What if everyone is a little bit liberal?

liberal-conservative

I’m quite impressed that the theme of this young adult group at my church is addressing tough questions: the aspects of our Christian faith that don’t make a lot of sense. Sitting at a table last week, we were all supposed to name something that we struggle to understand: for some, it was creationism vs. evolution. For others, the permissiveness of suffering, the inerrancy of the Bible, and whether miracles still happen.

By the time my turn came, I was surprised I was the first to mention hell. I couldn’t have been the only one thinking about it. In less than sixty seconds, I talked about the highlights of a blog post by my friend Neil, which has stuck with me, and bothered me, because what he has to say about reconciling hell’s existence with a good God makes sense to me. It bothers me because I agree with him on many levels, and I can’t help worrying that agreeing (or at least understanding his points) is the beginning of the unraveling: if hell makes no sense, if a God who doesn’t do away with such a place altogether makes his character questionable, does that mean the entirety of my faith falls apart?

When I was done speaking, I noticed the perplexed looks on people’s faces. “That’s interesting,” one said. “I never thought of it like that before…” Others nodded in agreement, and I started to feel sick. Clearly, I had just burst some kind of bubble, and I actually feared that I had accomplished the exact opposite of the Great Commission: Oh shit, I just deconverted an entire table of Christians into atheists.

Pretty sure that didn’t happen, but my next fear was just as ridiculous: What if they now think I’m a liberal Christian???

All through college, the phrase “liberal Christian” pissed me off and seemed like an oxymoron. Christianity is about a “narrow path,” for crying out loud; Jesus said so himself. What is “liberal” about that? To me, “liberal” implied making it up as you go along, cutting out parts that don’t make sense and rendering them useless and irrelevant. “Liberal” implied a desire to worship one’s self as a god.

But just as my definition of feminism underwent a drastic makeover, so too is my definition of this L-word that seems to drive so many Christians into a paranoid frenzy. If I am liberal, it simply means I am open to hearing alternate viewpoints. It means I’m willing to consider the possibility that I could be wrong about many things (though I certainly hope I’m not, but compared to centuries of scholars, let’s face it: I’m really not that smart).

This isn’t to say I no longer hold any firm convictions. In fact, anyone who “accuses” me of being liberal might be surprised to find out that I’m still adamantly pro-life (which is entirely different from being “pro-birth”), believe marriage is the ideal context in which to have sex, and I still inwardly chafe at the idea that “all religions are the same.” If both Muslims and Christians believe non-believers are destined for hell, they are not at all the same, despite similar teachings about how to treat our fellow man. Clearly, I’m not an easy person to categorize. But I don’t know anyone who is.

I read the blogs of popular evangelicals like Rachel Held Evans, and cringe at the criticism that she’s “too liberal” to be considered a leader in the faith, when my takeaway from her posts is that she’s simply unafraid to ask questions and address topics that many of us are thinking; we just can’t say them out loud because God forbid our faith is tainted “liberal.” It’s practically a death sentence, a label equivalent with heresy.

What is the opposite of being “liberal,” anyway? Conservative? Intolerant? Closed-minded? How are these terms to be used when they seem to be constantly in flux?

I’ve never met a person who doesn’t experience doubt and uncertainty every now and then, even if they hesitate to admit it. In this sense, we are all just a little bit liberal.

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About Beth Caplin

Just an author, blogger, and editor working hard so my cats can have a better life.
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13 Responses to What if everyone is a little bit liberal?

  1. Eric says:

    Well I don’t believe that babies are destined for Hell. I actually believe Babies don’t go to Hell.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Many Christians would disagree. In general though, the knowledge we humans are assumed to have of God is rather infantile, thus making the toddler-by-the-pool analogy one that deeply impacts me.

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  2. Eric says:

    Neil’s analogy of the parent and the little child is flawed. The reason for that is because we are not children. I don’t have to try out painful things and experience them first hand to know that I shouldn’t do it. I don’t have to jump off my roof to think “Ah, I see I shouldn’t have done that.” I can figure it out on my own without going through the bad experience first-hand. In the same way I don’t have to go to Hell to figure “Yeah, Hell isn’t a good place to be”. We aren’t kids we’re Adults.

    Neil is correct about one thing God IS involved in sending people to Hell. We aren’t just people who simply make a little tiny mistake and are good in every other instance. In the western world in particular our blindness to help others is abundant. So many of us could give money to help children but don’t we choose bigger houses and spend money on things we don’t need for our own pleasure. As a result of that children die, so many of us let children die all of the time and I think we can agree that’s a crime (Now of course don’t get me wrong I’m not better in this instance) but we’re hardly innocent little toddlers who just made a wrong turn.

