I’d like to take a page and briefly sketch out my current paradigm for understanding the living of a life within the Christian faith. It is a different paradigm than what I held growing up and probably a different one than the majority of American Christians hold, but I am becoming increasingly comfortable with it. To break things down into conveniently oversimplified terms, I want to contrast a Liberal or Progressive understanding with an Evangelical or Conservative understanding of the faith. I think that being introduced to this divide can help show the differences in the Church today, and I hope it can help us all become conscious of our own presuppositions and the fact that there are multiple ways to view our tradition. So here we go…
First, the Evangelical paradigm (whether or not one uses the term “Evangelical”, this way of seeing the faith will be recognized as “conservative” or “traditional” Christianity). You could break down what it means to be a conservative Christian or an Evangelical in several ways; I would like to focus on three primary aspects of this lens – views on (1) The Bible, (2) Jesus, and (3) the Christian life.
1. The Bible – On the conservative view the Bible is the direct revelation of God – God’s Word with a capital W. Although there were clearly human authors, God inspired them to write what they did and guaranteed both the correct transmission of the text and that the correct books made it into the Canon. As the author of 2 Timothy states, “all Scripture is God-breathed.” As such Scripture is without error (there is an incredibly complex debate over what this means but generally the Bible is thought of as inerrant – which would include the correctness of all historical facts, or as infallible – correct on all matters of life and faith, but not necessarily on historical or scientific points) and authoritative for the Church. If the Bible says it, it’s true, as long as it is interpreted correctly. Of course interpretations vary widely – some Evangelicals, for instance, might say that the genre of Genesis 1 is not historical and don’t feel the need to defend it against archeological evidence, while others would be very concerned to do so. Regardless, if interpreted correctly, the Bible is a guarantee of theological truth.
2. Jesus – Jesus is who the Bible clearly says he is, the Incarnate Son of God, the Way-Truth-and-Life, the Alpha and the Omega, and the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world. He is God in human form and came from heaven to teach us how to live, but more importantly, to give his life as the ultimate Sacrifice for sin. While “atonement talk” (the doctrine of how man is reconciled to God through the death of Christ) is extremely rare in the Synoptic Gospels, it tends to dominate how conservative Christians think about Jesus. Drawing mostly from the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles (primarily Romans), Jesus’ mission was primarily to take the punishment for the sins of the world upon himself, so that we might not have to be punished for ours. Most western Christians understand the atonement by what has been called a “penal-substitutionary” model. In this understanding, we are all sinners and are due just punishment for our sin. To be righteous and just, God must punish sin – He can’t simply “let us off the hook” and still be a God of justice. To solve the problem and because of His love for us, God sends Jesus and punishes him in our place. For this arrangement to “count” for us on Judgement Day, we must simply put our faith in Jesus and in his Act on our behalf. Nothing we do gets us to heaven except his work on the Cross and we can’t get there without faith in him.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-26)
“…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-17)
Again, yes Jesus taught us how to live, yes he healed, yes he spoke against the hypocrisy and corruption of Jewish elites, but all of that pales in comparison to his real mission – dying for us. While the “penal-substitutionary” model of understanding why he had to die is not the only way to view this doctrine, it is undoubtedly the most prevalent in American Christianity. If you asked a group of 100 Evangelicals or traditional Christians to explain what “the Gospel” is, 95 of them would probably equate the Gospel with this theory of the atonement. Jesus is King, Healer, Prophet, and Teacher, but above all, the Lamb of God.
3. The Christian Life – This might be the trickiest category to try and generalize because pastors, congregations, and individuals are all unique; each will find some themes in the Bible more important than others, and everyone is going to come to their own conclusion on “what it’s all about.” From my experience, the two most important dimensions of the Christian life in conservative circles would be 1. living a holy (separated and devoted to God) life and 2. spreading the Gospel. To live a holy life, a Christian should avoid “worldliness” (which might include smoking, drinking, pre and extra-marital sex, drugs, or for the far right gambling, most movies, and dancing) and live the most moral life they can. Avoiding personal sin is of utmost importance. Although some can view “holiness” as negative in that it seems to be all about following rules, the idea that we ought to live the most moral lives we can is hard to deny; in fact, I would argue that we all feel that weight upon us in our clearest moments. The problem that some sectors of the Church run into is that they can focus on a small list of taboo activities (listed above), but totally ignore how you spend your money, how you serve the poor, where your time is spent, etc. A “holiness club” can be created and suddenly the attitude of the community seems to look a lot like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned! This is by no means representative of all congregations or individuals, but is a dynamic that many, especially outside the church, have pointed out. The other major dimension of Christian discipleship, spreading the Gospel (or evangelism), is usually seen as of even higher importance. Even though many defer their responsibility for evangelism to “trained pastors or evangelists,” it is hard to deny the logical importance of this activity for all Christians. If my neighbor is going to hell because she hasn’t accepted Jesus, and I care in the least about her well-being, I sure as heck better tell her as much! Various communities stress the importance of personal evangelism to various extents, but based on beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, and Salvation, there seems to be a necessary priority on “getting people saved.”
