I’ve been trying to put my finger on the essential difference between Liberal Christianity and traditional or orthodox Christian theology. In the previous post I mentioned several important differences. Liberal theology denies miracles, rejects the incarnation, reinterprets the atoning death of Jesus and accommodates to the ever-changing moral views of de-Christianized progressivism. These are real and significant differences, but is there one fundamental difference that unites these differences? Yes there is, and I think I’ve got it.
The apostolic faith and its faithful articulation in orthodoxy assert that in the existence and activity of Jesus Christ an ontologically real interaction between God and the world took place. By “ontologically real” I mean that God acts causally to change the being of world, to change the way it exists. In miracles, God actually works on the existence of the lame, the blind and the dead to change their real, physical being. In the resurrection of Jesus, God actually renewed the life of Jesus’ dead body and brought Jesus to a new mode of existence. In the incarnation, God actually united the humanity of Jesus to Himself in a way different from all other human beings. The eternal Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God, became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1-14). In the death and resurrection of Jesus, something actually happened between God and humanity that changed humanity’s status from being condemned to death to being set free for life. God really counts and actually makes Jesus’ sinless faithfulness ours.
In Liberal Christianity, real divine action, causality and change are missing. For Liberal theology, God does nothing. Every action, every cause and every change in the world is exclusively human. The significance of miracle stories is their metaphorical meanings. They teach moral lessons or ideas about God’s benevolence or justice. Nothing physical actually changes. All change occurs in the human subjective reaction to a symbol. Jesus’ body was not transformed ontologically from death to life, from mortality to glory. No. The resurrection is a metaphor for the rightness of his cause. And the rightness of his cause is the really important thing, the essence of Christianity. How we know that his cause was right apart from the real bodily resurrection Liberalism leaves obscure, but the Liberal answer is obvious: we know it because of our own moral insight. Jesus Christ is not really the ontological union of God and man, as the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation teaches. The incarnation is a metaphor for Jesus’ complete devotion to God. He is united to God in love. And we too can be united to God in love. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not really God acting causally to change the being of sinful humanity. No real change occurred. Jesus died “for us” only in the sense that he died serving a good cause that we also judge to be a good cause. His faithfulness unto death serves as an example of devotion to God and highlights the importance of his moral and religious cause. But his death is no more a divine act of atonement than the deaths of other martyrs. Its power for salvation is limited to the inspiration it provides for others to serve good causes.
Why this ontological shyness? Why such hesitancy to make assertions about real, effective divine action in the world? Two reasons come to mind. The first reason is a historical connection. Liberal theology traces its lineage back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his epoch-making book Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that theoretical reason cannot reach beyond the world to speak about God. Reason’s competence is limited to relationships within the world and it cannot speak about God’s relationship to the world or the world’s relationship to God. We cannot speak about God as the cause of the world or of any event within the world. For Kant, the only legitimate way to form an idea of God is through our own moral sense. God is a postulate, an hypothesis, required to make sense of our moral experience. Kant famously said that he had destroyed reason “to make room for faith.” Proofs for God, miracles and all the other orthodox doctrines are vulnerable to rational critique and disproof. But the moral sense is immediately present and cannot be denied. It is a secure basis on which to ground faith in God and the moral life. Liberal theology exists because it accepts Kant’s critique and it is afraid to let faith in God or the value of a religious and moral life depend on rational proofs or historical reports of miracles.
The second reason for its ontological shyness follows from the first. Liberal theology wants to insulate itself from rational critique of divine causal actions, such as those cherished by orthodoxy. It wants Christianity to be founded on a source of knowledge that is universally available and rationally unassailable. It does not relish having to defend the ontological aspects of apostolic and orthodox Christianity. Hence it downplays their importance. In reading Liberal Christian theologians you will hear a recurring theme, that is, the desire to rid Christianity of vulnerability to rational critique. According to Schleiermacher, the religious significance of Jesus’ accomplishment does “not depend upon a visible resurrection or ascension, since of course Christ could have been raised to glory even without these intermediate steps: and so it is impossible to see in what relation both of these can stand to the redeeming efficacy of Christ…Hence we may safely credit everyone who is familiar with dogmatic statements with a recognition of the fact that the right impression of Christ can be, and has been, present in its fullness without a knowledge of these facts” (The Christian Faith, p. 418).
In dealing with the resurrection of Jesus, Harnack distinguishes between the “Easter message” and the “Easter faith.” The Easter message focuses on the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances while the Easter faith “is the conviction that the crucified one gained a victory over death.” Harnack is anxious to show that the Easter faith does not depend on the Easter message. He is not willing to allow faith in Jesus’ message “to rest on a foundation unstable and always exposed to fresh doubts.” We can believe that Jesus achieved the victory over death without believing that “deceased body of flesh and blood came to life again.” According to Harnack, “Whatever may have happened at the grave and in the matter of the appearances, one thing is certain: This grave was the birthplace of the indestructible belief that death is vanquished, that there is a life eternal” (The Essence of Christianity, p. 162).
The late popularizer of Liberal Christianity in America, Marcus Borg (1942-2015), continues the theme begun by Schleiermacher. Borg explains his view: “Rather than focusing on “what happened,” this approach [Borg’s reinterpretation] focuses on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. What did it mean for his followers in the first century to say that God raised Jesus from the dead? Believe whatever you want about whether the tomb was really empty, whether you are convinced it was or uncertain or skeptical—what did Easter mean to his early followers? The answer to the question of meaning is clear. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus has two primary meanings: “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.”…Focusing on the empty tomb reduces the meaning of Easter to a specular event in the past. It makes the resurrection of Jesus vulnerable to skepticism…This alternative way of understanding Easter sees the Easter stories as parables—parables about Jesus. That is, it understands these stories metaphorically” (Speaking Christian, pp.111-112).
