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The Need for Liberal Protestantism

I’m writing a response to Ben Crosby’s latest blog post., Renewal Not Toleration. As an Episcopal priest he appeals to both Anglican history and the canons of the Episcopal Church.

As a United Church of Christ pastor I have only an inkling of such things. But as he writes ” I hope that what I have to say is relevant more broadly within the mainline.” So I respond in that spirit.

I start by noting how important the Episcopal Church has been on my faith journey. I was coming out of the closet as I was involve with an Episcopal campus ministry in college. I was reading John Shelby Spong’s book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, which gave me the permission to doubt any and all aspects of Christianity such that I was able to stay in the church and work out my faith. If a bishop could ask such questions so could I.

Some of that reconstructive work came from being introduced to Marcus Borg’s book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, in my campus ministry. Thiry years later I still rely on Episcopalian writings from writers from Diana Butler Bass to Carter Heyward, in my work of campus ministry. There’s been a tradition during my lifetime of Episcopalians pushing the edges of faith that continues to impact my faith journey. It’s in that spirit I write as well.

Some mainline Protestant divine opines in print or on social media that of course Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead, that the Resurrection is a story that the early community of Jesus-followers used to express their sense of Jesus’ continued presence or a mythological representation of the victory of life over death or what have you. 

The Epistemic Issue

Why would mainline clergy publicly doubt a physical resurrection, which according to Ben, is the heart and the very reason the Christian church exists? Why would they cause so much turmoil in the church by airing such doubts out in the open? This is not explored in Ben’s piece but let me suggest that the concerns, such clergy raised, are more common in the pews than is granted in his piece. Serving in the United Church of Christ, I would guess the majority in the churches I have served would have similar doubts. These survey results could indicate why.

I want to propose that the appeal to common sense and the question on how the Bible is to be read is related. Common sense could mean many things but according to Arthur Lovejoy, in his book, The Great Chain of Being it means modernity, that is an outlook on the world that trusts not only the results of the natural sciences but also the view of the world entailed. One in which causal efficacy is required for any event. And a physical event requires previous physical events that can be traced. What Isaac Newton gave us was a view on causality that would shape the scientific revolution.

Let’s call this modernity and life before the scientific revolution, pre modern. Christianity arose in the pre modern era. It’s a world of miracles and supernatural interventions, where the laws of science are suspended as needed. The modern era is governed by causal explanations according to empirical evidence and natural laws. That’s the world we learn in school. It’s the basis for the sciences. It’s what we hope every field that is evidenced based will rely on.

Now notice the tension between the religious picture of the world, one which physical resurrections are possible, and the modern view of the world, were nothing in the biological sciences could causally map out such a claim. That tension, is where, we Christians, find ourselves today.

We have inherited a tradition and scriptures formed in a pre modern world and we are born and live in the modern world. How to reconcile such worlds? So far as I can tell, there have been three responses. 1) Deny religious faith and its doctrines 2) Deny there is a tension, either by granting an exemption to religious claims from modernity or deny modernity all together 3) Seek to reconcile and reclaim religious claims in light of the picture of the world derived from the natural sciences.

Option 3 is what I would call the liberal religious, and in my case, liberal Protestant option. It seeks to take religious ideas formed in the pre modern era and seeks to reconstruct them so that the original idea can be held yet again but within a different framework,

I am going to assume, for instance, that Ben believes in theistic evolution, that he is not a young earth creationist. But given what we know of Darwin, how do we speak of God as the creator of the heavens and the earth? What acts in the world to create and sustain new life? There you will find God. Perhaps in the evolutionary process itself. This new understanding still captures the idea of God as creator but in light of the world as it presents itself to us today through the natural sciences.

I remember the first time my pastor said, it’s fine to believe in evolution and God. They need not be opposed. That was permission giving. I could live in both worlds, the world of faith and the world of the natural sciences. I want to propose that these mainline clergy are not saying “do not believe in the resurrection”. They are saying it is possible to believe in the resurrection and the world as we know it through the natural sciences. They do not have to be opposed. Such clergy, are providing good news for those who are alienated from our religious language, including many in the pews.

that the Resurrection is a story that the early community of Jesus-followers used to express their sense of Jesus’ continued presence or a mythological representation of the victory of life over death or what have you.

Or what have you captures Ben’s sense that this is a denial of the resurrection. Like the creationist who will not accept theistic evolution, we are told there is no way to reconstruct ideas about the resurrection. It either happened or it did not happen. There is no third way allowed. I’d argue the same passage, that Ben does, that we are given a third way in 1 Corinthians 15

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body.  So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body

Paul’s language of a spiritual body gives us sufficient breath to re-imagine resurrection then and in our day. This is important because this tension, I never see treated by the inclusive and orthodox. But my parishioners feel it and so do my college students. Imagine clergy not denying the tension but acting as translators, who are able to bring alive Christian doctrines, in ways that map onto the world as we know it today. To reconcile folks so that Christian faith, it’s language and practice, can be meaningful because we no longer must compartmentalize our faith with the world.

