Is there such a thing as a sincere liberal Christian, which says that we basically take this document and re-write it ourselves? Is that really Christian? That’s a bigger question for me. And the answer, no, it’s not. I don’t think there is such a thing. To take what is plainly written and say that I don’t agree with that, therefore, I don’t have to pay attention to it, means you’re not what you say you are. – Rick Santorum, BuzzFeed News, 2012
In the third and final installment of this series, I will be changing my approach somewhat. There is a specific reason I am doing this, and here it is:
Because I would be labeled a “liberal Christian” by most in America, I do not want to fall into the trap of playing the victim for my own aggrandizement. Should I take the approach of simply defending myself against the attacks of not being an actual Christian, I fear I will engage in the very same scapegoating much of the conservative Right constantly engages in. Then I can show everyone how much of a victim I am! That would not exactly be Christlike. Instead of doing that, I am going to offer my insight (and hopefully wisdom) as to how to approach my fellow brothers and sisters who take a more “conservative” approach in love. My goal will be to help ease much of the fear some seem to have at the thought of theologies that differ from their own. Then perhaps all “types” of Christians can come together and actually help build each other up and grow.
Santorum’s primary fear in the quote above seems centered on his belief that liberal Christians are “re-writing” the Bible. Because this is not the first time I have heard this claim, I will focus my attention there. First, I would like to attempt to put his fear to rest because that is not what I, or any of my colleagues for that matter, are doing. Now, I will say that I interpret things vastly differently than most Western Christians, but different views aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Our Jewish forefathers often disagreed amongst themselves and, as scholar and historian Lester L. Grabbe tells us in Second Temple Judaism: History and Religion of the Jews in the Time of Nehemiah, the Maccabees, Hillel and Jesus:
Most Jews accepted the sacredness of the temple and the general teachings of the Torah. But there was no official orthodoxy (in the Christian sense), for it is clear that there were many interpretations of the Torah and many different views about how to apply the law outside the temple. (Preface, xii)
One group of Christians need not fear the interpretive methods of another, but in fact should be willing to learn and grow from them. And this goes both ways! Nobody has the complete—capital “T”—Truth.
The second thing I would like to address is the notion that the Bible should be treated as if it had “plain” teachings. And even if it did, there would still be complicated minds interpreting it—and we know no two minds are perfectly alike. It does not matter if you are studying Christology, eschatology, soteriology, or any of the other “-ologies,” there will be differences of opinions. In fact, dissimilar conclusions—even slight ones—will always be drawn when looking specifically at Jesus’ teachings, as most were in parable. Let me list some of them:
- The Parable of the Lost Sheep
- The Parable of the Prodigal Son
- The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Servants
- The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
- The Parable of the Mustard Seed
One could spend their entire lifetime deciphering what each parable truly “means”—and even that gets us nowhere because there is no one “meaning” to something that is pedagogical (used for teaching). Moreover, reading a parable literally is as logical as the famous Oscar Wilde quote: “I can resist anything, except temptation.” My point is, without getting into specifics, is that there is no one way to interpret Jesus. Things simply aren’t that plain.
I realize I am not offering a counter-hermeneutic to a flat reading. That is not my point here. But it was my point here, here, and especially here. I would, however, like to pose one question to those who favor a flat hermeneutic: is that how Jesus himself viewed Scripture? I believe that is a fair question—one that I never once heard asked in church. Again, I attempt that here.
So, I know I did not defend whether a “liberal Christian” can exist. Hopefully, if you have been keeping abreast to what I write, the answer is self-evident. Honestly, I would have offered more of a retort but it is so damn easy to fall into the scapegoating trap and I am trying to watch myself. I will, however, conclude by saying the following: Conservatism does not get to claim ownership of the Gospel, even if some of their members refuse to acknowledge a contrary understanding of it.
As a church, let’s stop scapegoating others. That’s not the Jesus way. He refused to create scapegoats. Instead, he chose to serve everyone, and it is my hope that someday I’ll start looking more like him in that regard.