Theological Liberalism and Street Cred

John Dominic Crossan, the late Robert Funk, John Shelby Spong, or New Zealand’s own Lloyd Geering.  All call themselves Christians, none of them believe that God exists (except in some emotive or mythological manner), and all are adamant that Christianity should change. It should give up belief in a personal creator, in myths about miracles, in nonsense about bodily resurrections from the dead, and so on. Christianity must get with the times and become relevant, and in our day and age people just can’t believe in such silliness.

One of the goals of liberal theology is to give Christianity a modern acceptability. People can’t believe in ancient superstitions these days, we are told, but they can believe in “God” if by God we mean the goodness in the world. People can believe in the resurrection of Jesus, if by “resurrection” we mean the survival of (some of) his moral teachings in the lives of his followers, and so on.

These folks don’t want to abandon Christianity, according to them. Not at all. They want to see Christianity get real, they would tell us. They are making the Christian faith credible. Or are they?

Firstly, there’s a rather noticeable pointlessness at work here. Why do these men identify with Christianity? Given what they actually believe, why position themselves in the church? Take their belief that there is no being called God and that Jesus was a wonderful human teacher and nothing more. There already exist religions that teach this – certain forms of Buddhism, for example. What is it that actually distinguishes their view from other views by calling it Christian? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

Secondly there’s a palpable dishonesty at work here too. If you’re going to present ideas, it’s helpful to name them. But if you name them, you need to be conscious of the fact that some names are already taken, and already have meaning. Some of these names are covered by copyright (such as Coca Cola), so you wouldn’t be able to use those, but others aren’t. When you identify as a Christian theologian and say “I believe that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead,” you’re using terminology and also theological phrases and concepts that have recognisable meaning. In a Christian context there’s an existing understanding of what those concepts are and what those terms mean. God is the being who created the Universe, and Jesus rose from the dead by coming back to life and exiting his tomb. That’s what Christians have always meant when they say those things. But how honest is it to say “I’m a Christian, God exists, and Jesus rose from the dead” when what you actually mean is “I have a healthy respect for the teachings of a man who was no saviour, I believe that there is such a thing as goodness, and Jesus’ teachings still have some relevance for today”? Surely the respectable thing to say is “Look, Christianity is false, there’s no God, but we can still gleam a thing or two from what Jesus said.”

Take John Dominic Crossan. He took exception to the fact that William Lane Craig said that he was an atheist. He insisted that he really did believe in God – provided by “God” we mean a subjective projection of believers onto the universe. Listen as Craig recalls the discussion between the two:

Thirdly, there is no evidence at all that what these people have cobbled together is a version of Christianity that has any “street cred” at all. It is not, as they had hoped, a version that has more secular respectability in the modern world. The very reverse seems to be the case. For one, modern secular minds just aren’t that easily fooled. Marylin Sewell, a retired Unitarian minister, shares much in common with the names listed at the start of this blog entry. She interviewed “new atheist” Christopher Hitchens and put to him the idea that her liberal Christianity would survive the attacks in his book.

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is a generally fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary, I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might, as a matter of fact—as “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfilment and comes from humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?

Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of Statements That Have No Meaning—At All.

I have no doubt that for people who – for whatever reason – have an emotional or wistful connection to chapels, ecclesiastical robes and moving liturgy but who cannot stomach the perceived balderdash about inconvenient things like God, liberal (or “progressive”) Christianity is perceived as more intellectually respectable and credible. But those on the outside are a little more discerning and quite frankly aren’t this easily duped. However wrong they might be, they are not uniformly stupid. The genuinely honest and self respecting thing would be to stop receiving the church salary or pension, stop using its land, buildings and resources, admit that you reject Christianity outright and be done with it. Do something a little less duplicitous with your life. Start your own religion if you must, but face the fact that a more respectable version of religion is not what you have created.

Eugene Genovese’s reaction is perfectly understandable:

I would not presume to tell Christians how to be Christians, but I must confess that I cannot understand how Christians, without ceasing to be Christians, can retreat one inch from a belief that Jesus is the second person of a triune God, the Christ, the redeemer. If other religions offer equally valid ways to salvation and if Christianity itself may be understood solely as a code of morals and ethics, then we may as well all become Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or, better, atheists. I intend no offense, but it takes one to know one. And when I read much protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow nonbelievers.

Eugene D. Genovese “Marxism, Christianity and Bias in the Study of Southern Slave Society,” in Bruce Kuklick and Darryl G. Hart (eds), Religious Advocacy and American History (Eerdmans, 1997), 90.

Thinking that you’ll appeal to secular thinkers this way is a bit like me thinking I’ll start attracting men if I become a cross dresser. I promise you: It wouldn’t work.

Glenn Peoples

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23 thoughts on “Theological Liberalism and Street Cred

  1. Gosh I want to respond to this, at length, but I fear I lack the language or the discipline of thought to do so properly. And, if i go on too long i’m just as likely to reference Oprah as I am “What I remember Mum saying about Barbara Thierings book about the Dead Sea Scrolls”.

    I quite agree that by definition one (especially if one happens to be trained in theology) cannot be a christian and at the same time undermine or discount fundamental aspects of the belief.

    I however think their mistake is letting on that they don’t believe.

    The impression I get is that they are trying to say they really like the good a vibrant and endemic christian faith should give humanity: community, honesty, forgiveness, charity and all the other things we were taught in Sunday School. But these men find it hard to stomach the miraculous, supernatural and scary side of the issue. So do I.

    The problem is that traditional christianity was a formula that worked really well until it turned out that the things we could do with our technology came to seem more miraculous than miracles.

    Christianity has it’s leaders (the clergy), and its followers (the congregation). It’s like a big Sunday school class with a teacher and children, or mum at home with the kids. The message we want to get across is “We have to all be nice to each other… because it’s nice” and the incentive is “You wait till your father gets home!”

    A theologian denying any of the main principles of the faith but still reminding us all that it’s nice to be nice to each other is like Mum admitting to the kids that Dad probably isn’t coming home… it’s been a week since he called and the last time she saw him he was cuddled up to that hairdresser down the pub. Both Mum and the theologian are in new territory.

    Far better to keep up the front and maintain one’s influence for the good of the children even if it does involve a little white lie…

    …but if you were in her position you’d want to talk to somebody about it… you used to tell your hairdresser everything…

  2. Great post, Glenn. I agree with most of what you wrote, but there’s one issue where I’d appreciate some clarification. As far as Crossan’s atheism is concerned, do you have (or do you know that Craig has) any evidence for this in addition tho the dialogue mentioned by Craig in the video? I’ve read the book and I think Crossan’s answer wasn’t decisive on this regard. He worded it this way:

    “Well, I would probably prefer to say ‘No’ because what you’re doing is trying to put yourself in the position of God and ask, ‘How is God apart from revelation? How is God apart from faith?’ I don’t know if you can do that. You can do it, I suppose, but I don’t know if it really has any point.”

    The most likely reading of his answer might be that he affirmed atheism, but this is not the only interpretation.

  3. @ Tim

    “Christianity has it’s leaders (the clergy), and its followers (the congregation). It’s like a big Sunday school class with a teacher and children, or mum at home with the kids. The message we want to get across is “We have to all be nice to each other… because it’s nice” and the incentive is “You wait till your father gets home!””

    This may be your impression or understanding of Christianity but it seems to presuppose that Christainity is wrong about God, Jesus and anything else other than “its nice to be nice”. Also whats this business about leaders and the led , not in my bible mate.

  4. Glenn, yes, and he worded it as I quoted above. Don’t you think that his statement is open to other interpretations as well? Like, perhaps he “prefers to say ‘no'” because he doesn’t want to affirm that humans have any independent access to reality outside of their experience and faith. This would be more of a point about epistemology than ontology. I don’t know. I can well imagine him being an atheist, but I’m just trying to avoid possibly mischaracterizing his position (even though Crossan himself is primarily to blame for any mischaracterization that results from his own borderline-dishonest use of religious language).

  5. In one of my theology classes the lecturer was going on and on about Schleiermacher, and how he has been generally misunderstood and should be appreciated for his piety. When Schleiermacher’s view of miracles came up, I pressed her on what his view of the resurrection would be. She gave me a look that said I should know the answer. Since he did not believe in the resurrection, I waited for someone to speak up and ask why we are wasting so much time talking about a person who wasn’t even a Christian theologian. No one did.

    I understand why we should want to understand the thought of our critics, but why bother trying to understand the thought of those who evacuate the meaning of what being a Christian theologian is?

    As an aside, I’m so impressed with the quality of Craig’s extemporaneous answers.

    Good post Glenn. 🙂

  6. Haecceituas, well I do think that’s sufficiently clear, but here’s something else:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b80UXZi7F74

    It’s Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. They certainly deny the existence of a supernatural being, and appear to agree together that the word “God” really just refers to ‘what is.’

    Now, since we all believe that ‘what is’ really exists, Crossan could say “see? God exists.” But would anyone accept that this draws a distinction between him and an atheist?

  7. @Jeremy,

    I’m pretty sure my bible contains a statement fairly close to the words “feed my sheep”. At least that is what immediately springs to mind over your question about leaders and the led.

    Maybe I’ve jumped into the wrong swimming pool here. I’m sorry I do tend to communicate in metaphor. I find sometimes the meaning is clearer that way than when I attempt more formal language.

    You can if you wish complain that my statement presupposes that christianity is wrong about God. But, if you took the time to think a step further you would see that the original blog post quite clearly states that the people on the Geering, Spong and Funk side of the argument do just that.

    Glenn then goes on to say that by their stating that they by defintion must accept that they are not christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

    I find this an unassailible point. Glenn makes perfect sense here and there didn’t seem to be any more to say on it. He asks how they can expect to have any street cred by doing this. I thought that was the point for discussion.

    Now, from my bible I seem to remember that Jesus was concerned that his flock be taken care of. Glenn suggests that these people who have spent years training to be in a position to tend that flock have a moral obligation to admit they are no longer qualified for the job, turn their back on the sheep and walk away.

    I was merely pointing out that they (even though they might presuppose that christianity is wrong about God) might still care enough for the “sheep” to keep their traps shut and not undermine the faith of the people they set an example for.

    It doesn’t smack of integrity for sure, but I was genuinely trying to be part of the discussion and happy to be enlightened. If the best you have to say back to me about it is “not in my bible mate” then maybe we’re both in the wrong pool.

    Certainly there are a lot of long German names being quoted here as if admission is limited to those who have read them all. Maybe I should just grab my towel and find somewhere else…

  8. @Tim
    Wasnt trying to be offensive, rather making the point that Christian leadership as characterised in the NT is about service to the congregation rather than rulership, your characterisation of the church as “leaders and led” seemed to me to be either a complete misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about or possibly ignorant of what the NT teaches about leadership. I assumed [maybe wrongly] that you were outside the church looking in rather than an active participant.
    When “clergy” or anyone else are telling us what to believe, rather than showing us through scripture and personal example, then they have stepped way out of line.
    I agree with Glenn [and yourself] that people like Spong, Funk and Geering are being fundamentally dishonest to call themselves Christian when they deny everything Christ taught about Himself. One assumes they like the money and the kudos that goes with the media attention and perception of being some kind of contemporary authority on Christianity.

  9. Glenn, yes, that video does support your earlier interpretation of Crossan. At least it would be fair to say that Crossan doesn’t believe in anything remotely like the God of classical theism. At the same time, he hints at something that a strict naturalist wouldn’t accept (for example, he equates God with the directionality of the evolutionary process and I’d think that this perhaps means something beyond just random genetic variation & natural selection in his terminology).

    But since he’s so vague about his views (on purpose, it seems) it is just as fair to take the atheistic elements in his comments at face value and understand some of his conflicting statements as highly metaphorical as it would be to try to construe his view as something closer to (an unorthodox kind of) theism.

  10. Sadly you did assume rightly. To quote the goons “I was standing at the window looking in..”

    I guess the purpose of painting the scenario that I did, and giving it as an alternative to Glenn’s:

    “The genuinely honest and self respecting thing would be to stop receiving the church salary or pension, stop using its land, buildings and resources, admit that you reject Christianity outright and be done with it.”

    …was to generate the question: If “Christian leadership as characterised in the NT is about service to the congregation” – (you put it so well) Is the confregation served better by the blow to their faith caused by a respected leader admitting a loss of faith and walking away, or by him accepting his duty of service, admitting no doubt and continuing to facilitate their faith and their worship?

  11. @Tim
    the truth shall set you free, i would go with telling the truth, accepting a duty of service would mean telling the truth or you get a situation where the peson has lost not only their faith but also their integrity. If you cant lead by example you arent leading you are lying.

  12. Tim, these people are actually telling Christians that God did not raise Jesus from the dead, that miracles have never happened and so on.

    I’d like to know if you think that this is what Jesus meant by “feed my sheep.” It sounds more like poisoning than feeding to me.

  13. @Glen
    Did you see that report a year or two back showing that Spong in his efforts to be more relevant/ contemporary / prune all the mythical rubbish out of Christianity had achieved the fastest declining Episcopal dioscese in North America. I guess his sheep recognise the poisonous food for what it is.

  14. From the metaphor “feed my sheep” I infer a relationship similar to a shepherd and his flock, watching over them, driving away wolves, and generally keeping them away from panic and attack… If the metaphor wasn’t sufficiently easy to interpret I’m sure it would have been worded differently. (I assume I have the wording right because nobody has corrected me)

    Imagining myself in the position of a respected church elder questioning is faith, neither my option nor Glenn’s is a particularly attractive one. To take Glenn’s would be humiliating and would involve letting a lot of people down… To take mine.. well you’re quite right about it. It’s an untenable position for a man with a conscience. (It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that there are some of the latter in existance – they just don’t have international notoriety)

    It is any surprise then that faced with a choice between two unpalatable courses of action, a human being would not look for some sort of compromise? The church then has the right to expell them. I can only assume that because these men still eat, enough people out there consider their learning valuable enough to support them, buy their books etcetera…

    I listened whenever I caught it at the right time to Lloyd Geering reading his life story on our national radio, because my Mum thinks he’s great. At the time I thought “what a nice man… he meant no harm, but to me there was an undercurrent of him seeming a little bewildered and lost.

  15. I don’t now how I ended up on here… Actually I do – I signed up on blogspot with the intention of writing my own blog, thought I’d better have a look around and found this website linked to the blog of someone I know. I find it quite interesting, and it has made me pick my old King James and actually read the Gospels.

    The Gospels specifically because listening to Glenn’s podcasts on the subject of religion in the public square the question jumped into my head “Doesn’t the example of Jesus discourage involvement in secular politics?” That’s another discussion. I merely mean to introduce myself as best I can before I ask a question relating to this thread as it seems, from the tenor of the conversation on here, that people here like to now who they are talking to.

    I don’t attend church. But I did spend my childhood sunday mornings at sunday school. Later on I was surprised to discover just how much of the bible I knew from that little portion of my life. I naturally seem to live my life according to principles of love, forgiveness and the abdication of our inclination to judge by placing judgement in the hands of a power higher than ourselves, but I don’t seem to be able to make the leap of faith that goes with attending church without feeling hypocritical, (perhaps partly because I don’t always see that the principles I mentioned being followed by people I know who are christians.) Perhaps that makes me a theological liberalist. I don’t claim to have read enough to call myself that. It does mean however that theological liberalism does have street-cred for me, at least the idea of it. If it has cred for me it will to others, maybe just not bums-on-seats cred.

    Now we’ve been introduced.

    The idea of a group of christians being ministered to by a non-believer seems on the face of it bizzare, and unethical. But, Moses (oops, Abraham?) still led the israelites (or at least commanded their respect) even after entry into the promised land was denied to him. He continued to work to enable his people to gain what was promised to them.

    Can a parallel be drawn here to allow relevance to the above movement?

  16. “That’s what Christians have always meant when they say those things.”
    UNTRUE. Christianity is and has always been a developing tradition. Nowadays Christianity supports war, capitalism, homophobia, etc.

    1. James, from earliest times Christians, by referring to God raising Jesus from the dead, meant that Jesus actually got up and left the tomb. It’s not clear how you leap from the general fact of theological development to any specific claim that this is not what the early Church believed. Perhaps you can offer clarification, preferably with a specific historical case. Thanks.

  17. Those who say Jesus was a man who lived in Palestine in the first century are proffering statements of FACT.
    Those who see Jesus as Emmanuel, Son of God, Christ, Prince of Peace, Messiah are using statements of FAITH.

    Apples and oranges. Fruit salads encouraged.

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