Progressive and Liberal Christianity

Several posts have come to my attention in recent days, related to the subject of liberal/progressive Christianity.

Roger Olson has a post on why he doesn’t self-identify as a “liberal Christian.” He offers interesting discussion of the terminology and his own understanding, which is worth clicking through to read. Towards the end he sums up as follows:

So what’s wrong with being liberal theologically in that way? I find it thin, ephemeral, light, profoundly unsatisfying. It seems to me barely different from being secular humanist. Sure, theological liberals (in the sense I have defined that type above) can be profoundly “spiritual,” but I don’t think they are profoundly Christian. Their commitment is greater to modern culture, the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, than to Christian sources. Their “Christianity” is barely recognizable if recognizable at all—compared with anything that was called “Christian” before the Enlightenment. Ultimately, I believe, theological liberalism robs Christianity of its distinctiveness, the “scandal of particularity,” its prophetic edge and makes it easy, respectable and dull.

I have to strongly disagree. The reason why liberal Christians are committed to the insights of science and other approaches to knowledge associated with the Enlightenment is because they are almost universally agreed to represent improvements on what went before, allowing us a better understanding of the world we live in. And there is no reason to think that, when pre-Enlightenment Christians adopt a stance different from that of the Enlightenment, it is because they had considered that approach and evaluated a different one as preferable. No, they differ from Enlightenment thinking simply and precisely because they lived before it. We can’t know what the Biblical authors (for instance) would have said about the Enlightenment. But I think I can safely say this: What made the Biblical authors have a prophetic edge in their own time is not merely the fact that they reflected more their own context than our own. If it were, then presumably liberal Christians, by reflecting our own time, would be automatically the most prophetic simply because of the ways in which we reflect our own time and context. Olson, by making pre-Enlightenment vs. post-Enlightenment worldviews the crux of Christianity, treats context as substance. It is a rejection of this view – that an ancient culture and its assumptions can be adopted by people today, and that that culture must be accepted along with the Gospel – that was the heart of Bultmann’s work on demythologization.

I hope Olson would agree that being prophetic in fact involves offering a challenge to the ways of thinking dominant in one’s own time – and that doesn’t mean simply preferring an earlier society’s consensus rather than our own, especially when the latter has shown itself to be an improvement. But embracing progress in science and other domains of inquiry is not undercutting what made those religious voices of the past powerful. It is allowing change from those things which which they took for granted because they were taken for granted by most people in their time. Of course, sometimes such changes do affect core beliefs. But if we look at the history of our faith tradition, including within the pages of the Bible, then we will see that across the passage of time, people have consistently not only preserved ideas and emphases, but changed ideas and assumptions and cosmologies and so on and so on. The idea that liberal comes along for the first time after the Enlightenment, to do away with things that remained unchanging until then, is at best a caricature – and one that is dangerous, inasmuch as it often insulates conservative Christians from those prophetic voices which point out that their allegedly timeless truths are often relatively recent interpretations of our shared tradition.

And I challenge Olson and anyone else to deny Martin Luther King Jr., a theological liberal, the right to be called prophetic - or to call him dull.

Of course, it is true that the majority of us who us who self-identify as liberal Christians do not live our lives as prophetically as King did. But if the failure of individuals to fully live and put into practice the ideals of their movement or community is a reason for criticizing the ideals themselves, then such criticisms will by no means be restricted to liberal Christians. Most human beings, and thus most worldviews, would find themselves subject to such criticism.

Frank Schaeffer also posted on a related topic, suggesting that Progressive Christianity is as broken as Evangelicalism. He suggests that the problem, shared in common, is this:

Generations of Christians through millennia would have been flabbergasted at the make-it-up-as-you-go-along aspect of modern Christianity that cuts across both fundamentalist and progressive denominations.

He suggests as a solution an acceptance of open-minded, mystical religiosity, but that it needs to be coupled with traditions of doing, things that can be relied on, customs which we have instilled with meaning, symbolism, and weight and which should not be so lightly discarded as many are prone to today.

We certainly see the mix Frank argues for in some churches and denominations – in particular Episcopals, who can be traditionally liturgical as well as theologically and socially progressive. But there is also the tendency to just innovate for its own sake. Which reminded me of this image that came my way on Facebook recently:

See too Chaplain Mike’s thoughts on Frank’s post.

Of related interest are a couple of posts by Larry Moran. In one, he rightly emphasizes that not all atheists are skeptics. In the other, he discusses whether all skeptics are atheists. At least historically, the answer has to be no. Over the centuries, many Deists, pantheists, and Liberal Christians have not only self-identified as embracing skepticism, but have a proven track record of doing so. Skepticism is certainly incompatible with many forms of religious belief, and in particular those which posit supernatural entities for which there is no good evidence. But anyone familiar with the breadth of the phenomenon of religion, both historically and globally, will know that those are not the only options.

Also of interest are Sabio’s post on atheists who misunderstand religion, and John Dickerson’s piece on why Christians should be nice.

