Does liberal theology undermine Christian morality?

I’m currently working my way through Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series of novels – a 20th-century Barchester Towers about the inner workings of the Church of England and its motley clergy in high places. The novels (starting with Glittering Images) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea with the vicar, but they’re well-observed and packed with psychological and theological insight. Not to mention some fairly frank depictions of clerical sexual misdemeanours.

Two of the novels centre on the Rev. Neville Aysgarth, a liberal churchman much enamoured of the ‘radical’ theology of Bishop John Robinson’s controversial 1960s book Honest to God. In particular Aysgarth eagerly espouses Robinson’s idea of the ‘New Morality’ – a situational ethic based on love rather than traditional rules. However, the married Aysgarth uses this idea to justify to himself what ends up as an all-but fully sexual affair with a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Now Aysgarth is clearly deluding himself and twisting theology to suit his ends. But Howatch does strongly suggest that abandoning traditional theology opens up the danger of falling into grave moral error. Is she right?

Journey out of evangelicalism

This matter is fairly close to home for me. Over the past few years I’ve been (as they say) ‘on a journey’ out of mainstream evangelical theology and practice into what I see as more ‘open’ forms and expressions of Christian belief.

I’m still not really a liberal or a progressive. I haven’t jettisoned all my former beliefs, just reinterpreted and re-imagined them in light of my own thinking and experience and thinking. True conservatives would certainly see me as liberal, but true liberals would see me as conservative. Hence ‘Evangelical Liberal’.

Nonetheless at times I do wonder whether I’ve gone too far, strayed too much off the beaten track. In particular I worry that I may be blithely and blindly leading others into a theological and (furthermore) moral morass. Hence the question at the head of this post, which is of genuine concern to me.

So I suppose my real underlying question is: is it possible to reject (or at least radically reinterpret) traditional understandings of biblical theology without completely undermining Christian morality? Is it inevitable that espousing more liberal or progressive theology will ultimately lead to Neville Aysgarth-style moral misdemeanours?

Or to put it the way around, what basis is there for Christian morality (on sex, death, abortion and all the other hot topics) once you question the underpinnings of a fully authoritative, inspired and inerrant Bible or else an infallible church tradition? Does the whole lot simply collapse like a house of cards?

Fearing the worst

That’s certainly the view of many more conservative Christians, both evangelical and Catholic. They fear that if you start to tinker with theology and ecclesiology, if you remove the absolute moral authority of the Bible or Church, and if you start to question traditional beliefs and values, then you are on course to moral anarchy and freefall. Remove these ancient, solid foundations and everything will fall apart, they warn.

And I don’t wish to write off these fears and warnings as unfounded or merely reactionary. I think there is a valid concern here. I think there may well be a real danger that what starts out as legitimate questioning may end up with abandoning all Christian belief and morality.

But I also don’t think that’s inevitable, nor is it even necessarily the entirely logical and natural progression that some imagine. I think it is possible to reinterpret scripture and Christian theology in fairly radical ways without taking away the foundations of morality. For example, accepting the biological theory of evolution and rejecting traditional doctrines of hell or biblical inerrancy do not I think logically lead to adultery, theft or murder.

The crux of morality

One thing we do obviously need to ask here is what we actually mean by Christian morality. For of course this is one of the very things which we may need to re-investigate if we are reinterpreting Christian theology. And herein lies some of the conservative fear – if we re-interpret morality, might we not end up with anarchy and adultery? Perhaps – but not I think without losing the essence of Christianity, which is the person and character of Christ himself.

For this as always is the crucial point for me. In re-interpreting Christian theology and morality, I suggest that we still need to cling on to the reality of Christ – otherwise it is no longer ‘Christian’ but something other.

Conservatives and traditionalists worry that if we query the Bible and/or the Church, we lose our primary sources of moral and spiritual authority. I do see this, but for me Christ alone (including the Father and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate and primary source. For sure, Christ is mediated to us both through the Church and the Bible; we cannot I think lose these things completely without cutting off the branch we sit on. But we can to quite an extent reinterpret the Bible without losing Christ, for Christ comes first. Yet I think we always need to reinterpret in the light of Christ (as we receive and understand that).

So even if we do query doctrines like inerrancy, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything the Bible says about (say) sexual morality, for these teachings are founded on deeper principles merely than ‘what the Bible says is right’. They are founded on the fundamental reality of God’s character of love, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and integrity. The Bible helps reveal God’s character to us, but God’s Spirit is not limited to the text of the Bible.

So there are elements in traditional morality that I think we can at least legitimately question without losing the whole wider Christian framework and plunging into a moral abyss. We can surely query (I don’t say jettison) traditional views on matters like homosexuality, or assisted dying, without that becoming a carte blanche for moral collapse into free-for-all sexual license and libertarianism.

Faithful re-interpretation

The liberal approach to Christianity rejects the idea of a changeless, set-in-stone revelation of truth for all time. Rather it always seeks to re-interpret Christian ideals within current cultural contexts. Evangelicals object that this merely ends up as kow-towing to culture and being pulled along by endlessly shifting fashions and moral mores.

I think there’s some truth on both sides of this. I believe that Christianity does (to an extent) need to be re-interpreted and above all re-incarnated within our real contexts. Some things that applied to 1st-century Jews and Greeks may not hold for 21st-century Christians in, say, Europe or the US. Some theological understandings and biblical metaphors may no longer be meaningful for us.

Yet at the same time we cannot merely re-make Christ in our likeness nor simply cut our morality to match our culture. Rather we have to welcome the creative spirit of God into our changing situations and let him be what he is, ever-ancient and ever-new. He must lead, and our task is to discern and follow. And that means we cannot slavishly follow either ‘what the Bible says’ nor ‘what modern culture demands’.

The way of God is often messy and complex, and demanding of both intellectual effort and moral courage. There are usually no easy one-size-fits-all answers.

So, does ‘liberal’ theology, or re-interpreting the Bible, undermine Christian morality? I think it can do, but it needn’t. Not if we’re careful and faithful to the spirit of Christ in our re-interpreting – though I’m aware that’s easier said than done…

Post-script: levels of sin?

Before finally leaving this whole topic of sin, there’s one more evangelical view I’d like to query. It’s a common teaching that all sin is equally sin and you can’t speak of some sins as being worse than others. According to this view, it’s equally as hell-deserving to utter a mild profanity as it is to commit mass genocide.

On one level this is nonsense – it’s clearly worse to commit murder or rape than it is to swear or watch a rude film. (It’s also arguably unbiblical – for example, the writer of John’s letters distinguishes between sins that do and don’t ‘lead to death’, whatever exactly this means.)

However, I think I see what the teaching may be driving at. All ‘sinful’ acts are merely surface manifestations of a deeper problem, so in that sense it doesn’t really matter whether that manifestation is minor or major. What matters is the underlying sickness that we all need healing of; the innate ‘wonkiness’ or crookedness that runs through every one of us, whether we’re decent citizens or lawless criminals.

I’ve said that we shouldn’t write people like Rolf Harris off as merely ‘monsters’ and therefore not like us. What they’ve done is terrible, but the potential for such evil lies in each of us. In this sense the evangelicals are right – we’re all sinners in need of grace. Fortunately that grace is always available through Christ.

So I don’t wish to downplay sin; perhaps we’re actually all worse than we think we are. But we’re also all more loved and accepted and forgiven than we think we are too. Even the worst of us is ultimately redeemable. Amen?

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Evangelicalism, Grace, Liberalism, Sin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to Does liberal theology undermine Christian morality?

  1. Daniel Mataró says:

    Leyéndolo desde España realmente sus comentarios me parecen muy interesantes. Como anglicano que soy creo que acierta mucho e intenta mantener el sentido común. Moltmann insiste en que los dos peligros del cristianismo son la anarquía moral y el legalismo farisaico. Realmente es difícil llevar una vida cristiana y estar entre ambas tendencias sin caer en ellas.
    Un saludo

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  2. robert bathie says:

    I was a Christian for forty years, brought up very much in the evangelical tradition, but over the past few years have realised that there is a far more moral, truthful, sacred and loving life beyond the Bible’s pages. It only takes a relatively shallow dip into Bible scholarship – and I mean proper, academic Bible scholarship, not Bible studies which start with the assumption that the Christian God exists and that he has dictated or inspired the writings which we call the Bible. It also sees, on a very obvious intellectual level, that the Bible’s claim to be the word of God cannot be accepted as gospel, so to speak, as it is entirely self referencing. This scholarship looks into the authorship of each book of the Bible, explores the historical and cultural context and compares different – and contradictorary, an obvious sign of Biblical inerrancy – books of the Bible and shows that the Bible is in fact the history of the Jewish tribes’ search for the divine, a search which every culture that has existed has embarked upon, all with pretty similar results, if with very different stories.

