A spectrum of Christian dispositions

I have recently been asked what I would consider a “liberal” Christian.

Well, for one thing, although I buck at calling myself as a liberal Christian, I recognize that I am more “liberal” than many others on certain issues. I think from a typical evangelical POV, a “liberal Christian” is thought of as not caring enough about sound theology; this makes me extremely uncomfortable given my hard-won theological views.

Another angle that might help is in evaluating one’s disposition toward traditional teaching. Please allow me to offer a categorization I’ve noticed, most phases of which I feel I have passed through, so bear in mind the probability of personal bias. Also note that I am aware I have not described every variety of Christian belief system.

1) Fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals assume that the main body of church teaching is correct. When they encounter opposition to that teaching, they tend to marshal their most trusted apologists to defend the teaching.
Distrust: All unbelievers and Christians who disagree with certain (varying) core teachings except for on matters not perceived as influencing worldviews.
Boundaries: Uncertainty is strongly resisted. Very stable; those who unwillingly stumble into doubt tend toward a treacherous disillusionment with faith. May become progressive if enticed to begin critical examination of their tradition.

2) Progressive evangelicals hold to the main body of church teaching somewhat more provisionally. When they encounter opposition to that teaching, they more open-mindedly and critically evaluate the evidence.
Distrust: Fundamentalists; anti-Christian secularists except on non-worldview matters.
Boundaries: Certainty is still largely assumed possible and sought out. Tends to be a transitional stage; an overriding “thrill of the hunt” has been aroused. May become post-evangelicals or liberal Christians when core traditional assumptions are rejected and/or the belief forms that highly formulated theology is artificial and limiting.

3) Post-evangelicals have identified a very few core teachings and hold somewhat loosely to others until they are problematized, which they find happens fairly easily. Characterized by a pronounced agnosticism (in the general sense) and distrust of any systematic theology purporting to be based on Scripture/tradition alone. The assumption is still present that the Bible in the main presents an adequate and accurate picture of spiritual reality, but the burden of proof is not as heavily weighted toward the opposition’s side as it is for progressive evangelicals.
Distrust: Strident conservative evangelicals and strident anti-religious secularists in matters of worldview.
Boundaries: Content with or resigned to uncertainty. A potentially stable position for those who are more content with uncertainty, but many move on to agnosticism or liberal Christianity.

4) Liberal Christians are those whose view of God and spirituality is shaped almost exclusively by the ethics of Jesus/the Christian tradition, clinging to no teaching of the Bible or tradition without subjecting it to thorough critical scrutiny. They have (to varying degrees) adopted the conviction that such critical scrutiny has proved virtually all traditional conceptions of the Bible’s origin, nature, and accuracy to have been inaccurate. Typically regard Scripture as fully human and merely reflective or suggestive of the spiritual realities to which its human authors attest, lacking any coherent theme imposed upon it by God. Needless to say, there are at least as many different varieties of liberal Christian as there are evangelicals.
Distrust: Fundamentalists and the more conservative evangelicals.
Boundaries: Bask in uncertainty. Extremely stable.

Please don’t be offended if I mischaracterized your position: just correct it below in the comments! I repeat: This is in no way intended to be an authoritative breakdown of all Christian positions. It’s heavily weighted toward the Protestant side of things, for instance. I just thought I’d throw it out there as a semi-autobiographical description of many of the categories of Christian belief with which I am familiar.

Once again, please pipe up if you have any major critiques. Also, if you could come up with an example of well-known Christian leaders who fall into these categories, please let me know and I’ll include them. Finally, just for kicks, tell me which one you think I am.

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  • I first came across the term post-Evangelical on Michael Spencer’s InternetMonk blog, and it was then that I began to reevaluate where I really stood on the spectrum. I would consider both you and I “post-Evangelicals,” although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I “distrust” all systematic theology; I merely acknowledge its limitations.
    .-= Mike Beidler´s last blog ..Searching for Truth in "The Truth Project" — Lesson 3: Anthropology — Who Is Man? =-.

