Liberal vs. Unbelieving

A while back, over at Wheat and Tares, I participated in a discussion about whether or not “liberal religions” were “leeches on conservative religions.”

One thing that has also been difficult is to figure out what is even meant by “liberal” and “conservative.”

Does “Conservative” when referring to theology mean “believes every scripture completely literally?” If so, I doubt there is such a thing as a “conservative” when it comes to theology. But there is one thing that seems very consistent when we refer to “Conservative Christians”: we always seem to mean someone that believes in the doctrines of the Christian religion, particularly the unique Divine Sonship of Jesus Christ and the literal resurrection after his crucifixion. Perhaps this is why sometimes “liberal Christian” gets used as a simple (though as we’ll see, incorrect) synonym for a practicing-but-not-believing Christian.

But this just doesn’t seem to be an accurate use of the term either. For example, I was reading Lloyd Averill’s book Religious Right, Religious Wrong: A Critique of the Fundamentalist Phenomenon and I came across this explanation of his own Christian beliefs:

One fundamentalist doctrine that cannot stand the test of original biblical intent is that of the virgin birth of Jesus. The problem with the virgin birth… is not that the religions of the world were filled with accounts of miraculously birthed saviors, or that modern science has no place for human parthenogenesis, both of which are true. The problem is… internal to [the New Testament]: the New Testament itself fails to affirm the virgin birth broadly or give it a central place in its witness to Jesus as the Christ. Consider the following points.

First, the miraculous birth of Jesus is reported unambiguously in only one place in the New Testament. [Goes on to point out that in Matthew the mention of virgin birth in Isaiah is actually a mistranslation of the Septuagint.] Second, Luke’s birth account is ambiguous. …there is no explicit elimination of Joseph from the impregnation nor any mention of embarrassment on his part that his betrothed had become pregnant without his help… Neither Matthew nor Luke makes any later reference to the birth, and Mark and John contain no birth accounts at all. … If Paul knew of it, he obviously thought it unimportant…

So the virgin birth, as a physiological fact, fails – not out of scientific consideration, but out of the wight of biblical evidence… (p. 83-85)

So here we have what many would call a ‘liberal Christian.’ He denies the virgin birth.

Yet he goes on to say this:

The doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, held not only by fundamentalists but by the Christian mainstream to be a – perhaps even the – central tenet of Christian faith, is quite a different manner from the virgin birth when tested in the light of the original biblical intent. Consider the following points:

First, the resurrection of Jesus was the most common affirmation of the early church. It is explicitly affirmed in almost every book of teh New Testament and, considering the church’s common witness, can be presumed to lie under those brief, later epistles in which it is not explicitly mentioned. …

Second, resurrection accounts in the four Gospels differ in their details, adding to the credibility of the central event itself. They display discrepancies one might expect in any happening recounted at a later time from the point of view of different witnesses to it, who remember different things or remember them differently while agreeing on the central event. …

Third, in spite of the enormous nuisance created by the apostles’ preaching of the resurrection, the Jewish authorities did not refute them by producing Jesus’ body. …

Fourth, the changes that occurred in the apostles themselves, following their reported resurrection experiences, surely required some radically transforming event as their source. …

Finally, Paul placed the resurrection at the very center of Christian affirmation as its sine qua nono: without the resurrection, he wrote in 1 Cor 15:17, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”…

So, though we may not be able to explain the resurrection event, the New Testament will not let us explain it away. It was substantially real to those first witnesses, so much so that they were willing to die for it. (p. 87-88)

A certain internet stalker took exception to this discussion. ChrisH added his voice to this discussion saying:

In short, this is a man who believes in the Christian faith, science or no.

The simple truth is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is more central to Christianity than the virgin birth. I personally believe in both – The Book of Mormon does not leave much room on this — so I think Averill is wrong about the virgin both. But that isn’t the point. The point is that it is entirely impossible for Averill to be an unbeliever if he accepts the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, all central tenets of Christianity must be accepted if you accept the resurrection. Christ, for example, must be divine in some legitimate sense. (Ignoring the Muslim argument here for a moment.) There must be a resurrection and thus an afterlife. There must be a literal God that is a person and a literal heaven.

Therefore Averill is a good example of a ‘liberal Christian’ that is in no way shape or form a Rejectionist. And he is, in every sense, a believer.

The Big Tent of Liberal Theology

Now compare Averill to Paulus. Paulus rejects the resurrection. So there is no possible way to square Paulus with any form of Christianity. Jesus can, at most, be as divine as we all are if we ‘do what is right.’ Paulus’ religion is therefore works oriented and not faith nor grace oriented. Since there are no miracles, this calls in to question God’s power and indeed God’s existence outside of metaphor. I am not familiar enough with Paulus (not at all other than what I’ve learned on the Bloggernacle, and with no interest in finding out more) so I really don’t know what sort of religion Paulus represents. I do know it is not a believing form of Christianity.

It is deeply unfortunate that we also call Paulus a “Liberal Christian”. A label this broad has no expressive power any more.

It is well known that there are ministers of Christianity that are in fact full atheists. This may not be common, but it happens. It’s not even necessarily considered weird for some liberal sects.

Some ‘Liberal’ sects do seem to tolerate this sort of thing. And because they do, people that believe tend to flee them. And that is how it should be. I go to Church to have my faith in hope increased, not challenged. The challenges are everywhere else. The Church is the one place I can get away from the rest of the doubting world and renew my faith in God. Having that one safe hold taken from me would be the end. I would not participate any more, as there would be no reason to.