    This scholarship traces the development of the idea of God through the Old Testament – and it changes significantly – and then the radical re-interpretation of God which Jesus presents. It sees that miracles and the personification of concepts were the currency with which primitive writers bought belief and in so doing, shows the Bible for what it is – a primitive people’s attempt to reach and interpret the divine in the light of the events of their history and the development of thought. And I and many like me have taken that search and understanding to a further stage, one in which one sees that the only divine is love, not doctrine or dogma, love and truth. We do not access this through the pages of a primitive text, but find God – the divine, love – within us, within our souls if you like. And this devotion to love and truth means we do not have to go into all sorts of contortions about morality, as love is a far greater morality than anything found if a book. In short it gives an enormous sense of freedom from doctrines that have often led to evil, of intellectual and spiritual truthfulness, and a direct connection to the divine.

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    • Hi Robert, thanks for your comment and good to hear your take on all this!

      Out of interest, would you still see yourself as a ‘Christian’ at all these days, or does that label have no meaning for you now? (I have problems with the ‘Christian’ label, but for me Christ is still very much at the heart of my understanding of the divine.)

      I hear you and agree with what you’re saying to a very large extent. For me “God is love” is the bottom line. However, I’d also include that God is good (or holy if you like), and that we see God most clearly in/through Jesus. Which is not to diminish the contribution of other faiths nor to throw them out as false (excepting Scientology perhaps!).

      I also agree to a large extent that we find God within us, but I’d caveat that in various ways. For me, God is immanent yet also transcendent, within us yet also utterly beyond us, and we fall far short of the divine in so many ways – yet grace always calls us on to wholeness and fulness in Christ.

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      • robert bathie says:

        Thank you for your quick, kind and courteous reply. Since I posted my comment I have read two other of your pages – the ones on the dangers of fundamentalism and on spiritual growth, and I very much agree with them and have sent the links to three Christian friends. I also very much agree with you that God is immanent and transcendent. Your question as to whether I still think of myself as a Christian is very pertinent. I know that there are Christians who say that to be a Christian one must believe in the divinity of Christ, in the resurrection, and in the doctrine of atonement and redemption, but there are also those who describe themselves as Christian only because they see Jesus and their faith tradition as having enabled entry to the divine, but do not regard Jesus as divine, and do not accept the Bible as in anyway being the word of God.

        And it is in the beliefs about Christ where you and I would differ, and which would lead me not to call myself a Christian. I believe Jesus to have been an inspiration teacher who put forward radical ideas about God to a first century audience who were intellectually and spiritually confined by the Old Testament. This radical rethinking of the divine – basically God as love (and I think that love by definition includes goodness) – was then taken, as Biblical scholarship has shown, by the writers of the New Testament who were, with the exception of Luke, all still synagogue attending Jews, not Christians, and Jesus’ life and teaching were then attached to Jewish prophecies and festivals, in an attempt to develop the Jewish understanding of God. The usual literary methods of the time, in religious writing, like personification, parables, and mythical events were used by the writers in an attempt both to marry the beliefs of ‘followers of the way’ as Christians were originally called to the Judaic faith tradition, and to try and express in an understandable way, the transcendental, mystical experience they had had from Jesus’ revelation of the divine. This was, though, based on your article of spiritual development, a transitional period, where much was still held from fundamentalist, traditional beliefs, but there being a definite movement towards – but stopping a long way short of – mysticism.

        For me, mysticism enables the world to be seen as one, so that any belief that prevents that, such as the deification of Jesus, inevitably produces religious elitism and exclusivity and these inevitably create discord, conflict and sorrow. I do not believe, and have not found, that this is the case with the ‘doctrine’ of pure love, unattached to any faith tradition, and which, as I said before is found within us all if we choose to follow love’s divine guidance in our lives. In my experience religion is one of the main belief systems – along with nationalism and racism – which prevents the voice of love – understanding, empathy, forgiveness among some of its many qualities – to be followed by people. You only have to put the news on or visit mental health centres to see the evidence of this.

        So this is probably a rather long way of saying that I would not call myself a Christian, and in fact, having many non Christian friends, I know that such a term has very pejorative connotations. I initially left the church because I could not support the teaching that everyone is condemned to hell unless they believe a doctrine that was based, as I found, on completely insubstantial evidence (the authority and inerrancy of the Bible). I did not want to be associated with such belief and teachings having seen the terrible damage, on an individual and international level, that such a belief had. And it is this spiritual and moral exclusivity, this condemnation of others and the very apparent hypocrisy that can be witnessed amongst Christians that has made the term ‘Christian’ one which, for the majority of people in this country, attracts such opprobrium. It is this huge problem that Christianity must address if it is not to die from people’s indifference to it, their view of it being irrelevant, or their moving onward from it as I have done into something that feels truely trancendent and mystical, – certainly compared with what I felt as a Christian – and reliant not on any ancient writings or supernatural claims but on the truth that we see within us and around us.

