I was asked an interesting question yesterday:
I have a question for you, since you are a bit of an expert. I grew up with the Interpreters Bibles on the shelf. If you will recall they were published in 1951 by the Methodist publishing house. There are many articles in them that would be considered quite controversial even by todays standards. My question is: Why weren’t these controversial when they came out way back in the 50’s? And….if it were normal theological reading for Mainline preachers back in the 50’s, where did all these people go? Is liberal theology a casualty of the rapid shrinkage of the Mainline, or is the answer more complicated? Perhaps it was a Northern thing and the South was just always theologically conservative? Anyway, this puzzles me everytime I flip through them wondering “where did the theological liberals go?”
I went to seminary at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, which I suppose could be called a liberal institution. We were exposed to historical textual criticism there, but there was an unspoken assumption that most people could not face such stark truths. So I learned that there is no one preserved biblical text, only fragments sewn together by informed guesswork. I learned that our Christian stories were often duplications of earlier stories. But I also learned to hide these facts like an actor learns to hide a rope behind the backdrops without it being seen. The purpose of the omission, was never to deceive, but not to upset people unnecessarily.
Most liberal ministers have the kind of critical biblical tools of which you speak, but they sit unread on their shelves after seminary. They are usually viewed as an inert understructure of the real task of a minister, which is to make people’s lives better. The images of the Bible may be myths, some liberal ministers reason, but they are helpful myths. In other words many liberal ministers are taught to play shopping mall Santa Claus. We know the beard is fake, but it makes the children happy.
Many liberal ministers learn to make a mosaic of the broken pieces of theology. They show how evolution and creation can both be true. Not realizing that, to uncritically include both, they must understand neither. Such religion lives, but only as a hybrid mule which does not reproduce. It lives, but only for a generation or two. Consider the work of the great liberals of fifty years ago, few of them speak to us today.
Conservative theologians have it much easier. They treat historical textual criticism as a kind of arrogant rebellion. This allows them to have a living faith, but only so long as they reject the truths of a modern scientific worldview. Their beliefs do not work in an evolving world, so they simply deny evolution. Such religion works perfectly, but only in an imaginary second world of angels, demons, heavens and hells.
Back in seminary, I wandered the stacks of the library transfixed in each book, reading earlier versions of the Christian myth. I realized that many of the stories in the New Testament were iterations of earlier myths which meant that the message of Christianity was older than our own version, and that because it was born of so many cultures, its message was either false, or universal. I found that insight breathtakingly exciting. Only a symbol can give us both roots and wings.
If Christianity is not to go the way of Mithraism, it must constantly go through a reformation more radical than anything Luther could have imagined. We must bring every belief and practice before the mysterious fire of real life. We must consecrate everything before the living fire of our one common life in this very instant. Neither hiding from the facts nor stitching together the old and new will take us where we need to be.
What we see when we look at the Bible is the mystery of life as it was understood in the images of an ancient culture. What we are seeking is not the frozen magma of their cultural expression, but the volcanic fire which breathed those words, and has breathed us as into being as well. We must leave behind any theology which consists of sifting through the ashes of dogma and tradition and return to the fire of life which gives every religion its light.
Every living worldview is radical. “Liberal” or “conservative” are both stages of a sure death. Liberal theology that survives by splicing together the living and the dead can only produce a Frankenstein. Even the best liberal scholarship of the historical Jesus movement will produce at best a mummified Jesus. A conservative Christianity that survives by denying new discoveries is already dead.
Science is making peace with whose parts of the universe we know. Religion is making peace with those parts of the universe we do not and cannot know. Religion is about the mystery of things. By definition there are no experts on mystery. So all the professors, liberal or conservative, who parade in their big hats or big titles are wearing the costumes of children. I can line my office with the best books, I can punctuate my speech with Greek and Hebrew embroidery; but, by definition, I do not and cannot know what I’m talking about.
There are no experts on mystery.