When Liberal Christians Draw The Circle Narrow

By | October 9, 2013

circle 2In his book titled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die,” a controversial bishop named John Shelby Spong wrote in very frank terms about Christianity’s growing conundrum. He explained that his faith (and mine) is simultaneously experiencing, among other hurdles, a science problem, and an exclusivity problem, and a history problem, and a doctrine-believability problem, and consequently a credibility problem. He wrote that the Christian faith’s “good news” has been transformed in such a way that the itinerant rabbi who first preached the message would likely not recognize it. And he wrote that today’s Christians, who are largely uninformed about the true roots of the faith, have so bought into the morphed message of fundamentalism that they defend it to the detriment of greater society.

On the outskirts of today’s Christianity exists a small minority of people who after identifying one or all of the religion’s problems, (its science problem, or its exclusivity problem, or perhaps its credibility problem), become distanced from the faith in some way. This creates a subculture of Christians who, rather than leave the faith, carve out an alternative space that doesn’t include institutional worship, or personal doctrinal adherence, or both. This separation is causing a ripple that Christianity is not prepared to address and can no longer control.

Why Christianity Must Change or DieBishop Spong says that these Christians– the separated ones who now peer into the religion like strangers observing a foreign nation– are in exile. This exile manifests itself both literally and figuratively. In literal terms, one may feel unwelcome in the institution and separate himself/herself from the group; in figurative terms, an exiled Christian may sit on a pew every Sunday while feeling wholly disconnected from the words and symbols of the liturgy. The chasm between mainstream Christianity and those in exile, he bleakly explains, is one that will be difficult if not impossible to bridge.

The exile is imposed on Christians by Christians– often with the more conservative religious folks pushing the liberal folks out into the “wilderness” in some way or another. The exiled space is ever-populated by people who were told by members of their own religion: We draw the circle wide, but not wide enough to include you. We draw it wide, but not intellectually wide enough to host your questions. We draw the circle wide, but our circle has high walls. Our circle exists inside an information vacuum, and inside an echo chamber.

I thought deeply about this exile (a state of religious existence that has now been my own for several years) as I read Tony Jones’ latest blog post. In it, he criticized theologian and bestselling author Marcus Borg for his unwillingness to affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus as historical fact. Borg (along with Spong and myself) prefer to read the Bible’s resurrection accounts as loaded (and certainly powerful) metaphor. The choice to read such a central doctrine as metaphor is never made lightly– particularly in a religion where eternal damnation is the consequence for disagreeing with the church. Certainly, Dr. Borg has good reasons for turning from literalism, as do Dr. Spong. Dr. Borg, and other liberal Christians like myself.

I made peace with my decision about the resurrection many years ago, at a time when I was still an altar worker and Bible study teacher at my former fundamentalist church. When I tried to talk with my pastor about the books I’d been reading and the questions they were raising for me, he told me that he doesn’t read “that stuff” because it’s not “doctrinally sound”… And when I asked a “prayer warrior” to pray for me as I decided how to act on my new theological perspectives, she prayed that I would “stop reading those evil books” because they were “tools of the devil”. I left my church shortly after that, profoundly disappointed that seemingly reasonable people had mistaken something as innocuous as my private book collection for Satan’s hammer and screwdriver. It was clear that I needed to find a new circle, because the one we were “drawing” was simply not intellectually wide enough for me.

ostracismTony Jones’s insistence that we must all “believe in” the bodily resurrection of Jesus reminds me of my experiences at my former church shortly before leaving. Jones seems to assume that the circle we’ve drawn in the liberal realm of the faith isn’t wide enough for people like Borg… or people like me. He doesn’t seem to create a space in which we can all have an equally meaningful experience of the resurrection– metaphorical or otherwise. He only assumes that something must be missing for those of us who can no longer affirm the truth of his interpretation. His approach is not one that says, “This means something to you. I’m glad you find such meaning in the story”… Rather, his approach says, “There’s something wrong with the meaning you derive from the story. Here. Allow me to correct you so that your beliefs match mine perfectly…” In so doing, he exiles the exiled once again– pushing an already ostracized chorus of voices farther outside the religion’s circle.

I’ve said many times that beliefs aren’t turned on-and-off in the same way that electrical appliances are turned on-and-off. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. Belief systems are intensely personal things that are informed by personal experience and information and needs and community values and sometimes insecurities. Beliefs are based on sociological and geographical context, intellectual capacity and at times, mental stability. Beliefs cannot be boiled down to the kind of black-and-white thinking that we’ve demanded. Rather, beliefs exist on a continuum of gray areas, with some ideas finding more footing in our hearts and minds than others.

