Liberals and Fundamentalists Have it Wrong: Faith is Not About “Correct” Facts

The reason so many liberal churches are empty or mostly populated with aging rationalists who seem to have a somewhat embarrassed attachment to religion, is that trying to reduce spiritual experience to something verifiable is a dead end. It’s a dead end for fundamentalists too. Fundamentalists wind up defending myths as historically true. That’s as futile as it is for the theological liberals that seek to demystify myths and render the life of the spirit tangible.

Frank Schaeffer

Join me at the Wild Goose Festival this week!


If fundamentalist churches seem to be run by paranoid fact-free hysterics liberals seem to approach spirituality as a lifeless rationalist project.

Fundamentalists and theological liberal do share something though: FEAR. They are afraid of being proved wrong and so spend a lot of time defending their theological points of view.

Fear comes from being afraid we’re not certain about the facts of faith or non-faith. Atheists and Christians all strive to be correct in our views. But what if the very struggle for certitude is a dead end?

The first thing Jesus said after he was raised from the dead was “Be not afraid.” So don’t be.

I’m not asking you to imitate my brand of hope-filled Christian uncertainty, but if the subject of Jesus still interests you please consider this: Faith is not about “getting right with God.”

Jesus used the Torah against Torah. Jesus used a higher morality of the kingdom of God within us against the law. Every passage in which we read of Jesus reading the Torah he is making his own independent interpretive decisions. For instance, Jesus consistently places love for neighbor above veneration of the law or even ideas of justice. And “neighbor,” as Jesus defined that word, is the outcast, the other, the loser, the victim, the hated, the enemy. The neighbor is the enemy we are to love, not in order to save us from God’s wrath but to save us from ourselves.

The philosopher René Girard points to a non-retributive understanding of Christ precisely because Girard rejects the retributive “god” followed by so many Roman Catholics and Protestants, not to mention Muslims and Jews. Girard developed the idea that human primates do what all primates do: imitate each other, and that this gives rise to violence. Because we imitate others we imitate their desires. Through this “mimetic desire” we come to want what others want and we kill to get it. That violence is a threat to the survival of the tribe.

What is needed if our faith is to live, is for us to re-mythologize our holly traditions and texts, not to try reduce them to the tidy categories of what is true and what’s not true as those terms are used for reading airline schedules. There’s another way of seeing things: Something can never have happened and still be true.

Put it this way we’re not talking about flying in planes here but about flying dreams. A Bible story can never have taken place in a historic sense but still is truer than what’s provable in a chemistry lab. It isn’t describing what happened once upon a time but what’s always happening. It’s telling us why we dream to fly not how airplanes work.

Before there were planes people had flying dreams. The dreams tell us something lasting and authentic about our desire to transcend a mortal earthbound existence. They tell us something more basic and eternal about being a human than anything an engineer at Boeing or Airbus Industries can explain.

The least interesting question about religion is to ask “Did this really happen?

The result of the gospel is the point, not what happened or didn’t. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise is a byproduct of the profound action of the gospel. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation of the gospel in favor of its mere byproducts, reason and science. As Girard writes in Hidden Things, “I hold the truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth.”

According to Girard, the Bible shows that violence does not come from God; rather, God sympathizes with victims. Seen this way, the incarnation incarnates God in the person of Jesus, in order to become himself a victim. God’s only earthly throne is a cross. His only “revenge” on his enemies is unconditional compassion and forgiveness.

This view is the opposite of satisfying the blood lust of an angry god modeled on the pagan deities and the theological theories of atonement. Rather, the Incarnation and Christ’s murder points to the futility of violence and to the path of salvation through all encompassing empathy. Christ, in Girard’s view, was not the ultimate sacrifice but a rebuke by God of sacrificing anyone for anything… including some concept of “truth.”

Rather than demanding some sort of justice, Christ sets the example of turning the other cheek. “Forgive them,” he asks for his killers.

The killing of God becomes the example of what all God’s children must be willing to suffer in order to bring peace on earth. It is in fact the root of all concepts of human rights as we understand them in the West. The humanism of the enlightenment borrowed from this ethic as do today’s so called New Atheists.

