Talking About God, Part 3: ‘Liberal’ Theology

In Part 1, I discussed the rise of fundamentalist theology; in Part 2, I discussed the parallel rise of skeptical atheism. Now I’d like to turn to a sort of “compromise” between the two, generally referred to as liberal theology–though this name can be confusing. In this case, the term liberal shouldn’t be confused with any political or social movement or ideology. Although someone might subscribe to both a liberal theology and a liberal political ideology, there’s no reason they would have to, and in fact plenty of political conservatives might subscribe to a liberal theology, and plenty of liberals, and even more left-leaning progressives and radicals, might have a lot of problems with liberal theology (I would fall into that group, for example). In this context, liberal is meant to signify that this theology re-interpreted a lot of traditional stories and dogmas in a new, or ‘liberal’ way. In a lot of ways, it was an attempt to craft a Christianity that could stand up to the scientific scrutiny of the 19th century. And as such an effort, it was and is laudable. However, it also tended to take on a bourgeois-friendly, apolitical character. It largely re-casted Christianity as an uncontroversial set of moral principles, stripping Christianity both of its intense spirituality and its politically and socially radical nature. In that sense, it shares in some of the criticism of fundamentalism–liberal theology may have, at least in part, been advanced to create a religious system that meshed well with the developing capitalist, industrialist order. That said, its academic contributions can’t simply be ignored, and its impact on Christianity is undeniable. Whatever future the faith has, liberal theology will have a role to play. So let’s dig a bit deeper into exactly what it is.

Over the course of this post, I will try to make three main points: liberal theology hollowed out Christianity, re-casting it as a capitalist-friendly set of morality tales. It also brought a scientific-minded approach to Biblical hermeneutics that was simultaneously a good step forward yet flawed and limited in a variety of ways. Finally, liberal theology must both be willing to draw from Christian traditions as well as contemporary science and philosophy as it helps to build the foundations of a truly modern theology.

At the same time that huge advances were being made in physics, biology, geology, and a whole range of scientific disciplines, historians were also trying to make their field more scientific. Historical methodology was being developed. Rules, or at least guidelines, about citation and research were entering the field, and a process of peer review and criticism was being developed. This more scientific approach was not turned only to contemporary or recent events, but even to ancient history–and the Bible itself. A number of Germans (here I need a few citations, I admit. I’ll try to plug this soon!) began to read the Bible not as sacred Scripture, but as a history that could be brought under the same sort of scrutiny as any other text. And what they rapidly found were inconsistencies, contradictions, and a host of problems. They quickly revealed that the Bible was, like any text, less than perfect. Examples abound, but the most crucial, from a Christian standpoint, are the problems found in the Gospels.

For example, although the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew) generally give a pretty consistent picture of Jesus and a similar trajectory to his story, St. John gives a radically different picture. The event that seems to really get Jesus in trouble with the authorities in the synoptics–the overturning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple, which occurs just days before his crucifixion in the synoptics–occurs in the very beginning of John’s account. John also includes a number of miracles, such as the turning of water into wine, which are not mentioned at all in the synoptics. Crucially, the Gospels aren’t clear on whether Jesus was crucified on Thursday or Friday. Some commentators have even hypothesized a Wednesday crucifixion.

These are just some of the most obvious examples from the Gospels. There are plenty more throughout the whole Bible. From the very opening of the Bible, for example, Genesis chapters 1 and 2 give a different order of creation. In Chapter 1, humans are the last thing created; in chapter 2 they are created before all of the animals. As mentioned in Part 2, many of the later prophetic books dismiss the cult of the temple as unnecessary or even hypocritical, while the earlier books place huge importance on these acts. In the end of the first book of Samuel, King Saul falls on his own sword after his armor-bearer refuses to kill him. But immediately after, in the second book of Samuel, Saul has a random soldier kill him because he’s too weak and injured to do it himself.

There are more examples, but the point has been made. There are textual, factual, and historical inconsistencies throughout the Bible. The fundamentalist position that the book is the unadulterated, inspired word of God, totally free of error, is refuted without even asking the question of what exactly inspired means in such a case (I’ll look at this more in Part 4). The text contradicts itself repeatedly. And for the fundamentalist, this is a problem so severe that it must be ignored. But liberal theology was built on this realization. It asked, ‘if these sections of the text are contradictory, what else might be false?’ The whole Bible was subjected to a barrage of textual criticism. Two basic conclusions followed: either the commentator concluded that the Bible was totally unreliable, across the board, that therefore Christianity was unsustainable, and accepted either the skeptical atheist or a slightly hedged agnostic position.

