My favourite heretic

The man who convinced me that Liberal Christianity is Bible-based Christianity is someone I don’t believe to even be a Christian

I started to be won over by the Christian view of the world during my first year at university. And initially I was drawn to the more evangelical iterations of the faith. I attended a church which promoted what it described as a ‘bible based’ vision of Christianity. This meant taking the Bible literally, rigorously adhering to it and avoiding diluting the message within with insights from your own reason or emotions.

This was contrasted, with the fuzzier messages of ‘liberal’ churches whose adherence to the word of God was compromised by their determination not to offend the norms of contemporary society. The inferiority of this version of Christianity was seemingly confirmed by their small and diminishing congregations. One view of Liberal Christianity that particularly stuck with me was Alastair McGrath likening it to a particular kind of Swiss: unappealing and full of holes.

I’d largely avoided considering what adhering to this worldview meant for my view on women and homosexuality. But I was finally forced to, when I read a book by the pastor of my church which made it clear that he considered reactionary opinions on these matters to not only be biblically mandated but an integral part of its message. At that point, the dissonance between my personal sense of justice and what I perceived to be the decrees of the Bible became too much. It was an open question whether my new faith would last much past its first year.

I had decided I could not in good conscience continue to attend my current church. And the option to seek out a more liberal one had occurred to me. However, that seemed unsatisfactory. My image of Liberal Christianity was still as an intellectually dishonest cop-out. I felt there was no point partially accepting the Bible. If it was the message of God, then it should all be true. If it wasn’t, well then it wasn’t.

It was in this context that I came across a video of Scotty McClennan – a Unitarian minister and former director of the chaplaincy at Stanford – talking about his book: ‘Jesus was a liberal.’ I can’t find one I saw but the video below is similar.

I didn’t go looking for it. I think I spotted it while watching a video that was only connected to it by being shot at the same bookshop. It was not something I expected to have a big impact on me. However, the way McClellan talked about Jesus’ ministry was a revelation for me. The point I most remember is McClellan highlighting that Jesus thought it more important to heal people than to observe the Sabbath because “the law was made for man, not man for the law.” Thus a suspicion of religious dogmatism was not corrosive of Christian faith but an integral part of it.

I’d thought of using reason and moral imagination to understand God as something that displaced Biblical revelation. McClellan and others convinced me that they actually complimented each other.

The irony of all this is that having made this journey, I am still probably closer in my theology to the conservative evangelicalism I left behind than to McClellan. As a Unitarian he denies the divinity of Christ, a move which I feel robs the New Testament narrative of much of its power. In fact, I would go as far as to say that prevents him being a Christian because to me Christianity is defined by the notion that God was crucified yet rose again. The crucifixion seems altogether less special if it’s the story of some bloke dying.

So for me McClellan has also become evidence for the
Iiberal conviction that just because someone is wrong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to them.

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