Part 1, The Problem With Liberal Theology

My focus is on Debunking Evangelical Christianity for several reasons outlined here. Let me stress at this point that one of the reasons I do is to dislodge the evangelical Christian off of center. I say this is the hard part because it is. Liberals will say that I’ve chosen an easy target. It’s easy only so far as the arguments are against it. But it is also extremely tough to do. Once dislodged from this center, former evangelicals can go in several theological directions. But no matter what direction they travel, they are less of a threat to people with differing opinions because they know what it’s like to realize they were wrong. They will also cease quoting a Bible verse to answer every problem, and learn to think through the issues at hand.

The evangelical already rejects many cults, liberalism, pantheism, Islam. So by leading them to reject their faith some will jump ship entirely and embrace either agnosticism or atheism. That’s not what they all do. I didn’t initially. I embraced liberal theology in varying degrees for several years first. I even described myself as an existential deist. Later on I described myself as a soft-agnostic, and later still as an atheist.

For me, once I abandoned evangelical Christianity I started on a slippery slope which ended in atheism. It’s hard to remember how long it took me because as I was struggling with my faith, I still sought to maintain it. And I kept my struggles to myself, remaining in the church. But it was several years.

Now granted, Christians on this slippery slope do not slide down to agnosticism or atheism like I did. But many do. Let me mention a few of them: Robert M. Price, Gerd Luedmann, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman, William Dever, Michael Shermer, Farrell Till, Dan Barker, Ed Babinski, and me. There are other Christians who deeply struggle to maintain their faith in the onslaught of philosophical and scientific knowledge, like Ruth Tucker, James F. Sennett, and Terence Penulhum, seen here. I have also heard that Howard Van Till has rejected Calvinism and adopted “a more ambiguous position on religion.”

In a future post or two I’ll try to respond to liberal versions of Christianity and show why they should be rejected as well as the evangelical views. I won’t spend a great deal of time on this subject since to adequately do justice to it I should take on one theologian at a time. I intend instead to lump them all together for the most part, and in so doing it will appear superficial to the liberals out there, but that’s the most time I want to spend on it for reasons I’ve specified earlier. The bottom line will be that if evangelicals don’t have much by way of evidence for their faith, liberals have even less evidence to believe.

Part 2 can be found here.

23 comments:

goprairie said...

"Now granted, Christians on this slippery slope do not slide down to agnosticism or atheism like I did."

I prefer to think of it as rising up to atheism. I prefer to think of atheism as the end goal in freedom from the bounds of religion.

Karl Betts said...

John, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on liberalism – especially since I’m one of the ones who have observed that you are hitting at the easy targets. Remember, I applaud you for that. It is needed.

A reply to liberal Christians (that would be me) is certainly in order. I’m convinced I’ll end up a stronger liberal as a result. Let me give you some feedback on the issue of the convenient “cherry picking” concern you raised in response to Meta. There is a process that leaves only cherries, and it is intentional, you know. It is the process of deconstruction.
Take the atonement – a concept you alluded to earlier.

Many liberals would prefer to deconstruct sacrificial substitutionary atonement and penal substitution atonement. Some would just as soon discard these historically developed positions and theological constructs altogether. Others, like Meta, at least hope to find, after some thoughtful deconstruction, a correlation between the redemptive aspects of the atonement and the “kingdom of God” from the teachings of Jesus. To connect the concept (which is what it is) to a concrete reality is a creative attempt at relevance. It serves as a model for other relevant correlations that can be made in our human context of suffering or even of creativity.

I suppose liberals have a “glass half full” bent.
Deconstruction should serve to bring out the most relevant correlations between traditional theological concepts and modern, relevant human predicaments. That was the whole point of ‘demythologizing.” That was the whole point of Tillich’s ultimate concern.