In a world where information is abundant and beliefs change all the time, the Christian faith must decide that actions are primary and beliefs are secondary. We must ask ourselves: Is our circle wide enough for those who, after careful consideration of all facts and evidence, cannot believe what they once did? What are we doing to welcome people who have changed their minds, but not their hearts? Is there a bridge that can lead Christianity’s Jesus-loving doctrine doubters home from exile? And for goodness sake, how wide is the intellectual circle in liberal Christianity, really?

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26 thoughts on “When Liberal Christians Draw The Circle Narrow

  1. worldwideepiphany

    There is much I agree with in this post – and much I do not…..True, most Christians do not know their roots and have no idea why they sit in their pews on Sunday….the problem lies in man made religious traditions…. If we experience the Spirit of God, if we hear the voice of the Spirit, then we will be free to love, free to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as well. True metaphysical, mystical faith knows nothing about ” liberal” or ” orthodox” practices. Pride is replaced with discernment , and with discernment comes compassion. I have been in the faith for over 21 years and seen so many drop out and others grow harder and desperate to preserve the traditions of men……, one day , we all will leave these earthly bodies…… and this life is too brief and precious to be constrained by fear and loathing…… The times are changing…..and we, as believers have to love more and judge less……it really is a beautiful world….lets encourage others and do the things Jesus said to do…… Feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those who are sick and in prison…..

  2. joannevalentinesimson

    Good one. Jesus was trying to include the Samaritans (who were not orthodox) in the circle (the Kingdom of God) for his listeners in that particular parable. I wonder how many contemporary fundamentalist Christians get it.

  3. patrice wassmann

    You might perhaps find a home with the Quakers. Do you know much of them?

  4. Bill Samuel

    Well, I start from a different point – that of seeking to be a follower of Jesus not being a “liberal Christian.” Tony’s post was not well written or well argued, but I agree with his bottom line.
    You need to give some credibility to scripture. Most doctrinal points stressed by most churches are not described as essential to believe anywhere in scripture. Paul even urges churches in several instances not to obsess over doctrinal differences but be in unity despite them.
    However, one of the few “beliefs” described as essential is in the physical resurrection. And its importance is emphasized in more than one passage in scripture.
    An Orthodox rabbi once studied the resurrection and claimed to the conclusion that it must be true (and he was thinking of it as a physical resurrection) because without it this confused band of those who had followed Jesus would never have gotten it together to build Christianity. This rings very true to me.
    I am not concerned with being “liberal” or “conservative.” Either concern leads away from Jesus, IMHO, and I have seen that graphically in both “liberal Christianity” and “conservative Christianity.” To me, believing Jesus is what scripture tells of him is key and is confirmed by my personal experiences of him.
    And note that I welcome people who don’t believe in the literal resurrection or whatever to attend and participate in faith community with me. That they are not really Christian to me doesn’t mean I can’t worship and fellowship with them. But there is a difference between these “sojourners” as Hugh Halter calls them and those who have made a commitment to Jesus Christ.

  5. tony jones

    Crystal, I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood my post. I do not insist that one believes in a material resurrection to be a Christian. In fact, I make that so clear that I doubt you actually read the post. I said that I believe it, and that rejecting it denudes Christianity of an important element.

    And in no way to do I say that Christianity — liberal or any other kind — isn’t big enough for you, me, Borg, and many others.

    1. Crystal Post author

      Hi, Tony. Thank you for commenting. I actually read your post twice… the first time, only skimming, and the second time, very slowly because I couldn’t believe my eyes. I think what I was attempting to say in my own blog post, while admittedly meandering a long way to my point, is that the underlying tone of your article says there’s something wrong with what Borg believes about the resurrection. While reading what you wrote, I felt a twinge of the age-old, “You’re a heretic and in the theological minority… Shape up if you want to be one of *us* legitimate Christians.” If this is not the tone you intended, then I sincerely apologize for misreading you. It is sincerely what I gleaned from what I (and several of your other readers) felt while reading your post yesterday.

      I appreciate your willingness to engage me in discussion.


      1. tony jones

        I am not a heresy hunter, and I don’t think Borg a “heretic” (although, by a traditional definition, he and I both are). I am engaging in robust, theological dialogue with another theologian. I’m doing it publicly rather than in an academic guild meeting or in a monograph. I think that readers of his posts could feel a similar twinge of, “Oh, anyone who believes that old stuff is a knuckle-dragging fundie.” But that’s not what I hear when I read him. I hear thoughtful defenses of his positions.

  6. jaltman81

    The physical resurrection of Jesus is not one “among many” Christian doctrines. It’s the foundational teaching of the Jesus movement. I don’t say believing otherwise puts your eternal fate at risk. I DO wonder why you would WISH to call yourself Christian if you don’t believe it.

