How to Talk to a Theological Liberal
(If You Must)
(If You Must)
Author: Justin Moser
No doubt, you have ran into one in the past, or if you haven't, you will soon. This is especially true if you go to a University, or if you are on the Internet. I am referring to people who are "liberal" in their theology. That may seem strange to talk about -- most people are familiar with those who are politically liberal. Now, political liberals and theological liberals are probably about as annoying (I'm speaking generally, I know a few political liberals I can converse with without the urge to bonk them over the head), but theological liberals can also be potentially dangerous to those who are weak in faith or seeking. As such, I figured it would be worthwhile to do a piece for Tekton on them. Holding has probably ran plenty through with his social-historical sword, but here I'd like to focus on their methods in a way which he might haven't, yet.
What do I mean by theological liberal? Unfortunately, what they believe will vary greatly depending one what axe each individual has to grind. In fact, the term "theological" is misleading, since many I have conversed with are essentially naturalists. The best way to describe them is that they associate themselves to Jesus or Paul or the Bible, but in a way that distorts the essential message. They use Bible passages for their purposes which conveniently look like they may support the liberal's axe grinding, yet they dismiss anything which they don't like as myth. They are fond of Christ myth and other kooky conspiracy theories, fuzzy logic, and untenable translations of the original texts. They posit as fact various unsubstantiated (or even impossible to substantiate) theories about the Bible, all along dismissing what hard facts we do have available. And that doesn't even talk about how bad these people anachronize what they read with their own modernist presumptions.
Before we go on, it is important that I note that one can be politically liberal yet theologically "conservative." One does not have to lead to the other -- I've conversed with orthodox Christians who hold to the same values as the political left. This discussion will focus on the theological variety.
Really, it is almost pointless to try to reason with such people. Theological liberals (hereafter, just liberals) tend to be so enamored in their way of thinking that there is usually no hope of knocking sense into them. Without fail, every conversation I've had with a liberal ended in a Texas spitting match. Personally, I believe it is fruitless to try to reason liberals into the fold; the only reason I'd even talk to a liberal is if it was in a public setting where he or she could influence other people. Liberals are a blight on the church, and should be treated as such.
So, let's look at and critique the liberal's most common debate methods.
Method #1. I'm a Christian (even though I deny X, Y, Z, ...)
Yeah, and I'm a baked potato, even though I don't have a crusty brown exterior nor a mushy white interior. At least, not to my knowledge.
The thrust of the tactic here is that the liberal wants be understood as an insider rather than an outsider. What better way to influence the people you want to influence than to associate yourself as one of them? "You can trust me, I'm a Christian like you." And then he or she starts spouting off garbage, which many Christians may not be able to discern due to the nature of our times (i.e., fast food faith).
You have to understand that we cannot let people get away with this. If the term "Christian" is to have any meaning at all, it has to have a specific meaning. And it already has a meaning: how it has been defined for the past ages. Shall we revise the definition of this word simply because a few people will have a hissy fit if we don't? Of course not! If you deny the core beliefs that the majority of Christians over the ages consider essential to the Christian faith, you should not call yourself a Christian. To do so is intellectually dishonest.
A fun way to mess with the liberal is to call him or her a Nazi. Of course they will be offended, but explain it this way: if you can call yourself a Christian even though you deny core essentials to Christianity, then I can call you a Nazi, even though you deny such things as Aryan supremacy, the use of death camps, etc. This person is simply a liberal Nazi!
Method #2. We need to be tolerant of other people, since all faiths lead to God in their own way.
Of course, most Christians are tolerant anyways, simply not in the way the liberal demands. (See my article on Tolerance)
With regard to the pluralistic view that all roads lead to God, it seems that liberals always have the unfortunate problem that logic is just too darn inconvenient! In the general, there are at least two kinds of religions: those that hold that there is one way to God, and those that hold that there are many ways. The problem is, if the former type of religion is correct, then the latter must be wrong; and vice versa. In the specific, every religion says a set of propositions about who God(s) is; yet every religion contradicts every other religion in some way. If two religions didn't contradict each other, they would really be the same religion. Thus, no more than one religion can possibly be right in their view of God. The law of contradiction holds to even God Himself. If it doesn't -- and it is a shame the liberal doesn't think this out this far -- God would be incoherent and thus unknowable. If all religions are right, then all religions are also wrong. [See Religious Pluralism]
A quick and easy way to refute the liberal on this point is to ask them, why they don't tolerate traditional Christianity? What you want to do is put them in a dilemma: either you have to "tolerate" (by the liberal's definition) Christianity, and thus "tolerate" no other religion, or not "tolerate" Christianity, and thus you are not tolerating everyone like you should (according to the liberal). Then, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show as they try to squirm out.
