A guide to liberal faith: from a liberal

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I am a man of faith. Not because I’m some sort of deviant who left the rails of righteousness many years ago, but because I’ve always portrayed myself as a man of reason and logic, and I’ve spoken about my love and interest of science, in particular, astronomy. Now there may be some of you wondering why those things cause surprise amongst people when they learn of my faith convictions. To be honest, I often wonder the same. But when I attempt to understand people’s surprise, I’m met with the same sorts of comments: “but don’t you believe that God created the Earth in seven days?”; “do you not believe in evolution or the Big Bang?”; “explain how a man died and then came back to life”. My first port of call is to correct the first question and point out that the biblical story actually talks of God creating the world in six days, not seven.

But most of all, I attempt to tell them how there are different types of Christianity; different types of theological interpretation. Most of the time the conversation stops there and we both carry on about our business, but sometimes there’ll be someone who wants to challenge this notion, saying that I can’t be a Christian because I don’t take every word of the Bible as being literal and as historical fact. Well to those of you who think this way, let me introduce you to liberal Christianity/Liberal Protestantism/theological liberalism, and let me allay some of your comments.

What is theological liberalism?

I’ve written about this so many times, not only on this blog but also during my time in academia. The first thing to say is that, on the whole, there are four frameworks within which theology can be conducted. The first is conservative theology, which as the same suggests, is conservative in nature.

Conservative theology places emphasis on biblical narrative and seeks to preserve traditional doctrinal elements of Christianity. The most perfect example of this is the title of conservative theologian Brian Hebblethwaite’s book In Defence of Christianity. Conservative theology maintains beliefs such as Jesus’ literal incarnation of God in human form, the resurrection, the Trinity and God as some form of imminent deity that directly interacts with the world. From research I’ve conducted previously, those Christians who fall within this framework are more likely to hold socially conservative views; this is probably due to their desire to stay as true to scripture as they can.

The second framework is liberal theology, which does away with placing primacy on the scripture, and instead chooses to use reason, logic, and human experience to shape theology. Founded by Schleiermacher in the 18th and 19th centuries, sought to make Christianity relate more closely to the human condition. As a framework, liberal theology rejects the importance that is placed upon the Church and scripture and instead makes the individual its focus. This leads to a willingness to reinterpret certain dogma in a way that is both contextually relevant (keeping in line with the framework’s aim to relate theology to the human condition), and in line with advancements in human knowledge. It also allows for doctrine and dogma to be subjected to logical and rational enquiry. Where certain doctrines fall short, they are abandoned altogether; where they do not, they are rewritten, such as with John Hick’s The Metaphor of God Incarnate.

The third framework is liberation theology, which arose due in part to the success of liberal theology. After the First World War, many theologians felt uncomfortable about the fact that theology related so closely to the individual, as they felt that it was the actions of the individual that had led to such a brutal and bloody conflict. Instead, liberation theologians seek to relate theology to humanity. Liberation theology attempts to theologise from the context of oppressed groups within society, so there are many sub-frameworks within this movement: black theology, Hispanic theology, feminist theology, disabled theology, queer/gay theology and eco theology are just some examples of this. They interpret scripture in a way that can relate to these often marginalised groups within society, so as to give them a sense of hope, in a world that so often seems posed against them.

The fourth framework is still in its infancy and is one that I take great interest in. Ordinary theology is the task of making theology relate to ordinary believers and in particular, those who have had no formal theological training or education. Instead of shaping theology to the people, it is the people who shape the theology. Having conducted research in this field myself, it is amazing to hear reflections on faith from those who have never studied theology. As Ann Christie and Jeff Astley have said on ordinary theology, if the Church is to survive into a third millennium, it needs to take seriously the reflections of its believers. The Church needs to stop preaching what it thinks is right, and instead take heed of what its adherents actually believe and think.

I find myself in the second framework: liberal theology. So now I’ve explained what this entails, albeit basically, let me now try to explain how this mindset affects my faith and what I actually believe.

On God: bridging the gap between science and theology

I believe in God. I believe that God is the sole reason for the existence of everything.  This doesn’t mean I think the Earth is only 2017 years old, nor does it mean I think that Adam and Eve were the first humans and that every subsequent person born is somehow related to them and each other. It means that I believe that something existed before the Big Bang happened, in order to cause the Big Bang to happen, and I believe that thing is called God.

