Sunday, October 31, 2010

Liberal Christian Worldview

There are a multitude of ways to understand Christianity. Each denomination has a distinctive sense of their focus, and every congregation has a different way of presenting their understanding of the basic truths of Christianity. In the United States, there are two foundational ways to understand the truth of Christianity, which, for convenience’s sake we will call “Conservative” and “Liberal”. The liberal understanding of Christianity has recently been called “the new Christian paradigm”, but it is at least one hundred years old, has its roots in the enlightenment of the eighteenth century and has it’s own set of traditions and theologies. Some of the basic features of the “new paradigm” are described below.

Denying supernaturalism
The liberal point of view is not that miracles don’t happen, but that miracles occur in the context of everyday, “historic” reality. This means that God is working, but he is working within the confines of material existence. For all practical purposes, the spirit world does not intersect with material reality, except in subtle, mostly unseen ways. They deny the reality of overt supernatural acts such as a six-day creation, fire from heaven and the physical resurrection of bodies.

Jesus as moral example
Jesus is seen in the liberal worldview primarily as a teacher and example of the exemplary way of life. God desires us to live a life of unconditional love and care for others, and Jesus displayed that love in the midst of a culture of rules and separation. Jesus died in a conflict with that culture, and his resurrection—which was spiritual, not physical—was God’s way of showing the superiority of that moral way of life.

Relationships as core responsibility
The central moral concept of liberal philosophy is the nurturance of relationships. To build and establish relationships, we need to display unconditional love, which is seen as full and joyful acceptance of all—no matter how one subverts the traditional moral paradigm— and assistance to those who are weak or marginal in society. Salvation is seen as receiving God’s grace to live according to this way of love, as Jesus himself displayed. To be saved is to live out the principle, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sin as systemic
The liberal worldview acknowledges the Bible’s point of view of sin as personal acts in rebellion to God. However, the sins that need to be taken most seriously are those acts that support a system of oppression, in opposition to an ethic of unconditional love. They see the system of the world to be supporting a minority—whites, males, wealthy—while the rest are automatically placed in a secondary role, forced to submit to the oppressive paradigm. Sin, then, is supporting that system of oppression and acting in apathy to those in need. The serious sins are not those of adultery, homosexuality and rebellion, but oppression and its extreme form, violence. Submission to the dominant authority system is a sin, though less serious, for it supports the systemic sin.

Response to sin
Given this point of view of sin, personal sin is usually responded to with acceptance. If a sin is seen as just being in opposition to the primary paradigm, then there is joyful, full acceptance without a call to change. If one sins in a way in opposition to unconditional love, they are encouraged to repent and change, while still being accepted. However, every worldview has lines of acceptance and non-acceptance. Those who are not accepted are those who refuse to refrain from tearing the nurturing community down. Thus, prison is reserved for rapists and child molesters. And the liberal church has no place for those who reject the needy because they are “sinners” or “irresponsible.”

Love as Basis of Truth
The truth of the liberal paradigm is not strictly seen in the Bible as a whole. They recognize that the Old Testament does not teach this paradigm, and neither does Paul. However, they understand Jesus as teaching the basis of this paradigm, and the church is growing over time to accept this paradigm. The Bible is not the basis of morality, but unconditional love, which they see is the love of God. The Bible is not full of historic truth, but of deep metaphors that helps one understand God’s love. The Bible is simply a bridge leading from an older moral paradigm toward a new, perfect paradigm of God’s love. The locus of truth is God’s community of love, led by God’s spirit of love. This community may at times be in denial of the old paradigms, such as it was in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, but the main focus is the display of God’s spirit, not any traditional standards of morality.

Continuity and Discontinuity with Society
They see themselves as being a part of society through tolerance. They hold as a central moral statement the acceptance and care for all people, no matter what religion they believe in or what their personal habits are. However, they also see themselves as subversive and as challenging the dominant authority system. Thus, in practical actions, the liberal church accepts homosexuals who act with unconditional love, for while they might act in opposition to standard morality, they have received God’s grace of love. They often accept abortion as a possible moral decision because a relationship has not been developed with a fetus, thus there is no moral obligation. And they typically support progressive politics which assists those who are marginalized by society.

An Anabaptist Critique of Liberal Christianity
Liberal Christianity focuses much on what has been missing from traditional Christianity. Like Jesus and Paul, they focus on the needs of the marginalized of society, and they accept those who are traditionally seen as “sinners” (Luke 15; Matthew 8:11-12) They also recognize that Jesus spoke of himself as a moral example, which is something much of the church has ignored in their focus on Jesus as the savior from sins and the Son of God (John 13:13-17).

