Feb 20, 2009

Am I a Liberal?

I had a good friend tell me a story a few months ago about a painful experience she had while serving in her church. She was a leader in the children’s ministry. This particular Sunday, one of the teachers was planning on having the kids sing one of the older songs that highlights the Atonement, and of course, the blood of Christ. (By now, I’ve forgotten which particular song it was, but something like, There is a Fountain). My friend expressed her concern about singing this song, especially with a group of children who, along with their parents, were new to church, and who would have almost no foundation upon which to understand lyrics regarding the cleansing properties of the Savior’s blood. (Not to mention age-appropriateness….You can almost hear the barrage of questions after the song, “Teacher, is there really a fountain filled with blood?!”) I digress….

Anyway, the trap was sprung, and my poor friend had the impossible task of proving, on the spot, that she was not, in fact, a liberal.

You see, this teacher had been reading a book by a very well-meaning evangelical who was explaining how the liberal movement made inroads into major American Denominations, how these inroads are alive and well, and how these erosions typically occur. This sweet, well-meaning, children’s teacher suspects her leader of being one, and when she finds resistance to singing the song, her worst fears are confirmed.

And so my friend, after telling me this story, asks with pain, “Am I a liberal?”

It’s a good question. What is a liberal anyway? Growing up, it was a codeword for them. For all the people that don’t believe like us. Who don’t read the Bible, who don’t preach the Bible, who don’t believe the Bible. They’re also Democrats. We heard, on an annual basis, how our church split off from the Brethren Denomination when the denomination told our church that we should no longer be singing about “the blood.” We said, “Yes we will.” And so they locked our building. We had to buy the property twice. Because of “liberals.”

This language was reinforced at my private Christian college. We heard, in chapel, about how the “liberals” don’t believe the Bible--and immediately thereafter learned in our civics class that they also like raising taxes. Nasty folks. All the while, confusingly, we were being told that we were receiving an excellent liberal arts education.

The word is difficult to define. The Random House Dictionary lists about fifteen different definitions. We use it all the time when referring to politics, theology, education, giving, etc. I’d like to take a stab at defining the word strictly in its theological sense. The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms says it’s:

A movement in nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant circles that builds from the assumption that Christianity is reconcilable with the positive human aspirations, including the quest for autonomy. Liberalism desires to adapt religion to modern thought and culture. Consequently, it views divine love as realized primarily, if not totally, in love for one’s neighbor and the kingdom of God as a present reality found especially within an ethically transformed society (72).

With the rise of science and the optimism it produced preceding the devastating world wars of the twentieth century, the miraculous accounts recorded in the Scriptures became a bit difficult. Since we know now that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the sun around the earth, we also know that the miraculous accounts in the Bible must be explainable as primitive peoples trying to describe things they did not fully understand. However, the Bible is still useful as a source of ethics and inspiration. “Salvation” is education, spiritual enlightenment, and compassionate love for one’s neighbor. “Resurrection” is not so much dead flesh and blood coming back to life as it is the rebirth of a high ideal. So, Theological Liberalism is really a salvage job––an attempt to recast the Bible and the Christian Religion in terms palatable to an enlightened culture, essentially redefining the miraculous in order to keep the beautiful ethic.

Are you a Liberal?

Dr. Daniel B. Wallace reserves the term for those who go so far as to deny the physical resurrection of Christ. That’s a decent test. Most people who deny the Resurrection, yet maintain that they are Christians, will most likely share a set of assumptions that mirrors the tradition of Theological Liberalism. He argues, and I agree, that it is unwise to use the fundamentalists’ various litmus tests used for sniffing out “liberals”––typically theological fine points such as the timing of the Rapture in relation to the Tribulation, which English Bible is most inspired, or whether or not we should sing There is a fountain to concrete-thinking, unchurched pre-schoolers at church (okay, Dr. Wallace never mentioned that last example, but you could see where this was going).

Save the “l-word” for those who claim it. And let’s keep the conversation going with those who disagree on finer points by refusing to demonize them. I responded to my friend’s question by asking her, “Do you believe that Jesus was dead, buried, and actually came back to life––I mean that his body truly came back to life?” She said, “Of course!”

“Then you’re not a Liberal.”

UPDATED: Kelly brought up an excellent point in the comments that deserves mention on this main page. Things may get confusing if someone is describing themselves as a liberal politically. I in no way mean to imply that we should assume that this person is automatically also a liberal theologically. Those are two different animals entirely (similarly, my "liberal" arts education at a conservative Christian college says nothing about the school's politics or its theology). This post is about asking better questions about people's religious beliefs before categorizing them with a bad label.


Kelly said...

