Tag Archives: progressivism

“Liberal Christianity”—Neither Liberal Nor Christian!

We are nearing the end of our year-long series on the question “Is Christianity True?” One more topic remains to be covered. So far in the series I have attempted to show that we can make a reasonable judgment to believe the Christian gospel and a responsible decision to take up the Christian way of life. Early in the study, in the third essay, I made it clear that by “Christianity” I meant the original faith attested in the New Testament. It is that faith I contend is true. And I responded to outsider critics in defense of this faith. But now I want to deal with those who “defend” Christianity by revising it to make it fit within modern thought and culture.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries many western intellectuals came to believe that Galileo’s and Newton’s scientific discoveries made it impossible to believe in divine revelation and miracles. God made the world and gave it its laws, and there is now no reason for God to interfere. God gave human beings the power of reason as a light to guide their way, and reason is as sufficient for religion and ethics as it is for science and practical life. The first thinkers to adopt these ideas had little use for Christianity; they saw no value in tradition, church and worship. Religion could be reduced to living a moral life outside the church. These are the so-called Deists.

But early in the 19th Century something new came on the scene, liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity accepts most aspects of the deist critique of orthodoxy. Along with Deism, Liberalism rejects miracles understood as supernatural events in which God reverses, interrupts or sidesteps natural law. Hence it rejects or reinterprets in a non-miraculous way the Old and New Testament miracle stories, including Jesus’ nature miracles (resurrections, healings of leprosy, walking on water) and most significantly Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Liberalism rejects the apocalyptic elements in Jesus’ teaching and in the rest of the New Testament. And it rejects the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement. But unlike Deism, Liberal Christianity gives Jesus a central role as a religious and moral example and it retains a place for the church, clergy and worship in individual and social life.

During the 19th Century two major forms of Liberal Christianity developed. The first form emphasizes Jesus’ religious experience and was pioneered by German theologian and preacher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who is universally acknowledged as “the father of modern theology.” According Schleiermacher, Jesus experienced a deep God-consciousness so intense that it overcame all resistance from the flesh. Jesus’ God-consciousness differs from other people’s experience in that he was able to inspire that consciousness in others. Only in this way is Jesus our redeemer and savior. The church is the community that cultivates this consciousness and passes it on to others. Christian doctrines derive, not from inspired words revealed by God and recorded in the Bible but from the feeling of absolute dependence on God that Jesus inspires. In Schleiermacher’s now classic work on theology The Christian Faith, the Berlin theologian reinterprets every Christian dogma and doctrine in Liberal way, that is, as reducible to the religious feeling of absolute dependence. For Schleiermacher, Christianity is not the religion about Jesus but the religion of Jesus.

In the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries, another Liberal tradition became dominant. This tradition was begun by Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and continued by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). It focuses not on Jesus’ religious experience but on his moral example. For Ritschl and his followers, Christianity is based on Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of God, which calls on people to embody perfect righteousness on earth in a community. Jesus inspires us to believe that the cause of the kingdom will prevail over all resistance. Like Schleiermacher, Ritschl rejects miracles, the resurrection of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the incarnation and other orthodox doctrines. Jesus is a human being who so identified himself with the purposes of God that he functions as the revelation of God in human form. He is not God in his being, but he reflects God in his character and actions. He “saves” by inspiring us to live according to the higher standard of love of God and neighbor.

The moralism that Liberal Christianity emphasizes is not personal holiness, that is, sexual purity, personal honesty and the absence of individual vices. It leaves this to the holiness churches and fundamentalist movements. The Liberal churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on bringing Jesus’ message of the kingdom to bear on modern social problems: poverty, capitalism’s exploitation of the working class, alcoholism, war and women’s suffrage. Later Liberal churches continued this tradition, adding the campaign for civil rights for African Americans, women’s liberation, environmental justice, gay rights and “marriage equality” for same-sex couples. In other words, Liberal Christianity follows and reflects the trajectory of what the consensus of the progressive element in culture takes for moral progress.

Now let’s address the assertion contained in my title. Is liberal “Christianity” Christian? Of course, it claims to be Christian, and it seems judgmental and rude to deny that claim. But surely it is not judgmental and rude to ask liberal Christians what they mean by the noun “Christianity” and the adjective “Christian”? What are the faith affirmations of liberal Christianity and what are its denials? The liberal Christianity I described above affirms Jesus as a paradigmatic religious man or a profound moral teacher and an extraordinary moral example. And orthodox Christianity also affirms these beliefs. But liberal Christianity denies that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, that he the performed miracles recorded in the Four Gospels, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and that he was raised bodily from the dead. Liberal Christianity rejects much of the moral teaching of the New Testament because it conflicts with modern progressive culture.

