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Lazy Liberalism

January 30, 2012

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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 5:01 pm

    So, shouldn’t we just call the problem you’re naming — ‘lazy accomandationism’, or something? Since it seems to be the same thing on the conservative and liberal sides of the aisle. (Maybe you’re just balancing out the critique — but why pretend it’s a one-sided problem?)

  2. January 30, 2012 5:29 pm

    Great post, Justin. And great comment, Scott. Walking in more conservative circles myself, I certainly come across the appeal to like-mindedness more often than serious engagement with Scripture and theological anthropology/sexuality when it comes to conservatives making claims against the ethical legitimacy of homosexuality. Even when appealing to biblical texts, the force of the argument is often “this seems pretty clear to me, isn’t it?!”, which is a fairly brazen way of refusing to acknowledge the set of exegetical and theological questions that need to be more seriously addressed. That said, I have been comforted to hear this issue addressed in sermons in the past year that have taken the issues seriously and sought to penetrate into a sexual theo-ethic derived not simply from proof texts but a broader consideration of the nature of submission to the will of God in Scripture. Point being, I think the laziness bag is fairly mixed on both sides.

  3. Virginia Sumner Adams permalink
    January 30, 2012 8:54 pm

    AMEN!!!! In the midst of ordinary “going to church, trying to make a difference”, I find an appalling amount of indifference and laziness. From where I/we sit, (small town, liberal state, USA) the outcome of this “attitude” in the church is a breakdown between Christian brothers and sisters. I cannot grasp exactly what is happening to the church but your article speaks to my sense of what I am walking through. Diffusiveness in the church is NOT a part of the Gospel of Jesus (with or without the Scripture…) Nor is laziness.

  4. January 31, 2012 1:01 am

    I prefer to be a radical centrist and actively annoy everyone. 🙂

  5. January 31, 2012 1:14 am

    Justin,

    Great post! Blogging can somewhat endear ‘laziness’ for us each, one alike. I wonder at which point we can be said to have moved from lazy to actively engaged? So that when we make pronouncements about theo-ethical concerns, or Christianity in general, our mode is beyond the lazy impasse. Do we need to write 3 volumes like Ritschl before we can do that? There must be some ground somewhere where a Christian can speak meaningfully w/o also being a systematic theologian. I totally get what you’re saying, but I just wonder what the implications of this are for the everyday Christian who is still to speak responsibly coram Deo, and before humanity? The preacher you heard seems to only be living in an echo chamber of a certain kind (just like the ones, as you note, our conservative brethren have).

  6. January 31, 2012 4:41 pm

    Okay – so here’s why I was picking on so-called liberalism. Obviously, bad conservative preaching can be just as accommodationist as liberal preaching–and here no examples are necessary. The difference is this: one of liberal theology’s hallmarks has been its concern to put Christian teaching in constructive dialogue with contemporary thought and culture. Conservativism, at least by design, doesn’t do this. Liberals who blindly accommodate culture are therefore “lazy” in a special sort of way; they are lazy to the extent that they do so uncritically and without due rigor.

    Regarding Bobby’s question: I think that the principle “facere quod in se est” is probably the way to go. In my view, this particular preacher did not have it in him/her to revision Christianity in a way that deserves serious consideration.

  7. January 31, 2012 6:43 pm

    Yes, to be genuinely Christian is truly the answer.

  8. January 31, 2012 7:12 pm

    I guess for those inclined to be “liberal” (by the above definition and in the best sense possible) this is best described as laziness, whereas for those convicted along more “conservative” lines it is a laziness of a different sort. For the former it is a failure to do a very good job putting “Christian teaching in constructive dialogue with contemporary thought and culture,” whereas for the latter is a shoddy, ad-hoc kind of conservatism which claims to resist such liberalism but at worst takes it on wholesale and in its laziest form, all under the guise that it is “protecting the deposit” entrusted to them. Too harsh?

  9. January 31, 2012 8:40 pm

    Ah, see how hard it is to refrain from conservative-bashing? (winky face)

  10. February 1, 2012 3:18 am

    (church and preacher to remain anonymous)

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