Real Christianity and Liberal Christianity

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Liberal Christianity is like the crusty shell that cicadas leave behind: the shape without the content.

By Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., Executive Editor of The Stream, Oct. 25, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the first piece in our series on Christian Unity.

Jay RichardsYou might find The Stream a weird coalition of incompatible authors. What are lovers of the Latin Mass doing alongside people who raise their hands in church? How do James Robison and Keith Fournier get along so well, when they disagree about so much? Conversely, why do liberal Catholics comport so smoothly with liberal Presbyterians and lesbian Methodist bishops? This isn’t how things are supposed to work, is it?

Look closely for an answer, and you’ll find what faithful Mennonites, Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Catholics, and Russian Orthodox Christians share with each other. You’ll find our source of unity: We think God is real.

This might seem trivial. But many people who identify as Christians don’t believe that. Not really. Not in the common sense of the word “God.”

Liberal Theology

I’m talking of course about liberal theology. I don’t mean Christians who want bigger government. I mean the naturalistic theology that came out of early 19th century Germany. It seeks to “demythologize” the faith (to quote 20th century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann). Any hint of the supernatural gets nipped and tucked and explained away. Liberal theology uses Christian terms, but redefines them accordingly.

You know that story about Jesus multiplying the fish and the loaves? The real miracle, a liberal theologian will tell you, isn’t some silly magic trick. The miracle is that when a young boy shared his lunch, he inspired thousands of others to do the same!

You can find this theology among Catholics, Protestants, and — I assume — Orthodox Christians as well. Attend almost any mainline seminary, and you’ll stub your toe on it.

You know that business about God creating the universe, coming to earth, being born of a virgin, working miracles, dying for our sins, and rising from the dead? For liberal theology, it’s hokum. Only illiterate cave-dwellers and “fundamentalists” could believe all that. These beliefs, as Bultmann put it, are “impossible in this age of electric light and the wireless.”

I’ve never figured out how the existence of a radio proves that God can’t work miracles.

Above Us Only Sky

In any case, the main problem with liberal theology is not that it uses bad arguments. The problem is that it’s not Christianity. Calvinist J. Gresham Machen argued that back in 1923. Although he was staunchly anti-Catholic, he recognized that Catholics were fellow Christians, whereas fellow liberal Presbyterians were … something else.

Liberal Christianity is like the crusty shell that cicadas leave behind: the shape without the content.

The content of Christianity is supernatural. C.S. Lewis put it well. He argued that you can’t remove the miraculous from Christianity

because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.

If what Lewis said is right, then there are lots of people who identify as Christians, who aren’t. In terms of belief, a Catholic who affirms the Apostles’ Creed is closer to a Baptist who does the same, than either one is to a liberal Catholic or Baptist.

From Liberal Theology to Leftwing Politics

I was first exposed to this kind of liberal theology in college. When I was a freshman, a prominent theologian from Harvard Divinity School came to speak on my campus. He claimed that God isn’t a personal Creator of the universe. God is an “imaginative construct.” God is “that which humanizes and relativizes” us. The take home lesson? Since there is no God in heaven to save us from ourselves, he said, all good Christians should support unilateral nuclear disarmament. (It was 1985 and Ronald Reagan was in the White House.)

That’s a nice summary of the whole liberal program in theology. Embrace naturalism, redefine old theological terms and then use them to advance progressivism. (For another example, see Liberation Theology.)


But what’s the argument that gets you from liberal theology to left wing politics? It’s not like naturalism entails progressivism. If I ceased to believe in a God who transcends the universe, I might become an agnostic. I wouldn’t decide the UN was great. If I quit believing that Jesus rose from the dead, I would cease to be a Christian. I wouldn’t conclude that single-payer health care must be a good idea.

Why do liberal Christians so rarely become, say, monarchists or libertarians? There are plenty of unbelievers in libertarian circles. And yet there’s no libertarian equivalent to the National Council of Churches.

Why is it that liberal Christians (that is, naturalists who speak Christianese) are almost always leftists?

Leftover Fragments

Here’s my theory. Almost no one converts to liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity is an off-ramp for some Christians who lose their way. (See Rob Bell.) Maybe they fall prey to naturalism in college or seminary. Maybe a trusted pastor abused them. Or perhaps they like the trappings of Christianity but adopt a lifestyle that contradicts it.

For whatever reason, they don’t bite the bullet and become atheists. They retain vague, Christian moral intuitions and patterns of speech but abandon the Christian view of reality. They are thus left with idea-fragments — the value of the individual, our social nature, the goodness of creation — but nothing to anchor these ideas.

Alas, as G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said, “When man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” So, having abandoned belief in eternal life and the triune God, liberal Christians search for worldly substitutes. They seem to have settled on three: the Self, the State, and the Natural World.

The Worldly Trinity

When it comes to sex and reproduction, the Self is all-powerful. It has the right to destroy innocent, unborn human beings, and the power to turn a man into a woman … just by willing it.

Liberal Christians don’t pursue that logic to the end. If they did, they might end up as disciples of Ayn Rand. Outside that private, pelvic sphere, they give the State jurisdiction. Every moral and social problem becomes, at bottom, a political problem, with a political solution.

But what about problems that affect people outside our borders? That’s where the UN comes in.

The UN is also the chief enforcer of our duties to the only plausible creator that remains, Nature Herself.

Of course, reconciling these jealous deities is a bit … awkward. But how else to explain an ideology that wants a transnational entity to force the extreme individualism of the gender identity movement on Sub-Saharan Africans? Yet that’s where the left, including the Christian left, has ended up. Have a look at the policies of the lobbying arms of most Mainline denominations.

That’s the trouble with false gods. There’s no guarantee they’ll all get along, or give rise to anything like Christianity.

But if you’re a faithful Christian distressed by all the divisions in the Body of Christ: Cheer up! The distance between faithful Lutherans, Pentecostals, and Catholics is minor compared to the distance between real Christianity and its liberal counterfeit.


Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the Executive Editor of The Stream. He is an Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. He is author of many books including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013), and Indivisible (2012), co-authored with James Robison. He is also the author of Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; and co-author of The Privileged Planet with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. His most recent book, co-authored with Jonathan Witt, is The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that J.R.R. Tolkien Got and the West Forgot. He has a Ph.D., with honors, in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary.