American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

Back to the American Unitarian page

When Liberal Christianity Becomes Too Liberal

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia

 

It is human nature for us to gravitate toward extremes. We turn a good thing into excess. This is especially true regarding religion. No tradition within the Christian faith is immune from our tendency to “push the envelope.”

Freethinking Christianity is no exception. Liberty of religious thought — a grand virtue in itself — can easily give way to an “anything goes” spirituality devoid of boundaries, possessing few features that are distinctively Christian. Among liberals, the temptation is strong to mold religion into something that suits taste and prejudice.

As a freethinking believer in Christ, I am mindful of these impulses. Accordingly, I have tried to lay down parameters for my thinking. As in politics and daily life, freedom is not the annihilation of all standards and absolutes. It is not the casting off of every restraint (though we may question the validity of our restraints). A mariner may be free to sail the ocean and go wherever he likes, but that does not preclude his attention to the fixed stars that guide him on his way. His liberalized spirit does not free him to toss away his compass.

I am determined, therefore, to establish some “stars,” some immovable points of truth that prevent my faith from breaking down into a vague, gnostic mysticism without borders.

These are my personal guidelines, by the way. I seek to impose them on no one, but recognize that they may be helpful to some of my fellow travelers who have found freethinking faith (and the temptations that attend such faith).

First of all, an analogy. Picture Christian faith as a room where we can move about according to our freedom in Jesus. The Christian’s theological liberality determines the size of the room. The dogmatic fundamentalist’s room is cramped like a cell, leaving little room for free movement. On the other hand, freethinking Christianity is a vast room, like Solomon’s temple. There is plenty of space for mobility and exploration. Note, however, that it still has four walls. (We might picture ultra-liberal faith as a room where one or more walls have been knocked flat.)

The four “walls” in my Christian belief structure represent the following:


1. The centrality of Jesus to Christian faith.
2. A belief in sin and recompense
3. A belief in our need for transformation
4. A belief in God's activity in human history


I recognize these truths as integral to my own faith. And I admit from the outset a certain
a priori inclination that others may not all share: My discipleship to Jesus Christ will always overshadow my dedication to liberal ideas. For me, the latter must bow to the former — not the reverse.


The Centrality of Jesus to Christian Faith  

It is, in my mind, a warning sign when faith permits Jesus to recede into the background (or disappear altogether). Read books by some popular liberals, mystics and contemplatives and you may find that the author — despite professing to be Christian — has almost nothing to say about Jesus of Nazareth. I am not criticizing such authors or denying their Christian status. But I am saying that they are setting a trajectory that I do not wish to follow.

It may seem like a tautology to declare that Christianity should be about Christ, but this is not the case. Sometimes liberal Christianity dissipates into a set of abstractions about peace, love and union with the Divine — with Jesus left out of the equation.

But Christianity began with and was nourished by the unshakable conviction “Jesus is Lord.” This was a counter to words often heard throughout the Empire: “Caesar is Lord.” In other words, Jesus’ authority is paramount. Allegiance to him is the highest allegiance on earth.

The church was born out of a belief that Jesus, by virtue of his resurrection, maintains a mystical union with the church. He is the mediator of the Spirit, dispensing charisms that prepare us to serve others. Jesus is in a very real sense “with us even to the end of the age.”

He is also the Christian’s archetype. Whatever precepts exist in the Christian faith, Jesus is the embodiment of every one. Christianity, after all, should not point to a mere a set of principles. It should point to the man who lived them out before us and invited us to “take my yoke and learn of me.”


Sin and Recompense 

I believe it is a departure from sound faith when fellow freethinkers do away with the idea of sin. This is abundantly common among today’s authors, many of whom have allowed the spirit of the age to dictate their thinking. We have in our day seen an unprecedented collapse of ethical absolutes; and we have watched Christians follow the world’s trends over the precipice. Even as a theological freethinker, I believe that some things are right and others wrong — and, therefore, sins. That archaic word is still serviceable today.

In its essence, sin is not the breach of fundamentalist purity codes and behavior lists. It is not first and foremost a litany of “thou shalt nots.” Usually, sin involves the want of love, peace or faith. But it is a valid concept — indispensable to Christian faith.

