Arguing against conservative, fundamentalist literalism is easy. Their belief structure is relatively simplistic. It has to be simple for less educated, unsophisticated people to grasp it. Simplicity is a good thing in a world view, because simplicity equals accessibility. The more accessible it is, the more people that will be able to participate. Simple theology is also an easier target. You know what it is and where it is at all times. For such theology, change comes seldom and slow. Liberal theology is none of the above. It is neither simple nor static. It is overly broad and inclusive. It defies easy categorization. As a target, it is constantly moving. It is not purely theology, and cannot be theologically pigeonholed. Up until now, I have mostly concentrated my attention on conservative religion. It is time for the liberal variety to take its turn under the microscope.
What liberals believe
No matter your Christian denomination, Jesus Is A Liberal welcomes all Liberal Christians. So what does the term “liberal Christian” mean? Liberal Christian is an umbrella term for any liberal member of the many Protestant denominations, or churches within denominations, who view the Bible as the witness of God rather than the word of God, to be interpreted in its historical context through critical analysis, and with a focus on Jesus’ statements on peace, justice, fairness, compassion and love.
In this one paragraph, there is a concerted effort to differentiate and distance liberal Christianity from the conservative variety. The people behind jesusisaliberal.org want to make sure you do not lump them in with the simpletons of conservatism. Simple religion presents the bible as the literal word of God. It defies human interpretation, context, or analysis. Viewed through such a lens, the focus of the bible is sin and redemption.
Liberal Christianity rejects the bible as the literal word of God, and demotes it to a general human witness of god through the ages. Though not divine, the bible gives us a glimpse into divinity. It is a semi-historical record of how people have experienced God. It is reliable in its overall theme, but not the details. As such, it is subject to the same intellectual scrutiny as any human document of antiquity. Such is the domain of those capable of more complex patterns of thought, and higher education. It takes a lot more work to decipher the liberal bible than the conservative bible.
Rather than focus on sin and redemption with the whole bible in view, liberal Christianity focuses on issues of love and justice, narrowly focused on the teachings of Jesus. This is not a subtile difference. These are not merely different, but opposite takes on the central message of Christianity. In conservative religion, it is all about eternity. Sin is important, not because of any earthly, temporal consequences. Often, there are no such consequences. Rather, sin is that which breaks our right standing with God, and leads us to an eternal life of torment in the literal fires of Hell. Redemption puts us in right standing with God, and guarantees us an eternity with him in the paradise of Heaven.
Liberal religion offers no such rewards and consequences. Eternity does not factor into liberal religion, only our temporal existence. While conservative religion expects and celebrates hardship and unfair treatment in the name of God, Liberal religion works to end injustice, and promotes a peaceful and equitable life on earth in the time we have. Conservatives preach repentance and obedience so that we can experience Heaven in the hereafter. Liberals preach equality and social justice so that we can experience paradise in the here and now.
Here is more from the site:
For example, beliefs vary from the literal to the symbolic belief in Jesus Christ as God’s incarnation. Most believe that the Bible’s account is primarily symbolic, that God created the scientific laws and the very fundamental processes of the universe and of all life (e.g. Evolution), which are continually being revealed by modern science. We believe in God, faith, science and evolution.
Most of us do not believe that humanity inherited original sin from Adam and Eve or that Satan actually exists. But, we do believe that God is good and made people inherently good – and in that vein, we believe in free will and recognize our imperfect nature, which leads some people to chose immoral, illegal and even evil behavior. While we may disagree with individuals’ choices regarding abortion, homosexuality and so forth, we are tolerant of other’s choices and personal life decisions.
Liberal Christians tend to be more educated, and more intellectual in their approach. They eschew simplistic literalism. They want to avoid the appearance of superstition and simplemindedness. They are far more likely to side with science over faith claims. They are less emotionally invested in stories of the supernatural. While enjoying miracle stories, they tend to look for practical messages hidden within the fanciful tales. They have no interest in debating esoteric notions of sin agains God. Rather, their attention is on man’s inhumanity towards man. Sin and righteousness is all about how humans relate to one another, not about how they relate to God. In this worldview, there is little room for a devil.
Morality is not based on a set of arbitrary rules of personal conduct. They have no interest in regulating such things as your sexual preferences and reproductive choices. What they want for you is that you be treated with respect, equality, and fairness. What they want from you is that you do the same to others. You should not refrain from stealing because it breaks one of the commandments. You should not steal because it is a crime against another human being. By the same reasoning, you would not be considered a wrong doer for engaging in the responsible use of recreational drugs. True morality is affirming and protecting the rights of others. Sin is the denial of human rights and equality.
From the website:
As liberal Christians, we hold as sacred the core and unchanging teachings of Christ – as portrayed in His Sermon on the Mount – as the primary, central, true, sufficient and compelling basis of all right understanding and right conduct for liberal Christians. This means that what is most important is how we show our faith and conduct our lives here and now on earth. Many of us believe that our salvation lies in doing good works and no harm to others, regardless of faith
We affirm a liberal, compassionate, forgiving, just and loving Jesus.