But these rejected doctrines and moral teachings were part of the original, apostolic Christianity. Many of them are confessed and taught in the New Testament as absolutely essential. It’s obvious that in the New Testament era such “liberal” Christianity would have been rejected as unbelief or heresy and moral laxity. Does anyone doubt that had the Paul, John, Peter, James or any of the Apostles encountered someone teaching the liberal view of Jesus and morality that they would have denied it the name “Christian” and rejected it as “a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7)? Call it what you will, “ecclesiastical deism” or “progressive religion” or something else. But if the original, apostolic faith is the norm for what qualifies as Christian and what does not, liberal Christianity is not Christianity at all but something else. But is apostolic Christianity really the norm for Christian teaching for all time? This is a decisive question. I affirm that it is, and I suppose liberal Christianity denies it.

My title also questioned Liberal Christianity’s liberalism. How so? The word “liberal” is related to the words, liberty and liberate. Hence liberal Christianity claims to be free and freeing. But from what is liberal Christianity free and from what does it promise liberation? From doctrinal orthodoxy, tradition and a strict and ridged moral code! How does it get free from those authorities? Does it assert anarchy or a latter day revelation? No. Liberal Christianity gets free from orthodoxy by selling itself to de-Christianized progressive culture. To stay relevant and on message it must jump on board with whatever progressive culture designates as the next area ripe for moral progress. Liberal Christianity has no place to stand to critique progressivism. It cannot appeal to tradition or the Bible or the divine authority of Jesus; it cannot even appeal to reason. It is always running to catch up with the next bold effort to liberate somebody from tradition and oppressive social institutions. And its vestigial Christian baggage, as light as it is when compared to orthodoxy, slows it down so that it always behind the curve.

Liberal Christianity “defends” Christianity by giving up its most powerful and liberating teachings. It’s an army that defends its homeland by surrendering the capitol, the best farmland and the most defensible heights. And in doing so it becomes powerless to challenge the world at the place where it most needs to be confronted, where it is most in rebellion to God. Like the ventriloquist’s dummy, it has nothing of its own to say. It looks to its master for what to say next. And so I conclude that liberal Christianity is neither Christian nor liberal. It’s not even interesting.

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The Sins of Christians: Evidence for Christianity’s Immorality?

In this week’s post I want to continue the theme of moral objections to Christianity. Last week I argued that most moral objections to Christianity can be reduced to fundamental disagreements about the final authority for moral truth and the ends moral behavior should seek. The specific issues discussed by the culture at any particular time are merely occasions for the clash of contradictory fundamental perspectives. The view I called “de-Christianized progressivism” rejects all moral authority beyond the individual’s sense of fittingness and any goal other than individual happiness as understood by the individual. In contrast, Christianity affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Creator, who is the absolute standard of right and good, and views the goal of human action and relationships as the creature’s correspondence in character and life to the Creator as revealed in Jesus Christ.

De-Christianized progressivism appeals to a different source of moral knowledge than that to which Christianity appeals. It cannot accept that individuals need any moral guidance other than their own experience and feeling. After all, if the goal of human life is to maintain a feeling of wellbeing and happiness in the present moment, who knows better than I when I am happy and what makes me happy? But Christianity mistrusts untrained and immediate human impulses. Human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation. It asserts that individuals’ consciences need divine revelation, community discipline and tradition as sources of moral guidance.

If people holding opposite sides of these contradictory moral visions clash over issues such as those that excite our culture today without clarifying their deeper disagreements, they cannot possibly understand each other and will simply talk past each other. And since they cannot appeal to the same authority and do not seek the same goal, they cannot even reason with each other. Instead of asking why they cannot reason together about an issue and letting this question drive them to their deeper disagreements—and perhaps agreements on another level—they shift from reasoning to fighting. Opponents begin to view each other as irrational, insincere and evil. Words become weapons instead of vehicles for ideas. Carl von Clausewitz (1790-1831) observed in his book On War, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Unhappily, von Clausewitz’s aphorism describes only too well the current debate about morality. Christians as well as non- or post-Christians are often guilty of shifting too quickly from reasoning to fighting. And I will have something to say about this in future posts. But here I am dealing with objections to the moral vision of Christianity from its critics.

