Friday, October 24, 2008

Why I'm a Liberal (Christian)

As someone who used to be an Evangelical Christian, but always politically liberal, I’ve spent many years feeling like I was hiding in the closet. Among the people I hang around with, Liberals are often seen as almost Satanic. I am a staunch believer in personal freedoms. I am strongly opposed to any attempt to legislate morality. As far as I’m concerned civil and/or criminal law should have nothing to say about what you do or consenting adults do together, as long as it doesn’t harm another. These are some things I have in common with people who claim to be Libertarians. What I have come to realize is that I am also a Liberal when it comes to my view Christianity. Here’s what I mean.

Diversity of Views

I believe in a wide diversity of views when it comes to Christianity (and other faiths for that matter). While I hold my beliefs dear, I also hold them tentatively- always aware of the fact I could be wrong about any particular belief. As someone put it to me the other day, I hold them with an "open hand". For that reason, I am loathe to say that you must believe “X” or “Y” to be a “true” Christian. This doesn’t mean I am not a committed believer or that I’m a backslider. I have thoroughly studied the scriptures and our Christian traditions. I’d venture to say that I’ve studied the scriptures, the history of the church and the history of the Bible more than most conservative Christians. I think that’s one of the reasons I am a liberal Christian. I believe that if one truly studies these things, with an open mind, one will come to the conclusion that the Bible is not the Great Big Book of Everything. And one will realize that the traditions we hold so dear today haven’t always been "traditional". Christianity did not spring up fully formed the day after Yeshua was resurrected. It evolved (and is evolving). So, if we were wrong in the past, we could be wrong now. Acknowledging this lack of certainty tends to make one more liberal and more willing to embrace diversity. If God spoke to the Bible writers over a period of thousands of years, why do so many Christians believe that God suddenly stopped speaking almost two thousand years ago? Why can nothing be "inspired" after what was canonized? I believe that God still speaks to us and that we each receive revelation that we must wrestle with. This is a very personal experience. I find it fascinating that people take the revelations included in the Bible as inerrant (but apparently not unceasing since no one gets any new ones), while Paul himself said “ we now see through a glass darkly”.

I've studied Buddhism (pretty extensively- I find much wisdom there). I don't think I'll ever convert because there's really nothing to convert to. Buddhism is more of a philosophy and a practice than what we in the West would think of as a religion. I meditate frequently. I've read the Tao Te Ching. I've read books on Paganism, Gnosticism and Kaballah. And, I've incorporated many teachings from outside of Christianity into my practice and my world view. I used to call this "religious stew" and condemned it saying that Christians should only practice orthodox Christianity and it was somehow "cheating" to take a little of this and a little of that and create your own spirituality. This has also been called cafeteria religion or Chinese menu religion. However, given that I no longer believe that Christianity has an exclusive hold on the truth or has had all truth perfectly revealed to it (and encapsulated neatly into our leather-bound Holy Bible), it would be foolish to ignore other sources of truth. When it comes to other religions or traditions, I tend to focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us. Spencer Burke said in his book "A Heretics Guide to Eternity" that religion separates us while spirituality brings us together. I agree and am much more interested in spirituality than in religion. I will not accept or reject an idea because it's part of Christian tradition or not part of Christian tradition.

Respecting a wide diversity of views is not the same as moral relativism nor does it mean I don't take my own views very seriously or that I don't believe I'm right about what I believe. It simply means I'm open to change and to the possibility of being wrong and am always willing to test everything, even those things that were handed down to me as absolutely "gospel".

My View of Scripture

I would classify my view of scripture as non-literal. But, I think this is a relative term anyway. No one (and I mean no one) takes all of scripture completely literally. People who claim they do don't stone their sons, they don't cut off their hands or pluck out their eyes, they don't greet each other with a holy kiss, most of them eat shellfish, most eat cheeseburgers, most wear clothing made of blended fabrics and on and on and on. All of these practices are either commanded by or banned by the Bible. But, "literalists" ignore them on a daily basis. The amount of literalism one reads the Bible with is a relative thing. I think people who say they are literalists are largely afraid of the "slippery slope". If they admit they don't take the entire Bible literally, the whole thing is subject to interpretation and the next thing you know, we'll have 30,000 Christians denominations. What's that? We already do have 30,000 Christian denominations? Oops.