If you lose your life you will find it. If Jesus is God, then this God loves his enemies and friends alike. If he is not God, the enlightened ethic of non-retribution still guides the best of our civilization and we depart from it at our peril.



About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • Gabe Martini

    “The neighbor is the enemy we are to love, not in order to save us from God’s wrath but to save us from ourselves.”

    Amen. Some much-needed—although not always appreciated—words here, Frank.

  • Dave

    Ran across this quote today from Joseph Campbell’s book Myths to Live By regarding a Western man asking about Shinto:

    “You know,” he said, “I’ve now been to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a number of shrines, but I don’t get the ideology; I don’t get the theology.”

    The Japanese (you may know) do not like to disappoint visitors, and this gentleman, polite, apparently respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused as though in deep thought, and then, biting his lips, slowly shook his head. “I don’t think we have ideology,” he said. “We don’t have theology. We dance.”

    That, for me, was the lesson of the congress. What it told me was that in Japan, in the native Shinto religion of the land, where the rites are extremely stately, musical, and imposing, no attempt had been made to reduce their “affect images” to words. They have been left to speak for themselves — as rites, as works of art — through the eyes to the listening heart. And that, I would say, is what we, in our own religious rites, had best be doing too. Ask an artist what his picture “means”, and you will not soon ask such questions again. Significant images render insights beyond speech, beyond the kinds of meaning speech defines.

  • Sean K Reynolds

    You say, “The least interesting question about religion is to ask “Did this really happen? The result of the gospel is the point, not what happened or didn’t.””

    I’m sorry, if it didn’t really happen, it means that HUMANS made it all up. Which means that your human-created religion is no more important than any other human-created philosophy (because they’re both made up by humans). So it’s actually VERY important and VERY interesting to ask “did this really happen?”

    AND, because if it didn’t actually happen, and therefore was made up by HUMANS, you can’t use your religion as some higher authority about slavery, homosexuality, male/female roles in the household, and so on.

    In other words: if you don’t care whether or not your “historical religious” events really happened, you’ve given up all credibility as to whether your religion has any innate moral high ground compared to anything derived from reason rather than faith (such as secular humanism)—you’re using fiction to justify your chosen ethics. Any if a religion is no more credible than secular humanism, why adhere to the fictional trappings of a religion when adhering to factual, reason-based philosophy is just as credible?

  • David Robles

    How often do we state the truth with such passion even anger, as if Truth
    which is Reality Itself, was so fragile it needed our protection? Or
    even worse, what if all we are doing by affirming Truth (or our
    misunderstanding of it as mere facts) is affirming our egos, our self-
    image and asserting ourselves in dominance over those around us?

    We do well if, before we speak or act, we pause for a moment and
    make an honest assessment of our emotional and spiritual state.
    We do even better if, more than anything else, we pursue a first-
    hand personal experience of this Ultimate Reality, our Triune
    God in a spirit of peace, humility and love.

    This longing for the Truth must be first and foremost a longing for
    the transformation of our own hearts, that the prayer of our Lord
    Jesus Christ be fulfilled in us, when He prayed,

    “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into
    the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I
    sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in
    truth.” John 17:17-19 NASB
    Consider this quote from St Isaac the Syrian, ” ” Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth.Someone who is considered among men to be zealous for truth has
    not yet learned what truth is really like: once he has truly learnt it,
    he will cease from zealousness on its behalf.
    The gift from God and of knowledge of him is not a cause for turmoil
    and clamour; rather this gift is entirely filled with a peace in
    which the Spirit, love and humility reside.
    The following is a sign of the coming of the Spirit; the person whom
    the Spirit has overshadowed is made perfect in these very virtues.

    God is reality. The person whose mind has become aware of God
    does not even possess a tongue with which to speak, but God resides
    in his heart in great serenity. He experiences no stirring of zeal
    or argumentativeness, nor is he stirred by anger. He cannot even be
    aroused concerning the faith.” p.61 translated by Dr. Sebastian Brock.

