The big question: Why aren’t there more liberal Christians?
I remember when I begin my own move from the very conservative religious world into a progressive, more liberal, freer religious world how terribly frightening it was.
I couldn’t find a roadmap. The rules were unclear. I had to make too many decisions. It was exhausting to have to think for myself all the time. Agreeing to disagree is a truly terrifying stance as one has to let go of absolute “rightness.” Being among liberal Christians was not “safe.”
Over the years, I began to understand that liberalism is a luxury. To be a liberal Christian means taking active moves toward a more just society, more inclusivity, and relinquishing power to others.
Without this kind of more liberal mindset, we’ll never be able to truly address inequality on multiple levels. But, until we have addressed inequality in an effective manner, few will be able to embrace this luxury. We are caught in a vicious cycle.
So our society needs more liberal Christians. But their numbers rarely see much growth. Why?
The six primary reasons: scarcity, safety, leadership, organization, power, and difficulty. Each is explained below.
One: A theology of scarcity
People who are operating on the edge, be it financial, social, physical, emotional, or mental simply don’t have the resources to open their hearts and minds to alternative ways of thinking. There is simply no energy left over.
All energy is spent on simple survival, keeping the family fed, staying out of bankruptcy, fighting for health with almost no resources, trying to hold together fractured families, or dealing with devastating addictions.
Life is a constant juggling effort; there is no space to think about wider issues. Conservatism gives simple answers; liberalism asks hard questions. When a person faces giant life stresses, simple answers, even if they are wrong, carry the day. Truly, aiming for diversity in thought and in action is an energy suck.
But there is more, something I call “Theological Scarcity” or “Limited Good.” This mindset sees the goodness and grace of God available only to a limited few, those who have said the right things, believe the right way, read and understand the Bible only in a certain way. The rest are “left behind,” so to speak.
A world of theological scarcity, must, by its very nature run from the way liberal Christians perceive God, i.e., as One brimming over with unlimited goodness and grace, available to all, freely given.
Under a limited good mindset, people sense an urgency to get inside, to make sure they, at least, will be recipients of grace. That mindset leads to the second reason for fewer liberal Christians.
Two: Feelings of Safety
People feel much safer with high walls around them, particularly in times that are threatening in any area. A frightening mindset will immediately move to “that which is known will keep us safe.” Venturing toward the unknown tends to shut us down.
The rainbow is lovely to look at, but many, if not most, people, deep down, really want black and white, a clear definition of what is and is not permissible.
The aim for purity, and especially purity in religious thoughts and belief, springs from a more fear-based, limited-good religious structure. A hallmark of conservativism: the pursuit of absolute clarity in belief.
Doctrinal absolutes rule and leave no room for blurry edges. Once those edges blur, the conservative world immediately leaps to the “slippery slope” argument, where one little movement away from the tight center inevitably means total heresy.
The “Camel’s Nose” story is a perfect example:
One cold night, as an Arab sat in his tent, a camel gently thrust his nose under the flap and looked in. “Master,” he said, “let me put my nose in your tent. It’s cold and stormy out here.” “By all means,” said the Arab, “and welcome” as he turned over and went to sleep.
A little later the Arab awoke to find that the camel had not only put his nose in the tent but his head and neck also. The camel, who had been turning his head from side to side, said, “I will take but little more room if I place my forelegs within the tent. It is difficult standing out here.” “Yes, you may put your forelegs within,” said the Arab, moving a little to make room, for the tent was small.
Finally, the camel said, “May I not stand wholly inside? I keep the tent open by standing as I do.” “Yes, yes,” said the Arab. “Come wholly inside. Perhaps it will be better for both of us.” So the camel crowded in. The Arab with difficulty in the crowded quarters again went to sleep. When he woke up the next time, he was outside in the cold and the camel had the tent to himself. Author unknown
Those in the conservative world are intent on keeping that camel, so well represented by the rainbow, out. Black and white = security.
And what better way to have a clear-cut theology or absolute truths? Have one all-powerful leader, who has the job of transmitting those non-debatable beliefs.
And that leads to issue number three.
Three: The challenges of collaborative leadership embraced by liberal Christians
One characteristic of the more liberal Christian world: a move to a more collaborative leadership structure. The idea of shared leadership replaces the one powerful leader, i.e., the “celebrity [always male] pastor” model.
