Saturday, September 5, 2009

Liberal Christianity: A Personal Reflection

The American atheist philosopher John W. Loftus asked recently, if liberal Christians were "intellectually dishonest" (cf. the title of his post). He wondered how come some people still cling to the description of "Christian", and apply it to themselves, when they at the same time recognize that there is no objective basis for Christianity. As Loftus understands it, the only intellectually honest conclusion would be "to abandon any profession of Christianity once it is recognized that Jesus did no miracles, was wrong about the eschaton, didn’t fulfill OT prophecy, and did not bodily rise from the dead." Loftus suspects that for the liberal Christians their religious activities are simply opportunities for gathering together with like-minded people, building and maintaining their social networks, without any true historical connections to the traditional forms of Christianity. He wishes to force the liberal Christians to confess this, "that their version of Christianity is very far from anything that any Christian of the past would accept."

Even though Loftus formulates his question in a way that makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable - as I cannot be sure if he wishes to engage in a genuine dialogue or not - I am willing to give him the benefit of doubt. To begin, his prediction that the liberal Christians would not accept his take on the matter does not actualize below: as will be seen, I agree with everything he says, except his very final conclusion, that the only "intellectually honest" choice would be to abandon any notion of "Christianity" for ever and drop the labeling of oneself with it. I myself have previously stated quite clearly, citing other contemporary theologians for further examples, that "Christians today do not believe as the Christians during the 1st-century believed". Expanding on this, I would say that this holds true for all the other centuries as well; Christianity has changed in the past, and will keep changing in the future. Furthermore, I agree with Loftus that the social networks are one of the key aspects to understanding religion, its formation, expansion, and continuing relevance for its adherents. However, the situation is not one-sided, as other factors are also in the play; the clear-cut conclusion of Loftus is certainly a possible one, as he has personally demonstrated, but not the only one available.

For the end of this little introduction, let me rephrase the question Loftus asked, in a way that simplifies the issue to a level of a slogan (handy to throw around in the Web), and offer a one-line answer to it:

Q: Why the liberal Christians do not abandon Christianity completely when they do not believe in God?

A: Because they hold that religion has never had anything to do with God - religion is about the people.


In "Religion Is Not About God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture Our Biological Nature and What to Expect When They Fail" (Rutgers University Press, 2005) Loyal D. Rue, a professor of religion and philosophy at Luther College of Decorah, Iowa, presents a comprehensive general theory of religion, firmly rooted in cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology, similar to Daniel C. Dennett, but with more nuances.1 The core of religion is not, following Rue's analysis, about the supernatural, but about us, the people, we who practice the religion. Religion cultivates our personal wholeness, and strengthens the social coherence of our group. If these things fail, religion fails also. For this reason religions have to keep reinterpreting themselves, their myths, and their practices.

Professor Rue's work on the question of the function of religion is an example. As he stresses the importance of social networks and the cognitive features of an individual (of which the "control beliefs" discussed in Loftus' (and others') blog "Debunking Christianity" is a variant of), there is nothing with which I would disagree - not even as a Christian. I think that Rue's overall interpretation is a strong one, and that "Religion Is Not About God" is worth reading by anyone. Gladly accepting these conclusions, sounding as reductionist as they do (or, at least, they may be interpreted to sound reductionist), is not something every Christian is willing to make. I have to ask, what features from my personal history make the matter so patently easy for myself.

When I was baptized in 1996, I was 15. It is a common practice in Finland to participate in the confirmation schools, hosted by The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, even if one is not a member of the Church. Some 90% of all the youths aged 14-15 participate, even though only c. 85% of this age group belongs to the Church. Yes, there are over 4,000,000 members in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church, and similar to the situation in America, many people have considered it to be "un-Finnish" to resign one's membership, usually obtained with baptism during the first year after birth. Lutheran Christianity is still very much the national religion of Finland, though no official ties with the state remain.

