Monday, January 13, 2014

"Liberalism" then and now: Different, but still the same

Trevin Wax has an interesting post examining the great reversal which has taken place in "liberal" Christian circles in the roughly 100 (actually 90) years since the publication of J. Gresham Machen's classic, Christianity and Liberalism. "Liberalism" in Machen's day referred to an aberrant religious system which sought to preserve certain vestiges of Christianity, namely its moral foundations, while casting aside its "miraculoous" or "supernatural" elements. Wax outlines the trajectory of early twentieth century liberalism thusly:

We are living in a scientific age of discovery.
The miracles we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
It is important to maintain the ethical and moral teaching of Christianity.
Belief in the literal occurrence of biblical miracles is not needed to maintain the moral center of Christianity.
If belief in miracles is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize them in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.

Christian "liberals" in Machen's day wanted to advance a society based on Christian morals and ethics but, as Machen so adeptly pointed out, this was a fool's errand. Any number of religions encouraged moral and ethical living. Only Christianity backed up the truth of its claims with signs heralding the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Conversely, Wax observes, the present-day heirs of "liberalism" have done a 180, embracing the miraculous and ditching the morality.
We are living in a tolerant age of enlightenment.
The morals we read about in the Bible were written from another cultural vantage point.
It is important to maintain the miraculous and supernatural events of Christianity.
Interpreting the commands of biblical morality literally is not needed in order to maintain to center of Christianity.
If belief in biblical morality is embarrassing to modern people, we should deemphasize it in order to extend Christianity into the next generation.
I'm not sure I would agree that today's "liberals" (a misnomer today, as it was, likewise, in Machen's day) are anymore favorably disposed to "miracles" than were their predecessors. It would be more accurate to say they have embraced an expansive view of the work of "the Holy Spirit," whom they often credit with leading them into "new truth," that is, a new understanding of morality and ethics unfettered from traditional restraints.

This "Holy Spirit" is not the Third Person of the Trinity which we encounter in Scripture, but an impersonal force whose "leading" today's open-minded "liberals" seem incapable of resisting. As such, they are, in fact, no different from those who came before them. In both Machen's day and our own day, the only "spirit" which guides "liberalism" is the spirit of the age. By any other name, it is, in the words of that great theologian Bob Seger, still the same.