  • Maria V. Munoz

    I go to a liberal church. It’s not about cognition, but experience with God, and that’s my own personal religion as well. We don’t try to prove anything. We just DO what God asked us to do, and we can do that, not because we are good people, but because God gave us a piece of Himself. The fundamentalist chuches I went to were more about cognition and being “right.”

  • Jason Sanders

    Very well put. I generally agree. Above all else, if you’re in doubt about what to do or how to act, act with love in your heart. That is surely the centre of the gospels. And ask for Jesus’s help to guide you, and act with self control, examining your conscience along the way. Purifying your heart is what it is all about, it seems to me.
    I’m a Christian, but I like this quote from the Buddha: “If you see two monks arguing about what is the Dhamma (Buddhism), they’re not practising the Dhamma (Buddhism).
    What really matters is that Christ was ultimately the Cosmic Christ, and he is a living God, eternal and always present. The Saints tapped into that Cosmic Christ, and bloomed into human beings of great kindness, self control, and love. Some of them could and can perform miracles….they are proof enough for me of Christ.

  • LaurieInSeattle

    I also go to a liberal church, and have to agree with what you say. My dream is to move half of our church’s faith from head to heart. (I would recommend Richard Stearns’ “The Hole in Our Gospel” as a good starting point, because liberal churches were made for Christian action.)

    And to your list, I would also have to add militant atheists. It’s not enough for them that THEY don’t believe. They need to do everything they can to make sure that YOU don’t, either. Also because of fear…

    • Nick Gotts

      Indeed so: justified fear of the irrationality of religion, which has caused and is causing such immense damage and suffering.

  • dapowellii

    Interesting point of view, but I don’t think it answers one of the most fundamental questions: why? For instance, why does God allow so many of his devout followers to die from natural disasters? In May, some terrible storms ripped apart Moore, Oklahoma, and many thousands of people were rendered homeless despite their prayers. What sort of hope does it give survivors to know that God allows tragedies to happen, seemingly at random? The Christian answer is usually, “it’s all in God’s plan, we cannot understand it.”

    Furthermore, in my experience fear is a basic staple of Christianity: you have to fear Hell to accept Christ, live in constant fear of sin in order to live the Christian life, fear God’s wrath wrought by natural disasters (see above), and fear the Apocalypse is looming with each war, technological advance, or Democrat. How do you explain that?

  • Lausten North

    Frank:”The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation of the gospel in favor of its mere byproducts, reason and science.”
    Reason is not a byproduct of religion. Check your history. The closest you can come is early scientists saying they could use reason to reach God. It was their culture and the Pope had his eye on them! Aquinas was banned first and canonized after he died, when the church realized they had to accept reason or be sent to the dustbin of history.

    Frank: “Christ, in Girard’s view, was not the ultimate sacrifice but a rebuke by God of sacrificing anyone for anything… including some concept of “truth.”
    If you want to create a new theology, that’s fine, but no church has this in their official doctrine. You don’t get to make up something that goes against almost every historical theology, then say, “that’s what God really is.”

    Frank, in bold: “The killing of God becomes the example of what all God’s children must be willing to suffer in order to bring peace on earth. It is in fact the root of all concepts of human rights as we understand them in the West.”
    No it’s not. Being allowed to live in peace is the root of human rights. Having to fight for those rights is a result of that. Citation needed here, or, again, you’re just making stuff up.

  • Theodore Bosen

    Playing the Chief in the play version of One Flew Over the Cukcoo’s Nest, I open the play with a monologue that ends with “My God, there some things that’s true even if they never really happen!” Kesey got it.

  • Vaaljapie

    I also grew up in an evangelical missionary home (in Africa) and fortunately by the grace of God I still follow the Truth. Mr. Schaeffer, yes evangelicals make mistakes, but the fundamental truth still stands – we can only be saved by faith in the living Jesus Christ and His sufficient atonement on the cross!

