Liberal Christians Are Not Going To Hell

Liberal Christianity has a problem. I am not a liberal myself, but I do get to hang out with many liberal Christians and I can say with some confidence that I see where the problem is seated. [1]

Liberal Christians ‘get it’. They are more mature or wise than their fundamentalist cousins from the back-country. They see the harm of backward tribalism and hear the hurtful rhetoric of the mean-spirited and judgmental brand of Christianity and don’t want to participate in it.

 

Don’t get me wrong, they can be very condescending and pretentious … but they are not going to get caught up in the name-calling and mud-slinging … it just goes against their green-meme nature.

The most aggressive thing they are comfortable participating in is a pronounce rolling of the eyes. This gives them the reputation for being spineless, or not standing up for anything, or being unwilling to dignify the argument by responding.

You saw this last week when one of the Duggar daughters (who I admit to having no point of reference for) wrote some stuff on FB that was detailed in a provocative post entitled ‘Liberal Christians are going to hell.

“I don’t even believe in hell” was the most vicious response I saw from my liberal brethren. [2]

See? It is so passé and beneath them that they can’t even be bothered to muster a response. Hell is so medieval and remedial … as we say: Rob Bell wins.

So I thought I would have some fun and do my friends a favor by lobbing a response over the battle-line. This sort of accusation isn’t going anywhere and is bound to come up again – so here is a ready-made response for the next time it comes.

 

If I were a liberal Christian, here is how I would want someone on our team to respond:

Liberal Christians are not going to hell! To even say something like that shows that you have not understood the very nature of being a Christian.

You are like the man at the bar who approaches a group of women having cocktails and asks if they are alone. You don’t even understand the words that you are using! You think you know what you mean by them … but a group of women can not be alone.

No Christians are going to hell! To be a Christian is to have received the work of Christ on our behalf . It is to be swept up in the gracious act of God for creation’s salvation and thus to participate in God’s covenant faithfulness.

Christ reconciled us to God – something that we could not have done on our own – and so to be a Christian, of any type, means inherently that you are not going to hell. You belong to God in Christ.

What you are saying show that you have yet to understand either the teaching of Paul, as in Romans 5, or the promises of scripture, like the end of Revelation.

In Romans 5 Paul says that the work of Christ – the second Adam – has a far greater effect and further reach (impact) than the sin of the first Adam.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In your mislead scheme the first Adam affected all but Jesus only gets to some. You have got it completely backwards.

 

And look at Revelation chapter 20. The only ones who end in the lake of fire (which I assume you think is the same as hell) are those whose names were not written in the book of life. If your name is in the book of life then you are not judged according to your deeds (which can not save you) but are exempted from that fate by virtue of your name being in the book!

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

To be a Christian, is to have ones name written in the book of God’s life! So while you make not like my brand of Christianity or think that I am not a good or the right kind of Christian, the very nature of being a Christian means that I am not going to hell.

 

Now we can get into all sorts of things about if Jesus’ Gehenna is the same as Revelation’s lake of fire … and I am willing to do that, but for Christ’s sake stop saying that any kind of Christian is going to hell. That is like saying that married people can be single or that fathers can be virgins – the very use of that category precludes your sentence having the ability to be true.

 

If you want to talk about being a different kind of Christian or believing the right things, we can do that. Just get the initial premise right: to be a Christian of any type is to have received that gracious work of Christ on our behalf. It is a gift of God and not something that we can earn on our own.

Then we can talk.

__________

[1] I am a progressive hyperTheist. I subscribe to a social constructivist worldview and politically would probably be a communitarian if anything.

[2] It is impossible for a Christian to not believe in hell. As I have argued before: you have to believe something about it.

TNT: Letters Edition

A cast of two halves! In the first half Bo and Tripp respond to 3 letters from listeners.

Then we get a call with Micky Jones about choosing a seminary (43rd minute) – and when we come back for the 4th and final letter things get a little rowdy.  It turns out the resurrection is a topic that brings some important distinctions between the nerds.

Here are some resources that are mentioned on this episode.  tntpcsubad

How to read the Bible by Kugel

Chalice BIble Commentary series

How to take the Bible seriously but not literally by Borg

The Everyone series by N.T. Wright

Exodus by Fretheim

a mother’s lament

Evangelical defense of same sex

Elizabeth Johnson Barrel Aged

Triune Atonement by Sung-Park

Saved from Sacrifice by Heim

The Non-violent Atonement by Weaver

Contemporary Christologies by Schweitzer

Cross & Covenant by Larry shelton

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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Apple Updates and the Church

I have been thinking about the church and technology a lot lately. Part of it comes from planning to update a sanctuary constructed in 1951. Some of it has to do with recruiting a team to handle all the tech stuff at ‘church plant’. A bit of it came from the odd analogy that was used repeatedly about the ‘glitches’ related to the initial launch of the Affordable Health Care Act website and all of the sigh-up problems. People, including the President, said “yeah but even Apple has glitches when it first launches a product”.

An inexact comparison to be sure.

One of the questions that we are asking at the Loft LA, as we enter into our second year, is:

“What does it mean to use the Ancient-Future model of church in West LA?”17-85-BE3-134-08.0006-John Wesley

We come out of a United Methodist Church – which is a classic and beautiful expression of the Mainline tradition of Protestant Christianity.  The Loft is attempting to reclaim and hold onto the best of that inherited tradition … while at the same time engaging the culture around us in way that is contemporary and appropriate.
I’ll confess. It is a tricky section of water to navigate.

To use my favorite bowling analogy, there are gutters on each side that you want to avoid.
On the one side, you have a temptation to cater to the culture and concede so much of the Christian tradition that you have basically assimilated to the surrounding culture that you are nearly indistinguishable from it! This can happen in patterns of consumption, political views, sexuality, financial matters, or any other number of areas.

On the other side, you have the assumption that the inherited tradition, the given forms, are inherently relevant and effective in every place and in ever time since they were divinely delivered and historically proven. What this impulse to conserve leads to is reification of some previous era or expression of church that was culturally appropriate by which has since expired in its effectiveness in doing so. For a group whose gospel is, at its core, about incarnation … this is unacceptable.

This is why we think that the ‘Ancient-Future model’ of church is the best way forward for a young community.
Here is a short video about my recent experience with an old Apple TV that was given to me and why it triggered some thoughts about christian community for me.

Apple Updates and the Church from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

In technology, when you fall enough behind on your updates, you can actually trap yourself with the inability to update. This is the definition of irrelevant. The christian spirituality that is employed in much of the North American church may be in this kind of danger. I am nervous that we are looking to get resources (updates) from sources (servers) that don’t exist anymore.

We are looking for solutions in things that don’t exist anymore.

The danger, for a religion that is at its core incarnation, is that the inability to be conversant with the surrounding culture in the epitome of irrelevance.

__________

Ancient-Future is a model that was popularized by Robert Webber before he changed his emphasis, focus and tone at the end of his life. His books on Faith, Worship, Evangelism and Time are supremely helpful and informative. 

My quoting him does not imply a wholesale endorsement of all of his works or thoughts. 

When Good Isn’t Enough (3/3)

Last week I posted a little about my interest in Practical Theology (PT) and  the subsequent philosophical orientation with which I will be engaging research: social constructivism

I had some very heady (and public) conversations with colleagues this Summer who desperately wanted to paint me as a ‘Liberal’ who is afraid of my own shadow (afraid to admit it/come out of the theological closet, etc.)

My assertion was that, as a social constructivist, I am more in agreement with communitarian concerns than I am with liberal loyalties. Communitarians have a very harsh critique of liberalism where it:

considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.

While I clearly hold some positions that overlap with liberal stances, and while I do presently serve at a classically Mainline church that exists within the liberal tradition of church expressions … I do not do so as a liberal. I grew up evangelical, went very charismatic and then emerged into whatever kind of deconstructed christianity this is.

I jokingly said that I don’t identify as a liberal for the same reason that I don’t wear a medium-size Tshirt. It doesn’t fit and doesn’t cover some things I find important (ie. my belly).Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

 

The problem with being progressive:

I have flirted with the idea of just being a progressive even while I bristle at the notion of societal evolution, inevitable progress or the consequences of a colonial notion of ‘civilization’.

