Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism

I've been reading Nancey Murphy's "Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda." It's been challenging and thought-provoking, to say the least!

It has gotten me thinking about "Liberalism" and "Conservatism."

I think we had better define our terms.

Liberalism and Convervatism can mean different things in different contexts. What are we talking about? Political? Social? Theological? The difficulty is that every one of us conflate these together, and therefore have difficulty analyzing the issues in each context.

For instance, Christian Conservatives are forced to believe:
  • that the Bible is the foundation from which we believe, that Jesus is God, and that justification is a legal transaction between man and God (theology),
  • that Republicans are the only Christian choice, that western capitalism is the only Christian way to live, that the government must step in to stop abortion and gay marriages but not to alleviate poverty and care for the sick (politics),
  • and that abortion, homosexuals, school prayer, and the Ten Commandments in courtrooms are the major issues of our day (social).

Many modern Christian philosophers and theologians very often bring all these together under one umbrella. When you are a "conservative," they tell us that we've gotta go all the way!

Christian Liberals, on the other hand, are forced to believe:

  • that experience (rather than the Bible) is the foundation from which we build what we believe (and therefore we can question the Bible based on our present circumstances and the latest advances in philosophical, sociological, and psychological thought), that Jesus may have been God but that other religions offer insights into God as well, and that our salvation is more tied into what we do on earth—after all, will not Jesus separate the goats from the sheep on this basis? (theology),
  • that Democrats are the only intellectual choice, that government must step in and care for people in need, but that government must not allow a breach of the ‘separation of church and state’ for the good of both (politics),
  • and that poverty, hunger, healthcare for the needy, the environment, globalization, abortion choice, and world peace are the major issues of our day (social).

What some do is bring all these together under another umbrella.

But what we Christians need to do is this: Move into a post-conservative, post-liberal Christianity. We seek to deconstruct both sides and rebuild based on better presumptions. We need to get beyond labels and camps and get into the reality of Christ for our day. So, let's openly discuss the merits and faults of both sides in all its contexts—which will make people who have lived for a long time staunchly in one of the camps (like you and me, I would presume, coming from more conservative Christian experience) uncomfortable at times. But I'd rather be uncomfortable and authentic (by evaluating our current expression of Christianity) than to be comfortable and naïve.

We must move beyond looking at these issues in a shallow way. We should dig deep into theology and philosophy and anything else that may help to get us nearer to the truth.

Books like Murphy's Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (like Stanley Grenz's works) are challenging in that they get us to the reasons why we are in these two camps in the first place. In her first chapter, Murphy explains the philosophical presumptions of modernity that have shaped both the liberal and the conservative theologies. Both conservative and liberal theologians have let Descartes' foundational philosophy invade the way we understand out theology. Foundationalism is a very MODERN way to see the world, and may have been foreign to the biblical writers.

Before we draw lines in the sand, I think we need to read these things and talk about these things and seek common ground so that we can be closer to what God has actually revealed to us about himself (as opposed to our presupposed ideas of what he has revealed, based on some fundamental modern philosophical ideas we possess).



Byron said...

I'm gonna have to read that book, I suppose, but it strikes me that the key need is to DEFINE TERMS PROPERLY. I'm not a "Christian conservative" as you've defined it below; I also think you've misspoken a bit (the government is not being asked to "step in and stop" gay marriages; it is being asked NOT to intervene and create new rights). "School prayer" and the Ten Commandments in the classroom are bogus "issues" that divert us, I agree. Though I think that conservatism in theology TENDS to beget conservatism in public policy, there is certainly nothing approaching a 1-to-1 correspondence, and when the two are conflated, I agree that we've got a problem.

But that being said, and the necessity of "rethinking" some things being important, at the end of the day, there are some very clear issues upon which you either have to come down one way or the other. Either the Bible, in the original manuscripts, had errors in it, and thus cannot be spoken of as being "God's Word to man", OR it didn't have errors in it--unless of course, God can lie to us, and then let's just go have a beer and forget the whole thing. Either Jesus is God come in the flesh OR He's not; a middle position would not be possible. Our conversion is by grace alone through faith alone, OR it in some way involves our good works contributing to the whole thing. I'm not seeing how those things, and a few others like them, can be negotiated or gotten around somehow.

