My Attempt to Summarize The “Theologically Liberal” Narrative

I am convinced that there is truth and beauty in all points of view. One such point of view – a particularly common one on the Bloggernacle – is the ‘theologically liberal’ (TL) point of view.

As I mentioned elsewhere, this label isn’t very good. It too often encompasses those entirely outside the point of view I’m going to try to express in this post. Making matters more confusing is that people that self identify as holding the TL point of view are often quite shy on wanting to share and explain their beliefs. So I confess that my attempt to put the TL beliefs into words doesn’t come directly from TLs, but rather from my own imaginations based partially on things they’ve actually said and partially on what they oppose rather than on what they actually say about themselves. Rare indeed is the TL that sticks their neck out and says, “This is what I believe!”

But I think that, despite this reticence, the TL point of view deserves more discussion, including admitting to the beauty that exists within it.

So here is my personal attempt to “make sense of it all” and to put plainly how I believe TLs view their own religious beliefs and narrative. For this post, I offer no criticism and would gladly take feedback from a real TL as to what I get right and what I get wrong. And, of course, I get it that I’m talking about one brand of TL and not all brands. But this is the best label I could find for my subject of interest.

I should note here that this was written quite a while ago and before I read Karen Armstrong’s book.

God, Religion, and Humankind

The TL point of view starts with the idea that religion is best analyzed from the point of view of how it affects the well-being of humans. TL admits that religion has had, and continues to have, a positive effect on humankind. Even in this age of science and rational thought, there is room to admit that religion can be an important spiritual component of humanity. 

That is not to say that religion can’t also sometimes be co-opted for evil. Clearly this is true as well as in the case of the crusades or suicide bombers. Religion is, thus, more like a tool albeit one of the most important sociological tools humans have ever created. All religions are a mix of both the good and the bad throughout their history. The goal is to remove the bad and take the good and thereby take the religions of the world and purify them into the image of the very God they wish to worship.

Beliefs

TL focuses on humans instead of on creeds about God. But this doesn’t mean those creeds and beliefs don’t have important value. For example, one can imagine how, say, the Trinity doctrine really does teach us something meaningful about unity and oneness. Indeed, it might teach it in a way that would be difficult to comprehend otherwise.

The TL point of view does not claim that the beliefs of the world’s religions are wrong. It simply isn’t focused on the question of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of such beliefs and instead is focused on ‘what can we human’s learn from this belief?’

Life is Special

In a huge lifeless universe, all life is both rare and special. And of all life, the self-aware mind is the most special of all. We are not like rocks nor even like ants. We are the self-aware minds that know we exist and can find the truth and beauty the universe has to offer us. Life can sometimes be scary and difficult, but every moment is a precious gift of the universe.

God as Goodness

God may or may not literally exist. But at least figuratively one can see that God represents the embodiment of our ‘better angels,’ that is to say our feelings of morality, beauty, charity, kindness, and perfection. This is something worth worshiping and dedicating one’s life to even if, in fact, it turns out that God is only a metaphor for these things. In this way, “God” is a very real force in the world. In this sense, all TLs believe in God.

We Must Weed Out the Evil in Religion

It is not only possible, but it is also our duty to weed out the evil in religion and to keep the good. This is done by searching out that which uplifts and edifies while speaking out against that which does not. The key way to do this is to care about others’ feelings through sympathy and empathy. We must put ourselves in the shoes of others and understand their point of view. Only then can we understand how to best succor them and apply the healing balm of Gilead on their wounds. Like Jesus or other great religious leaders of old, this is our first and greatest duty: to love thy neighbor as thyself and in doing so, we love God with all our heart, mind, and strength.

Religion Saves Us Through It’s Teachings

TL respects all the great religious leaders of old. These wise men and women stove to show us a better way through both their lives and teachings. In doing so, they revealed to us the true “God” (i.e. goodness and morality) and thus all are prophets of God.

By bring us these teachings – these revelations from God, if you will – they save us and bring us to God.