I realize that some liberals have engaged in post-colonial, feminist or liberation approaches – so that those concerns are not mutually exclusive.

 

So what do I mean when I say that Liberal doesn’t go far enough?

 Take post-colonial concerns

Classic liberalism has had two responses to the colonial problem. I will call them:

assimilation and reservations.

They can either come to us, act like us, learn to think like us, speak like us and live among us … or they can go over there and do their own thing without bothering us.

In fact, is it self-congratulatory either way. If indigenous folks assimilate we feel validated as open and accepting – even multi-cultural or diverse! If we ‘give them their own space’ we pat ourselves on the back for being understanding and accepting of other cultures. Let’s be honest – at least it isn’t conquest and genocide after all.

Neither one of those approaches is satisfactory. The first is unacceptable because it still presumes the hegemonic power of the dominant culture and it is looking at the indigenous community as something that needs to be absorbed, adapted or modified. The second is unacceptable because it sees the two cultures as incommensurable without realizing the power differential to  conquest.

I am not looking for a nicer, more gentle version of colonialism or empire. As a researcher-advocate, I want to hear the voice and experience of impacted communities in their own words. If that leads to an opportunity for partnership, great. If not, I have to accept that I am not in control of the outcome nor am I referee to make sure that people play by my rules. In the post-colonial context, indigenous peoples are not to be adopted & adapted … nor are they to be ‘left to their own devices’. Neither of these approaches is acceptable.

Something else is needed. Practical Theology and its qualitative methods provide me a starting point to engaging in a different way – one that addresses larger issues of systemic and institutional concerns, one that hears the voice of the communities most affected, and one that provides the possibility of change in the real lived experiences of those involved.

Let me give you an example. James Cone writes near the end of ‘The Cross and The Lynching Tree’:

White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s greatest sin. 

Then Cone comments on perhaps the quintessential evolving- liberal theologian that America has ever had:

Reinhold Niebuhr could write and preach about the cross with profound theological imagination and say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches. It takes a lot of theological blindness to do that, especially since the vigilantes were white Christians who claimed to worship the Jew lynched in Jerusalem.

 

I hope that these past three posts have helped to clarify why Practical Theology holds possibilities for me as a discipline and why I have chosen a social constructivist orientation within the research.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read these 3 posts and to give me such high quality feedback and/or affirmation.

 

New Heresy: Labelianism

You’ve heard of Sabellianism (you might even fit the bill practically speaking), but have you heard of Labelianism? Make no mistake, this new, more pernicious, more gruesomely heretical heresy is widespread within the Christian community these days and unlike many other heresies which might be more prone to crop up in certain ‘types’ of Christianity more than others (e.g. adoptionism in classical Liberal Theology, etc.), Labelianism seems to be running rampant in all kinds of Christian circles, from ‘conservative’ to ‘liberal,’ from low church to high ( I may have even just committed it! read on…). Unlike Tripp’s recent advocation of a healthy form of heresy, this one is all bad, a blot on the whole Christian conversation.

Why?  By what sneaking devilish logic has yet another heresy crept into the hearts and minds of the people, and why did the ancients miss it (not succumb to it?)?

I will keep my words brief as our time now should be spent mobilizing against such unholy writ. The Labelians (we Labelians) have written much of late and rather than attempting to detail every mark of its presence, a virtual impossible task given its shapeshifting quality, I’ll try to answer three questions: What is it? Who’s at risk? How do we purge it?

What is it?

Part of what makes it so pernicious is the fact that it takes many different forms, but at root it all boils down to an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have, bear, and use a label. This is how virtually everyone can be guilty of it–from the Labelian who uses a label (wittingly or not) as a politicized category or means of self-distinction from others, to the self-determining Labelian respondent who confidently trots out their own ‘private label.’  Both, for very different reasons and perhaps to varying degrees, are Labelians. Likewise, the third-party, resolute as they are in their grasp of the heresytradition and spectrum of difference enough to make the call, risks the Labelian pitfall in their heart as they seek to schematize and display the disputants within their own mind…or blog.

