Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Environmental Vow 17: Liberal Christianity
Many people who have problems with the “Olde Tyme Religion” of fundamentalism yet still see value in the life of faith have attempted to create liberal forms of religion. Indeed, it could be argued that these formulations are the latest manifestation of gradual reform that has taken place within religious denominations since the reformation. As I see it, however, there is an inescapable dilemma that faces liberal religion, namely, “How does one deal with the ancient formulations of the faith?” That is, how do you reconcile the modern worldview with the scriptures and traditions that predate the enlightenment? How does Christianity, Judaism and Islam “work” in a world where no sensible person, for example, can believe in the literal existence of the old sky-God of the Torah?
The Liberal Christian answer has been to create something which, for lack of a better term, could be called a “humanist” Christianity. In general terms, this is an attempt to take away the problematic elements of the Christian tradition (e.g. God, miracles, parts of the scripture that support genocide, etc) and replace them with terms and beliefs more acceptable to modern sensibilities. Theologians such as Paul Tillich have replaced the “old man in the clouds” with the “God of the philosophers”. That is, he gives up on any idea of God as being a human-like entity that has volition, makes choices, gets angry with sinners, etc, and replaces him with vague, philosophical formulations such as God is “the ground of all being”. In the same way, Biblical scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann used the methods of literary analysis to point out that our “holy” scriptures are mythological documents, not historical records. The “God” of liberal Christians is a short-hand for for a complex, philosophical understanding of human existence and the stories about Moses and Jesus exist alongside those of Heracles and Hiawatha as culture-building myths instead of historically accurate records.
I would argue that aside from the relative intrinsic merits of this sort of religious formulation, there are tremendous practical problems that result from this sort of theology. First of all, this sort of faith requires an enormous amount of effort to sustain. Secondly, because it cannot engage the entire congregation of believers, it inevitably becomes “hidden” behind the traditional signs and symbols of the past. This allows a sort of “ur-conservatism”# to take hold of the religious membership, which eventually holds the priesthood hostage. Finally, because the “god of the philosophers” doesn't have the same sort of hold over people's consciousness as the “old man in the clouds” does, even if the liberal church avoids being held hostage by internal fundamentalists, it will inevitably find itself drawn towards a sort of extreme humanism that results in a theology of “being nice”. This effectively neuters the institution and its leadership by removing any ability to develop “prophetic” moral reactions to the great problems of the day, such as the death of Nature.
Perhaps the biggest problem with liberal Christian exegesis is that it is so intellectually difficult. If people really do want to understand the “god of the philosophers” and “Bible as myth”, they will need to undertake a daunting ordeal that involves reading very large books composed of academic prose. Oddly enough, however, there exists a very large segment of the religious population who eagerly devour this sort of thing. # But the plain and simple fact of the matter is that this sort of theological orientation simply cannot ever be anything other than elitist. Ordinary parishioners, most of who have neither the education, nor the leisure, let alone inclination, will never put in the hours necessary to understand all of this stuff.
In a sense, liberal Christianity is a bit like what Indians would call Jnana Yoga. That is, the path to salvation that comes from certain sort of intellectual knowledge about the universe. This form of Yoga is not conceived as something that can be followed by anything more than an intellectual elite and as such is usually discouraged for most people. The problem with liberal Christianity is that it doesn't exist within a structure that offers other clearly-defined options, such as Bhakti Yoga (the path of “love”) or Karma Yoga (the path of “works”.) Nor does he inhabit a rigidly hierarchical society where people simply accept that there are mysteries that only the educated Brahmins can be expected to understand. Instead, the Christian in a liberal congregation who cannot figure out what is going on will often try to find some other sort of way to accommodate him or herself to the congregation.
One of the things about religious symbols and rituals is that they allow people to function together on a shallow level while holding very different worldviews. This is practically feasible because symbols and rituals function on a symbolic rather than explicit level. This allows people to share an experience without realizing how radically different their understanding can be.