It’s a great idea that also carries extreme challenges in implementation. Ideas are examined from every possible viewpoint leading, too often, to stalemate or seriously delayed decisions about solving current problems or creating cohesive and manageable plans for the future.
The ancient Greeks, the place where democracy first flourished, also gave up on it after a couple of hundred years. It was just too hard; every single person (well, for them that meant every single free male; no women or slaves allowed) had to contribute and actively participate.
The 80/20 rule (20% of the participants do 80% of the work) has been around forever. And when that 20% get tired, they start looking for a strong leader to give themselves a break. Life in general is just easier.
This is a tough obstacle to overcome. The next one is even harder.
Four: The openness of the liberal stance fights against a solid organizational center
The very nature of liberalism means we don’t organize well. With more permeable walls and a refusal to work from fear, the very openhandedness prevents the creation of hard “You are in and YOU are out” lines.
The problem: people LIKE in-groups. They like feeling chosen and special and unique and that they have knowledge and privilege others may not have. To go back to number one, people like scarcity because the “haves” get to feel very special and look down on the “have-nots” of theological truths.
Liberalism fights against that very human tendency, but the next very human tendency is even worse news for liberals.
Five: The human tendency to hoard power
Biblically-based Christian liberalism demands that the voices on the margin get heard and respected. The poor and powerless, the marginalized, the different, the free-thinkers, the questioners, routinely silenced and made invisible in the conservative world, gain a voice and a place at the decision-making table.
The ultimate result? People with power must actively relinquish it. Sadly, power is the most prized of all possessions.
Remember: power comes in all sorts of forms. Some is formal, carrying titles like pastor, elder, leader, teacher, coordinator.
Much power, however, is quietly hidden but even more likely to rule. Consider the big-money donor who nudges a building project one way or refuses to fund a societal safety net program.
Or the people behind the scenes who control the nominating process, making sure only certain people land in more influential positions.
Or the gatekeeper to the various small groups–and there always is one. In the political world, such are named “kingmakers” but they are no less evident in the church world.
Or the church lady or usher who steers the improperly dressed or slightly smelly to the back, hidden seats and drops hints about the “way we behave/dress here.”
Ask them to give up that power? They’ll walk and then where will you be? In a shrinking church without adequate funds. There is a reason why the love of money is the root of all evil.
But the biggest barrier of all to a true expression of liberal Christianity now follows.
Six: It’s just difficult: we have to be like Jesus.
Try spending time in messy, often confusing, occasionally contradictory, Gospels rather than find safety in what seems like a cleaner world of the Epistles that tell what the rules are (or what we want to think they are).
Especially read the Gospel of Luke: it becomes as clear as day: Jesus was a classic liberal. And we all know where he landed: tortured and hanging on a cross.
The gospels call us to be courageous and creative in our lives and actions. And those are not tame, easy places to stay.
Mr. Tumnus: He’s not a tame lion.
Lucy Pevensie: No… but he is good.
“He’s not a tame lion.” Anyone who has read The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis or seen the Narnia movies would recognize that line. It’s Aslan’s description. Aslan, the great lion who inhabits Narnia, shows up periodically, generally to bring right a situation where great injustice is being perpetuated.
Lucy Pevensie, the smallest of the four Pevensie children, recognizes that while Aslan is not a tame lion, he is good.
Why is the distinction important? Because when we confuse “tame, i.e., conservative” with “good” we lose a gigantic amount of creativity and courage that spring from true goodness.
Creativity: the ability to break the rules and come up with new things. Courage: the ability to speak truth to power, no matter the cost. Both these classic liberal virtues encourage us to live our creation in the image of God, an essential part of the God/human dynamic. Our job is to carry that image to the world, spreading grace in every possible way.
When we insist on taming everything, we lose the ability to live radically good lives. Conservative theology has been tamed, systematized, ordered, unchangeable. It’s known and safe.
Liberal theology is wild, uncentered, constantly moving as new information emerges. It’s unknown and uncomfortable.
More, the truly good and the truly courageous shed frighteningly penetrating and revealing light on the rest of us. Best to consign them to the cross or silence them with the label, “Heretic, i.e., “liberal.”
And that is why there aren’t more liberal Christians.
Photo Credit ©Christy Thomas, 2019; all rights reserved.