 

  • iamstillrobdavis

    My response to Frank’s post, which I was honestly really confused by:

    http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com/post/42764193731/frank-i-totally-understand-the-criticism-of-much

  • http://twitter.com/upsidedwnworld Rebecca Trotter

    I get the sense that this is one of those instances where part of the problem is that one group of people understand a word to mean one thing and another take it to mean something else. As someone with a more conservative than liberal bent I actually found Olsen’s essay helpful. I do think that Olsen perhaps went too far with his description of liberal theology as thin and ephemeral. But I have often encountered Christians who seem content to simply discard Christian orthodoxy and scripture in light of what we have learned since the Enlightenment. For example, I wrote a post a while ago arguing against the idea that the crucifixion was blood sacrifice meant to satiate God’s demands. The first comment was one which started with “what you’re leaving untouched is whether any of this actually happened the way we find it recorded in the bible” and going on to offer a few examples of ways that scholarship had called the text into question, differences in the accounts we have, etc. I find this off putting as well as unnecessary.

    If we are Christians and our texts have been handed down as a record of our faith, then what is this seeming compulsion to say, “oh – it’s been called into question. Maybe we need to toss it as a relic from a more ignorant time”? Or even worse (imo), to see the various motivations of the writers (to convince a Jewish audience, speak to a Greek audience, establish a link with the OT, etc) as resulting in simple propaganda which renders the whole things as suspect as a Tokyo Rose broadcast. For a non-believer who takes an entirely anthropological view of a religion which they assume to be false, I can see it. But for Christians?

    Far better to take what we have learned since the enlightenment and allow it to enlighten our understanding. Yes, certain ideas about the meaning of orthodox Christianity and our scripture will be upended. But the approach for a Christian ought to be, “what is our understanding of the meaning of the ancient creeds and our scripture in light of what we have learned?” Rather than discarding what has been handed down to us, we can allow it to stretch, illuminate and deepen our understanding. For example, the whole issue of theodicy and what God’s perfection means becomes quite different, more nuanced and frankly, more real in light of the reality that there never was a time when physical death wasn’t part of the creation or when there was no illness, no predators, no conflict, etc. And yet God declared it “good”. What does it do to our theology, our understanding of God and our praxis to embrace the idea that God actually created a world of predator and prey, bacteria and parasites, rot and lightening – and that he declared it “good”? Or what does it mean that God declared mankind “very good” and what happened at the fall given what we have learned through psychology?

    I think this is fertile ground which is left unexplored and abandoned by the person who simply says, “well, the creation story in Genesis was simply the myth of ancient people who weren’t addressing science and meant to refute the creation stories of surrounding cultures. So it’s really something of an anthropological artifact for us.” But what if it’s more than that? What if that story has deep truths which when taken with the things we are learning about God’s creation today can increase our understanding and deepen our faith?

    So, I guess I took from Olsen an argument that many liberal theologians (or at least a certain subset of them) treat faith and science as an either/or proposition just like the fundamentalist does and simply comes down on the side of science vs the modernist religious interpretations held by fundamentalists. What I think is far more profitable – and what I think I’m seeing among those who align with progressive Christianity (and I could be wrong in this assessment, being new to the idea) – is to attempt to discern what “both/and” looks like.

    • http://www.facebook.com/justin.hanvey Justin Hanvey

      Excellent reply, and I think fairly balances what James wrote.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Indeed, if the point is that we should not merely set aside (in some cases with regret, in others with a sigh of relief) those things which historical or scientific investigation suggest never occurred, and then ignore them, rather than continuing to dialogue and wrestle with them, then I agree.

    • Kaz

      Very thoughtful comments, Rebecca. I find this part to be problematic, however:

      “What does it do to our theology, our understanding of God and our praxis
      to embrace the idea that God actually created a world of predator and
      prey, bacteria and parasites, rot and lightening – and that he declared
      it “good”?”

      The problem is that the declaration that creation is “good” is part of the account that liberal and other Christians discount as myth. It doesn’t seem coherent to suggest that one repeated statement that appears in the middle of a myth is the one thing we’re going to embrace as true. Moreover, if we do embrace the results of evolution as “good” then I don’t see why we’d need a savior. Why fix what isn’t broken, but “good”, instead?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        I would point out that, in Jesus’ time, there were a range of views regarding what the future “good” life of the Kingdom of God would look like. Some assumed that it would be purely spiritual, because bodily existence is something negative. Some assumed it would be bodily, with eating and drinking possible at the Messianic banquet, not least because of the conviction that God made us bodily. The early Christians held the range but included the latter. They didn’t join in completely with those who viewed existence in its present form as something entirely negative and to be escaped or eliminated. And so the assumption that the natural world in its present form is inherently evil is more Gnostic than Christian.

        But even apart from that, the assumption that, if God created through evolution, we do not need a savior, strikes me as bizarre. It is akin to saying that, if we can explain brain function in scientific terms, there is no need for the renewal of the mind that Paul wrote about. Why should that be the case?

