A Look at Liberal Christianity
I came across an interesting post written by a thoughtful Christian who has moved beyond a literalist, fundamentalist mindset regarding the Bible as the inspired, revealed word of God. Here are some highlights (although you probably should read the whole post, in order to understand the context from which these bits are excerpted – the comments are worth reading too):
The question of whether the Bible is God’s word is not a new one…. There are certainly a number of things which seem “wrong” if we are to take a literal understanding….Yes, genetics has confirmed that we are all related through mitochondrial DNA – but this does not mean one person; it means one small group of people (who were located somewhere in Africa). It also assumes that humanity is hundreds of thousands of years old, which means we need to accept, at least in part, the theory of evolution….
Suddenly, we find ourselves in the position of looking at the Bible and deciding which parts are to be taken literally, which parts are to be taken allegorically, and which parts are to be understood as no longer applying to us because they have “been fulfilled in Christ.” This is a very dangerous thing to do. Once we start doing that, what difference is there between Christianity and any other man-made religion?
…the Bible has been used to say whatever man wants it to say…and so justify anything we want it to.
His conclusion is this:
The Bible is not The Word of God; it is commentary on The Word of God. It is fallible and open to interpretation. It gives us a historical understanding of how men and women have understood God and salvation. It must continue to change and evolve. If it doesn’t, then – as all things which do not change and grow – it is dead and has no power.
I applaud this author’s honesty in recognizing that certain portions of the Bible, taken literally, do not comport with what we in the 21st century understand about the world. He is rational enough to recognize that the fundamentalist “old time religion” simply doesn’t make sense in the contemporary world. On the one hand, I applaud his recognition that the theory of evolution must be taken seriously. On the other hand, I don’t know which parts of the theory he wants to keep and which parts he wants to discard, nor do I know why he wants only bits and pieces of the theory rather than the whole. I also applaud his honesty in acknowledging that people have used the Bible to justify things that simply are not justifiable (except, it seems, under the auspices of religion).
Having said all that, I must note that his conclusion expresses – unintentionally, I’m sure – precisely what is wrong with liberal Christianity. What does it mean to say that, rather than being the direct word of God, the Bible is simply commentary on The Word of God? How can the Bible make any sense as commentary unless one has an original “word” to compare with it? Moreover, if one accepts his premise, then why is the Bible any more authoritative than anyone else’s commentary? To take another tack, if the author is obliquely referring to Jesus as the real Word of God, his sentiment is still nonsensical.
The Bible is our only source for learning anything about the alleged life, acts and words of Jesus. If it is only commentary, rather than revelation, then we are no closer to getting direct communications from God, either through scripture or through Jesus. Furthermore, the Bible itself cannot “change and evolve over time.” It is a set collection of writings. It is interpretations of the text that have evolved, not the text itself. Let me amend that. Scholarship in the past couple of centuries has revealed – to the chagrin of many believers – that the biblical texts have changed over time (although they shouldn’t have), which is one of the reasons that the question of infallibility arises in the first place. Still, comparatively speaking, the biblical text has remained relatively static for two millenia, while interpretations of the text have changed substantially throughout that period.
I agree with the author that the Bible is fallible and open to interpretation. I also agree with him that the Bible simply “gives us a historical understanding of how men and women have understood God and salvation.” If one accepts those things, then how does one determine whether those understandings are right, meaningful, misguided, dangerous or evil? How can the author support claims that his interpretation of the Bible is the right one, but another interpretation, i.e., a misogynist one (which he rejects), is wrong? The reality is this: when one seeks to determine which biblical interpretations trump the others, one inevitably turns to sources other than the Bible. That being the case, why not simply dispense with the Bible completely, or at least relegate it to a much lower level of authority?
If the foundational book upon which a religion is founded is acknowledged to be nothing more than a collection of human writings, then the answer to the author’s question, “what difference is there between Christianity and any other man-made religion?” is simple: there is none. Christianity, like all other religions, is solely the product of human imagination, a completely human phenomenon. Once one dispenses with the notion that the Bible is a specially inspired, direct revelation from God – and one must, given the numerous textual and factual errors, as well as contradictions, that litter the Bible from cover to cover – then one must accept that the Bible’s teachings are no more authoritative, inspired or inspirational than the teachings that have come from the pens of many others. This author is free, of course, to continue his pursuit of god-belief and understanding of his Christian creed, but, I can’t help wondering why he bothers. Life is plenty rich and fulfilling without the clutter of religious dogma. Maybe, if he’s willing to be honest with himself, this Christian author will discover that for himself.
– the chaplain