WHY I AM NOT
A LIBERAL CHRISTIAN
When I was a child I was taught that the Catholic Church is God's representative here on earth, and that the Bible is God's book. The Bible is a special, sacred book. It contains the true story of how God created the world and how He came to earth, as Jesus, to teach us about morality and the meaning of life.
But I had trouble with this whole presentation. I was uneasy. I could not swallow it as a whole. My soul resisted. Partly because my father, whom I loved, was himself not a Catholic (like my mother was), or even a committed Christian. He was officially a Protestant, but he never went to church, and never specifically communicated to me in any way that Christianity was the Truth, or that the Bible was important. He only respected his marriage promise to allow us kids to be brought up Catholic.
But mostly I had trouble with Christianity because a lot of things simply did not make sense to me. Contrary to Christian propaganda and its caricaturing of reluctant believers, with me it was never "I know it's true, but, willful little bastard that I am, I don't want to believe it." It was always "I want to accept it, if it's really true, but it doesn't strike me as true."
And so, from a young age, I was determined to find out if this received wisdom – the Church, the Bible, Christianity – was really true.
I left Catholicism during my college years, concluding that the Church's history, its hypocrisy, its oppressive teachings on sexuality and marriage, could not really represent God. I became a Protestant, and started to focus on the Bible in an effort to come to definitive answers.
I studied the Bible. I listened to every teacher. I respected every viewpoint. I brooded over every issue. I wanted to believe. I wanted to make sense of it. But many passages did not make sense. Some of the teachings missed the mark badly. Some of the theology was irrational. And some of God's behavior was alarmingly unloving. After many years, by my mid-forties, I knew that I could not in good conscience be a Christian.
I read through the Bible, again, only this time not with the lens of faith, but with a critical eye; and I saw that the book contradicts science, it contradicts itself, its ethics are immoral, it is filled with God-directed cruelty and barbarism, its prophecies are not only unimpressive but demonstrably phony, and the problem of evil is not dealt with adequately.
I concluded the Bible cannot be God's Word, and that orthodox Christianity is false.
But... because I have always seen the Jesus story as a powerful revelation of wisdom and love, I looked – with all my heart, soul, and will – for a way of understanding the Bible so that its central, underlying message is still valid, still viable.
I became a liberal Christian. I adopted more sophisticated ways of interpreting. I no longer saw the Bible as God's directly inspired Word, but as man's flawed interpretation of his relationship with God, which interpretation, nonetheless, contains inspired messages, particularly in the persona of Jesus.
I no longer saw Jesus as literally God on earth, omniscient, a miracle-worker, a perfect human being. Instead, Jesus was quite human, vulnerable, and flawed. Yet he was still the Son of God, in the sense that he best represented what God wants. He correctly presented God's essential message – that God cares about us, that everyone has worth, that man should love his neighbor. By his exemplary life, and noble death, Jesus affirmed the fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man.
At the same time, his wisdom was not infallible. He was actually wrong in some of his beliefs – like expecting the world to end in his generation, like thinking that demons caused illness, and so on.
And some of his teachings may have been overstated by the writers. Did Jesus really say that he, rather than his message, is "the only way"? That seems oddly egocentric for one thing, and fundamentally unfair for another. To say he is the only way, is to exclude all those who have never heard of him, as well as all sincere and decent followers of other religions. A fair God would not condemn such people.
Clearly, what writers say Jesus said, is not necessarily what he did say. Perhaps he was both wiser and more careful in his actual statements than what is reported in the Bible. Such overstated passages, as well as folkloric miracle stories, and contradictory narratives, and muddled advice, and irrational theology, could all be the product of flawed writers; yet Jesus could still be the primary source of divine wisdom in human history. I continually looked for the kernel of truth behind the alleged words of Jesus.
I discounted much of John's later, theologically developed gospel, and tended to look at Mark's earlier, more straightforward gospel as the most reliable.
But... even here in Mark's gospel, I found disturbing and wrong-headed ideas, which, in the final analysis, I could not put under the category of "things Jesus didn't really say." Because if I did, the biblical Jesus would be gutted; and all that would be left is a white-washed Hollywood movie version of Jesus. It seemed the only way to salvage an acceptable Jesus was, indeed, to ignore the biblical Jesus, and go with the white-washed, idealized version – the version that most people in fact harbor.
But that would not be an honest endeavor – making up your own Jesus. The actual, the historical, the biblical Jesus, is the Jesus we must deal with.