However, there is much that the liberal approach to Christianity has missed in their understanding of Jesus. Liberal Christians deny the very worldview that Jesus held. Jesus did not just practice God’s love, but he practiced God’s love with God’s supernatural power, seeing the spirit world as a real force in everyday life (Mark 1:16-2:10). The NT as a whole recognizes Jesus’ resurrection as physical and historic—and, in fact, were it not, then it could not be called “resurrection” at all, but simply “death” for a spiritual life after death is what all ancient cultures understood as what death was. Resurrection meant the renewal of the body—anything else would have been called something else.

Liberal Christians also neglect that Jesus held to God’s standard of righteousness, which was not restricted to sins against unconditional love. Jesus spoke against sexual immorality, idolatry and those who did not believe in him—sins of which could be participated in while still being nurturing (Mark 7:20-23; John 58). Jesus said that the context of righteousness is love of others, but that was not the whole of God’s standard—we first and foremost must love God for who he is and obey him even though it may not seem like the kind of “love” we understand. Jesus welcomed sinners of his time, but he called them to repent, not just to be welcomed (Luke 5:32)
God’s love is unconditional, but the unconditional form of his love is limited, as well. God loves everyone by providing even those who hate him with their basic needs. However, his true blessings—his kingdom, his Spirit, his salvation from suffering—is not given to everyone, but only those who prove to be faithful to him, not only in love, but in the purity of heart and action that can only come through Jesus (Matthew 7:6, 17-27; John 15:5). Thus, followers of Jesus sympathize for those who do not believe in Jesus, but we cannot fully accept them as part of the community of God, even as others who sin against God without repentance (Romans 10:9; Matthew 18:15-17). Jesus affirms love, but also recognizes that his gospel causes deep relational ties to be severed dramatically (Luke 14:26-27)

Ultimately, liberal Christians, while drawing their ideals from the gospel, only accept half of it. They do not believe what Jesus believed or hold to what Jesus stood for. In the end, liberal Christianity is not a representation of Jesus, but just another form of the Enlightenment, denying both the Scriptures and the power of God. They want the morality of Jesus, but neglect the righteousness Jesus actually espoused.

Men will be... holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. Avoid such men as these. II Timothy 3:5

Conservative Christian Worldview

There are a multitude of ways to understand Christianity. Each denomination has a distinctive sense of their focus, and every congregation has a different way of presenting their understanding of the basic truths of Christianity. In the United States, there are two foundational ways to understand the truth of Christianity, which, for convenience’s sake we will call “Conservative” and “Liberal”. The conservative approach to Christianity has been called “evangelical” and also “fundamentalist”. Although “evangelical” Christianity has existed since the early 1500s, the fundamentalist form of American evangelicalism has existed only since the beginning of the 20th century—although its roots do run deeper to the early reformation.

God as Creator
In the conservative Christian worldview, all things come from God, the spiritual entity that rightly rules all creation. There is a spiritual world that is greater than this one, and the principles of which determine our success in this world. God is the maker of all things, which he did in six 24-hour days at the beginning of creation.

Jesus as God
The conservative Christian boldly proclaims Jesus as God, by which he means a human who is equal with God in every way, including his essence. Jesus showed his authority over all things on earth, including the spirit world and nature, which indicated that he was the true maker of all these things. Many doubted Jesus proclamation of his true nature, and they eventually killed him. But the Father—the primary personage of God, along with Jesus and the Holy Spirit—rose Jesus from the dead, thus displaying Jesus’ true identity—God himself. One who wishes to receive God’s salvation—life in heaven—must believe that Jesus is God, attempt to live in the standards of God and be responsible to God’s church.

Jesus’ death as once-for-all sacrifice
Conservative Christians hold Jesus’ death to be the most significant event in all of history. They hold that God held all people under the judgment of death because of their sin, but Jesus provided a blood sacrifice through his death, which allowed God to offer forgiveness for sin instead of death. Anyone who believes in Jesus, then, is forgiven of all of their sins, no matter what they did.

Inerrant Bible
According to conservative Christians, the Old and New Testaments, sixty-six books, are the Bible. Although the Bible was written by human authors, God’s spirit directed every word in the Bible, and thus every single word is true. They understand the Bible to be interpreted literally, which means that everything in it must be understood as it would be understood by those who read it first, with allegorical sections interpreted as allegory and historical sections being taken as plain facts. The Bible expresses not only spiritual, moral and historic truth, but scientific truth as well.