My belief in God is more akin to deism than theism, but that doesn’t mean some parts of my faith aren’t inspired the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God: let me explain.

I believe that nothing can’t come from nothing, therefore there must have been something before the Big Bang singularity happened, to cause it to happen. If we accept that before the Big Bang there was nothing – no time, no space, no matter – then how is it that the Big Bang happened? There must have been some material change in the circumstances of the nothingness, in order for the Big Bang to have occurred. Since everything in the physical and scientific realms of existence came into being the very moment of the Big Bang, we have to accept that there existed something outside the realms of the physical and scientific, to cause such an event to occur. I believe that this thing is God.

So what about evolution? Simple. Evolution is the means through which all life evolved, whether just on Earth or indeed as I think, on all life-sustaining worlds in the cosmos. The question as to whether or not God itself had a direct influence on the process of evolution, I’m not so sure, but we live in a universe governed by a sequence of actions and consequences. Some minor, seemingly insignificant condition was present at the point of the Big Bang, which triggered a series of actions and subsequent consequences, that led us up to the point we are at today: with me writing this article.

This brings me on to my next point. I don’t believe God is wholly active in the world. I don’t believe God presides over its creation, watching carefully, allowing evil to exist etc. God is a thing, an entity outside the scope of human comprehension. However, whatever God is, it demonstrates some of the traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of God, as in being an entity that loves and wants to nurture its creation. The ‘evidence’ is all around us: it is the very fact of life itself. Astronomers have repeatedly said that the Earth is in a very precarious position cosmically, as if it were 1% closer or further away from our star, Sol, then life would not be able to exist. The very fact that all the materials and conditions required for life to emerge and to continue to flourish came to be, is evidence to me that whatever God is, it must be compassionate and, to use traditional language, loving, towards its creation.

This is a very simplified explanation of the Anthropic Principle, which many scientists accept as a compelling theory as to the explanation of God’s existence, in light of the Big Bang theory. My belief in God is, I believe, grounded in logic and rationality and makes use of modern scientific theories, in line with theological liberalism. However, there is much more to the theology of God than it simply being a creator. But as a liberal Christian, there is much of this theology I cannot accept. I cannot accept the existence of miracles. I cannot accept that people can pray to God and receive guidance from it. What I do believe though, is that people can come to experience God’s love and compassion. Not via a feeling of some celestial being giving a person a great big hug, but by demonstrating the sort of love to other people, as God shows to its creation.

On Jesus: understanding the term ‘God incarnate’

Jesus existed. There can be no denial of this fact. There are ancient Roman scriptures which talk about a Jewish preacher named Jesus, from Nazareth, who caused quite a stir amongst the scribes, pharisees and the general Jewish population in first century Palestine, and who was eventually executed by crucifixion. What has caused so many rifts amongst humanity since his execution around 1985 years ago, is who he was in terms of his relationship to God, if indeed he had one.

Everyone knows that Christians believe that Jesus was/is ‘the Son of God’. I hate this expression. I hate how inaccurate it is and I hate how much of a misconception of Christianity it creates. I think even the most conservative of believer would acknowledge that this language does not mean that God wined and dined Mary, wooed her and then made a baby, to whom she gave birth to in a stable some nine months later. I may be writing this in jest, but it’s a point I’ve heard so many times from people who are either Christian-lite or atheists. The term ‘Son of God’ is so heavily loaded that it causes so much confusion. I understand it to refer to Jesus as ‘God the Son’, the second person of the Trinity. (The Trinity refers to the Triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the three parts that make up the whole – and I fully reject it).

If you look at the language of the Nicene Creed, the faith affirmation laid down by Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, it speaks about the Son being begotten from God. Now ‘to beget’ is a funny old verb, as it can either mean ‘the bringing of a child into existence through reproduction’ or ‘to cause or bring about’. The former is something which quite clearly didn’t happen, but the second is where conservative theology and liberal theology part ways.

Traditional Christian theology teaches that Jesus is the incarnation of God in human form. So in that respect, he came into existence from God; he was begotten by God, the Father: therefore he is the Son of God. But this idea of Jesus being God incarnate causes a lot of problems for people for whom logic and rationality takes precedence. Traditional theology also teaches us that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, simultaneously. It doesn’t take a linguist or a metaphysicist to spot the obvious problems with this. Humankind, by its very definition, is not divine. And beings that are divine, are by their very definition, not human. So how does traditional theology aim to answer this conundrum?