Many critics illegitimately confuse Christianity with the thought and behavior of churches and individuals who claim to be Christian. Clearly, there is a conceptual difference between the essential teaching and moral vision of the original Christian faith and the practice of individual Christians and institutions that call themselves churches. Lay Christians and clergy have done and do bad things. Bishops acted like secular lords, amassing wealth and building magnificent palaces at the expense of the people while neglecting their duty to care for and teach the people. “Christian” princes conducted wars against other “Christian” princes. So-called “witches” and heretics were burned alive. Christian churches sought power in alliance with the political order. Clergy abused and still abuse their trusted positions by molesting children, living in luxury and seeking honor. Indeed, Christians and so-called “churches” do bad things, horrendous things, and they deserve to be exposed and denounced.

And it is precisely by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and the original Christian faith that they are most decisively exposed and denounced! De-Christianized progressivism cannot possibly be as radical in its criticism. For it possesses no coherent principles by which to criticize such abuses. Non- or post-Christians also seek wealth, desire power and work to satisfy their lusts. And why not? They cannot appeal to moral law or divine judgment or the teaching and example of Jesus to redirect their lives toward the truly good and right. This life is all there is, and it is precarious and short. Carpe diem! Hence their criticism of the behavior of Christians and Christian institutions boils down to criticizing them for not living up to the teaching of Jesus and the original Christian faith, that is, it boils down to an accusation of hypocrisy. They don’t raise any independent criticisms. So, it cannot escape notice that an argument from hypocrisy to the falsehood of the ideals by which hypocrisy is exposed and denounced is self-contradictory. If the Christian moral vision is false, the charge of hypocrisy is evacuated of its moral content. How can hypocrisy be a moral failing if the system within which hypocrisy is condemned is itself false?

Surely it is obvious that failure to live up to an ideal does not disprove the ideal. A bad Stoic does not prove that Stoicism is bad. A bad math student does not prove that mathematics is bad. Nor does a bad Christian prove that Christianity is bad. Hence merely rehearsing the sins of Christians and so-called “Christian” institutions does not constitute a good argument against Christianity’s moral vision. A good argument, that is, a rational argument, against Christianity’s moral vision would, first, need fairly and accurately to describe that vision. Second, it would need to judge Christianity’s moral vision defective according to an alternative moral vision, which as a system can claim as good or better grounding in moral truth. I do not accept expressions of emotion or sentences that begin with “I feel” or “everyone knows” or “we have discovered” or “history will show” as rational arguments.

I challenge the critics of the Christian moral vision to make an argument that meets these two requirements. Only then can we even have an argument. I predict I will be waiting a long time.

Is Christianity Morally Offensive?

I find it so interesting that many of the most strident opponents of Christianity attack it for its moral teachings. If you didn’t know better, you’d expect these opponents to oppose the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy based on an altogether different and better foundation. After all, to oppose and replace the religious and moral tradition that created the western world and shaped its moral intuition for over a thousand years is a pretty ambitious agenda. And since the objections I have in mine come from contemporary western people, you would think they would have given serious consideration to how they could escape the influence of the system they now criticize. Do you return to pre-Christian sources? Do you draw on non-western traditions? Do you attempt to derive a new morality from modern natural science? Only Friedrich Nietzsche and a few other adventuresome thinkers attempted to return to pre-Christian paganism. And most modern objections to Christian morality would apply doubly to pagan morality. Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its compassion for the weak, hardly politically correct today. Most non-western moral traditions are as conservative as or more so than the Christian tradition. And science can only describe the way things are. It cannot tell you how they should be. No, there is no alternative for modern progressives who think they have advanced beyond Christianity.

Self-conscious secularists and progressives and throngs of thoughtless people who echo them decry Christianity’s prohibition of sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity. There have always been people who practice these things and who justify them in various ways. But lately we see a new hostility toward Christian moral teachings that views them, not just as backward, but as evil.  What accounts for this new hostility toward Christianity for its teaching on these subjects? The most obvious reason for the new aggression is political. The Christian moral vision dominated western society for many centuries.  In the United States it has only recently become feasible for de-Christianized progressivism to turn the tables and become the dominant philosophy of culture. Christian churches and the Christian moral vision are what stand in the way of this transfer of power. Hence much contemporary criticism of Christianity can be explained by its political aims. But a deeper issue concerns me more than the struggle for political domination.