        • Kaz

          “But even apart from that, the assumption that, if God created through
          evolution, we do not need a savior, strikes me as bizarre. It is akin to
          saying that, if we can explain brain function in scientific terms,
          there is no need for the renewal of the mind that Paul wrote about. Why should that be the case?”

          Save us from what? The very attributes, behaviors, and characteristics that are “good” and which were conferred on us by the good process God chose to use? That strikes me as bizarre. Paul’s theology makes sense if we were created in the image of God, but it makes no sense in light of naturalism.

          Of course, there are ways in which liberal Christianity itself strikes me as bizarre. Once you’ve written off the Bible as the error-filled word of man and not the word of God, you’ve essentially discredited the only source we have about who Jesus was and what his purposes are in God’s plan. Whatever your hope is for the future becomes a projection of your own desires, not something revealed to us.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I still do not follow your reasoning – or if I do, it could be used to argue that, if God made us with free will, then there is no need for salvation since sinful choices are just using a God-given ability. Is there any aspect of existence to which your logic could not be applied with a similar and equally dubious result?

            • Kaz

              I don’t understand your question, but I have some of my own:

              What do you base your faith upon?

              Why are you a Christian?

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                What do you not understand about the question? I am asking why, just because God put something in the universe, there can be no need for something called salvation. Or do you believe that illnesses exist, and the capacity for suffering exists, because someone other than God introduced them into the created order?

                The answer to the last question would have to include both a life-changing experience I had within a particular Christian context, and the broader context of the family and society I grew up in.

                I do not understand the middle question. Faith is in someone or something and involves orienting your life around that ultimate concern. Is that what you mean by faith being “based on”? If so, then the answer would be “God.”

                • Kaz

                  It isn’t a question of “Why shouldn’t there be a need for salvation?”, but “Why believe that there should be a need for salvation?” and, if you do, “Why believe that Jesus answers that need?”

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    Why won’t you answer my questions? It seems like you may be on the cusp of realizing that the tactic you use is one that could be applied to anything in the cosmos one wishes to deny, and that evolution is not the problem you claim it to be.

                    There are so many examples of Christians beginning with what they understand Jesus to be the answer to, and then insisting that all else must conform to the question that they have come up with, with dubious and problematic results. The Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement is a good example. I don’t see the earliest Christians using this approach, nor does it seem to me one that makes sense today.

                    • Kaz

                      I’m not using a “tactic”; I’m trying to figure out how and whether your view makes sense. You seem oddly disinclined to try and make sense out of it, but rather you approach dialogue with the goal of “countering” instead of understanding.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Even your writing that seems like a tactic, since I keep answering your questions, yet you refuse to answer mine. I can understand that you believe your view makes sense. I have asked you to provide justifications, explanations, and clarifications because it is not self-evident that your assertions have been true, but I fully appreciate that they seem that way to you, and perhaps even seem self-evident. My point is that they are not, and thus I keep ask you for justifications for them.

                    • Kaz

                      James, I asked first, didn’t I? Two days ago I asked “Save us from what?”, and I still don’t see an answer to that question. I followed up with an equally, or perhaps more important question: Why think that Jesus is the savior you think we need? You argue that the Bible is riddled with error, that it contains myths, that many of the words and deeds that are attributed to Jesus are the additions of later writers, etc, but you still believe that Jesus is the savior you believe you need. I’m just trying to make sense out of that, and if you don’t what to help me do so, that’s fine.

                      I’m not the first person who’s noticed that you often avoid answering questions, and probably not the first to observe that you seem to read people’s comments with the objective of “countering” them, at least when you disagree with them, or think you do.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I apologize, I didn’t notice that I had left one of your questions unanswered. The question of what Jesus saves us from is an interesting one. There have been a great many different answers, but I do not think that many other than the Gnostics have taken the view that we are saved from being created beings. If we are saved from “the wrath to come” and/or from sin, evolution is irrelevant to that.

                      Personally, I would speak of Jesus and his teachings having saved me and continuing to save me from a life oriented around myself and freed me for a life oriented around God, and from the system of values of the world (in the Johannine sense) that seeks to overcome problems and people with power, rather than with love.

                      I’m sorry that I didn’t notice sooner that I had failed to answer one of your questions. I do hope that now you will be willing to tell me why you feel so certain that, if evolution was the process through which human beings came to be on this planet, it ties God’s hands so that we cannot be saved in whatever sort of sense you consider most important.

                    • Kaz

                      No need to apologize, but thanks for doing so. You asked:

                      “I do hope that now you will be willing to tell me why you feel so certain that, if evolution was the process through which human beings came to be on this planet, it ties God’s hands so that we
                      cannot be saved in whatever sort of sense you consider most important.”

                      I don’t believe that evolution ties God’s hands, and I certainly have no problem with the physical world. My salvation hope is to finally be granted everlasting life on this earth as a human being. That’s what I long for, and that’s what I believe will occur, according to faith and according to Scripture.