The other common approach was to conclude that while much of the Bible may in fact be accurate, it was difficult, at best, to determine what was or wasn’t, and the least-provable or most scandalous claims were softened or removed. This left a shell of a religion, stripped of healings, apocolypticism, revelation, or even the resurrection–the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus was re-cast as a moral teacher, instructing people to live a virtuous life for the betterment of the broader community. His political and social radicalism was blunted as well under the pen of liberal theologians. His most congenial parables were kept, and cleansed of their radicalism. The parable of the good Samaritan was no longer a barbed and sardonic critique of Jews’ racist disdain for their neighbors and for the priestly and levitical elites, it was instead a story about how we ought to help people in trouble. Passages about the need to abandon wealth were treated as hyperbolic and metaphorical. Christ was dressed up in the respectable business suit of a German merchant, made into “one of us”. But the heart of the faith had been removed, the central point of Christ’s message had been shifted out for an unchallenging, convenient religion.

So the heart of liberal theology is, like for fundamentalism, a biblical hermeneutic, or way of interpreting the Bible. While fundamentalists treat the whole book inspired revelation, liberal theology treats the whole document with skepticism and attempts to interpret the Bible without any pre-conceived beliefs or biases. At first glance, this might seem a good approach–bias is bad, right? And we ought to approach everything with an open mind.

However, just as some journalists have begun to decry the false “neutrality” of the mainstream media, we have to remember that there is no such thing as an unbiased commentator. Any analysis will depend on a pre-existing worldview. We can certainly dismiss inaccurate or unhelpful worldviews, but the idea that we can approach any text, any experience, with some sort of neutral, utterly disinterested scholarly eye is an illusion. Whether we like it or not, whenever we listen to someone or read their work, we are entering the conversation with a preexisting set of ideas, assumptions, biases, and instincts. If we didn’t, we would have no way of making sense of language or society. Human communication is far too complicated and multi-layered to be penetrable through a simplistic face-value interpretation.

This is true, I think, for all literature. But it’s certainly less-true for more scientific literature. If a biologist writes an article describing a new species of beetle, for example, it seems likely that we can pretty much read her work in a literal way. There seems little reason for subtext, metaphor, or misdirection in such a work. On the other hand, if a scientist writes about pollution, global warming, species extinction, or deforestation, most adults would immediately begin reading between the lines. A scientist who denied global warming, for example, would immediately be scrutinized with a skeptically-close inspection. There are all sorts of sordid political, economic, and personal reasons that someone write such an article. So are global warming articles straight-forward articles that we can accept at face value? When is an article on global warming just an article on global warming–and when is it a political statement, a deception, a call-to-arms, a paid-for advertisement, or all of the above?

Such questions only get more complex and confusing once we move into other types of literature. If the Bible were just a large historical work, we might be wise to bring a face-value-focused interpretation to it. If it was just a record of various events, told from a disinterested, ‘neutral’ standpoint, we might be able to unravel it pretty easily. But it’s anything but. For one thing, though sections of the Bible are clearly intended to be history, many others certainly aren’t. Some sections are poetry, others are theology explained through myth and metaphor. Some are pragmatic advise, others are propaganda. Still others–and some of the longest of the Bible’s books, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, in fact–are a reflection on what history means. So the Bible is itself sometimes engaged in historical criticism, the very tool we’re trying to use to understand it. It’s not enough to ask what the text says, we have to ask what the author seemed to intend, what their motivations were, what their education was, their class, their temperament.

And liberal theology largely does try to do this sort of work. But it tends cast a rather suspicious eye towards the Bible’s writers. In fact, it starts out with the assumption that much of what the Bible says is untrue, and then tries to interpret and explain the whole thing in light of that assumption. As I said above, there is no neutral position. All positions are relative, all are born of certain experiences and motivations. Crucially, both fundamentalism and liberal theology assume that if the Bible isn’t always literally true, then it’s not true at all and has little if any value. This is, I think, the central error of both approaches. Both lack any appreciation for how humans actually communicate. Poetry, metaphor, analogy, parable, hyperbole–these are all ignored, despite the fact that the Bible is chock full of them. It’s important to ask not only what the Bible says, but what it means. I think that most liberal theologians are afraid of trying to give any definitive or insightful answers to these questions because they have bought into the neutrality myth mentioned above. But while a scientific approach to history is definitely necessary and laudable, it must be admitted that human thought, act, and communication are so incredibly complex that the sort of straight-forward analytical approaches brought to bear on, say, physics, will have little applicability in history. The set of possible actions of an electron are far more limited than that set of possible actions for a human being, because a human being is trillions of quantam-level particles (or wave functions, or whatever!) all at once. So take what the electron is doing, and raise it to the power of a trillion, and that’s what the social sciences are interested in. At times, it can be difficult to predict what an electron is doing. It’s many orders of magnitude more difficult to predict what a human being will do.