In these three examples of Liberal Christian theology you can see clearly their anxiety to remove any need to believe a miracle or to believe that God actually acted in history to change the being and existence of humanity and the world. Everything is about the “meaning,” and references to God’s actions are just metaphors. The “meaning” of miracle stories, which function like metaphors, is always something in humanity, a human possibility for morality or mystical experience. It never means God’s action in the past, present or future. The Liberal “truth” of Christianity is always a “truth” that can be validated by experiences universally present in human beings. There is no real need for faith in the witness of Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother and the others. No real need to submit ourselves to apostolic authority for instruction about what it means that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead.
But why does Liberal Christianity want to make itself invulnerable to critique? Why does it wish to make it so easy to be a Christian? Here is my hypothesis. Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and others realized that enlightenment rationalism and the progressive moral vision were going to marginalize Christianity and the institutional church in western culture. Christianity had been the dominant cultural force in the west for over a millennium. What a frightening prospect to envision living a post-Christian culture! The Liberal project centers on making sure that Christianity and the institutional church are not marginalized. For Liberal theology, the moral influence of Christianity is its most important contribution to western culture. It seemed essential to its survival. Hence to Liberals sacrificing the ontological doctrines seemed a reasonable price to pay to maintain Christianity’s moral influence in a culture on the move. However, as I argued in the previous post, accommodation to post-Christian progressive culture keeps Liberal Christianity on the run breathlessly trying to keep up. Eventually, it will have to give up the pretense of exerting any Christian influence on culture. As I also said in the previous post, Liberal Christianity has no prophetic message for progressive culture. And for this reason most people don’t find it interesting or challenging or redemptive. The health of Liberal churches depends on receiving a continual flow of fallen fundamentalists and wavering evangelicals looking for a comfortable stopping place on the way to atheism and secularity.
Marcus Borg wanted to reconstruct Christianity so that it would not be “vulnerable to skepticism.” I understand that desire. When I was a child the truth of God, Jesus and the Bible were as evident as the Oak trees and corn fields I could see from my bedroom window. As a child, I never questioned the faith of my parents and my church; I never even thought of questioning it. However when I learned more about the diversity of belief in the world and especially when I learned about atheism, skepticism, historical criticism, and other challenges to faith, my untroubled certainty was brought to a troubled end. I faced a choice. I longed nostalgically for the clarity, certainty and undisturbed confidence of childhood. Doesn’t everyone? Liberal Christianity appeals to this desire. It promises to stop the progression toward atheism and nihilism. It offers, as you can see in Harnack and Borg, return to an untroubled faith invulnerable to skepticism and rational criticism. Just give up whatever cannot be validated by subjective experience and you will rest secure in the self-evident truth of Christianity! You can still attend church and celebrate Christmas and Easter. You can enjoy ceremony and sacrament. You can relish your enlightened superiority over fundamentalists. You can employ the Christian vocabulary of sin and salvation, justice and love, redemption and hope and the love of Jesus—all without taking any risks of being refuted by facts and rational arguments. As this series makes clear, I rejected this path. I came to see clearly that my childhood faith, the faith of my parents and the faith I was taught in Sunday School had a much greater warrant as true Christianity than so-called “invulnerable” Liberal Christianity. I realized that Liberalism’s invulnerability was purchased at the price of its utter vacuity.
Indeed Borg is correct that asserting a real bodily resurrection makes Christianity vulnerable to falsification. The apostle Paul knew this. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile…we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19). But the bodily resurrection also grounds the claims of Christianity in objective reality, in an unambiguous act of God. In contrast, Borg’s metaphorical understanding of the resurrection is grounded only in a subjective decision to connect Jesus to human aspirations. Hence Liberal theology is vulnerable to the charge of wishful thinking and making an arbitrary decision to attach subjective meaning to Jesus without a rational warrant. It is vulnerable to the critique that it possesses no real knowledge of God, that its claims about the kingdom of God, God’s benevolence, justice and love are really human aspirations and characteristics projected onto an imaginary God. Liberal theology may look tempting to doubting evangelicals and fleeing fundamentalists. But it must look pathetic, nostalgic and sentimental to atheists and other post-Christians…and orthodox Christians.
In this year-long series I have defended orthodox and apostolic Christianity. God really acted in Jesus Christ to conqueror sin and death. God really raised him from the dead and reconciled the world to himself through the suffering and death of Jesus. The tomb is indeed empty. “He is not here. He has risen!” The apostles are our teachers. I will not revise this message just to maintain power and influence in contemporary western culture. I am not interesting in making it easy for others or myself to believe in Jesus Christ and cheap to become his disciples. I am intensely interested in original, ontologically robust Christianity. Apostolic Christianity is as exciting as it is demanding, as deep as it is costly. Liberal Christianity is as boring as it is indulgent, as empty as it is cheap.
Note: This week’s post marks the end of the year-long series that addressed the question, “Is Christianity True”? I am in the process of revising and publishing all 48 of these essays in a book tentative entitled, The Case for Christianity: Essays on Faith and Reason for a Post-Christian Culture. I will let you know when it becomes available. Perhaps some of you will want a copy for yourself or to give away. Next year’s theme will be “A Catechism of Mere Christianity for a Post-Christian Culture.” More about that next time!