Letter From Australia (About Liberal "Christianity")

Studied irrelevance

Liberal Christianity is merely unbelief dressed up. 

Peter Barnes

Normally one looks to the New York Times for wisdom in the same way that one might look for gold in a rubbish dump – it may be there, but it will take a lot of digging, and the prospects of success are not great. Yet, on 14 July, 2012 the Times published an article by Ross Douthat on ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be  Saved?’

Douthat referred to John Shelby Spong’s book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and noted how the Episcopal Church in the USA had essentially followed Spong’s lead, and transformed itself from being a rather sedate pillar of the WASP establishment to being a selfconsciously progressive body in terms of its beliefs and its ethics. Yet the result has not been life but death.

As Douthat writes, “if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed”.
There is hardly a lunacy that the Episcopal bishops have not embraced, from blessing homosexual liaisons to proclaiming that our stewardship of the earth demands that we not reproduce ourselves. Indeed, there may well be secular liberals out there who would be embarrassed by the weird combination of Pollyanna and Peter Singer that gets passed off as the Christian gospel these days.

Responding to the recent dispute over the Sydney Anglican marriage vow where the wife professes  submission to the husband, broadcaster Mary Kostakidis pontificated in a Spong-like fashion: “The writing is on the wall for the church in the West; unless they (sic) get with the times, they’ll become increasingly irrelevant.”

There is nothing new in this approach. Lloyd Geering, an apostate Presbyterian in New Zealand, states: “Christianity… needs to be seen not as something eternally fixed but as an ever-changing and developing process. The modern secular world is all part of that evolving process.” Actually, the liberal denominations have done a good job of getting with the times and so becoming irrelevant.

When theological liberalism or modernism emerged as a dominant force in the second half of the 19th century, not everyone could have guessed its direction. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it: “With a revolution,
as with a novel, the hardest part to invent is the ending.” We now have more idea of the ending – it is banality
at best and rank unbelief at worst.

Recently I was exposed to what liberal theology means in practice when it comes to prayer and devotions. A
university chaplain read a story about a little grape stem that was glad to be alive, but could only survive the wind and snow when another grape stem called to her: “Here, reach out … hang on to me.” After some hesitation, the grape stem agreed, and finally learnt the lesson that strength comes through sticking together with other grape stems. At the end of the reading, I wondered whether anybody else was as embarrassed
as I was. We were all meant to be deeply moved, no doubt, but it was a struggle to remain silent and not laugh.

Back in 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr criticised this liberal and rather vacuous view of Christianity which he  summarised as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”. There was a time when liberal Christianity appeared progressive. Now it has surely run its course, and its doctrinal and ethical emptiness has become obvious to all, even
some writers for the New York Times.

The main problem is, of course, that liberal Christianity simply parrots what the world already thinks it knows and believes. The same buzz words are there in both groups: tolerance, not judging, being inclusive, acknowledging that we are all on a journey, we all belong to faith groups, what this text means to you, sharing our insights. Finally, it has all collapsed, and we can see that the emperor has no clothes, only platitudes.

In his Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis commented that “Liberal Christianity can only supply an ineffectual echo to the massive chorus of agreed and admitted unbelief ”. That about sums it up: liberal Christianity is only unbelief dressed up in some Christian words. It is revelation without the Bible, life without the Holy Spirit, and salvation without Christ. It speaks of God but does the work of the devil.

Peter Barnes is editor of AP (Australian Presbyterian Magazine)
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