I’ve seen a number of variations of Susan Strouse’s essay about her path to liberal Christianity. The moment of revelation for her came at a friend’s funeral:
“I attended a funeral and happened to sit next to a friend from my interfaith women’s group. The service was in an Episcopal church, and when the priest read the gospel, I heard the words I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me through the ears of my friend—who is Jewish. I myself have read that text at countless funerals, but this time I was appalled by its apparent exclusivism. I was profoundly disturbed by this and found myself unwilling to leave her sitting in the pew when it was time to go up for Communion.”
I empathize with her reservations. It’s always awkward to be in a social setting and realize that you or you friends are not welcome to partake in the ritual at hand. But let’s use a less extreme example. I have frequently found myself in attendance at Catholic Mass. Usually this has been because I was visiting Catholic friends or family members. The Catholic Church practices closed communion. I am not Catholic.
Now for the longest tine I didn’t understand the reasoning behind closed communion. I was a Christian, after all. How dare the Catholic Church deem me unworthy of the Eucharist? I confess that at times when I was a teenager I went ahead and took Catholic communion anyway because darn it, I was a believer. But as this blog explains there is a legitimate reasoning behind the Catholic practice of closed communion. I recommend that you read it if you have time, but the gist of it is that the Catholic understanding of communion is radically different than the Protestant understanding, and it is an insult to Catholic beliefs to be presumptive enough to partake in their sacred ritual if one does not accept their beliefs.
Strouse’s reasoning illustrates the biggest flaw I see in Liberal Christianity. Liberal Christians begin with a diagnosis that God is problematic, then prescribes a man made solution intended to accommodate society’s unease with God. Who God is and what God desires is irrelevant. What matters is what people want from God, and what desires they believe God should reasonably expect of them. In theory the end result would create the most pleasant and harmonious society.
The highest priority for Liberal Christians are societal rather than religious. Interfaith dialogue is the goal, and to attain it individual religious beliefs must be subservient to it. Interfaith dialogue cannot work unless people of all faiths water down their beliefs to make allowances for other possibilities.
So a Muslim cannot state that the Koran is the Word of God, Christians cannot state that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews cannot claim to be the Chosen People.Each of these beliefs is in conflict with one another, and while one can pay them lip service as possibilities, they cannot be taken seriously. So while most of the debate over Interfaith dialogue comes from Christians, it is equally insulting to the closely held beliefs of people of other faiths.
In the case of controversial verses like John 14:6, there are two basic tacts Liberal Christians take. One is to dismiss the Bible outright as unreliable, and the other is to claim that it doesn’t really say what it appears to say. Strouse goes for the latter approach. I don’t want to focus here on proofs that her reasoning is in error, what I am concerned with is the “Man first/God second” dynamic I see within Liberal Christianity. There are many ways that it manifests itself , but all of them – whether we are debating Hell’s existence or the Ordination of women – begin with the wrong premise. This is not to say that all liberal conclusions are false. Rather, it is to say that correct answers are arrived at almost by accident.
The question should not be what kind of God would most effectively accommodate all beliefs and modern sensibilities. The question should be who is God, and what does He (or if you prefer, She) want? If God wants everything you want and believes everything you believe, then there’s probably something off. We have to accept that God’s Will is not our will, and that mean sometimes we’ll disagree with God, perhaps even strongly disagree.