5 Marks of Theological Liberalism: a Liberal Responds


This post is written largely in response to Morgan Guyton, a UMC campus minister, who steers a path between religious liberalism and conservative evangelicalism as he responds to a piece titled 5 Marks of Theological Liberalism. His responses are well written and there’s a lot to agree with. But given that I identify as a liberal , I thought I’d offer my own take on these claims.

1. Liberalism views God’s character as one of pure benevolence and thus without wrath. 

God’s wrath against our sin is his solidarity with the victims of our sin. God’s wrath is the other side of his merciful protection of his people against their oppressors. It is not his egotistical demand for obedience in the abstract as it’s often presented in conservative evangelicalism.

This is an anthropomorphism I wouldn’t use in that I can’t think of God as being with personal states of feeling. But if we think of God as that reality at work which makes for justice, then the anger we feel when injustice happens, is a central ingredient to what it means to talk about God since it’s central to that which makes for justice.

This is working with the idea of a predicate  God that comes from Mordecai Kaplan. List the attributes of God: salvation, love, justice, peace, upholds life, transformation, connection and community. Find out what in the world makes for these things to happen and then you have stumbled upon God. The God we meet in this life and world.

2. Liberalism believes there is a divine spark in every man and woman

Heidinger claims that progressive Christianity denies original sin, but it’s more complicated than that. While conservative evangelicalism defines original sin ahistorically as a universal total depravity connected to an ancient story about a talking snake, progressive Christianity defines original sin historically as being born into the sinful legacy of a particular people

Here I have nothing to add except to argue against the original piece. I don’t believe that liberalism must be more optimistic about the human condition than conservatives. I don’t see evidence for this. In fact if you follow the discussion of anti racism work, you may well find the opposite.

As I wrote in another blog post, making a case for original sin:

One example of such a structure could be thought of in terms of history. I used to live in Wyoming, right by the Bighorn Mountains. If you go a few hundred miles east, you will hit the  Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s gorgeous. And the land between was promised in the Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1868 to the Sioux. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, this treaty was ignored and the land taken.

The land I was living in was stolen land. It was not a choice I made and yet I benefited from it. If you were to drive to any of the surrounding reservations, the consequences of such an action is also readily apparent. That is not to make you and I feel guilty, that is simply a descriptive account of the reality we all live in and relate to today.

There are many formative events which shape the context by which we live. The transatlantic slave trade has forever shaped our country. America was born in slavery resulting in the civil war, the civil rights movement, the incarceration and disenfranchisement of African Americans today, the “southern strategy”, we are shaped from childhood, before we could speak about “choice,” on wards when it comes to racial matters.

That history shapes us and the context by which choices can be made today. They provide the field of relevant possibilities we have as a nation. For those on the “wrong” side of the racial divide, that is keenly felt but it impacts us all.

To be able to address systematic injustice, we have to have descriptive tools and form lines of inquiry that ask about the structures that shape our lives and our society outside of individual actors and their free will. Whether it is racism, sexism, class structures, or the history of violence. For instance, is America’s violence tied to our own founding event, in this case, a war?And to the mythologies which arise from it? To recover original sin is to recover the ability to ask such questions.

3. Liberalism views Jesus Christ as a savior only in the sense that he was our perfect teacher and example.

There are certainly liberal Christians who believe this. I consider the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection to be non-negotiable truths of the faith. Once all miracles have been banished on the basis of “science,” then science is your actual religion rather than Christianity.

Just to sound more heretical, I disagree with every statement above. Which is to say that I don’t believe Jesus was a perfect teacher and example. I do believe a woman and man are needed to produce a child, I don’t believe in the suspension of natural laws for our benefit, including the physical resurrection. So I violated all the non negotiable truths of the faith. Here are some reasons why.

While I don’t believe science can determine the content of the faith, I do believe along with James Gustafson, that science produces the limits of my claims. As long as I stay within those limits, I have freedom enough. But beyond those limits, I’m reduced to making claims that fly against how we understand the world works.  If the Christian faith is revelatory, it should illuminate the kind of world we live in. And it cannot do that if it ignore the sciences in it’s claim making.

So whatever we mean by resurrection, it cannot be a dead man who walks. But it could mean an appearance story, a theophany. It could mean the way that life will have its way despite the odds. It could mean no empire can kill an idea that has come. It could be a form of objective immortality, that the living memory of Jesus passed down, lives in us today and still calls us to a different world.

On this basis, it is possible to reconstruct the meaning of the word so that the original idea can be captured in terms that make sense of our world today. For instance, if i say God created the world, I can’t mean 6000 years ago. I have to somehow include the evolutionary process. So I have to re-conceive the doctrine of creation in a way that compliments our best knowledge of how our world came to be.

So Jesus as model. I think of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. Here the woman is the agent of the divine. She is diligent, worried more for her daughter than whatever humiliations come from asking a stranger, a man from another religion for help. And when Jesus rebuffs her, she continues until Jesus’ heart is opened, opened to include more than his own religious tribe.

I do think of the Jesus moment as a revelation of God. But not just Jesus. All the stories we have, all the interactions, that made Jesus who he was, his interactions with Mary, the Syrophoenician women, the disciples, the Romans, all constitute the meaning of the Jesus story.  And so I don’t look to Jesus as a perfect model. But I do see something of God in the stories, often that takes the face of Jesus, but it can as readily take the face of those who interacted with him.

As for the cross and the atonement, I would mirror the moral influence theory that sees, in the Jesus story, that of God, the God of Jesus, the God of Israel, the God of the cosmos. To encounter God is always to encounter God in the particular. This is why I speak autobiographically when I say how I have encountered God in the Jesus story without presuming how others encounter God.

4. Liberalism believes that Christianity is indistinct from other religions.

It is true that Christianity has become indistinct from other religions in our age of toxic culture war. What would make Christianity distinct from other religions is the humility and compassion that marks people who know that they are redeemed sinners dependent entirely upon the grace of God.

I’m going to go a different direction. I have seen Jews and Muslims who also have humility and compassion as they understand themselves in light of the grace of God. That does not make us distinct.  On the other hand, every religion is distinct. The terms, practices, languages and arguments, the way it is organized, the central figures of a religion, it’s just a given that every religion is distinct.

But what I think both authors want is they want to see Christianity as over and above other religions. And I can’t make that claim. I can instead talk about my personal story and how the church opened up a way for me to talk about the key issues of life, in it’s languages, practices, and also by the very Sunday school teachers, youth group experiences, pastors in my life, in the theologians I have read that made the world click for me.

I’m not saying there is not a way to do cross comparative analysis of religion. Only that it takes someone better equipped in the field than I am. What I can see around me is that there are people of no religion and different religions and Christians who appear to relate to what is salvific in life. And all I can do is celebrate that, knowing that no good can be divorced from God.

5. Liberalism affirms that the Bible is human rather than divine

the Bible is a mixture of human and divine just like Jesus was.

I agree. But I’d also argue that the only way to encounter God is in this life, in the world, through human beings. I doubt you could cut up people or events in such a way to separate God from human, in Jesus, in us, and in the Bible. But it does suggest that the moment you remove fallible human beings from the mix, in my mind, you removed God from the mix. It’s a total package, inseparable.

And in the end, I see this as the point of Christianity, an encounter with God. Not the Bible, not Jesus, not this or that doctrinal claim, they are instrumental a way to encounter the ground of existence, life, transformation. To the degree that job is done, great. Otherwise we need to re look at doctrines, sacred texts and more so the original purpose is front and center.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

Categories: Blog, Feature, Philosophy, Religion

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