My congregation (based on where I lived at that time, due to change whenever I happen to move) had a liberal outlook. Women had been accepted as ministers in the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church since 1986 following a tough fight; a similar proposition had been turned down two years earlier. There were women working as pastors, there was a special mass named after the apostle Thomas (Tuomasmessu), where the idea was to have some breathing room in contrast to the traditional mass on Sunday morning, and space for expressing doubts, or lack of faith, or questioning. My youth pastor handled the biblical narratives with a straight modern take: Genesis was mythology, most of the Old Testament was unhistorical, the miracles of Jesus were stories told to portray him as the God's Messiah ("Chosen one"), and the Revelations had absolutely nothing to do with the current world events; The Holy Bible was not about predictions and prophecy. All in all, the description of "liberal" was probably pretty accurate as a label for my congregation. It was the form of Christianity that I embraced.

I remember thinking on more than one occasion that there was nothing Christianity would have to fear from anyone or anywhere - every honest search for truth was in line and compatible with it. The concept of truth I had was very unreflected; I probably thought it was something people arrive at after questioning the evidence, after participating on a (metaphorical) pilgrimage, after searching for it. As I began my theological studies at Helsinki University, I was introduced to the world of contemporary philosophy, and bit by bit the constant talk about "the truth" became meaningless. Following some Finnish theologians, like Terho Pursiainen and his ideas that religion has its own special "native language" that is not used in the same sense as our everyday language is used, I began to perceive, as another Finnish theologian Ari Hukari has recently done, that TRUTH is merely a matter of a chosen language-game, and therefore limited in its usefulness. I tried to avoid using the word, though sometimes, when I need to say things in a concise form, I slip and speak about multitudes of truths.

Instead of truth and those things that go with the word - the project of owning the truth by downplaying other persons with the rhetorics of power - I wish to use the word HONESTY. Compared to truth, being honest does not demand anything from the person I am conversing with, as the question is about myself (and my honesty) alone, and not about the other person's honesty. In no way do I wish to imply that other people, who happen to arrive at different conclusions, are dishonest - this I cannot stress enough. When I have dropped the language of truths, all that remains is my pursuit to be as honest and as open as I possibly can. Only at this level - without debating truths, but reflecting my true stance - can I take part in a dialogue with another person, who may or may not be as willing to reveal herself, but will nonetheless be my partner in discussion.

I have written before about the need to let go of the "pious self-deception", the conviction that everybody else, except myself, is cherry-picking material from the Bible (and possibly from the church tradition); the conviction that only I am true to the Bible (and traditions). Let me state this again: no one takes the Bible as a whole, and everyone is picking parts of it, keeping those one wishes to use, and discarding those one does not have a use for. If we are going to do this anyway, we might as well be conscious in our choices. In the same demystifying vein, and trying to be as honest to myself as I possibly can, I can come up with six reasons that convince me personally to remain a member of my church.

The six reasons I find compelling enough for me personally to continue to be a worshiping liberal Christian, in no particular order:

1) Amusement

The single picture on the right, from Tove Jansson's "Moomin on the Riviera" (a Finnish translation), expresses a personal reason that I have the hardest time to come to terms with, and that is the hardest one to confess publicly. Let's translate the words in the balloons:

Marquis Mongaga: Fancy that a millionaire dares to be such a romantic!

Moomintroll: But mother, father is not a...

Moominmamma: Shhh, my darling! It amuses him!