But, seriously, I think it's healthier to admit that while the Bible is inspired and scripture is useful for teaching, etc. but it's not to be taken completely literally. I honestly don't think the Bible is perfect (inerrant either). Paul, the guy who wrote the bulk of the New Testament confessed he didn't know what was real and what was a dream (2 Cor 12:2), he said that he couldn't see things perfectly (1 Cor 13:12). So, why do people think the letters he wrote are perfect.? None of the writers of the Bible were perfect. Most people don't believe God used auto-writing (putting the writers into a trance-like dream state and dictating their actual words). So, why does anyone believe that the writers didn't put their own thoughts, feelings and even mistakes into the things they wrote down?

This may make you think I don't take scripture seriously (or seriously enough). I do take scripture extremely seriously. I don't think one can call oneself a Christian without doing so. Scripture is where we have our only concrete revelation of Yeshua, our Messiah. However, taking scripture seriously does not mean taking scripture literally. Nor does it mean that scripture must be inerrant or that scripture is all-inclusive. I believe that there was a progressive revelation of God from the Old Testament through the New. I view the Bible as man's attempt to record his experience of the Unknowable, Unseen, Living God. I do not view the Bible as a verbatim recording of the Word of God. I don't think the writers went into trances and God moved their hands. The words recorded in the Bible, even if they are the Word of God are filtered through the writers' filters of history, culture, personal biases, experiences, etc. So, while I see the Bible as the word of God or the word about God, I do not see it as the Word of God. Yeshua is the Word of God. I also do not view the Bible as a closed book. I believe that God is still revealing Godself today and that writings we have from inspired people today can be just as much the word of God as a letter Paul wrote 2,000 years ago (which I don't think Paul himself would have classified as "scripture").

I rely heavily on "higher criticism" of the Bible. I will often examine several translations (I am tending to favor the literal translations lately). I want to know who wrote the book, what the words originally meant in Greek or Aramaic. I want to know what the social context of the day was. I see the teachings of Jesus and the flavor of His teaching as the most important thing when it comes to the Bible. I also believe in using four pillars to determine Christian faith rather than simply "sola scriptura". Reason, tradition, scripture and experience are all important. In other words, if some doctrine derived from scripture doesn't make sense in terms of reason, experience and/or tradition (particularly reason), I'm going to examine that "scriptural" doctrine a lot more closely before I accept it.

My View of God

This is a difficult thing to put into words, the main reason being that my view of God is probably evolving more rapidly than anything else in my world. It started off thinking God was like the Greek image of God most of us were given in Sunday School. God was a big old white guy with a long flowing beard and a scowl on His face. He was muscular and gruff. He sat on a big throne wearing long a long robe and was pretty much unapproachable and unable to be pleased. God only knows why this God would have created us flawed creatures that He couldn't even bear to look upon. But, for some reason, He could tolerate us enough to send Jesus to save us. Instead of inflicting His wrath on us, He turned it on Jesus.

This view of God made me afraid of Him from the time I was about five years old until the time I was in my early 40s. I wanted to love God. But, I couldn't. You know the verse "Perfect love casts out fear." Well, you can't love someone that you fear so much. In counseling I began to develop a view of God as a loving Father. This was difficult for me. I never felt I could live up to pleasing my own father. So, how was I to please the ultimate Super Father. I tried and tried to convince myself though that He could love me and I tried to love Him back. As I began to study meditation and eventually Buddhism, I began to realize that Christianity had me too focused on the transcendence of God (the God "out there") and had me completely neglecting the immanence of God (the God among us and dare-I-say-it?) in us. As I began to focus on the immanence of God (read the Holy Spirit) the still small voice inside me, the spark in me, I began to be able to approach God in a much more intimate way. For the first time, I could see why God loved me because God was a part of me. For the first time I could hear "His" voice because instead of waiting to hear some booming voice from the sky, I paid attention to that small whisper inside of me. I later came to find my view was called Panentheism (God is in everything and everything is in God) and that view is shared by many Liberal Christians as well. I began to see God in everything and began to really enjoy my life here on earth basking in God's glory.

This view of God has blurred the line between the "supernatural" and natural for me. I think the supernatural is just what we don't know how to explain yet. I also no longer see God as a being. God is not just another bigger version of us. God is totally unique. God is "spirit". I'm just finishing up a book called "Why It's OK to Call God Mother". I'll share more of that with you later. The point is not that God is a woman as opposed to a man. The point is that, even though God is personal, God is not male or female.