                      Faith should be founded on something reasonable, though, IMO, lest it be nothing more that an illusion. The Bible is the only guide we have about what it should mean to be a Christian, and what salvation should mean for us. That meaning was based on a worldview that is at odds with naturalism, and what I don’t get is why someone would assume that you can just continue to reshape the original message into things it was never meant to be and still assume that your reshaped perspective is valid? Embrace the second half of Paul’s teaching on salvation, but reject the first half? What sustains such an idea, wishful thinking?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Our worldview is fundamentally different. To introduce natural explanations in embryology and disease and weather and everything else is to adopt a different worldview than that of the earliest Christians. Either it is possible to be a Christian in the context of our scientific worldview or it isn’t. Singling out evolution as though the rest of what science has to say is then OK is an exercise in wishful thinking, if anything is.

                    • Kaz

                      Why won’t you answer my questions? ;-)

                      On what basis do you assume that you can just continue reshaping what the Bible writers wrote and still have something true? For example, you can reject the first half of Paul’s doctrine of salvation and reshape it in harmony with your naturalistic presuppositions, but since you are now saying something Paul didn’t say, even something that actually contradicts what he did say, why assume that’s a-ok, and then move along with a contented smile believing that you’ve gleaned a truth?

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Why do you assume that not diverging from what a first-century person wrote, if that were even possible for a person living in our time and context, would be a good way to ensure that one has the truth?

                    • Kaz

                      You’re asking me to repeat myself as a means of avoiding another question, which tells me that we’ve taken this about as far as you’re willing to go.

                      It’s been interesting, as usual.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      No, I am willing to go as far as you like. Just answer my question – not more than once, just once – and we can carry on. But if you are not willing to continue, then we can leave it at that.

                    • Kaz

                      So you are refusing to answer my question even while insisting that I answer yours before we can proceed, even though I asked first, yet you think that MY approach seems like a “tactic”? You, James, are the ultimate tactician. You really are. You offer post after post after post after post criticizing other people, subjecting their views to needlepoint hostilities, yet when someone tries to get to the heart of your own approach in an effort to simply understand why you find it meaningful, you play hide-and-seek, or perhaps more accurately, avoid-and-redirect.

                      Rebecca Trotter unwittingly touched on part of my concern when she charged that my approach lacks imagination. The other side of that charge is that the liberal’s faith seems to be built on imagination, and I’m just trying to understand why those who approach Scripture that way believe that what what they conjure up in their heads is true.

                      Your answer, apparently, is “Why not?” This is a variation on challenging an opponent to prove a negative, and, as those who present such challenges know only too well, that’s often impossible to do. I can’t prove that there aren’t pink elephants living on some planet in a neighboring solar system, so I simply note that imagining that there are doesn’t make it so.

                      But if defending your faith commitments with the power of “Why not?” brings you comfort, then I’ll not get in your way. Maybe that’s just the thing that Christianity needs to get it moving in a positive direction and end the petty bickering. In addition to painting over the scenes from the old tapestry that you don’t like, you could publish the Gospel According to James McGrath and open up whole new vistas of inspiration. This could sweep the nation like lightening across a cloudy sky. Soon you’ll be interviewed on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, on countless radio programs, etc. I can picture a thoughtful news reporter asking:

                      “Professor McGrath, you’ve rejected much of the message that we find in the Christian Bible and molded it like a piece of clay into something very different. This is highly imaginative, by why should others believe the results of this reconfiguration are true?”

                      James responds: “Why not?”

                      At first the reporter just stares, bemused, but then the inspirational, liberating power of “Why not?” begins to transform his mind, for the words “Why not?” are alive and exert great power. Across the nation, people sitting in their living rooms are watching the broadcast. Husbands turn to their wives, brothers to their sisters, believers to their soon-to-be formerly skeptical friends, and their faces all begin to radiate pure childlike delight, as the power of “Why not?” works its magic. Soon a scene like the one from the movie Network unfolds, but rather than shouting “I’m mad as hell…” they sing out, “‘Why not?’, yes, ‘Why not?’, ‘Why not?’ indeed!”, as tears of joy run gently down their cheeks! In the days follow the broadcast goes global, as the most efficient “preacher” from the modern age (TV) carries the good new of “Why not?” to all the inhabited earth, and soon…

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Is this deliberate misrepresentation, or an indication that you have simply not genuinely read or not understood anything I have written? When have I ever offered “Why not?” as my reason for holding the views that I do?

                    • Kaz

                      It’s called caricature, which you endorse regularly when fundies are the butt of the criticism.

                      It’s a humorous extrapolation based on your answer to my question:

                      “On what basis do you assume that you can just continue reshaping what the Bible writers wrote and still have something true?”

                      To which you replied:

                      “Why do you assume that not diverging from what a first-century
                      person wrote, if that were even possible for a person living in our time and context, would be a good way to ensure that one has the truth?”

                      In other words, “Why not?”;-)

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      So when I ask you “Why do you assume…?” you think that depicting me answering every question with “Why not?” is a caricature of that? Caricature is when you lampoon through exaggeration. It is not the same thing as misunderstanding or misrepresenting.

                    • Kaz

                      I didn’t say that you’d answer every question with “Why not?”; I offered a hypothetical question structured to conform to the very question I asked.

                      I think that “Why not?” is a pretty natural inference/extrapolation based on what you said, but obviously your response also includes the implied assertion that we really have no choice but to reshape what the biblical authors wrote. Whether that is so or not in a given case where one might assume it applies, the question is still there. Even if we have no choice but to reshape what Paul wrote vis a vis salvation, for example (granting the assumption for the sake of argument), that still doesn’t explain why we should think that our unavoidable reconfiguration is true.

                      I’m trying to glean whether there are plausible bases for confidence that liberal Christianity won’t simply collapse as arbitrary.

                    • arcseconds

                      You appear to be trying to both understand James’s position, and at the same time rebut it, through caricature in the latest instance.

                      But you can’t effectively rebut, caricature or give a reductio unless you understand the position. Until you do, James is just going to respond “well, if that’s how you’re characterising me, you’re still misunderstanding me”.

                    • Kaz

                      If so, then perhaps it would have been best if he had simply answered my question with an answer, if there is one, rather than with a question that left me in the position of making inferences. Leading questions can be useful at times, but they can be problematic.

                      I’m not a liberal Christian, and I don’t hide my points of concern or disagreement, so it’s only natural that it would sometimes appear that I’m trying to rebut. Usually I’m just trying to point out that there are difficulties with his side of a debate, and I typically do this in response to his criticisms of others.

                    • Kaz

                      Although I’m fully capable of misunderstanding someone, I thought that, since you seem prone to asserting that I don’t understand this or that, I should probably highlight something from my last reply, namely, the word “extrapolation”.

                      Yes, I’m aware that your answer was not precisely equivalent to “Why not?”, but in the absence of an actual answer to my question I was left with no choice but to extrapolate based on what you did say.

                      I assume that you don’t really have a problem with this, as reshaping what someone says and applying it in ways that the original author may not endorse in an effort to make it better align with your presuppositions is not only acceptable, but sometimes the only way to arrive at truth, right? ;-)

                    • Kaz

                      “I can understand that you believe your view makes sense.”

                      You see, that’s the problem. This isn’t about my view, it’s about trying to make sense of your view.

          • http://twitter.com/upsidedwnworld Rebecca Trotter

            Kaz, I’ll tell you what – I will put my own life, witness and testimony on the line to prove that refusing to force the creation stories to be what some humans desire them to be – a historical account is not in the least incompatible with following Jesus nor does it discredit the bible as “the error-filled word of man”. It is YOU who thinks that simply acknowledging the reality of the world as God created it rather than according to a very limited, human interpretation of scripture is a threat to God, scripture and Jesus’ work. My faith, God, Jesus, salvation and bible is not in the least bit threatened by such things. It is far too real and durable for that.

            • Kaz

              Rebecca: The comment about “the error-filled word of man” wasn’t related to any given interpretation of Genesis, but was meant to reflect James’s view, as expressed on this blog many times. For example, in a previous thread about evolution and the Apostle Paul, I pointed out that, if naturalism is true, then Paul’s salvation doctrine is founded upon rather conspicuous errors. James countered this observation by pointing out that Paul’s writings contain another error involving his acceptance of Aristotle’s view of the heart, so we can’t use Paul to argue against the scientific consensus about origins. Of course, whether that is so or not didn’t affect my point.

              I enjoyed your post very much, and was impressed by its thoughtful character. That I pointed out a logical problem was not meant in any way to diminish that. But we all have to be willing to consider where our thinking may be off track, or where our presuppositions may be affecting our views.

              When I asked, “Save us from what?”, I wasn’t offering a challenge, but a sincere question. If naturalism is true, and that was God’s means of populating the earth, and if God did declare that to be “good” despite the pain, sickness, death, etc, that were part of the process, then I really don’t know what we need to be saved from. Pain, suffering, sickness, death, happiness, health, joy, misery, are all outgrowths of the “good” process from which they emerged. So when my nephew was born with a defect that left him handicapped for life, rather than sharing in my sister’s pain, and offering solace, as I did at the time, I should have advised her to sing praises to God, because he is the one who endorsed the process of life’s diversity via mutation and natural selection. The mutation that caused my nephew’s “deformity” is really just part of the “good” trial and error process by which evolution proceeds.

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Your argument is not with evolution here, but with sexual reproduction, which is attributed by Genesis to the Creator. This is exactly what I was trying to get you to understand, Kaz. Your objection seems to be not only to evolution but to the created order in the cosmos as we can observe it, of which evolution is just one component.

              • http://twitter.com/upsidedwnworld Rebecca Trotter

                If naturalism is true, it’s because God made it true. You are bringing soooooo many assumptions into this thing – none of which are logical or required in the least. If God used a natural process to bring forth life, then Paul’s words still stand just fine. I’ve seen good movies, read good books and listened to good music which has made me cry and ache. There’s zero reason to think that pain and goodness are incompatible. As for what we need to be saved from – how about sin, confusion, doubt, living with no hope?

