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What Kind of Christianity Most Influences Society?

January 22, 2014

A fierce battle over approaches to Christian faith has waged in this country for over a century (actually over two, but more intense and focused in the last century or so).

A recent book on the subject is Liberalism Without Illusions.  This book has provided for posts, with discussion, on a blog by Professor Scot McKnight of  “Jesus Creed“, on, a large aggregation of religious and spiritual blogs.  

The title of his article today is “20th Century, Who Won? Liberals or Fundamentalists?” McKnight quickly lays out four questions for discussion.  I decide to respond to one of them in a comment, which I’d like to post here also, with some modifications.

So this was the question: “Are liberals addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of the culture?” My answer is round-about, but I will end up with something fairly direct.  It is an attempt to simplify what is the core issue while recognizing the complexity of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

A. N. Whitehead, Father of Process Thought in British/American form

A. N. Whitehead, Father of Process Thought in British/American form

Some of the comments in the discussion seem be about what/where is the “middle” between extremes? I’m not sure “extremes” is the proper word… maybe “camps”.  What goes to the core, I think, without being too reductionistic, is to say that the traditional Christian and liberal Christian camps represent various forms of 1) supernaturalism (or classic theism) and 2) naturalism (or deism/practical atheism).

When posed that way, as the situation generally is, it becomes very hard to have a middle position. Technically (linguistically) not possible, bottom line. Thus, quite a few people like me who were either heavily involved in Evangelicalism or know it pretty well, have consciously sought out a different paradigm. We don’t think it needs to come down to either-or. (Either God or no God–practically speaking.)  We try to revise the questions (and the vision of positions along a spectrum re. God’s role as either involved or uninvolved). We find “evidence for faith” in some kind of “God”, but find it better to ask “HOW is God involved with us?” (rather than “Is God involved or not?”). When posed this way, there is a lot to explore and discuss.

Now, the strict polarity of theism (traditional Christianity) vs. deism/atheism (Enlightenment thought/classic liberalism) HAS broken down some over the 125-150 years of the “Fundy-liberal” battles, within the broader church. I see this in some thinkers, as commenters mentioned, including Barth, Moltmann (perhaps, I don’t know his thinking that well; maybe “liberation” in general), McLaren, and others not specifically “Process”. However, the polarity is still pretty stark and influential in practice culturally, or culture-wide, via the science and religion divide. I think addressing this is a “Christian” (as well as humanitarian) issue of high order.

The only theological system I know of which has consciously and repeatedly been addressing this dysfunctional dualism in sensible, rational ways which avoid the rationalist excesses of the Enlightenment is Process theology (not just Open Theology). Process tends to take seriously our spiritual nature and needs much more than I believe the earlier (and some current) liberalism did. At least it does in my case… making a large place for “spiritual phenomena” but without making them the exclusive domain of Judaism/Christianity.  This addresses many aspects of personal spirituality and “man’s search for meaning”.

Similarly, Process is very purposeful in challenging both the Church and science (deserves a capital “S”, really) to not only interact with one another but to stop avoiding the exploration of the many spiritual phenomena which tend to challenge the over-simplified and inadequate positions of both these culture-forming institutions.   

So that, hopefully, comes around to speaking to the question of addressing needs or anxieties of our culture, with a LOT of hope!

What kind of hope do you have (or not have)? Either personally or for our national or global society? 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 22, 2014 3:58 pm

    With my political focus on empowering deliberative democracy, I’m not so concerned with middle ground as I am common ground. I think I’m aligned with Jim Wallis of Sojourners on this point, even though he is an evangelical (albeit progressive).

    To be blunt, any theological debate over which there is no agreed upon epistemological basis for arbitrating the debate seems quite pointless (and indeed counterproductive). Trinitarianism or Unitarianism; Virgin birth or not; the existence, nature (and duration) of Hell; whether the devil made one do it; and other such questions seem outside the scope of rational resolution, and quite beside the point of imitating Christ. It is only around the question of what it means to be a follower of Christ that I’m motivated to find sufficient common ground to reshape our cultural/economic/political ethos.