Universal Salvation

Well, this is what this whole blog is about. For me, this is pretty much a given. I grow more convinced each day that God will ultimately reconcile all to Godself. That gives me the opportunity to focus on the here and now rather on the there and later. I still have great motivation to share the gospel because the gospel is now truly good news, not a veiled threat. I became a Preterist several years ago (belief that end-times prophecies have already been fulfilled). I don't worry about when Jesus will come back or how Jesus will come back. I don't look forward to the destruction of the "wicked". I long for the day when we're all reconciled back to God. But, I know that even now, salvation has been given to all even though all haven't received it yet or recognized it yet.

Social Issues

The past few days I've been debating politics on one of the boards I frequent. At least there are few liberals there with me. I am close to what many Libertarians say they support when it comes to social issues. I want the government out of personal decisions. That means no laws about what people can and cannot put into their bodies, no laws about what people can and cannot do in their own bedrooms, no laws about what women can do with their bodies. But, here's where I part ways with Libertarians. I think we have responsibilities to each other. I think the government is responsible for making sure there is a safety net for each person in our society. I don't believe in a "sink or swim, work or don't eat" philosophy. I don't believe that people should only get what they are able to earn. In a country as rich as ours, I find it shameful that so many live in poverty. I am all for a little "wealth redistribution" (as Libertarians call welfare), if that's what is necessary to ensure no one goes without the basics of life.

I tend to be more inclusive than exclusive wanting as much freedom and equality for everyone as possible regardless of gender, class, sexual orientation or whatever. For example, the gay marriage issue is raging right now. While I was initially against gay marriage, the more I think about it, the more I think I don't have the right to prevent others from doing what I might find distasteful or even morally offensive. Women have been held back in society and in the church, I'd like to see that changed. I think mankind was made in God's image, not just man.

Truth Seeking

I said many years ago that seeking the truth was the most important thing to me, more important than being a Christian. Seeking the truth has often tested my faith and a few times I thought blown truth seeeking had blown my faith right out of the water. But, my faith has always come back as strong as before. My world view has changed dramatically. My view of God has changed radically. My view of Christianity is very different than it was. Many would say I am no longer a Christian. They might be right. But, I know I am a beloved Child of God, Seeker of Truth and Follower of Jesus. That's enough for me.

(originally published 08/31/06)


kc bob said...

I liked this Brian:

"Respecting a wide diversity of views is not the same as moral relativism nor does it mean I don't take my own views very seriously or that I don't believe I'm right about what I believe."

I think that is why I love to read your stuff. I often gain a new perspective when I come to your blog.. whether it is about things political or things spiritual I feel a bit more rounded out after I read your thinkings.

Wish we lived closer.. be fun to exchange ideas over coffee.


Brian said...

Bob, I love reading your blog, too. I'm glad we can stretch each other.

Don said...

I fully enjoyed this post. I think a lot of that is because we are so very similar in many ways. I was sitting here reading the post and saying, "yes" and "amen" to the things you discussed. You have been at this journey long than I and I have learned much from your experiences. IMHO, our similar paths and shared beliefs confirm I am still following after truth. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

Anonymous said...

Hey man i was

~Katherine said...

Wow, Brian. It's almost uncanny how similarly we believe. Sounds very like my journey except the beginning wasn't as scary. It was later that I unconsciously became discouraged and fell out of favor with churchgoing and so on. One of the first people I met when I got out on my own was a dear friend and mentor .. boy was I a mental case and almost lost the friendship that probably saved my life. I don't like to think of the alternative but here's what I think. G-d would have made another way for me as I continually went on seeking his truth.

Thanks for telling your story and spelling out universalism and even liberalism. One of these days maybe I'll even do the same more overtly. So many of my friends are atheists or some other religion than Christianity and I guess I will eventually figure out a way to say my peace without stepping on toes too hard. I am venturing out and talking to Christians about universalism though. And that's been interesting. To say the least.

Brian said...


Welcome to my blog. I'm glad what I said resonated with you. It's a strange place we liberal Christians live in, rejected by our more fundamentalist brothers. But, not ready to give up on the faith like some of our friends who have gone over to atheism. My experience is that a lot of "atheists" are pretty angry with the god they've been taught about or they've become atheists because they simply cannot accept a literal, inerrant view of the Bible.

kc bob said...

I have seen that same phenomena Brian.. some fundamentalists seem to be unable to accept a different theological view than the one that black and white one they were taught and sadly throw it all out and become agnostics and atheists.

I think it might go to what originally attracted them to fundamentalism to begin with. Some folks are attracted to the blacks and whites of life.. these find difficulty in the gray areas.

Change has been so difficult for this one time fundie but I would not have it any other way.. the freedom I experience in Christ these days is so great.

Happy Sunday!