This is a good, concise introduction. Most (though not all) of these criteria apply to the way I practice my Christian faith. I wish the author had noted that there are many evangelicals and catholics who also meet several of these criteria as well, although they would not apply the ‘liberal’ label to themselves. These folks are no less followers of the ‘middle way’. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Another critique I have of the article is that they lump all ‘mainline’ Christians into the liberal camp, which is patently untrue. Mainline denominations, like my own (Presbyterian), tend to make room for liberals to exist within their borders, but that doesn’t make them ‘liberal’ per se. The sense I get is that both liberals and evangelicals feel like the minority within their denominations, while our leaders try to maintain some kind of middle ground that leaves room for both parties to co-exist in good conscience.
With those caveats in mind, I still think this is a good 2 page intro to liberal Christianity and is worth reading.
One of the things I enjoy most about occupying this particular theological territory is that neither Richard Dawkins nor Pat Robertson knows what to do with me.
By Douglas Todd
Reblogged from the Vancouver Sun
When North American media look at religion, they home in on people who cite Jesus to condemn homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, reject female clergy and organize Tea Party protests against taxation. This polarized portrait is amplified when famous atheists attack such views as backward.
Liberal Christianity offers an alternative. But few know about the option, which Columbia University history professor Gary Dorrien, the foremost expert on the subject, calls “a progressive, credible integrative way between orthodox over-belief and secular unbelief.”
Atheists and fundamentalists each tend to read the Bible in the same wooden, overly literalistic manner. The difference is that atheists reject what they read in that manner, while fundamentalists believe it.
There’s a lot of truth to that – enough that it tends to piss off members of both of those groups off when they come across what I said.
However, I’ve also said that
All Christians pick and choose which portions of the Bible literally, progressive Christians simply admit this and share how we discern.
That observation has resonated with many people – including many fundamentalists who are honest with themselves and who rightly contend that they don’t read “all of the Bible literally.” Some of these more self-reflective fundamentalists have asked me, “So, how do you progressives “discern” and interpret the Bible? Seems like you just read into it what you want it to say; twist it; and don’t take it seriously.” I generally respond by reminding them that – that which we criticize most in others, is often that which we struggle with most ourselves.
While no doubt true, and I fully stand by holding that mirror up to them, they deserve an actual response.
I can’t speak for all progressive Christians, but here’s how many progressive Christians approach, discern, and interpret the Bible:
Another treat for the anniversary of ‘I Have A Dream’. This is one of my favorite preachers, Rev. Tamara Lebak, Associate Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you only listen to one sermon today, make it Dr. King’s, but if you listen to two, make this the next one.
The number one rule of the internet is: “Don’t feed the trolls.”
Hopefully, I’m not about to violate it, but we’ll see.
I came across an article this morning that got my kettle boiling (more than it usually is). It came from an online publication called The Blaze. I’m not familiar with this one, but they seem to have an affinity for conservative ideas, so far as I can tell from a cursory scan of their website.
First of all, the song wasn’t “banned” from our hymnal, it was voted out. The Committee on Congregational Song, after much discussion and discernment, democratically decided (9 to 6) not to include it. Such was the case with many other suggested songs. In Christ Alone is not prohibited from being sung in PC(USA) congregations. I have done so on several occasions. The choir even sang it as a special anthem at my ordination service. Songs that mention God’s wrath were not targeted for exclusion by the committee. They included Awesome God by Rich Mullins, which sings about “the judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom”.
Second, the PC(USA) is not “liberal” or “leftist”. I should know: I am liberal. I sometimes wish the PC(USA) were more so, but it isn’t.
In reality, our church is extremely diverse in its theology and politics. We have evangelicals and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, folks who like traditional liturgy and folks who like contemporary worship. We’re a mixed bag of people who dare to believe that our differences can make us stronger and more faithful to Christ, if we let them. If anything, our leaders for the past half-century or so have been largely influenced by the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Niebuhr brothers. You can see this in several of our more recently added confessional statements: the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith. These statements reflect a theological middle ground between fundamentalist and liberal perspectives. You can call us equal opportunity offenders. Purists, fanatics, and extremists of all stripes tend to be equally frustrated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). We are what we are… deal with it.
