Why I Am Not a Liberal Christian

Communities of Unbelief, Deconversion

I have a confession. I am still a fundamentalist.

I am still a fundamentalist on one issue: the resurrection. The resurrection was my last tenuous grasp on faith. I guarded it against attack as if it were … well, a pearl of great price.

I had long since let go of a literal interpretation of the bible. Genesis? Obviously allegorical. Most of the old testament? Historically unlikely at best. The gospels I thought might contain some of Jesus’ teaching and therefore had value. But Mathew’s description of the events during and after the crucifixion, the dead walking the streets? Nope, no zombies for me.

But somehow, I held on to the resurrection. If nothing else were true, but this one thing it would all be worth it.

You know what would be good evidence for god’s existence?

I took a fundamentalist, literal, take the guy at his word interpretation of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:15-19:

16 So if the dead won’t be raised to life, Christ wasn’t raised to life. 17 Unless Christ was raised to life, your faith is useless, and you are still living in your sins. 18 And those people who died after putting their faith in him are completely lost. 19 If our hope in Christ is good only for this life, we are worse off than anyone else.

I am still a fundamentalist about Paul’s statement. If there is one thing that must be true about Christianity for any of it to be true it is the resurrection as succinctly stated by Paul. If that is not literally true, then the whole of Christianity is not only untrue but a waste of time. Not my opinion, it is Paul’s.

But now I have succumbed to the crushing lack of evidence for the resurrection. I can no longer believe that it occurred. The very moment when I realized that I no longer believed in the resurrection I knew my faith in god was over. There was no going back.

Why I am not a liberal Christian

Here is the thing, there a lots of people who reject fundamentalism and its literal interpretation of the bible but keep some form of faith. The trappings of faith: tradition, ceremony, community and spirituality are useful and meaningful for these people. I just happen to not be one of those people.

Over the years leading up to my deconversion I flirted with various forms of liberal Christianity. I read Sojourners. My politics aligned well and I believed the gospel needed to be a practical love on the streets. I read Rob Bell and Donald Miller. I bandied about the term “emergent church” unironically. I read Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Was I a mystic? Once in a great while I would visit a church with more of an ecumenical bent and less of an evangelical one. But I never found these things satisfying. There was no power in them. There was no Truth with a capital T.

So when my moment of realization came, I no longer believed the resurrection happened, I knew I was an atheist. There was very little equivocation. It never occurred to me to become a liberal theologian and carry on with the trappings of faith. I walked away clean. Well, that is not entirely true, my family members are all still believers so I am sometimes the atheist in church but that is not by choice and may be the topic of a different post.

These days the new hotness is called deconstruction. That is breaking the connection between fundamentalism and faith, letting go of dogma but crucially keeping some parts of faith. But heavily implied  is that reconstruction follows the deconstruction process. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

A very famous example of this is Science Mike, Mike McHargue, who in his book Finding God in the Waves, talks about having faith, losing it and getting it back. Specifically, he comes to understand “God” as the forces of nature that created the universe. Here are his 10 Axioms About Faith.

I am not here to take pot shots at McHargue, I actually have a lot of respect for Mike, but his example is illustrative. I am here to say:

I don’t get it

In the days after my deconversion I was saying to myself, “why bother with a liberal theology?” To be clear I do not believe any gods exist in any way, but for the sake of argument:

  • If god is just the ground of being, should that be worshiped?
  • If god is just the deist clock maker, should that be loved?
  • If god is just the personification of human love and kindness, how is that useful?
  • If god is just the natural forces personified why is “God” necessary when nature is enough on its own?
  • If we all get to define god in our own image (and that is really the story of all of human history), then what benefit is that to humanity?

In short, if god is just these things, then god is not necessary. God is not necessary for meaning, goodness, love, joy, compassion, awe or mystery. We derive these things from each other and the cosmos.

From humanity and nature comes all of the things we hold most dear

So to me, hanging on to a more liberal interpretation of god is not only not necessary it is a detriment. For me, like Paul, it is pitiable. More than just god it is religion that is the baggage. Religion necessarily entails archaic morality, dogmatism and a destructive dualism. Those who are deconstructing I know have a sincere desire to redeem their traditions. I believe it is holding them back. They are unnecessarily starting in the hole. I believe we must let go of the past to move forward.

I recently re-read famously liberal theologian turned atheist, Bart Erhman’s Why Even Bother Being A Liberal Christian. He expresses both the reason it is difficult to let go and ultimately that it is necessary:

Yes, I could have left. But this is the key point: if I left I would have to go SOMEWHERE ELSE. And that somewhere else, in my view, was no better than the place I was leaving. You can’t go from something to nothing. You go from one thing to another thing. And why do that? Only because you can no longer stay where you are.
And so it made better sense to me to try to reinterpret the tradition I was standing within than to adopt an entirely new tradition. That’s why I never was (very) tempted to become Jewish. And not at all tempted to become Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or anything else.
But why be *anything*? The reality is that deciding to become *nothing* doesn’t work. We are all something or other. Someone may think that she or he is bold and brazen and a real pioneer to become an atheist. Really? That is bold, brazen, and pioneering??? As if no one else has done that? As if being an atheist doesn’t involve assumptions about the world, beliefs about where we came from, ideas about what it means to lead a good and fulfilling life? Really?

Until I could not do so any more. I eventually had to stop because the very basis of the entire tradition – the existence of a loving God – itself came under threat for me.

When Bart talks about having no where else to go, I get it. As I have mentioned in my discussion of Secular Grace, we in the communities of unbelief have a long way to go to catch up to the kind of community religion facilitates. “You can’t go from something to nothing.” But eventually, Bart felt compelled to let go.

I had a conversation on Facebook , where the question was asked if the term “liberal Christian” was confusing. To which I responded, “yes!” To me it is confusing to continue to use the term “god” when that has ceased to have objective meaning. Even for those naturalists who are liberal Christians they must deal with the implied supernaturalism.

There is more that needs to be removed from Christianity than needs to be retained. If one takes on the task that Thomas Jefferson took, to remove the supernatural parts of the bible, one is left with a very skinny book. If one removes the archaic morality, one is left with a leaflet that basically says: Be good to each other.

You can be good without god

Let go of that which is holding you back.

This post is a part of the series Communities of Unbelief. I’ll be writing more about communities of unbelief, some I choose not to be a member of, some I identify with and others I have yet to explore.

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