Is Liberal Christianity Possible (full version)

Devadatta

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(Sorry. The other post under the same name was incomplete. Please respond to this, if you like.)

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.

Now, I know many would say that the ideological structures imposed by orthodoxy and exemplified in Paul and the Gospel of John were necessary to the creation and survival of Christianity, that otherwise the Jesus sect would have fallen back and dissolved into the Jewish tradition. Some may also point out that the crucifixion of the messiah was so shocking an event that a master narrative, a coercive ideology was essential to the faith.
Both claims may be true. But even if there are, I guess the liberal view is that we needn’t be framed by an ideology that was once necessary but that no longer serves, and which in fact may be detrimental to the long-term future of the faith. I think it’s instructive that the greatest growth areas for Christian conversion, as for Islam, are in under-developed and undereducated areas of the world. What will happen to Christianity when such conditions no longer obtain and ideological Christianity no longer has a market?
Anyway, forgive me for pointing out things that are probably obvious to everyone, going on too long and sounding in places like a sermon. But I am posing the question. Non-ideological, liberal Christianity may be essential to the survival of the faith, but is it possible?
 
Oh, what the hey! Verbose person that I am, I would like to address this area of your post:

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.
I think I understand what it is you are saying here, and I don't disagree, but I do think this is too narrow of a view.

Yes, it concerns me that certain elements within Christianity do seem to wish for the "end times" of Revelation to begin, even doing what they can materially to hasten that to come. It can seem at times that some Christians are their own worst enemy, that they are "self-fulfilling" the end time prophecies, as if it were theirs to do so. In some strange way they are creating their own worst nightmare. So yes, I think I understand.

However, I would also point out there is a long and cherished prophetic tradition that reaches back into Judaism. Christians have not only the New Testament prophecies. Indeed, any beginning level Bible student can see that Revelations has deep ties to Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and the "minor" prophets. If anything, that is a paradox of modern Christianity (fuelled as much by the liberal branch) that "one doesn't need to understand Revelations." It is too hard to unravel, and besides it is irrelevent to our time. To which my response is "hogwash!"

The very name "Revelations" interprets as "revealing." When one considers the rich Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition and can set that aside a study in history, one can see where so much actually has come to pass. No doubt some, such as the atheists mentioned previously, tout that some prophecies were back dated, written after the fact. I don't think so. The Jewish Temple was foretold to be destroyed and rebuilt, and so it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzer's forces, and rebuilt in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple and the raising in three days. If the synoptic Gospels are to be believed, the Temple of his body was raised after three days in the bowels of the earth. Indeed, Jesus foretold the razing of the Temple, and some 40 or so years later the Romans happily obliged. Psalm 22 is a remarkable prophecy of the crucifixion, and a thousand years later it came to pass. Into that heritage the book of Revelations comes, along with Matthew 24, and corresponding verses in Luke and I think John. It's been awhile, I don't recall if Mark covers the same turf.

Anyway, I think it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater to suggest that "it’s a dangerous distraction from the more (fundamental!) heart of the Christian message." Quite the contrary, I think it is crucial to the Christian message, and far too many Christians ignore how crucial it is. I have seen a laundry lists of reasons which seem to boil down to two: denial and refusal. Neither of which is conducive to being open to Spirit.

The spirit of prophecy is alive and well, not just in Christianity and not just in the Bible. Whether "deja vu" or prescient dreams or gut feelings or intuition or whatever one wishes to call it, prophecy exists. I think it wise to at least consider from that vantage before dismissing blindly what one may not understand. ;)
 
Oh, what the hey! Verbose person that I am, I would like to address this area of your post:


I think I understand what it is you are saying here, and I don't disagree, but I do think this is too narrow of a view.

Yes, it concerns me that certain elements within Christianity do seem to wish for the "end times" of Revelation to begin, even doing what they can materially to hasten that to come. It can seem at times that some Christians are their own worst enemy, that they are "self-fulfilling" the end time prophecies, as if it were theirs to do so. In some strange way they are creating their own worst nightmare. So yes, I think I understand.

