Liberal Christianity – An Affirmation

Mike Bird offered a caricature of Liberal Christianity which it would be wrong to dismiss out of hand. The trends and pitfalls that he highlights on the liberal end of the spectrum are real dangers. The churches which were so flexible and so in tune with the social norms of their time that they had only support to offer to Hitler are a reminder that a Christianity or any religion that loses its ability to critique society has lost something vital.

But it must be remembered that liberal and conservative are tendencies and emphases, not absolute stances. I can safely say that Mike Bird is more liberal than some Evangelicals. I can safely say it because there is perhaps only one person in the world about whom it cannot be said – whoever has managed to get furthest along the spectrum. Everyone (or almost everyone) is more liberal than someone, and more conservative than someone. These are terms of comparison, not precise definitions.

It must also be remembered that loss of ability to critique one’s culture is not an issue found only among liberals. Far from it. Conservative Christians focus for the most part on issues that are not the focus of historic Christianity, and very often reflect the economic and social values of American culture uncritically. Indeed, it is ironic that Mike chose to focus on an issue like gay marriage, mentioning that Nero was involved in relationships that are certainly the closest thing to “gay marriage” that existed in that time. But what he neglected to mention is the fact that Paul says nothing explicit about this practice, nothing specifically critical of Nero and his relationships, and the most likely candidate for a passage condemning homosexual intercourse – Romans 1 – is there only to get conservative religious readers to join in condemnation, only to be told that they are in fact condemning themselves.

Paul doesn’t read like a conservative Christian. And that shouldn’t surprise us if we realize that he wasn’t a Christian, if explicitly using that label is what matters. He still considered himself a Jew, and by arguing that Gentiles should be included in the people of God without circumcision, despite clear teaching of Scripture to the contrary, Paul showed exactly what the best expressions of liberal religion seek to emphasize in our time: putting people above passages, putting principles above proof texts. Paul included those in whom he saw God working in his own time, in spite of what Scripture seems to plainly say, and found more creative and less obvious readings of texts in order to defend this course of action. If that is not liberal, then the term has no meaning.

Liberal Christianity stands in that tradition, and although I am in many respects more Bultmannian than classic Liberal, I am still proud to stand within that broad tradition of Christianity. I appreciate Mike’s reminder of the dangers on this end of the spectrum, as on the other. I hope he will take a closer look and see some of the beautiful aspects of the Christianity on this end of the spectrum as well.

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  • Brian

    Good post James. I agree that it is important to look into each side of the spectrum and take what is best from each of them. Though I must confess to the fact that I find the lables “conserative” and “liberal” to be meaningless. At my RCIA meeting last thursday, one of the staff members when sharing his story with the catechumens, jokingly remarked that after converting from the Southern Baptist faith to the Catholic faith that he joined our particular parish because he wanted something more liberal. One of the ladies who ran the RCIA program said that he must not know what “liberal” means. This to me was interesting because it shows that the whole liberal/conserative dictohmy is misguided and is in the eye of the beholder. I mean if you call yourself Conserative are you against ecumenism, tolerance for minorities [John Mcaine’s daughter is a conserative and she supports gay rights] and have a complete lack of regaurd for the poor? If you are liberal, do you seek to undermine tradition of any kind and hold to a completely relativistic view of morality? Hopefully you answer no to both.

  • Mike Bird

    James, thanks for making an interesting reply. BTW, I trace my doctoral lineage back to Bultmann: Bultmann-Kasemann-Lattke-Strelan-Bird. Bultmann is my great, great, great doctorvater!

  • Anonymous

    I have to suspect that Nero was more moral than we give give him credit for, and that he was made out to be immoral by historians.  They spread rumours initiated by Vespasian.  

    Rom 1.24 was originally about priests ‘degrading their bodies with one another’.  The original writer’s reason for saying this was because he thought that the priests had exchanged the Spirit of God for sacrifices.  The writer’s view was that the Spirit changed men, but sacrifice of birds and animals did not. (Rom.1.23)   

    • Mteston1

      GeoffHudson can I get some reference points to your response above. I find it interesting. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    4Acts 7

    41.That was the time they made an idol in the
    form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and held a celebration in honour
    of what their hands had made. 


    42.But [God] {the Spirit} turned away, and
    gave them over to [the worship of the heavenly bodies] {sacrifice}.  This agrees with what is written in the book
    of the prophets: ‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings for forty years in
    the desert, O house of Israel?’


    one group of Jews did not want to support  animal sacrifice.  