In contrast to this paradigm for understanding the faith, would be a theologically liberal model. I will propose one way in which to view the Christian tradition that would fit under this category, although without elements such as an infallible text or Person, it’s hard for liberal congregations to be unified over much. Much of how I describe this model stems from the work of Marcus Borg, whose Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, I recommend several times on this site (also, a video introduction to his thought in this area can be found here)…
1. The Bible – Instead of viewing the Bible as directly inspired by God and therefore inerrant/infallible and authoritative, a theologically liberal view which still affirms the reality of God would view the Bible as a wholly human product. Although we could still speak of Scripture being inspired by God in the sense that all religious literature is “inspired by the experience of God / The Divine / Spirit / The Sacred,” we cannot speak of it as infallible or as a guaranteed reflection of the mind of God. The Christian Scriptures would then be viewed as the response of two communities – ancient Israel and the early Christian movement – to their experience of God. As Borg puts it “(The Bible) contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves. As a product of these two communities, the Bible thus tells us about how they saw things, not about how God sees things.” On this understanding the function of the Bible changes from being our source for constructing a true systematic theology to a lens and a sacrament. As a lens, the Bible becomes a way through which we understand our relationship to God. By reading its stories and interacting with its thoughts, our religious thought is shaped and our identities are formed. It is our conversation partner which we are to be in continual dialogue with. Not only do we make informed judgments about texts, but we also allow our Scriptures to shape and judge us. As a sacrament, the Bible becomes a “means of grace” or a portal through which we experience God. At the risk of this section becoming a complete direct quote of Borg, I will end with his description of “lectio divina” or a devotional, meditative way of reading the Bible: “the purpose of devotional reading is not acquisition of content. Rather, it is openness to the experience of God addressing the reader through a phrase or verse, openness to a sense of the Spirit present within. In such moments the Bible becomes sacramental, a means of grace and mediator of the sacred. God “speaks” through the words of the biblical text.” To sum up, on a liberal understanding, the Bible ceases to be infallible, becoming a wholly human product and its function changes from a guarantor of Divine Truth to a lens through which to see God and a means of experiencing that God.
2. Jesus – To say that there is a way that liberal Christians might view Jesus strikes me as wishful thinking, as Jesus is many things to many people. Instead, there will likely always be multiple reconstructions of his identity that we must choose from. The quest for the historical Jesus has been aptly described as a group of historians looking for him at the bottom of a deep well, only to find their own reflections. Jesus, it seems, can become who we want. The current historical Jesus marketplace includes, in the words of Dale Allison, “the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian…the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom…the Jesus of E.P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer…the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination. One could go on.” Even if we are not cynical about the “neutrality” of our historians, at a very minimum we have to admit that the Quest has produced no consensus. Different historians reconstruct Jesus in vastly different ways, and at times it seems like he has simply become a talking head for the spirit of the age – an empty container to fill with our own views. This is not the place to argue for my own understanding of how best to view the historical Jesus, but simply to say that Jesus needs to have a place in liberal Christianity. Emphasizing being a disciple of Jesus or following at least a portion of his teachings, however that plays out among varying pastors and congregations, needs to be central if the Liberal Church wants to be called Christian in any meaningful way. Framing our lives as being about experiencing and spreading “the Kingdom of God”, or “God’s Rule” (which most believe to be the heart of Jesus’ message) would be a start. Regardless, for Liberals, Jesus is generally not seen as God Incarnate, sent to die for the sins of the world. It’s going to be much more about Jesus as Teacher – following his ethics and religious vision (however a given pastor or individual sees it) – than “believing in him” to receive forgiveness of sins.
Maybe the most well known quote regarding the historical Jesus comes from Albert Schweitzer:
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, “Follow thou me!”, and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.”
Even if he comes to us as one unknown, he still comes.
3. The Christian Life – On a liberal model, I would argue that the Christian life doesn’t change all that much. We should obviously still try to lead the most holy and moral lives we can. That might look a little different without a Divine rule-book prohibiting certain activities (although the taboo activities aren’t as clearly delineated in Scripture as some suppose. Jesus, famously, changed water into wine!) – we have to use our God given reason, conscience, and the leading of the Spirit as our guide. Generally the biggest aspect that is added (which sometimes gets lost in Evangelical circles) is a focus on justice for, and service to, the disadvantaged. The Scriptures are filled with commands to look out for the needs of the vulnerable, especially in the Prophets (not to mention Jesus himself).
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isaiah 10: 1-2)
“Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my sous? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)
It’s not that, in conservative circles, serving the poor isn’t felt as being important, it’s just that, logically, it takes a back seat to saving souls. This is something I struggled with mightily when working in education. I loved my students so much and wanted to help them better their future by getting off the streets and going to college. I wanted to see them get out of gangs and have the character necessary to sustain loving relationships. But in the end, what does it really matter if they don’t accept Jesus and therefore end up in hell? The salvation question is of utmost importance and naturally overshadows (again, to varying degrees among varying groups) the drive for social justice. When personal evangelism or “getting people saved” (at least the traditional idea that you must profess Jesus for the forgiveness of sins) isn’t in the picture as part of our walk with God, as it wouldn’t be on a liberal model, other portions of Scripture speak more loudly. The Christian life remains about living a life fully devoted to God; if we try to love God by radically loving our neighbor, it doesn’t seem that we can get too far off.
In broad terms, this is what I believe to be a theologically liberal model of understanding Christianity and how to live a life of faith based on that understanding. To sum it up, Christianity becomes a way (religious pluralism) to live a life for God, not the way. Finally, I will briefly list a set of statements, put out by The Center for Progressive Christianity (also found in my Links), defining what they mean by “progressive Christian.” Clearly there is overlap.
A Progressive (or “Liberal”) Christian is one who…
1. Believes that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life.
2. Affirms that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.
3. Seeks community that is inclusive of all people, no exceptions.
4. Knows that the way we behave towards on another is the fullest expression of what we believe.
5. Finds grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.
6. Strives for peace and justice among all people.
7, Strives to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth.
8. Commits to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
I’d probably change the phrase “the Sacred and the oneness and unity of all life” to “God or the Sacred” (we can add language that incorporates Eastern impersonal thought, but do we have to take away all language having to do with a personal God?), but that’s just me…