For as long as I remember, I have played the part of advocatus diaboli, always shifting my position on various issues ever so lightly to keep the conversation lively and interesting. I like the challenge of a debate, and I also feel that it is profitable to encourage others to focus their arguments, make them examine them in detail, by coming up with possible objections some other person would express in all seriousness. During my university studies I noticed that this practice of mine produced some interesting results when the questions were theological in their nature. For some students, it was bad enough that my take on Christianity had such a liberal outlook. When I picked up speed by bringing some highly unorthodox elements to the discussions - creating ad hoc narratives about the death of God, of him annihilating himself shortly after the WWII using the style of the biblical narratives; introducing the spirituality of the Christian mystics past and present, of Anna-Maija Raittila, of Hiljaisuuden liike, of Taizé, of applied Zen Buddhism; fooling about with the ideas of Jesus mythicists, with grand conspiracy theories, with John Allegro, with Robert Eisenman, with Hugh J. Schonfield; denying to call any of the early Christianities "heretical" - on occasions the results were highly entertaining, and slightly amusing even at their worst. It is a well-known fact that in Finland discussing spirituality and theology is not popular, and considered to be in the sphere of private matters - in stark contrast, I believe, to the rest of the world. Clearly I managed to rub some sensitive nerves, at times in an over-the-top way, for which I apologize.

For some on-lookers all this was fun and refreshing, for some it was sacrilegious. And all the time most of the people were all members of the same denomination, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. In my estimation, when you've got 4 million people, you've got 4 million different opinions, and in my church there are 4 million different theological ideas about Christianity, even if they may be simplified into some general families of ideas. As it took such an effort for some conservative Christians to acknowledge we all belong to the same church, I reacted with feelings of amusement - what a burden to bear! Consequently, it plays no minor role for me personally that many of my conservatively oriented brethren would be ever so glad to see me go. Partly for their sakes, I am willing to stretch the boundaries of Christianity. And if I get annoyed enough by some conservative developments in my church, I may still seek to be ordained. Well, fancy that!

2) The long tradition; the social networks

John W. Loftus wishes me to acknowledge that religion is all about social networks, personal relationships with like-minded people, and nothing more. Well, I agree: religion is not about God/gods, but about the people who practice it; I would not, however, reduce this to mere social networks, unless these are understood in a very generic sense. For a general theoretical framework and scholarly argument backing this notion, I suggest that Loyal D. Rue's "Religion Is Not About God" has much to commend to. For me personally, this is patently easy to see: as it is great fun to gather together with friends, it is still great fun to do this in the context of the mass, even on Sunday morning. Meeting old friends, occasionally being introduced to new people, taking part in the liturgy together, listening to the sermon (all priests have at least M.Th. on theology so they are generally an educated bunch), reflecting your life for a moment with the receiving of the Eucharist, having some coffee and cake afterwards while discussing theology, politics, life in general - what's not to like?

All these social contacts with other people are, of course, framed by the 2,000 year old tradition of the Christian Church(es), with their scruples, with their defects, and with their high moments. For a person who confesses he is living in a particular time and space, in a particular culture and history, the possibility to place myself into a chain of generations, into a continuum of ancient origins, has an important part in confining the chaos, and the improbability of history and of my life - cultivating my personal wholeness, as Rue would put it. The long tradition of the Church (including the Bible and all its interpretations) has enough diversity for me to work comfortably inside this tradition, as the most anti-intellectual material need not be manifested in any way; there is always another option. Consequently, I think this means that Christianity has not any "essence" apart from the way we decide to mold the threads from tradition together. A quote from James F. McGrath, of Exploring Our Matrix, does a good job explaining what I want to say:

"I believe that what us liberal Christians have done is rather to point out that Christianity has always been a "lump of clay", a work of art, and to take responsibility for molding and shaping it, rather than doing so while pretending it is not us but only God who is doing so."

No more "pious self-deception"; Christianity is what the people who practice it make it to be.

3) The organisational aspect

From #2 follows one important thing: as there is a lot in the tradition to choose from, there are many organized bodies of religion one may be a member of, and outside the Christian tradition (or with only small influences from it) there are even more. Some organizations, however, have more to offer than others. If all it would take to pick a religious tradition were 1) it's amusing enough, and 2) there are opportunities to form and maintain social networks, I could, of course, choose to become, say, a practicing eclectic wiccan (as there is also a respectable tradition behind it, especially the influences from feminism and environmentalist thinking it received since the 1970s, and if one is willing to suspend one's disbelief, one can go all the way to the paganism in antiquity, and even further). In which case, of course, I would have to do all the dirty work, beginning with drawing up rituals, adapting my religious calendar, etc, myself.