They don’t. Not fully. Kenotic theory attempted to answer the question: that is, the theory that in order for Jesus to co-exist as God-Man, he had to ‘let go’ of some of the divine attributes to ‘make room’ for both a divine and human consciousness. However, this makes no sense. If something were to divest itself of some of the qualities that define it in such a way, then it ceases to be the thing it was originally defined as. If a square were to become a triangle, it would have to lose one of its sides and three of its right-angles, thus ceasing to be a square.

The whole point is that is completely illogical for something to be a God-Man. Divinity and humanity are mutually exclusive terms and one cannot exist within the other. So following on from this, either Jesus was fully divine or fully human. It doesn’t make sense to believe that Jesus was fully divine, because then the whole point of his existence would be negated. In traditional theology, Jesus had to live as a human and fully understand the human condition in order to save it. The only way anything can understand the human condition (fallibility, mortality, pain etc) is to be human. Therefore, Jesus must have been fully human. So what makes him so special? Is Christianity built on a lie?

Not entirely. Jesus was special and Christians are not wrong to look to him as an inspiration. Jesus was metaphorically God incarnate. Jesus lived a life that embodied the characteristics that most people attribute to God. Just as Winston Churchill could be said to have embodied the will of the British people to defeat Nazism, he was not literally the collective will of the British people. Jesus spoke about love and compassion for all humanity, agape if you’re being posh. This is the sort of love I mentioned in my discussion of God’s relationship with its creation: Jesus embodied the love of God in the way he lived his life, the way he helped those most in need and the way he showed compassion to those who wronged him by forgiving them.

Now of course, all of these tales come the Bible which as a liberal theologian, I don’t take as historical fact, so you may ask “how do you know he did?” And the honest answer is, I don’t. But Jesus wasn’t executed for no reason.

He must have been preaching something so radically different from the Judaism of the time, which was based on the Torah’s teachings of God striking down enemies of the Jews (look at the story of Moses if you don’t believe me), teachings of “an eye for an eye”, and a prophecy of a saviour in the form of a warrior king, who would vanquish enemies of the Jews and lead them to a promised land: the Messiah. Jesus was not the Messiah as promised to the Jews in the Torah: he was a not a warrior and he did not seek to vanquish his enemies, yet his followers proclaimed him as such. Evidence for Jesus’ goodness and his embodiment of God’s love comes from the very fact he was wanted dead for being the complete transgression of everything the Jews had been promised.

So now I’ve explained what I think about Jesus and who he was, why is his death so important? If he wasn’t literally God but just some preacher who told people to love each other, why is he so revered?

On salvation: the process of human transformation

Think about Martin Luther King Jnr. He campaigned for years for civil rights and an end to the institutionalised racism that gripped America at the time. He had a large number of followers, mostly from the black community, but probably very few white people. Did his speeches or his actions have much of an impact during his life? I doubt it. He was killed for speaking out against the norms at the time (much like Jesus) and it wasn’t until his death, that people began to wake up to the realities of what he was saying. It wasn’t until that single shocking moment that people started to realise that what he was saying was right: his death was transformative in the way people thought.

That’s why Jesus’ death is so important. It marked the beginning of a transformation in people’s attitudes towards one another. The more people learned of his message, the more people liked it and began following his message. In a way, you could say that both Jesus and Martin Luther King Jnr were martyrs, in that their death inspired change. You may be wondering why loving each other and being nice to people was such a powerful message, which is a fair point. People are perfectly pleasant, caring and compassionate to one another without the need to believe that Jesus was somehow special.

What was different about Jesus’ message was that he taught that by being kind, caring and compassionate to people without question, would lead humanity to a transformed state: a higher-level of being if you will. Whether you believe this state to be metaphysical or purely sociological, it doesn’t matter. The point is that by learning to forgive those who have wronged you, by learning to love every person despite their differences, humanity would eventually come to exist in a form of utopia. Think of today’s world: all the issues we face both socially and politically have all stemmed from a distrust or dislike of others. Whether it’s extremism, anti-immigrant feelings, Brexit or rising tensions in the Korean peninsula, all of these things boil down to the fact that the people responsible do not show compassion, kindness or love to others.

If everyone were to attempt to embody Jesus’ message of agape, unconditional love and understanding of their fellow human, the world would be a much better place. A world with no hatred; a world with no war; a world with no famine or preventable disease – sounds a lot like heaven if you ask me.

