August 18, 2003
The liberal faith

Jeanne and Laura at Interesting Monstah both have good posts up about Christianity and the political left. Laura writes:

This is an axe I have been grinding for well over a decade. Having been a bona-fide "Conservative Christian", I can say with certainty that many of the values I have now -- some of which might be considered downright Marxist by some -- crossed over directly from that old millieu.

For instance, an emphasis on anti-materialism; a strong disdain for American obsession with the aquisition of money and things; the practice of treating everyone with the same level of dignity, regardless of rank or social status (this has been especially helpful in my IT work, and good ol' Jesus himself is my role model); helping people because it is simply the morally right thing to do, and not because of what you can get in return for it; a sense of empathy and altruism, the list goes on. If I wanted to, I could point you to specific Bible verses for each of these points. But I will spare you all (and myself as well - lecturing y'all leftists is one thing; preaching sermons is quite another :-)).

I've come at it the opposite way -- as someone raised a secular leftist who's going to an evangelical Christian church -- but I've observed the same thing. There are things that conservative and liberal Christians have in common with each other that doesn't fit easily into left-right groupings. Witness the recent convergence on prison rape.

As I've been thinking lately about what I want in a church, I've been remembering what it was that drew me to it in the first place. These posts reminded me of one of my first emails to Telford last year, when I told him why I liked his blog: "I hope you're right that there's a love out there that's bigger than (my office's) bruising conservatism or the increasingly curdled secular liberalism I grew up in."

Reading that reminds me that even though I'm frustrated with my progress, I really have changed in the last year. I was alienated from almost everybody around me then. Exactly why is hard to say, because it was a buildup of things rather than any big thing. But the post-Sept. 11 environment made it worse.

Now, I know that you don't have to believe in God to believe in empathy, equality, etc. But in my experience, it sure helps. In my life back then, most people seemed to be living up to stereotypes: the righties were macho social Darwinists, the lefties long on anger and short on vision. All of us, it seemed to me, were lacking the same thing: a transcendent hope.

Getting into Christianity was a rebellion on a few different levels. Going to a Pentecostal church in particular rebelled against what I'd been brought up to be. It's the same family of church that most of the Christian Right comes out of, so going to Christian Assembly had a bit of the feel of Romeo climbing onto Juliet's balcony.

CA is not a political church, however, which is how I wanted it. And in a lot of ways, it brought me some of the basic things I needed. It brought hope, a lack of cynicism, a place where a person is allowed to be weak and broken. But I do feel that my rebellious flirtation with the evangelical subculture may be coming to an end. What's bothering me, I think, is that even though CA didn't adopt fundamentalism's attitudes of culture war, it does have some of its theological narrowness.

I mentioned how last Palm Sunday Telford had to do "damage control" after the sermon presented subsitutional atonement as the one and only explanation of the Crucifixion. SA is one of those "five fundamentals" that give fundamentalism its name. (The other four are Biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Christ, and the physical second coming of Christ.) These fundamentals were put together in the early twentieth century as a reaction against modernizing trends in Christianity, but as Peter noted the other day, fundies bring in their own form of modernism:

Unlike most forms of mysticism, fundamentalism is uncomfortable with ambiguity and tends to read the figurative and metaphoric language of religious faith in an ahistorical and excessively literal way. It imagines that it is being faithful to the past, but it views that past in ways that are thoroughly modern.

Although CA's pastor never talks about it from the pulpit, there are a lot of creationists there. And while in day-to-day life one's origin theories don't really matter, creationism bespeaks to me a kind of plodding smallness in religious vision. Looking at the Bible as a journalistic account of the physical events of history (and the future) is just so depressing, and also doesn't fit the way the Bible reads to me.

Getting back to Jeanne's post (you thought I'd wandered off, didn't you?), I think my problem with entangling religion and politics too closely is that it also makes religion small. One of her commenters refers to the governor of Alabama's recent change in tax policy and how uncomfortable this makes him. I agree with Jeanne's answer:

I don't want to see any politician on the left trying to make an argument that a certain policy is what Jesus would want. I'm uncomfortable with that tax crusade, too. I'm more comfortable with a politician using language from his or her faith to inspire, to help people summon their best selves.