                This is one of my main problems with more “literalist” approaches to the faith – it’s so narrow, shallow, unimaginative, inflexible. It’s so fragile that if one little string gets pulled nothing else makes sense. There’s nothing solid, durable or dependable about it. You go from saying that evolution calling a particular reading of scripture into question straight to questioning if the bible is worth anything, if Jesus’ life and death meant anything, if we should grieve with those who grieve, if we need salvation? What kind of BS faith is THAT? I have a faith in Jesus which could stand if we found out that aliens seeded life on this planet and that the bible was pieced together by the Hebrew’s trained goats. It’s grounded in Jesus – not some particular reading of scripture which came around a couple hundred years ago! It can last through errors, trials, and even deceptions. Because my God is a mighty stronghold. If your god can be taken down by something like evolution, that’s not much to put one’s faith in.

                • Kaz

                  “If naturalism is true, it’s because God made it true. You are bringing
                  soooooo many assumptions into this thing – none of which are logical or
                  required in the least.”

                  For example?

                  “If God used a natural process to bring forth life, then Paul’s words still stand just fine.”

                  Paul said that death is the result of sin; naturalism holds that death always existed, and is just part of life as a natural creature. How does the claim that death is the result of sin harmonize “just fine” with the claim that death is not the result of sin?

                  “I’ve seen good movies, read good books and listened to good music which has made me cry and ache. There’s zero reason to think that pain and goodness are incompatible.”

                  I know, that’s the point I’m trying to make. Happiness, sadness, laughter, crying, health, sickness, etc, are ALL part of what you’ve said that God declared “good”. I’m merely suggesting that you fully embrace your conviction.

                  “As for what we need to be saved from – how about sin, confusion, doubt, living with no hope?”

                  But those things are part of God’s good process, so why do you feel the need to be “saved” from them? You’re not fully embracing your own convictions;-)

                  “This is one of my main problems with more “literalist” approaches to the faith – it’s so narrow, shallow, unimaginative, inflexible. It’s so
                  fragile that if one little string gets pulled nothing else makes sense.
                  There’s nothing solid, durable or dependable about it.”

                  And one of my main problems with the liberal approach is that you either have to imagine that the ancient writers meant something compatible with your modern perspective, or you have to reject much of Scripture as the fallible word of man, as James does.

                  “You go from evolution calling a particular reading of scripture into
                  question straight to questioning if the bible is worth anything, if
                  Jesus’ life and death meant anything, if we should grieve with those who grieve, if we need salvation? What kind of BS faith is THAT?”

                  Certainly not mine.

                  “I have a faith in Jesus which could stand if we found out that aliens seeded life on this planet and that the bible was pieced together by the Hebrew’s trained goats. It’s grounded in Jesus – not some particular reading of scripture which came around a couple hundred years ago! It can last through errors, trials, and even deceptions. Because my God is a mighty stronghold. If your god can be taken down by something like evolution, that’s not much to put one’s faith in.”

                  You are missing my point, probably because, for some odd reason, even though I praised your thoughtful comments, you have adopted an adversarial stance towards me. I can only guess that what I’ve said hit a nerve, and probably not because it lacked relevance.

                  In any case, it’s been nice chatting.

                  • http://twitter.com/upsidedwnworld Rebecca Trotter

                    I’m just so disgusted that there continue to be people who on one hand blaspheme the work of God’s own hand by denying the evidence of creation while claiming to be Christians and have sown discord and driven hoardes of people away from God. I generally avoid these conversations because it is so upsetting to me.

                    What is death? How many times in the bible did the writer say that God would not allow his faithful ones to die? So the bible is filled with lies because you can’t understand it in anything other than the most inane, literal way possible? That’s RIDICULOUS. So we are supposed to ignore all the mentions of death which don’t line up with reality and glom onto this one so that we can deny the work of God’s own hand and protect a particular human understanding? And call that faithfulness? I call it bullshit.

                    And I do embrace all of creation as God made it – with kids who bless us and grieve us with their weaknesses and people who get sick and return to God’s loving arms and earthquakes that bring all we build to rubble. And it is good. My God made it and he made it good.

                    And simply because life came about through naturalistic processes doesn’t mean that something hasn’t gone very wrong with humanity which would require salvation! The fall is still an issue. Our sin is still an issue. Our cruelty to each other is still an issue. Our fear of death is still an issue. The idea that because there was a good, naturalistic process in place there’s no need for slvation is inane, absurd and a bunch of other insulting words I’m forcing myself not to type.

