The Religious Counterculture: An Open Letter to Religious Liberals

This is an interesting article that I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, I am fully with the author in her call for a radical, committed, active, counter-cultural, and fully liberal practice of faith.  Those of us who go by this label absolutely have to get away from the idea of diluted civil religion that only serves as the chaplain to the dominant society.  We have to get away from defining ourselves by what we don’t believe.  We have to re-engage with our traditions, our sacred texts, regular spiritual practice, and active involvement in our faith communities.

On the other hand, the author seems to be calling for the kind of rigid legalism that caused many of us to flee from more conservative expressions of faith.  Am I to believe that liberal religion should now mean pulpit-pounding, rule-making, and fear-mongering over issues environmental rather than pelvic?  No thank you.  As one who has endured the guilt and fear within fundamentalism, I can testify that it doesn’t work.  It creates self-righteous, Pharisaical bigots.  We would become the mirror image of the fundamentalisms we judge: compromising compassion and integrity for the sake of our own narrow-minded agenda.

What’s more is that the author’s stated end for these means is the increase of “political power” and “butts in the pews”.  I don’t share these goals.  An increase in attendance might be a by-product of a community’s spiritual growth, but it should never be an end in itself.  The loss of political dominance in society is a blessing, in my opinion.  It seems that almost all religious communities tend to be at their worst when they are on top of the heap.  That’s when they tend to stagnate, persecute others, and generally sow the seeds of their own destruction.  The marginalization of liberal religion has placed us in a position to actualize James Luther Adams’ vision of “the prophethood of all believers.”  Small, committed communities of believers working in solidarity with each other have the power to change the world at the grassroots level.

What we need, in my opinion, is a fundamentally different way of relating to the Sacred.  We must start from the place of radical grace and acceptance that extends from the inside out to include all beings (even fundamentalists).  This, I believe, is the good news of liberal religion that has the power to transform and liberate.

That being said, the author’s core point is one that I’m on-board with.  This article is very much worth the read, even where one disagrees with it.

Reblogged from Huffington Post:

by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

If you look at any of the traditional markers of religiosity, we religious liberals are less religious than the conservative or orthodox. Liberal Jews tend to not keep kosher; liberal Muslims tend to not pray five times a day; liberal Christians have been known to have premarital sex. As religions have liberalized and modernized over the years, communal religious practices have fallen away and religious fervor has cooled. This may seem obvious and inevitable, but when you think about it, there is no necessary correlation between the substance of a person’s theology and the amplitude of her religiosity. We religious liberals have erroneously forged this correlation and, beyond just making us the butt of jokes, this has really cost us.

Click here to read the full article

Are Liberals Too “Special” to Go to Church? (Reblog)

Reblogged from Religion Dispatches:

New research from psychologists from the New York University suggests that the desire to feel unique can undermine consensus, cohesion, and mobilization—at least in political contexts.

My hunch is that this may extend to religious contexts as well.

Chadly Stern and colleagues reported in the journal Psychological Science in November 2103 on the findings of a study on “truly false uniqueness” and “truly false consensus” among political liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

The study looked at two things. First, the researchers considered the degree to which participants over- or underestimated their sense that their beliefs were the same as those of others in the same political grouping (liberal, moderate, conservative). Second, the team measured the degree to which participants in the study were motivated by a desire to feel unique versus a desire to feel the same as others in their group.

Overall, Stern, et al found that “liberals underestimated their similarity to other liberals, whereas moderates and conservatives overestimated their similarity to other moderates and conservatives.”

Click here to read the full article

The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal

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.

The article is titled: Why Is a Major Church Denomination Banning Famed Hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ From Its New Song Book?  It’s about the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and our new hymnal that comes out this fall.  I have several bones to pick with this article: some technical, some theological.  Hold onto your hats, because here we go… (takes a deep breath):

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.

Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal comes out this fall.
Click here for ordering information.

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!
We praise God for this collection of song and give God the glory!

Freedom Bound: Being a Religious Liberal

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The Rehnberg Window

 

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 bound together, 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.

Defining Liberal Theology

At the basic level, we can say that liberal theology is based on the premise that human religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.  It has been said that liberal theology tries to articulate a framework within which one can be deeply religious and thoroughly modern at the same time.  From this orientation, liberal theology is characterized by commitments to free and open intellectual inquiry, to the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, to the ethical dimensions of religion, and to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant…

Liberal theologian and social ethicist James Luther Adams put it this way: “Liberal religion by its very nature has aimed to live on the frontier and to break new paths.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century

Common Sense Liberalism

I had a fascinating exchange with an old college pal this week.  I mentioned in an email that I self-identify as a Liberal Christian.

My friend responded, “So, what is a ‘Liberal Christian’? When I hear that, it makes me think it’s a code word for ‘Christians who think they’ve figured out how to be pro-choice Democrats, and still be in-line with the Bible’… Seems like they all listened to U2 also…”

While I’m not a registered member of any political party and my views on abortion do not conform to either pro-life or pro-choice platforms, I had to laugh at myself over the U2 comment.  They just so happen to be my favorite band… I guess some stereotypes are true!

