For a decade I worked at and became contextualized in a conservative Bible college. We understood ourselves to be true to the Bible (that was in the name of the school and the church I centered my life around. And my Bible was dog-eared, so it must have been true) and thus to God. And we understood that other types of Christians were classified under a few different labels, but they were all like hell-bound heretics. Not necessarily – for God could save anyone. Just most likely. I, quite honestly, didn’t understand why they even bothered with the name “Christian.” That was OUR name.
First were the old orders: Catholics and Orthodox. Then were the liberals. After that, and less on the heretical slide, were the weirder denominations (y’know, like Charismatics) and then the liberal Evangelicals (those who, like some from Wheaton, thought the world to be more than 6,000 years old!).
And I was pretty good at this safeguarding. I couldn’t tell you that you were going to hell for your sins, but you were probably on not-safe ground traveling around in your Liberal Hippy Christianity Bug. On the way to hell, of course.
|Weeeee! Jesus may or not be the Son of God, but I’d be on my way to hell if I believed in such an ontological destination!
This is fundamentalist Christianity 101. We take the Bible seriously and we know and are sure of what the Bible teaches! The Bible is the Word of God and it teaches what is true and if you don’t believe what we believe about God through our understanding of the Bible, you don’t take the Bible’s revelations seriously! And if you don’t take the Bible seriously, you don’t take God seriously! You have no faith and your non-faith will send you to hell!
But I wasn’t a strict fundamentalist. I was a conservative Evangelical. So that meant I was nicer in my fundamentalism. You’re not necessarily going to hell… Just more likely to.
Roger Olson, post-fundy Evangelical New Testament professor, reminded me of those uncharitable descriptions in his post, Why I Am Not a “Liberal Christian.” He gives several rubrics to identify if a person or church is a liberal Christian by what she, he or they believe. And that, in itself, is instructive. The first, for example:
How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?”
As Tony Jones says, this is bunk. Neither I nor you nor Pastor Jack nor Roger Olson can “recognize the authority of special revelation” without having begun with (and giving “norming authority” to) experience, culture and other contextualizations.
But there’s the awareness. The awareness of context and how that enables and helps and stifles and gives us room to build or not build – but mostly to be. And with the awareness comes the acknowledgement – according to a traditional theological view, if not a correct one – that we are adversarial to faith. Knowledge is forbidden in many corners of Christianity because knowledge diverts from this traditional view of faith. Knowledge could cause us to see that maybe things aren’t the way we’re led to believe they are.
The rest of Olson’s checklist also sets up these dichotomies, though not quite as contradictory. Although the age of the earth and whether or not one accepts evolution isn’t on Olson’s list, the virgin birth and literal resurrection of Jesus are. In such a list, one must be sure of either the veracity or the nonsense of such claims – one can only be sure that it did happen or that it did not happen. Such a list based on what one is sure of in doctrinal terms fails to make sense to me anymore. Since in many of these positions, I find myself in between one point or another. And I sense very much the same position that I myself limited myself and other Christians to just a scant few years ago.
But then there’s this definition, which struck a chord:
Historical theologian Claude Welch… boiled it (viz., “liberal Christianity”) down to a phrase: “maximal acknowledgment of the claims of modernity” in theology.
But of course my approach to viewing the bible and theology and Christianity and acts of faith is informed by modernism. Of course it is. How could it not be?
So is yours. So is Roger’s. So is the pastor of the local Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church. And the Church of Christ across the tracks from it. As well as any atheist. That’s because that is where we live and how we are contextualized: In modernism. My postmodernism is contextualized in modernism. Fundamentalism is a rejection of modernity – but it’s contextualized and fully a product of modernism.
So a liberal Christian, then, is aware and accepts the fact that we live and breathe and think in a landscape thoroughly influenced by modernism. However, I – and most progressive Christians I know – would deny many of the claims of modernism: that we can become better people simply through knowledge, that the world evolves towards a more enlightened sense, that knowledge is fundamentally moral. But I won’t deny that living in a post- modern world shapes my reality fundamentally. It shaped everything.
So I guess by this standard, I am a liberal Christian. Scare quotes optional.
But in case one would think that this is a neutral or positive label to the Evangelical Gatekeepers:
If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself “Christian.”
This conviction – one I shared just a scant decade ago – is based on some idea that a liberal Christianity is weak and lacking distinctive features. Which is odd to me, at least on this edge of “liberal Christianity” (or whatever it is I am).
I and those like me follow a religious practice that is, in Roger’s words, “[T]hin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying.” We lack prophetic voice and identity, apparently. (Post-Evangelical Eastern Orthodox Frank Schaeffer apparently argues the opposite, claiming that all Protestants, and at the height of that, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, lack Christian identity because they don’t hold to liturgy. None of this surprises me, I suppose. In building and maintaining our own tribes often we tear down others that are less recognizable). My actualization of my faith has been called many things, but lacking in prophetic utterances has hardly been one of them.
But here I stand. Thin. Ephemeral. Light. Profoundly unsatisfying.
We are Eucharist wafers, apparently.
The fundamental problem I have with all of this is that Roger defines us all by what we “believe” – ie, what we profess to or acquiesce to as being real or true. And when I say “all”, I mean “all.” We all, according to this theology, this perspective, will enter or be denied entry to heaven and the presence of God by whether or not we agree with and can check off certain beliefs that are, frankly, not consequential to our current reality. Does it – in the grand scheme of things – matter whether one can agree with the Nicene Creed? Is that what Jesus required to enter his Kingdom? Did he ever mention those as prerequisites, as keys to the gates, as the entrance points into which one comes into the sheep fold?
No. But Jesus wasn’t a very good gatekeeper, I guess.