Third, the problem with the original wording of In Christ Alone has nothing to do with liberalism or squeamishness at the idea of God’s wrath. The controversial line in the song goes like this:
“Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
I have big problems with that line and I agree with the committee’s decision to axe the hymn based on the authors’ refusal to allow them to change the words to “the love of God was magnified.” I reject outright the idea that God’s wrath put Jesus on the cross or kept him there. It was the all-too-human selfishness and violence of religious and political powers-that-be that put Jesus on the cross. It was Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and his tremendous love that kept him there.
The original wording in the song is based on the theory of atonement called penal substitution, famously developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. Anselm’s delineation of the theory depends greatly on its assumption of feudal notions of justice which we no longer hold. In that society, the severity of a crime was measured by the relative social positions of perpetrator and victim. Crimes against the nobility were punished more harshly than crimes against the peasantry. In Anselm’s mind, any crime against an infinitely holy God must necessarily be punished eternally. Drawing upon priestly and sacrificial language from the New Testament, Anselm presented Jesus as the perfect solution to the problem of justice: fully divine, fully human, morally stainless. His voluntary substitution of himself resolves the problem presented by the feudal theory of justice. Anselm’s use of this model was more apologetic than ontological. He was simply trying to make the gospel recognizable to people in his own place and time, just as we are called to do. However, we who no longer accept the feudal theory of justice are likewise not bound to accept penal substitution as the one and only interpretation of the significance of Calvary.
Here are my problems with penal substitution as a viable atonement theory:
First, penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent. When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault. Look at what you made God do. You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you. Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity. And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.” If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing. If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.
Second, penal substitution renders both the life and the resurrection of Christ unnecessary. If Jesus simply “came to die”, then we can conveniently ignore all those pesky red letters in our Bibles. We also might as well sleep in on Easter Sunday because the real work was done on Good Friday. God just tacked on the resurrection so that the story would have a happy ending. It’s little more than icing on the cake of atonement.
The atonement theory toward which I gravitate bears more resemblance to the Christus Victor model. According to Christus Victor, the powers of evil threw everything they had at Jesus to oppose and silence him. They did their worst, as they always do: dealing death to anything that challenges their power. To paraphrase biblical scholar Marcus Borg: the crucifixion was the world’s “No” to Jesus, but the resurrection is God’s “Yes”.
And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every single time. God rejects the world’s rejection of God.
The miracle of the atonement wasn’t in Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. That’s just the world doing what the world does best: Killing. The miracle of the atonement is in the resurrection of Christ: the triumph and vindication of a Love, stronger than death, that endured the very worst that the world had to offer and kept on loving anyway.
This, my friends, is the love that wilt not let us go.
This is the Good News of salvation in Christ that I am called to preach.
There, on that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.
I believe those words with all my heart.
I respect the authors’ decision not to have their lyrics altered, but I also respect the committee’s decision to set this hymn aside because of its deficient atonement theology.
If you want some actual information on the committee’s theology and use of language, visit the Committee Statements page on their website.
In closing, here are the words of Chelsea Stern, one of the committee members, about what they know, pray, and hope in relation to the new hymnal (taken from the Hymnal Sampler, p.5-6):
This we know:
We know this hymnal will change lives.
We know this hymnal will inspire the church.
We know these songs will enliven worship in powerful ways.
We know the familiar songs will sing anew.
We know the new songs will speak truth.
This we pray:
We pray that as we sing together from this hymnal we will come to have a deeper sense of unity in the body of Christ.
We pray that the Holy Spirit will bring surprises and breathe new life into our churches through this hymnal.
This we hope:
We hope the cover imprint fades from greasy fingers.
We hope the pages become wrinkled and torn from constant use.
We hope our kids will sing from this hymnal – we hope our grandkids will too.
We praise God for this collection of song and give God the glory!
The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in a love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that has with some conscientiousness turned against this kind of witness and its vocabulary, the effect of this witness will in a special way depend upon the quality of its costingness in concrete action and upon its relevance to the history that is in the making. To say this is only to say that the truly reliable God is the Lord of history and also that our sins will find us out. Yet, this Lord of history has given us a world in which the possibility of new beginnings is ever present along with the judgment that is always upon us. To this Lord of history Jesus responded with his message and demonstration of hope in concert with sacrifice.