A corollary to a belief in sin is a belief in recompense or (to use biblical language) judgment. Admittedly, the word does grate on many progressive ears. And while I’m not going to stand on a street corner, screaming doom at passersby, I do affirm that evildoers will somehow pay for what they have done.

Those who deny all divine judgment have difficulty explaining how the natural order around us so often metes out harsh consequences for wrong behavior. It does not do so infallibly or with perfect equity. But it remains true that “the way of the transgressors is hard.”

Live a hate-filled, violent life and you will likely suffer for it in this world — and will possibly leave it via a violent death. Practice habitual drunkenness, drug use, criminal activity and rampant sexual promiscuity and you are open to a thousand dangers that others never know. True, the distribution of consequences is imperfect in this imperfect world. Often, the innocent suffer with the guilty [1]. But the question lingers: If the Creator has built such sanctions into the fabric of life, how can we deny that there is such a thing as divine judgment against sin?

Many conservative Christians go to extremes. I am not envisioning an essentially wrath-filled Deity here. I have no wish to sit under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. But I am more than a little tired of the overly liberal pronouncement that “God doesn’t care what we do.” Pushed to its logical conclusion, that saying must exonerate the serial killer, cross-burning racist and child abuser — a self-refuting proposition.


Transformation 

I acknowledge the need for human transformation. Some liberals are weak in this area. They so magnify God’s acceptance of all His creatures that the call for radical change and forgiveness is stifled. But if the Christian faith is not about rescuing flawed humanity from itself, I am at a loss to understand the religion at all.

It is foundational to Christian faith to confess that we are not what we should be. An inward waywardness and lack of purpose haunts us. It manifests itself in different ways, depending on the person, whether through selfishness, arrogance, religious hypocrisy, malice, bigotry, materialism. For many, the immediate gratification of the desires is the sum and substance of life’s purpose. Others plug into the world system of domination. Still others live for the approval of their fellow humans or otherwise eke out their days in quiet desperation.

Everywhere we witness alienation, estrangement from the Holy. For such a people as us, redemption is a primal need.

Christ came to connect us to the divine Source — the one that can save us from such an existence and infuse our fleeting years with meaning. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”


A God Who Acts in Human History 

The doctrine of God is another benchmark. I preface this by admitting that the nature of the Sacred is a deep mystery. When the Old and New Testaments speak of Him, I believe that much is metaphor and much is accommodation to our feeble understanding. There is certainly truth in Tillich’s idea that God stands above all our conceptions of God.

Still, I disagree with those who speak of God in quasi-deist terms. A number of prominent liberals effectively deny that God intervenes in the affairs of humanity in any tangible way. They do grant that He exerts a spiritual influence on minds and hearts, but reject any suggestion that God breaks into our history with direct acts. And miracles are certainly out of the question — the ultra-liberal has no place to put them.

I am sensitive to the difficulties that surround God’s activity in creation. Why God acts at some times and apparently refrains from acting at others is beyond mysterious. Why answers to prayers sometimes blaze on angels’ wings while others seem to evoke no attention from Heaven can never be adequately explained. But I object to efforts at removing such tension by positing God’s inactivity in the physical realm. Such an idea is contrary to the most basic, historic tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition from Abraham onward. Revealed religion has always been predicated on the conviction that God acts in history. We should not jettison our belief in divine intervention without a overwhelmingly compelling reason. So far, I have seen none.


Conclusion 

Again, these are personal guidelines. I base them on the most basic Scriptural themes, on my own faith-experience, on common sense and — admittedly — on a measure of intuition. I may be wrong in some of my assertions. But they are walls that keep me from venturing too far. They keep my intellectual freedom hedged in so that it does not become amorphous, directionless.

The freest of the free still need a clear path on which to carry out faith’s journey.   

Notes:

[1] Note here that I am not talking about natural disasters, random misfortunes or the outbreak of such diseases as AIDS (as if such things are aimed specifically at punishing sins). I am referring to the general principle that those who ignore the imperatives of goodness often find themselves suffering as a direct result.

 


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference