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.