For all sorts of legitimate reasons, many conservative Christians are suspicious of mainstream institutions of higher education, particularly those institutions that have departments devoted to the study of theology or religion. So often it seems that pastors, churches, and denominations are corrupted by the learning or the liberal agenda that flows out of these places. Frequently men and women who seem to be solidly orthodox Christian believers enter a seminary or university and leave several years later with little left of their faith. Numerous leading liberal theologians grew up in evangelical or pietist homes, all following the same sad story.
Given such history, thoughtful Christians reason, why attend these schools at all? There is virtually nothing to gain from them, and yet there is everything to lose. Better to ignore what the liberals are doing and only read books or associate with people who make an unofficial list of approved sources.
There is a significant degree of plausibility to this reaction, but ultimately it is fraught with danger. It is not that the story told here is false. On the contrary, in the case of far too many pastors and theologians it is tragically true. However, the conclusion drawn from it is false and ultimately damaging to the truth. Let me provide several reasons why.
First, it is the very withdrawal from the academy, and the refusal to engage it constructively (and critically) that makes conservatives so vulnerable to it. If I sit in church for 18 years, attend a Christian college, and perhaps even a Christian seminary, and am never forced to take liberalism’s arguments seriously, by the time I get to a liberal university or seminary I am extremely vulnerable. My version of Christianity will be built on an untested foundation and my account of liberalism will be a caricature rather than the reality. I might enter the classroom determined to stand up for my faith, but I have no idea what is coming. My cardboard faith will easily be cut to shreds.
On the other hand, and second, it is engagement with the academy that makes orthodox Christian theologians so effective. Think of John Calvin or, more relevant to our time, J. Gresham Machen. These men were powerful and persuasive (and their theology was deep) for the very reason that they took their opponents seriously, and wrestled with the foundations of their own commitments. They acknowledged the most troublesome challenges to the Christian faith, and respected them enough actually to try and understand them and demonstrate why they were wrong. Just think of Machen’s defense of the virgin birth. Would the church have been stronger had Machen never gone to Germany to study in the world of Protestant liberalism?
Third, and perhaps most controversially, we actually do have something to learn from liberal theology. Yes, I can read Schleiermacher, or James Cone, or Paul Tillich, and learn something about the gospel that I would be far less likely to learn if I only ever read conservative theologians. Let me illustrate from my own experience.
One of the efforts I determined to make a few years ago was to take liberation theology seriously enough to engage it. I read much of the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone, wrestled with their claims regarding Scripture and history, and considered thoughtfully their criticisms of traditional expressions of Christian thought. I noted where they disagreed with mainstream conservative theologians, and why, much of the time, they were wrong to do so.
Then something surprising happened. I looked up what older theologians like John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine had to say about many of the same matters, and found that not infrequently they agreed more with the liberal theologians than with contemporary conservatives. Repeatedly I found that Gutierrez and Cone offer criticisms of conservative thought that were right on the money, and that would have been shared by some of the greatest (and most orthodox) theologians in church history. That was an eye-opener.
For instance, seeing how seriously Gutierrez takes Scripture’s teaching regarding the poor and the oppressed woke me up to how casually conservative Christians usually use (or ignore) these texts. Where a conservative might spiritualize the beatitude regarding the poor in Luke 6, Gutierrez refuses to do so. Whereas a conservative might describe those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” or who are persecuted for “righteousness’ sake” as those who yearn for justification or are believers, Gutierrez demonstrates that these verses actually refer to a basic yearning for justice, and to the suffering experienced by those who fight for the cause of the oppressed. And in every one of these cases, when I turned to Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, I found him closer to the interpretation of Gutierrez than to the assumptions of many conservative Christians. Without Gutierrez I would not have noticed that.
Or take another example. James Cone’s most poignant criticism of “white theology” is that white American theologians have interpreted the Bible in such a way as to maintain the economic and political status quo. For instance, Presbyterian theologians defending the spirituality of the church in the 19th Century ensured that biblical teaching would not challenge racial slavery, and deferred to the interests of slaveowners rather than leading their congregations to discipline those who abused their slaves. Cone sees this, and he demonstrates how theologians can allow their own social interests to dictate their reading, interpretation, and proclamation of Scripture.