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        • Thanks Robert – that’s a very comprehensive and thoughtful reply! I can go a long way with you in your thinking, though perhaps not quite all the way in some areas.

          I’m very much drawn to mysticism, and the idea of a deeper unified reality underlying all the major religions. I certainly don’t any longer feel at home with exclusivist forms of Christianity which view all other spiritualities as false and dangerous.

          One metaphor I’ve come across and found helpful likens religious experience to language. Language is universal, and English is not better than French or Mandarin (say). But language also has to be made specific; we all need to learn a particular mother tongue in order to communicate in daily life. So it is with religion – spiritual and mystical experience is universal, but for now it needs to be translated into the grammar and idiom of particular religions in order for us to be able to work with it meaningfully.

          And for me, the grammar that I’m most familiar with and that makes most sense to me is that of Christianity. Quite a lot of the vocabulary needs to be re-interpreted and given slightly different meanings (e.g. sin, salvation, atonement, etc), but overall it’s the framework that I can best work with as I seek to traverse the paths of the spiritual life.

          Now as I’ve said I do still view Christ as somehow vital and unique, as (in a sense) the source, means and goal of redemption – though all this language is best seen symbolically. But what I’ve started cautiously to hope is that other religions also in some way have ‘Christ’, though translated into another form that I may not recognise.

          Re the Bible, I’m planning a series on this very soon. I take a middle view – I no longer see the Bible as inerrant, as divinely dictated, or as the sole and ultimate authority in all matters. But I do still see it as important – again, because it translates the heavenly but often inexpressible language of mysticism into the everyday speech of humans. Sometimes something is lost in that translation, or false notes are sounded. But rather than chucking out the Bible (or the scriptures of other religions) I think we can re-invest it with new meaning as we’re led by the one Spirit who lies behind and beyond it all. Or something like that!

          All the very best,
          Harvey

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          • robert bathie says:

            Thank you again, Harvey, for your kind and considerate answer. Your website is tremendous, and a real find. I think you are a very fine writer, possessing what I see as the greatest qualites of a writer – an ability to make complex and profound concepts entirely clear and comprehensible through precise, economical, and beautiful use of language. The different faiths / different languages metaphor is an excellent one. I think the areas we differ in are that where you see Christ, I see Love – as an abstract reality, but not a person, not even a very good man and an insightful teacher. And where you see the Bible as a source of wisdom I – having spent my career working with secular literature, which for me has far more wisdom and spirituality, truth and humanity than the Bible and none of its cluttered doctrines – see the Bible as a source of obfuscation of the divine spirit in life through its attempts to anthropomorphise and tribalise it. And as for the importance of the Bible, I can’t believe God made it a requirement for the scattered, illiterate peasants of past centuries to be able to read ‘His Word’, and of course if they should have listened to the missionary who eventually came to them, should they believe the Christian one without having listened to the Muslim, Hindu, Buddist, Jain one, and then how would they know which one, if any, was telling the truth? No, I believe God/ the divine/ the transcendental/Love is a divine spirit within each of us (the kingdom of God is within you), and as such, freely accessible to all without the need of books.. But, as I say, I am loving your website and frequently sending links to friends. Thank you.

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            • robert bathie says:

              Just to clarify something I worded ambigously in the above post – I do think Jesus was a good man, an inspiring teacher and very influential, but nothing more.

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            • All I can say is thank you very much! I’ve always enjoyed writing and this blog is my main outlet at the moment. I’m not in any way a trained theologian so my posts just reflect my own somewhat convoluted journey away from a fundamentalist form of faith to a more open one. As such my views aren’t set in stone but are developing and changing as I engage with ideas – including yours of course! 🙂

              I too hold Love as supreme (in line with the biblical statement ‘God is love’) – but I think that to be meaningful, love always has to be made concrete or indeed incarnate. And for me Jesus is the best incarnation of Love, and the cross (however exactly we interpret and understand it) is the ultimate expression of Love – love that conquers evil and death by taking them upon itself. But I’m very glad for us to have different understandings!

              I think one of the main problems with religion is that we have to try to express ineffable reality in language that can never be adequate to the task, which leads to all sorts of unfortunate misunderstandings and unnecessary arguments over these words and meanings.

              Thanks again for your kind words!

              All the best,
              Harvey

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          • As you say to Robert, I’m with both of you on almost all of this. The relation between spirituality and religions (particularly Xnty in my own experience and studies for now 50 years if I count from age 15, when I got personally “into” the Bible after heavy childhood exposure) is important and fascinating! I’d love it if many more would take a step “back” and try to understand religions (their own, if they have one, and others) AND their own spiritual yearnings, experiences, intuitions and such. That is, in somewhat separate “compartments” to subsequently be wedded back together mentally and in practice.