                    And I’m not a liberal, I hope scripture in very high regard although I don’t have to put silly labels on it like “infallible” or “inerrant” to statisfy an immature human desire for everything to work in straight lines and according to how I think it ought to be. You talk about how the writers understood scripture – do you have the FAINTEST idea how ancient writers understood what they wrote? They didn’t think they were writing a history. The editors who brought several different sources together and knit them together into the Pentateuch didn’t think they were Moses. They knew they were working with multiple sources and that the stories were for our edification – not to record long gone history like some lame history book. They were working with completely different standards and objectives than someone like you wants to impose on them. And then when someone like Dr. McGrath or myself try to pull out these deeper things, understand the text in light of a reality which has been hidden, idiots come out of the woodwork to say, “no – you’re imposing your views on the ancient writers – they thought just like us!”

                    And don’t give me this, clearly not mine crap.” That was exactly your response – “if the world was created by naturalist means, then the bible is worthless, salvation is unneeded, we should be happy for children with deformities, blah, blah, blah.” That’s what YOU said. That’s what your faith is – a fragile, insubstantial thing which will fall apart if one little string gets pulled. Otherwise, if one strong got pulled, the rest would stand just fine. But in your thinking, it doesn’t. It all goes straight to hell. (Which imo is exactly where this sort of “faith” comes from anyways.)

                    And yes, I am testy. The church has been brought to the edge of destruction by this stubborn refusal of humans to admit, “gee – maybe we didn’t know everything. Maybe defending what we thought the bible was telling us isn’t the same as defending God.” It’s Satanic, frankly. I hate it. I despise the lies it feeds on. I loathe the way it turns this deep, beautiful faith into something shallow and contemptible – something that will be (and increasingly is) spit out and throw into the streets to be trampled on. We live in this amazing universe! It works in amazing, mindboggling, challenging and awe-inspiring ways. And instead of reveling in the revelation of it, Christians – of all people! – are busy fighting tooth and nail to shove reality back into the box where God is a lame genie who goes “poof – there it is”. I have no respect for that god. I have no respect for those who try to put him in the seat of the one, true, Living God, creator of heaven and earth. That puny, threatened by lab coats and dna piece of filth “god” isn’t fit to be stepped on under the feet of the God I know and serve.

                    • Kaz

                      Rebecca: I’m sorry to see that my comments upset you so much. That wasn’t my intent.

                      One of my problems with the liberal vs fundamentalist dialogue is that so much of it seems to be little more than a spitting contest, saturated with assumptions (you have them too, BTW), and I’m just trying to get past the spit and gain a better understanding of what justifies the assumed rectitude that both groups sometimes seem to imagine applies to their side of the debate.

                      One assumption that you made above is that the documentary hypothesis is true. I question whether Jesus himself would have agreed with this hypothesis. My thinking is, probably not. At Luke 24:44 he divided the OT into the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. At Mark 10:4-8 he quoted Genesis 2:24, which I believe would be J; at Mark 7:10 he quoted the Ten Commandments, which I believe would be E; at Mark 10:3 he refers to Duet. 24:1, which I believe would be D; and at Matt. 8:4 he quoted Lev. 14, which I believe would be P; and in all of these verses he attributes Moses.

                      Would you say the following to Jesus?:

                      “do you have the FAINTEST idea how ancient writers understood what they wrote? They didn’t think they were writing a history. The editors who brought several different sources together and knit them together into the Pentateuch didn’t think they were Moses.”

                      If you believe that Jesus’ was as ignorant as you think I am, then on what basis do you believe he is the savior of the world? Or where these accounts involving Jesus understood to be metaphorical or mythical, involving some more imaginative interpretation, the apprehension of which eluded most of mankind until the emergence of liberalism?

                      BTW, you might enjoy two works dealing with the documentary hypothesis, one by a conservative, and one by a liberal:

                      1) Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch, by Duane A. Garrett

                      2) The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, by Rolf Rendtorff

                    • Kaz

                      I had said:

                      ” Or where these accounts involving Jesus understood to be metaphorical or mythical, involving some more imaginative interpretation, the apprehension of which eluded most of mankind until the emergence of liberalism?”

                      I forgot to mention the third option, i.e. that you believe Jesus never actually said the things noted above that Matthew, Mark, and Luke attribute to him, which doesn’t really mitigate the problem, and may actually make it worse.

                    • Kaz

                      One more omission to be rectified:

                      At John 5:46, it says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” This would seem to refer to either Genesis 49:10 (J) or Duet. 18:8 (D), or perhaps both.

                      We can say that John is late, and that Jesus never really uttered these words, but once again that wouldn’t seem to help much. Also, even if Jesus himself didn’t utter those words, the person who wrote John’s Gospel apparently felt that Moses was an OT author. Where do you think that notion came from?

  • Tony Jones
    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks! I should try to do a round-up of the various reactions and conversations!

  • Pseudonym

    “Liberal” can apply to several dimensions. I appear to be naturally quite liberal theologically, but quite conservative liturgically. (Of course, I don’t impose my liturgical beliefs on others; to do that would be conservative theologically.)

    Incidentally, on Larry Moran’s piece, I left a comment to the effect that the most important counter-example is Martin Gardner. Gardner was one of the key founders of the modern skeptical movement (see his famous book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science). His skepticism credentials were impeccable.