I’m a Christian because I try and follow Jesus’ example; I try desperately to embody agape as much as I can. I find solace in forgiving those who have wronged me and I try my hardest to help those in need wherever I can. I don’t always get it right, but that’s okay, because I’m human, and to err is to be human.

On evil: “if God is so good, why do bad things happen?”

Perhaps one of the biggest questions I get asked when I tell people I believe in God. And it’s a fair question. In fact, theologians have been pondering this question and potential answers since the Early Church. In all honesty, I don’t believe that there will ever be a comprehensive answer that satisfies all curiosities. For me, I start by defining what evil actually is.

Evil is not disease. Evil is not famine. Evil is not earthquakes, floods or any other natural disaster. All these things are evidence that we live on a tectonically active planet, that we live on a planet rich with all forms of life that may cause disease, that we live on a planet that has an atmosphere which creates weather patterns, some of which can be violent. These ‘natural evils’ are not really evil at all – these things are the planet doing what the planet does and these things would happen, even if life had never existed.

Evil is however, the malevolent actions of humankind. Killing, abusing, manipulating and all other things humans do to further themselves at the expense of others. These things are the complete opposite of what I understand to be God’s love. There is an overlap between this ‘moral evil’ and ‘natural evil’, in that some of humanity’s actions can cause perceived evils to occur in the natural world: global warming, unfair distribution of wealth leading to starvation and the spread of preventable disease are examples of this cross-over. But the distinction that is important to make is that these things are caused by humanity.

So if God was all-loving, why doesn’t he stop these things from happening? Now that’s a conundrum, to which there are two classic answers. The first being that God gave humanity free will – the freedom to choose its own actions which include either turning to or away from God’s love. I have a problem with this though as it seems to excuse God of all responsibility and because I don’t believe in free will. The second classic answer comes in the form of explaining that for any life to flourish, it must in some way ‘be tested’. This is a very crude explanation of the ‘soul-making’ theory, which argues that in order for people to become ‘better people’, they must endure challenges in their life.

You may infer that God allows moral evil to exist in order to develop the souls of those to whom evil is inflicted, which doesn’t seem very loving at all. However, I sympathise with this view in part.

If you look at the very essence of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, he says that all life is a struggle for existence, and that life has and only will develop, if it adapts and overcomes these struggles. That’s the fact behind the science of evolution – so why is this not true of humans? Is it not the case that in order for us to develop and ‘evolve’, that we too must overcome the ‘struggles for existence’ that require us to do? In part, I believe it is. But when I hear people tell me about how someone they know has been subjected to a horrible crime, or I see the parents of children who were killed in the Manchester terror attack, I have to stop and ask myself, what possible lesson is there to learn from such heinous evil?

I don’t have the answer to that and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who does, short of someone with no empathy. I explain evil to myself (and others when asked) that everything happens in life for a reason, but that that reason doesn’t become clear to a person until long after the evil has taken place. It’s a cop out I admit, but it’s more of a comprehensive answer than saying that God is mysterious and works in ways we cannot hope to fathom – which I believe is true, but it doesn’t make for a very comforting sentiment.

What’s more important than understanding why evil exists, is to understand how we help those affected by it and how we seek to prevent evil from continuing to exist. Not to sound too much like an evangelical preacher, but going back to my discussion about Jesus and agape: if more people embraced that message, I think there would be a lot less evil in the world. It’s a naiive sentiment, but one that I think holds some truth. I believe that some evils are not evils at all, and that other evils are presented in order to help us become better people (I use the example of my depression here, caused by the actions of another person), but that other evils are just completely unfathomable.

Evil will always be one of the biggest challenges to people’s faith in God and I acknowledge that.

On the Bible: it’s all about context

I’m coming to end of my discussion now, but there are just a couple more things to explain before I end. One of the most common things I hear from people when explaining my faith, is that I can’t be a Christian if I don’t accept every word the Bible says.

As a liberal theologian, this is easy for me to answer. The Bible is a collection of writings, collected and put into the form of a book some time around the Council of Nicaea. A lot of what those writings deal with is contextually bound, so what was acceptable 2000 years ago is now outdated and irrelevant. Just as schools need to update their textbooks, Christians should look to update what they do and do not take from the scripture. Let’s face it, the Bible was written by humans, translated by humans and is read and interpreted by humans – there’s lots of room for error.

