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.