Our goal would be more like chewing on the meat and spitting out the bones, than it would be “cherry picking.” That would apply to the teachings of Jesus. Granted, the actual teachings of Jesus are debated, and should be!
So, liberals are fully aware of the futility of arguing positions whose plausibility is based on nothing more than mere tradition. That is why we have so much in common. To stir up debate by making radical assertions is what you have in common with Fundamentalists. To this end, liberals aren’t all that sexy.

Remember, too, that there is a difference between debating philosophical matters that can be assessed on the grounds of logic, justification and propositional cogency. Liberals already agree with the philosophical problems that atheists raise.

In a sense, those debates don’t quite connect with the theological concerns of a liberal. They only tell us what is inadmissible as evidence in the arena of debating God’s existence.

Since we already agree that “proof” is not the issue but “plausibility” or “probability” is what we are looking for, we have a similar process with different outcomes. Ours (liberals) is wide open to critique and so is yours!

While we are convinced that God’s existence cannot be proved, we also remain skeptical that philosophical problems negate God’s existence because of the limits of certitude. Again, we are not trying to bow out of the debate, so much as to recognize that to posit propositions that affirm or negate God’s existence is not our passion, much less our place. It is pure futility and very old school.

Making the case that God does not exist is your job, and as I see it, you are right in the middle of God’s plan!

So Bring it on! We want to engage in all of the deconstruction we can, so we can get on with the cause of kingdom of God (based on the cherries left over after the whirlwind of atheism has had it’s best shot).

Eric D said...

"For me, once I abandoned evangelical Christianity I started on a slippery slope which ended in atheism."

These are the kind of things that Christians point to and say "See?!? Doubt is a bad thing!! This is why you should never doubt your faith even one bit."

It was the same for me too - once I started examining my evangelical beliefs, I couldn't maintain them and I moved to a more liberal theology. And once I started examining those beliefs, I decided I couldn't maintain beliefs of that nature at all. I had fallen into what you talked about with atonement: I tried to justify my former beliefs in a different way, and ended up accepting something I never would have believed in the first place.

I think what you say here is true, and the only way that Christianity has survived through the natural tendency for people to "slide down the slope" is by making sure that they never even start down it, or even look at it. Convince someone that entertaining the thought that you might be wrong leads to eternal damnation, and they'll never read a book that could teach them something new about the other side of the argument.

akakiwibear said...

JWL, I too look forward to your fuller post on the liberal theology.

While I picked on your 'love - hate' comment re liberals I suspect that many liberals have somewhat of a 'love - hate' attitude to you and your fellow DC travellers.

I applaud your stated goal of getting people to think. What I can't agree with is you approach.

So I await your offering and hope it appears at a time when I have the time available to do it justice.

Peace - Hamba kah

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

Karl Betts: Our goal would be more like chewing on the meat and spitting out the bones, than it would be “cherry picking.”

...

So, liberals are fully aware of the futility of arguing positions whose plausibility is based on nothing more than mere tradition. That is why we have so much in common.


I have to ask, Karl, am I a Liberal Christian?

I have supped at the table of Biblical Meatiness and spat out the pesky bones, cut away the fat, and selectively swallowed the good meat. I agree that we should love our neighbors, that we should avoid violence, that Peacemakers are blessed (Peacemakers as in human beings, not the 1950s Air Force bomber, or the 1980s MX missile).

I agree with 5-1/2 of the commandments (Nos. 1-4 are irrelevant, and No. 10 is questionable), and harbor feelings of guilt whenever I break them.

I am acutely aware of "the futility of arguing positions whose plausibility is based on nothing more than mere tradition", and in fact I am vehemently opposed to that sort of argument, and strive to combat it.

I guess the only parts of Biblical teachings to which I disagree are those parts asserting knowledge of the divine, those parts advocating bigotry and persecution, and those parts which are clearly the product of bronze-age (or iron-age) primitive thought.

I don't deny the possibility that a "God" could exist, I merely deny the possibility that any human can define it, and as such there is neither reason for nor sincerity in proposing that one should live under such guises.

