I have been thinking much about “liberal” Christianity in recent weeks. The term “liberal” is an odd description. In some contexts “liberal” can be positive in the sense of being generous or libertarian in something. We like the idea of “liberal” giving or having a “liberal” society where things are free and fair. In Australia our most conservative political party is called the Australian Liberal Party and they are not “liberal” in the sense of hard-left values (though perhaps leftist economically compared to the GOP). However, in terms of theology, “liberal” has negative connotations of compromised and revisionist beliefs. I’ve been called a “liberal” and I’ve been called a “fundamentalist” by different folks. The term “liberal” is used pejoratively but relatively to describe someone left of where someone else sits on a theological spectrum.
The “Old Liberalism” that dominated Western/European Protestant thought from Friedrich Schleiermacher to WWI collapsed as its religious vision did not match the European reality of human evil. In its stead, there has risen a plurality of theologies including evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and a host of “progressive” Christian theologies. These progressive Christian theologies are the heirs of the Old Liberalism. Their aim is not to destroy the faith, far from it, they see themselves as saving it, by accommodating faith to the spirit of the age, making it more palatable to the masses, translating its idiom into contemporary language, engaging the challenge of religious meaning in a post-Enlightenement world, and even secularizing faith to some degree. Some liberals are just oxygen thieves like Jack Spong, others such as Rowan Williams (who really defies tags like “liberal” I guess), are more humble, learned, and even edifying. Some liberal scholars, both radical and the just less-conservative-than-me types, are good exegetes. They might not believe what they’re reading, but they are often jolly good at explaining what the text says and in what context. I concede also that liberals have a genuine heart for the poor and the oppressed. That said, I don’t think they actually do much for them since it is usually Catholics and Evangelicals who actually do ground zero work in social care. A friend told me about a Theological College Principal who said how constantly amazed he was about all these liberal theologians in North America who offered to come and visit his seminary in Australia to talk about justice and poverty, and yet they always insisted on flying to Australia in Business Class!
But I’m not a liberal. It’s a worldview I simply do not resonate with. I see a world with a God who remains active in it. I can’t treat scripture as something that is negotiable. Sadly, liberalism ends up with the god that Richard Niebuhr warned us of: “A god without wrath, brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” . The world looks on with a crooked smile as the liberals acclaim their entire concurrence with all the values of the left-wing intelligentsia. The intelligentsia embarrassingly acknowledge their concord with the theological left, they thank the theological liberals for affirming all of their values, but bid them adieu as they do not need any religious tokens at this time. Tragically theological liberalism claims to offer patronage to a group of intellectual who no longer want it. 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. Former liberals such as Thomas C. Oden saw the theological and moral bankruptcy of liberalism long ago and he turned his back on it to become a leader in orthodox renewal movements in mainline churches. Another former liberal, Alister McGrath, said that liberalism had a pastoral weakness in that it had little to offer people in the harsh realities of unemployment, illness, and death. I remember reading many years ago Thomas Reeve’s book The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, and it dawned on me that liberalism had nothing of any value to give to ordinary people. Liberalism does not create it can only validate. Liberalism is an affirmation of the political left, a struggle for acceptance despite being vaguely religious, a denunciation of nearly everything that “mere Christianity” stands for, and a sacralizing of secular values. I’ve been to enough SBL sessions to hear professors whose religious discourse sounds like a cross between Marcion and Marx. Why would you get up early Sunday morning to listen to that?
Perhaps the most negative criticism I could make about contemporary liberal or progressive Christians, is that they are little more than “chaplains for Nero”. [Shel: And of course this can be said of the far right of evangelicalism in the US - the author is not in the US - he does make the point below] Imagine if me and some progressive Christian got in a time machine and went back into Nero’s court around 63 AD. I stand up and in rough Latin I explain to Nero who I am, which religious community I belong to, and read portions of Phil 2:5-11, 1 Thess 4-5, and Rom 10:9-10 as examples of what I believe. I reckon I’d end up food for the lions in the arena faster than you can say “Nero is a Greek drag queen”. As I’m led away, up steps a progressive Christian, who reads out some of the UN millennium goal, gives a manifesto on LGBTQ rights, talks about their acceptance of gay marriage (Nero was involved in two gay marriages!), flaps their gums about being pro-abortion (Nero had no objections here), and discourses on the tolerance of religious pluralism over and against the “orthodox” Christians who recognize Jesus as the only Lord and Savior. For the progressive Christian, when it comes to religion, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, or Isis, it’s pretty much all the same thing if you are a religious pluralist. So calling Nero “Lord” or worshiping him would not be a problem for anyone who is open minded or sincerely “inter-religious” (when in Rome eat spaghetti and offer incense to Nero’s genius!). Nero is not alarmed at anything this progressive Christian says, in fact, he’s even impressed. He asks the progressive Christian to be his own personal chaplain and become his adviser on how to deal with those pesky Roman Christians who go around secretly chanting “Jesus is Lord” and implying that Nero is not!
That’s why I’m not a liberal! Not that evangelicalism doesn’t have its own problems either, it can easily turn into folk religion, descend into little more than a baptizer of right wing values, and becomes a chaplain to conservative politics. But liberalism as a theological position divorces me from the God who saves me and refuses to believe in a God who speaks. I see no attraction. If you wrap up the values of the left in some religious wrapping paper and hand it onto them, they’ll thank you for affirming all of their values, but give you back your religious wrapping paper.