The God Who’s Still There
Why Few Mistake Liberal Religion for Christianity
In his April 6 article, “Ejecting from the Church,” published on the American Spectator’s website, Mark Tooley notes “the liberal--controlled United Church of Christ (UCC) has unveiled its latest television ad, which features an intolerant and presumably conservative church ejecting an ‘African-American mother,’ ‘a gay couple, an Arab-American, [and] a person using a walker.’”
Tooley quotes UCC President John Thomas’s complaint that “there is the generalized sense in the culture that Christianity means a relatively conservative portrait of the Gospel. . . . What people see on television, they hear on the radio, is a conservative to more right-wing view of politics and religion in general.”
President Thomas is, I think, correct when he observes that liberal religion is not viewed in the culture in general as “regular” Christianity. I am often surprised at the widespread assumption that professors of religion are conservative in bent, or that those who wish to enter the ministry and are going or have gone to seminary are motivated by essentially conservative opinions, when so often the opposite is the case—or that liberal churches, simply because they are churches, are home to a traditionalist mindset. Some of this must be related to the notion of the Church as Establishment, as an institution with reliably identifiable values that have given it success and proved of some worth to society over time. What is interesting here is President Thomas’s perceptive comment that those values are normally perceived as conservative.
I doubt, however, this is occasioned by the prominence of conservative Christianity on television and radio. Liberal religion has its own media prominences. Its existence, at least as a religious voice against religious conservatism, seems to be generally known, but, as Dr. Thomas perceives, it has been unsuccessful in convincing most people that it is anything but minority resistance to essential religion, which is by nature conservative.
This common understanding of “essential religion,” I suggest, arises from two sources far deeper than the media could influence, the idea of God itself and the idea of religion that follows it. God is rooted in human consciousness as the One with whom we have to do, and as such appears irreducibly in the common mind as Creator, hence a lawgiver (the first laws that concern us being given with creation). While God may also be merciful, he by definition stands over against man as someone whose nature, expressed in the first instance in his laws, cannot be dictated by human preferences or opinions. Nor, if he exists at all, can he possibly be a nice, liberal God, given the suffering and death in the world.
Since it is clear that liberal religion challenges traditional notions about God, particularly as someone who has given laws religious liberals think unfair and wish to change, there is consequently a general understanding that they have had to alter the definition of “God” to accommodate their convictions about what he should be—but which he very likely is not. Along with this comes a general understanding of the riskiness and futility of this exercise in redefinition—and of the corresponding character of the churches in which this operation is attempted.
The Biblical God
The “conservative” God, while opposable, is impossible to eradicate. He is, as we might say today, hard-wired into human consciousness as such, and in such a way that in order to oppose him, liberal religion must be at constant pains to obscure, denigrate, or circumvent him. The advertisement referenced above is a fine example of this. Its message is that the God of conservatives is cruel, arbitrary, and unjust.
The reason it won’t work to advance religious liberalism is that this corresponds quite well to an understanding of God natural to humanity—along with the intuition that because he is God he has the right to appear this way to us. The biblical God, covered in blood, is plausible; the liberal God is not. What we have in the liberals’ tireless pronouncements against conservative religion is protest against the fearsome and not-to-be-trifled-with God who haunts them not only here, but in general human consciousness, and will not go away.
The idea of true religion as commonly understood, in any environs where this advertisement can hope to be understood, is therefore not only the worship and service of God, but of this particular God. While the average unchurched person may have a profound distaste for church attendance, perhaps for a number of very understandable reasons, these are nearly all based upon what we might call anthropological rather than theological objections.
If the God of the common notion exists, if he is worthy of worship and service, then it had best be done according to his own self-definition, if he has given any, and any prescriptions that may go with it. One may do his best to ignore this God, or may acknowledge him occasionally, and perhaps guiltily, outside the context of “organized religion,” but, once again, if he exists, he is unlikely to be the God of the religious liberals.
Thus the natural constituency of liberal churches is a small and select group: Religious people who are in active opposition to the God not only of traditional religion but of common God-consciousness. The result in the liberal denominations is a phenomenon analogous to the population decline in first-world countries. Those who have retained their religiosity while opposing the old, exclusivist God have not reproduced themselves at a level sufficient to replace their churches’ die-off.
The chief reason for this reproductive incompetence, I suggest, is that the natural result of acceptance of the liberal gospel is not the adoption of liberal religion, but actual or practical atheism, for which church membership is optional. The liberals have produced a God who, once believed in, is soon discovered unworthy of the bother by all but a certain kind of religious -hobbyist—a Cheshire cat God, whose body has long since disappeared leaving nothing but an ingratiating smile—a United Church of Christ kind of God, who hasn’t the strength of character to kick anybody out of anywhere, much less one of his churches.
Most people, most men in particular, simply haven’t the enthusiasm for religion to talk themselves into belief in this deity, or to take up churchgoing as a form of protest against the God they already know.
—S. M. Hutchens, for the editors
“Ejecting from the Church” can be found at www.spectator.org/dsp_article.asp?art_id=9636.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.