The cynic in me believes that the Bible only came into existence because Constantine wanted to unite an empire under one set of beliefs and one set of practices, to stem any in-fighting amongst Christians as to what they should or shouldn’t believe, which he’d been subjected to before the Council of Nicaea with the Arian heresy (read more about it online, I’ve taken too much of your time already). So including archaic laws and scary stuff about what would happen if you weren’t a good Christian were a good way of keeping people relatively quiet.

But the Bible does contain may stories which help people to understand Jesus’ message in a more practical way – the Good Samaritan and the Widow’s Mite are two of my personal favourites. It also contains many writings which attempted to explain things in a way that people could understand at the time. Most importantly it gives people a basis for getting to know who Jesus was, his message and how all that relates to God. The crucial thing is that, like any good book, it’s all open to interpretation, and that’s fine. I interpret it fairly liberally; others choose to interpret it differently. I take what I need from the Bible and leave what I don’t. Simple.

On prayer: it’s all in your head!

A common theme in all religions is that of prayer. Traditional concepts of prayer have a prerequisite of believing that there is some great entity who is actively listening to you, and who has the power and/or desire to help answer you. As you’ve probably gathered by this point, I don’t believe that God is there to listen, yet I still pray.

There’s no set theology of prayer, at least I’ve never come across one. I believe that prayer is a cathartic process – much like the writing of this article – one where the only person listening, is you (unless someone has their ear to the door and is listening in). For me it’s a process of talking about problems aloud, which in turn helps me to unravel the complex inner-workings of my mind. By literally vocalising my thoughts and feelings, my hopes and wants, I feel myself answering my own prayers, so to speak. I think that any therapist would advise someone in their care, to speak about their problems in the hope of reaching a solution on their own.

For me, this is what prayer is. It’s a moment of quiet and solitary contemplation, much like meditation. Even when some people pray to departed loved ones for answers or guidance, I believe it’s often by thinking about them and what they may say to you in any given situation, that you’re able to ‘hear’ their response. I’d recommend prayer, even if you’re not of any religious persuasion. It can be very helpful!

On the other religions: the issue of exclusivity

Put simply, all religions are ‘true’. They have at their heart, the same messages and principles: these being of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness. No one religion is ‘more correct’ than any other, which is another reason why I’m opposed to conservative Christianity. If we think back to a traditional understanding of Jesus, then we must assume that if Jesus really were God in human form, that Christianity would be the only faith to have been inadvertently founded by God itself, which is just absurd and leads to the issue of exclusivity.

So why am I not Muslim, Sikh or Jewish? The reason is that I feel more affinity to Christianity, and to Jesus. For me personally, he’s a great example of someone who has successfully embodied the sort of love that God itself is capable of. That isn’t to say that other religious leaders haven’t achieved the sense of enlightenment that Jesus did. I use the word enlightenment intentionally, because it’s a word that goes hand-in-hand with Hinduism and Buddhism. All religions speak of living a certain way in order to reach a heightened state of existence; whether you call this state enlightenment, heaven or Nirvana, it doesn’t matter. It just so happens different cultures adopt different traditions and so depending on where you’re from, you’re more likely to adopt your culture’s traditions.

On life after death

I’ve left this section without a subtitle on purpose, because I don’t know how to explain my eschatological beliefs. It isn’t because I don’t have the tools to do so, but because I honestly haven’t come to a conclusion as to what I believe happens once our physical existence ends.

Part of me believes that our essence or our soul lives on in some way. I think I believe that as we all came from the same stuff – “stardust” – that’s where we return. I have an image in my head, an image which I’m only just detailing now, for the very first time. Whenever I imagine what comes after death, I often think about the light that so many people have reported to have seen when they’ve been close to death. I believe that light is the centre of the universe, from which everything in the entirety of existence once originated. I believe that God is that thing from which everything came and so I believe that when we die, our essence or soul returns to God, and every time a soul returns to God, it is somehow made more whole by the characteristics and love embodied within that person.

Does that soul stay there forever? I don’t know. I think so – I believe that God’s essence is all around us, in the very things that it helped to create and so I believe that somehow, the essence of those departed, is also present all around us.

This is the only part of my faith that bends all logic and reason, I know that. But death is one of the greatest mysteries that neither science nor religion can ever hope to explain. It frustrates me that I can’t articulate a logical explanation as to what happens…

…but I suppose that’s the beauty of faith.