I guess I'm no longer a "New Atheist", and am instead a "Liberal Christian". Who knew?

--
Stan

P.S. - I can't help but hear [insert supervillain here] telling [insert superhero here] that "we're the same", in [insert fictional media here].

Vinny said...

After embracing evangelical Christianity for two years in my late teens, I have spent most of the last thirty years floating between a very vaguely defined agnosticism and an equally vaguely defined liberal Catholicism. That I have been pretty firmly rooted in the agnostic camp the last several years is due more to my annoyance with the Religious Right than any firm rejection of theism.

I don't see religion in general as any particular problem as long as it does not insist that U.S foreign policy follow the ancient land distribution schemes of a desert deity, it does not demand that school curriculum should be guided by religious think tanks rather than leading research institutions, and it does try to make it interpretation of its magic book in the areas of gender and sexuality the law of the land.

GordonBlood said...

I as well am very interested John to see what you have to say on this topic. I suppose my big fear is you'l attack the Marcus Borg/John Spong types who seem to me just as ludicrous as the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertson's; though they are much more amicable. Afew people here seem to have a problem with "sliding down the slope" but thats not the way I look at it. While it is true that I now dismiss things which I may have believed but not investigated at the start of my slow conversion the more I have thought about the essentials the more I believe in them. Perhaps at some point I will become an atheist, that is an intellectual possibility as anything is, but certainly based on what I know right now im quite far from that boat indeed.

goprairie said...

The trouble with the 'chewing the meat and spitting out the bones' analogy is this: I assume you are meaning that you glean from the Bible the true and therefore relevant things. And reject the rest. Like the Adam and Eve story being literal creation, for example. So you find the meat, the truth. Yet, another 'liberal Christian', or his denomination, does the same thing and keeps some thing different as meat and spits out something different as bones. So which is it really, that is the truth? Whose meat? (Stan, don't go there . . .) I think what I just said is that your meat analogy is 'cherry picking' only non-vegetarian. I think cherries are a prettier visual than meat.

Karl Betts said...

I am employing the truth criterion provided to me on this very site – to wit:

Valerie Tarico has provided a criterion for aesthetic beauty on the basis of “agreement”

“But the reality is, that there is a tremendous amount of agreement among humans about what constitutes pleasure (ie. what we value): a certain level of warmth, orgasms, a full stomach, certain aesthetic experiences. Contrast, for example, the number of people who hang pictures of garbage dumps on their living room walls with the number of people who hang pictures of snowcapped peaks. One doesn't have to do a controlled study to suggest that there are species-specific, hard wired, patterns at work.”

------

Or Zilch’s “animal rational self” criterion:


“The primary desires grade insensibly into the secondary ones: starting with more or less hard-wired routines, shifting gradually to learned and rationalized concepts. In order to successfully build and maintain the kind of societies that keep us happy, as far as is possible, we must listen to the whole spectrum of our selves, from the ancient hungers to the most refined science.

Of course, this is not original thinking on my part: it's more or less what everyone does anyway, when making choices. But I feel that it helps me to sometimes try to look at the big picture.

Philosophy, or theology, alone, is meaningless, just playing with words, without recognition of our animal selves. But simply giving in to our instincts, ignoring the reasoned morals we must devise to build trust and cooperation, won't get us farther than survivalists hunkering down in their redoubts. We must rejoice in both our animal and our rational selves, if we're to enjoy our brief lives to their fullest.”


-----

There’s nothing arbitrary about Tarico’s or Zilch’s criterion for what passes as truth, so there shouldn’t be for anyone who goes by this mutual trust and “consensus” model in any discipline, including discerning aesthetical biblical truth!

So, in order to discern the meat from the bones or to get the leftover cherries if you prefer, I can employ much of the Tarico / Zilch criterion of truth and apply it to biblical principles without having to proof-text justify my choices, anymore than these fine people have to! Whatever is left over after the atheists have critiqued it is a platform upon which to re-build a liberal theology. Why not?!