    He was also a person with a deep personal faith, though he would deny the label “religious”:

    I am a philosophical theist. I believe in a personal god, and I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in prayer, but I don’t believe in any established religion. This is called philosophical theism [...] Philosophical theism is entirely emotional. As Kant said, he destroyed pure reason to make room for faith.

    This is a little bit personal for me. A friend, an inadvertant mentor in fact, whom I won’t name here, is a Christian who was also a significant player in the Australian skeptical movement against the efforts of Ken Ham and his ilk to take over science education in Queensland in the 80s. I like to think that he was partly responsible for Ham leaving Australia (you’re welcome, USA!), but realistically it was mostly because of politics and infighting within in the creationist organisations of the day. But I digress.

    I’d read books by Gardner (though not Fads and Fallacies) before. I was a fan of people like Dick Smith, and still am. But it was thanks to this person, at an impressionable age, that I learned what skepticism actually is and why it’s important.

    But it’s even more personal for me because nobody likes being defined out of existence. I truly believe that Larry Moran is an atheist; I don’t think that he’s just angry at God or something. Similarly, I’m a skeptic, and I’m not an atheist, and no amount of No True Scotsmanning will change this.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Thanx for the mention, mate.

    I love these lines of yours:

    Skepticism is certainly incompatible with many forms of religious belief, and in particular those which posit supernatural entities for which there is no good evidence. But anyone familiar with the breadth of the phenomenon of religion, both historically and globally, will know that those are not the only options.

    • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

      But I must say, your mention drew a couple of the defend-Atheism-at-all-cost” folks to my site who are not even addressing my points. So maybe I will take back my thanks for the mention. :-)

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

        Linking can be a mixed blessing…

  • JD

    Interesting, James, that you should conisder Martin Luther King a liberal Christian. I think there would be very many who would consider him an evangelical with a keen recognition of the social dimension of the Gospel. I doubt he had any reservations with the incarnation or bodily resurrection of Jesus for example (like for instance John Shelby Spong does).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I take it that you have not read what King himself wrote about the sorts of things that distinguish conservatives and liberals, then?

    • arcseconds

      There was a topic about this not too long ago on this very blog.

      Iamstillrobdavis shared this, which was pretty interesting..

  • arcseconds

    Gee, I hadn’t realised that liberal theologians and secular humanists alike are “thin, ephemeral, light, and profoundly unsatisfying”. Although I guess it explains how it is you read Bultmann and Gadamer, yet also like Doctor Who and follow PZ Myers’s blog, James: they’re all just light pop stuff!

    Back to believing six impossible things before breakfast I guess — wouldn’t want to be thought shallow.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana Hope

    19th century liberalism may not be dull, but it is dissatisying. I don’t believe progressive Christianity is the same thing. But liberalism – as I think Olson is defining it – is barely Christian at all. Schleiermacher said God isn’t even an object. His response to Kant is troubling. But more than anything, its just dissatisfying. Its not worth much to me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I understand that you find it unsatisfying. I hope that you can understand that many liberal Christians feel the same way about conservative forms of Christianity. To them, making God into an object is to diminish God, so that God is just another thing in the universe, not the Ultimate. As for claiming that it is barely Christian, some conservative voices have claimed that a Christianity that frees slaves, or ordains women, is “barely Christian,” but to those who follow that path seems profoundly Christian, because even if it is departing from past practice, it is doing so on the basis of Christianity’s most cherished principles.

      • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana Hope

        Thank you for your response. I ABSOLUTELY can understand because I left the evangelical church exactly for those reasons. I got tired of the issues people have with gays and women and the concrete “I know everything” attitude among evangelicals. I really don’t have a need for a lot of set doctrine, but to push it as far as to say God isn’t a being, or Jesus is not God, isn’t just to say we don’t need a savior to redeem us (I always thought that argument is weak; God could save us without an atoment), but is now to say we had no savior who came and walked among us. We had no God who came and walked among us (schleiermacher: Jesus is an ethical person who always depended on God, but He is not God)- that is what I am charging 19th century liberalism with, and that is why I am unsatisfied.

        But again, I am not charging the progressive Christian church with 19th century liberalism although you make a great point because Tillich also believed God was not a being. To my knowledge most don’t go as far as 19th century liberalism but some do of course.

        P.S. And I would never say liberal Christians are not Christians anymore than I would say evangelical Christians are not Christian. But I do think liberal Christianity nearly kills Christianity. Its a no wonder the neo-orthodox church and others responded to them in such great degrees.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Sorry for my delay in replying. I think that you’ll find a range of viewpoints on many of these subjects among progressive Christians. Perhaps that’s a key difference between the classic liberal and the contemporary progressive approaches – less of the modernist emphasis on coming up with a definitive answer. :-)

          • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana Hope

            Just wanted to say thank you. Also, I don’t know my likes came out negative there. I just wanted to hit like. :)

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