Breeching the Liberal/Conservative Divide
In part 1, I discussed the current conversation going on about the nature of liberal Christianity versus conservative Christianity versus progressive Christianity. I put forward the question, “is it possible at all for Christians today to transcend the Red State versus Blue State Manichean mode of thought?”
The following is a brief historical outline of all 3 communities, followed by a description of various markers that each community (at least in my view) finds at its identity.
As a starting point for evangelicalism, I start with George Marsden’s classic, FUNDAMENTALISM AND AMERICAN CULTURE. Marsden argues, that from the beginning, fundamentalism was a movement that came from the North before the time of the Civil War. The Civil War was seen as a millennial event where God’s kingdom, in the eyes of some, prevailed (12-13). This millennialism, perpetuated by middle class Victorian-lite Northerners served as one of the forerunners of fundamentalism (21-22). Fundamentalism is as American as Jeffersonianism, in the sense that fundamentalists adhere to the Scottish Common sense philosophy of Francis Bacon. This faithfulness to Bacon’s philosophy, when applied to Christianity, presupposes that all believers (their words) are capable of understanding the Bible for themselves because God has made God’s word plain; we just need to read it literally. Historically, fundamentalists, and then their heirs, conservative evangelicals concerned themselves with doctrinal purity (the 5 fundamentals– inerrancy, deity of Christ, the Virgin birth, etc.) Fundamentalist figures such as D.L. Moody condemned the Social Gospel movement because it ignored the concern for right ideas/thinking leading to right action.
In order to agree with Marsden, the reader has to see white Protestantism as the religious center of the U.S., with all others (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, black church traditions, etc) remain at the margins. I concede that the fundamentalism movement that became evangelicalism has different segments: it was (and continues to be) interdenominational and includes Calvinist, revivalist, dispensationalist, holiness, pietist and Reformed religionists.
I would argue that today fundamentalism includes pastors such as John Hagee and Mark Driscoll, with one notable difference. Driscoll has added a 6th fundamental that probably be rarely seen in the holiness sections of fundamentalism: complementarianism. I would say that modern evangelicals include thinkers such as Rick Warren and Roger Olsen. The key difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is this: in one family (fundamentalism)– Christianity is purely a counter-cultural phenomena always at war with the world, while in evangelicalism, there is more of a reconciliation and cooperation between Christian societies and the society at large. Even when fundamentalists use social media, it is for the sake of winning the (White) Culture Wars.
I have a deep appreciation for both Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism to the extent that they promote a faithfulness to Scripture, as well as our reconciliation from God coming from the Blood of Jesus. While I do not see for theological and exegetical reasons why Penal Substitutionary atonement has to have a monopoly on Christendom, I can see its appeal and freedom in forgiveness.
In his work, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Gary Dorrien argues that American liberal Christen has always served as a third way between religious fundamentalism and atheistic rationalism. And it is from that starting point that I disagree with non-believers and conservatives alike who compare liberal Christians with complete skeptics. The Unitarian beginnings of American liberal theology began as a revolt versus the proponents of the offensive doctrines of total depravity, double predestination as well as the doctrine of the Trinity (volume 1, pages 1-3). Simply put, liberal Protestant theology was a reaction against the Calvinist variety of fundamentalism. In the third volume of Dorrien’s work, he ventures to suggest in several chapters that process theology would be the wave of the future for liberal theology. However, is process theism’s insistence on an impersonal deity consistent with the history of liberal Christianity? I would argue no. There was a class of theologians, whom Dorrien discusses, called the Boston Personalists. As such, the divine is viewed as personal, contrary to the impersonal naturalism of the Chicago Post-Ritschlian school of thinkers such as William H. Brown. This is where Dr. Al Mohler has to be corrected– the liberal tradition, like the conservative tradition affirms a personal deity. It is only when the Post-Ritschlian’s want to get away from texts deemed “too Jewish” that some liberals opt for an impersonal god (Volume 2, page 183).
The active personality of God, for liberals, does not mean an adherence to 66 books, but rather an encounter with God in the here and now. Taking this leap from the evangelical emphasis on the conversion experience to universal understandings of the human experiences, the liberal could then serve as a mediator between Christianity and the American polis. The notion of experience then would make the conservative and liberal traditions much more fluid than we would like to admit, yes?
On one level, while I may be suspicious of the liberal and his talk about experience, on another level, I cannot really deny its importance. While conservatives focus on conserves what they believe to be things in Christianity which should be declared immutable, liberals look at things which can be changed. If one’s contemporary experience does not compute with some of the doctrines of “THE CHURCH,” then maybe our understanding of that teaching ought to be re-taught. I can see the appeal of liberal theology for the modern mind, for maybe it could make Christianity more accessible to modern persons.
In my last and third post, I will discuss the markers of progressive theology and offer a possible 4th way of approaching Christianity.