Roger Olson, an evangelical blogger here on Patheos, wrote a post last week on “Why I Am Not a Liberal Christian.” He offered six criteria by which to evaluate whether someone is a liberal or conservative Christian. For example, a conservative Christian believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, whereas a liberal Christian might see the resurrection as a symbol for how Jesus’s disciples recognized the eternal nature of Christ’s wisdom.
For the most part, I think Olson’s six points are indeed useful for discussing ways that some liberal Christians’ theology differs from traditional Christian theology. Tony Jones, a fellow blogger here on the Progressive Christian channel, did a good job of calling Olson out on a few areas where his assertions about liberal Christians were questionable. For example, in response to Olson’s question, “Do they believe salvation is forgiveness and reconciliation with God as well as being made whole and holy by God’s grace alone or do they believe salvation is only a realization of human potential—individual or social—by spiritual enlightenment and moral endeavor?”, Jones remarked that he knows of no Christian who sees salvation as something to be earned by enlightenment or endeavor, as anything other than gift.
By Olson’s reckoning, I am a conservative Christian. This fits with my usual way of describing myself as “theologically conservative, and socially/politically moderate to liberal.” Olson has done a great service to our faith by making clear that defining Christianity is, and should be, primarily about theology, and not about one’s opinion on hot-button issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Commenters on this blog regularly tell me I am not worthy of the label “Christian” because I think abortion should be legal within some limits. During the election, some evangelicals questioned President Obama’s Christianity because of his support for same-sex marriage and other ways in which Obama’s faith doesn’t mirror that of white evangelical America. Olson’s focus on theology is an important corrective to this tendency to judge other people’s faith by how they vote or how they apply biblical wisdom to today’s controversies.
But while I appreciate Olson’s focus on theology, and hope his fellow evangelicals take note of it, I’m also frustrated. I’m frustrated by his need to undertake this kind of evaluation in the first place. While Olson rightly refused to make any claims about liberal Christians’ salvation, his need to define some other kind of Christian, and draw clear lines between his kind of Christianity and theirs, seems as unnecessary, and potentially destructive, as the more traditional evangelical concern with who is and is not saved.
It is human nature to categorize and label ourselves and others. And to the extent that doing so helps us better understand and accept each other, categorizing and labeling can be a good thing. Olson’s criteria for what makes a “liberal Christian” is potentially helpful to anyone exploring the landscape of modern American Christianity. The danger of such categorizing, however, is that the Christians in one category decide that they are the only “real” Christians. Such categorization not only smacks of the Pharisees and fails to model Jesus Christ’s hospitality, but also robs people of the opportunity to be part of a varied, vibrant, messy, life-giving community with people who are not like them in many ways, but who share the fundamentals of the Christian faith.
As I wrote last year about my own experience as a “mixed-label Christian,” labels can divide, but if we’re willing to engage the human beings behind those labels, our faith is enriched by engagement with those brothers and sisters whom we might not immediately recognize as kin:
In dividing up my Christian connections and smacking labels on them, I realize I’m doing everyone a disservice. Labels can diminish people. We slap a label onto a complex human being and BAM, we think we understand them. The labels themselves aren’t very important. But by occasionally trying to figure out what they mean, I hope that those who are firmly in one camp or another, for whom those “other Christians” are a strange, foreign bunch of weirdos they don’t quite get, will learn to see the good stuff they’re missing by deciding that only one brand of Christianity is okay.