            As to Christ potentially being the vital person/event, universally…. again, fascinating and more complex than even inquisitive, searching minds can fully get around. But there IS indeed something important in the well-worn scholarly distinction of “Jesus of history” and “Christ of faith”. It is the social-psychological drive of humans that, especially at key historical and/or “social identity” junctures, creates a given religion. To me, this happened with Jesus, and NOT all at once in a faith “delivered to the saints” in the first century. Rather, much of the core of “traditional” or “orthodox” Xnty gradually, slowly developed, mainly in the first 300-350 years. And of course it has gotten and still does get modified per the times and places it is practiced, but Church or “biblical” authority has mostly ossified it for many centuries (just how many depends on being RC, Prot., or Orthodox).

            It is unfortunate how little this process is know about, and the real “story” of 1st century Xn development understood, incomplete and slanted as it is in the New Testament. That by both Xns who SHOULD know their origins better, and non-Xns who often make flawed charges like Constantine or the Council of Nicaea greatly “changed the Bible”, and such. (Now Constantine DID manipulate the coucil and DID employ the first great spin-meister, Eusebius, who personally created many of the misconceptions and myths still with us about biblical and apostolic authority, etc.)

            Now, this process of turning Jesus into “Christ” (a broader concept than that of a Jewish Messiah, though rooted there) DID start very early, particularly in Paul. Best I can infer from minimal data (following top scholars), “The Twelve” and the Jerusalem Jesus-followers did not “divinize” Jesus in the same way as Paul and others outside Palestine and then subsequent to the destruction of Jeru. in 70 (the Gospel of John being a good case in point). But, as even Ehrman will agree, there WAS an “early high Christology”… just not quite what we think of it as, nor for reasons such as the “bodily” Resurrection, or “empty tomb”.

            However, both Paul and probably The Twelve and others in Jerusalem were quite charismatic in the sense of “miraculous” gifts. So theirs was not mainly a “head” religion, even if firmly convinced of Jesus’ soon return. It was “The Way” (to live and follow God). And for Paul, also the great hope for the world and for uniting Jews and Gentiles. Today we have mostly “head” religion in the non-charismatic forms of Xnty. At least some of the charismatics/Pentecostals have more “whole person” experience in their faith, though still not properly understood and related to universal psycho-spiritual realities…. But the potential is there, and it may somewhat be developing… I retain hope.

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            • Thanks Howard – a lot to think about there!

              I’d be interested to know more about the process of how Christianity developed, and how the ‘Jesus of history’ became the ‘Christ of faith’. For me it’s not necessarily a problem that Christianity didn’t appear fully-formed on the scene in a one-off revelation – though I’m not a fully signed-up Process person, I’m happy to accept that God works in a slow evolutionary kind of way, through natural means and even through human lives and communities. So I can still believe in the Christ of faith (or at least much of what that means) even if that is a late development and somewhat different from the Jesus of history.

              I very much agree with you about the need to expand on the merely ‘head religion’ forms of Christianity we see in much of the western world. As I’ve said, I’m strongly drawn to mysticism and to contemplative streams of faith, as well as those which are more concerned with social justice and liberation of the oppressed, and also those which seek to use the whole body/person in worship.

              Don’t ever give up hope! 🙂

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            • In the software of this blog, Harvey, I cannot indent a reply to your recent reply to me, so second best is “replying to myself” here and hoping it will be picked up by you or others as replying to YOU. Anyway, I appreciate the comments and appreciate the openness and searching of Christians like you… they do seem to be increasing in number these days.

              However, something I think should be of some concern in world-wide trends is this: In the “developing” or “two-thirds” world, it is mainly conservative (relatively closed, exclusivist) forms of Christianity that are growing so rapidly. Unlike the “developed” world. This includes branches that have become pretty open and progressive here, such as the Anglican or Episcopal (Amer.) Church (which maybe you are or have been part of, I forget if I knew). And naturally, many Western conservatives are thrilled and see this as a good model for us, with our decadent forms of faith–too progressive(!)

              What they fail to see I think should be fairly obvious. Oversimplified, granted, it is this:
              In much of the “two-thirds” world, tribes and societies are moving from “pre-modern” or magical-mythical worldviews to “modern” or “rationalist” ones (roughly equivalent of medieval to Renaissance or Enlightenment views). This level of cultural development was, of course, accomplished for the controlling factors of Western culture around two centuries ago, taking a couple hundred years or more. With the rapidity of change and communication, globalization, I expect it will take far less time for them now, but it may still be a rather slow and quite bumpy road. An example might be the anti-homosexuality laws of Uganda, which were seemingly pushed through because of the encouragement and advise of American groups with anti-gay views.

