Why I am Not a Liberal Christian
This post is somewhat of an indirect response, or possibly a reaction, to Mike Clawson’s “I might have become an atheist” post, in which he narrates how his doubts at Bible college almost led him to disbelief, but found a theological home with the emerging Christian movement. I briefly responded (#4) to his post with some concerns, albeit I admit my questions were unfairly rhetorical. I would like to take this opportunity to share my own experience with the movement, since I do have a similar theological background as Mike appears to have had and to state why I could not, with being honest to myself, stay within the liberal emergent village. I do not publish this as a rebuke or even a debate, although I would be more than willing to have an open and frank conversation on the topic.
Like Mike, I too grew up as an evangelical conservative Christian, although not an in-your-face preaching type, I held fundamentalist views (Young earth, Biblical inerrancy, etc.), and was politically conservative. I had reservations about the hawks among my party (Reform/Canadian Alliance at that time), but I was both economically and socially conservative. However, in my second year of Bible college, I thoroughly studied the Sermon on the Mount which led to a political paradigm shift – away from conservatism and into a radical liberalism. Although I was still theologically conservative, my political shift forced me to take a look at my overall intellectual composition. It was at this time I came across an instructor at my conservative Bible college that I thought was completely heretical. I vocally and intensely opposed him at every turn during our Philosophy and Contemporary Church courses.
This instructor taught that morality was not something that should be the focus of our faith, but rather something that was built up after the foundations had been laid. Eventually his message would ring true for me. Our God was not a score-keeping God: even as Cosmic Judge, God did not sit there giving A’s, B’s, and C’s to us based on our good works or evil deeds. It was more important, however, to be authentic, and this authenticity would lead to conversations among fellow Christians and non-Christians, and more significantly, a breakdown of an “us versus them” mentality. As I started to increasingly agree with this particular instructor, and attending their new church meeting group, I learned how today’s evangelicalism was the result of modernism rather than a pursuit of the true church and point of Jesus’ ministry.
However, as life took me to a different locale and I could no longer participate in that particular conversation, I would continue to look for another group I could join, but I could not find any like it. I began to re-evaluate my notes I had taken when studying under my previous instructor. At the same time, I tried to solidify my faith with the works of Soren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and other Christian existentialists. However, the doubts that had started in Bible college could not be contained. Although those doubts had started with the Bible, it went far beyond that: experience with Christians, relationships with unbelievers, philosophy of religion, etc. Eventually, when I genuinely asked myself, “Why do I believe what I believe” I no longer had an answer.
I could hold to reading the scriptures in a new way, but what way is the right way? And do we hold this new way simply because we are uncomfortable with what the text is actually speaking, or because of the need to evolve our religious beliefs? Mike stated on his own blog,
I’ve commented before on the irony that most atheists I know actually seem to agree with the conservative, literalist interpretations of scripture held by most fundamentalists and evangelicals. I suppose (in part) because those interpretations are much easier to disbelieve and debunk.
I agree with Mike (well, the first statement anyway). But I don’t stop with this simple recognition: I understand why de-converted Christians look at scripture in this way. For Agnostics like myself and scholars such as Bart Ehrman, we understand that the authors of the books we now call “scripture” did not believe, for the most part, that they were writing “scripture.” We recognize that there are actually books in the Bible that are in complete opposition to other books in the Bible. We recognize that the earliest Christianities were just as full of deceit and intolerance as the fundamentalists today are. The fact is, Jesus was an Jewish apocalyptic fundamentalist. Paul was a post-Jewish apocalyptic fundamentalist. Jesus and Paul were not postmodernists nor were they pluralistic in anyway what so ever. Neither had any interest in the grand “conversation.” They knew the truth and delivered with, dare I say, a divine audacity. Although Paul wavered back and forth on the subject of grace and morality, there is little dispute that Jesus wavered at all – in no way did Jesus believe his blood would affect the sins of all those who would later call themselves “Christians.” Atheists and agnostics read into the literal meaning of the scripture because, for the most part, that is how they were written. Sure, there are many instances of symbolism – but for what? A complete overhaul of the complete plan of salvation? A the complete overhaul of the complete basis of Jesus’ own teachings?
The embarrassing aspect of Christianity is not the intolerance, as many liberals claim, it is its incoherence: its complete inability to give a straight and uncompromising position. The emergent church is just one more evolution in Christianity, in a long list of evolutions, including, but not limited to, American evangelicalism, European modernism, Lutheran and Calvinist Reformation, Medieval Catholicism, Augustinian revisionism, Constantinian dominionism, Ignatian authoritarianism, Gnostic elitism, Johannine spiritualism, Pauline mythologizing, and, of course, Jesus’ own re-interpretation of Judaic law.
It is at this point that I would like those who hold to the “Emerging” perspective to inform me of their own views. I don’t even care so much for a response to my post and my accusations, but I want to know what you actually believe, in a concrete way. What is the Bible actually to you? Who is Jesus? Who is Paul? What is salvation? Does heaven exist? How about sin? I could go on, but I think you got the point. Obviously I am speaking to the more liberal wing of the emerging church, not the “post-emergent,” intolerant, neo-Calvinist wing of Mark Driscoll and company. What stops you from reaching the place of non-theist Bishop Spong?
I enjoy dialogue with the emerging church because they are not afraid to talk, to have a chat, and they admit limited revelation. What I have yet to fathom is how we can stop at arbitrary points in our skepticism and rebuild. I have tried, and as I have stated before, I want a reason to believe. I know many within the emerging movement are artistically or philosophically minded individuals – I want to know how this process works for you because it certainly did not work for me.