    1. Crystal Post author

      Hi, jaltman81. I think you raise good questions. If we assume that Christianity only offers a doctrine about a death-burial-resurrection scenario, then one is certainly left without a religion if he or she is left unable to “believe” in those things.

      However, if the understanding of Christianity’s message is expanded to include a rich mystical tradition, a robust call to social justice and a pre-modern understanding of the word “belief”– which once meant to “give one’s heart” or “to dedicate oneself” rather than “to affirm as true” or “to apply mental assent,” then there’s still something worthwhile and meaningful to consider. I can honestly say that I’m not a Christian for any of the reasons that I used to be one. I find the nuances and depth way more exciting now than I did then. That’s why I’m still a Christian.

  7. Roger Roberts

    “He drew a circle that shut me out-
    Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle and took him In !

    From the poem ” Outwitted”
    I was there about 35 years ago.. have never gone back, never missed it, but I have missed the people I love.

  8. Morgan Guyton

    I’m interested in knowing more about where you’re coming from with not believing in the resurrection. From my vantage point, it seems like if the resurrection can’t have happened because it’s a miracle and a biological impossibility, that seems like basically saying that God doesn’t really exist in a supernatural sense but the idea of God is important to maintain. I guess I’m just too attached to the need for there to be a something beyond this life that resolves the loose ends that we will never be able to tie together. If this is all there is, that’s a lot more pressure and sense of urgency to make things count in a way that doesn’t energize me but causes me to freeze up in terror. The reason I have the strength to contribute my own tiny piece of fighting injustice in the world is because of the trust that I have that somehow one day the truth will win. That hope of vindication basically has its down payment in the empty tomb. So that’s where I’m coming from with it. I definitely don’t want to put you on the outside of any circle. I’ve got plenty of friends who are good people who are just outright atheists. Have you already written something about your resurrection views that I could reference? I’m not interested in arguing, just kind of learning what it looks like to you.

    1. Crystal Post author

      Hi, Morgan. Thanks for commenting. A surface understanding of my reading of the resurrection can be found in this post: http://crystalstmarielewis.com/2011/04/22/resurrection-a-scandalous-reading-of-a-scandalous-gospel/

      I’ve certainly wanted to write more, but haven’t found the words, the context or the time. I will do that in the future, though.

      As for living a life in which “this is all there is,”– the truth is that I don’t think about an “afterlife” or anything beyond this world. It doesn’t matter much to me. I know this is a preoccupation for most Christians, but I’m actually far more fascinated with the “right-now” way in which Jesus met people’s needs. People need solutions that matter now.

      Hope this helps. 🙂

      1. Muff Potter

        I’m just curious here and in no way wish to denigrate or argue against your belief system, but is it a rejection of the supernatural in general? Or is it simply a matter of non-preoccupation with an afterlife as you’ve stated?

        Personally, I do believe in an afterlife but I don’t consider myself obsessed by it. I have no desire for pearly gates, mansions, streets of gold, white robes or any of that stuff and I think you’ve pointed out admirably how the resurrection of Jesus matters greatly in the here and now to a hurting and dying world.

    1. Crystal Post author

      Yes, I remember seeing that– or at least seeing the Pete Rollins version. (In fact, it may be Rollins’ version that I’m remembering most… particularly the video version…) Thanks for sharing this link. Very good stuff there.

      1. Bill Samuel

        Key in the Hollowell piece is “If the tomb was empty, then love overcame power and vindicated Jesus. It means that Jesus was right – the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we are invited to live in it.”
        So it’s a key part of the good news. You seem to have denied that in your original post and now affirm it in a reply to a comment. Could you be less contradictory?

        1. Crystal Post author

          Hi, Bill. I never said the resurrection wasn’t a key part of the good news. In fact, I wrote “I prefer to read the Bible’s resurrection accounts as loaded (and certainly powerful) metaphor.” There is plenty of good news in my understanding of the metaphor. I also wrote an entire blog post about the resurrection (available here: http://crystalstmarielewis.com/2011/04/22/resurrection-a-scandalous-reading-of-a-scandalous-gospel/) in which I speak to the power I find in the metaphor. I linked to my resurrection blog post at the bottom of this post, and in one of my comments on this particular post. I haven’t been “contradictory” in any way. I’ve only expressed that the resurrection means something different to me now than it has meant in the past.

          And a quick side note: I don’t think one is better than the other. I think both the metaphorical and the literal readings of the resurrection offer amazing fuel for faith. The entire point of this post is that I think we should affirm both perspectives. I hope you see here that I’m not saying one is good and one is bad. I’m saying one is good for me, while another is good for others, and both are equally powerful.

