How liberal christians can make people uncomfortable

You might be wondering why making people uncomfortable should be something to aspire to. But as this incisive comic from Adam4D explains upsetting people was a big part of what Jesus did:


This notion is problematic for liberal christians. Many of us profess it. For example, Giles Fraser, the progressive priest par excellence:

[t]he background default position of contemporary culture is wholly secular, and takes religion to be a dull joke. The only effective way to challenge this is for Christianity to reclaim its position as something counter-cultural, and a form of resistance to the dominant assump­tions.

However, on many issues – notably human sexuality – we wind up defending the secular status quo against our co-religionists. In fact, evangelicals and Catholics often criticise liberal christians for having “nothing to say to people that they can’t already hear from Oprah, John Stewart, CNN, or the NYT.” If Christianity has no message that is not a reflection of prevailing secular values then it seems a bit pointless.

So where CAN liberal christians challenge the values of society. Besides the obvious ones like money and the environment, I’d also throw out the following suggestions:

  • Though shalt not steal intellectual property. Theft generally does not pass the social acceptability test but if my friends and acquaintances are anything to this particular kind does. That doesn’t stop it being  theft. Just because the marginal costs of distributing music or films online does not change the fact that creative industries still need to earn revenue somehow. So Philip Pullman is quite right to liken online piracy to ‘reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet‘ and brand it online squalor. Churches ought to be challenging downloaders to contemplate how they would feel if their work was being taken without recompense.
  • Clever meaness.  Saying this makes me a major hypocrite because I love a good gossip and can be pretty snide. However, I’d suggest that celebrating cruelty if it’s sufficiently entertaining is a bad thing. Yet from reality TV to the performances of public intellectuals that’s what we do. Let’s aspire to fear being boring less than hurting others.
  • Alcohol. Binge drinking is a very British sin which: wastes the time and money of public services, puts people in danger and makes city centres no go areas for most people for a chunk of the week. Let’s try and steer our younger adherents away from this gross pastime.

So there are my suggestions. I hope you disagree with at least one of them.

Liberal Christians need to talk about sex

Having lamented conservative Christian’s tendency to overemphasise sexual morality, it is only fair to share the reasons I think Liberal Christians don’t talk about it nearly enough.

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe.This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

A common misconception about Liberal Christianity is that it is less interested in the bible than more conservative traditions. Instead, it does for Protestantism what the reformation did for Catholicism. Whereas the reformers tested the explicit traditions of Catholicism against what the bible actually said, Liberal Theology does the same with the implicit assumptions of the protestant tradition. The problem is that the bible is not actually a massively helpful guide. As this rather tongue in cheek infographic illustrates, the bible is not exactly clear on such things:


The mainstream view derives in no small part from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthions 7: “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command.” But this is about as clear as mud. Marriage is not Paul’s ideal but a compromise for those who can’t manage abstinence. Which is hardly seems like a secure basis for a moral absolute.

So what does “love thy neighbour” mean in the context of sex and relationships? Is it a modified version of the mainstream view opened up to sexual minorities and with more compassion for those who fall short? Is it a free for all? Is it just decided on a case by case basis? Does it involve some new standard?

So what do I think? I don’t know, I’m a Liberal Christian after all. This is the problem. What I do know is that a faith that does not give it adherents – especially the young people raised in it – the resources to think about these questions is endangering its relevance.