The Moral Order
In the conservative worldview, it is held that God established an authoritative order. God established parents to rule over their families, governments to rule over their citizens, bosses to rule over their employees and God to rule over all. Some conservatives hold that men are also an authority over women. Bosses, parents and government leaders, therefore, are representatives of God to those under them. . This does not mean that human authorities cannot make mistakes, but the proper response to any authority over us is to submit and obey the authority. The authorities, on the other hand, are to offer proper moral guidance, punish those who disobey the proper authorities, and to provide the basic needs for those under their authority.

Family as Building Blocks of Society
Conservative Christians hold strongly to a conservative view of the family. This includes the authority of the husband over the family in the God-established moral order as well as the establishment and independence of the nuclear family. For this reason, they oppose homosexuality, abortion and secular education as things that break down the God-established order of the family.

Independence as maturity
In the conservative morality, the goal of the authority is to have every person under them be independent productive members of society. This requires the authority to provide training and punishment for each individual, until each of them are responsible in their own right. Responsibility, in this context, means that they are proper authorities over their own families, providing for them and needing no assistance from authorities to maintain their appropriate lifestyle; and that they are obedient to the requirements of their authorities without needing to be punished to correct them.

Sin as disobedience
For conservatives, sin has to do with one’s relation to the proper authority. Authorities establish law, which is an absolute standard and enforced by their authority. One sins if they disobey the authority above them, even if what the authority demands is unreasonable. Should one sin, the proper response of the sinner’s authority is to punish them, to train both them and everyone else under that authority that sin is unacceptable and will be punished.

Church as Upholder of Standard
The church, then, is the place where these conservative beliefs and morality are held as the standard and they constantly remind the people of God of these truths. This does not mean that the church in some way isn’t subversive. The conservatives hold that the world is constantly being led further and further into sin and subversive values. The church, in this case, is a beacon of light in the midst of darkness. One of the greatest purposes of the church, then, is to defend the people of God against the many forces attacking them—cults, secular humanism, communism, Islam and other religions.

An Anabaptist Critique of Conservative Christianity
The conservative evangelicals have much in their favor as a worldview. They uphold the Bible as the very highest standard, and Jesus as the very highest authority. They recognize that God’s standard may be different from the world’s in many ways and may not make sense to humans. They recognize that sin is very serious, and needs to be dealt with seriously.

However, for all of their proclamation of the Bible as God’s inerrant word, they typically have neglected what the Bible actually says quite seriously. Although they confess Jesus as their Lord, they will frequently disagree with Jesus and his teachings in the New Testament and maintain their own standards of morality instead. Jesus did not punish sin, although in the most extreme cases he did recommend separation from the church (John 8:1-11; Matthew 18:15-17). Rather Jesus showed mercy to the sinner and called them to repentance (John 12:47; Luke 5:32). Jesus recognized that authority came from God, but he also harshly criticized conservative authorities for not adhering to God’s standard and claimed that they should not be followed (Matthew 23:1-23).

Jesus actually came to earth to subvert the authorities of the world through the cross, and the “proper authorities” of this world are still acting in rebellion to Jesus’ way of the cross (Colossians 2:15; Acts 3:12-19; I Corinthians 2:6-8, 14). Jesus did not present submission as a way to uphold the authorities of this world, but as a way to subvert them and to establish God’s kingdom as the true authority over this world. In many ways, conservative Christianity is still holding to medieval feudal standards, and they see the church as being a part of this world. But the Bible says that God’s people are not of this world, but belong to a different nation, to live by a different standard, as established by Jesus, and to not just support the system as it stands (I Peter 2:4-12; Galatians 5:19-23).

Jesus death, while a sacrifice for our sins, is not limited to that. The cross isn’t something that happened a long time ago, and we can rely just on Jesus’ work. We are to continually be living out Jesus’ cross, and we are to be the people of the cross—the work of the cross is something the church continues to this very day (Colossians 1:14; John 12:24-26; Mark 8:34-38). It is through this work that we do with Jesus as our example that we gain the kingdom of God (Romans 8:16-17; Acts 14:22).