To the TL, religion plays an important role in encasing and wrapping up humanities moral teachings. Through spiritual stories and parables moral teachings are brought to and retained in the world.

All Religions Are True

Because anyone that brings God’s teachings into the world is a prophet, we accept all prophets, no matter which religion he or she came from. Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mother Theresa, and many others all are the true prophets of God in a legitimate sense.

This being so, it is clear that all religions are “true.” We look forward to a future world where all the religions of the world can be united as equal partners in bringing God’s truths to the world without the need for exclusivity claims

Allow People to Believe As They Will 

Though the TL accept the truth from qualified experts in their fields, this doesn’t mean everyone is ready to accept all truths right away. The TL believe that people should be able to believe what they wish. So the TL do not wish to force their beliefs on others. If someone is not ready to accept the beauty of a metaphoric resurrection, then let them believe in the literal one until they are ready to accept more truth and beauty into their lives.

Our Relationship to the Conservative Community 

We are true though non-conventional Believers. We do not believe in expressing our doubts about the faith in Church because we respect the power of faith in the believer’s life. But we stand up for what we know is right, even if it means standing against our own religious community. We advance God’s ways both within and without our chosen community and thereby help purify our own traditions first, just as Jesus taught us to cleanse the inner vessel first.

We Have What We Need To Live Our Lives

TL teaches that human spirituality brings us real happiness, hope, and beauty into our lives. Even in the difficult things in life we can learn to stretch our minds and embrace the beauty therein. Though death is a tragedy, one can learn through prayer and meditation, to accept it as a part of life and to look upon that person’s life, however much they had, as a precious gift.

The Future of Religion

TLs believe that the future of religion is an enjoyment of the diversity of beliefs. When all have finally put aside the needless bickering between religions and have truly embraced each other as fellow servants of God, then and only then will we see that the real beauty is in the forest and not in any particular tree.

Science, History, and Religion

Religion serves an entirely different purpose than science or other types of scholarship. Religion is about the human spiritual impulse, not rational truths of nature. So it should not surprise us that science often tells a different story then our scriptures because they do not serve the same purpose. 

Where the two differ, clearly TLs will go with the experts in their field. If science teaches us about evolution, we accept it because it’s the truth. If historians teach us that religious scriptures and history are not literally true, we accept those truths as well. But it doesn’t matter because they were separate magisterium from the beginning and never should have been intermixed. There should be a ‘separation of church and science.’

The Truth is Better than Our Imaginations 

TLs believe that the truth is better than our imaginations. For example, Joseph Smith may not have been literally right, but what he came up with was still awesome and powerful. Joseph Smith’s teachings are even better when understood in this way then when understood as literally true.

Our Destiny: Truth and Beauty

Only by accepting truth can we most benefit humankind. Religion should not be about fear, it should be about hope. By looking forward with hope we can imagine and then make a bright and shining future for ourselves using truth. This might mean we have to leave some cherished beliefs behind, such as perhaps our stories of Adam and Eve or the literal resurrection of Christ. But in doing so, we move forward in truth and beauty and attain to an even brighter and grander future than was ever contemplated by the ancients. For the truth is superior to our grandest imaginations and in this we can over come our fears and attain to hope.

19 thoughts on “My Attempt to Summarize The “Theologically Liberal” Narrative

  1. What about what CS Lewis calls the “Tao,” the universal laws of right and wrong (the 10 commandments being the most prominent examples for Judeo-Christians)? How would TLs deal with this?

  2. I don’t know that I am theologically liberal, but it is fairly easy to point out that God violates the 10 commandments, so universal understandings of them seem beside the point. If universal only applies to our universe (or our temporal existence) then is it really universal (or multiversal)?

    However, I do tend to think that there are ideal forms of the the Laws and Commandments. I’m skeptical of our human ability to accurate formulate them (or express them after they have been revealed to us), but I do think they are out there and that God adheres to them. But they, like most divine things, tend to escape my comprehension. I don’t know if piety is piety because the gods love it or because it is pious.