In other words, it could be said that I am convinced to remain a member of a Christian church I have become attached to in various ways because I am lazy. Not a nice way to put it, mind you - even if it is (partly) true.

The religious rituals I get to participate in have an aesthetic appeal to me. Emerging from #2 and #3 - from the long tradition of the Church and from the rituals an organized religious body produces for my benefit - the aesthetics of Christianity has everything for my senses to experience, from the calmness of the Church Hall, to the music of the hymns, to the potent images raised in the reading of the biblical narratives, to the the sweet flavor of the wine I receive during the Eucharist. All of this, framed by the tradition, the social contacts (people around me), and my own willingness to momentarily suspend my disbelief regarding the myths and the stories of my religion.

Personally I feel that the liturgy of my church produces a transformative experience - an experience of the presence of the absence of God, an experience well attested in Christian literature, from biblical narratives of the temptations of Jesus in the desert (Gospel of Matthew 4:1-11), to the John of the Cross' "The Dark Night of the Soul", to the writings of Richard Holloway. The language of Christianity is archaic and poetic, full of mystery and enigma. As such, the language of Christianity has an aesthetic appeal, and as I am lucky enough to have a thoroughgoing theological education, I am able to appreciate all the fine nuances of this language; it has a spiritual appeal for me as well.

This is the question of spirituality: that the language of Christianity - that God is the creator of the world, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Redeemer, the source of salvation, that there is a resurrection of the bodies, a final judgment - is not "true", but because its function is not to claim eternal, empirical, cosmological, biological, or immanent knowledge, it is not "untrue", either. Instead, the language of Christianity, as well as all religious languages, operates at a different level; a level similar to art. So we come to the question, what for do we need the traditions of the Church as a framework, what for do we need the rituals, or the language that does not function on the same level as our everyday speech?

I would venture to say, following the Finnish theologian Terho Pursiainen, that we need all of these things because they help us to manage those aspects of our temporality that cannot be discussed rationally, that cannot be reduced to simple propositions, that cannot be peeled open. In this instance religion has a similar function to art, and there is no need to separate these two: both of them are, after all, interested in myths, and the themes of hope, renewal, redemption and unity. I have written before of the "religion of art of religion", where the vast Christian tradition allows me to elevate those parts I have a use, and reject those parts I cannot find a use for, all the while doing the task consciously, not pretending that God/gods are the ones responsible for my choices.

Not mere aesthetics, but a question of spirituality that has room for contemplation, for silence, for questioning - honesty in front of a chaotic mystery, and not struggle for "truth" and power positions.

5) The question of conservatives

Sometimes it is amusing when parts of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland speak one thing and other parts something else. Quite recently, in 2007, The Church Council denied the use of a handbook on human sexuality, "Jumalan silmissä ihme" [the title could be translated as "A miracle in the eyes of God"], aimed for youth group leaders, who would be 16-20 years of age and who would need the information in confirmation schools when leading discussion in small groups regarding the matter. The handbook was prepared by Finnish AIDS Council and The Evangelical Lutheran Association for Youth in Finland (an affiliate organization of the church), and two members of the Church Council had actually actively participated in the writing of the handbook. A minor quarrel in itself, but consider, what would happen if all the liberal Christians decided one day to resign their membership, and left their church for good?

To put it bluntly, all the resources would be in the hands of conservatively oriented Christians, the financial power, the power to mold the dogma, the power to represent an old, truly Finnish institution - all this, without any dissenting voices. Nobody would object the canceling of the special mass (Sateenkaarimessu) for LGBT people, nobody would object the channeling of funds to Christian organizations that do not have any scientific credentials to back up their claims (e.g. claims of "curing" the homosexuals), or that teach the maltreatment of children for purposes of "education", or that oppose women priests. I may be preaching my own prejudices here, and I most likely am, but I find the idea of leaving my church to the hands of those "true Christians" who speak with the voice of God (or at least their God sounds eerily similar to themselves), in all honesty, quite abhorrent.

