“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
That is an audacious assertion; don’t let the poetic familiarity of the language fool you. Christians believe that God looks and loves like Jesus.
I want to believe that. I need to believe that. I choose to believe that.
The other day a woman told me that I was very progressive for a Baptist. I suspect she is right. I am a post-evangelical, a man estranged from my faith tradition. My name is legion. This post is written with post-evangelicals in mind.
Having lost their religion, post-evangelicals are in search of an alternative.
It is very tempting for post-evangelicals to resort to binary thinking. If fundamentalism isn’t working for us, liberal Christianity must be the answer. So we subject conservative evangelicals to a withering critique (which isn’t hard these days) and proceed on the assumption that liberal Christianity must be preferable.
But what if fundamentalism and liberal Christianity are both dead ends? And what if there is no middle ground between the two? Liberals are very good at exposing the fatal flaws in fundamentalism. Fundamentalists can give you good reasons for rejecting the liberal option. What if they are both right?
And what if both fundamentalists and liberal Christians have grown adept at silencing Jesus?
The liberal project has always been about making faith compatible with an unbiased pursuit of measurable phenomena. Liberals want a faith that can live comfortably with the claims of hard science, a religion limited to the realm of normal human experience. All this talk of angels singing sweetly o’er the plain, magical stars moving the eastern firmament and virgins being of child by the Holy Ghost must be cast as poetry or rejected as ahistorical myth making.
Liberal Christianity has big problems with the fundamental assertion of the Christian faith: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we have behold his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
Jesus may have been a son of God in the sense that we are carry a spark of the divine, neither more nor less. Jesus was a religious genius, to be sure. He cranked out wise sayings the way Rembrandt worked with light and shadow, the way Michelangelo transformed a hunk of marble into “David”, and the way Mozart (his love of fart jokes notwithstanding) channeled glory.
Liberals can speak of “miracle” in poetic or metaphorical fashion. When we speak of “God” or “the Son of God” we are really talking about love, compassion and mystery, the little miracles of normal human experience.
But conventional miracles, the kind that appear to conflict with the scientific worldview, are a problem for liberals. And if the world we live in is demonstrably free of miracles, the signs and wonders recorded in scripture must be regarded as pious fictions. The human Jesus didn’t walk on water, turn the water into wine, or still raging storms with a word.
And he most certainly didn’t rise from the dead. If, as liberal Christians believe, Jesus was God’s son in the same way we are, we might as well siphon off the magical stuff so we can retain the love, compassion and wonder?
But why should we value love, compassion and wonder over avarice, power, and cynicism? Because they’re nicer? If Ayn Rand says Christian altruism is weak and despicable, on what basis do we disagree?
Is liberal Christianity worshiping the better angels of human nature while giving up on divinity altogether? I have always suspected so.
The liberal Jesus must not be allowed to be “the only Son from the Father,” because that would privilege Christianity over the world’s other systems of belief (and disbelief). Liberal Christians appear to be searching for a kind of theological Esperanto, a common language of the spirit that will unite a divided humanity.
We honor Jesus because he anticipated (in cursory fashion) our modern ethics of tolerance and diversity. Our theological Esperanto has eclipsed Jesus at many points; but, for a man of his day, he did remarkably well.
That’s not good enough, folks. The horrors of the twentieth century should have unmasked our belief in the essential goodness of humankind. We are not essentially good. We are broken. We need a fixer. We need a Savior.
Hardly anyone is interested in our theological Esperanto. It seeks no converts (that would be oppressive) and wins none. Millennials are even less impressed with liberal Christianity than with the evangelical alternative. The New Atheists prefer fundamentalists to religious liberals—at least the fundamentalists don’t retreat into poetry.
My great fear is that, in white America, both conservative and liberals have largely exchanged politics for religion while neglecting to tell anyone. Most secular white folk are streaming to the blue team while their religious counterparts are signing up for the White Nationalism sponsored by Team Trump.
Meanwhile, hardly anyone in white America is listening to Jesus. We can’t hear him. We can’t see him. When it comes to Jesus, white America flashes the No Vacancy sign.
I generally spend more time critiquing white conservative Christians while ignoring the liberal side of the street. That’s because, for all its flaws, white conservative Christianity is a juggernaut. Liberal religion is restricted to the academy and its environs. It is toothless by design. Simple declarative sentences are bound to offend somebody.
The world needs faith communities organized around the dying words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We don’t know what we’re doing. We elected Donald Trump, for God’s sake. We are weary, embittered, broken, self-loathing sinners in desperate need of good news. And that’s why I have always been in love with Christmas:
Fear not! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David,
A Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!
The season of Advent presents post-evangelicals like me with three options.
Should we retreat to the delicious certainty of the evangelical womb?
Should retreat into the poetry and obfuscation of liberal Christianity?
Or should we peer into the face of this manger Messiah in hopes that he will introduce us to the living God.
Like captive Israel mourning in lonely exile, we post-evangelicals have lost our religion. Let’s just be honest about that, shall we. We’ve lost our religion and we can’t get it back.
There is only one way forward. If the fundamentalists and the liberals have silenced Jesus, we will let him speak. And we will let him speak as “the only Son from the Father”.
This will require the patience, humility and trust that exilic spirituality has always demanded. This is no time for bold declarations and rigid formulas; it is a time to listen in the silence with Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Ana and Simeon, for this Jesus to speak.