At the request of both James McGrath and several readers, I’ve spent the last couple of hours reading through Exploring Our Matrix in search of the elusive unequivocal statement of belief I was promised in the comments of this post. So far, my search has been fruitless.
In case you haven’t been keeping up, here’s the basic series of events which led me to this quest:
- I wrote a post asking whether it is even possible to glean a good moral message from a figurative or metaphorical reading of scripture. I proposed that it is essentially impossible. The elements of the salvation story are what they are… and that is to say they are abhorrent.
- In a follow-up article I argued that progressive Christianity seems like a smoke-and-mirrors game of hide and seek. There are no answers being given, only questions.
- In a brief dialog with James McGrath, I asked him directly for some concise, unequivocal explanation of what he believes. I was told (as I have often been told by him) to go to his blog and find the answers for myself.
I don’t hold that answer against James. He’s probably a very busy man. But having done as he requested, I’ve found myself as ignorant as before I asked the question in the first place. Granted, I only went about four pages in, but at that point, I’d found almost nothing at all about specific beliefs. James is clearly very interested in proving to the world that there most certainly was a historical Jesus. (His vitriol towards mythicists alone is evidence of that. Comparing them to Creationists? Really?)* He also posts quite a few book reviews pertaining to analysis of scriptures, especially in their appropriate cultural context. Which is all well and good.
But I could find almost nothing about what James believes about the nuts and bolts of the nature of reality. I still don’t know if he believes that Jesus was the literal son of god, or a prophet, or a metaphor in human form, or what. I suspect from this little tidbit that he doesn’t believe in eternal punishment for nonbelievers, but I can’t say for sure. He’s worded the post in a very… um… diplomatic way… which would easily provide an escape hatch should anyone try to pin him to a belief.
In fact, reading that little post got me thinking. Why wouldn’t liberal Christians create themselves as God in the same way that fundamentalists do? Whenever I’ve really pushed a liberal Christian, I’ve gotten essentially the same runaround. Either they spend all their time distancing themselves from fundamentalists but not saying what they do believe or they prattle on for hours about things like “nuance” and “subtlety” in the magical, mysterious search for that which cannot be found without finding it… or some nonsense like that.
And I think that’s what God might be to liberals — a symbol of the elusive but nagging feeling that there must be something, but a complete failure to nail it down to anything clear and epistemologically sound. There’s an air of haughtiness, especially among “learned theological scholars,” whenever someone calls them on their theological postmodernism. (Ever tried to argue with a post-modernist? It typically ends when they declare you too unsophisticated to grasp the un-graspable-ness of it all.) But I think it’s a dodge. I think that not only does the emperor have no clothes, there’s no emperor there to begin with.
Lest I be accused of doing the same song and dance as my interlocutors, let me say what I mean in very plain language. I believe that many or perhaps most liberal Christians have dispensed with the idea of having concrete beliefs about God. Their belief that there is something is much more important to them than what that something might be. So many liberal theists brag about how introspective they are, and how important their “open, honest dialogs” about religion are, it’s easy not to notice that that’s all there is… questions and dialogs. No answers.
Oh, I know that there are plenty of non-fundamentalists who can say a few things they specifically believe. For instance, “I believe there is a God, and that Jesus is an example for us on how to live a good life.” But that’s not really much of a belief. In terms of actual information, there’s hardly any there. What is a god? Was Jesus real or metaphorical? What parts of his life should we be emulating? How am I supposed to interpret his actions in today’s society when the stories written about him clearly weren’t written for post-industrial America?
I believe that liberal Christianity is a trick of the mind. The great thing about Fundamentalism is that it’s very precise with its claims. This makes it remarkably easy to refute. But liberalism is far more difficult to toss aside because it is squirmy and elusive. Any attempt to force it into a declaration of truth results in a slap on the wrist for being dogmatic. Ingenious, isn’t it? So long as it never makes any concrete claims, it can’t be refuted, and any demand for a concrete claim can be met with a boring lecture on the nature of inquiry.
The good thing about liberal theism is that it’s much harder to use for ethnic cleansing, repressive legislation, and brainwashing children. After all, each of these things requires concrete beliefs about the absolute nature of reality. But even so, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that all the nice, liberal Christians who would never judge me for disagreeing with them are still helping Fundamentalists justify their claims about America as a “Christian Nation.” Yes, liberals are beginning to distance themselves from extremist quackery, but the label “Christian” is very powerful. You can prove it to yourself with a little thought experiment. Imagine meeting a person who claims to be a Christian. But throughout the course of the conversation, you learn that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell, and thinks that there’s truth in all religions. He believes in evolution, and doesn’t think man is inherently sinful. Your first question would probably be, “So… what makes you a Christian?”
That’s the whole point. Being a Christian has real cultural meaning. It means you believe in a God who came to earth as a man, rose from the dead, and in one way or another, is the only way to get to heaven and avoid eternal punishment. (No, I’m not telling you that you can’t self identify as a Christian unless you believe those things. I’m telling you that there are real cultural perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and your personal beliefs can’t alter that part of reality.)
So to any liberal Christians who might be reading this, can you prove me wrong about this? Can you tell me concisely what you believe relating to the salvation plan, and how you came to those beliefs from reading the Bible? Because this search for Liberal Christianity is making me feel like my cat chasing the spot from a laser pointer. Every time I think I’ve caught it, it turns out there was nothing there to grab onto.
* I must add the disclaimer once again. I am NOT A MYTHICIST. A mythicist is a historical scholar who believes that Jesus was mythical in a very specific way related to the genre of the gospels. I am not a historical scholar, nor do I believe anything in particular about the genre or interpretation of the Gospels. I couldn’t care less. My belief is that the paucity of evidence suggests that there was no man who would be readily identifiable as the central figure in the gospel accounts. My discussions with Biblical historians have led me to the belief that a kind of “special pleading” fallacy is the core of all the arguments that a historical Jesus must have existed. Whenever you have to invent a new methodology to “prove” someone’s existence because traditional methodologies would fail, it sounds fishy to me.