I was “all in” when Rev. Bob Norris suggested we write point-counterpoint articles defining differences between liberal and conservative Christianity. We’re both Christians though our views of what that means vary considerably.
We agreed to write a series of twelve columns over the next year. They’ll appear the first Saturday of each month, each tackling a different doctrinal issue. While neither of us speaks for all our brothers and sisters of the faith, we’ll attempt to provide the basis for defining conservative and liberal Christianity.
I ascribes to a liberal Christian theology. What does that mean? Those who share that theology are variously referred to as liberal, progressive, or mainline Christians. The so-called “mainline” churches include, among others, the United Methodists, Episcopal, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where I am ordained, and the Presbyterians, where I serve as a pastor.
Liberal Christians tend to put less emphasis on a personal relationship with God and more on the belief that faith is about attentiveness to the broader human experience. My personal relationship with the Divine is not so much about my conversion experience, but about working and advocating for justice for the poor and the oppressed.
It is the nature of Christianity described in the Book of Acts when “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.”
Being a part of social reform movements and mission is central to our relationship with God. Most are comfortable with the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Prayer should be taught in our homes and churches, not our schools. There is no single Christian view on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Christianity is itself as pluralistic as the broader society.
We don’t see Christianity as exclusive. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for us, and how we come to understand God. We understand that those whose lives placed them on a different path can attain a meaningful relationship with God without either Jesus or Christianity.
Underlying those beliefs are differences in how liberal Christians understand the authority of scripture. We tend to put greater emphasis on the larger story as opposed to individual verses. We advocate what one theologian calls, the “cognitive demystification” of scripture.
The Bible is one of many sources of God’s truths and revelation. We find comfort in Biblical scholarship. While we cannot peel back the layers far enough to arrive at its original intent, we get closer by studying the language in which the words were written and the historic and cultural times the words addressed.
The Bible is not a book but a library containing more myth and legend than what we think of as history. Myth is more powerful than history. It’s not a science book. Its teachings don’t conflict with the theory of evolution or other science. Science reveals God’s work as humans learn more about the natural environment God created.
The Bible is witness to God rather than the literal word of God, to be interpreted in its historical context through critical analysis with a focus on Jesus' teaching regarding peace, justice, compassion, and love.
Liberals downplay “original” sin as we search for meaning in God’s decision to give us free will. We tend to see evil resulting from the exercise of free will rather than from external forces some call “Satan.” God is good and perfect. Human beings were created fundamentally good and struggle with remaining so.
Bayard Rustin, an adviser to Martin Luther King, spoke about liberal Christian theology when he said of King, “I was always amazed at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental — well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ — but this abiding faith.”
It is where liberal Christians find their “abiding faith.”
Rev. Rodger McDaniel is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church. He received a Juris Doctorate from the University of Wyoming and a Master of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.