Throughout this month, we’ve looked at different categories of people and asked how they, given their convictions, can best work alongside those they disagree with. A lot of what we’ve dealt with has been totally subjective—I get that—but I hope the exercise has demonstrated that everyone has something to bring to the table. Despite your own hang-ups with any of these positions, hopefully you’ve been pushed to recognize the virtue of Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and religious conservatives—and hopefully, this week, you’ll be pushed to see what’s possible for Christian liberals.
Before we get into it, though, we need to deal with some obligatory definition stuff. To understand left-wing Christianity, it’s important to recognize that it is even harder to define than last week’s topic, Christian conservatives. Part of the difficulty roots in the lack of limits as to what is acceptable liberal doctrine. Another part has to do with the term “liberal” itself. You see, Liberal Christianity is the name for an actual movement within the faith, taking place after the Enlightenment period and extending to today. It was defined by its undogmatic method of hermeneutics, seeking to read the Bible by the same standards applied to any other work of literature. While Liberal Christianity has certainly influenced the demographic we’re going to look at today, it’s only part of the picture. A more broad term for our topic would be “progressive” Christianity with a focus on the left-leaning branches of the mainline churches.
If your mind still needs some filtering, think of Christianity typical on either coast or in urban centers. Or better yet, look at last week’s post and imagine the opposite of the demographics described there—we’re looking at wealthier and more educated, generally less prayerful or practicing Christians. Though, again, these are broad strokes.
When analyzing this sort of religion, three themes seem to be constant across progressive Christianity: acceptance, an open way of reading the Bible, and compassion.
This trait of progressive Christianity is perhaps their most well known—and maybe their most mocked. But despite any criticism, central to the liberal Christian’s worldview is the need to be accepting and inclusive of all people.
This can take different forms or manifest to different degrees. It may mean, that these Christians seek socio-economic as well as racial diversity in their churches, or it may mean they throw off Christian tradition when it comes to women’s leadership in their congregation. It may also mean that they advocate for LGBT+ issues in the Church, or that they reject the doctrine of hell, or they emphasize inter-religious dialogue.
An Open Reading
Many of the beliefs of progressive Christians root in their “open hermeneutic.” By this we mean that they are not limited to traditional ways of reading the Bible. In fact, they often seek out interpretations that best coincide with their forward-moving view of the world.
This way of interpreting the Bible comes from Liberal Protestantism, discussed above. At its most basic form, it suggests that we can best understand Scripture when we read it using modern tools of interpretation, reading it like any other written work. However, some contemporary progressives have abandoned this for a more postmodern way of reading, focusing on the needs of the Church and the Bible’s function as narrative. Both ways of reading—the modern and postmodern—are active in progressive circles today.
The third thread that binds liberal Christians is their emphasis on compassion. While all Christians acknowledge the importance of all biblical virtues, most Christians focus on select traits—it’s only human—and for progressives, that trait is generally compassion and care. This means you’ll see these Christians doing a lot more benevolence work, both domestically and internationally. It also manifests in their personal relationships, looking out for the mental and physical health of those around them.
This maps up with Jonathan Haidt’s theory regarding the pillars of morality. We see in his work that what characterizes liberals, both political and religious, is their emphasis on compassion above other virtues. For them, it is not some sort of fixation, but rather a reasonable result of the value of compassion compared to other virtues.
There’s a lot to be commended for Christian liberals. They are extremely effective in their outreach by virtue of their inclusivity; they naturally make people feel welcome. And through their acceptance and compassion, they dramatically demonstrate the greatest commandment—not some ambiguous form of love that is synonymous with any other Christian virtue, but love as it was meant to be understood. Beyond that, they can demonstrate the best of biblical interpretation with academic and intellectual honesty.
Still, they have plenty of issues. While many practice responsible hermeneutics, many let their agenda (often of acceptance and compassion) guide them in their interpretation, leading to intellectually dishonest results. Similarly, their focus on compassion can blind them to the merits of other virtues and sometimes even lead them to disavow a “holy” way of living altogether—a way of living set apart from the world.
So how can one be a good liberal? As with every group we’ve looked at, it requires realizing what you’re not good at or what you’re neglecting. For liberals, that probably means recapturing a distinctive character, not one shaped by culture, but one that shapes culture itself. But it also means continuing to ask questions, not accepting tradition for tradition’s sake, but exploring truth and looking to optimize one’s blessing in the world.
Republicans that listen to the experts, Democrats that are fiscally responsible, Libertarians that prize compassion over efficiency, Conservatives that look beyond tradition, and Liberals that live holy lives—these are not fantasies but possibilities, and sometimes even realities, already being played out by those around us. All we must do is join them.