After that, I proceeded to this gentle-but-long-winded long-breezed history lecture on 20th century Christians and biblical interpretation.  Unwittingly, I fell right into the two habits that most annoy me about Liberal Christianity: Negativity and Elitism.

Negativity

Have you ever noticed that we Liberal Christians spend a lot of time talking about what we don’t believe?  We don’t accept Young Earth Creationism.  We don’t think the Bible is inerrant.  We don’t believe eternal life depends on accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.  We read books with titles like Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally (both of which happen to be good books, by the way).

Elitism

Along with our tendency to accentuate the negative, it’s also pretty obvious that our churches tend to be populated with college-educated, upper middle-class white folks.  We Liberal Christians pride ourselves on being better educated, informed, and enlightened than our Evangelical counterparts.  Just as some Evangelicals tend to hide behind walls of biblical literalism, Liberals tend to hide behind walls of intellectual superiority.  Even though none of us would put it this way, we consider ourselves to be the “one true church” because we have risen above the naïve superstitions of Catholics and Evangelicals.  Despite our claims to open-minded pluralism and tough-minded skepticism, we still claim to be the sole possessors of the “real truth” about Christianity.  Despite our lip-service to diversity, our churches tend to be pretty monochromatic.  Despite our passion for social justice, I once heard someone say about us, “They’ll bake a casserole for every cause but they won’t go to jail for any cause.”  Is this really the legacy left by the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, and Martin Luther King?

In response to these tendencies toward Negativity and Elitism, I’d like to see us develop an Affirmative and Common Sense Liberalism.

 Affirmative Liberalism

What do we believe as Liberal Christians?

First of all, we believe in freedom.  That’s what the word liberal means, after all.  We are free to make full use of our minds and hearts as we grow in our faith.  We are free to disagree.  There should be no litmus test of doctrine among us.  Sadly, this is not always the case in practice.  There are just as many mean-spirited Liberals as there are Bible-thumping Fundamentalists.  I once witnessed an Evangelical ministry candidate in my own denomination being publicly mocked in front of her colleagues by a Liberal pastor who asked whether she thought the Second Coming might involve Jesus returning to Earth “in a rocket ship.”  If I am free to question traditional doctrine, others should be free to accept it.  We should rejoice with those whose lives are changed, for example, by a charismatic “born again” experience.  We have every reason to believe that they have truly encountered the Spirit of the Living God.  The difference is that we also believe the same for Gandhi, Buddha, and anyone who has ever scored free swag from the Oprah Winfrey Show.  The mark of a truly Christian Liberalism is when we leave room for those who would not leave room for us.  Personally, I’m still working on that.

Second, Liberal Christians believe in graceWe are all created, connected, redeemed, and sustained by the absolutely unconditional love of God.  No one is exempt from this Good News, regardless of time, place, religion, or sexual orientation.  We are all equally God’s children.  Full stop.  There is no moral standard upon which God’s ultimate approval is based.  This does not mean, however, that there are no moral standards.  We believe in the fair and equal establishment of liberty and justice for all.  It is sometimes necessary to act decisively in correcting behaviors, protecting the innocent, or redressing grievances, but this does not involve a final condemnation or an ultimate devaluing of the whole person.  Human parents must enact discipline in order to shape a child’s character, but eternal punishment is inconsistent with God’s purposes as a loving parent.  What could make you subject your child to eternal torture without relief?  No one is irredeemable.  In short, everybody gets into heaven (if there is such a place).  Alas, Liberal Christians have often failed on this front as well.  One friend of a friend commented that, after leaving her rather Conservative Mennonite church for the United Church of Canada (a prominent Liberal denomination in the Great White North), she was disappointed to find just as much hard-nosed legalism among Liberal Christians.  The difference, she noted, was that Liberal Christians made her feel guilty about recycling rather than masturbation.  Whenever we are overwhelmed by either unfounded humanistic optimism or righteous indignation, we Liberal Christians should remember to keep this song in our hearts: “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.”

Common Sense Liberalism

Watching certain candidates on the presidential campaign trail has reminded me how many people respond to folksy wisdom more than actual data.  Conservatives seem to have cornered the market on common sense while Liberals cite academic facts and theories.  I refuse to accept the necessity of this arrangement.  We too can make pithy bumper stickers.  We too can appeal to those beliefs and values that lie deep within the human heart and lead us toward a better world.  We too can quote the Bible to support what we have to say.  I’ll even do it in the good old King James Version:

  • “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” – 1 John 4:16
  • “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40
  • “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” – Matthew 7:1
  • “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” – Matthew 7:12
  • “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” – Leviticus 19:18

Liberal Christians believe that God loves everyone.  We believe that all people are created equal in one human family.  We believe in fairness.  We believe in freedom.  We believe that God is a mystery so big that no one can fully understand.  We believe in grace.  We believe in justice.  We believe that diversity makes us stronger.

The term Liberal has become a dirty word in recent years.  It is used in the halls of Congress and churches to accuse, demean, and degrade.  I want to reclaim the term Liberal, especially as it applies to Christian faith.  There are no doubt others who will question my intellectual and moral integrity.  That’s fine.  They can do that.  I’ll try not to argue back.  This is just me trying to figure out what I believe and where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  I am a Liberal Christian.

“Here I stand.  I can do no other.” – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms