Redefining terms: a problematic tactic of Liberal Christianity

When discussing doctrinal issues with liberal Christians (the term ‘liberal’ is here used for convenience’s sake, meaning those who depart significantly from traditional doctrine and/or in practice regard themselves as the final interpretative authority on faith and morals), I have noticed a similar phenomenon to that experienced when engaging with atheists and agnostics – namely that there are several unquestioned assumptions operating in the background of their thought that I have either not noticed or taken for granted. In the case of the atheist/agnostic, these are closely related to the secular project (e.g.; materialism, relativism, and utilitarianism) and are more or less unconsciously assumed – part of the mental furniture, so to speak.

In the case of liberal Christians, the difficulty is not so much a differing mental background (although, in an increasingly secular environment, some of the same ‘isms’ are often assumed here as well) but a redefinition of terms used by Christians of all denominations. These are terms which are properly basic to Christian faith and theology, and so it is quite a surprise to me when, in discussion, I discover that I mean something very different to the person I am conversing with. As to the degree to which this is an unconscious thing on their part, I am not entirely sure – I am fairly certain that their predecessors in the late 19th – early 20th centuries (and again in the 1960’s – c.f.; John Robinson and the ‘Southwark School’ of theology) made a concerted effort to rebrand theological language in this way, but contemporary believers may have just inherited their redefinitions.

At any rate, when lurking in the background of dialogue, it can be very frustrating, but once recognised, enables some representation and refocusing to take place with respect to how one begins to address certain theological issues. I have chosen five examples of terms redefined by liberal thinkers over the years, which, apart from being some of the most common areas of misunderstanding in liberal-orthodox dialogue, also provide a strong sense of the intentions of the liberal theological project overall:

  1. Holiness. This is an elusive concept to be sure, and holiness can indeed be validly invoked when talking about things outside the ecclesiastic remit. However, the liberal tendency is to talk of any aesthetic experience as ‘holy’ – whether this be a favourite natural landscape or a particularly moving piece of music. I have even heard liberal clerics greet the popularity of new age shops as a good thing due to their selling of ‘holy objects’ such as incense (as if there were something holy in incense in and of itself). The sense of holy things being those deliberately set apart – ‘consecrated’ – for divine worship etc is thus misappropriated and undermined. Also, the idea of holiness as connected to God’s moral perfection is often completely absent from the liberal definition.

  2. Sin. Instead of viewing sin as a state of radical separation from God and the deliberate choosing of our own will over and against the known precepts of the divine will, it is expressed as either an existential need for ‘authentic being’ or a feeling of ‘brokenness’ that requires the healing message of forgiveness (where forgiveness really means indifference to wrongs committed). This recognition of sin as introducing a kind of rupture, both in our relationship with God and in our own souls, is a valid point, but is stressed to the point of excluding other core aspects of sin.

  3. Salvation. Because of the redefinition of sin, salvation also becomes a matter of reconciliation or healing rather than justification and sanctification. Again, valid aspects of the salvation process – reconciliation and healing – are overstressed to the exclusion of other meanings central to the gospel, so that our redemption becomes reduced to a kind of religious therapy, making us feel better rather than helping us to see where we have gone wrong and how much we need forgiveness.

  4. Tolerance. The importance of tolerance and moderation is often preached in liberal churches, and these are indeed important qualities for anyone to cultivate. However, in reality, what is being talked about here is an indifference to truth. Whereas it is incumbent on all Christians to tolerate the views of others and even forgive views antagonistic to Christianity, it is also just as important to recognise that such views are wrong in themselves – i.e.; tolerance implies a prior disagreement with the person/opinion you are tolerating. Furthermore, in my past experience, churches that claim to be open, welcoming and inclusive (and so tolerant of all views) are in reality not actually that welcoming if it becomes apparent you hold orthodox opinions re faith and morals – one is only really welcome so long as you share their ‘progressive’ theology.

  5. Love. Instead of seeing love as an act of the will, to will the good of my neighbour even against my inclinations, and to will to change my inclinations so that my neighbour’s good does actually become my desire, liberals tend to see ‘being loving’ as not upsetting people. So, if I know of someone who is living a damaging lifestyle or being led into some unhealthy beliefs, I should just let them be, as long as they’re happy. Thus, exhibiting love (according to the liberal meaning) will often involve allowing evil that good may come of it. This is not only wrong in principle, but it is the mind of the Church that good will not come of allowing people to continue down destructive paths either – if we really love them and wish their good, we will try and relate to them the saving truths of the Faith, and help them to know that true happiness lies in living in harmony with those truths. Loving people sometimes means helping them to change, not indulging their preferences and desires. Also, universalism, common in many liberal churches, rests on a distortion of the truth that God’s love is unceasing and inexhaustible, into a presumption upon that love and the belief that He would therefore thwart our free will. Every opportunity will indeed be given to us to accept His love and choose the path He has laid out for us, but we must accept and choose freely, or we lose our dignity as human beings.

A common theme running through all these redefinitions is the overemphasis of one aspect of a doctrinal or moral truth over and against all others. This has, by and large, been the hallmark of heresy – a too narrow focusing on one feature of a Church teaching until the fullness of that teaching becomes reduced to an easier-to-accept but less rich and challenging version. The doctrines of the Catholic Church are indeed sometimes rather complex, holding two or more vital truths in tension with one another, and it can be very tempting to simplify or attenuate them, especially when engaging an increasingly anti-intellectual and sentimental culture. However, as can be seen above, this leads to an impoverishment of the doctrine in question and renders it unable to answer man’s deepest questions and needs, with all the manifold difficulties involved therein. We are complex creatures, and we need complex doctrines!

An attempt to simplify orthodox doctrine and represent it in a way that may be more appealing to modern man is one reason that liberal Christians have engineered (or for later generations, simply inherited) this redefinition of terms. But another, and not unrelated reason, is that they seek, however desperately to appeal to the present, also to maintain a continuity with the past. By changing the fundamental meanings of traditional terminology, they are then able to talk in ‘orthodox language’ and so seemingly cannot be accused of departing from the tradition. The desire to appear ‘apostolic’ whilst altering basic doctrine in an attempt to cater to contemporary culture (something I have noticed with respect to worship and the sacraments also) seems to be endemic in liberal circles, and has a deeply corrosive effect on the rest of Christendom. For example, in discussions with atheist/agnostic relatives, I am often told that Christians don’t believe such-and-such a doctrine anymore, and the Church has ‘moved on’ with regard to a particular doctrine.

Thus the representation of a secularised version of Christianity as being just as valid an expression of orthodox teaching really hinders positive dialogue about the Faith. Liberal redefinition of terms makes a hard job even harder, as when people critical or sceptical of Christianity see a relativistic and essentially secular presentation of the gospel, they naturally ask

a.) What is the difference between Christianity and the secular worldview really? They share our assumptions; they’ve updated their beliefs; I’m a ‘spiritual’ person too – what’s the real difference?

b.)  Why don’t the rest of them move with the times too? Clearly one can be a ‘traditional’ Christian and give up a lot of that dogma they used to believe in – why are the rest so slow in catching up?

This is a real problem. What the solution to it is however, I do not know.


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