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When Liberal Christianity Becomes Too Liberal
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
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
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
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.”
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 .
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
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.”
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.
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
The freest of the free still need a clear path on which to carry out
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
© 2004 American Unitarian Conference™