#ChristianUnity: What Real Christians of Every Tradition Share

The first in the Stream's special series on #ChristianUnity

Detail of Jesus from Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

By Jay Richards Published on October 24, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the first piece in our series on Christian Unity.

You might find The Stream a weird coalition of incompatible authors. What are lovers of the Latin Mass doing alongside people who raise their hands in church? How do James Robison and Keith Fournier get along so well, when they disagree about so much? Conversely, why do liberal Catholics comport so smoothly with liberal Presbyterians and lesbian Methodist bishops? This isn’t how things are supposed to work, is it?

Look closely for an answer, and you’ll find what faithful Mennonites, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Catholics and Russian Orthodox Christians share with each other. You’ll find our source of unity: We think God is real.

This might seem trivial. But many people who identify as Christians don’t believe that. Not really. Not in the common sense of the word “God.”

Liberal Theology

I’m talking of course about liberal theology. I don’t mean Christians who want bigger government. I mean the naturalistic theology that came out of early 19th century Germany. It seeks to “demythologize” the faith (to quote 20th century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann). Any hint of the supernatural gets nipped and tucked and explained away. Liberal theology uses Christian terms, but redefines them accordingly.

You know that story about Jesus multiplying the fish and the loaves? The real miracle, a liberal theologian will tell you, isn’t some silly magic trick. The miracle is that when a young boy shared his lunch, he inspired thousands of others to do the same!

You can find this theology among Catholics, Protestants and — I assume — Orthodox Christians as well. Attend almost any mainline seminary, and you’ll stub your toe on it.

Liberal Christianity is like the crusty shell that cicadas leave behind: the shape without the content.

You know that business about God creating the universe, coming to earth, being born of a virgin, working miracles, dying for our sins, and rising from the dead? For liberal theology, it’s hokum. Only illiterate cave-dwellers and “fundamentalists” could believe all that. These beliefs, as Bultmann put it, are “impossible in this age of electric light and the wireless.”

I’ve never figured out how the existence of a radio proves that God can’t work miracles.

Above Us Only Sky

In any case, the main problem with liberal theology is not that it uses bad arguments. The problem is that it’s not Christianity. Calvinist J. Gresham Machen argued that back in 1923. Although he was staunchly anti-Catholic, he recognized that Catholics were fellow Christians, whereas fellow liberal Presbyterians were … something else.

Liberal Christianity is like the crusty shell that cicadas leave behind: the shape without the content.

The content of Christianity is supernatural. C.S. Lewis put it well. He argued that you can’t remove the miraculous from Christianity

because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.

If what Lewis said is right, then there are lots of people who identify as Christians, who aren’t. In terms of belief, a Catholic who affirms the Apostles’ Creed is closer to a Baptist who does the same, than either one is to a liberal Catholic or Baptist.

From Liberal Theology to Leftwing Politics

I was first exposed to this kind of liberal theology in college. When I was a freshman, a prominent theologian from Harvard Divinity School came to speak on my campus. He claimed that God isn’t a personal Creator of the universe. God is an “imaginative construct.” God is “that which humanizes and relativizes” us. The take home lesson? Since there is no God in heaven to save us from ourselves, he said, all good Christians should support unilateral nuclear disarmament. (It was 1985 and Ronald Reagan was in the White House.)

That’s a nice summary of the whole liberal program in theology. Embrace naturalism, redefine old theological terms and then use them to advance progressivism. (For another example, see Liberation Theology.)

Huh?

But what’s the argument that gets you from liberal theology to left wing politics? It’s not like naturalism entails progressivism. If I ceased to believe in a God who transcends the universe, I might become an agnostic. I wouldn’t decide the U.N. was great. If I quit believing that Jesus rose from the dead, I would cease to be a Christian. I wouldn’t conclude that single-payer health care must be a good idea.

Why do liberal Christians so rarely become, say, monarchists or libertarians? There are plenty of unbelievers in libertarian circles. And yet there’s no libertarian equivalent to the National Council of Churches.

Why is it that liberal Christians (that is, naturalists who speak Christianese) are almost always leftists?

Leftover Fragments

Here’s my theory. Almost no one converts to liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity is an off-ramp for some Christians who lose their way. (See Rob Bell.) Maybe they fall prey to naturalism in college or seminary. Maybe a trusted pastor abused them. Or perhaps they like the trappings of Christianity but adopt a lifestyle that contradicts it.