I want to claim a tradition that bas been able to do that over the last century or so. Reinhold Niebuhr, an agnostic about the afterlife, reconstructed original sin as a social inheritance, rooted in injustice and how we fail to negotiate our finitude and capacities for self transcendence. Paul Tillich moved God from “out there” to the ground of existence, Martin Luther King and Walter Rauschenbusch reconstructed salvation to address this life and world, in the concrete conditions of existence. I get the impression that much of mainline theology and its work of translation would disappear if the inclusive and orthodoxy position was dominant.. That is my impression with just this quote alone:

A body that holds that the resurrection is adiaphoral is not a Christian church body (although it may contain Christians, indeed Christian congregations, within it).

And this constitutes

a disagreement which threatens the very integrity of the church, and puts the church’s mission – reconciling the world with God in the power of the Spirit – at risk.

If one removes oneself from Christianity for the reconstruction of doctrines, there really is just two choices. Accept the premodern world in toto or reject it and any claims of the Christian tradition. In the end, it may be over different areas of doctrine, but this did inform the creation of the Fundamentals, J Gresham Machen  and the modern evangelical movement. It may look different in the mainline but if there is some area that is closed off from reconstruction, like the resurrection, the project is not fundamentally different.

Christian teachings about who Jesus is and about what following Jesus means have always been inextricable from the proclamation that Jesus really died for us, really rose for us, and really ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he reigns now. Indeed, we might say ecclesiologically that the Christian church simply is those people gathered by the Spirit around the proclamation of the crucified and risen Savior.

I think this vision can hold however one takes up the resurrection. But I also want to question this reading of scripture in the sense that there are many stories of faith we can gleam on why the church is here and what we are about as Christians. These could include:

1- Abraham’s call to be a blessing to the nations. What does it mean if that was our charge?

2. The Kingdom of God, Jesus spent most of his time on the kingdom. A way to envision a world quite the opposite of the Roman empire. We find this in the prophets as well with Micah’s vision of studying war no more and everyone has enough (sitting under their own fig tree) and are not afraid. The peaceable kingdom

3. The resurrection points to a new kind of community, the Body of Christ, where each member is considered, each has a gift to give to the whole. Inclusion in this story is not some political or procedural end, but because we meet that of God in one another and in relation are building the beloved community. That could be salvation right there, to build a space where our gifts matter and are taken up by the whole.

A blog post in the future will explore 3 which undergirds my ministry at MSU Billings, but the larger point is there are many stories to tell from the Bible and church history, who can tell us who we are and what we’re about and if the questions around resurrection help us to open up these other narratives, that could be for the good. It’s not an incoherence in theology and the church mission’s identity, but an openness to the breadth of resources our tradition has to meet the needs of the world.

But we get this

I do not think that we ought to take canonical redress off the table in every case, either.

Which is to say there is an air of threat to this call to orthodoxy. Subsequent discussions about what to do with the Spongians in the Episcopal Church have revolved around the use of ecclesiastical censure and more. Whether the church was inundated with heresy trials or not, I know what kept me in the church are individuals who could in the future never consider staying in the church Perhaps that would be cheered by some but I think the riches of the Christian tradition will largely be inaccessible and unintelligible to most That’s not good for Christianity or the world.

A closing postscript. I recognize that not all reconstructions are adequate to the witness of the Christian tradition, the needs of the world, nor the best descriptions we have of our world. I ended up disagreeing with Spong’s conclusions and am more influenced by the Niebuhr Brothers and the Boston Personalism of Martin Luther King. But what I am commending is the attempt at reconstruction itself, which is important to hold to. Religious faith is an invitation to exploration, not a set of answers whether its the creeds or this or that theologian’s work.

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings 

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1 reply »

  1. Well said! I was involved in the last summer 2019 version of this fight which has left me somewhat out of the loop after Ben blocked me on Twitter (no direct conversation, so I guess he just doesn’t want to allow these voices in his world). It’s been a hard revelation to come out of fundamentalism and be led into the Episcopal Church by the generosity of voices such as Borg only to find a group of those welcomed into the church by such turn around and try to close to the door to others.

    I taught just such a reading of Resurrection in spring 2019, as I completed seminary, where we carefully went over all testimonies of the event in Scripture to find that “toleration” is required in order to affirm all the different perspectives of those witnesses! Thank you for writing this.

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