A few days ago, a devout Roman Catholic told me that I was “awfully progressive for a Baptist.” I suppose I am. And if you are reading this, you likely are too. Many of us have known nothing but theological wrangling our entire lives. The simple word “Baptist” associates us in the public mind with the worst sorts of intolerance. How refreshing to simply lay down our dogmatic burdens and agree to study war no more.
This option is especially appealing when there are serious scholars like the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan who write readable books for non-specialists. Liberal Christianity bids us follow a Palestinian prophet who levels the walls that divide us by teaching unflinching love, economic justice, radical hospitality, religious tolerance and the forgiveness of enemies.
The liberal Jesus is the supreme example of a life well-lived and the personification of self-giving love — precisely the qualities that conservative evangelicals, including most of the Baptist world, appear to have forgotten.
But the liberal Jesus was a simple Jewish peasant. He is not divine. John Dominic Crossan fancies that Jesus was illiterate. Which raises a question that surfaces repeatedly in the gospels: where did a mere mortal get all this?
The liberal answer is that Jesus was a religious genius who churned out spiritual wisdom the same way Mozart churned out symphonies.
Advent is a season of miracle. I’m not talking about angels sweetly singing o’er the plain or wandering stars on the eastern horizon or a “virgin birth”; I’m talking about the central claim of our faith: “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.”
Don’t let the poetic familiarity of the language fool you, this is an audacious claim. Christians believe that God looks and loves like Jesus.
Liberals have three compelling reasons for walking back the Christian doctrine of incarnation; the first is empirical, the second is theological and the third is moral.
The empirical argument
Miracle stories may abound in the Bible, fairytales and Hollywood fantasy, but that’s just for fun. In the real world, as scientists currently understand the world “real,” miracles don’t figure. Liberals work hard to make Christianity immune to the acids of empiricism. Their brand of faith is grounded in the lived world of everyday experience, a realm that science can’t touch.
And if the contemporary world is miracle-free, liberals argue, the signs and wonders recorded in scripture are best regarded as pious fictions. Sure, Jesus probably healed some sick people. The mind-body connection is extremely powerful and Jesus had a profound effect on people. But he didn’t walk on water, turn the water into wine, or still raging storms with a word.
Miracles muck up the works, liberals argue, by forcing people to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Why not cut out the magical baggage while preserving all the good stuff?
The theological argument
Liberal Christians assert that miracles are a sorry substitute for faith, and the Bible generally agrees.
Jesus heals the sick, then charges them to keep it hush-hush.
Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation to gain a following via signs and wonders.
Jesus ignored those who “demand a sign.”
Jesus met Herod’s desire for just one little miracle with disdainful silence.
When would-be disciples worked miracles in Jesus’s name but rejected the law of love he said, “I never knew you.”
It took a miracle to transform Saul into Paul, and the book of Acts describes the Apostle as a miracle worker. But in the rambling letters from the pen of the world’s first theologian, grace is the only miracle that matters. Mountain-moving faith and the tongues of men and angels are of no consequence apart from love.
And yet, despite all their inherent problems, miracles sprang up wherever Jesus went, even when he didn’t want them to. “The kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus said, and earth is hopelessly tangled up with heaven.
When the word becomes flesh, miracles abound.
Liberals like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are a lot like us battle-weary Baptists. They learned to love the God revealed in the face of Jesus as children and refuse to let go of this God even after they have effectively placed the existence and nature of God beyond human knowing.
But you can’t get from a merely human Jesus to God in heaven. That bridge has washed away. We Boomers may not realize it, but the Millennials do and they are abandoning our sensible religion even faster than they are fleeing fundamentalism.
The moral argument
If Jesus is truly “the only Son from the Father,” all non-Christian religious traditions have been banished to the ash heap. Conservative Christians don’t have a problem with that, but liberals do.
And they should.
There is something unavoidably exclusive about the Christian doctrine of incarnation. And we shouldn’t be surprised if pious Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and religious skeptics are offended by the notion.
It is also true that non-Christians are frequently attracted to the loving, forgiving, non-violent Jesus of liberal Christianity. Thus, liberal Christians present themselves as a bridge of tolerance to the non-Christian religious world.
If only it were that simple.
The remorseless logic of Christian liberalism requires that the truth claims of all of the great world religions must be viewed with equal skepticism. They are all helpful ways of navigating the jagged reefs of human existence, of course, but they don’t tell us much about ultimate reality.
All religious people think their group holds the keys to heaven (or Paradise or Nirvana). If you rule out transcendence at the outset, no devout Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu would want to join the conversation. Why bother?
The New Atheists want people of faith to embrace agnosticism for the sake of world peace. Sorry, it ain’t happening.
And no form of theological Esperanto can feed the spiritual hunger that’s hardwired into the human psyche.
So, in this holy season of Advent, let’s stop wondering if Jesus really was God and rejoice that God looks and loves like Jesus. I don’t understand it, but I believe it with all my heart.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.