Once again throwing away all preconceptions, reexamining hundreds of issues, reviewing the entire mass of evidence, I was finally forced to conclude that Jesus, despite some revolutionary insights and remarkable courage and conviction, is really... a misguided religious fanatic.
I recognize this conclusion is at odds with common wisdom. But I see how Christians, both conservative and liberal, are culturally biased. They are indoctrinated to instinctively give everything about Jesus a positive spin. Every average teaching is a pearl of wisdom, every non-sense saying is somehow an arresting insight. Jesus' faults, fanaticism, and questionable teachings are consistently overlooked.
THE REAL JESUS
This popular conception of Jesus, this idealized version, is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is the biblical Jesus.
And the biblical Jesus...
One: Believed fully in the Old Testament and its cruel God. He said "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jn 10:35). He said "not a jot or tittle" of it would be changed (Mt 5:18).
Two: Disrespected his parents. He said "Women, what have I to do with thee?" to his mother (Jn 2:4). He offers no apology whatsoever after disappearing from his parents for three days when he was 12 years old (Lk 2:50).
Three: Was ethnocentric. He said he was "not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 15:24). He said it is not good "to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs" (Mt 15:26).
Four: Accepted slavery. He gives a parable in which he supports a servant being "beaten with many stripes" (Lk 12:47). He implicitly supports the institution of slavery in Luke 17:7-10.
Five: Supported an ascetic view of life. He praises self-made eunuchs (Mt 19:12). He said "he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternity" (Jn 12:25).
Six: Supported wishful thinking over hard work. He claims you can receive whatever you pray for (Mk 11:20-24). That is simply not true.
He claims you can literally move mountains by faith (Mt 21:17-22). Virtually every liberal Christian assumes the moving mountains passage is figurative; but it is not. Read the context. He was not speaking figuratively, any more than he was in Lk 17:6 when he speaks of removing "this mulberry tree" by faith. He was speaking literally, not figuratively.
Christians are brainwashed to selectively ignore context, and to interpret figuratively with no justification. The proper line of reasoning is not the Christian mindset of "It's obviously not true literally, so therefore it must be figurative." Rather, the honest line of reasoning is: "The context clearly is literal, so therefore this is, in fact, nonsense, mere rhetoric unworthy of someone claiming to speak for God."
You cannot literally move a mountain by faith. Jesus is selling dreams.
Seven: Believed in a utopian world, one very much at odds with reality. He claims in Matthew 6:34 and 6:26 that God will feed you just as he feeds the birds, when in fact God frequently does neither! Starving Somalians would hardly find Jesus' discourse here edifying. And Jesus obviously did not know that the actual starvation rate of sparrows is often 50%!
Encyclopedia Americana, 1992, Vol. 3, p. 795 – "The first year is the most difficult one in the life of a bird. In most species the mortality rate for young birds during the first year is about 50%, but in some species it may reach as high as 80% to 90%."
New Scientist, Jan, 1969, pp. 121-122, reports that one third of adult birds and four fifths of their offspring die of starvation every year.
An honest seeker must worship only the real God, not some product of wishful thinking that doesn't square with the harsher aspects of reality. As soon as you deny reality, you are no longer worshipping the real God. It's His world, He created it, and He is clearly not omni-benevolent, only, in my conviction, ultimately benevolent.
Eight: Contradicted himself. He said "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52), yet tells his apostles "he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one" (Lk 22:36).
He says not to call people fools (Mt 5:22), yet he himself does so (Mt 23:17).
Nine: Constantly overstated things. He claims lust is as bad as adultery (Mt 5:28). He claims anger is as bad as killing (Mt 5:21-22). First John 3:15 says, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer." That is hardly true; there is a major difference.
The Christian would claim that Jesus is using hyperbole to point out that what is in your heart is what counts. Agreed, but in making that point any valid teacher of morality would not so carelessly jettison the critical distinction between a murderous thought, and a murderous deed.
Ten: Gave bad advice. He advises forgiving 70X7 times (Mt 18:22), which makes repentance a joke, and forgiveness meaningless.
He claims remarriage is equivalent to adultery (Mt 5:22). Yet this claim does not seem to stop many liberal Christian ministers from second marriages, either their own or their parishioners'.
Eleven: Was intolerant. He ends a parable with, "But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me" (Lk 19:27). Note well that the purpose of a parable is to teach proper insights and attitudes, and, that the nobleman in the parable represents Jesus.