However, I would also point out there is a long and cherished prophetic tradition that reaches back into Judaism. Christians have not only the New Testament prophecies. Indeed, any beginning level Bible student can see that Revelations has deep ties to Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel and the "minor" prophets. If anything, that is a paradox of modern Christianity (fuelled as much by the liberal branch) that "one doesn't need to understand Revelations." It is too hard to unravel, and besides it is irrelevent to our time. To which my response is "hogwash!"

The very name "Revelations" interprets as "revealing." When one considers the rich Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition and can set that aside a study in history, one can see where so much actually has come to pass. No doubt some, such as the atheists mentioned previously, tout that some prophecies were back dated, written after the fact. I don't think so. The Jewish Temple was foretold to be destroyed and rebuilt, and so it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzer's forces, and rebuilt in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple and the raising in three days. If the synoptic Gospels are to be believed, the Temple of his body was raised after three days in the bowels of the earth. Indeed, Jesus foretold the razing of the Temple, and some 40 or so years later the Romans happily obliged. Psalm 22 is a remarkable prophecy of the crucifixion, and a thousand years later it came to pass. Into that heritage the book of Revelations comes, along with Matthew 24, and corresponding verses in Luke and I think John. It's been awhile, I don't recall if Mark covers the same turf.

Anyway, I think it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater to suggest that "it’s a dangerous distraction from the more (fundamental!) heart of the Christian message." Quite the contrary, I think it is crucial to the Christian message, and far too many Christians ignore how crucial it is. I have seen a laundry lists of reasons which seem to boil down to two: denial and refusal. Neither of which is conducive to being open to Spirit.

The spirit of prophecy is alive and well, not just in Christianity and not just in the Bible. Whether "deja vu" or prescient dreams or gut feelings or intuition or whatever one wishes to call it, prophecy exists. I think it wise to at least consider from that vantage before dismissing blindly what one may not understand. ;)


Hi again. Thanks for your calm defence of prophecy and the apocalyptic spirit. I'm afraid I can't go very far with you along this track. I think biblical scholarship has shown that these things can get backdated, I've read for example that that's the case with the prophesies in the Book of Daniel. Also, I agree with people like Harold Bloom that the new testament writers misread the tanakh for their own purposes, witness their rejuggling the order of the books. I think we have to realize as well that any day of the week one can flip on the TV or radio and hear some preacher rehashing the old prophesies, and committing all sorts logical howlers in the process. You can understand that prophesy easily falls into disrepute. I've never come across anything I've found the least convincing along this line.
On the other hand, I've never done a real study of this kind of thing, so to be intellectually honest I should claim to be no more than agnostic on the subject.
But also what's important to all of us I think is the use we can make of various aspects of scripture. Personally, the end of the world has never interested me. But I wouldn't say that apocalyptic thinking is all together bad or should be completely ignored. I think the prophetic impulse in general is an important part of the social gospel. It provides a sense of urgency unique to Christianity. It also works on the level of personal spiritual development. The apocalypse will come to all of us, on a personal level, and the signs and portents will be the loss of ones we love. When Jesus makes reference to ideas of sudden rapture, I think they work to inspire the urgency to spiritually develop while we have the opportunity.
And yet a little of this, in the context of the gospel of love, is all that is needed from my point of view. I'm suspicious of some pronouncements, put in the mouth of Jesus, which betray some of the vindicitiveness and bad faith I mentioned. Again, this kind of stuff can be dangerous, and has been over the long history of Christianity. So for me the Book of Revelation is way over the top in this genre, and unnecessary to the core message.
Thanks again.
 
Thanks for your calm defence of prophecy and the apocalyptic spirit.
No problem. And I appreciate that study in the mode of prophecy may not be your particular cup of tea. Like I tried to point out in my other response, I am inclined to think it more wise to try to be more inclusive of those elements that differ from our preferences. Like Paul taught with the analogy of the "body of believers," not everyone can be the head, or the hand, or the foot. Not everyone has a taste or appreciation for prophecy, and that's OK by me. But I have a deep abiding interest in prophecy, and a personal connection to it, so it resonates with me. ;)
 
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