Are You a Liberal or Conservative Christian?

I heard a story a while ago about a Rabbi who visited Northern Ireland. He came to a check point while traveling about the country in a car, and slowed down and stopped. After he rolled down his window, the guard asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” The Rabbi answered, “I am Jewish!” There was an awkward moment of silence, and then the soldier asked, “Is that Catholic or Protestant?”

This story captures a dynamic that I see everywhere these days. We get so used to putting things into one of two categories, that we begin to categorize everything this way. The two main social categories today are “left” or “right.” Depending upon what you are talking about, this can translate into “conservative” or “liberal,” “democrat” or “republican,” “progressive,” or “traditionalist,” etc.

In Christian circles, one’s basic social affiliation is often determined to be either liberal or conservative. Many tensions in the church emanate from these two basic positions. If you are for LGBTQ inclusion, you are considered to be liberal; if you are not, you are considered to be conservative. If you believe that climate change is a real problem for which human activity is to blame, you are liberal; if you do not, you are conservative. If you embrace refugees you are liberal; if you do not, you are conservative.

The same is true for theological positions. If you believe scripture to be inerrant, you are conservative; if you do not, you are liberal. If you have a “high Christology,” you are a conservative Christian; if you do not, you are a liberal Christian. If we see Jesus as the one who includes everyone at the party – who imagines a better world and calls us to live into that imagined world in the here and now – then we are liberal Christians. If we see Jesus as Lord and Savior, who calls us to obey and to inherit eternal life after death, we are conservative Christians.

One obvious problem with this neat and tidy schema is that real people are often much more complicated and have a mix of views regarding various issues – some that would be categorized as liberal, and others as conservative. We humans are a fascinating bunch; but rarely are we consistent.

The conservative Christian typically sees Jesus as a conservative, and the liberal Christian sees Jesus as a liberal. Each project upon Jesus their own perspective and then claims it as truth. It is inevitable that I will probably do the same thing, but I would like to argue that Jesus might disavow both conservatives and liberals. A case can be made that Jesus is neither conservative nor liberal, and that the participants on both sides that claim him as their exemplar misunderstand what the man from Galilee was really about.

First it might be helpful to provide some definitions – what do we mean by “conservative” or “liberal?” Adapting the work of Hayden White, I think these terms can be defined by determining the relationship to the status quo.[1]

Conservatism has the most positive relationship to the status quo. It affirms the current state of being as the best possible one. There might be problems, but it is nevertheless the best that can be realistically hoped for. The status quo in theological terms is traditional theology and social values. Conservatism is suspicious of attempts to change the status quo. If it is to be changed, the type of change conservatism is interested in would be to recover bits of tradition that have been surrendered so that a more original version of the status quo can be recovered.

Liberalism is more suspicious of the status quo, and believes it needs to be “fixed.” Liberals imagine the kingdom of God results from social evolution. The system needs continuous tweaking and reworking. Liberalism wants to change the status quo and move to a better state of affairs.

In each case the status quo relates to the underlying “system.” The system is the basic political, social, or theological structure. Politically, our system is capitalism. Political conservatism thinks the present state (the status quo) of capitalism is as good as it can realistically be hoped for. Political liberalism thinks the present state of capitalism should be fixed.

Both conservatism and liberalism affirm “the system.” Theologically, both Christian conservatism and Christian liberalism embrace a basic theological system, but part ways as to their respective responses to that system. For conservatism, the system is about as good as it can be expected, while for liberalism, the system needs to be improved. Yet both work within the “system.”

If capitalism is the present system politically, what is the present theological system? There are many interlocking components to any system, but for simplicity’s sake, we can focus on the idea of “God.” According to most theologians, words are not adequate to communicate what God is fully like. If this is true, then how are we to speak about God? Sallie McFague argues that the way we do this is by creating models of God.[2] The dominant model of God within Christianity presents a model of God who is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging, and present everywhere.[3] This model of God can be considered as part of the theological status quo “system.”

