What Does the “Liberal” Mean in “Liberal Theology”?

In my last post, I suggested that “liberal” and “conservative” were becoming (or already were) mostly meaningless terms when applied to theology because they tended to define either non-existent groups (i.e. “conservative Christian”?) or were labels to grossly broad as to express nothing at all. (i.e. Paulus and Averill both being “liberal Christians.”)

However, before I dismiss the words entirely, let me just say that there has been an attempt to define “Liberal Christian” by “Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German who attempted to reconcile Protestantism with the Enlightenment.” John Nilsson, in an old Mormon Matters post, gave a brief overview.

It’s About Human Response

A key point is that we are not talking about liberal vs. conservative politics. So get that out of your mind right away.One could be (according to Schleiermacher’s view) a ‘liberal’ politically and a ‘conservative’ theologically or vice versa.

So what is a “Liberal” theologically speaking then? Schleiermacher’s view…

…emphasized the importance of the subjective human response to religion, rather than the objective truth claim of religion. An example of this would be the assertion that the freedom from anxiety that awareness of Christ’s sacrifice brings us as Christians is more existentially significant than which model of the Atonement is the most accurate or whether the Atonement occurred in exactly the way the Gospels attest.

So far, so good, I say. Sign me up. Seems like this is precisely what God would want us to do – concentrate on our neighbor, not esoteric doctrinal purity.

One concern I might have with this position, however, is if this is all just a cover up for Christian Atheism. Let’s admit that this view expressed above, if stretched to it’s logical limits, really would say nothing about God at all and would instead – rather contradictorily in my opinion – become merely about how human spirituality via belief in a non-existent God can have positive effects in our life.

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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.

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Philosophy: The Value of Sticking Your Neck Out

I recently read (or listened to anyhow) a book called The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb. Now I am not that interested in ancient philosophy and philosophers, or at least wasn’t before this book. My general point of view is (was?) that we owe ancient philosophers a huge debt of gratitude for their dream of using reason to understand the world. But I also believe that their theories were all just shy of 100% hogwash and no rational person today (thanks to our scientific knowledge) would ever choose to be ‘an Aristotelian’ or some other follower of one of the ancient schools – unless they were doing it for purely religious reasons. (I tend to give people a pass if they are doing it for religious reasons.)

I’m probably wrong in this opinion, since there are many very smart and sincere philosopher’s today that are Aristotelians. But, given my bad attitude, I’m not likely to give them the time of day to convince me otherwise.

With this attitude, is it really that surprising that I have made little effort to study philosophy? But here I think I’ve erred. For after reading a book like The Dream of Reason, I can see that there is immense value in understanding the historical problems that these philosophers were grappling with and to look, with 20/20 hindsight, at what their graspings eventually led to.

And one of the key lessons of the book, if I were to pick one and call it the main theme, is that no matter how wrong you are, if you at least try to use reason, you are probably on the right track. In short, the book screamed to me “Stick your neck out and be wrong! Only the Rejectionists (i.e. people that point out all the problems of other’s beliefs but advance none of their own) truly fail in the realm of Reason!”

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The Evening News and The Psychology of Belief / Unbelief

Jesus Walks on Water

In a past post I talked about Joe Geisner’s short review (in a comment) of Heinrich Paulus’ book where he tries to come up with ways to explain way the miracles of Jesus.

All of this reminded me of a news report I once saw on the evening news. I wish I had a clip of it. I can’t even remember for sure if it was Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings. I’m thinking it was Peter Jennings.

At best as I can remember from memory, here is what he said:

Well, we recently did two news reports that might be important for Christians. One was a news report that scholars have found the Gospel of Judas, complete with it’s very different take on the teachings of Jesus, and another was about a scholar that had discovered that sometimes the Sea of Galillee freezes, perhaps explaining how Jesus walked across it.

Given these recent news stories, we wouldn’t blame people if their faith was shaken. Good night.

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The Book of Mormon as Inspired Fiction

Not long ago I did a reprint of a Mormon Matters post where I asked people if they would regularly study inspired fiction. The overwhelming answer was “no.” But in the choir of voices, there was one particularly interesting response that I think is worthy of sharing.

Now this commenter did not believe the Book of Mormon is in any way historical. In fact, when he took my question to the group, he rewrote it like this:

Did coming to believe realize The Book of Mormon was only inspired fiction not a literal history cause you to reduce your efforts to study it in any way?

His response was then:

I’ve known this since my teenage years, so a before/after comparison is impossible. All of my adult study of the Book of Mormon has been informed by my understanding that it is not a literal history.

His biggest concern with my original post was that:

I think the terms “fiction” and “fictional” are loaded words that break the spiritual mood. To keep a religious feeling, it’s probably better to say “parable” or “inspired stories” or simply “scripture,” with the understanding that scripture is not history and vice versa.

My concern with his rewording was that just saying “parable” failed to get to the heart of my real question, which was how do you explain the plates. Joseph Smith carted them around and many many people touched them under a cloth.

Then an amazing thing happened, he actually gave an tentative answer to this question. Outside of this one time, I never seen nor heard of any person in favor of an “inspired fiction” view of the Book of Mormon actually make an attempt to explain how such a thing is possible! (See also Mike Parker’s article on this subject.)

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