The end of an experiment

If I knew a Christian who lived alone in a cave for forty years, I wouldn’t imagine him to have discovered verifiable proof of God, but I would consider it possible that his years of solitary reflection had given him insights from which I might profit. It was with a similar hope that I started attending a Bible study at an Episcopal church a few months ago. I didn’t believe the liberal claim that, although the Bible lacks literal truth, it contains unique metaphorical wisdom, but I was open to the possibility that the mature, intelligent, and educated people that make up the bulk of Episcopalianism had transcended the Bible and, working as something akin to a network of rebels within the Christian community, had gained insights that I would find useful. I also hoped that they would likewise be open to learning from me. I let them know that I was an atheist, but I neither talked about my beliefs, nor did I ask probing questions or issue challenges about theirs because I wanted to present myself in as non-threatening a manner as possible.

Three months later, I am as ignorant as when I started, and have all but given up hope that their religion has provided them with the first unique insight. The thing that I find most interesting—and exasperating—about liberal Christianity is that a liberal Christian might define Jesus as God, man, God-man, or even as entirely fictional, but he or she absolutely must hold something about Jesus, or what Jesus represents, in high esteem. Just as the Boy Scouts and Freemasons require reverence for a completely unidentified God, and AA requires reverence for a completely unidentified Higher Power, so do liberal churches require reverence for a completely unidentified Jesus. In every case, it’s not reverence for an agreed upon entity or belief that is demanded but reverence for a particular word(s), as if that alone had the power to set one apart from less enlightened mortals.

Idolatry (n) the giving of undue honor and regard to created forms.

Although I rarely heard any of my classmates say much about what they did believe, I did hear most of them imply that they didn’t believe most of what is in the creeds. I was also excited from time to time to hear a classmate express puzzlement or consternation about a Bible verse or a church teaching, but such things were never addressed by the group. For example, during the last class I attended, someone said she was finding it difficult to combine the concept of God as an entity with the concept of God as love. After a brief and (I thought) awkward silence, someone changed the subject. After observing a few such instances, I concluded that there was tacit agreement to keep the discussion at a shallow level.

In their apparent determination to ignore doubt or anything that might result in doubt, liberals and literalists are alike, but they differ in that literalists consider their faith to be inseparable from specific facts about God, whereas liberals appear to regard vagueness as what they like to call a higher form of spirituality. In practice, this means that literalistic religion is centered on content, and liberal religion on process. As to how process can exist apart from content, I—like the woman in the class—have no idea, and I doubt that liberals do either. They define God as love, virtue, evolution, a feeling of oneness, awakening awareness, the ground of being, etc. although such terms are figures of speech rather than definitions. To illustrate, if I say that dogs are quadrupeds, I have said something identifiable and verifiable about dogs, but if I say that God is the ground of being, I have simply used a metaphor to express my belief—or at least my hope—that God is providing me with the kind of support that solid earth gives a building or the kind of nurturance that garden soil gives a marigold.

In a 12/17/12 Newsweek article entitled “The Myths of Jesus,” Bart D. Ehrman trashed the historical accuracy of the gospels, after which he took Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith across the chasm of logic by ending his article with a non sequitur:

“…for those with a broader vision…the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth.”

I wondered what he meant by “stories such as these” (there being other God-men who were born of virgins), and I also wondered what he meant by “a greater truth.” As one who lacks his “broader vision,” I had hoped in vain that, having gone to pains to attack the accuracy of the gospels, he might at least give some clue as to what he found good in them, but like other liberal writers, he proved to be a tease. Islam has its Sharia; Buddhism its eightfold path; charismatic Christianity its plan of salvation; and liberal Christianity its greater truth, but the last group differs from the rest in that they hold their greater truth closer to their chests than a poker player’s cards. What they offer instead are bromidic truths about love and justice, truths that rarely coincide with the behavior of the vengeful, intolerant, impatient, and ego-driven deity of the Bible, a deity who supports slavery, sexism, racism, blood sacrifice, homophobia, nationalism, genocide, rape, and everlasting torture. How do liberals handle such challenges to the deity of their holy book? They either interpret troublesome passages metaphorically or deny that God inspired them. They also deny that Jesus said much of what was attributed to him. They then take whatever is left and interpret it as it pleases each of them, the only requirement being that everyone think of Jesus as somehow special.

On the back of the handout for the communion service I attended were the words “...coming struggle with our faith.” This and other things I read and observed led me to think of liberal Christians, not as the originators of bold new ideas, but as the last gasp of an emasculated Protestantism that has been struggling for relevance since the time of Darwin. Its few remaining adherents are now huddled behind the walls of their churches, doing their best to bolster one another up so that they might retain some semblance of a support structure that the rest of Christianity has long since abandoned. I envision them as children (sophisticated children to be sure) whose growing knowledge of how the world works has caused them to lose faith in Santa Claus. Being grieved by the prospect of Christmas without Santa, they doggedly pretend he’s real, only without the part about the sleigh, elves, reindeer, chimneys, presents, red suit, rosy cheeks, white beard, North Pole workshop, and jolly “Ho! Ho! Ho!” They replace such “obvious myths” with an unsubstantiated “higher awareness” of what the myths point to: miraculous powers, the existence of an omniscient being, the material rewards of being good, etc., yet they are left, as it were, with a superstructure without a substructure. Liberal Christianity doesn’t offer new beliefs, but a sorting through of old beliefs with the result that most have been discarded. 

I wrote a few posts back of an Episcopal priest who showed respect for my atheism by calling it “a valid spiritual path,” and I wondered in that post if I would ever be able to show respect for her path. What I’ve found is that while I very much respect her—and a few other Christians—as people of goodwill, to respect their religious path, I would have to think it was based upon truth, or at least that they were wiser or more insightful because of it, but I see no reason to believe that either is true.