    I believe that these words were spoken in
    Rome in a synagogue.  The writer (not a
    third party) was challenging a high priest.  
    The comparison he draws is of Israel sacrificing to an idol in the time
    of Moses, and the current situation back in Judea where sacrifices had started
    to be made again.  At the end of his
    reign Herod had kicked the priests out of the temple and out of Jerusalem.   From the end of Herod’s reign until then there
    was no animal sacrifice.  For the whole
    of this period, the priests had been living in exile in their towns and
    villages.  But now the priests were more
    powerful again. 

  • Bob MacDonald

    James – after years in TNK and rethinking everything I was ever taught about Christ, you almost allow me to hear the term ‘Christian’ as useful again.  The reworking of Scripture to counter trivialized proof-texting is a common element in Scripture. Paul is not the first to do it. Job, Jonah, Jesus all use similar reworkings. Bravo for this very clear statement of how Romans 1 works. I have often thought that the righteous gentile is saying the things that need to be heard in these days outside the Churches and that the fearful divides within the Churches need to unplug their ears in a way similar to that exhibited by Paul.

  • Bangladesh

    “But it must be remembered that liberal and conservative are tendencies and emphases, not absolute stances.”

    My favorite sentence.

  • Pf

    For ignorant people like Bird, “liberal” is whatever they don’t agree with.

  • James F. McGrath
  • John Mark Harris

    Hang on now, it’s precisely the preaching of Paul that coins the term Christian. Jew and Christian are not exclusive to one another, that seems to be the point of much of Paul’s message. Or, have we re-erected the dividing wall?

  • James F. McGrath

    In Paul’s letters, the term Christian does not appear. The issue in his time was not “Jews and Christians” but “Jews and Gentiles” – or perhaps better, “Jews, Gentiles and Jesus.”

  • Elbryanlibre

    I read Bird’s post and was able to relate to a lot of it. This really stuck out to me: By removing a personal and speaking God from the church, they have nothing to say to people that they can’t already hear from Oprah, John Stewart, CNN, or the NYT.

    I left the evangelical church I had been part of for years and tried out more liberal mainline churches for about 2 years. I went to somewhere between 10 and 15 churches and near the end I told my wife that I didn’t feel like I got anything from them that I couldn’t get from watching MSNBC. Not only that but I got tired of hearing of politics from the pulpit even when I agreed with them. I spent all week living in the politics of the present and I didn’t want more of that at church. I wanted something that transcended that. Maybe it’s just a preference thing, but as much as I wanted to like that strand of Christianity more I couldn’t. I ultimately decided to go back to an Evangelical church even if I couldn’t agree with everything and was much more liberal than the official teaching and positions of the church.

  • james Harrison

    Looking at this controversy from the outside, it strikes me that liberal Protestantism does a terrible job of representing itself while the neo-orthodox and their contemporary heirs have successfully branded themselves as daringly irrational and glamorously dangerous. Hard to fight that marketing, especially when its practitioners have so few scruples, as in the liberals = Marxist bit. Doubt the literal resurrection and you’re ready to throw in with Nero, no less. Joe McCarthy used the same move when he equated New Dealers with communists and P.Z. Myers et. al. use it to tar all Christians with the stupidities of the fundamentalists.

    The topology of this debate is wrong. The left/right nomenclature suggests that opinions are arranged on a line. I think a circle is the better model.  Just as Jew Greek equals Greek Jew because extremes meet, the hard Christian right has much more in common with authentic leftists than either has to do with American or European political or religious liberalism. Social movements that make a fetish of being radical are bound to demonstrate a certain degree of evolutionary convergence and all the more so in this instance since Marxism, which has been called with some justice the fourth Abrahamic religion, has many structural similarities with Christian dogma. At all events, the genuine left and the genuine right are united in their disgust at those in the middle and their interminable quest for compromise. For my part, as a nonbeliever, I’ve come to have a certain fondness for Laodicean churches. Fewer casualties.

    • Ben

      “For my part, as a nonbeliever, I’ve come to have a certain fondness for Laodicean churches.”

      This line is especially poignant here, in light of Rev. 3.

  • James F. McGrath
  • Ben

    Since when do we not dismiss caricatures out of hand?  Was that a small concession?