It seems that the more enlightened we theologians get, the easier it becomes to dump criticism on the traditions from which we came/come. For the four of us here at Out of Bounds, that tends to be North American conservative evangelicalism, and on that score, it seems like there’s always something out there for us to complain about and/or modify to the satisfaction of our newly sophisticated theological palettes. Yet I was reminded recently that there’s more to theological criticism than publicly dealing with our daddy issues. In fact, if we deign only to open our eyes, we will surely discover that there’s a whole world of non-evangelical awfulness to criticise!
Case in point: at a church service I attended recently (church and preacher to remain anonymous), I was reminded that frustratingly bad theology comes in liberal varieties just as well as conservative ones. The text for the homily is incidental, but the basic gist of the message went something like this: What a shame that the church is so hopelessly fractured. The reason for this is biblical fundamentalism. The key to unity, then, is to expel fundamentalism from the church and to embrace instead an approach which locates ecclesial authority in “Jesus” rather than Scripture. Once this is done, we will finally realise that Jesus, unlike Scripture, affirms our deepest intuitions about what being a Christian should mean today (= accepting homosexuality).
Right. Well, not to mention the fact that this is actually one of the more divisive sermons I’ve heard, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the completely a-theological reasoning present in this exposition. To be sure, I have absolutely no qualms about having a serious discussion about any of the topics raised here, for instance: the unity of the church, the errors of woodenly literal exegesis (and its practical consequences), the locus of ecclesial authority, the relationship between Jesus and Scripture, and human sexuality. But none of these issues were really treated in this sermon. Instead, the warrant for the “argument” is essentially this: the assumption that you are pretty much like the preacher. This, folks, is “lazy liberalism,” and it is perpetuated by gathering a bunch of like-minded contemporary people together and projecting their collective values onto this shadowy figure who supposedly preached in Galilee a couple of thousand years ago.
Lazy liberalism offends me on several levels. Obviously, as one who’s sat at the foot of Barth for several years, it offends me because there is simply no space for any kind of prophetic interruption. There is no judgment, no strangeness, and no encounter. In short, it’s just a big, Guardian-reading love-fest designed to make people feel good about themselves (here’s an experiment: if you are reading this and you are homosexual, try shooting a liberal preacher the thumbs up from your pew next Sunday—I guarantee it will make their year). To the contrary, however, it’s my belief that good preaching should ignite hope, and hope endures precisely because it promises something which is unlike anything we’re currently experiencing. It’s a vision of God’s future, and that future by definition interrupts the present. Consequently, good preaching should offer comfort by making us feel increasingly uncomfortable.
But there’s another reason why lazy liberalism offends me, and that is, it’s a blight to the fine tradition of genuinely Christian thinking once termed “theological liberalism.”
I’ve occasionally heard conservatives identify any theology as “liberal” which generally seeks “to culturally acquit” Christianity. But this idea is obviously much too broad (not to mention pejorative) because it enables people to class all manner of flaky contemporary liberals with some of the giants of the modern theological tradition. Yes, the classic liberals were acutely concerned to take stock of contemporary culture and learning, but this posture was a far cry from the type of passive accommodationism of today’s backyard garden liberal. So, for instance, when Albrecht Ritschl set himself to the task of reconfiguring Christian theology for his age, he didn’t simply commend his view as the “progressive option” over against a stodgy traditionalism. No, he produced a meticulously-researched three-volume work which seriously engaged Scripture and tradition before even getting to the matter of a contemporary statement. And when the work of construction actually did begin, the criterion for success was not simply Ritchl’s ability to produce a “Christianity for his age” (despite Barth’s incredulity on this point), but a genuine penetration into what he believed was the essence of the Christian religion. As he put it: “Theology has performed its task when, guided by the Christian idea of God and the conception of men’s blessedness in the Kingdom of God, it exhibits completely and clearly, both as a whole and in particular, the Christian view of the world and of human life, together with the necessity which belongs to the interdependent relationships between its component relationships” (The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, vol. III, p. 24).
Now that’s the kind of liberalism which invites serious interaction, both by fellow liberals and by conservatives. Whatever you make of Ritschl’s theology, you must at least agree that he was obsessed with an incredibly significant question, namely: what is the real meaning of the phenomenon of Christianity? But what can I say to this preacher whom I mentioned above? This preacher offered no argument, displayed no consistency of thought, and presented no means of access to his/her vision of Christianity other than simply being like him/her already. I mean, I’m an open-minded guy, and in truth, I can think of no reason not to listen carefully and charitably to all sorts of theologies. In fact, in my view, all of us Christians generally need each other if we’re truly interested in getting to the heart of this strange matter that seems to have gripped us each alike. But I simply can’t deal with this flaky liberal stuff. In fact, I’d be willing to speculate that it’s not so much the fundamentalists that have led to the current cultural stalemate in the church, but laziness. And laziness, unfortunately, is a malady which seems to have stricken fundamentalists and liberals in equal measure.