Certainly there wouldn't be church-authored handbooks on human sexuality that would not be burdened down with the combination of guilt, sin, and the confining of the practice of sex to heterosexual, married couples - like all this would make any sense, or would have done so on some particular historical moment. Religion is a complex phenomenon, with multitudes of dimensions one may observe. I am all at ease to view religion in one its multifacetedness as a tool we humans use for our purposes, for whatever reasons we happen to have. As Sabio Lantz, of Triangulations, condensed it: "Best keep the tool in good hands !"

And last: an actual theological (sort-of; theologish) reason...

6) The question of the correct philosophical framework for Christianity

How do people define "classical Christianity"? In Finnish theological discussions I have seen (or taken part of), the conservative positions may be simplified to two: either there is no such thing as the acceptance of the term would imply that other forms of Christianity existed also - for some people there is only one true, orthodox Christianity, and everything else is heresy, or worse - or, if the existence of other (modern) forms of Christianity is acknowledged, "classical Christianity" refers to the "orthodox" Church Fathers from the 2nd-century onwards, to their religious ideas and to the resolutions of the first seven of the Ecumenical councils.

Thus defined, the classical Christianity has been profoundly shaped by the best philosophical practices of its day, most notably by Stoicism and Middle Platonism. The birth of a distinctive Christian theology, usually located in the 2nd-century following the first Christian apologetics (like Justin Martyr and Tatian), concentrated e.g. on the conception of λόγος (logos), borrowed from stoics, and developed with the help of and at odds with the pagan philosophy. So complete was the immersion of Christianity to these philosophies that the writings of the Church Fathers, and the proceedings of the Ecumenical councils, including their resolutions, are almost unintelligible without a thorough understanding of Greek philosophical traditions. Consequently, the theological "truths" of trinity and of the two natures of Christ, to take two prominent examples still deemed relevant today, demand the philosophical framework of Stoicism and (Middle) Platonism - otherwise they make no sense. Classical Christianity is firmly tied to Greek modes of thought.

However, it is not Zeno or Plato that I would name as my primary philosophical influences. They are there, of course, as part of the Western project of rational thought, but they are not at front. Should they be? Should a Christian adopt the worldviews of her ancient predecessors, including their (then) fashionable and trendy philosophies? Who's to blame for my not finding much common ground with the Ancients when my thoughts have been shaped by all those books of philosophy I have happened to read, from Kierkegaard to Camus to Rorty to Shusterman? If the early Christians were licensed to use the best thinkers in their day for writing the words for their pre-verbal experiences, who says we cannot?

Well, we can, and we do. As Dr. Matti Myllykoski would put it (if he had wrote these words in English): "They [the early Christians] will have to forgive me, and I have to forgive them, that our worldviews are not one and the same."2 I find it hard to come up with a single reason why the classical Christianity would necessarily be more "true" or superior to any other variant of Christianity. As far as I see it, there is no one correct philosophical framework for interpreting Christianity. The myths are there, the stories are there, the whole history of practices are there, the tradition is there - let us ensure that the best parts of these will be manifested in the Christianity we profess, whatever our take on philosophical issues may be.

1This book was brought to my attention by Dr. Matti Myllykoski, in his article "Ihmisten kokoinen kysymys" that appeared in Vartija 3/2009;
2Matti Myllykoski: Luopiot lipereissä, Saatana saarnatuolissa. Vartija 4/05, 137.