              Anyway, American Christians (and Europeans, somewhat?) are often pushing against “postmodern” perspectives, not even seeing (and unable to understand) where many of us are. In going BEYOND postmodernism into “integral” (or whatever label), we can now more readily accept and incorporate the positive aspects of a merely “modern” faith, such as priority on stable family units (minus the extremes that sometimes leads to), valuing of tradition, etc. (Two adjacent levels of development seem to have the most conflict… when a 2nd step “higher” [yes, higher, contra postmodern terminology], one is less reactive and more humble.)

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            • Having visited rural Kenya a couple of years ago, I’ve seen this kind of conservative pre-critical/pre-modern Christianity first hand, in all its goodness and scariness. On the good side, it is a force for social justice and helping the poor, the widows and AIDS orphans. On the scary side, I heard scaremongering sermons preached against homosexuality.

              I also see a lot of missionaries from ‘Two-Thirds World’ countries now coming to the UK to evangelise us poor lost liberals, and the conservative Christians are very pleased about this. I don’t mind – I’m happy to be evangelised 🙂

              I think I’m still a bit stuck in postmodernism myself, but hoping to move on eventually…

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            • Going back to the question of morality, and the narrow view held by more conservative Christians, here’s a very relevant historical religious print I came across on holiday recently – both terrifying and amusing at the same time:
              https://www.flickr.com/photos/harveyedser/14681113460/sizes/l

              On the left is depicted the broad path to destruction, via immoral activities such as frequenting taverns, ballrooms and theatres or not observing the Sabbath. And on the right is the narrow path to life via strict religious devotion and shunning worldly vices.

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            • As to maybe “stuck in postmodernism”, I don’t think your really are… you sound more “integral” to me, or Fowler’s universalizing faith stage…. Plus, you’re still a “young” man… from the perspective of a guy about to turn 65!

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            • I’ve been evangelizing Christians, and many conservatives aren’t happy about it.

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            • I can well believe it! 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Evangelical Liberal Asks: Does Liberal Theology Undermine Christian Morality? | Jesus Without Baggage

  4. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Hi Evan, I re-blogged this excellent post today with the title, “Evangelical Liberal Asks: Does Liberal Theology Undermine Christian Morality?” As indicated in my introduction, I will be using your article as a launching point for my next post.

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  5. I would go further. Personal morality is a diversion from the real moral issues of today. At worst it is like the Pharisees, a form of self-aggrandizement that allows people to think they are moral while they express their dark side through their politics. They think they are moral, but what they really become is judgmental and hateful. It’s a phariseic form of Christianity that serves to justify prejudice and discrimination. it allows people to support the status quo without concern for the effect that their policy choices have on others, particularly on the lives of gays, women, children, the poor, minorities, and on the people our government kills and tortures to protect our riches. It absolves Christians of the moral responsibility to stand up for the oppressed and marginalized. Ultimately, it is a betrayal of our mission to make disciples of the nations.

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    • Hi Richard, thanks for your comment, and it’s always good to have new voices contributing to the debate!

      I agree with you to a large extent. I think that the emphasis on personal morality can often be (though I don’t think it necessarily has to be) a legalistic distraction from more truly central Christian issues. Which isn’t to say that our morality doesn’t matter at all or that anything goes, but that we shouldn’t put (say) sexuality at the centre and ignore wider issues of justice and mercy.

      So I do think it’s fair enough to critique genuine Pharisaism whenever we encounter it, but let’s also always critique ourselves as well. Much as I’d like to use the nasty fundies as a scapegoat for all the ills of the world I suspect I may not be completely without blame myself… 🙂

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  6. Evangelical Liberal. Good post here, I came across it through Jesus Without Baggage. You made a lot of good points, so I want to just add one thing, which is the pre-supposition that there was actually more morality in the fundamental view of things. In my opinion the progressive view is wayyyyyy more moral. With a progressive view I no longer have to wonder why God sent “his people” on genocides and massacres. I no longer have to wonder why he cursed humanity. I no longer have to wonder why he commands us to stone gay’s and rebellious children. I no longer have to wonder why he rained fire down on cities and flooded the world. I no longer have to wonder why he demanded the brutal murder of his only son. I no longer have to wonder why he’s going to come back and throw most of us in a lake of fire. I don’t wonder that because it’s complete nonsense conceived by ancient tribal human beings. Now all have to do is follow Jesus which I can actually consider “good news.”

