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.
Treat Scripture Objectively
Another current in “liberal theology” is to apply the same standards to scripture that we would to all historical documents. John explains:
…the biblical critics of the 19th and 20th centuries would make objective investigation of the scriptures a central concern of liberal theology by investigating the authorship of the books of the Bible and by interpreting the texts within the circumstances in which they were written. An example of this would be scholarly findings that some of the raw material of the Pentateuch (serpents as powerful malevolent beings guarding trees of wisdom, a catastrophic flood, giants, ribs taken from men to form women, etc.) was adapted from Sumerian stories known to the Israelites from their captivity in Assyria (and later Babylon).
My initial reaction is “sign me up!” I agree that we need to make an objective investigation of the scriptures and I agree that might lead us to find things like the idea that imagery from the Eden story was similar to Sumerian stories.
But then, the more I think of it, it seems like this might easily become an excuse for Christian Atheism again. We could basically decide that scripture has no value at all, out side of being a cool historical document, or we could decide that scripture is never literally true, but we can still think of it as nice (but fraudulent?) metaphors by which to lead our lives or to explore the ‘mysteries’ of existence.
Given those objectives, John goes on to suggest how they might apply to “Liberal Mormonism”:
- Reason and evidence must have an appropriate influence on the formation and periodic revaluation of our religious beliefs.
- Therefore, the well-established findings of the natural and social sciences, historical methodology, etc., all have things to tell us about Mormonism.
- Questions of historicity are thus best decided by historians, anthropology by anthropologists, biology by biologists, and so forth.
- Only a few narrowly defined truth claims can be considered binding on a Mormon in good standing. All others may be individually decided, since the subjective response to religion is more important than it’s objective truth, where it is more difficult to obtain clear information. Example: I am very certain that being a Mormon makes me a better and happier person, somewhat less certain that God exists, and least certain that God has a physical body with two hands and two feet.
Is Richard Bushman a Conservative Mormon or a Liberal One?
John suggested that if the above picture fit you, then you were a “Liberal Mormon” whether or not you realized it.
Initially, I rejected the idea that I was a “Liberal Mormon” if for no other reason that the label would be misleading when applied to me compared to it’s more common usage. But I had another concern too. I wasn’t so sure about #3 above. For example, if I interpret it literally, then I have to accept that the current thinking by historians is law, which seemed rather irrational to me given the true nature of history. For that matter, it’s probably a safe bet that if we accept the expert secular opinion on The Book of Mormon that being a “Liberal Mormon” would be more or less synonymous with “Unbelieving Mormon.”
But then John surprised me by saying, in a comment, that Richard Bushman was a liberal Mormon. I was shocked and told him so. After all, Richard Bushman has gone on record stating he believes in The Book of Mormon as literal history.
This suggested to me that perhaps John did not interpret #3 quite so literally.
What’s a Conservative Christian?
But if Richard Bushman fit John’s idea of a liberal Mormon, then clearly he must interpret #3 as merely meaning that we will incorporate such disciplines into our religion using the best scholarly techniques. I have no issue with this whatsoever and have a hard time believing anyone would. Given that interpretation I certainly would have to be considered a “Liberal Mormon.”
But given that interpretation, I’m not sure any rational person could be called a “Conservative Christian” any more. I mean what is left for them? Are they the people that believe we should care about God and not our neighbor, that believe the Bible should not be treated objectively, and that feel scripture overrides science?
It seems to me that the above attempt to define “Liberal Christian” (or Liberal Mormon) casts a net so wide that it includes outright atheists like Paulus to full on believers like Averill – and probably a lot more. For example, you’d think #4 would rule out Paulus. But, of course, it doesn’t. Paulus might feel that the core truth claim of Christianity is that Christ was “a son of God” and that he was “inspired by God.” And perhaps even the word “God” can be rethought to mean “human morality” or “human spirituality.”
In fact, I am worried that this attempt to define “Liberal Theology” is merely a way of not talking about legitimate differences via an umbrella that casts it’s net over all but a chosen fundamentalist few that are intentionally being ousted.
But in any case, I’m glad to know that I’m a “Liberal Mormon.” And so are all readers on M* most likely.