I also think, Bob, that you're being far too charitable in defining "Christian Liberals". Yeah, people that believe the things you suggest would probably earn the designation "liberal", but when I think of liberals (theological ones), I think that there are a whole lot who go a lot further even than you've suggested. Just a thought...

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for some clarification.

Obviously, to make a point I over-simplified the categories, but I think I DID make a point.

You said it yourself: "Though I think that conservatism in theology TENDS to beget conservatism in public policy, there is certainly nothing approaching a 1-to-1 correspondence, and when the two are conflated, I agree that we've got a problem."

But, I think we DO have a problem! If you listen to Dobson, Falwell, or Robertson, they make it clear that there MUST be a 1-to-1 correspondence, or your just not a Christian. At one of our pastor's gatherings (if you'll remember), when I asked if the pastors thought Jesus would be a Democrat or a Republican, you would have thought I had spoken blatant heresy! When I visit churches, the subtle undertone in conversations is that Bush is God's chosen candidate, and how dare you think otherwise.

There are those that are on the far sides of the spectrum in the conservative-liberal continuum, but what I am finding is that I was too far on the right in a lot of my views, without really thinking through the reasons. We are manipulated by what Brian McLaren calls "Radio Orthodoxy" into this all-or-nothing mentality--that if we are "conservative" in our biblical beliefs, we must be "conservative" in our political and social and economic beliefs.

I've come to the point that I've said "ENOUGH!"

I can believe in Jesus Christ, I can trust the Bible's authority, without believing that God is "Pro-War" and "Pro-Greed" and "Pro-Capitalism" and "Pro-Rich" and "Pro-Manipulation of the truth". In other words, I can be a Christian and not buy the conservative political agenda.

While I affirm that there are theological liberals who deny things like the divinity of Jesus Christ, I have found that there are good, honest, thinking, "born-again" Christians who are farther left on the spectrum than I would have been comfortable with earlier in my Christian life--people who affirm a lot of what you say are the "very clear issues". Yet these Christians believe that the gospel has a lot to do with how we live NOW, what we do about social justice NOW, and how we further the Kingdom of God in THIS world NOW, as opposed to simply getting people their tickets out of Hell at the end of their lives or keeping them from being "Left Behind" when Jesus returns.

Since they may not believe in certain things, they are labeled as "liberals" flat-out, and therefore labeled as not Christian. To play off your partial list of what separates conservatives from liberals, here is a more nuanced list of things that can label a true Christian a "liberal":

a) They may not believe in an absolute literal reading of every passage in the Bible, allowing for more allegory and symbolism;

b) They may not believe that we have a clear understanding of all that Jesus and the apostles taught because of our fallibility as human beings;

c) They may not believe that forensic justification is the only way to understand the "Good News" that Jesus Christ proclaimed.

Byron said...

My comment would be that the people you have just described would not fit a true description of "liberal"; I might label that person (yeah, maybe I ought not do so much labeling!) as a member of the "evangelical left"; to put names on people who represent that movement, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, etc. These people are categorically NOT "liberals"--and though there might be people on the far right who'd call them that, to me that's just silly. I certainly don't agree with these three men (nor with you, Bob; Bush's tax plans still involve rich people paying the overwhelming majority--an excessive percentage--of taxes; I agree with you on the problem of deficit spending, and GWB hasn't been particularly conservative when it comes to that, but gee whiz, does anyone seriously think Kerry would do any better?) on everything, but these are brothers in Christ. But that doesn't mean that liberalism doesn't exist, that there aren't people who've earned the title--heck, who'd probably welcome it. John Shelby Spong, William Sloane Coffin, John Dominic Crossan (all liberals have three names, I guess...); these men deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith, and while God is their Judge and not myself, it would seem extremely difficult to understand how a person could ridicule cardinal doctrines and truly be a born-again person.

If Jimmy Wallis wants to take issue with some of President Bush's positions, so be it; I take issue with some myself (though not as many as Jim). That doesn't make him anything less than a born-again, serious Christian individual. It sure doesn't make him a liberal, in the grand scheme of things.

And by the way: though I am a graduate of Falwell's school, I'd be thrilled if he'd just shut his mouth when it comes to politics...