  3. Bruce, if you’re interested, there’s a vast amount of scholarship about what you call “theological liberalism,” though of course it’s important to point out that Roman Catholic modernism and Protestant liberalism and so on are all rather different beasts. It’s also probably not correct to say that theological liberals are “shy” about expressing their beliefs; many of them have written vast theological tracts explaining what they’re doing. Off the top of my head, I’ll point to Hans Kung, Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, Teilhard de Chardin, and on and on and on. It’s also important to note that in theological circles – or, at least Christian theological circles, theological liberalism probably reached its apex in the 1900s and 1910s; then neo-orthodoxy, in the person of Karl Barth, dealt a severely chastening blow in the 1930s and 1940s; very few serious theologians would call themselves unreconstructed liberals today.

    Nobody really takes Karen Armstrong seriously.

    Anyhow, if you’re interested, you could start with, say, William Hutchinson’s The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, Kenneth Cauthen’s The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, and Scott Appleby’s Church and Age Unite, which is about Catholic modernism.

  4. I think saying that TLs believe that all religions are “true” confuses the issue, since that word comes with a lot of baggage in LDS circles (“true”=historically accurate, divinely approved, efficacious, one or all of the above). Believing that all religions have truth isn’t the same as saying they are true–that would seem to assume that TLs think that all religions in their “purest” sense (i.e., right when inspiration hit Buddha or Mohammed, etc.) are true, while I think most TLs would say from their very formations, all religions are shaped and determined by their historical foundations.

  5. I’m somewhat TL, and it seems that perhaps Bruce, you are sympathetic to some TL beliefs yourself, inasmuch as you are able to articulate their views in such a generous way. A hallmark of a TL is the ability to “put yourself in others shoes” as you say, so because you do this so effectively, you must be somewhat TL yourself.

    A lot of what you’ve written resonates with my own approach to religion, although I recognize there are serious drawbacks of some of these beliefs, as of course you do, and have pointed out in your reviews on Karen Armstrong.

    However, I didn’t really understand your last two points. What do you mean when you say that truth is better than imagination, and then go on to talk about Joseph Smith’s “non-literal imaginations” being “awesome and powerful.” That point seems to contradict itself.

    Then I don’t understand your last point about “accepting truth” and moving on from non-literal stories like Adam and Eve. I thought that a hallmark of TL beliefs is to not subject religion to the rigors of science and history, as you mentioned in one of your other points. It seems to me that TL belief tries to get away from dogmatic assumptions about truth, whether they be scientific or religious.

    I think it would be more correct to say that TLs don’t like to define anything within religious dogma as definitive truth, and rather accept religion as a kind of mystery which can’t be pinned down by mortals. It is the nuance and contradiction, the incoherence and paradox of religion that attracts a TL. Unlike science, which seems to work according to very quantifiable universal laws, human religious practice is diverse and perplexing, and it’s existence is evidence of something beyond ourselves that cannot be quantified or understood.

    Maybe some TLs insist that everybody should move beyond literal belief, but I think many TLs look with great wonderment at the human capacity for literal belief in the most outrageous of stories, and see it as more evidence of the mystery and power of religion.

  6. John C says: “However, I do tend to think that there are ideal forms of the the Laws and Commandments. I’m skeptical of our human ability to accurate formulate them (or express them after they have been revealed to us), but I do think they are out there and that God adheres to them”

    Yeah, I totally agree. Well said, John.

  7. Geoff asks: “What about what CS Lewis calls the “Tao,” the universal laws of right and wrong (the 10 commandments being the most prominent examples for Judeo-Christians)? How would TLs deal with this?”

    Honestly, I’m not quite sure. Probably John’s answer was correct here.

    On the other hand, my experiences with TL are (as Nate correctly points out) mixed. I think some would answer like John did and some would take a much harder line. In fact, I think the very same one would do both depending on the circumstances. Such is human nature.

  8. Matt B,

    Thank you thank you for the suggestions. I’ve been trying to ask people for good suggestions like these. I asked Mormon Girl even and she couldn’t come up with anything.