    And of course on that score, I’m not interested in debating whether Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad had better or more complete clarity on the transcendent. As one who has been immersed since birth in a Western paradigm, who has read the Bible three times as a child (and the Koran zero times), and whose friends are overwhelmingly either atheist/secular or Christian, I simply find myself far more comfortable orienting my personal spirituality around Jesus, and around the subsequent Christian mystics, who in my view have a better grasp of what it means to be “Christ centered” than those who cling to their fear based conceptions of God, and their fetishes about purity.



    • January 23, 2014 3:05 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Norlyn! I completely agree with the centering point of coming to relative agreement on what it means to follow Christ, and supporting the efforts of people and groups in doing so.

      At the same time, I also find that people have an insatiable drive/curiosity for understanding the context (what “reality” is) and meaning of their lives, both as human and as a particular person…. For that, the pursuit of the more abstract aspects of religion and spirituality does have value as well. And especially so when a bit of clear thinking and good observing can help put to rest the strong anxieties many carry because of bad religious teachings.

  2. Felix Alexander permalink
    January 23, 2014 3:49 am

    I don’t think it’s fair to recast Scot McKnight’s question about liberalism vs fundamentalism as supernaturalism/classic theism vs naturalism/deism.

    Fundamentalism is surely based around a certain view of scripture and the correctness of certain interpretations of it; surely you know what they are: certain forms of creationism, the documentary value of Torah (e.g. Adam and Eve and the Exodus as “literal history”) being inviolable, certain views on the atonement being acceptable, others being apostate.

    But I think it’s probable that for most of human existence these things have not been assumed by supernaturalists, classic theists or Christians. Even most Christians who affirm views associated with fundamentalism when asked probably do nothing with them; holding views like these probably doesn’t affect much about how they act and what they say independently.

    I also disagree that liberals didn’t do enough with our spiritual nature because I suspect that a lot of what you classify under that banner is materialist/psychological. But I haven’t read enough of what you’ve written to be certain of this, and I don’t think my views would be acceptable to liberal Christians, so I shouldn’t say anything more.

    As for me, I hope in a god who makes promises and keeps them. I hope I might get a wife and children. And I hope we don’t bring about the end of the world before god plans it.

    • January 23, 2014 3:22 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Felix. Glad to have you contribute and let us know you a bit! Sounds like you have given these issues some real thought, and perhaps also formal study.

      I completely agree that I was focusing on only one aspect of what all McKnight’s short article and four questions covered, let alone the range within the book (which I’ve not read myself, but seen another summary or two about). And yes, the view and treatment of Scripture is very key, perhaps central, in the conservative-liberal differences (along with views of authority more broadly).

      I “picked on” the supernatural/natural distinction because I’m convinced it IS the way many people on both “ends” of the spectrum frame things. And taking that as such a common focus of religion (that God not only exists but intervenes for us personally and for humankind) smacks up against the methodology of science which (almost of necessity) rules out any such thing. And science has generally taken it beyond methodology to presupposing that God CANNOT exist (or DOES NOT), in any form. With that has vanished the whole realm of “the spirit” or things “spiritual”, as far as most of intellectual culture and education in the West.

      Now, I’m a lover of God/spirituality (even “religion” if rightly qualified), and also a lover of science. But I feel both have overstepped their bounds and locked themselves into defensive and/or aggressive positions toward one another. I see older liberalism as having sided too closely with science for the most part, though certainly not completely. But I’m much encouraged by the work of many progressives and Process people (in which I include myself), who take a more open, “re-enchantment”-of-reality view and support “scientific” study of spiritual phenomena, of religion, etc.

      If you’d like to see a little more of why I see the naturalism/supernaturalism dichotomy as such an important issue to be understood and discussed, I highly recommend a very short (and readable for educated lay people) book, “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” by David Ray Griffin.

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