Why do secular progressives hate Christianity for its views of marriage, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity? I do not believe that it is simply because of what Christianity permits or forbids. In truth, it is Christianity’s denial that individual human beings have the right to decide for themselves what is good and right. Christianity teaches that we do not own ourselves and we must give an account to our Creator for what we do and how we use our lives as well as how we treat others. For de-Christianized progressives, Christianity’s denial of their autonomy is deeply offensive. But instead of challenging the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy, progressives appeal to the flattering but obviously false notion that individual human beings can be their own gods, determining good and evil for themselves. Perhaps Christianity’s exposure of this fiction explains the intensity of progressives’ hatred.

Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?

I want to take a week or two out from the 16-part series on the “God and the Modern Self” to address an issue that is on my mind. Recently, I seem to have heard an increased use of the idea of progress to justify certain moral, social and political changes. I don’t want to take up the specific changes that are being advocated, and I don’t do politics on this blog. But I do want to consider the rhetoric of progress because it seems completely confused and confusing. After all, this blog is about “thoughtfulness in religion.”

A few days ago I heard an advocate condemn his opponents because they are “on the wrong side of history.” And quite often lately I hear people speaking of making progress or suffering regress in certain moral areas. So let’s think about progress. It should be clear that there can be no progress unless there is a goal toward which one can move closer. If I am on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City, my arrival in Kansas City clearly marks progress. I am getting closer to the destination. In general, then, progress is movement toward a goal. We consider progress good when the goal at which it is aimed is desirable. If the end is not desirable, we don’t usually consider movement toward it positive. For example, we speak of a person’s change toward worse health as regress or decline rather than progress toward death, though, if death were desirable, we might call movement toward it “progress”.

Now it is possible for one person to consider the end toward which things seem to be moving as good whereas another person considers it bad. Hence one person’s progress can be another’s regress or decline. My point is that we use the word progress for movement toward an end, and judgment about the quality of that movement depends on our judgment about the worthiness of the goal. There is nothing inherently good about “movement toward an end.” Everything depends on the nature of the end.

Since the Enlightenment, two main types of progress (“movement toward an end”) have been recognized as desirable: scientific progress and moral progress. Since the early 17th century, scientific progress has been measured by the extent of movement toward bringing nature under the control of humanity. Every scientific advance moves us closer toward complete understanding and therefore complete (or at least maximum) control. We want to subject nature to our wills and make it serve us and add to our comfort, health and happiness.

What passes for moral progress follows the same trajectory as scientific progress. Just as the goal of modern science and technology is liberation of human beings from servitude to the ordinary course of nature, the aim of modern moral progress is liberation of the individual from domination by political authority, oppressive social structures and divine and natural moral law. The unarticulated goal implicit in the modern understanding of moral progress is complete liberation the human self from all self-alienating forces into absolute self-determination and unfettered “pursuit of happiness”.

I emphasized the word “unarticulated” because the rhetoric of progress could not be as persuasive as it is if it stated this goal openly. Everyone knows that absolute independence is impossible for human beings, and anyone who claimed to have attained it would be dismissed as crazy. And yet total liberty and autonomy is the ideal by which all “oppressive” structures and forces are exposed and condemned as immoral and unjust.

Universal moral law, natural order or divine purposes are given no role in guiding and restraining the arbitrary, self-determining self. The reason for this exclusion is obvious. The rhetoric of progress views these guiding and restraining structures as oppressive by definition.

We can draw two conclusions at this point: (1) the modern rhetoric of progress aims at a goal impossible to attain, and (2) if it were attained, chaos, anarchy and nihilism would engulf the world. The rhetoric of progress works only so long as it hides its final goal and fails to attain it fully. How shall we judge a moral ideal that, were it attained, would destroy the world?

Allow me to point out one more contradiction in the modern idea of progress. As persuasive as the rhetoric of progress is, it has not been able to persuade everyone. Even though its ideal is total freedom from authority and oppressive structures, it seems to have no moral objection to using social and political power to destroy its enemies and coerce the unwilling to move on to the next phase of human liberation from oppression. The means (coercion) subverts the end (freedom). And since the end can never be attained, the means, which is the exercise of coercive power, replaces the end. The end becomes a mere moral justification for the means. (On second thought, perhaps using coercive power is not inconsistent with the end. If the ideal end consists in the individual self’s exercising power over itself, it makes sense for an individual in a position to do so to use coercive power to attain even more autonomy for the self.)

Conclusion: the fundamental problem with the modern idea of progress is that it measures progress as movement toward a bad end.

Next week: Movement toward what end could be considered “progress” from the perspective of Christian faith? What is the end and what kind of means of moving toward it are consistent with the end?