    I don’t believe in the version of Hell that Neil talks about and it’s not a “Re-write” it’s actually found in early Christian literature. Hell is Eternal not because of just how “bad” we are in this life. We don’t stop committing the sins they committed in this life.

    As for God not providing enough evidence for his existence (Well obviously I would say there is) but even so I’ll grant Neil that first hand miracles and appearances are better. But Jesus has done all of those things before and they didn’t always make people trust in him for Salvation. I believe there are many instances where he does those things today but I can’t blame him for not doing it all the time since it doesn’t always work.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      If you believe that our human knowledge is limited compared to what God knows, then we ARE mentally like toddlers who don’t know any better (God even says as much to Job). The difference between knowing not to jump off a roof and knowing hell is bad is that a roof can be seen and physically proven; you may think there’s tangible evidence for hell, but it’s not the same as the evidence for the roof.

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      • Eric says:

        I think you’ve meshed two different points together.

        Yes but within the framework of Neil’s analogy, the Kid DID see the pool and still went in. I figured Neil was saying; that even if we did know that Hell existed then we would still not be responsible for avoiding it because we can’t understand that it’s bad and should be avoided.

        That’s what I disagreed with. I also disagreed because as I said we aren’t just kids who just took a wrong turn and we aren’t innocent we know many of the things we do wrong and do them anyway.

        I’ll grant you that the evidence for Hell isn’t as strong as something for a cliff (Which is why I talked a little bit about that before and addressed it as a separate point).

        But anyway I stand by my other points I made.

        Do you get what I’m saying?

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        • Beth Caplin says:

          I understand what you’re saying because I’ve been a Christian for six years and have heard that explanation many times in church. But intellectually it doesn’t make as much sense to me anymore, because the point of Neil’s analogy is that the child doesn’t know any better, but the parent (ie: God) DOES. I don’t think you can be held responsible for what you don’t know, and yet many Christians believe that babies and people in remote countries who have never heard of Jesus are destined for hell. I don’t think I believe that anymore.

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    • Eric, like Beth states below, a person can look at a drop from a roof and deduce that the impact would be bad because the ground is a demonstrably real thing, and so are roofs, and other things can be thrown from it so that you can see what happens. But that analogy fails when you shift to talking about Valhalla, or Hades, or Hell, or any other place we’re told awaits the dead. You’re speaking of a thing that as far as we can demonstrate is completely made up. So the toddler analogy still works better because I’m saying this thing doesn’t sound real at all, and I’m being told it’s because of a limitation of my own perception. That’s very much like the toddler and the pool.

      And Beth has also rightly pointed out that the key issue in my analogy is that of responsibility. As long as a parent is bigger and stronger than the toddler, and cares for her, it matters little how much the child understands or doesn’t understand. The parent will stop at nothing to save the child. It makes no sense to say, “Oh well, as long as the parent made overtures toward saving the child, it’s on her now.” That makes no sense.

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  3. I’ve heard the same thing argued by friends who say everyone’s a little bit agnostic. If it’s true that we’re fallible human beings, then it stands to reason that we should never be so confident in our own ability to know things that we become unable to admit we might be wrong. That’s a dangerous place to be.

    I would argue that Jesus got into trouble precisely because he questioned the religious dogma of his environment. You can call that liberal, you can call that agnostic, but I think you could just as easily call it prophetic. There is a long and venerated (yet simultaneously maligned) tradition within the Judeo-Christian faith for the voice of those who call the faithful back to the principles on which their faith was founded. It’s rarely pretty when it happens, and it always upsets the people wearing the funny hats. But it’s a crucial function even within the Christian faith.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      Here’s something I’m confused about: there’s two types of religious people, I think. There are those who say “This feels true to ME” and those who say “This is THE Absolute Truth.” Obviously people can and do deny what’s true all the time (like that their smoking for 30 years isn’t what caused their lung cancer, that their spouse would never cheat even if they did, etc), but ideally, you’d think something that’s true would be painfully obvious to everyone and not require an explanation. Like gravity. Or not being able to breathe underwater.

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      • That’s the brilliance of the Christian faith, though. By asserting that it can only be truly known to those who believe, you create a kind of epistemic enclosure, an alternate reality in which virtually anything can be asserted and nothing is falsifiable because anytime you disagree, it’s your fault for “not seeing it.” It’s ingenious.

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  4. Wilson says:

    So do you believe hell exists?

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