Take, for example, the symbol of the cross. Some people see it specifically through the frame of “suffering”. That is, they believe that it shows that in some sense suffering makes a person a better human being. This view supports the sort of people who flagellate themselves (either literally or figuratively.) Others see it as a symbol of Jesus as the scape-goat for the sins of humanity. The cross reminds them that ultimately the only thing that really matters is whether or not one is “born again”. Others see it as an execution device that was used to kill someone who rebelled against unjust authority.
If you see the cross in terms of suggesting that suffering is “noble”, then it will support a position that suggests that the best response to social ills such as poverty is to learn to endure them with grace and serenity. The more we suffer on earth, the more we are rewarded after death. In contrast, if you see the cross in terms of Christ as the scape-goat for humanity's sins, you will tend to believe that the core of “salvation” comes from accepting that scape-goat story. Trying to be a good person or developing some sort of serenity, according to this worldview, is at best irrelevant and at worst the sin of pride.# Finally, if you see the cross as an execution device for rebels, then Christ's message becomes one of the necessity of being fearless in one's opposition to injustice and support for the oppressed. Seeking serenity and belief in a scape-goat, in this view, would be mere self-indulgence that hinders the creation of the God's imperial domain.
As long as the cross exists just as a symbol without any attempt to explain it's meaning in any detail, it can unify a congregation. The various people sitting in a pew can all have different views on its significance yet be unified by their veneration for it as a symbol. But once anyone attempts to “unpack” the symbol's meaning, then it becomes obvious to one and all that the “unity” of the congregation isn't quite as deep as once thought. I once read, for example, of an attempt by an artist to create a new crucifix for a congregation that involved a sculpture of Christ as an obvious black man sitting on an electric chair.# His reasoning was that modern American Christians fail to understand that in the context of Roman Palestine, Christ was a member of an oppressed minority (a poor Jew in the Pagan Roman Empire) who had been executed by the state in a specifically humiliating manner for breaking the law against rebellion. The statue was absolutely vilified by some members of the congregation that had commissioned his work. As memory serves me, it was never used. The reason why is because his attempt to unpack one particular set of meaning made it cease to be an agent of unity for the congregation and instead become one of division.
The stories of the New Testament operate in a similar fashion. Take, for example, the story of the trial of Christ. The anti-Semite can read the account of the trial before the Sanhedrin as an example of the evil in the Jewish soul. In contrast, the radical can read this group as not a Jewish group, but as instead an Ecclesiastic Hierarchy. In this case, then the story becomes one of how the religious institution subverts and perverts the values it purports to support. It all depends on whether the readers chooses to see in the Sanhedrin the Jewish pawnbroker down the street, or, the Papal court in Rome. As long as the congregation just refers to the story in the Good Friday service there is no source of dissension. But once one tries to unpack the meaning and explain what the story “is all about”, then all Hell risks breaking out.
When a congregation or denomination does try to explain what these symbols mean, the results can be dire. For example, when the United and Anglican Churches of Canada decided to not only officiate at same-sex weddings but to also allow accept homosexual clergy many members of the church decided that this was a “deal breaker” and left. Sometimes this even happened en-mass with the congregations either becoming independent or joining some other denomination. For the liberals, the question about homosexuals was one of discrimination and revolved around Matthew 25:40's “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me”. For conservatives, the issue was that of following the divinely revealed morality of God and focused on Leviticus 18:22's "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination".#
The liberals in these congregations understand from their study of modern scholarship that the Bible is a human creation which needs to be reinterpreted by each generation as its collective knowledge increases. But for those who have not gone through the laborious effort of studying the ponderous, academic texts on the subject this willingness to jettison old moral “verities” is scandalous. In many congregations those clergy who have developed a liberal interpretation feel themselves to be prisoners of their more conservative members of the congregation who watch them with an “eagle eye” for evidence of dangerous “back sliding”. # Many clergy realize find that if they say what they really think on a wide variety of issues they risk being removed from their position. Even non-clergy liberals routinely “bite their tongue” because they do not want to risk ostracism from the congregation and the fellowship they seek.
To give conservatives their due, I think that they do have something of a point.
