Friday, September 11, 2009

Liberal Christianity: A Personal Reflection - Part IV

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

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."1 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.

1Matti 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.


For convenience, the whole series has been copied under one heading in here. You're better off leaving your thoughts there.

1 comment:

  1. Please find a set of essays which gives a radical critique of what is usually called religion---whether liberal, progressive, conservative, or "orthodox".