The ‘use Labelian’ believes they hold a position distinguished from polarized or now seemingly defunct, less-than-vibrant positions in a debate.  In essence, they categorize a list of alternative positions under a (usually very simplified) rubric in order to use those labels as something that goes proxy (stands in) for a full explanation of the distinctions between the alternatives and theirs. In Christian theological contexts, evangelical and “centrist” perspectives are prone to this version of Labelianism.  Is it more prevalent here than in more “liberal” or “left” contexts? Seems like it to me, but I’d be interested to hear others reactions.

Perhaps being a use Labelian is more natural to the evangelical/centrist precisely because it is inherent to the more conservative posture in a disagreement to seek to preserve the name or identity of the disputed concept or identity marker against the pull of other away from what they presume to be the faithful rendering of the concept. This relates to my earlier post on millennials and the seemingly endless self-analyzing and possessive nature of some evangelical communities. The preservation/possessive is a conservative weakness, and the use Labelian is the politicized, put-in-print version of this mode of thinking.

The ‘private Labelian’ oversimplifies what it means to bear a label by committing something loosely analogous to what Wittgenstein called a “private langauge.” Wittgenstein famously argued that it is incoherent and impossible for an individual to have their own (private) langauge precisely because the nature of language usage and development is a corporate affair, a public function of a form of life (cultural community). You can’t create anything ‘inside’ or privately that isn’t parasitic upon previously developed public concepts or words. Necessarily, things mean only in a historied public way. (Nate Gilmour alluded to this line of thought in a comment on one of Bo’s recent posts)

While the private Labelian might not be developing their own completely private label, they do risk failing to realize that what label they bear is perhaps not best explored or explained by them. They risking making their own maturation or development, through this or that world of theological ideas, something by which they uniquely and privately have taken what they want and formed something intentionally. The most important thing I’ve learned from thinkers like Wittgenstein is that we are virtually never the best gauge of who we are.  The inner life, our identity amidst a vast tradition, and what we are best called, is an exceedingly messy affair that is much more a function of contingent public circumstances. Where we fit (theologically or otherwise) is not for us to decide.

There are no private labels. Theological designators don’t mean anything privately.  The best determination of what we are is not us, but the aftermath of the context we’ve grown through so much so that someone you do not know, a historian many years from now, will define you better than you did.

Who’s at risk?

We all are. We’re all defining things too rigidly to categorize another for the sake of distinction, or recoiling into falsely privatized terminology. Yes, labels (maybe even Labelians) are necessary (not necessary evils), but their invocation must always be explored and used in a paradoxical way. They are true of us so much as we will be shown (perhaps only hypothetically for those of us whose positions won’t historically recorded) to fit within such and such exceedingly loose category that is largely defined by a few central figures that vaguely represent a common ethos or moment in theological landscape. We will be who we are label-wise according to history.

How do we purge it?

As shapeshifting as Labelianism is, it’s hard to pin down a sure-fire purgation method.  The use Labelian needs nuance and perhaps more time with historians of religion and theology.  If you want to talk about “liberal” or “mainline, ” spend time with a Gary Dorrien who shows just how exceedingly diverse and diffuse this category is. Realize that our use of labels is always at risk of functioning as a politicized identity marker. For the private Labelian, be humbled that you know who you are (theologically) less than a hypothetical historian will years after you’ve returned to dust. By all means use terminology to distinguish your view, but use them with the hope of their being tweaked and corrected by those informed listeners within the theological community you find yourself in.

Let’s not burn the Labelians at the stake.  There would be no we left in that case.  But let’s do our best to burn off our over-definition of the other with terminology that fails to do justice to ever-morphing nature of language and the politics of theological labels. Likewise let us burn off our sense of self-definition. Great ideas and theological moves work within labels debunking and deconstructing them through the process of new work that later generations will define much better than we do.

There’s no easy answer, no set model for labeling in this paradoxical context, but good theology–good Christianity–is not hurriedly schematizing views (yours or others).

 

 

Literally Changing What It Means

Yesterday it came out that the definition of ‘literally’ was literally being changed in the dictionary. A CNN report said in places  as informal as Google and as official as  Mariam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries it is now “”Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

The writer of the article was snarky:

Next thing they’ll be telling us that there’s no ham in hamburger, no egg in eggplant, a boxing ring isn’t round and tennis shoes aren’t just for tennis.