  • Peter Štrba

    My Tribute to Christian Liberalism

    Talking about Fundamentalism versus Liberalism, I like to point out that
    both are equally part of the United States’ legacy. The religious views of
    Thomas Jefferson diverged widely from the doctrines of his fundamentalist and pietistic counterparts, who are often and falsely regarded as the true founding fathers of this american New World. In fact, Jefferson invested great efforts in cutting and pasting pieces of the New Testament together to compose The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (“Jefferson Bible”), which excluded any miracles and hell-fire threats, emphasising solely on the Jesus’ moral message.
    The fact, that people who do not conform to traditional church-theology are no longer persecuted, jailed, burnt at the stake or scared into must-believe by hellfire threats, goes to show that religion too – “Thank God” – is capable to evolve to humane heights. This evolution rose from the primitive stage of human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to a god performing his own sacrifice.

    I can no longer understand that out of the simple message of Jesus, which can be summed up in one word – LOVE – a complex religion like Christianity was constructed. I think that Jesus himself was a man with NO theology. Sometimes this no-theology reappears in sayings of the most unlikely people, who are rather known for their contribution to religions’ mainline theology. I am thinking of the church father Augustine, who was known to have said that “when someone claims to understand God then it can’t be God”, or expressed in the Islamic saying: “He who explains God lies”.
    My suspicion about the right and only way of how one should believe is further nourished by the fact that Christianity formed its doctrines in an epoch of a magic-mythical consciousness, in which superstition was ripe. Such had to be replaced by Christianity’s miracle-beliefs and hell threats, which could be controlled by the church. It comes as no surprise that the 4th century Pope Damasus ordered the theologian Hieronymus (383 A.D) to change biblical texts, in order to heat the fires of hell for the sake of accepting the Love of God. And thus the dark Middle Ages began. But the Protestants too accepted unquestionably what has been dished up to them as the “Word of God”- a manipulated text for the sake of making governing of the uncontrollable masses easier and for the gaining and sustaining power! Only a church independent church-historian could tell how much of the original biblical texts have been left untouched. Theologians are mostly biased, if they are mission orientated. Those who are not, are still helpless, because hardly any theologian today still knows the lost language of Jesus, which was Aramaic. So why do believers, conditioned by traditional and fundamental church-theology, find it so difficult to be more curious about the origins of what they believe to be the only true doctrine (often mixed–up with true spirituality and personal faith)? I believe it is because their theology has the advantage of centuries of time on its side, during which it was able to study how to exploit homo-sapiens’ sense of guilt and construct and refine their Christology, a labyrinth out which cannot easily escape.
    It is only and thanks to the influence of the enlightenment on theology that the dark side of church-constructed Christianity has been soft-washed and it is due to the clever application of hermeneutics that we no longer perceive the crazy and radical parts of the bible as such. Hence, “Thank God”, fire and brimstone
    preaching is no longer on the menu of Sunday’s church-services. Although some
    of these dark bible passages are still used in the liturgy and preached by
    fundamentalist evangelicals as absolute truth. I have been trying for too long to
    understand why intelligent people (many of them having enjoyed a much higher
    education than I ever had) can believe and preach stories, meant to be taken as
    myth and legends, as if they correspond to historical facts. As an intellectual by nature and heart I found great relieve in being a liberal Christian and thus free to think freely about religious doctrine.

    I think that religions came into existence not for religion’s self-declared reasons of believing in the right god in the right way, but for social-political reasons, in order to create identity with which one could trust his fellow-believer (as for ex. in trading) and count on him for support in times of need and under the menace of their “barbaric” enemies. In order to make this fool-proof, lest anyone would abandon and deny the faith, a counter figure to god, with a hellish enough threat, had to be brought into the play. Hence the devil with his eternal torture chamber was the winner to receive the part. It is a legacy that the Old Persian religion of Zoroaster passed on to all religions that root in Brahmaic and Abrahamic myths – only Buddha rejected such. Hence I am a liberal Christian with a leaning to Buddhism. Considering that liberals in the USA are outnumbered by evangelical fundamentalists, I am burdend over the fact that one never hears of a passionate liberal advocate from a country that had also produced great thinkers.

  • Nick Gotts

    When I finally got round to reading the Bible, what surprised me was just how tedious it is, how poor as literature for the most part, how uninspiring compared with either science and mathematics, or great fiction.