The problem with formulations of Christianity that give a primacy to philosophical concepts (i.e. God as “the ground of all being”) and which see the scripture as a human creation, is that it takes the “old man in the clouds” out of the religion. That really is the point of liberal religion. As I've pointed out previously, the old formulations not only no longer seem viable to modern ears, they have positively driven the best and brightest people out of the church. But the “old man in the clouds” is a real, palpable sort of vision that engages people and motivates them in a way that vague, philosophical musings never seem to be able. The Benedictine Abbeys were not built by people trying to serve “the ground of all being” or who were inspired by a man-made record of ancient myths. They believed literally in God, the afterlife and that the Bible was absolutely true.
It is difficult to objectively quantify the level of a person's commitment to a religious vision, but one plausible way of doing so is to track the amount of money individuals with a specific type of religious orientation give to their religious establishment of choice. The clear tendency seems to be that the more liberal a person is, the less they give to charity. One study, for example, showed that when people were separated into different categories of “conservative”, “moderate” and “liberal”, they each donated, on average, $3255, $2,926 and $1,879 respectively to secular charities. In addition, they also donated, on average, $1,841, $1,115 and $499 to their place of worship.#
There are a great many possible explanations for this difference in financial support. I am not a statistician and this is not a book about that sort of analysis. But it certainly seems obvious that if someone literally believes that there is a sky-god looking down on her from “on high” who can and will punish her directly for her behaviour, then she will modify her behaviour accordingly. In contrast, someone who instead believes in some sort of vague philosophical principle will not feel a similar sort of need to act.
This is not to say, however, that conservatives are better people than liberals. Human behaviour is extremely complex. Our behaviour is driven by compulsions and drives that have very little to do with what we consciously believe about the universe. The conservative who feels that the eye of God is always on him may still end up getting drunk on Saturday night and beat up his wife. Similarly, the Liberal who doesn't believe in God or an afterlife can still live a life of calm sobriety. The Gospel of Matthew expresses this point well: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”# But having said that, the fact of the matter is that our behaviour is driven not by calm reason, but rather by emotions. And “the old man in the clouds” is a much more powerful emotional driver than “the ground of all being”. Moreover, it is a lot easier to get emotionally engaged in the stories of the Bible when we see them as being directly handed to us by God instead of as a collection of myths written by ancient people living in a long-dead world.
If the liberal no longer believes in the old man sky god, then what, ultimately, is the basis of her faith? If we talk about God as “the ground of all being” we are really talking about “how the human mind works”. And if we see the Bible as a collection of ancient myths written by fallible human beings, then we are really talking about “how the human mind has seen things in the past”. Ultimately, liberal religion is a form of humanism.
And with humanism, we come back to the same problems I identified with Abraham Maslow's ethic of self-actualization. The problem with this type of religion is that it no longer has any room for what Christians call the “prophetic spirit”. That is, if one's religion does include some element of the “old man in the clouds”, then it is possible to believe that one is following his commandments and that you have the authority to demand a great deal from people. You can say that they should turn from their sinful ways and that God wants them to build an abbey in what is now not much more than a swamp. In contrast, if God is “the ground of all being” and an idea that was inherited from our ignorant ancestors, it is going to be a lot harder to generate the necessary enthusiasm to get much of anything off the ground.
And once you remove any sort of appeal to divine authority, you get left with Protagoras' saying that “Man is the measure of all things”. At that point, it's pretty hard to push Christianity much farther than Douglas Adams'# characterization of Jesus' message: “Why can't we all be nice to one another?” Prophets are not “nice” people. They offend when they point out where people fail to live up to some sort of ethical ideal. And they also sometimes suggest that there are social goals that are more important than the comfort of the population. Old Testament prophets could argue that God wants people to eat locally-grown, organic food and take the train instead of flying. Humanists are left with “wouldn't it be nice if people thought about the consequences of their actions?” Neither appeal is going to change the behaviour of the majority, but I would argue that a larger minority of Conservatives is going to effect a greater change than that of Humanists, simply because their appeal is based on more basic, emotional drivers.