We’re literally over it.

The meaning of words drift, adapt and change over time. There is the famous example of “Thou” that Martin Buber brought so much attention to. The dictionary does not determine their meaning as much as it reflects their use.

Today an article appeared over at the Sojo blog by our beloved friend (and co-host of the Culture Cast) Christian Piatt who had a chance to interview Eric Elnes, author of Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of the Christian Faith and Asphalt Jesus, about the changing face Christianity in 21st America.

Elnes walked across the country:

  in 2006 with a group called CrossWalk America, which included a network of 150 churches from a dozen or so denominations and over 11,000 individuals. We walked to raise awareness that not all Christians are alike, and that large — and growing — numbers of Christians embrace a more “progressive” vision of Christianity than what one finds portrayed in the media.

Part of what came out of that experience was an awareness of the need for some new labels and to modify the meaning of some old ones. In both classically liberal/mainline circles and, interestingly, in conservative camps as well.

I will let you read the article for the whole conversation.  They part that stood out to me (and to Geoff Holsclaw who pointed me to it) was the section related to the label ‘progressive’. For the past couple of weeks I have enjoyed a lively set of conversation here about the Liberal Label and ‘progressive’ among others. Elnes explains why he has moved on from simple ‘progressive’:

Don’t get me wrong when I back off of the word “progressive.” This has been my adopted label for years, and the walk was made in the name of Progressive Christianity. But I’ve had to come to terms with its weaknesses. For many Christians, “progressive” is just another term for classic Christian liberalism. They have adopted the label because it’s more publically acceptable than “liberal.” Christian liberalism was an important movement in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and without it, Christianity would be struggling even more than it already does to embrace science and issues of social justice. But like any movement, liberalism has had a certain lifespan. We gleaned the best insights of liberalism and moved on long ago.

My favorite line is ” We also appreciate many of the fruits of liberalism, like social justice, inclusivity, and openness to other faiths. We affirm the positive role that doubt and uncertainty play in a healthy faith, recognizing that faith and science can be allies in the pursuit of truth.”

The reason I enjoyed the article so much was that it reflected some classic journeys about how people came to envision themselves as liberal, conservative, and progressive. I hear these stories all the time. I love these stories. Listening to people’s faith journey is one of my favorite things about what I do.  The problem is that I do not find myself in those stories – not exactly.

I grew up Evangelical with a hint of the charismatic. In my 20’s I went to Bible college was both emboldened in my charismatic leanings and horrified at the conservative nastiness I often encountered by those I shared the classroom with. People who grew up a little more fundamentalist or reformed than me had a very different experience of being Evangelical. They were some type of culture war … we were wrapped up in evangelism, missions, and issues of holiness – but without that culture clash. (in hind site, it was probably because we were allergic to politics).

After college I had a decade-long pastorate in an evangelical/charismatic church plant. I loved it. In the final years of that time I started reading N.T. Wright and then Brian McLaren – instead of Josh McDowell and Ravi Zacharias. I was warned by denominational leadership to be careful with that McLaren guy but by then I was on my way to George Fox Evangelical Seminary. I assumed I would study with Len Sweet until I met Randy Woodley.17-85-BE3-134-08.0006-John Wesley

Fast-forward 6 years and I am presently prepping for qualifying exams as a classically mainline grad school and ministering at a mainline church (albs & stoles – stained glass and lectionary). I never stopped praying however. I never went through that predictable thing that Elnes describes. Yes, I moved on from the superstitious elements of the tradition. Sure, I reformatted my cosmology and even adapted my metaphysics. I engaged Biblical scholarship which radically altered my view of scripture. I realized that politics wasn’t just permissible but , as Jesus modeled, was necessary.

All of that is to say that I stand by my posts of the past 3 weeks that we need to move on from the Liberal label and with Elnes we need to nuance ‘progressive’ in ways that are more clear.  I like his distinctions within progressive christianity. I know people in all of those camps.

I , however, am going to stick with “spirit-filled processy christo-centric hyperTheist” for myself.