I’ve been mulling over this post for a while now: an attempt to articulate a Christian faith that is liberal, a faith that centers on the generous freedom that comes from the Christian story. When I say a “liberal faith,” I do not mean “of a liberal or progressive political party,” because I am a political independent. I also do not mean “of the progressive faith movement,” although I identify with a lot of what is in that space. I mean liberal in its etymological sense: liberal comes from the Latin word liber meaning “free,” hence the freedom mentioned above. Think of our word “liberty” as a reference. More than that, liberal can mean “given, used, or occurring in generous amounts,” as well as “not strictly literal or exact.” With this etymological background and these two definitions on the table, I want to make the case that Christianity can be a liberal faith.
Jesus says in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That is to say, humanity has found its freedom in Jesus. That freedom is rooted in a Heavenly Father who heaps generous grace on us (see the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15). Yet, this gracious God-who-became-man cannot be hemmed in by any exacting, man-made theological construct. It’s impossible for humans to fully comprehend the eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, self-sacrificing God who created them, just as it is impossible for a slab of marble to fully comprehend the sculptor who works on it. Instead of an exacting theology, the Christian faith can be a liberal faith because it is based on a love that is free and freedom-giving, a grace that is inclusive and generous, and a God that is bigger than the reach of any theological framework. This post is the case for that kind of liberal faith.
The story and power of Jesus is cosmic, intimate, substitutionary, and creative, and it comes together as a gift of freedom and inclusivity through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. If “through [Jesus] all things were made” (John 1:3), then the whole universe is from Him. If God knits each human together in the womb (Psalms 139:13), then every human, the billions who have walked the earth over the millennia, are intimately His creation. If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24), then that really means all people. All have sinned. All are justified. Through Jesus. And finally, if God is making all things new (Revelations 21:5), then the entirety of the universe, from the farthest reaches of space to the joys and frustrations of our households, is included. This gift is the all-encompassing, liberal, free and freedom-giving, perfect and perfecting, cosmic, intimate, substitutionary, creative, scandalous love of God.
This kind of liberalism can also be applied to our reading and understanding of the Bible. The Bible should be read with an openness to the glory and freedom found in its pages, including recognizing its supernatural ability to change hearts and minds and lead us into deeper relationship with God. But the Bible also needs to be read with a generosity toward its contradictions and significant issues (slavery, violence, and patriarchy, to name a few). My main point, and probably the most contentious point I make in this whole post, is that the Bible does not need to be the inerrant Word of God for it to still play a huge role in the Christian life. We can still believe that God breathed His Spirit into the words of the imperfect Biblical writers (all ~40 of them) as well as acknowledge that the Biblical writings can have a supernatural impact on those who read them – without being “strictly literal” in our interpretation of the Bible. As discussed earlier, no theological framework can contain God – including not a literalist framework. Furthermore, if God was moving and working in Biblical times, and He breathed His life and love into the words of the myriad writers of the Bible, is He not also able to move and work and inspire throughout history – and even today? The same Spirit that was moving then is moving now, right?
Let me try to explain more on this from a personal perspective: I hear God intensely in the books of the Old and New Testaments, and I’m so thankful for how the Bible has shaped my heart, mind, and life. But I also hear God in the words of Aristotle and Plato and St. Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Ávila, as well as John Milton, William Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and T.S. Eliot. I explore Him in the worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle. I read Him in the pages of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead. I find Him in the messages of Henri Nouwen and Peter J. Gomes and Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey and Steven Furtick and Eugene Cho and Jay and Katherine Wolf. I find Him in the antiracism of Ibram X. Kendi and the poetry of Amanda Gorman. God shows up in the music of Passion and Hillsong and Elevation Worship and Maverick City, but also in Jon Batiste’s work from Soul, Justin Beiber’s recent Freedom EP, and Chance the Rapper’s lyrics. I find God every Sunday in the worship and message from our local, non-denominational church that we watch on YouTube due to COVID. And more, I find God in the smiles of my kids, in the love and patience of my wife, and in the gift of our extended family and friends! I mean, come on! The Spirit of God is still anointing words and moving hearts and changing minds and rewriting eternities today and everyday, right? God is still revealing Himself in every moment of every day in every corner of the universe, right? This is what a liberal view of the Bible can look like, and how that liberty, that freedom, can provide sustenance for a liberal faith.
So what then? What action steps come with a liberal faith? I would say that I have a responsibility – as a 30-something, middle-class, college-educated, white, cisgender, heterosexual, politically independent, Christian male – to center every generation, every economic class, every education level, every race, every gender, every sexuality, every political persuasion, and every religion in my day to day discourse and living. And then, amidst that liberal equity, I have a responsibility to tell my circle about the perfect and perfecting love of God made available to us through Jesus. The task, however difficult, is to “preach the Gospel at all times, [and], when necessary, use words” (St. Francis of Assisi). If God is in the eternal process of making all things new, that means He is making every generation, every economy, every educational institution, every systemic racial reality, every gender identity, every sexuality, every government and political party and voter, and every religion BRAND NEW. Everything is being made new. There’s that saying that you invite Jesus into your life to change a few things here and there. But then He comes into your life and renovates the entire house – replacing every wall, every door, every window, even the foundation. New. New. New. Everything, brand new.
It’s in this renovation by grace – through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – that the gates to Heaven are swung wide. Brennan Manning writes, “Will we ever understand the gospel of grace, the furious love of God, the world of grace in which we live? Jesus Christ is the scandal of God” (The Ragamuffin Gospel). The songwriter Cory Asbury writes: “Oh, the overwhelming, never ending, reckless love of God.” The liberal, free and freedom-giving, generous, untamable, cosmic, intimate, substitutionary, creative, reckless, perfect, and perfecting love of our Heavenly Father, given freely through Jesus Christ, is a scandal. God overwhelms every nook and cranny of the universe, running to us to embrace us despite our prodigal independence. This love is available to you and to me and to our loved ones and to our enemies right at this moment. And for eternity.
To quote Judah Smith in a recent massage of his: through Jesus, we are “fully loved by God, fully forgiven by God, and fully free to love and serve one another.” To quote Richard Rohr: “Jesus was meant to be the guarantee that divinity can indeed reside within humanity” (The Universal Christ). A scandal. A liberal faith. But also such good news.