Conservative-Christianity would want to affirm that this model of God should be embraced as the best and most accurate way of understanding God. On the other hand, liberal Christianity would want to tweak this model by affirming things about it that may not have been emphasized previously. Liberation Theology is an example of liberal theology: it uses the basic theological system but emphasizes a preferential option for the poor in a way not done in other models.

Back to Hayden White. Conservative and liberal are for White only two options. Another orientation is radicalism. Radicalism does not think the system can be fixed. The solution, then, is not an endless tweaking of the status quo, as with liberalism, but its dismantling. The present system needs to be set aside and replaced with a new one. Politically, Marxism is a classic form of radicalism. Marxists do not want to fix capitalism; they want to replace it altogether with a new system.

If Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, as many historical Jesus scholars believe, I would suggest that on the political level, he had radical qualities. Apocalyptic thought typically has God breaking into history and replacing human government with divine rule. The social order, for Apocalyptic thinking, will be transformed completely from without. It will not occur through gradual improvement, through social evolution – that is, from within. The present system is not fixed as much as set aside or destroyed. Utopia is understood as a new system (the rule of God) replacing the current system (human rule). This is “radical.” Inasmuch as Jesus had this sort of vision, I think we become guilty of domesticating him if we dare to apply either the label of conservative or liberal![4]

Theologically there are many shapes a radical theology might take. Process theology is radical. It argues that God changes and does know the future (contra to the dominant model). So-called “Death of God” theologies – that often argue that God does not pre-exist humans, are also radical. Panentheism, which argues than everything is in God, and that God is in everything, even while God is more than everything, may be considered radical. The key is that radical theology abandons the status quo – the accepted models of God and creates new one to replace the old one.

The final category Hayden White discusses is anarchism. Anarchism, like radicalism, does not think the status quo can be fixed. The system cannot be redeemed. The different between radicalism and anarchism, is that radicalism wants to replace the old system with a new system, while radicalism want to reject all systems.

There is an important group of scholars who argue that the historical Jesus was similar to an ancient Cynic. Cynicism, not to be confused “being cynical” in a modern sense, was a philosophical school of thought that believed humans should “live according to nature” rather than according to human norms. They often did outrageous things in an attempt to unmask the superficiality of human conventions. When Jesus taught that humans should be like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:26-33 | Luke 12:22-31) he was sounding very much like a Cynic. Cynics essentially thought that the status quo and the system of social organization upon which it rested needed to be abandoned, and that humans should live “according to nature,” which is like saying that we should not live according to any system. Put this way, we might say that Cynics were early anarchists. If Jesus was like the Cynics as some scholars think, then he too could be characterized as an anarchist.

What might it mean to be an anarchist theologically? What does it mean to set aside all models of God, and to live without any model? Is this the same as atheism? No, I don’t think so. Every type of atheism I have come across rejects a model of God. More often than not, it has a simplistic model, one that is typically conservative. Atheists typically do not engage in constructive theology. Now, there are probably some who don’t fit this description – I just haven’t come across them. The God that atheists typically do not believe in… well, many thoughtful Christian don’t believe in “him” either.

So, what would an anarchist theology look like? The anarchist (as I see it) wants to suggest that all models are wrongheaded and wants to adopt a model-less approach. Is this possible? Maybe not, but this doesn’t mean the effort might not be worth it. I might suggest an anarchist theology could be based upon phenomenology. Phenomenology looks at the experience within one’s self of something. It might consider spiritual experience – the experience of God, but not as evidence of a God that is really out there. Spiritual experience can be explained in such a way as to affirm the existence of God, or in a way that does not. But as soon as you ask the question whether God really exists or not, you are on your way to constructing a model of God. Rather, it would look at the experience itself as something worth considering. By keeping one’s eyes on the experience of God, and refusing to address the nature of God, one can move towards a theology without a model of God.

[1] Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975) 1-42.

[2] Sallie. McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

[3] There are of course variations on this, but this is the accepted model of God.

[4] While he might have been a social/political radical, the evidence does not suggest that he was theologically radical. His views are paralleled by Jewish and Hellenistic thought of his time. His vision worked within accepted systems of theology, at least as much as I can tell.

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