This only becomes more true once we step into theology proper. Just as history is orders of magnitude more complex than physics, in terms of how much information is involved, theology is orders of magnitude more complex than history. Theology tries not only to explain one part of the universe, or one sub-set of activities, or one period of time. It ultimately is trying to understand everything–and not just the ‘what’, but, more crucially, the why. Medieval theologians called theology the “mother of sciences.” It’s since lost that vaunted place in academics, but it still aspires to it. But it has to value synthesis, or putting things together, as much as analysis, or taking things apart.

Bringing this point to bear on Biblical hermeneutics, we can’t just ask what the text says. We can’t stop at asking what the author might have meant to say. We can’t even stop by asking about the social, political, and cultural influences on the author at the time of writing. We also have to ask what the whole process meant to the author, what he or she experienced as they were writing, what significance it had for them. This is where the narrowing of focus that liberal theology involves begins to be a real disservice. For example, we might fairly state something like, “people cannot rise from the dead.” Technically, we could get into questions about how accurate it is to make such 100%-certain statements in light of what modern physics seems to be saying about the nature of reality, but we’ll leave that conversation for later. Assuming that’s true, the Resurrection seems to immediately lose all meaning and importance; it has to be explained away. But if we also posit that, though it’s impossible, many people really did believe that they saw Jesus come back from the dead, it’s worth asking why they thought that, and what it might mean. Some would immediately raise explanations like hallucination, mental illness, or deception. And each of those explanations is worth considering. But they all have limitations as explanations (I’d like to talk more about this in a later post, maybe Part 4, or perhaps in a separate post). We can go deeper, though, and ask what the experience might have meant to those first Christians. What did they think they were seeing, and what did they think it meant about the world?

This process would also require us to better understand the philosophical and ontological assumptions that these people were operating under. It’s possible that the resurrection account is simply the best way they could communicate something far more mysterious. Let me give a contemporary example. Recently, scientists have found a way to “cloak” objects, making them invisible–though so far, only in the microwave frequency range. But let’s imagine that, eventually, someone develops this technique for the visible spectrum (and in fact, these scientists are of course hoping to do just that). If they decided to test their technique by, say, staging an event in downtown Chicago, covering a car in their experimental material and rendering the vehicle invisible, how would contemporary Americans react?

It seems likely that they’d say that the car disappeared. Of course, that’s not technically correct. The car would still be there, just invisible. But being totally unaccustomed to this new technology, we wouldn’t have the language to properly communicate what had occurred. Another, less fantastic, example would be Isaac Newton’s great realization about the relationship between gravity and mass. It turns out that Newton was dead wrong about a lot of the laws of physics. And he had no way of explaining how gravity worked. Nonetheless, he could explain some behavior, and his work pushed human knowledge forward, and laid the foundation for the very science that would one day overturn his understanding of physics. To say that Newton was ‘wrong’ isn’t exactly accurate. He was more right than those who came before him, and less right then some people who came after him.

This more relative, more flexible understanding of truth is central to modern science. Liberal theology was built to fit Netwon’s world, but we’re now living in a world aware of quantum mechanics. It’s the same place, but with a whole new view of itself. Our theology has to keep up. Liberal theology provided an invaluable service in revealing long-ignored truths about the Bible and about Christianity. But it also relied on a number of assumptions that themselves have had the rug pulled out from under them. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that all three of the approaches to theology that we’ve discussed here are all based on faulty, totally-literal reading of the Bible. Such an approach is not only erroneous, but overall rather new. Traditional reading of the Bible left room for analogy, metaphor, myth, and all the other elements of human communication that are critical to understand, not only as entertaining literary devices, but as means for communicating truths that literal language cannot.

In Part 4 I’ll try to outline a newer approach to theology that has been taking shape over the last few decades and that I hope, over the coming years, to contribute to myself.

3 thoughts on “Talking About God, Part 3: ‘Liberal’ Theology

  1. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 4: Defining God | Life's a Lap

  2. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 5 1/2: Answers for Dianne | Life's a Lap

  3. Pingback: The Death of Christianity by Lawrence Swaim: A Response | Life's a Lap

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