It’s OK to Be Liberal. Honest.

Our Sunday morning Bible class is working through a book one probably wouldn’t expect to see discussed, especially in a fairly conservative church tradition such as ours: The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith.

Smith, a sociologist, describes and refutes a core tenet of the faith I had growing up. He calls it biblicism, the notion that the Bible is not only easily read and understandable, but it is those things to the extent that everyone should be able to read the text and come to the same conclusion. He features 10 traits of biblicism; see if these apply in some way to what you were taught:

  1. Divine Writing – The Bible’s very words are the exact words of God “written inerrantly in human language.”
  2. Total Representation – The Bible is the totality of God’s communication with humanity, containing everything God has to say to us.
  3. Complete Coverage – “The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.”
  4. Democratic Perspicuity – Anyone can read the Bible and “correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.”
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics – The correct way to read the Bible is to take the words literally, at face value, except where obviously noted.
  6. Solo Scriptura – The Bible is understandable without the help of creeds, confessions, traditions or hermeneutics (other than the one listed above). “Theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.” Not to be confused with the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
  7. Internal Harmony  – The Bible speaks with a unified, noncontradictory voice about any given subject.
  8. Universal Applicability – Everything in the Bible applies to all Christians at all times, regardless of the historical or cultural context of the original text.
  9. Inductive Method – “All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together … the clear  … truths that it teaches.”
  10. Handbook Model – The doctrines of the Bible can be applied in numerous non-theological fields, such as science, politics, economics, health and romance.
Any given strain of biblicism doesn’t need to include all 10 – I definitely grew up believing Nos. 1, 3-8 and 10, but not really Nos. 2 or 9.

At any rate, Smith’s main argument against biblicism isn’t so much that it’s wrong – though it certainly is – but that it’s impossible. No biblicist actually treats the Bible the way they say they do. I don’t know if he uses this example or not, but one I can easily think of is the question of women’s roles in the church. Most biblicists are hierarchical on this subject, which requires them to explain away the New Testament passages describing female prophets, leaders and deacons in the early church. You cannot maintain Item 7, which strikes me as one of the more important points in a biblicist view, without doing severe damage to Item 5, which in turn affects Item 8, which knocks down Item 10, and so on.

Smith further argues that if it were true – that the Bible is easily understandable, internally consistent, universally applicable and meant to be read literally in nearly every case – then there would be a whole lot of unity ever since it was made available in the common language back around 1500. But, of course, there has not. Rather, the proliferation of sects, denominations and congregations, each with a different interpretation of some part of the Bible, has continued to increase. Biblicism is disproven by the simple fact that plenty of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers clearly disagree about what the Bible actually teaches.

That’s a really long intro to get to the one beef I have with Smith at this point in his book.

In his introduction, Smith takes a detour in an effort to deflect criticism that he knows is likely to follow the publication of a liberal book such as this one. But one of his points is that he is not, in fact, liberal at all.

I must also insist that my motives, goals and arguments have nothing to do with promoting or representing theological liberalism. I am no theological liberal. While I believe that orthodox Christians need to engage intellectually and socially with theological liberals, I am and always have been a skeptic of theological liberalism as a project. I view the program of liberalism as an unworthy corrosion of historically orthodox, evangelical Christianity. I view theological liberalism – despite its good intentions – as naive intellectually, problematic in its typical ecclesial expression and susceptible to unfortunate and sometimes reprehensible social and political expressions. It was no accident, for example … that the prominent leaders of theological liberalism in the German church together publicly endorsed the causes of both Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I in 1914 and Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. When the church lacks a sovereign word of God that is not defined in terms of human subjectivity, experience and culture, such ill-fated political moves become hard to resist. The theological liberal program lacks internal resources to help expose idolatry and so recurrently falls prey to the latest cultural movements and political fashions. I would go so far as to agree … that theological liberalism is not one particular branch of Christianity; it is rather a very different religion from Christianity.

He continues:

Slapping the “liberal!” label on others is still a knee-jerk reaction of many evangelicals against any argument that on first glance does not seem identical to or more conservative than their own position. This tendency has much more to do with the sociological process of maintaining safe identity boundaries and avoiding truly challenging intellectual engagements than it does with sustaining the Christian faith with appropriate confidence, integrity and trust in God. In any case, to be clear, I deny any attempts to label the argument of this book “liberal.”

(Emphasis mine.) What a puzzling digression!

Because, to me, as a former conservative evangelical Protestant, when you start rejecting the literal, universal applicability of the Bible, you are making a liberal argument. It doesn’t mean there aren’t people more liberal than you, but it seems to me Smith’s problem isn’t with being labeled a liberal, but with his own conception of what being liberal entails.

Now, yes, there are extreme theological liberals – such as Unitarian Universalists – and certain groups of them could be viewed as a separate religion altogether from anything we’d recognize as Christianity. Indeed, some research tells me Smith likely is referring to a specific branch of Christianity, but that branch runs the gamut from the extreme relativism of those who have denied the Trinity (and apparently supported some horrible things in Germany) to more mainstream efforts to incorporate scientific findings with theological belief.

