Sam Harris (I’ve referred to him before: he has been debating Andrew Sullivan on the question of whether God exists) places theists on a spectrum of belief. “Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness”, he says:
- “At the center, one finds the truest of true believers — the Muslim jihadis, for instance, who not only support suicidal terrorism but who are the first to turn themselves into bombs; or the Dominionist Christians, who openly call for homosexuals and blasphemers to be put to death.”
(NB. I think this interpretation of Dominionism is a straw man; I’d like to see Harris substantiate it.)
- Next, the ordinary fundamentalists who share the views of the maniacs but lack their zeal.
- Further out, the pious multitudes who disagree with their deranged brethren on “small points of doctrine — of course the world is going to end in glory and Jesus will appear in the sky like a superhero, but we can’t be sure it will happen in our lifetime.”
- Still further out, religious moderates and liberals: “people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.”
Harris comments, “The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism.” In other words, “moderate” Christians are enablers of fundamentalism.
Christian moderates (characterized by their “lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus”) protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals ("who aren’t sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally") deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality.
And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.
(Hat tip, Simen)
I could probably publish a series of posts in response to Harris’s argument, and perhaps I will. But for now, let me comment on a preliminary issue: the use of the adjectives “moderate” and “liberal”. Like most labels, these adjectives are problematic.
The word liberal has at least two discrete meanings.When we use it to describe theology, a “liberal” Christian is someone who denies certain orthodox dogmas (though liberal doctrine is hardly uniform). Liberals typically deny the virgin birth, the ascension, and the expectation that Jesus will someday return to earth to destroy it. They are split on whether Jesus was resurrected bodily (most believe in at least a spiritual “resurrection”), and similarly split on the question of Jesus’ deity. Liberals accept that one can be in good standing with God without having to convert to Christianity.
Liberal has a different definition when we apply it to social and political issues. Here it may include a pro-choice stance on abortion, support for gay marriage, and support for the Palestinian cause coupled with a critical posture toward Israel. If we bear in mind that these are two separate spheres, is becomes possible to be theologically liberal but socially conservative, or vice versa.
Personally, I am consistently liberal in my theology but it’s hard to pigeonhole me on social issues. On the conservative side, I am grieved by the number of abortions carried out in the West (though I seriously doubt that criminalization is the solution), and my sympathies lie with Israel in their dispute with Palestine and the Arab world. On the liberal side, I strongly support complete equality for women — I would not hesitate to vote for a female Pope, if I were Catholic and if the papacy were an elected office — and I also support same sex marriage.
Thus the phrase liberal Christian may or may not apply to me. I tend to describe myself as a “liberal Protestant” because of my theological commitments (or lack thereof!). But I’m aware that the term may mislead people in a society like the USA, where social issues are so hotly contested. Here in Canada, social conservatives are a rather small, marginalized minority. There are no laws restricting abortion; same sex marriage is legal; and there is no political will to revisit either debate.1
I object to the phrase moderate Christian on other grounds. Whether a particular theological position is moderate surely depends on one’s vantage point. If I deny that the virgin birth was a historical event (as I do), evangelicals might characterize my position as radical.
Moreover, I object to the label because moderate would seem to imply only a half-hearted commitment to the Christian faith. Harris derides moderation:
In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.
Thus Harris implies that fundamentalists are the true believers. He’s entitled to his opinion, but of course I strenuously disagree. My convictions are not moderate: I hold to them strongly, in the face of criticism from atheists and conservative Christians alike.
I am a moderate only insofar as I accept that the state must be secular in its orientation. Even then, I deny that secular equals neutral: but I don’t see any practical alternative to the separation of church and state.
The best label for my position unfortunately fails to communicate much to non-theologians. An earlier generation spoke of “critical” scholarship. Critical is the most accurate description of my position: on both theological and social issues, I maintain a stance of critical detachment. And I do so with respect to both the Christian tradition and modern, Western secularism.
Hence the name of my blog — Outside the Box: defying categorization for over forty years. In my opinion, this is a radical — immoderate — position.
1Canada is less liberal than some European countries on other social issues. With respect to drugs, we have yet to decriminalize marijuana, although enforcement is limited. I’ve seen people smoke it on city streets, evidently with little fear of arrest. There’s certainly no opposition to the medical use of marijuana. Even with respect to hard drugs, there are publicly-operated safe injection sites in BC.
Assisted suicide is still illegal here. There has been some debate over the issue, but a few people have been imprisoned (the Robert Latimer case is noteworthy) with no sustained public objection.