    That being said, I think one thing to keep in mind is that my focus was probably more narrow than what you are suggesting. For example, Teilhard de Chardin is probably not a “TL” in the narrow sense I’m writing about above. (Though he is ‘theologically liberal’ in other legitimate senses.)

    I haven’t ready all of de Chardin, so I guess I’m not quite sure. I have read his Phenonmenon of Man, which was his magnum opus. I enjoyed it a lot. But he came across very believing to me and quite literally so in that book, at least.

  9. DLewis says: “I think saying that TLs believe that all religions are “true” confuses the issue…”

    Yeah, I agree this is a ‘confusing issue’ and not one I tried to entirely sort out in the post. I think your points are all valid here.

  10. Nate says: “I’m somewhat TL, and it seems that perhaps Bruce, you are sympathetic to some TL beliefs yourself, inasmuch as you are able to articulate their views in such a generous way.”

    Nate, thanks for saying that. I put a lot of effort into really trying to ‘say it as they see themselves’ to the best of my ability. So I take your words here as a strong compliment.

    I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m quite down on TLism at times too. This is not a contradiction to me.

    You see, I confess that you are right that I have sympathies to the more liberal theological view point. In fact, way back in Dec of 2010, I wrote the following: “Why is it that on paper I look like a NOM but in pratice I’m a “conservative” believer?”

    My intentions back then was to write a post where I discussed this further and showed how my beliefs can come across quite theologically liberal, at times anyhow. But I never did do that post. I probably still will in the future.

    I have never tried to hide this more theologically liberal side to myself, though to be honest, only conservatives ever seen to ‘notice it’ so to speak. (They are usually very much okay with this side of me, though on rare occasions I get a chastising note or two, but I get that from the ‘liberal’ side as well, of course.)

    Like most (all?) people, I am “complex.” I have a “society of mind” (As Minsky calls it) rather than a single entirely coherent mind. (As do we all, I’d imagine.)

    However, you also hit upon some of my ‘frustrations.’ The post does indeed include some seeming contradictions on the points you bring up. In particular:

    However, I didn’t really understand your last two points. What do you mean when you say that truth is better than imagination, and then go on to talk about Joseph Smith’s “non-literal imaginations” being “awesome and powerful.” That point seems to contradict itself.

    But this is how I’ve actually experienced TL on the Bloggernacle. In fact, this was almost a quote of someone else that really said this in a comment. In comments, I went on to point out to the individual that said this that it represents a contradiction. Of course an imaginative set of doctrines about God and the afterlife could never be superior to a literal set of ones. But what he said still stuck with me as being worded in such a way that I could see how it might resonate with others. So I felt like I needed to include it as part of the narrative and I noted it for future use.

    The same could be said of this statement you make: “I think it would be more correct to say that TLs don’t like to define anything within religious dogma as definitive truth”

    But that is how I have actually experienced TL in real life. Sometimes it follows the narrative exactly as you say it, sometimes it makes a point of imagining a better future where we all eventually give up scriptural literalism and accept that there is no literal God. Sometimes this happens with the very same person only differing by circumstance.

    In short, I ‘built in’ to the description above the very contradictions I actually experience with real life TL, but I intentionally tried to frame it in a way that (as much as was possible) ‘hid’ the contradiction.

    But I can see you are too smart for me. :)

    In short I was trying to be fair, but also ‘real.’

  11. Very clever Bruce. And I suppose I agree that the TL definition of truth does present a contradiction.

    In practice, TL’s are not consistent. They claim to be accepting of all traditions as having validity, but in practice, they are prejudiced against conservative ones, who espouse absolute truths. But their prejudice reveals that they themselves also hold absolutist beliefs against absolutists. They themselves are too conservative.

    The following metaphor has been useful in defining liberal versus conservative approaches to religion, and helped me understand the limitations of both approaches: The anthropologist (liberal) and the missionary (conservative):

    The anthropologist ventures into the jungles of Africa to explore a primitive religious culture. In doing so, he tries not to “contaminate” them. He has no agenda to change them. He takes their beliefs at face value, trying to recognize how they effectively operate within the culture. He goes to the shaman same as the others, submits himself to the healing rituals, participates in the chants and prayers, suspending his own judgement and belief. He does this in order to gain understanding, and learn to protect the culture from “missionaries” which will destroy everything authentic and beautiful about it.

