Keepers of Another Option
When I get one of those frequent phone calls in which someone wants to know what kind of church this is, what I’d like to do is answer the question with one word and hope to be understood. But the word I have in mind has been misused and degraded by certain talk radio people and politicians until it’s almost impossible to say it without hearing mental doors slam shut. So I fall back on dictionary definitions of this word, and without using the word itself I apply those definitions to this church. I say that we favor maximum individual freedom in matters of faith; that we strive to be free from prejudice, bigotry and intolerance; that we are willing on occasion to question the relevance of tradition and the logic of authority; and that we embrace the help of both modern scholarship and modern science in understanding the Bible and religion.
You are probably thinking, “Yes, that’s us. That’s how we feel about about matters of Christian faith.” But have you guessed by now what you might be called by someone who quarrels with one or more of those attitudes? Well, it’s the ‘l’ word, and if you flinch, it’s because the word liberal has been corrupted and smeared until what should be a compliment has become in far too many minds an insult. With millions of people listening to The Black Avenger rave on about what he calls egg-sucking-dog liberals, or to Rush Limbaugh spewing the word liberal out of his mouth as if it were some vile and deadly poison, good, open dialogue tends to come to a crashing halt when one calls oneself a “liberal” — whether one is alking talking about politics or religion. Yet when I think of the classic definitions of that word I’m resentful that I can’t use it without being misunderstood. Which is why, instead of using convenient shorthand, I have to run through that list of definitions instead.
I am not alone, of course, in being troubled by the great gulf between the denotative or dictionary meaning of the word liberal , and the connotative or associative meanings it has taken on. I came across a couple of paragraphs last week from James Michener’s autobiography that show how strongly he felt about not allowing the word liberal , even the phrase knee-jerk liberal , to insult him Here is his defiant declaration:
“A charge that can be lodged against me is that I am a knee-jerk liberal, for I confess to that sin. When I find that a widow has been left penniless and alone with three children, my knee jerks. When I learn that funds for a library have been diminished almost to the vanishing point, my knee jerks. When I find that a playground for children is being closed down while a bowling alley for grown men is being opened, my knee jerks. When men of ill intent cut back on teachers’ salaries and lunches for children, my knee jerks. When the free flow of ideas is restricted, when health services are denied whole segments of the population,….when I learn that all the universities in Texas combined graduated two future teachers qualified to teach calculus but more than 500 trained to coach football, my knee jerks, and I hope never to grow so old or indifferent that I can listen to wrong and immoral choices being made without my knee flashing a warning…..When I have been dead 10 years and a family comes to tend the flowers on the grave next to mine, and they talk about the latest pitiful inequity plaguing their town, they will hear a rattling from my grave and can properly say: ‘That’s Jim again. His knee is still jerking.”
Now this is where both political and religious terms like liberal and conservative really get tricky, because they may both claim the same attitudes and even the same goals, differing, they will point out, mostly on how to reach those goals. I think Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter’s definitions are fair to both sides: “Conservatives….may be defined as those who think that on the whole things are all right and you better not tinker much with them” while “liberals may be defined as those who think that there is enormous room for improvement.” In terms of social and economic matters I swing back and forth, depending on the specific issues, and I resist and resent labels that would paint me into a permanent corner. Labels are equally limiting in discussions about religion, but when nothing will do but a quick answer I fall back on the word liberal to describe my approach to Christian faith and Biblical scholarship. It was not always so. I grew up in a fundamentalist church and home, with parents as steady and loving as millions of fundamentalist Christians are. It was both exhilarating and painful to discover a wider and more accepting world than we knew, but my love and respect for my parents never altered for a moment, and in the great goodness of their hearts they never stopped loving me despite my fall from what they considered grace.
My interest in religion is considerably more intense than my interest in politics, so I try not to politicize this pulpit and my edginess this morning about derogatory uses of the word liberal has to do primarily with dialogues about Christian faith. I was thinking about all this a week or so ago when I happened to notice a book on my library shelves which I had not re-read since I first bought it some years ago because of a title that intrigued me: The Case for Liberal Christianity. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that open-minded and tolerant Christians urgently need to put their case persuasively, so I dug into it with high hopes. Unfortunately, the author (Donald Miller) chose to address specialists in a dry academic style, so I gave up the idea of recommending it for our library, but it had some helpful thoughts I would like to pass along this morning.
The author defines what liberal Christianity is, and how a liberal church must function if it hopes to make a good case for itself to the public. He is convinced that Christianity is not the exclusive property of any single group, and that liberal faith is a valid option with a long and honorable past. Since I believe passionately that churches like this one are essential keepers of that option, I want to share some of his insights. There is the matter, first of all, of attitude toward the Bible. The fundamentalist Christian takes the writings of Scripture to be identical with the reality of God. The liberal Christian takes them to be a gathering of men’s reflections about God, reflections that are a mere shadow of ultimate reality. If that sounds interesting but still vague, the author uses Plato’s famous analogy of the cave to try to make it clearer.
