Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Liberal Theology

I don't like liberal stuff. I don't like liberal politics. I don't like liberal social programs. It speaks to me of class envy and a culture of entitlement that I don't agree with. I don't even like the word. It sounds icky to me. It evokes in me negative character traits in all who are associated with it. So it's a bit of a bizarre experience to find myself becoming more and more 'liberal' as I research life. But I don't identify at all with any person who might identify themselves as liberal. And I do identify with many conservative people. I'm guessing this is due to the fact that the world liberal has evolved since it became a famous word for a philosophical outlook. So maybe what I am becoming could be described as 'classically liberal'. More like the founding fathers than Bill Maher and Sean Penn.

What is Liberal Christian theology? I asked Google and naturally got a bunch of contradictory answers. There are those who define it at a form of Christianity that politically liberal people adhere to. Stuff like Liberation Theology. There are those who assume it is just an excuse to "be a Christian" while living in sin, and the whole point of critical Biblical analysis is to excuse bad behavior. There are those who see it as the most vibrant and greatest form of Christianity. I like this Wiki page about Liberal Christianity. I'm going to pull a few quotes out of there and respond.

"The word "liberal" in liberal Christianity does not refer to a leftist political agenda or set of beliefs, but rather to the manner of thought and belief associated with the philosophical and religious paradigms developed during the Age of Enlightenment."


This seems important to me, as one who was raised in a culture where Liberal was almost a bad word, and to call someone a liberal was slanderous. But that definition I grew up with refers to a political school rather than a philosophical one. Because even the most stanchly conservative Christian is still a child of the enlightenment, and very, very few would argue for a complete return to pre-enlightenment thinking, especially in the realm of personal liberties and racial equality. In that sense all modern Christians are liberals. But there is still obviously a large gulf separating the "liberal" from the "conservative" clans of Christianity. I talked about what I thought that gulf was in my last blog: inerrancy. Here's Wiki's take on it:

"Liberal Christianity, broadly speaking, is a method of biblical hermeneutics, an individualistic method of understanding God through the use of scripture by applying the same modern hermeneutics used to understand any ancient writings. Liberal Christianity does not claim to be a belief structure, and as such is not dependent upon any Church dogma or creedal statements. Unlike conservative varieties of Christianity, it has no unified set of propositional beliefs. The word liberal in liberal Christianity denotes a characteristic willingness to interpret scripture without any preconceived notion of inerrancy of scripture or the correctness of Church dogma.
A liberal Christian, however, may hold certain beliefs in common with traditional, orthodox, or even conservative Christianity."

The last two sentences there describe me pretty well I guess. I've been trying to remove my preconceptions, but I still hold to conservative values. A conservative Christian will ask why I'm trying to remove my preconceptions, since orthodox Christianity is based on them. I think it's a simple matter of value. What do I hold more valuable: Truth, (whatever that may be) or my tradition? And which gets cut if they appear to conflict? I would love for Truth and Orthodoxy to be the same thing. But it is logically impossible for me to know that without sacrificing my tradition in my search for Truth. I can stay in my house forever, claiming it's the biggest and most beautiful house in the world, but until I leave home and start examining all the other houses out there, my claims are illogical and clearly based in bias and sentiment. Most Christian apologetics is like a guy who's never left his house calling all the other houses around and telling them why their houses suck and they should come live with him.

It seems important to me that if one wants to pursue Truth, one must do more than walk down the driveway before running back inside. One must take their time. And by 'one' I mean me. And by me, I mean I have to take my time. One thing that doesn't make sense to me is the person who says, "I've tried X religion, and it doesn't work." Or some other such statement of dismissal. (I've heard this most about Christianity since it's the dominant religion of my culture.) As though a religion is a jacket or a haircut or car you can test-drive. It's not. As a Christian I recognize that a statement of doctrines is not Christianity. Nor a church service. Nor are our rituals like baptism or communion. Nor our philosophical presuppositions. Nor our family values. Nor our political activities. Nor any other element. It is all these things, and to truly "try" Christianity is to immerse yourself in them all completely.

This presents a serious impediment on my journey to find Truth. If Truth is to be found in a particular religion than I am screwed. (Unless I'm lucky enough that Truth resides in my home religion.) Because I don't have enough time in my life to fully immerse myself in every facet of another religion, let alone five or six of them! And even if I had the time, can it truly be called "immersion" if at the root of it all is the motivation of an ultimate search for Truth that may or may not be in the religion I'm trying to immerse myself in? If there is a larger goal involved than it seems to me that the pursuit of any particular religion will be tainted. It would feel to me like entering a marriage with the attitude that "I'll try it out and see how it goes. No promises though." To truly 'be in' a religion or a marriage is to feel that you have found your final goal. Otherwise you will inevitably be phoning it in to a certain extent.

