Hirsch on “Genuine Christianity” & Liberalism

In The Forgotten Ways Alan Hirsch claims:

What is clear is that genuine Christianity, wherever it expresses itself, is always in tension with significant aspects of the surrounding culture, because it always seeks to transform it. Movements are transformative by nature, so  they do not accept the status quo. On the other hand, theologically liberal Christianity, while sincere, seeks to minimize this tension – that is why liberalism is often called cultural Christianity.

Not being a liberal, I’d like to second Hirsch here. I’d like to, but I can’t. I think this analysis is blinded by a too-abstract assessment of liberalism.

While one might argue that theological/religious/church traditions are defined by their form, this is, at best, only part of the definition. It is true that there are important ways that the liberal tradition within Christianity has been motivated by a desire to “update” Christianity, to make it more compatible with modern ways of seeing the world, to pursue a sort of cultural conformity.

It is also true, as we find in George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine, that the liberal tradition also focuses on religious experience. Within that tradition, according to Lindbeck, church doctrines are understood as expressions developed from experience of God/”the holy”/”the Ultimate”/etc.

What Lindbeck and Hirsch miss in their accounts of the liberal tradition is that there is more to the tradition than these formal stances, whether a stance taken toward culture or toward experience. Precisely as a tradition, liberalism is neither monolithic nor unchanging, any more than its host culture or religious experience is monolithic or unchanging. In the course of its life as a tradition, liberalism has developed some substantive positions that will characterize that tradition even if it drops an experiential expressivist account of doctrine (Lindbeck) or goes counter-cultural (Hirsch).

Dealing more with Hirsch in particular, his argument sounds like a claim that theological liberals don’t do movements because they (liberals) are conservative. Current participants in the liberal tradition – at least in my experience – commonly take themselves to be profoundly counter-cultural. They see the church – or elements of the broader culture – as mired in a deadly conservatism (in several areas) – and work against that status quo. They also take themselves to be driven by their theological commitments.

Because of the diversity within the church and with the church’s host culture, using terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to refer to the stance one takes toward the status quo is not very helpful. Within my United Methodist tradition, theological liberals and theological conservatives are both for and against the status quo, depending on the area of culture or church in view. Theological liberals tend to be against the status quo of denying the legitimacy of homosexual practice, but for the status quo of not allowing operational power for our official doctrines. Theological conservatives tend to be for and against the status quo in ways exactly opposite to theological liberals on this issue.

One might argue that Hirsch’s point can be sharpened by framing these issues a bit differently. Being a theological conservative, I’m inclined to do that. I can see the stances of theological liberals as being in and pursuing conformity with prominent elements of sexual ethics and attitudes toward tolerance and individualistic “freedom of thought”  in the broader American culture. Again, however, just as the church is not monolithic, American culture is not monolithic. They can just as well see themselves as working against the status quo of homophobia and narrow-minded dogmatism in the broader culture.

Conservative theology is, unfortunately, also susceptible to the charge of “cultural Christianity.” While the parts of our host culture we identify with (and wish to conserve) is different than those parts with which the liberals align themselves, there are nonetheless some significant features of our culture that conservatives tend to believe are rightly understood and practiced by our culture. Some folks will readily point to our defenses of consumeristic capitalism and violent militarism as examples.

So is there no solution to this problem? Are theological liberals and conservatives indistinguishable when it comes to standing against culture in a way that generates and sustains gospel movements? I think there are clear differences (though I’d be surprised if those in the liberal tradition didn’t argue with me).

First, I don’t see how a Jesus movement can begin and be sustained without at least some exclusivism. If at the root of things what matters is being moral, spiritual, nice, hip, authenthic – in general, abstract and universal ways, with no necessary connection to the person, work, and story of Jesus, then I don’t see how a such a view is compatible with sustaining a truly Christian movement. Jesus matters. We cannot sideline Jesus – or co-opt Jesus – for the sake of a greater “openness” of “inclusivity.” When I hear some in my own United Methodist tradition proclaiming “Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors” as our operational doctrine (i.e., the doctrine that defines who we are, what we stand for, and what we do), I see exactly that happening.

Second, the Christian tradition as rooted in Scripture is vanity without a really resurrected, currently living and reigning Jesus. Theological liberals used to go with our broader scientifically informed culture and claim that resurrections are pure mythology. While the idea of resurrection or “new life” might make a nice regulative principle, that’s not enough to drive a movement. We can all admit that there are new things, that some of these new things – butterflies, flowers, babies – are really neato, amazing and wonderful – this level of neato, amazing and wonderful isn’t enough to sustain us when it comes to bearing a cross.

I say all this not to discredit Hirsch’s work. From what I’ve read thus far (up to p. 191) I find his work illuminating, important and helpful. But since I inhabit a tradition that over the past couple of generations been largely defined (and deformed) by theological liberalism, I want to stand with Hirsch and stronger arguments that take clearer account of the other views.

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