A group of prisoners are chained in a cave so they can look only at one wall. On that wall they see figures dancing, and they accept the figures as real, not knowing that they are only shadows thrown by objects of wood or stone held up in front of a bright fire which is burning in back of them. They have never seen the fire. They have never seen anything except the shadows. One day the chains are removed from the neck of one of the prisoners so that for the first time he can look around. He suddenly becomes aware that the shapes he has taken for reality are only shadows, and that the flickering fire is what made them dance. A new reality is opened up. Life is not what he thought it was. It is much more complicated and it will require a new approach.
The parable ends by telling how one day the chains are removed also from the man’s legs , so that he can venture towards still another source of light which he notices farther back, in a tunnel which seems to lead somewhere. He struggles up the narrow, rocky path and when he reaches the mouth of the cave he is blinded momentarily, as he had been when he saw the fire for the first time, only this time he is blinded by a much greater fire — the sun. He has journeyed to light beyond light, and for the first time he looks out on the wonder of a world infinitely more challenging than his small cave. It is exhilarating, but it is also very painful at the first. He feels disoriented, lost, bewildered.
If you have had the kind of experience most liberal Christians have had, that is, an intellectual crisis about some items of orthodox Christian doctrine, you can see how well this famous story fits what happened to you. “Do I really believe that a personal Devil prompts people to do evil? Were we created in the full knowledge that the vast majority of us would struggle with life for a few years and then pay for our mistakes in an eternal lake of fire, while a handful of the elect would play harps in a heaven of golden streets? How do I reconcile what I’ve been told about the love and goodness of God with all the volcanoes and earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, which have brought such monstrous suffering to millions in the brief history of human life?”
So you may wrestle with certain items of faith planted in childhood until one day the truth seems far more complex than you had thought. At first you feel guilty to think of yourself as having been in prison because, after all, the bars of it were shaped by good and loving people, and they had for such a long time been sacrosanct — not to be touched or questioned lest you seem disloyal to your parents and your church, both of whom had worked so hard to provide you with a sense of certainty.
Most people in this sort of crisis choose finally to stay where they were. If they catch a brief glimpse of the excitement and dangers of freedom, they turn back from it like those longtime prisoners we read about at times who get released from jail only to find the world outside too bewildering, and ask to be let back in to prison. I have often seen people turn their heads slightly in a new direction, take a few steps toward some new light, and then decide by an act of will that they are simply more comfortable facing the wall they have always looked at. It’s a choice they have the right to make, and it would be arrogant to think that because they do that they no longer contribute to human good. One may even be tempted sometimes to envy their absolute certainty that the world they know is the only world there is.
But my concern this morning is not with them, but with those who have discovered that beyond the familiar cave in which they grew up, there is a world of endless adventure. Do people who turn and look, and find their intelligence at odds with much of what they once believed — do these people still have a rightful place in the Christian religion? I ask it because, as you know, once you turn and say, “I’ve seen another light out there,” one of the common reactions is for those who love the familiar wall to question your spiritual health. So it’s important to be reminded occasionally that if one option is stay through a lifetime where one was first placed, another option is to think of faith as a journey — to accept the idea that as one reads and travels and finds new ways of comparing and judging things, the nature of reality will be seen differently.
In this audience there have been dozens of spiritual journeys like the one I am describing, and it is imperative for you to know that your way of expressing Christian faith is a valid and classic option. So what is it like, this liberal approach to religion? Well, first of all, it has given up the comforts of absolute certainty for a more tentative approach. Miracle and mystery and authority, that holy trinity of conservative faith, play a less important role in liberal Christianity. Instead of finding a miracle in some law of nature which God is said to have suspended, it is more likely to find a miracle in a broken relationship which has been healed. Instead of being excited about finding the lost ark on some remote mountaintop, it is excited about finding ways of making peace and of closing the gap between those with all the advantages and those with none.
Because it takes keen intelligence to get some of those things done, the liberal Christian has always been a great champion of learning and has helped found some of the greatest universities in this country. Not the technical or vocational training schools, essential as they are. Not the small denominational college where teachers must first sign a contract to express only the views of the sponsoring church. But schools which range freely far and wide in the search for truth. The building in which I spent years of my life teaching was called the Liberal Arts and Sciences building, and I was proud of the kind of education that name represents.
But nothing worth while is without risk, and the danger for liberal Christianity is intellectual snobbery and remoteness from poverty, pain and suffering. In the past 27 years I have served two theologically liberal churches in Wichita and neither of them succumbed to that temptation. In addition to church-sponsored benevolences, individual members of both churches are deeply involved with all sorts of civic volunteerism and outreach projects. They do not lack warm and caring hearts.
And while theological differences are important, and it is wise to find a church that matches where you are, Jesus makes it clear over and over that we are judged by what we do and not by what we call ourselves.
Gracious God, may each passing week show us better ways of helping and healing, and may we be quick to embrace them in the name of
Christ our Lord. Amen.