Ultimately, conservative Christianity, just like their theological forefathers, Luther and Calvin, is simply not biblical enough. For all their upholding of Jesus as the great authority, they do not give him enough authority as the One True Teacher, and we are servants of each other (Matthew 23:8-11). If one is truly going to enter God’s kingdom, we must be more righteous than the conservative evangelicals (Matthew 5:20; 23:22-23).
Jesus is not just God, but our Lord and example.

A Platonic Christian Worldview

Most people think that there is simply one church, under the one leader, Jesus Christ. Why, do these idealists say, doesn’t the church just get unified? Apart from the different governing bodies that distinguish one denomination from another, there is another significant issue—there is more than one Christian philosophy. Within each denomination there exists a variety of different philosophies—all claiming the name of Christ, but in many ways incompatible. In this series of articles, we will explore different Christianities and try to understand them from an Anabaptist viewpoint.

In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity was coming into its own as a force in the Roman empire. Paganism was beginning to wane as the primary belief system, and it was getting competition from the revised Hebrew religion. But there was another belief system that was gaining popularity as well—Platonism. Platonism was begun by the philosopher Plato in ancient Athens, and held that the spirit world was the prime reality on which all of our physical reality was based.

Some platonic philosophers of this time —such as Ignatius and Augustine— saw quite a bit of compatibility between Platonism and Christianity, and came to believe in Jesus as the human face behind the platonic philosophy. Then these teachers began defending their platonic form of Christianity against those whom they saw as “heretics” and “unbelievers.” These became the strongest defenders of Christianity of the third and fourth centuries. Their idea of Christianity became enormously influential and their concept of Christianity continues to this day. Below are some of the main beliefs of a Platonic form of Christianity:

Spirit World is the Real World
According to Plato, there is an alternative universe which holds all the reality of the physical universe we see and feel. It is the Spirit world, and it is not less real than the physical world, but more real. In the spiritual universe, there is the real, pure Apple and all apples of our world are just poor copies of the original. Even so, the real Human exists in that universe, and all of us are simply copies of the true Human—and we are only trying to become like that Real Human.

God is the Primary Cause—Pure Spirit
Aristotle, Plato’s student, followed in this logic concerning God. He said that all things have a source, a cause. If creation came from the earth, then the earth came from somewhere, as did the sun and all of our universe. However, at some point one must arrive at the First Cause, because if there is no origin of all things, then nothing could exist. The platonic Christians hold that the Prime Cause is God, who is pure spirit, being made up of nothing physical, of this universe. God is the perfect being, complete Spirit, completely good, and the originator of all good, pure, spiritual things.

Flesh is Corrupt, Spirit is Good
Because God and the Spirit world is where all good comes from, then spiritual things are the only things that are good. This also means that the physical universe we live in is automatically crippled, automatically prone toward weakness. This weakness is called by the platonic Christians the flesh. The flesh is corruptible, able to drift further and further from the Spirit, which is pure good. Fundamentally, the more physical—the flesh—the more corruption and evil. The more Spirit, the more purity and good.

Humanity is part spirit, part flesh
Every human born, according to the platonic Christian philosophers, is part spirit and part flesh. The flesh, they say, is the body, which is corruptible and imperfect. But every human also has a spirit, which is the human’s connection to God. Between the flesh and the spirit is the soul, which is the basis of the mind and will. The soul is the fundamental part of humanity—neither pure flesh nor pure spirit—which determines the moral direction of the person, whether toward the spirit or toward the flesh.

Morality is based on the control of the flesh and motivation
To be a good human, therefore, we must constantly choose the spirit as opposed to the flesh. The flesh leads us to physical desire, to sexuality, to gluttony, to greed, to anger—all of the seven deadly sins are sins of the flesh, created by the platonic Christians. However, ultimately, humans are judged not on their deeds, but their motivation—that which their souls determined. If a soul chose the good, even though it lead them to corruption, then the soul may be saved though the body is corrupt.

Jesus was God Incarnate
Platonic Christians speak of Jesus as the Son of God, the human who was God from birth. Since Jesus was born as God incarnate, thus he was not human as we are human. Yes, Jesus was human, he had flesh and he had spirit, but his soul was already committed to the spirit, and so he constantly rejected the corrupt flesh. Thus, he never sinned. In this way, he had perfect faith and lived perfectly before his Father. Because of this, Jesus’ life could not really provide us with a proper example, because he had a different make up than we. So if we fall short of Jesus, that is only because he was God and we are not. Jesus died to give humanity the opportunity to be pure spirit. All of humanity has been corrupted by their flesh, but Jesus died so that such corruption could be left behind with one’s body, while the spirit and soul rises to God.