I come to you this afternoon on loan from the First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, just north of here, where I have served as minister for the last three years. I want you to know that you have many allies in faith communities of various traditions around the world. I believe that Unitarian Universalism represents the very pinnacle of religious liberalism, but it does not have a monopoly on that label. No, progressive believers of every imaginable religious stripe exist in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples of the world. Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, they seek to embody the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism within their respective traditions. I am one such person. Speaking as a Christian, I have discovered that these Seven Principles are as clear and concise a description as I have yet found for the way in which I seek to practice my faith. Like you, I am proud to call myself a religious liberal.
Too often, religious liberals have been pigeonholed according to what we don’t believe: we don’t interpret our sacred texts literally, we don’t claim to possess exclusive access to absolute truth, we don’t hold fast to a rigid, black and white moral code. All of these statements about us are true, but they’re not the whole truth. Too often, people have negatively defined us in this way and thus propagated the myth that we don’t believe in anything. (Joke about religious liberals and Jehovah’s Witnesses.) They say that we don’t care about truth, that we don’t care about morality, and that the sacred texts of our traditions mean nothing to us. And that is certainly not true.
Today, I’d like to take a look at what those two words mean in a positive sense: religious liberal. I’d like to talk about what it is that we do believe.
And the phrase we picked for today’s service is “freedom bound”. I like that. As religious liberals, each of us is always in a state of being “free” (liberal) and “bound” (religious). Let me explain what I mean by that.
I’ll begin with the word liberal. As most of us already know, the word liberal comes from the same Latin root as the word liberty, which means freedom. On the most basic level, ours is a free faith. Freedom is where we come from. Religious liberals are those have declared their independence from the narrow confines of antiquated and superstitious dogma. We struggle to keep our minds open to new insights from fields like science and philosophy. For us, critical thinking is a means of grace through which reality is being made known to us. As the 18th century Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing once said: “I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to the light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.” Freedom is where we come from.
Freedom is also where we are going. We are “freedom bound” or “bound for freedom.” More than most, religious liberals are able to look at their forebears with simultaneously respectful and critical eyes. For example, we have no problem honoring the memory of someone like Thomas Jefferson as one of the founders of American democracy, but we also recognize that he didn’t go far enough in championing the cause of liberty.
Jefferson’s most famous words are captured in the Declaration of Independence, which he composed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, we know that Jefferson himself was a slave-owner who held his fellow human beings in unjust captivity, treating them as mere objects and property. Abolitionists and civil rights activists in subsequent centuries have called for the extension of those unalienable rights to people of all races and ethnicities. Our sisters in the women’s suffrage and liberation movements have drawn our attention to the truth that all women, just as much as men, are created equal. Environmental activists have expanded the boundaries of equality even further to include all beings, not just all humans. Through them, we learn that the Planet itself has unalienable rights that we ignore at our own peril.
Thomas Jefferson gave us a good start in the cause of equality, but our free faith demands that we keep going past the point where he stopped. Freedom demands that we stand up for the equality and unalienable rights of all beings. Freedom itself is a growing thing, as is equality. Freedom is where we are going. So that’s what I mean when I talk about being a religious liberal: I’m talking about freedom.
Here in the Unitarian Universalist Association, you express this truth beautifully in two of your seven principles. You affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” These principles, taken together, provide a firm foundation for the pursuit of religious freedom. Insofar as you affirm these principles, you are a religious liberal.
Now, I want to turn and take a look at the other word in that phrase: religious. I want to talk about what it means to be a religious liberal. Now this one’s tricky. That word, religion, can mean a lot of different things to different people. What does it mean to be religious? Does it mean attending services on a regular basis? Does it mean adhering to a set of beliefs? Does it mean celebrating the holidays and participating in the rituals of a tradition? Religious can mean any or all of the above.
Here’s what I mean when I say it:
The word religion comes from the Latin relego, which means “to bind together or connect.” You’re familiar with Lego blocks, right? What do they do that other blocks don’t do? They connect to each other! To be religious, then, is to be connected.