Couple of observations are in order here:

1) The project that John W. Loftus has undertaken, the "Debunking Christianity", is in itself highly commended, as he focuses on the fundamentalist variant, certainly a much more influential form of Christianity in the States than in Finland where the majority of Christians (especially the members of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland) are fairly liberal in their attitudes towards their faith. A purpose to tone down the more vulgar expressions of Christianity - in my case, at least as far as to make the presence of a dissenting voice known - seems to unite us. Additionally, never do I get a feeling that Loftus' writings would pertain to my liberal Christianity - then again, that is not his explicit purpose. Still, I would much rather see him joining the ranks of the "Sympathetic Atheists", who hold that religion (in every sense of the word) is not rotten to the core, in its essence irredeemable. Maybe he already holds such opinions?

2) As should be clear from the title alone, this small treatise is not a philosophical argument for liberal Christianity, and its purpose is not to convert people to embrace liberal Christianity. As a "personal reflection", I aim very modestly to give a written form to my own reasons for continuing to be a worshiping liberal Christian. Some of my personal reasons could function as incentives for people to seek out religious contacts for themselves, but not all. Nor should it be inferred that my understanding of the "liberal Christianity" would have any additional value outside of my own thoughts - other liberal Christians do their own thinking, and have their own reasons for being the type of Christians they happen to be.

3) I keep talking of "liberal Christianity". As far as I am concerned, the terms "liberal", "postmodern", "post-", etc. are all completely interchangeable.

4) By the standards of blogging, I'm late, as the original post by Loftus was made more than three weeks ago - almost an eternity in the fast-paced world of the Web. Clearly, this business of "personal reflection" needs time. I ended up choosing this method of discussing because I thought that the classical debate, fun though it is, is ill-suited for serious discussion of religious sensibilities - sometimes it is important to have a talk without the need to persuade others of the merits of one's position.

5) Last, I wonder, having read through all of the above, if there is a real difference between a "personal reflection" and a "narcissistic ego-boosterism". I feel like constantly dancing over the line. Maybe the ending of this little piece lets me to get some other work done for a change.


  1. Interesting -- religion is about people, it is only about people and God has always just been a tool. Best keep the tool in good hands !

  2. Indeed, this is more or less one of my six personal reasons for remaining a worshiping (liberal/post-) Christian. But I think there are more dimensions in being one of "the people" for whom religion is for; it's not just about using "the tool".

  3. This post of yours was an interesting and thoughtful response. I linked to it and offered a comment or two.

  4. Interesting post. I sometimes describe myself as a "Christian Atheist". It's nice to see some support for the many atheists who do actually turn up each Sunday at church (I don't). I've lost count of the number of my Christian friends who have quietly confessed to me that they no longer believe - things they often haven't even confessed to their spouses! Folks like that need some help - comments on The Church of Jesus Christ Atheist would be welcome!
    [So would any comments on my other blog: "Answers in Genes" - sorry for the blatant plugs! :-)]

  5. Thank you, John, for your compliments. I am glad that in this instance my thoughts preserve some coherence even when I write them down - something I've been criticized of before.

    And Shane, how would people know of all the interesting sites out there if their authors did not promote them once in a while :-)

    I would not, however, describe myself as an "atheist". In general, the self-labeling of oneself with different epithets serves many purposes, including the committing of oneself to a particular group or society. As a member of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, I consider myself Christian, even if my theological thoughts are not the same as those we find from the early Christians (and remember that I hold that no one's theology is similar to the Ancients).

    The epithets and descriptions are also tools in the games for power positions, especially when people wish to force them on other persons, a most unsettling experience, hearing how a label like an "atheist" would be best for oneself, face-to-face or even in a book form like this [the name of the book could be translated as "Atheists behind the altar: Why do priests reject the dogma].

    Of course I do not mean that you, Shane, were actively forcing the label "atheist" on me. I acknowledge that as your own self-labeling, the "Christian Atheist" serves well, as it clearly identifies you as a free-thinker, humanist, and at the same time extremely sympathetic to Christianity as a religion. That's all nice and well. One of my own reasons for sticking to "Christian" is to make it known that using the tradition(s) of Christianity one is able to do all sorts of things, and that the label of a "Classical Christian" is not the end of Christianity - looking through the historical evidence, it certainly has never been.