As you can see in this last quotation, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is considered the longest, structured speech of Jesus. By many, it is considered to be the philosophical underpinnings of every important, human teaching. This view of Jesus tends to elevate the teachings of the man above the personhood of the man. Liberal Christians are not particularly interested in the origin, life, ministry, or even death of Jesus. They are concerned little about historical details or inconsistencies about the man Jesus. They care only about his teachings, and only a subset of those. He is seen as the embodiment of compassion, forgiveness, and justice. Those are the only details that seem to matter.
Now that I have introduced you to the liberal Christian, let’s take a look at the contradictions that make her so difficult to analyze:
The Good Book
There are many things that the liberal holds in common with the conservative. One of those things is a dependence on the bible as the founding document of their religion. Regardless of how differently the two groups interpret the bible, they both require it. There can be no Christian religion without the bible. Extra-biblical sources, alone, simply do not contain enough material to foster and sustain a religion based on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. Just as the conservative has to concede that some of the literal word of God is symbolic, the liberal must concede that some of the symbolic witness of God is literal. For both sides, drawing that line is a somewhat arbitrary exercise, and is rife with inconsistencies.
For example, there is no basis for accepting the teachings of Jesus as presented in the bible, while rejecting the teachings about jesus as presented in that same bible. Yet liberal Christians take as literal that there was a Sermon on a Mount, and that what they find in the bible is a faithful rendering of what was said. They have no confidence in the bible as the word of God, but they do consider it a reliable witness. On what basis this distinction is made, I have no idea.
As quick as they are to accept the Sermon on the Mount, they are just as quick to reject everything about Jesus that makes him interesting to conservative Christians. They reject his miraculous birth, his life and ministry of miracles, his divinity, his crucifixion orchestrated by the Jews, his resurrection, his post resurrection appearances, and his ascension. They reject as reliable or literal, the vast majority of what is written about Jesus. Yet they hold a subset of teachings attributed to him as gospel. There is no amount of scholarship that can explain this.
To be clear, only a portion of the teachings attributed to Jesus are held in high regard by liberal Christians. Not even all of the Sermon on the Mount is considered sacred. Liberal Christians are not likely to quote Jesus in the matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. On that subject and many others, Jesus was decidedly conservative by today’s standards. He even brings up the specter of Hell fire in that very sermon: a subject liberal Christians tend to actively ignore.
If you are a student of the teachings of Jesus, Hell cannot be ignored. So fixated was Jesus on end times theology, he is considered an apocalyptic teacher. He spoke of a new world order where the Son of Man would reign as king over his subjects. There is some debate about whether or not Jesus was referring to himself. Most Christians think he was. The problem is that the kingdom to which Jesus referred invoked resurrection and an afterlife. Jesus’ afterlife most certainly including the torture chamber known as Hell.
While the god of the Hebrew scriptures was monstrous in unthinkable ways, he never sent anyone to Hell. It never came up in the Hebrew texts. Jesus was the first to mention it, and condemn people to it for all eternity. Yes, that happened on his watch. We are also not introduced to demons and demon possessions until Jesus entered the picture. The activities, teachings, and warnings of Jesus were filled with the devil, demon possession, and the fire of Hell. You cannot separate that from the Jesus of the bible and still have the Jesus of the bible.
The Jesus worshiped by liberal Christians can neither be found in history nor the bible. It is more like a Jesus buffet. They take a little turn the other cheek, and do unto others, but pass on the supernatural bits and the fire and brimstone. By picking and choosing in that manner, they are creating their own Jesus as a sort of mascot. Their Jesus is the beneficent one bathed in peace and love and justice. The Jesus of the bible was on board with the fires of Hell. There is no way to spin Hell as a just punishment for anyone. We debate the justice of using the death penalty. Jesus gives us the Hell penalty: a fate far worse than death. No god who provides Hell as a punishment can ever be said to be just or righteous or loving.
Man in the sky
The conceit of liberal religion is that it is substantively different than conservative religion. Liberal Christians do not want to be lumped in the same stew as the superstitious simpletons they associate with conservatism. They also want to be seen as compassionate and inclusive, unlike the hateful, exclusive and judgmental conservatives. Liberals can only achieve this inclusiveness by ignoring the Jesus of the bible who was convinced that he alone was the way, the truth, and the life. He was the only way anyone could gain access to the father. That excludes that vast majority of people in the world who have chosen another way to peace. But when you make your own Jesus, you can make one that doesn’t say those kinds of things.
Despite their efforts to distance themselves from conservatives, liberal Christians share the trait of magical thinking with their conservative counterparts. All Christians believe in some universal power that I call the man in the sky. We know this because liberal Christians still pray. They pray to something they call god. They pray the same prayers as the conservative, in the same way, and with the same hope of supernatural intervention. They talk to whatever they call god as if he were actually there, and hanging on their every word. They still pray for their sick to be healed, and for protection from the elements. They might call it something different like, communing with the universal life force. But it is a life force that is conscious and aware of them, and able to respond in some way. By any other name it is still the man in the sky.
Liberal Christians still invest in church buildings and holy men. They still practice rituals that are steeped in superstition and mysticism. Liberal religion is still religion. As such, it is subject to the same types of critiques as conservative religion. It does not matter if you accept science in most matters, but appeal to some type of man in the sky. A little magical thinking is not substantively different from a lot of magical thinking. It is just a difference of amount. In an asylum, being less crazy than the other guy doesn’t buy you much.