenuously attached? Why call oneself Christian if the beliefs are but a hollow shell of the faith?

It is a delicate balance, to discern the texts and practice what the texts preach.

One final note: I think we should also keep in mind that the two sides as you call them are not equal in their claims.
Why should they be? What is more, by what measure do you measure this value? Is your measure valid for me? Is my measure valid for you?

Liberal Christianity, as I conceive it, does not say that individual Christians are not allowed their traditional set of beliefs. It only says that other Christians, with less literal beliefs should be allowed to remain Christians. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is defined by precisely this kind of demand: it will have a single definition of what it means to be Christian and no other.
Ah! I'm afraid I must politely disagree. I have seen extremists of both stripes lay claim to "onlyness." And I have seen moderates of both stripes willing to give berth to those who did not believe quite as they do. This is a hazard of exclusionary thinking, which leads to the logical fallacy of absolutes. "They are all like...," is very prejudicial thinking if you look at it close enough. ;)
 
I agree. It is simple. But there's more than one idea of simplicity. Please check my full version, and welcome further comments, since I admit I don't fully understand your point of view. Cheers.
I did. I don't and I am that simple. If you don't get it, you won't get it. No offense meant on either side I think. Just the way it is I suppose.

v/r

Q
 
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