All people are welcome to figure out their relationship with God as they see fit. I do not deny that. I am merely pointing out why it is that a sect that tolerates unbelief is more than merely tolerating it – it is unintentionally promoting it. And a sect that does not believe at all any more is doomed because it has ceased to be a religion. It’s only future, if that, is to harvest ex-believers from believing religions. (Whether those are ‘conservative’ or not doesn’t matter.)

But this scenario plays out over a very long period of time. Usually two or three generations. So it’s not always obvious right away. So it may seem like openly “accepting” unbelief is a good idea. A ‘bigger tent’ so to speak. But in fact it’s a request for the believers to go find another religion, so it’s the smallest tent imaginable.

My point then is this. “Conservative” and “Liberal” has nothing to do with it. Averill’s “liberal theology” can be easily accomodated — even embraced — within his tradition. Paulus’ can’t be because it’s a contradiction to its tradition. 

It’s acceptance or lack of acceptance of “unbelief” that actually matters when we are talking about the health of a religion. Some belief systems may be able to tolerate lack of belief better than others, I admit. Christianity — with it’s central doctrine being the resurrection —  probably isn’t one of them.

But no religious belief system can fully promote those that are really a different religious belief system. They can, at most, ask them to participate and minimize their real beliefs out of their Churches.

I wish there was some other way as much as I wish I could repeal the second law of thermodynamics.

13 thoughts on “Liberal vs. Unbelieving

  1. I don’t know. My faith is often most challenged at church. And I always thought “liberal Christians” were Christian Democrats. 😉

    But I agree. The only real central tenet of Christianity is a Divine Jesus Christ, meaning He has power over life and death. Everything else, while not necessarily peripheral, doesn’t change the definition of who is a Christian in my mind.

  2. Good post. I problem I see in some liberal traditions is that they can actually be intolerant of conservatives. They have no problem accepting many diverse points of view, with the exception of conservative ones.

    The greatest test of a liberal is if he or she can be tolerant of intolerance.

  3. “I go to Church to have my faith in hope increased, not challenged. The challenges are everywhere else.”

    You must have a very rare ward to afford you such great Sacrament speakers that can increase your faith. I usually attend knowing I’ll have to get my faith strengthened at the Sacrament table, and then in my life away from the Church meetings, which rarely offer much spiritual power.

  4. I do note that it confuses me that any Christian faith would allow atheists to lead their congregations.

    Since a conservative Episcopelian friend pointed him out to me 25 years ago, I’ve read up on Bishop John Spong and his attempts to change the Episcopelian church. His tenets are:

    “Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
    “Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
    “The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.
    “The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
    “The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
    “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
    “Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.
    “The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
    “There is no external, objective, revealed standard written in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.
    “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.
    “The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.
    “All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.”

    John Spong

  5. You must have a very rare ward to afford you such great Sacrament speakers that can increase your faith.

    It’s not the sermon that strengthens your faith, its the sermonizer.

  6. Actually its the Spirit that strengthens faith when you make the effort to hear the sermon that the Spirit wants you to hear.

  7. I think we need to make a destinction between rational liberals and mystical liberals.

    John Spong is a rational liberal who has abandoned traditional theistic notions and replaced them with modern scientific and rational arguments. This approach is as dogmatic and narrow minded as the conservative one.

    However, there are also many open-minded liberals which accept supernatural and mystical phenomenon, while at the same time accepting that demonstrable scientific and historical criticisms of those phenomenon also have merit. A mystical liberal accepts all empirical evidence, even if that evidence is contradictory, and whether or not it comes in a scientific or spiritual form.

    I find many liberal Christians are often more inclined to believe that Joseph Smith was having a divine supernatural experience than conservative Christians, who are quick to dismiss anything that contradicts their Biblical fundamentalism. The liberal will not be inclined to join the Mormons of course, because embracing Mormonism would involve embracing an exclusive dogma. But they will hold more positive views of Joseph Smith by virtue of their inclusive perspectives.

    As a mystical liberal and a Mormon, I accept the conservative dogma of the LDS church, while at the same time taking at face value the spiritual or scientific testimony of others, even if they may contradict my own. If I expect others to accept my testimony, who am I to deny theirs? And who am I to deny God His contradictions and paradoxes, since His ways are higher than mine?

  8. Nate,
    I am glad you posted before me as you pretty much put into words the feelings I could never express so well. I may not have included the acceptance of the church’s conservative dogma, but I will accept Joseph more readily than a cookie-cutter conservative. I also find that, much of the time, a political liberal often lines up with a religious liberal and a political conservative often lines up with a religious conservative.
    A rational liberal, in this sense, could very well be a political conservative.

  9. I do think some of the comments suggest confusion between ‘political liberals and conservatives’ and theological ones. They may correlate to some degree, but they are very different from each other.

    Actually, I take that all back. Part of my point is that there is no such thing as a ‘theologically liberal’ individual if by that we assume we mean something specific. It’s a category without an agreed upon definition. But I suppose the same is true for conservative theology as well. Conservative of what? Liberal of what?

    I’ll post more thoughts on this later. But for now, I’m just not convinced the label means much of anything.

  10. Bruce,
    I think I can agree. It is just an easy label for a broad group. liberal-minded vs. conservatively-minded. I have adopted ‘liberal’ for a basic worldview that I espouse so people I converse with will understand where I am coming from. I define the standard religious Christian as broadly conservative as I find I differ in opinion with them on most things. In this way the terms become useful to a degree.

  11. Like Bruce, I dislike the labels, because they tend to confine or possibly misinterpret a person’s stance. My addition of Spong’s points of contention are an example of a “liberal” that does not relate to most of the liberal theologians I know. Yet they tend to be grouped together. I like Nate’s notion of rational vs mystical. The depictions seem helpful in separating the Spongs from the Omans of the world. I would gladly listen to Nate for hours on theology. I don’t think I would spend 10 minutes with John Spong.

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