Thoughts on Liberal Christianity’s Tension Between Faith and Reason

By | April 19, 2014

While watching an interview of John Shelby Spong on Youtube, I heard him articulate an area of tension that I’ve experienced in my own life. It occurred when Allan Gregg inquired:

Do any of the people ask, “Why do you stay inside the church? Why don’t you try to advance your interests outside the church if you have such difficulty with the traditional teachings?”

Spong answered:

Well, I love this church, and I think what makes me different is that I insist on keeping one foot in my faith tradition and one foot in the world in which I live. Now that’s a difficult spot because the people who’ve only got both of their feet in the religious tradition and none of them in the modern world will attack me for not believing enough. And my secular friends who’ve got both of their feet planted in the 21st century or in the secular world still attack me as an irrelevant old fashioned religious man. I think we’ve got to expand [the] middle. The primary reason why I try to be as public as I can is I think the world must know that there is a different way to approach Christianity, [which is different] from the traditional ways of the Jerry Falwells or the Evangelical tradition, or the Catholic tradition that doesn’t seem to be able to talk about anything other than birth control or abortion. There’s got to be a way that people can engage their minds with the content of the Gospel, and live in a wonderful tension, as they try to clarify those issues and make them real in their own lives.

faith reasonIndeed, some are unable to understand why “liberal” Christians remain interested in Christianity after leaving old beliefs about the Bible, God and Jesus behind. I receive questions about this from time to time in the world of social media, with the most recent conversation occurring on Twitter when a user asked me, “If you’re so liberal, then why Jesus? Why this one figure instead of so many others?” I replied, “Answering this question is perhaps as difficult for me as it might be for someone to explain why they chose their spouse or lover… Of all the options I could choose, Jesus is the one who most captures my heart.”

The “Why Jesus?” and “Why Christianity?” questions are seemingly based on the assumption that Christianity has no redeeming qualities once one has ventured outside the traditional sphere– but this has not been my experience. For instance, the gospels gained a greater element of depth for me when I realized how much of them could be interpreted as loaded metaphor. Similarly, the person of Jesus became an object of fascination for me after learning about the power of the Logos in ancient philosophy, and about the manner in which Jesus himself was used an object of metaphor for gospel writers.

The expectation seems to be that the journey into liberalism will ultimately lead to something other than a deepened expression of the Christian faith. While this may be true for some, we must remember that it is not the case for all of us. Liberal Christianity can lead us into a prolonged dance in the wondrous tension of faith and reason… of mysticism and traditionalism… of belief and doubt, all while incorporating the influence of scripture and tradition. An embrace of reason, history, context and controversy will not necessarily lead to the end of faith. For many of us, these places of tension are only the beautiful beginning.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Liberal Christianity’s Tension Between Faith and Reason

  1. robinobishop

    The tension that caused me to grow beyond “orthodoxy” had been the tension between tradition and the witness of the Spirit. As I became aware of what has been discovered about first and second century Christianity, those traditions that came by way of expediency seemed to tell me that the earliest Christians in their oral traditions and no canon needed to be reckoned with. After all we have discovered so much in unearthed texts. I also came to discover that I had always settled for a church that I had grown out of and could no longer heal my marriage. I found a church that worked for both of us, 25 years ago.

  2. Yip Kok Tho

    Dear Crystal,

    I read your material with interest. What initially caught my eye was your article on the non-existence of hell. Additionally, and consistent with the non-existence of hell is the non-existence of the “immortal soul” . On this matter, please consider Oscar Cullman’s article

    On liberal Christianity,…… they should experience a reduction of tension as they resolve them through adopting and evolving new perspectives of Scripture to relate to modern life. If any increase in tension is sensed, it is only because it is evolving slower than the pace of change in modern life. Should the change in modern values gravitate rapidly towards evil, a greater tension should be felt. 

    If and when modern society deteriorates and that tension is not detected, then liberal Christianity has deteriorated with it.

    Whilst the non-existence of hell correctly resolves the tension of the personality of God, demolishing the characterization of God as capable of tolerating the torment of hell, the non-existence of the “immortal soul” is complementary. It resolves the fearful tension of what might become of me ( my immortal soul ) after death. And as nothing can possibly happen when the “immortal soul ” does not exist, then there should be no concern until after the resurrection from death by Christ Himself.

    There is however a key reason why you will find the non-existence of the “immortal soul” unacceptable. It is the very foundation of your fascination with the mystics. They believe in their “divine-center, inner-divine, core-of-reality” , their “only reality” , or other description of their ” immortal-divine-soul ” without which there is no purpose to any contemplative/meditative practices as there is nothing to discover within  !

    The devious construct of the existence of the “immortal-divine-soul” is to resolve the tension between sin and righteousness, between good and evil. In Eden, God said that sin brings death. On the other hand Satan temptation was ” sin and live, even forever”  ie ” Ye shall sin and not surely die”. God’s establishment of a real tension between sin and death is falsely relieved by Satan’s lie,  ” sin and yet you shall live forever, your eyes shall be opened and you shall be as gods, etc”. Like Eve, the mystics are equally fascinated. Their mystical euphoria is only a scientifically verifiable neural phenomena that can be replicable by most forms of contemplative/meditative practices and has nothing to do with discovery of the inner-divine. 

    There are tensions that God establishes that only He can resolve. These are tensions between life/death, good/evil, sin/death, love/fear, etc. all of which Christ has resolved.  When we tamper with these God-tensions, we shall stray onto Satan’s ground of hopeful delusion of doing better than God. 

    Kok Tho   

  3. robinobishop

    “… mystical euphoria is only a scientifically verifiable neural phenomena that can be replicable by most forms of contemplative/meditative practices and has nothing to do with discovery of the inner-divine. ”

    All that science can presently verify are not the limits of knowledge. After all, it is only what man has come to know and accept with contradictions galore. If I am to experience mystical connections with God or the mystical without his aid, how else can either be experienced except by domination of neural pathways?

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  5. Bobby Gilbert (@robertkgilbert)

    There is a wall. Every wall begins at a week and ends at a week. Whether there is a perceived wall or not, all weeks come to an end. Every week has a beginning. Every week has a middle. If one wants to look at a very historical week, one can look at the week that surrounds the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a middle. It has a beginning. It has an end. It bleeds the name, Zebulun. We see in the middle of the week, the dwelling place. Some call it the room of horrors. Others may perceive it as a glorious dwelling place.

    If one was to look at this week with eyes of logic, it is a week that Israel is tasked to complete. It is like the week Jesus is tasked to complete. The week Jesus is tasked is the Passion Week, The Passion Paradigm. Without this week, the chosen children of God cannot come into His presence. There are 15 weeks like the Festival of Weeks. For all who wish to understand the oracle of Daniel, the Seventy weeks are buried in the 15 weeks. They have been hidden for over 2000 plus years.

    Why this little story? Jesus and the religious leaders run the course of a week, but they take different routes. One route runs into the wall of darkness. They never get out of a week. The route Jesus does resets the week and he walks out into the 8th day.

    Does your theology bring you into the 8th day? As Paul says, test your faith. Did you pass the test?

  6. joannevalentinesimson

    Marvelous exploration of the balancing act of those who wish to be both religious in feeling and secular in reason. For me, the main function of church is as a community for companionship and support, and as a vehicle for the promulgation of the larger good.

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