To illustrate, let me return to what I was saying a moment ago about going beyond the original ideas about freedom and equality that started with Thomas Jefferson. In the beginning, those ideas only applied to a very small, select group of free, white men. Over time, thanks to the efforts of others, those men were joined by women, and people of other races, and people from other countries, and people of other sexual orientations, and people of other gender identities, and the animals, and the trees, and the rivers, and the mountains, and the oceans, and the air, and even the Earth itself: all boundtogether, connected, in one beautiful, perfect WHOLE. For me, that’s what it means to be religious: to recognize and honor the many connections that exist between the parts and the whole of reality. And I can’t think of any better way to put it than you Unitarian Universalists do in the last of your Seven Principles. You “affirm and promote… Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I love that. You have summed up so brilliantly and so beautifully what it means to be a religious liberal. Religious means connected.
So then, I would say that a religious liberal is someone who is free and connected, connected and free. We need both. We can’t have one without the other.
If we emphasize connection at the expense of freedom, we end up with tyranny (obviously). Individual people become little more than cogs in a machine, with no “inherent worth and dignity” of their own.
But if we try to take freedom without connection, we end up with a very selfish, ego-centric view of the world. This is the kind of libertarianism that says, “I don’t owe anyone anything. If someone else is suffering or oppressed, it’s not my problem. Let them eat cake!”
Folks who live like this have no sense of either history or obligation. We see ourselves as self-contained units who exist independently of other self-contained (i.e. self-centered) units. We say the welfare of the whole doesn’t bother us because it’s none of our business.
You know, there is a particular kind of cell in our bodies that behaves this way: a cancer cell. A cancer cell, according to Michael Dowd, is simply a cell that has forgotten its history, so it consumes and multiplies without discrimination until its host body is utterly consumed from the inside out. We are in the middle of a cancer epidemic in our society, so you can just imagine what it would be like if people started behaving like cancer cells, with no sense of history, identity, or purpose within the embrace of the Whole of reality. Our existence is life out of balance with the whole of reality. That’s what freedom without connection gets you: selfishness.
As religious liberals, we do our best to hold freedom and connection together as our primary values. We affirm and promote “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” as well as “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” We are free and we are bound. We are bound for freedom and we are bound by freedom.
Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.
The most ancient shrine described in the Bible was a rock. As the story is told in Genesis, Jacob founded the shrine because of a dream. Traveling alone, he fell asleep one night in the mountains, with his head resting on a stone for his pillow. Perhaps it was one of those bright nights when the stars are thick and close, like a spangled quilt thrown over the earth. He dreamed he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down. “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” he exclaimed when he woke. He set up the stone to mark the place and named it Beth El – the House of God. Another night, on another journey, Jacob tossed and turned in fear that his brother, whom he’d wronged, might kill him. An angel came in the darkness and fought him. Jacob survived the fight but limped ever after, and he gained a new name – Israel, which means “one who struggled with God and lived.”
The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands. At the heart of liberal theology is a mysterious glimpse, a transforming struggle, with the oblique presence of God. “Theology” literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word). But talk of God is tricky business. The same Bible that tells of Jacob’s marking stone also warns, “Make no graven images of God.” God may be sighted by a sidewise glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany. But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols. In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.
In liberal theology, at the core of the struggle with God is a restless awareness that human conclusions about God are always provisional, and any way of speaking about God may become an idol. This is why not everyone welcomes talk of God. God-talk has been used to hammer home expectations of obedience, to censure feelings and passions. It has been invoked to to stifle intellectual inquiry and to reinforce oppression. For many people the word “God” stands for conceptions of the ultimate that have harmed life, sanctioned unjust systems, or propelled people to take horrific actions “in the name of God.”
-Rebecca Ann Parker in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press: 2010), p.23-24
I would like to write a few words this morning about the denomination in which I am ordained: the Presbyterian Church (USA). Like all mainline Protestant churches in this country, we have had no small share in controversy, conflict, and schism. The current hot-button issues are the ordination and marriage of non-celibate LGBT members in our churches. Partly because of these issues, but mostly because of the theological and exegetical differences that underlie their discussion, some members, pastors, and churches in the PC(USA) have felt led to separate from our denomination and align themselves with another one (i.e. the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)).