  • I first came across the term post-Evangelical on Michael Spencer’s InternetMonk blog, and it was then that I began to reevaluate where I really stood on the spectrum. I would consider both you and I “post-Evangelicals,” although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I “distrust” all systematic theology; I merely acknowledge its limitations.
    .-= Mike Beidler´s last blog ..Searching for Truth in "The Truth Project" — Lesson 3: Anthropology — Who Is Man? =-.

  • Thanks, Mike. Do you like my modified wording on the systematic theology point? (Bearing in mind that there are shades of difference with each category.)

  • Thanks, Mike. Do you like my modified wording on the systematic theology point? (Bearing in mind that there are shades of difference with each category.)

  • I think I’d define “Fundamentalists” differently. I see “fundamentalism” as ‘militant adherence to one point of view’ regardless of the Church’s teaching on a specific issue, since that teaching depends entirely upon denomination; or, for the non-denominational, it depends completely upon a single individual’s interpretation and personal study. Fundamentalists also are irrespective of religion as they can consist of Robertson and Dawkins alike. Evangelical fundamentalists, which we’re discussing, definitely lack further thought, but I’d suggest they simply adhere to the teachings of whomever helped “get the saved” rather than “the main body of church teaching” as much of “church teaching” they reject as too Catholic or Eastern. They tend to be very exclusive, frown upon ‘doubt’, and act much more like a cult than part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. (I too used to be in this camp before becoming Episcopalian.)

    I don’t think we can disregard the thinking of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, lumping them into the “fundamentalist” category simply because they hold to the teachings of the church (which you do reference in your note). There’s evidence in Scripture (and from without) that the true faith of the apostles is what has been passed down from person to person, and not merely the text of those individuals.

    • Eric, please do note that I acknowledged a distinctively Protestant character to these categories. I have much less (i.e. zilch) of an understanding of the various subtypes of orthodox Christianity.

      I typically use Fundamentalist (capitalized, but you couldn’t tell in the above post) to refer to a specific group of Protestants, namely any sect spawned by and identifying with the core precepts of the Fundamentalist movement beginning with publication of The Fundamentals in the first quarter of the twentieth century. I agree that “fundamentalism” as a general description of hardline dogmatism applies to more than conservative Christianity.

  • I think I’d define “Fundamentalists” differently. I see “fundamentalism” as ‘militant adherence to one point of view’ regardless of the Church’s teaching on a specific issue, since that teaching depends entirely upon denomination; or, for the non-denominational, it depends completely upon a single individual’s interpretation and personal study. Fundamentalists also are irrespective of religion as they can consist of Robertson and Dawkins alike. Evangelical fundamentalists, which we’re discussing, definitely lack further thought, but I’d suggest they simply adhere to the teachings of whomever helped “get the saved” rather than “the main body of church teaching” as much of “church teaching” they reject as too Catholic or Eastern. They tend to be very exclusive, frown upon ‘doubt’, and act much more like a cult than part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. (I too used to be in this camp before becoming Episcopalian.)

    I don’t think we can disregard the thinking of Orthodox and Catholic Christians, lumping them into the “fundamentalist” category simply because they hold to the teachings of the church (which you do reference in your note). There’s evidence in Scripture (and from without) that the true faith of the apostles is what has been passed down from person to person, and not merely the text of those individuals.

    • Eric, please do note that I acknowledged a distinctively Protestant character to these categories. I have much less (i.e. zilch) of an understanding of the various subtypes of orthodox Christianity.

      I typically use Fundamentalist (capitalized, but you couldn’t tell in the above post) to refer to a specific group of Protestants, namely any sect spawned by and identifying with the core precepts of the Fundamentalist movement beginning with publication of The Fundamentals in the first quarter of the twentieth century. I agree that “fundamentalism” as a general description of hardline dogmatism applies to more than conservative Christianity.