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    • Hi Christian Evolution! Thanks for your comment, and that’s a very good point you raise. I suppose it largely comes down to our definition of morality in the end – I can picture a great fight between progressives and fundies about whose morality is better! 😉 Perhaps, because of where I’ve come from, I was falling into the trap of defining morality in a narrowly fundamentalist/traditionalist way.

      I think there’s some truth and good on both sides. I certainly don’t want to chuck out all ‘traditional’ morality, but rather expand on it and understand what underlies it. That’s what it feels like Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount – not abolishing the old laws, but re-interpreting them in a whole new light.

      The trouble is I know less of the progressive side that I’m attracted to and find myself moving towards than I do of the fundamentalist side I’m moving away from. So I’d be very glad of your insights into more progressive understandings of morality and moral/ethical issues.

      I do take your point about some of those horrific biblical doctrines and ideas, though I wouldn’t go quite so far as you in the view that it’s all complete nonsense… 🙂

      All the very best,
      Harvey

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    • It may also be that some of the nonsense you speak is of recent more rect origin the many realize. For example, the idea of the rapture didn’t exist until John Darby invented it in 1830 C.E.

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  7. michaeleeast says:

    It may be possible that Progressive Christianity is in fact more moral than Fundamentalism.
    Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor, even to love your enemies.
    If we do this we will be more considerate and respectful of others than any merely legalistic observance. So liberal theology does not necessarily undermine morality at all!

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    • Thanks Michael – a very good point, and one that a few people have now raised. I think a lot of it may come down to what we mean by morality and what we understand by liberal theology – both terms that are open to quite a wide range of interpretations!

      My own view is certainly that it’s more important to be loving and compassionate than it is to be right, or to be theologically and doctrinally correct (whatever that might mean).

      Nonetheless, I can’t help some slight misgivings as I head out of the safe harbour of traditionalism in my little boat. The waters out there in the world seem mighty choppy at times, and that old strict morality felt so nice and solid…!

      All the very best,
      Harvey

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  8. scraffiti says:

    Hi Evangelical Liberal. I enjoyed reading this post which was flagged up by Jesus Without Baggage. A bit lengthy for me but I did the distance!

    As far as I understand it, ‘morality’ is not a Bible word – I’ve never seen it there.
    Morality is an ethical thing and ethical ideas are philosophical conundrums.
    I had this debate many times as a student. To be honest, I’ve never got to the bottom of the word ‘evangelical’ either. I couldn’t tell you whether I have ever been one or not.

    As somebody else has eluded to though, morality has had a lot to do with majoring in minors. I’ve also been hanging around churches for some forty odd years and have seen so much pain caused in the name of ‘righteousness’ (there’s another lovely word!).

    It seems that we’re all pretty much on the same journey and I’ll enjoy reading your blog. Keep it coming.

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    • Hi Scraffiti, thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading despite the length! I know I write way too much for online – but there’s always so much to say 🙂

      I take your point that ‘morality’ is not a Bible word, and so is really a secondary concept. On the other hand, ‘theology’, ‘trinity’ and various other fairly important concepts aren’t Bible words either, but they arise as people try to engage with ideas that come from the Bible, their experience, etc. Interestingly, I think the Bible does use the inverse word ‘immorality’ quite a lot (or rather the word that we’ve translated that way)… which is perhaps one reason why a lot of Christian talk around morality (and particularly sexual morality) can often be negative rather than positive.

      I also take your point about morality often majoring on minors. I don’t think that has to be the case, but often those who are overly obsessed with ideas of morality (particularly sexual morality) can have a narrow and unhealthy focus. My understanding of Jesus’ teachings in, say, the Sermon on the Mount is that this kind of narrow morality just doesn’t go far enough – it doesn’t really address the heart of the issues. He’s not saying that anything goes, but that simply setting strict rules solves nothing.

      I’m not too sure exactly what ‘evangelical’ means either, except that I used to think I was one and now I’m pretty sure that I’m not! 🙂

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  9. cafedavid says:

    Right now in my journey, I believe there are only 3 universal laws that apply:
    1. Love God
    2. Love Yourself
    3. Love Others
    You can listen to,my thinking here: https://gumroad.com/l/missingpillar

    I have tested this framework over the past year and so,far I haven’t found any situation where it can’t be applied to,produce a morality that is far more life-giving than dogmatic fundamentalism.

    Does this mean that we throw out the rest of the teaching contained in the Bible? No, they are still good guides,for us. But they are not laws. Everything should be filtered through the Royal Law of Love.