          1. Bill Samuel

            You said you only accept resurrection as a metaphor and then affirmed a commentary which accepted the actual resurrection (“the tomb was empty”), and made it very important in understanding the gospel. I’m sorry, but these are contradictory. Is it just a metaphor or was it reality? You seem to be going back and forth on that.

          2. Crystal Post author

            Bill, please read my last reply to you. I think BOTH have merit. I affirm my position, and I affirm the literal understanding of it because I understand why the literal resurrection is so important to people. You call this “contradictory”– I call it “understanding that both have equal merit”… I know you want a conflict here, but I don’t see one.

  9. Danny Klopovic


    In reading Jones’ article, I think that his choice of terminology is rather unfortunate, even sloppy. To give context, I affirm the ancient belief expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body”, yet I would never describe my belief or historic Christian orthodoxy as confessing a “physical resurrection” as Jones does. I would however say that the traditional view does affirm the “bodily resurrection”. I realise that this might seem to be a distinction without a difference so I will elaborate.
    What I find problematic with Jones’ usage is that it evokes too readily the dismissive (or comical – take your pick ) comment made some atheists about the “Zombie Jesus” where the resurrection is taken to be the idea that there was some freaky resuscitation of a dead body. Yet the somewhat impressionistic gospel reports suggest that whatever the resurrection was, it certainly was not a resuscitation of a dead body endowed with strange powers. If anything, what the gospel narratives do, I think, is scotch the even stranger notion that we could readily recognise the resurrected one.
    Further, I think Jones does not deal very well with Paul’s own struggle to explain the nature of the resurrection. Paul clearly does not think it is a flesh and blood resurrection, which would evoke I think the idea of a “Zombie Jesus” or in short, a physical resurrection. Nor does Paul appear to envisage a purely spiritual / ethereal resurrection, even if in the same chapter he does speak of Christ as the last Adam who is the life-giving Spirit. Instead, he strains here and speaks of a “spiritual body” and here, I am sympathetic to Jones’ “materialist resurrection” as a better description. As an aside, I think Borg’s conflation of “material physical bodily resurrection” is just as unfortunate as Jones’ “physical resurrection”.
    I do however agree on the importance of affirming the bodily resurrection just as do for the incarnation and for the same reason. Why I think that these two doctrines are important is because they communicate, or should, the idea that “matter” matters and that is important for our ethical practice. On this aspect, I will say that your point that “the Christian faith must decide that actions are primary and beliefs are secondary” resonates deep within my Anabaptist soul, since for Anabaptists it has been traditional to practice “deeds before creeds” though I would not wish to say that we are anti-creedal but just to note the priority here.
    It is this priority of action that I think is what saves the liberal Christian project insofar as it prevents liberal Christians from devolving into a stock caricature of the early Gnostics. That is, the apparent affinity to some (?) Gnostics where a spiritual view of the resurrection correlates with a disdain for the materiality of this world and embodiment – liberal Christians do not share this disdain however. Liberal Christians like Borg , Spong, Crossan and others – all of whom I find profitable reading – invariably stress the ethic of Jesus in a way that I think say an impeccably orthodox creedal Catholic or Protestant might and often do not. I think for example Crossan’s excellent books on Jesus and Paul that outline this ethic of Jesus with respect to nonviolence and critique of imperial Rome.
    As for excluding the “heretic” – my own ecclesiology subscribes to the view that there is never any justification for breaking communion with anyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” so I am opposed to drawing the circle to exclude any Christian – even if some exasperate me to no end (see fundamentalists ),
    Finally – sorry for writing such a long-winded post!

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  11. Jeff Straka

    Perhaps if more theologians were like Lloyd Geering and John Spong and Marcus Borg, and actually READ science from outside their religious bubble, they might also find the need to rethink these ancient doctrines a bit. I know this is frightening since only 5.5% of biological scientists and 7.5% of physicists and astronomers believe in God, but this scientific disconnect just might be one of the reasons the “nones” are leaving the church.

  12. Jeff Straka

    “Death and suffering is what it means to be alive. Death is a biological necessity for life to occur, and suffering is what it means to be conscious of death. Without suffering we are not conscious, and without death we are not alive.” ~John Shuck

  13. Dan Toops

    Glad you shared. I come from an ultra conservative Pentecostal group. My Change has been progressive over the past twenty years. I have learned to keep my opinions to myself as I know that many cannot handle them. And, I am never sure if my friends would alienate themselves from me. Personally, I would like to believe the resurrection as literal, But I can also see and get the metaphor. So, I guess I accept it by faith…but I reserve the right to be completely wrong about it.

  14. Christine Organ

    Very interesting point. I share your progressive and metaphorical beliefs about some “essential” elements of Christianity. Actually, that is one of the biggest reasons why I worship at a Unitarian Universalist church. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on progressive religion.

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