Method #3. History is always rewritten by the winners.
I find this assertion odd, considering that the only people I know who blatantly rewrite history are the liberals themselves, and they are the biggest bunch of losers around!
This is typically an attempt to sidestep the evidence we do have about Biblical history, so that the liberal can prefer his or her kooky conspiracy theory. And it's brilliant too: if you can convince people that Paul took over Christianity and changed it as he saw fit, you can get them to believe that the primitive Christianity of Jesus was anything you want it to be.
Of course, we could do the same thing with any other popular character. Gandhi? He was a red meat eating, gun toting capitalist! What happened was the media misunderstood him, because his followers perpetuated a distorted version of his teachings. Martin Luther King Jr.? He didn't even exist! What we remember from the old black and white news reels was an actor; it's all a big government conspiracy theory. (And by this, I mean no offense to anyone; this is just an exercise in reductio ad absurdum.)
Try it out whenever you run into a theological liberal who does this (or skeptics, as well). And when they say how ridiculous it is, you say "Exactly!" that was your point. Or if they have the gall of bringing up the extant evidence we have of these people, it's time to get into apologist mode and show them how they just put the bullet in their own rotting carcass of a "theology."
In reality, this isn't how historical studies work (or, at least it isn't how they should). In many cases all we have as evidence is the report of an ancient historian, and sometimes even a bleak line of archeological evidence. If we were collectively consistent in applying this methodology to history, we would have absolutely nothing useful about history to learn. That includes anything from 5 minutes ago, since there might have been a vast conspiracy and 4 minutes 59 seconds ago you were brainwashed and all your memories are fake. While this might be entertaining to conjecture about philosophically, we simply cannot live like this. To some extent, we have to give the benefit of the doubt to what we perceive has history, whether it be recent or ancient. With ancient historians, they are the closest we have to eyewitnesses. Some may have malevolent purposes in how they report their history, but with enough study a good, consistent historian can sort out the fact from the fiction to some extent. [Also See The Reliability of The Four Gospels]
Method #4. Jesus was a Marxist, vegetarian, who stood up for homosexual rights and drove a solar car, etc.
Yes, not even Jesus can escape the whackiness of the theological left. Every theological liberal I've talked to has had a political axe to grind, and it almost always emerges in their "theology." And it always ends up having Jesus as it's biggest advocate. And it's no wonder! Who could argue with Jesus Himself? If Jesus was a socialist, how could we Christians be capitalists? I can seriously see how tempting it can be to make Jesus out to be the progenitor of your political party (Some would argue the political "religious right" has done the same thing).
But really, how much can we really extrapolate about Jesus' political views? You have to understand, the many of the political issues we face now did not exist in the first century Palestine. The people had much to worry about in surviving alone without dealing with the sociological impact on policies regarding (say,) abortion or homosexual marriage. It is a terrible anachronism to expect such things as economic and environmental policy to be serious issues to Jews at the time. Or with homosexuality and some other issues, at least, it was an easy choice: it was against the Torah, therefore it was illicit in Jewish society.
Furthermore, Jesus and the Apostles (as well as the rest of the early church) had to be very careful what they said about politics. Jesus, Himself, had to deal with Jews who wanted to make Him into a political king in hopes that He would overthrow the Roman rule in Judea (cf. John 6:15). He also had enough fun trying to explain the nature of His divinity (e.g. John 3) and other aspects of His teachings... He had maybe one point in His ministry where He made a politically significant point, but that was only because the Pharisees were trying to entrap Him (cf. Matt. 22:17-21). Besides, why should He? The politics of the day were basically what the Romans said they were, and why would the Romans listen to a traveling Jewish preacher in a "backwoods" province? At best Jesus would have been ignored, and at worst He would be dealt with as a political insurgent and a threat to the Pax Romana. There was no incentive for Jesus to go into details about the "virtues" of Communism or the "evils" of capitalism. The case was the same for the Apostles and the rest of the leadership of the early church.
I am not saying we cannot take Biblical principles and apply them to the existing political sphere in democratic/republic societies today. The only point here is that it is a terrible injustice to intellectual integrity, to the Bible writers, and to Jesus to put words in their mouths about issues the had no reason to speak about. [Also See Living in Babylon]
As you may have noticed, none of the prescriptions are designed to take the theological liberals seriously. And certainly they will be offended. But that is actually the point. What the liberal wants is for us to take them seriously. If Christians take them seriously, some of the weaker among us might think that they have something to say that is worth hearing. And then when they are taken seriously, they will go and start spouting off their usual nonsense. No, it is just best for everyone if these people get nothing from the Christian community except for utter contempt. Too long have we granted people to be their own authorities simply by virtue of them being able to communicate their opinion.