    The missionary (conservative) ventures into the jungles of Africa to liberate the people from the evils and shortsightedness of their primitive beliefs. He sees himself as superior in knowledge and culture to the natives, and with a compassionate vision, seeks to raise them up to his own greater understanding.

    In my own mind, the anthropologist represents the ideal liberal, and the missionary, the ideal conservative. But it’s easy to recognize that both approaches have their problems. Anthropologists might turn a blind eye to female genital mutilation for example. Missionaries might introduce non-native ideas which in turn can have negative unintended consequences.

    I think that TL’s in the bloggernacle who contaminate their purity by holding some absolutist beliefs are trying to reconcile the missionary and anthropologist within themselves. But they should admit that by holding absolutist beliefs about evolution and judging those who don’t accept it, they themselves are actually behaving conservatively, like missionaries, not like liberal anthropologists.

    In the worst cases, TLs end up leaving the church because they can’t reconcile the missionary and the anthropoligist within themselves. Like their conservative parents, they can’t shake the idea that we must all believe the same. So because their parents don’t follow their superior knowledge, they are forced to abandon the church.

  12. Oh, and a very interesting post too, Bruce. Like most self-described conservatives I have wrestled with understanding what makes liberals tick. I can’t say you’ve solved the puzzle for me, but I’m impressed with your level of analysis of the issue.

    Having been what I would now call a TL myself, for a short time after my conversion, I think what made me tick was the new and (I thought) enlightening idea that religion did not have to be a bunch of black-and-white do’s and don’ts. You don’t have to tame or suppress your nature, you just have to have good intentions, regardless what you do. In short, frankly, I think it was about making religion easy.

    Whereas later on I came to appreciate and understand through my own experiences that you really do have to tame your nature, and it’s not easy nor should it be, and that that’s the basic idea behind the Cross, and the saying that each of us has to take up his own cross every day and follow in Christ’s steps.

    Anyway I’m short on time but thought I would throw that out there.

  13. “In practice, TL’s are not consistent. They claim to be accepting of all traditions as having validity, but in practice, they are prejudiced against conservative ones, who espouse absolute truths. But their prejudice reveals that they themselves also hold absolutist beliefs against absolutists. They themselves are too conservative.”

    Yes.

    Interestingly, even in your ideal anthropologist example, isn’t there still a thread of absolute truth assumed?

    After studying epistemology, I’ve come to believe that belief in truth must always have this thread of absolutism or it isn’t truth in the first place.

    So I believe there is no point in “fighting it.” It is my opinion that we should use the Myth of the Framework approach as the basis for best interactions and for reconciling our liberal and conservative sides.

    The Myth of the Framework is a realistic approach to finding truth that doesn’t go against human nature at all. The bottom line is: go ahead and believe you have a truth and go try to convert everyone else to it to the best of your ability, because that is how you free yourself of any untruths you have.

    It’s ironic that it’s pretty much the opposite of the conventional wisdom approach to finding truth where you’re supposed to ‘let the facts speak for themselves’ by ‘clearing your mind of prejudices’ etc.

  14. Theological liberalism is that which accepts atheism, agnosticism, or something like it as a fact proposition but embraces religion as a value or aesthetic proposition. Their various viewpoints are different strategies for reconciling the tension. The other variations among them depend on how they rank in importance their competing impulses.

  15. Adam’s definition of theological liberalism matches what I’m talking about in the OP pretty well. But I would point out that many consider de Chardin to be theologically liberal and he does not fit that definition.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure de Chardin considered himself a theological liberal. But he is one of the main examples held up by other TLs. (See comment #3)

    There is a tension here that I think deserves further explaination and discussion… for another time.

  16. Yeah, I doubt whether all TLs are atheists/agnostics. I think a lot of them truly believe in God, but want to define him in a way that’s easy to live with.

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