For whatever reason, they don’t bite the bullet and become atheists. They retain vague, Christian moral intuitions and patterns of speech but abandon the Christian view of reality. They are thus left with idea-fragments — the value of the individual, our social nature, the goodness of creation — but nothing to anchor these ideas.

Alas, as G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said, “When man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” So, having abandoned belief in eternal life and the triune God, liberal Christians search for worldly substitutes. They seem to have settled on three: the Self, the State and the Natural World.

The Worldly Trinity

When it comes to sex and reproduction, the Self is all-powerful. It has the right to destroy innocent, unborn human beings, and the power to turn a man into a woman … just by willing it.

Liberal Christians don’t pursue that logic to the end. If they did, they might end up as disciples of Ayn Rand. Outside that private, pelvic sphere, they give the State jurisdiction. Every moral and social problem becomes, at bottom, a political problem, with a political solution.

But what about problems that affect people outside our borders? That’s where the U.N. comes in.

The U.N. is also the chief enforcer of our duties to the only plausible creator that remains, Nature Herself.

Of course, reconciling these jealous deities is a bit … awkward. But how else to explain an ideology that wants a transnational entity to force the extreme individualism of the gender identity movement on Sub-Saharan Africans? Yet that’s where the left, including the Christian left, has ended up. Have a look at the policies of the lobbying arms of most Mainline denominations.

That’s the trouble with false gods. There’s no guarantee they’ll all get along, or give rise to anything like Christianity.

But if you’re a faithful Christian distressed by all the divisions in the Body of Christ: Cheer up! The distance between faithful Lutherans, Pentecostals and Catholics is minor compared to the distance between real Christianity and its liberal counterfeit.

 

Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Jay, I would venture to say that we are closer to some atheists than we are to liberal Christians. Atheists, at least, are honest about it.

    • Ronky

      True. And the majority of atheists take pains to show respect to others’ Christian or other religious beliefs and practices, which they assume are firmly and sincerely held. e.g. an atheist visiting a Catholic church imitating Catholics’ behaviour by genuflecting to the Tabernacle, in order to “be respectful”.
      Quite often, “liberal” Christians go out of their way to make plain their DISrespect and contempt for anyone who demonstrates genuine belief in Christian doctrines.

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Well stated. As Mr Richards implies there is really no such thing as “liberal Christianity”.
    Sure, there are believers whose relative understanding of the scripture is no deterrent against philosophical positions that reject biblical concepts that contemporary culture supports. Disregard for the sanctity of life, transgender politics & practically every other cause celeb of the left illustrates this all too well. For these perhaps well meaning folk, their faith may be sincere , but they have yet to allow it to effect their lives very much. Until they come to terms w/the biblical mandate for a renewed mind, they will likely continue to skip down that politically correct path. Jesus prayed for a unity among believers that would transcend everything the world knows anything about. One reason the unbeliever has yet to know that God sent Jesus into this world & has loved them is because they’ve yet to see much if any real unity across the wide spectrum of expressions of the faith.
    For that matter the Master questioned whether or not He would find faith on the earth upon His return. Seems that too many believers may be taking faith for granted. Having faith is a whole lot more than assenting to an undeveloped & underworked spiritual faculty God so graciously provided for our benefit & His. Jesus prayed for the unity of His body representing Him on earth. So, if Jesus’ prayers meant anything & they did, we can one day look forward to a day when Christianity is acknowledged to be something way more significant than an alternative to political correctness …

  • Here’s my theory. The fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom, leaving off belief in God leads directly to foolishness, which is what modern liberalism amounts to.

  • selahgreene

    Mr. Richards, you have a much better grasp of atheism/agnosticism than G.K. Chesterton did. Chesterton’s claim (“When man ceases to worship God, he does not worship nothing but worships everything) is a bit too broad. The worldly trinity you describe is a perfect expression of Satan’s counterfeiting of all things Godly – that trinity being the self, the state, and nature.

    The post-modern, post-Christian religion of Humanism encompasses that trinity perfectly – placing Self on the ultimate throne, along with all the foibles, phobias, and maladjustments that come from this pathological narcissism. Satan has a firm grip on our culture, and is infusing it with his fatal “I” disease: “I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God. I will erect my throne; I will sit on the Mount of Assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Those who put pride in self over God endorse Satan’s mission statement fully.