This intrinsic difficulty is why I tend to "zoom out" to the bigger picture of philosophy. Philosophic outlooks can be "tried on" much easier than religions. They can be considered without the pressure of particular communities influencing your thought-patterns. I still can't claim to be able to define Philosophy or Religion, but I feel like Philosophy is the more ultimate mode of thought. In that where you are coming from philosophically determines more about your life and actions than your religion does. What I'm trying to say is that Philosophy dictates religion. That is not to say that it is more important, only that it sets you on a particular mental path, and some paths tend to include certain religions and exclude others. But life is much to messy for things to be this simple, because people belong to religions for many more reasons than a philosophical bent. Therefore you see all sorts of anomalies like atheistic Jews and nihilistic Christians. I believe these sorts of people are simply not being true to either their philosophy or their religion. And to messy things up further, a religion can often shape a psyche in ways that drive their philosophy. To me this seems backwards, since basic religious tenets are dependant on philosophical precepts. You can't conclude that God doesn't want you to eat pork (a religious tenet) until you have agreed to philosophical precepts such as "I exist." "Pigs are real." "A God exists." and "A God communicates with us non-gods." That last statement is certainly in the gray area between philosophy and theology. But I think my point is still clear. Many philosophical ideas have religious significances and visa-versa.

What happens so often with a person raised in a specific religion is that the religious dogma is ingrained, and the philosophy that supports it is just sort of backfilled. Often with no thought whatsoever. I guess I don't want to say this is an illegitimate way to form philosophy, since philosophy is inevitably developed by human experience, and religion is an inevitable form of human experience. But so is math and logic. And those can lead us to different philosophical conclusions than our religion might. In fact, when we Christians do our apologetics is it exactly these alternate conceptions (specifically logic) that we appeal to. We say, "Our claims about God are True and yours are not because yours are illogical." Thereby exposing the fact that our faith IS contingent on something 'above' our accepted revelation. This sort of argument also intrinsically claims that if OUR faith was shown to be illogical we would have to leave it behind. This is exactly what I'm exploring.

And much of that exploration involves investigating other perspectives on Christianity: namely liberal ones. I've been reading liberal Christian books and articles, trying to understand the mindset. Figuring out why someone would be so engaged in a thought-world while simultaneously undercutting its reason for being. (That would be the conservative perspective on what liberal theology is all about.) Take What Paul Meant by Garry Wills for instance. This hilariously superciliously named book claims to give it to us straight, without all the baggage of orthodox theology. The obvious flaw in this proposal is that it is loaded with all the baggage of humanist modernism. But that doesn't mean, as I was raised to believe, that everything from such a font must be inherently false or evil. What I get from these sad, gray waters is a bunch of fascinating historical theories. As the whole concept of miracles is absent, without so much as a single comment, every element of Paul's story that in any way relies on any sort of supernatural intervention is worked around with the proper natural explanations. These explanations are 90% Luke's use of religiously motivated tall-tales in order to convince his audience that all this Christian church stuff was divinely ordained. There is something very tempting about this solution. It's very clean. It's very easy to understand. And it certainly fits within the framework of all other historical analysis. After all, historians don't seriously consider the possibility that the zoo of fantastical beasts from Homer's epics actually existed, or that fire was really stolen from the Gods. We mainstream Christians don't seriously consider the possibility that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married or that Jesus had a secret gospel that He secretly told His disciples. Nor do we seriously consider any of the supernatural claims of the Bag DaVita or the Qur'an. If we study these scriptures we do so with the assumption that all miracles listed therein are tall tales or the lies of demons. So why expect different treatment for our sacred texts?

I suppose that is why conservative Christians look upon the liberal ones with such distain. They are seen as traitors in our midst. We expect a Muslim or atheist scholar to deny the miraculous in our scripture. But it makes NO SENSE to us that those claiming to be one of us would do the same thing. Therefore we see their motives as extremely suspect. After dipping my toes in the liberal Christian waters I guess I feel like that suspicious impulse is only partially justified. What I sense more than anything in liberal Christian writing is a powerful desire to understand this faith as accurately as possible. They simply feel that the modern, post-enlightenment perspective is the best way to understand all things. I think the conservative side misinterprets this as a desire to attack, destroy, dismantle and ultimately to discredit everything that Christianity stands for. I won't deny that I've come across some material like that. But that's not most of what I've read. Here's the closing remarks of What Paul Meant:

"Religion took over the legacy of Paul as it did that of Jesus – because they both opposed it. They said that the worship of God is a matter of interior lover, not based on external observances, on temples or churches, on hierarchies or priesthoods. Both were at odds with those who impose the burdens of 'religion' and punish those who try to escape them. They were radical egalitarians, though in ways that delved below and soared above conventional politics. They were on the side of the poor, and saw through the rich. They saw only two basic moral duties, love of God and love of the neighbor. Both were liberators, not imprisoners – so they were imprisoned. So they were killed. Paul meant what Jesus meant, that love is the only law. Paul's message to us is not one of guilt and dark constraint. It is this: Finally Brothers, whatever things are true, whatever honorable, whatever making for the right, whatever lovable, whatever admirable – if there is any virtue, anything of high esteem – think on these. All you have learned, have taken from tradition, have listed to, have observed in me, act on these, and the God who brings peace will be yours. (Phil 4:8-9)"

These are hardly the words of a guy who hates Paul and his message. You could certainly accuse Mr. Wills of picking and choosing what parts of Paul he will and won't consider, but he's obviously a fan. What you get from Wills is a guy who isn't starting with the presupposition that "the" Bible we have is perfect and written by God. I no longer see that as a deficit of character, faith, or intelligence like I did before. I simply see it as a different perspective. One that I'm moving closer to.

Maybe I'm becoming a self-loathing liberal? Just kidding, I like myself way too much to loath myself. How else could I write SO… MUCH?!?!