This helps me clarify what bothered me about All Saints, the liberal Episcopal church. It's involved in a lot of political causes, which I think are inspired by true Christian beliefs. But I'm a little concerned about equating inspiration with policy. I think all Christians are called to help the poor, but they can reasonably disagree over how to do it: welfare, workfare, private charity etc. As with Biblical interpretation, I think if you close off alternate paths and declare everyone who goes down them to be un-Christian, you shrink God down to your own size and purport to know more of his mind than you actually can. A better approach would be to say to others: bringing your best self, knowing you're fully accountable to God, what will you do?

As Jeanne and Laura say, Christian activism has an illustrious history, so I'm not making a general indictment. But I know I don't want a church that's all wrapped up in cultural or political wars, from either side of them. I came wanting a Jesus who transcends those divisions, and that's what I still want.

Posted by Camassia at August 18, 2003 07:02 PM | TrackBack

I am in agreement with you. I have called upon other liberal Christians to speak out about their views, but I don't feel that the place to do it is via the pulpit. I believe, as you do, that a church is not a place for politics, but for fellowship, love, and growth.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on August 19, 2003 10:26 AM

Well put. It's tragic when a church becomes primarily about politics on either the left or the right. You might find interesting what I've written about the application of James Fowler's Stages of Faith to our current circumstances.

Posted by: Allen Brill on August 19, 2003 11:10 AM

Fundamentalisms are modern movements, reactions to an increasing secularized world. They do indeed preach inerrancy of text, but only of certain texts, which they irrationally privilege above others.

A comprehensive overview of fundamentalism can be found in Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World which summarizes the findings of the 10 year long Fundamentalism Project undertaken by the Macarthur Foundation. It is excellent.

As for different directions that Christianity might take, I'd suggest taking a look at Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas which suggests that folks look at some of the apocryphal and gnostic Christian texts that were not assimilated iinto the canon for ideas.

Posted by: tristero on August 19, 2003 12:46 PM

Tristero makes some very good points. I recently read the Pagels book that he cites and agree that it is excellent. In the spirit of exploring beyond the confines of orthodoxy and/or literalist fundamentalism, I also recommend the writings of Simone Weil, particularly Gravity and Grace. You may not always agree with what she says, but she never fails to dislodge you from your spiritual comfort zone.

Posted by: Rob on August 19, 2003 03:33 PM

I've read Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels... does the new book add much to it?

Posted by: Camassia on August 19, 2003 05:50 PM

The new book is more focused and has a personal element to it that I don't remember in The Gnostic Gospels. The new book explores why the gnostic-like Gospel of John became canonical, while the Gospel of Thomas did not. The value of Pagel's book resides for me in (the title implies)the relevance for us, today, in considering the questions it raises: a valuable read.

Posted by: Rob on August 19, 2003 06:14 PM

Simone Weil, from Gravity and Grace:

God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. If it allows a pure and utter consent (though brief as a lightening flash) to be torn from it, then God conquers the soul. And when it has become entirely his he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it. And that is the cross.

Posted by: rob on August 19, 2003 06:39 PM

A new scriptural synthesis and Gnostic interpretation, [authorship unknown] which includes material from the OT/NT, Apocrypha, The Dead Sea Scrolls and The Nag Hammadi Library, to describe the first wholly new moral conception of the teaching of Christ for two thousand years is on the Net.

And this is the first ever religious teaching, able to demonstrate by an act of faith, its own efficacy! That is to say, the first living and testable proof of the living God has been published! However incredulous this may sound, if this teaching is confirmed, and there appear to be many who are attempting to do so, it can only be described as an intellectual and religious revolution in the making! The site where I found my copy of the manuscript [a 1.3mb pdf download] at is at

Posted by: mary treherne on December 7, 2004 01:28 PM
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