Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why Liberal Christianity is Bankrupt

One of the reasons I've been turned off by extremely liberal Christians is the fact that they water-down Christian beliefs and turn them into flowery metaphors to the point that their form Christianity is an amorphous, unfalsifiable, and meaningless.

Dr. James McGrath, a fundamentalist-turned-liberal, is a perfect example:

John Loftus praises my doctoral supervisor James Dunn for honestly admitting that Jesus was wrong about the imminent end of the world. Loftus then adds

What I don’t get is how these critically honest scholars could come to these correct conclusions and still profess to be followers of Christ (i.e. Christians). I think anyone with intellectual honesty should jump ship like I have.

The answer is that we've come to realize that, if even Jesus could be wrong, then how much more likely is it that I will be seen with the benefit of hindsight to have been wrong, most likely about a far greater number of things? We've thus found ourselves challenged to let go of yet another fundamentalist assumption we once shared, namely that being a Christian is about Jesus having been right all the time, and following him in the hope that we can be (or at least believe ourselves to be) right all the time. In other words, we understand Christianity to be more about a process, one that involves humbly admitting that we are wrong, rather than about confident claims to certainty.

Common sense would seem to dictate that if God became incarnate, he would not be wrong about when the world would end. Or at least, even if God did not become incarnate, one would think that if Christianity were true then God would not allow the central star of the show, Christ, to be wrong about something like this. Moreover, if Jesus was wrong about this then there is very little, in my view, that separates him from Michael Travesser, the wannabe messiah nut who predicted the end of the world on October 31, 2007.

What Liberals like McGrath have done is to strip Christianity of any meaningful empirical or philosophical implications it may have, and turn it into mere artwork, a lump of clay that may be shaped into anything the believer wants it to be.


atimetorend said...

"What Liberals like McGrath have done is to strip Christianity of any meaningful empirical or philosophical implications it may have, and turn it into mere artwork, a lump of clay that may be shaped into anything the believer wants it to be."

I agree, but at the same time, I think it is clearly better than the fundamentalist alternative. If someone takes the Christian bible and turns it into some kind of artwork, what's wrong with that?
I find much to be admired in liberal Christians, including Dr. McGrath.

Pragmatically speaking, I'm not convinced that other belief systems counteract fundamentalist Christianity better than liberal Christianity does, or that liberal Christianity supports the seeds of fundamentalism any more than any other moderate belief system can do that.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for taking the time to interact! What can I say? I believe that what us liberal Christians have done is rather to point out that Christianity has always been a lump of clay, a work of art, and to take responsibility for molding and shaping it, rather than doing so while pretending it is not us but only God who is doing so.

As for Jesus as God incarnate, if the historical figure of Jesus seems not to have thought of himself in those terms, why should I be berated for not doing so either, just because the majority of Christians down the ages have thought about him in those terms? But at any rate, a lot depends on what one means by "God" and what one means by "incarnate". The idea that is so prevalent in popular Christian thought, that Jesus was simply a divine person dressed up in a human being suit, as it were, was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon more than a millenium and a half ago. So even by "official" standards, what the vast majority of Christians thinks rarely meets those criteria. And therein lies the problem. Christianity has never been for most Christians what the official line is (as though there were a universally recognized body or leader who could provide such an authoritative line anyway), and so the attempt to say that those who are seeking to be creative and critical are either watering Christianity down or departing from it is hard to justify. I don't think liberal Christians are changing the nature of Christianity to a more significant degree than some of the New Testament authors were transforming the Christian tradition they inherited.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Hi James,

I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS... notably the ones in the final paragraph below.

If liberal Christianity is not bankrupt, then is there a better term to describe liberal Christianity? It's not exactly filling mega-churches or is it?

Do you suppose most people can live with as much uncertainty as liberal Christians such as yourself live with?

Can they live just for "Christian tradition?"

Or are a majority of people attracted to some form of certainty in religion, i.e., to claims of divine assurance and clarity and solidity behind their beliefs and behind their traditions?

Why do you think there are so many different religions, denominations, churches, mosques, temples, all claiming to have THE truth, and that none of them seems to go bankrupt by offering THE truth in a doctrinal dogmatic solidly assured fashion (along with great promises)?

Is there perhaps a defect in the average human mind, a lack of thirst for wider horizons of knowledge once a worldview has been supplied? Certainly we all begin life ignorant and have to expend substantial time and effort and money and sometimes courage as well in order to delve into ever widen realms of religious knowledge.

So there seems to be an inherent lack of a desire or need to progress further once one's mind has settled on a belief system (coupled with all too human fears of death and disdain for uncertainty) that drive many people toward more simple and solid seeming religious world views imbibed since birth, and away from acknowledging diversity and uncertainty, and away from putting out a lot of effort to learn ever more about a wider variety of ideas and experiences of others in the religious world (and nonreligious world).

Is liberalism a consequence of increased literacy and knowledge of a wider variety of different beliefs and philosophies and questions, coupled with the idea that none of us can do much about what will happen to us when we die, and that much is not assured in life, much is uncertain? Is that perhaps some of what lay behind the growth of liberalism?

It appears like liberalism is a more arduous path, a more reflective path, a path generally requiring more effort than simply joining one's self to say, a mega-church with absolutely promises and doctrines and dogmas.

Also, wouldn't you agree that none of us or only very few of us are granted clear visions of what lay behind the metaphysical curtain? Even those few who claim to have seen clearly behind the metaphysical curtain do not agree on what they have seen there (which takes us back to the variety of religions and miracle stories and worldviews).

SO TO SUM UP MY QUESTIONS, could you please list a set of propositions or statements concerning what exactly you believe is most important to believe about life, the universe and everything? AND WRITE THEM IN ORDER OF RELATIVE PRIORITY? (And perhaps even add with what degree of certainty you currently believe each proposition?)

It would at least prove an interesting thought experiment concerning the current state of your most important beliefs.

I composed something a bit like that on the web myself and will share it with you once I read yours.