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

Karl Betts: So, in order to discern the meat from the bones or to get the leftover cherries if you prefer, I can employ much of the Tarico / Zilch criterion of truth and apply it to biblical principles without having to proof-text justify my choices, anymore than these fine people have to! Whatever is left over after the atheists have critiqued it is a platform upon which to re-build a liberal theology.

This, as near as I can tell, is precisely the basis of Agnosticism.

If you're not eating the whole cow, but instead wait for the hot dog (you know, the best part, left over after the scavengers have had their fill), then during your wait, at the very least, you are by definition an agnostic.

I have absolutely no problem with this approach whatsoever (though not so much when applied to foodstuffs) -- indeed, apply this to all religions, philosophies, and beliefs -- but I'm sure my spin on it is something to which you'll object.

If there are aspects of an appealing dogma that are of questionable value, and if one's aim is to allow more powerful minds to whittle away those aspects which are in fact valueless, then why not call this spade a shovel and recognize that there is the possibility that any aspect of said dogma could be discounted as false at some point in the future?

Simply put, why should one ever choose to eat even a single cherry?

Since the gist of this position is that some of the Biblical account, at the least, can be ignored as mysticism, and other portions can be attributed to primitive thought regarding science and medicine, then does it not follow that the current "truth" pared off of scripture is also subject to similar future exposures?

I cannot answer that, and I maintain that there are only superficial differences between the "Liberal Christian", the Agnostic, and the Atheist -- after all the rhetoric is boiled away, anyway. I personally classify myself as an Agnotheist -- I do not currently know, and am not especially thrilled about the likelihood of ever knowing, the nature of the universe, and I really don't care which God or Gods are there to punish and/or reward me.

I just wish people would admit that they have no valid claims as to the nature of the divine. That simple, humble recognition underpins anti-religious zeal, and illustrates the fundamental flaw in all religion.

--
Stan

Stan, the Half-Truth Teller said...

Ahem...

"I cannot answer that..." in my previous post was intended to follow the question, "why... eat even a single cherry?".

I inserted a paragraph prior to submission... Sorry for any confusion.

I most certainly can answer the question of whether religious aspects may be subjected to future negative exposure, and whether it follows from that recognition that those religious aspects should therefore be disregarded...

Yes and yes.

--
Stan

akakiwibear said...

"I won’t spend a great deal of time on this subject since to adequately do justice to it I should take on one theologian at a time. I intend instead to lump them all together for the most part, ".

I guess it won't take too long to deal to the biggest common factor - they all believe in a God and so by implication a spiritual realm. So just say there ain't one and you're done.

My point is that if you muck around at the level of minutia you will have deal with a multitude of differing views, so the real challenge you face to address the big picture avoiding the temptation to try to divide and rule.

It should be good.

JR335 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JR335 said...

Definition Of Theology"

zilch said...

I've never really understood liberal Christian belief. Where some see a slippery slope, I've only ever seen a precipice: either one believes, or not. If one believes, then it must be whole hog: otherwise, who's to say what's right and what's wrong in the Bible? With all due respect, all this stuff about "deconstruction" is just cherry-picking in a cheap tuxedo, as far as I can see.

Like many other atheists, I do see lots to admire in religion. I too pick cherries from the Bible; but those cherries don't come from God, but rather from cherry trees: the accumulated human wisdom of millenia. Of course, some of the cherries have worms, or are rotten, but that's the way it is in the real, evolved, godless world.

John W. Loftus said...

akakiwibear said...I guess it won't take too long to deal to the biggest common factor - they all believe in a God and so by implication a spiritual realm. So just say there ain't one and you're done.

I do not believe what I do based upon assertions to the contrary. I do not think religious experience is a good argument for God's existence, nor are the other ones.

Vinny said...

Zilch,

I don't think there is such a thing as whole hog belief. Every Christian from the liberal to the fundamentalist assembles a theological construct which ignores those things in the Bible that don't fit or contradict it. At least the liberals admit that they are doing it while the fundamentalists pretend that they are embracing the whole Bible literally.

zilch said...