    Selfists insist on making God in their own image, and the first step to doing that is the denial of the supernatural God, replacing the supernatural God with Humanism – human knowledge, wisdom, philosophy, science, technology, etc. The Word from God is allegorized, Jesus reduced to a one-dimensional wise teacher and therapist, and His commandments become the archaic requirements of another age.

    Those capable of putting themselves over God will naturally feel the need to impose their wisdom on others, hence the love of the tyrannical, all-intrusive state – which the Humanists will control, of course. The Gaia worship, the worship of nature, is
    simply a handy replacement for the worship of the one true God, filling a spiritual void that is present in every human since the expulsion from Eden and from the presence of the Lord, and providing the Humanists with another tool for controlling others.

    A universal trait of the ‘Liberal’ church, whether New Age or Purpose Driven, is a repugnance for the idea of atonement, of the need for God to come to earth in human form and die as our substitutional sacrifice. Many of the Emergent pastors openly reject that idea. Thinking of themselves as sinners in need of salvation is reprehensible to these wolves in sheeps’
    clothing, and so they ‘re-imagine’ sin as separation from God, not as missing His mark. The concept of sin is eliminated, replaced by a more benign concept of ignorance of the common good. God’s standards are fluid, and made to fit
    the culture of the day; and our culture of self-indulgence, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-realization, self-esteem, and self-aggrandizement cannot tolerate a judgmental God.

    Paul warned Timothy that in the last days some will abandon faith and follow deceitful spirits, the teachings of demons and the hypocrisy of liars. We are in those last days.

    • Tim Pan

      Nice. Very well argued.

  • ef hort

    A lot of really smart people leaving comments here. I’m encouraged.

    • Vincent J.

      Unfortunately, I’m not as smart as most who post here, so I hesitate to add my two cents, but I do well to read and learn.

  • Well here’s something that may warm your heart:

    Gay Catholics In Wisconsin Can Be Denied Funeral Rites To Avoid “Scandal And Confusion”

    From NewNowNext(dot)com:

    Internal guidelines from the Catholic diocese in Madison, Wisconsin, reveal that gay people in same-sex relationships can be denied church funerals to avoid “scandal or confusion.” The concern, is that others might believe the Church accepts gay marriage.

    A memo from Vicar James Bartylla regarding “Consideration of Funeral Rites for a Person in a Homosexual Civil or Notorious Union” was sent to priests of the diocese as part of a weekly email. It was posted on the blog Pray Tell, and included several questions, including whether the deceased or their surviving partner was “a promoter of the ’gay’ lifestyle” and “did the deceased give some signs of repentance before death?”

    The directive also maintain that a surviving spouse or partner “should not have any public or prominent role at any ecclesiastical funeral rite or service… There should be no mention of the ’partner’ [quotes theirs] either by name or by other reference (nor reference to the unnatural union) in any liturgical booklet, prayer card, homily, sermon, talk by the priest, deacon, etc.”

    And forget about an obituary.

    “A great risk for scandal and confusion is for the name of the celebrating priest and/or the parish to be listed in any public (e.g., newspaper) or semi-public obituary or notice that also lists the predeceased or surviving “partner” in some manner.”

    “This can’t happen for obvious reasons,” the document adds.

    An Indiana man was prohibited from singing at his grandmother’s funeral last year because he was gay. Father Bob Lengerich told Conor Hakes he had a responsibility to address “issues that could scandalize our community.”

  • Trilemma

    How does Rob Bell not believe in God in the common sense of the word “God?”

    Many liberal Christians affirm the Apostle’s Creed. The creed doesn’t claim God is triune. It doesn’t claim there is a Hell. It doesn’t make any claims about the Bible. It doesn’t claim God is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. That leaves a lot of room for alternative interpretations of the Bible.

    • Jay W. Richards

      I defined liberal theology as replacing traditional theology with naturalism–of changing the settled meanings of words and texts (such as “affirming” the Apostle’s Creed but thinking it says nothing about God’s being triune). Naturalism is logically incompatible with theism in general and Christianity in particular.

      • Jay W. Richards

        Note that I referred to Rob Bell as a Christian who has lost his way. Not as an atheist.

        • Royce E. Van Blaricome

          A Christian who has lost his way? I’d say more like an apostate – a Christian who walked away.