Those who know me or read this blog probably already know where I stand, but just in case there are any first-time visitors, here it is again:
I am a theologically liberal Christian who wholeheartedly supports the full recognition of equality in ordination and marriage for LGBT Presbyterians.
I wholeheartedly support the right of individual Christians and congregations to discern the will of God for themselves, even if that discernment leads them to leave the PC(USA).
As I’ve said before: It’s not my job to take anyone’s Bible (or Church) away from them; I simply desire the same right for myself. As such, I encourage the establishment of “Gracious Dismissal” policies in our presbyteries that will allow departing congregations to maintain control over their buildings and investment accounts. Such policies, I believe, will help us sow seeds of reconciliation for the future and preserve the integrity of the public witness of the Church by eschewing open conflict in a court of law. The Church is bigger than any one denomination. We would do well to remember this part of our ecumenical heritage.
That being said, I think that some of those who are leaving have, in their anger, overstated their case against the PC(USA) and misrepresented the denomination in their literature (some of which is distributed to churches whether they want it or not). They claim that the PC(USA) is being run by liberal heretics who care nothing for the authority of scripture, the historic faith of the church catholic, or the Reformed tradition. I believe this is patently untrue.
Why do I believe this? Because I am a liberal and I have just as many problems with current theological and political trends in our denomination as many of my evangelical brothers and sisters do. I wish there was a liberal agenda in play on the General Assembly level, but there isn’t much of one that I can see. Honestly, I think that’s probably a good thing. The Church is bigger than any one institution or theological viewpoint (including my own).
I don’t think I’m the kind of pastor who should be forming and shaping policy for the whole denomination. That task should be left to more conciliatory voices like that of our current Moderator: Rev. Dr. Neal Presa. His is a job that I don’t want. Liberals like me represent one prophetic wing of the Church, just as our evangelical colleagues represent another. I hope that both voices will continue to be heard in the PC(USA) by those who make policy.
The document linked below has been produced by our denomination to address some of the misrepresentations currently being propagated by some. I find it well worth reading. Submitted for your edification:
Reblogged from pcusa.org:
The Office of the General Assembly has had an increase in the number of inquiries about printed materials from outside of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), being distributed within congregations, that ascribe to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) beliefs and standards which are meant to show that the church is no longer worthy of support. Over the past years the list of these misrepresentations have varied little and most have been answered in detail in the religious press, study papers adopted by the church or by specific action of the General Assembly. Whenever possible, the Office of the General Assembly directs those who inquire about specific conclusions drawn by these papers to resources which give a broader understanding of the issues.
Typically the materials being circulated focus on four broad areas of concern, each of which speaks to the core of who we are as a denomination and a covenant community. In response to these recent inquiries, we remind the church about who the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is both historically and in our current ministry.
This article makes a good and true point, although the empathetic part of me suspects that evangelical candidates for ordination face a similar fear of rejection by their committees.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that mainline Protestant denominations are neither conservative/evangelical nor liberal/progressive in their theological orientation (much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists on both sides), but are trying to hold both perspectives together under the umbrella of their true agenda: maintaining the survival of the institution.
Theologically, this means trying to occupy the Barthian-Niebuhrian middle ground that dissatisfies evangelicals and liberals alike. Evangelicals fear that the denomination is pandering to political correctness at the expense of gospel truth. Liberals fear that the denomination’s appeasement of cantankerous reactionaries is blunting the edge of prophetic witness.
My experience of the process left me with the sense that my committee and examiners just wanted to know that I was able to articulate that middle-ground perspective using the language of our denomination’s polity and historical confessions.
I think the main thrust of this article is true, but it could equally apply to our sisters and brothers on the evangelical end of the spectrum.
Reblogged from Crystal St. Marie Lewis:
“Many denominations require candidates to obtain a graduate degree involving work in the areas of theology and philosophy. In those graduate programs, professors spend countless hours training students to think outside the theological box, only for their ordination committees to demand that they put God (and their capacity for exploration) back inside the box. Seminaries are often free and open spaces where people are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about sacred matters. Yet, students endure rejection after the academic stage of their ordination processes–ironically for drawing unapproved conclusions.”