    The mistake I used to make was to think that the Bible is the standard of morality for all of life..The truth is, we often use the ethical standards of today to cherry pick what still applies or doesn’t apply from the Bible.

    Is morality therefore relative? In some sense, yes. The only absolute is love.

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  10. Harvey, your question is a good one to pose. As a former Evangelical, now progressive Christian (per Process theology mainly), I feel all “stripes” of Xns, from various paradigms, need to discuss this and other important questions. Many do on the internet… I doubt many do outside of this context and active bloggers and blog readers probably constitute only a tiny percentage of all Western Xn’s.

    If we just singled out one, perhaps the most emotionally charged, aspect of morality, sexual morality, I’d point out that even Evangelicals have major differences in some aspects of that… particularly re. gay marriage or acceptance of any kind of non-marital (heterosexual) sexual relations. But also on divorce, etc. And so do Progressives among themselves, though to probably a lesser degree. And of course, both Progressives (often) and Evangelicals (almost always) base their positions on their reading of the Bible. So clearly, the Bible is not the thing which can be solely appealed to to set up (or take down) given standards of “morality.” Whether we admit it or not, we all rely on other sources and aspects of “authority” (including our own feelings, logic, biological forces, etc., etc.). But trying to get most Evangelicals (and especially fundamentalists!) to see this and deal with factors that go INTO biblical interpretation and positing of authority in the Bible? It’s slow going!

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    • Hi Howard, I completely agree with you that we all (fundamentalists included) rely on other sources of authority than the Bible – and I think rightly so. And as you say, it’s often hard work getting evangelicals to accept this! So many of the evangelical arguments about scriptural authority and inerrancy are hopelessly circular. But keep going – I’ve changed my mind over the years, and I’m sure many others have and will too…

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  11. Hi all, returning to the morality question, I do to an extent understand those who thunder about the importance of ‘morality’ in the rather narrow traditionalist sense. I’ve seen the destructive power of things like alcoholism, adultery, pornography, drugs and so on – I know that these kinds of ‘immoral’ things can wreck lives and relationships. So I don’t think that ‘anything goes’, or that it’s of almost no importance how we behave sexually (say).

    However, I do part company with the traditionalists in all sorts of ways. For a start, I don’t see homosexual relationships as inherently immoral. And more fundamentally, I’m not sure that strict moral rules or pulpit rants are the best solution to destructive behaviours. The real problems lie deep within each of us, in our shadow sides, and we need to embark on the inner journey of self-discovery, of becoming whole and integrated – only then can we hope to overcome the darkness and chaos within us.

    Or something along those lines 🙂

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    • It’s also important to recognize that some of the things you mentioned are not all bad. For example, I know quite a bit about pornography, and there are good things about it, too.
      https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739105016. There are different lifestyles, such as polyamory which seeks more honest relationships outside of traditional marriage (marriage may be the cause of adultery, for without it there would be no adultery.) Alcoholism is a disease, but alcohol itself isn’t necessarily bad. Anything is harmful when abused or misused. Traditional morality doesn’t see these things clearly or fairly. All it leads to is intolerance, which is immoral.

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      • Hi Richard, thought-provoking (and controversial) stuff! I think I would probably part company with you on some of these things (and I’m not convinced that intolerance is immoral) but I’d be interested to hear and engage with your ideas further.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Evan, I have purposefully withheld comments on this post because 1) I promoted it and did not want to interfere with the comments, and 2) I planned to respond to the question (or more precisely a similar question) in a full blog post which published this morning http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2014/08/13/does-abandoning-legalism-and-belief-in-hell-destroy-the-foundations-of-morality/

      However, I have kept up with the excellent discussion and I particularly like your latest general statement that begins, “Hi all, returning to the morality question…” Very well said!

      Like

    • cafedavid says:

      My suggestion is that issues like addiction to porn, alcoholism and drugs is addressed by the missing pillar in Christianity which I had earlier posted about.

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      • Hi cafedavid, I’m afraid I haven’t managed to listen to your sermon on the ‘missing pillar’ yet, but if you mean love (loving God, ourselves, others) then I agree to a large extent. But that love may have to be extremely practical and possibly quite painful at times – certainly when dealing with things like addictions.

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  12. Harvey, as promised, I put out a post today on the morality subject. I actually tacked a section it on to an older post from April. I’d be curious what you think. I also linked to this post of yours at the end as a thanks for drudging this important subject back up 🙂 Here’s the post: http://www.christianevolution.com/2014/04/are-progressive-christians-losing.html

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