Are you then implying that the term "liberal" has only a theological context? Most of the time, when I hear someone claim to be a liberal, they are speaking in a political context or are referring to bring broad minded and open to change. This is not a theologically meditated rejection therefore of Christ's resurrection. I can see how being a liberal might lead someone to being vulnerable to that line of thought, but I think it is dangerous (because of the liklihood of confusion) to assume that calling someone a liberal thereformeans that they a theological liberal.

Maybe in the context of your friend's story, this was actually what the accuser meant. I, on the other hand, would assume first that I was being accused of being a democrat or being lumped in with one of those people who want to raise your taxes and run welfare programs or give out food stamps.

It is a sad thing that something with apparently such important theological repercussion would be cliched to the point that no one even knows this older meaning, but I would suggest that is the case. I have a good friend whom proudly calls himself a democrat and a liberal. Yet, he does not deny the resurrection of Christ and, albeit Methodist, has a faith which I believe stands on solid ground.

If I were to apply one definition of liberal, that being the one of being open and broad minded, I myself would probably fit the part. So, am I now a liberal?

Personally, I have always been taught that being a liberal meant that you were in stark contrast to being conservative. This, I was told, meant that you like and endorse change. Being a conservative apparently meant that you did not like change.

Considering the idea of dispensationalism, would God now be a liberal by our definition as someone who like or endorses change? Surely dispensationalism pushes the notion that God changes the way things are and work. Of course, since God created time and time could probably be defined as a constant motion of universal change...

I think I digress. I would not want anyone to think me a theological liberal. But I might not be so offended at some of the other definitions being applied. (I stress some) just some thought for you to chew on though.

P.s.- in case my long comment has not given it away, I really enjoyed your post.

Kelly said...

Please note: thanks to iPhone's wonderful spelling correction (which I don't always notice, the word "being" was rendered in at least one spot as "bring" (first paragraph). There may be others. Please forgive me if there are.

The Blossers said...

Kelly, your clarification is excellent. Please see my revisions on the main page. Thanks so much.

somehownotsingle said...

I think that to define liberalism (as a theological term) as a "salvage job" is perfect. Liberals tend to be people who see an intense beauty in the ideals obtained through a selective reading of Scripture, who then have to somehow account for the "embarrassing" portions of Scripture in a way that leaves their faith both savory and intellectually respectable (by the standards of the secular world of their day).

One thing I think that you must add to a definition of theological liberalism, for historical reasons, is the belief in the inherent goodness of man. They reject the notion of original sin, and of course this leads to serious disagreements with orthodox (little "o") Christians on matters of salvation, resurrection, and the kingdom.

It's funny how quickly your theology can get skewed if you deviate in a little bit from what the Bible says about man and about God. These are really the basic buildings blocks of any system of theology, and I think you can trace all disagreements between liberals and orthodox believers back to different assumptions on the nature of God and man.

Just some thoughts from your friendly pagan PhD pursuer :-)

somehownotsingle said...

and despite the definite need to distinguish between terms, i think that you will find that the basic assumptions about the state and capacities of man underlie both theological and political liberalisn, which is why I'm always intrigued to meet people who are political liberal and theologically conservative.

oh, and most people when they say "liberal" really mean ethically or morally liberal, not politically liberal. You can certainly be both, but it's not logically required . . . though in our nation it's rare to see one without the other (Kelly and others being an exception to the rule).

just my way of saying, I'm grateful for Kelly and the perspective he brings :-)

Larry said...

Nobody has commented about Dan's two references to a "liberal education," which goes back essentially to the Greeks and the divisions of topics into things like Ethics, Rhetoric and Geometry and Politics and Athletics, and the Roman derivative of "a sound mind in a sound body," under the umbrella term of wisdom, which to them includes all discussion of ultimates.

But Dan was just referring to the collegiate phraseology he heard about in college, which was also embodied in the "college" I went to. Most people forget that a university is often composed of colleges, such as possibly the College of Engineering, and others. My college was called the "College of Letters and Science" at the university I went to. A very common meaning of a liberal education when I was at the university was that your bachelor's degree came from that college: not the College of Business, or Engineering, or Architecture. Even Law, and Medicine, were considered continuations of a liberal education, not substitutes for it. Hence they did not offer their own bachelors' degrees.

So since we're doing definitions who is or isn't a theological liberal, I'll offer a definition based on this history of what a liberal education is. To attempt a liberal education is to attempt to learn the basics about all the major topics of what is known about the world and ourselves. Once you have a liberal education, specialized knowledge has a place where it fits. What do you think? Is that a fair definition of a liberal education as it is referred to in many colleges and universities?

The Blossers said...

Thanks for your comments. Larry, I'm not aware of the origins of the term "liberal arts." So, I appreciate learning more about that history.

John, thanks for the philosophical link, and for your love for Kelly.:-)