In Luke 10:14-16 he equates rejecting him to rejecting God.
Twelve: Lastly, and probably worst of all, Jesus taught Hell. In Mt 25:41 he says, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." And in verse 46 "these will go away into everlasting punishment..."
There you have the biblical Jesus. He is not someone who inspires my respect or affection. He is a religious fanatic.
THE LIBERAL'S RATIONALIZATION PROCESS
I also became convinced that what goes on in liberal seminaries – putting positive spin on any dubious passage about Jesus – is a pervasive rationalization process. Because the intellectual, social, and physical structure of Christianity is here and well-established, people are locked into an ultimately positive assessment of Jesus and Christianity.
Christian hermeneutics always asks, "How do we make sense of this passage?" and never asks "Does this passage make sense?" A verdict of nonsense is the consistently overlooked option. Divine wisdom is presumed.
And even when the liberal does agree to a verdict of nonsense or error, he claims it made sense to the cultural context of that time, and therefore somehow has some validity. I, on the other hand, claim that divine wisdom must transcend culture, that no cultural context justifies Old Testament immoralities such as concubines, genocides, and burning witches, and that what is spiritual error today was spiritual error then, just the same.
Another maneuver that the liberal is fond of, is redefining the meaning of words from what was originally intended, in order to make concepts more palatable to modern sensibility. The word "dragons" becomes "jackals"; "everlasting fire" becomes "separation from God"; "castration" becomes "celibacy," etc.
I decided that the liberals may be interpreting the Bible more sensibly, but not correctly or honestly.
And I concluded that liberal Christianity is not a valid option.
You – the liberal Christian – cannot legitimately accept Jesus as a source of divine wisdom, if you disagree with so much of his basic teachings:
1. The liberal Christian believes in tolerance, but Jesus was intolerant towards unbelievers.
2. The liberal Christian does not accept the abominably cruel concept of Hell, yet Jesus believed in it and taught it.
3. The liberal Christian believes there are many ways to God, but Jesus says he is the only way.
4. The liberal Christian sees the God-directed barbarism of the Old Testament as repugnant, yet Jesus accepted the Old Testament with reverence.
5. The liberal Christian sees many stories in the Bible as instructive myths; but, as a matter of course, overlooks the malignant lessons inherent in those very stories!
For example, the flood story warns us against immorality in general, yes, but it also teaches that, except for Noah and his family, every other person in the world, every sweetheart, every best friend, every mother's beloved child, every child's beloved parent, all deserved to drown.
That's a judgment, and a God, that I for one do not accept.
The flood story also conveys a total disregard for animal suffering. Who among us, if we see a dog drowning, is not distraught with compassion? Yet a peripheral lesson of the flood story is that animal suffering, even on a massive scale, is irrelevant, hardly worth mentioning.
Are these valid lessons!? Is this a valid God!?
Take the Adam and Eve story. It warns us against pride, yes, but it also pushes blind obedience as a primary virtue. Curiosity, asking questions, seeking knowledge, are discouraged. Dialogue is discouraged.
The God of Genesis wants undiscerning obedience, the same thing, coincidentally, that oppressive rulers want, which suggests to me that oppressive rulers are behind this story, not God. In fact, I think the underlying purpose of the Adam and Eve story, is not to teach about the sin of pride, but is to teach obedience. The writer is presenting a mythological tale that encourages people to obey authority, without questioning. It's the original propaganda story from those in charge.
It teaches that if you don't do as God wants, your lives will be immeasurably worse off. And it sneaks in the presumption that we, the writers for the powers that be, will be the ones, of course, to let you know just what God wants.
Fallible human beings claiming to speak for God. It's the oldest trick in the book.
Also contained in the Adam and Eve story is the lesson that women are inferior and subservient. Genesis 2:18 refers to Eve as a "helper comparable" to man, not a companion equal to him. And Genesis 3:16 is very clear as to who is in charge: "Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you."
Is this a valid lesson? I can hear liberal Christian women hemming and hawing.
Then there's Abraham's willingness to senselessly kill his son in order to be obedient to God. Abraham did not ask any questions; and for this he is highly praised. Blind obedience is presented as "great faith."
You and I both know that if someone told you today that he was going to sacrifice his son to God, you would call the police and a mental hospital, not praise his "great faith."