Vinny- I agree that every Christian must somehow assemble a theological construct from the Bible. But in my experience, most liberals say that they are extracting the "essence" or "central meaning" from the Bible, and while the fundamentalists can't really make everything fit together without doing a byzantine dance, the pretence is real: they really believe the whole hog, or believe that they believe it.

Vinny said...

Zilch,

You have a point. A lot of liberal Christians also like to pretend that their beliefs are dictated by scriptures just as much as the fundamentalists' beliefs are. I just don't mind them as much because they don't think they can settle every question of politics, sociology, psychology, history, and science by quoting a Bible verse.

Karl Betts said...

Stan: Sorry it took so long to respond to this:

This, as near as I can tell, is precisely the basis of Agnosticism.

"If you're not eating the whole cow, but instead wait for the hot dog (you know, the best part, left over after the scavengers have had their fill), then during your wait, at the very least, you are by definition an agnostic."

I have no problem with that. What I love about this blog is that I can be honest.

Faith is by nature paradoxical and whereas fundamentalist realists would espouse an kind of indubitable leve of certititude, I find myself more like the disciple Thomas.

I prefer to be identified as a skpetic, but your insight gives me a willingness to approach the table of an agnostic.

Again, the nature of existentialism is living between polarities of doubt and faith, I suppose.

I appreciate Os Guiness who insisted some years ago that there is a difference between doubt and unbelief. So -- if by "agnosticism" you mean "a state of unbelief" vs. what I experience as an authetic existential movement between the poles of doubt and belief, than I would not qualify as an agnostic.

I do admit that my faith coneptions of God are higly subjective ipso facto, and therefore cannot present hard scientific evidence for my belief in God.

Are you a Christian, then? Well, two things occour to me. One is that because you use reason to make your points, you have vestages of the logos (which can be purely a human and not divine trait, of course). However, since the logos with a small "l" corresponds (in my subjective [delusional?] theological world view to the Logos capital "L," than it is quite possible that you are benefiting from the Christ in you and don't know it.

Furthermore, I believe that you are created in the image of God and are sacred as a human. That would qualify you in my theological take.

Again, I don't know if any of this helps, but it is my best shot at addressing your questions from my point of view.

Tim said...

I am not sure where this should be posted, but I am curious of how the people of this site feel about dharmic religions. I was born and raised Catholic and I am no longer, but I still believe in God and have found a good thing, in my mind, in Hinduism. I also adopt the Jainist and Buddhist philosophiesto an extent. I at the same time am not completely Hindu. I do not believe in the caste system. I ask because you all are very smart and logical and I would like to know if there is a logical argument against these dharmic religions. Most Atheists and Agnostics tend to concentrate on Christianity or at least Abrahamic faiths. I must say I understand why, considering these religions tend to do more harm than good. The dharmic religions, in my experience are the opposite and do very much good for the individual and promote peace and nonviolence. I still would like to know, however, if there is a logical reason to avoid these doctrines.

Gary Charbonneau said...

Tim wrote:

I am not sure where this should be posted, but I am curious of how the people of this site feel about dharmic religions. I was born and raised Catholic and I am no longer, but I still believe in God and have found a good thing, in my mind, in Hinduism. I also adopt the Jainist and Buddhist philosophies to an extent.

Wrong blog, Tim.

There's an old joke about Northern ireland that says that, over there, if you tell someone you're an atheist, they ask, "Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?" You might want to try http:// www.friendlyatheist.com. The owner, Hemant Mehta, is a "Jain atheist," in that he was raised a Jain. He does concentrate on the whole Christian-atheist thing, but I suspect that he would be happy to try to deal with your question. Or read his book, "I Sold My Soul On EBay."

Tim said...

Thanks Gary. You guys keep doing what you are doing. I think the world is becoming a better, more tolerant place because of it.