The highest Christian act is spiritual contemplation
Those of us who are Christians are those who have entered into Jesus death through baptism and the Lord’s supper. As we partake with Jesus, according to platonic Christians, we find ourselves being led by Him to act in the Spirit, and to set aside the flesh. Thus, as we find gluttony, drunkenness and sexuality set aside, we will also partake more and more in the Spirit realm through contemplation of the Pure Spirit—God himself. We can focus on God through meditation, through praise, through singing or through quoting the Scripture. But the focus is to transport oneself out of this world and into God.

The Church is Invisible
Because morality is a completely internal process, we cannot know who is more spiritual than another. While it is true that the most fleshly people would not be spiritually minded, for the most part we cannot tell. Some are spiritually minded and some are not. But the true people of God are invisible—only God knows who they are. The rest of us cannot judge.

Heaven is Living in Spirit
The ultimate goal of every platonic Christian is, therefore, the stripping away of our bodies—our corrupt flesh—and living in spirit in the presence of God. This is heaven—a pure spiritual existence. In heaven God is the continuous focus, and all who enter heaven take full satisfaction and pleasure in adoring and contemplating God, the Pure Spirit, the Source of all Things.

An Anabaptist Critique of Platonic Christianity
Platonic Christianity has tried to walk a wall that borders Platonism and the Bible—and so there are many aspect of their philosophy that reflects the Bible. Jesus himself said that God is Spirit and that we are not to worship him based on the physical. Jesus also recognized that the Spirit world is more powerful than the universe we live in, and that he himself is from the Spirit world. Jesus did die in order to help us enter God’s kingdom. And the flesh can corrupt us into doing evil.

However, the Bible takes a more balanced view of the physical world than the Platonists do. The physical world is created by God who called it “good” not corrupt. The perfect humans, Adam and Eve, were both flesh and spirit, and completely pure that way. There is no evidence in the Scripture that Jesus was not fully human, even as we are, and pure and innocent in that humanity. While the flesh can corrupt, as Paul said, it is not the flesh alone that corrupts us, but our determination to live out of balance with the flesh—to be obedient to our corrupt desires instead of God. God created sex, he created grapes, he created food, and he wants us to live in pleasure with these things. God also created limits so that we can live in the flesh, but in purity—through marriage, sobriety and moderation.

The physical world is the source of our good acts, as well as evil. It is in the physical world that we give to the poor. It is in the physical world that we love our families. It is in the physical world that we bow down and worship God. But most of all, the paradise that Jesus promises us is not a world of pure spirit. Rather, the cornerstone of his future promise is that we will be resurrected from the dead—we will not remain spiritual, but we will become physical again in God’s perfect utopia. In that time, our bodies will be incorruptible, pure, holy and completely physical.

Jesus also made it clear that what our bodies do is a reflection of our spiritual life. Thus, our moral life is not just in our minds, but equally in our actions. It is not enough for us to have the right motivation, even if we do the wrong actions. Rather, our motivation is shown by our actions. Our morality is based on the life of Jesus. Jesus’ life is not just the pie-in-the-sky ideal, but it is the paradigm for our physical life. We can—and should—be as willing to obey God, as willing to trust in God, as willing to surrender ourselves for the needy as Jesus was. This is our goal, and the purpose of our lives.

Monday, October 18, 2010


A quote from Survival Guide To Homelessness:

Let me give you an example of a successful bloodless conflict. I was packing up a storage unit one day, and I had only that day to finish. In the same facility a man was screaming at his soon-to-be-ex-wife on a cell phone, and creating an atmosphere that I found intolerable. I decided to stop this guy from yelling. I yelled at him forcefully, Hey! Shut the hell up!

Well, predictably this brought the man's wrath toward me. He started yelling at me and making aggressive gestures, and at that moment I did something he could not have expected. I submitted. I wimped out. I apologized and said I should mind my own business. I backed down.

Now, the soon-to-be-ex-wife was no longer on the phone, so he couldn't yell at her. He had no way to yell at me, or continue to bring a fight to me, because I had backed down. He grumbled and muttered and hurled a few insults at me, but he stopped yelling and I got back to work in blissful quiet. Understanding the nature of winning, the precise goals I was trying to achieve, allowed me to give my opponent the illusion that he won while I got everything I wanted.

And no one got hurt. Always seek the scenario in which no one gets hurt.