I think the real purpose of many Bible stories is not the overt lesson about human nature, but is a subliminal call to group obedience. The story of Solomon and his judgment about the disputed baby is not so much a lesson in the nature of a mother's genuine love, as it is an encouragement to trust and follow leadership.
When you think about it, this story, as an insight into human nature, is preposterous – what woman in real life would be both so mean, and so stupid, as to say, "Go ahead, cut the baby in half, Solomon"? The characterization here is at the comic book level.
And upon rereading the story I see that the message is not as subliminal as I thought. First Kings 3:28 is fairly explicit: "And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice."
Again, in my opinion, the real reason these stories are presented is for control, to validate the authority of those in charge, to claim divine sanction for human agendas. It is not for the intrinsic value of the story's wisdom. Neither the hand nor will of God crafted these stories.
But, whether or not Bible stories are used as a control mechanism, my point here is that they contain profoundly harmful adjunct lessons, which liberal Christians blithely ignore.
6. Most liberal Christians regard one's actual behavior as more important than one's beliefs. Yet a major theme of the Bible is its emphasis not on behavior, but on belief.
The heroes of the Bible include: Abraham the liar, Lot the incest committer, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Solomon the fornicator, Paul the bigot. These are all faithful believers rather than men of righteous behavior. The God of the Bible favors the "believer," or groveler to Him, over the man of good character.
The liberal Christian is not justified in embracing a book that emphasizes a type of "righteousness" he himself would find repugnant.
7. A problem the liberal Christian has, is how, when he rejects certain biblical concepts, will he decide which concepts to reject, and which to accept? The answer, I think, is that he accepts those which are reasonable, compassionate, and just, according to his own life experiences. That is how liberal Christians go about making their decisions. But then, the liberal Christian's real authority is no longer the book, or Jesus, but rather – reason, compassion, and his own conscience.
Which is fine, except that it defeats in large part the presumed purpose of a book of God in the first place, which is to provide some clear answers and to reduce moral and theological ambiguity!
The point is: If you reject basic Bible attitudes as well as key teachings of Jesus, then you are not a Christian. You're just making up your own Jesus and your own brand of Christianity, in order to allow yourself to follow your own lights, rather than true Christianity as Jesus presented it.
If the liberal's own judgment is his ultimate authority, then he is not a Christian. He is in fact a general theist who just likes some of Jesus' teachings.
8. And lastly, the resurrection is presented as real in the Bible, not as a story or myth.
Mark 16:4 says, "He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen."
In John 20:27, Jesus tells doubting Thomas, "Reach your finger here."
In Luke 24:37 it says, "But they were terrified... and supposed they had seen a spirit." Then verse 39: "Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have."
The writers were presenting an actual physical resurrection, not a "resurrection of the spirit," as the liberal would interpret it.
If the writers meant what they wrote in the way they wrote it, and denied they were presenting myths, which they did – they insisted they were not telling mere stories (2 Pet 1:16 – "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty") – yet you interpret them as myths, then you are putting your trust and faith into people who are in fact... liars. Deluded men. Religious fanatics.
Real wisdom does not come from such men.
I conclude that the liberal Christian interprets the Bible more humanely, but not correctly or honestly.
The conservative Christian interprets the Bible correctly. But, that correct interpretation shows that the Bible is a spiritually false document, written by fallible, foolish, immoral men, and is in no way God's Word.
To me, the liberal Christian is not a sophisticated interpreter, he is a sophisticated rationalizer.
A FORCE FOR EVIL?
All that said, I have a final comment to make, which I think is very important. I regard conservative Christianity as a force for evil, because of its narrow views and intolerance. But, I regard liberal Christianity, in practical terms, as very much a force for good.
I recognize the profound role "communities of faith" play in people's lives. As a Rev. Edith said:
"And personally I need to come here every week, every day actually, and be reminded that I am not alone. And that when I have had my hopes shattered, or a loved one has died, or I have ended up in the hospital, or something I have worked for for years has fallen flat, that there are people who are there who love me and support me, and will carry me when I am unable to live with compassion, because I am so shattered. For whatever reason. I think we need one another and I don't think there are many institutions in the world today that allow us to express our need and our dependency on one another better than communities of faith."
I liked most of the liberal Christians I talked to. I was impressed by their tolerance, their humanity, their compassion, their understanding of the human condition. I think the overall effect of their beliefs and attitudes is a positive one.
It's just that, in my opinion, their theology does not wash. I think the liberal Christian should take the next step, and become a Unitarian.