Similarly, there are extreme political liberals, such as socialists and communists. But that doesn’t make Barack Obama not a liberal. It certainly doesn’t make him conservative.

Perhaps Smith is making an argument as a moderate, that his is the middle road between two extremes. He hints at it a bit – “Opposing theological liberalism does not leave biblicism as the only viable alternative” – but that’s far from a clear argument for his way as the middle ground. Rather, his book is centered around knocking down a principal tenet of theological conservatism, which is, by definition a liberal thing to do.

It sounds like Smith is uncomfortable embracing the fact that he is either 1. liberal himself, or 2. advancing a liberal argument in such a public manner. Rather than rejecting the evangelical tendency to label his work “liberal,” he should embrace it and reject instead the attempt to stigmatize the word as an inherent pejorative. Yes, liberals (like conservatives) have advanced screwy, even heretical ideas. The correct response is not to cede the linguistic ground but to reclaim it for those of us who are seeking a better way than the conservatism with which we were raised.

The ideal would be not to use these silly labels at all, but since they are used, it seems important to make sure the connotations they bear are as accurate as possible. I fear Smith, in writing what he did, gave more weight, not less, to the evangelical tendency to use “liberal” as a label to shut down discussion.

At the end of his introduction, Smith gives a list of shout outs in which he writes:

Nobody could hope to enjoy a more fun, stimulating and edifying group of theological companions while meeting at Whole Foods to hash out life-changing theology.

As my wife said when we read that sentence: “If you’re hashing out life-changing theology at Whole Foods, you’re a liberal.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

4 thoughts on “It’s OK to Be Liberal. Honest.”

  1. “It sounds like Smith is uncomfortable embracing the fact that he is either 1. liberal himself, or 2. advancing a liberal argument in such a public manner.”

    It could also be that he knows that, “liberal” being the exact attempted insult conservative critics will hurl at him, he’d be best served by throwing up a smokescreen and trying to distance himself from a traditional view of liberalism in order to seem more palatable to conservatives. I realize that idea’s really crass and kind of cynical, but I think it’s probably a small part of his reasoning, conscious or no. If you’re going to write a book doing very liberal things, but you want classically styled conservatives to take the journey, you either (a) sidestep all definitions or (b) say you aren’t liberal. Smith seems to have chosen the latter.

  2. There is more to the world than liberalism and conservatism. Outside of modernity none of both even exists… The ‘inerrancy’ of the bible as a dogma is something that has become more and more extreme just because the liberal site was becoming more and more extreme too, and all of that happened in the last centuries within Western Christianity…

    The church fathers for example were not at all liberals, but neither would they ever accept what modern evangelicals teach for biblical litteralism. And the same is true for a lot of christians outside of protestantism: biblicism never existed in the roman catholic and orthodox church, and neither did liberalism (except for some people influenced by modernity in the last centuries) There is more to liberalism than rejection of biblicism anyway: rejection of the supernatural, denial of miracles because they don’t fit with science, and stuff like that, which sometimes ends in denying parts of the Nicene and apostles’ creed. A Christian who doesn’t share the conservative protestant views of bible but agrees on the other traditional core beliefs of christianity is still a fairly conservative Christian, although not a conservative protestant….

    Smith is a catholic anyway, and catholics never believed in biblicism… Not in the days long before American protestants split up in conservatives/liberals, and they still don’t do that, and to me it seems Smith is just following his tradition… Your connotations are connected to your tradition, and I wouldn’t call catholics or orthodox ‘liberal’ unless they are viewed by their own tradition as such…

    1. I’m not sure Smith qualifies as a Catholic for purposes of the discussion – simply because he joined the Catholic Church in the process of writing the book, so I don’t see him as bringing that faith tradition into his writing.

      We are definitely using modern American labels that are oversimplifications of complex ideas, which is part of the problem with using labels in the first place – but that was Smith’s decision, not mine. I certainly understand that liberalism, especially in Europe, is far more liberal than in America, in both religion and politics, but in an American context, in which much of Protestantism – and a lot of Catholicism, too – follows the biblicist model of hermeneutics, positions that would be considered fairly mainstream or conservative elsewhere are actually quite liberal here.

      Politics again provides a helpful guide. The mainstream conservative parties in Europe all support things that conservatives in America now consider quite liberal (universal health care, a strong safety net, government regulations, et al.). In the end, the context must be implicit when we’re using such labels, as they are indeed so heavily dependent on the culture of the user. My argument is simply that Smith is speaking to a culture in which is ideas are in fact liberal, regardless of whether he is comfortable with the label.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I think we need to remember that Smith is rejecting a very specific label, not just a general left-ness. He is not rejecting progress or change.
    The label he is rejecting is one that refers to a movement that occurred in a specific period in time and a very specific place (Europe, mostly). It is still relatively common in some mainline Protestant denominations, but it has been on the defensive for most of this century. Karl Barth, for example, was a fierce opponent of Liberalism, although many of his views are what we might look at as liberal in the generic sense of the word.

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