      • Trilemma

        I agree that liberal theology replaces traditional theology with naturalism and rationalism. However, I think replacing traditional theology with a theology based on a different interpretation of the Bible is not liberal Christianity but Progressive Christianity. So I consider Rob Bell a Progressive Christian because his belief in universalism is based on a different interpretation of the Bible rather than the adoption of naturalism. I know the terms liberal Christianity and Progressive Christianity are often used interchangeably and that they do overlap but I tend to think of liberal Christianity being more like Thomas Jefferson’s Christian deism or theistic rationalism. I view Progressive Christianity as sitting between traditional Christianity and liberal Christianity.

        Personally, I don’t see the Apostles Creed claiming God is triune. It mentions the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit but it doesn’t tie them together as one triune God. That doesn’t show up until the Nicene Creed and then fully developed in Athanasian Creed.

  • Anthony Shewan

    Thank you Jay – our western culture of the 21st century is an increasingly apt example of Chesterton’s observation.
    Keep the series coming. Those that truly fervently believe in the one true God now need to speak aloud and as one. And pray. Whether it be a rosary, prayer group, Bible study, seminary – show love to each other and those that have fallen away.
    Maybe the lukewarm need to re-read the advice to the church in Laodicea Rev 3:16

  • Ken Abbott

    I strongly recommend everyone read “Christianity and Liberalism,” the Machen book cited and linked above by Mr. Richards. It explains a great deal about our times even if written almost a century ago.

  • Royce E. Van Blaricome

    “You’ll find our source of unity: We think God is real.”

    Yeah, well, Satan and his demons think God is real too. Is he part of your “unity” as well? So there’s that.

    Then you end with “The distance between faithful Lutherans, Pentecostals and Catholics is minor compared to the distance between real Christianity and its liberal counterfeit.” Evidently you missed a little thing called the Reformation, the Council of Trent, and the various canons from it that pronounce Protestants as Anathema. How does one have unity with those who proclaim you accursed AND preach a different gospel?

    • Bryan

      I believe there is less proclamation of Protestants being cursed by Catholics than there was during the Reformation. Some of the things that Luther showed were wrong with the Catholic church of that time have changed within the Catholic church. It’s certainly not everything, otherwise the Catholics and the Lutheran’s would have merged together, maybe. I don’t think there is the level of animosity that was prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries between Catholics and most Protestants anymore. So I agree with Mr. Richards. In terms of theology, I’m closer to a faithful Catholic as a faithful Christ-follower who was raised Presbyterian and now doesn’t really have a denominational affiliation, than I am to a Liberal Theology Presbyterian.
      To your first point, Satan knows God is real. That’s true and it doesn’t make him a Christian. However, he’s got a step up on those who don’t believe God or Satan are real. He at least knows he’ll have to face the consequences of his actions. The ones that don’t really believe God is real, that he can be explained away, are in for a real shock in the end.

      • Royce E. Van Blaricome

        I believe you are probably correct. I would just add that is probably due to a number of factors but not the least of which is there are SO many today who profess a faith that they are completely clueless about. And that’s on both sides. That said, however, the current Pope with his “all roads lead to heaven” theology coupled with the huge number of people who profess to be Catholic but hold to beliefs that are absolutely contrary to the church’s teachings and yet no action is taken against them has to be a major influence and impetus behind it.

        Don’t get me wrong, the same thing occurs on the Protestant side.

        I understand your comment with regard to the Liberal Theology Presbyterian. They’ve gone apostate. But, while Catholicism does hold to some Biblical truths and takes laudable stands on some issues like the Sanctity of Life, you can’t be a “faithful Catholic as a Christ-follower”. That’s an oxymoron. Christ is the Author of the true Gospel. Catholicism is the author of a false gospel. And the irony is that whereas the RCC pronounced Protestants anathema because we do not hold to their false gospel, it is God who said they are anathema. (Gal. 1:8)

        I agree with your last paragraph. My point, however, was to drive home the flaw in Mr. Richards’ argument on Unity.

        Let me ask you a question if I may. You stated you are a Christ-follower. How is it that you identify with Christ as His follower and yet don’t seem to know what the Gospel is? What does it mean to you to be a “Christ-follower”?

        I don’t know anything about you – your age, your testimony, your spiritually-maturity and how long you’ve “walked with Christ”, etc. – so the best I can offer now is to suggest you find a good Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church where you can submit to godly men as your leaders, (as commanded to do so) and be properly discipled.

  • Edward Durbin

    Funny people, Read John 3. Any other questions? Read it again. silly people.

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