While Cone’s rejection of traditional Christian theology goes too far, far too much of his criticism of conservative American theology is legitimate. I discovered this when I turned to James Henley Thornwell’s defense of slavery. Although Thornwell claimed that his arguments rested on Scripture alone, he argued that loving your neighbor as yourself does not require asking yourself whether or not you would want to be a slave, and he insisted that racial slavery was defensible based on the conclusions of science regarding the slower development of the African American race. Read in the context of theologians like Thornwell (or R. L. Dabney, who viciously opposed allowing blacks to serve as Presbyterian pastors or elders in white churches) James Cone is humbling in the best sort of way.
These are just a few examples. I could provide many more. The reality is that it is easy for conservative Christians to fall into a ghetto mentality, a form of fundamentalism that makes it difficult for us to perceive our own errors. Reading those we regard as our opponents, and loving them enough to take their criticisms of our positions seriously, can help us to escape this mentality. It can force us to re-examine our own assumptions and commitments in the light of Scripture. It can remind us that to be conservative is not to be Christian. Sometimes the liberal position is actually the Christian one.
We should not imagine that our preaching is somehow improved when it simply reflects the assumptions of conservative fundamentalism. It is not good for the cause of Christ when the poor come into our churches and notice how slightly we pay attention to what Scripture says about their plight. It is utterly disastrous when an African American visits a Presbyterian church in Atlanta and hears the white pastor declare that Ephesians 2 has nothing to do with racial reconciliation. Far too often I have heard the full gospel of Scripture reduced by a conservative pastor to a few cliches of piety rendered unthreatening to American middle class apathy. Yet when we only read or engage our own people, this is often what happens.
We may think that the dangers still far outweigh the gains of engaging the academy, and there is no doubt that for many individuals this is in fact the case. I would never encourage a Christian with no theological training at an orthodox school to enter a liberal school with an open mind. But Christians can never abandon the academy. We need our sharpest critics. We have much to learn even from those who abandon the Christian faith (and who are well aware of the areas in which we are most hypocritical). We must continually allow ourselves to be challenged: are we really following Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Are we really proclaiming the whole gospel?
Obama critics are beginning to talk about the president’s former membership at a church pastored by the infamous Jeremiah Wright. At the American Interest Peter Berger has a nice little post explaining the connections between Wright, black theology, and the broader stream of liberation theology. In our little Reformed (or Evangelical) cocoons it is easy to forget how prominent this version of Christianity is in certain circles. Conservatives tend to assume that everyone realizes it is not “real Christianity”, and they therefore reject it outright. We all know, after all, that Jesus was not a Marxist.
In reality, there is much that can be learned from liberation theology, insofar as it offers a critique of versions of Christianity that pretend that God cares nothing about justice, righteousness, or liberty for the poor and the oppressed. Indeed, liberation theology helps to remind us that the kingdom is about these things too. To be sure, Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and does not advance by the sword or by politics, but that does not mean it is any less concerned with justice.
In fact, I would suggest that Berger understates the contribution of liberation theology somewhat. Berger writes,
Where are the liberationists right? On one point only: The New Testament sources make clear that Jesus was indeed concerned with poor and marginalized people… I, for one, am willing to concede that Jesus can be plausibly said to have had a “preferential option” for people outside the elite (including the tax collectors, despised henchmen of Roman imperialism) – apparently he sought such people out wherever he went.
Actually, more than that needs to be said. Jesus described the gospel of the kingdom in terms of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, and most New Testament scholars recognize that he was not using these terms metaphorically. For that reason the proclamation of the gospel should have at its very core hope proclaimed for those who suffer in this age, if they will find their salvation (and repentance) in Jesus. The gospel does not simply address the human relationship to God (i.e., piety); it also addresses relationships between human beings (i.e., justice, or righteousness). Many conservative Christians fail to appreciate how central liberation is to the gospel, and I cannot help but think that this is part of why the poor and marginalized don’t often appear in our middle class churches.
All of that said, Berger’s more basic point, noting the real problem with liberation theology, is right on the money.
Where are the liberationists and their sympathizers wrong? Very few New Testament scholars would agree that Jesus’ “good news” was a program of social transformation here and now; it was the proclamation of the coming of a supernatural order in which the reality of “this eon” would be totally transcended.
In other words, while it is true that Jesus proclaimed a gospel of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed, the fullness of the kingdom is not yet. As he worked hard to show his disciples, the Messiah must first suffer and go to the cross, and after he is raised up, the gospel must yet be preached to all nations. In other words, because today is the day of salvation, for now Jesus comes as a suffering servant not as a conquering king. Christians are likewise to witness to the justice and mercy of the kingdom (which is the main reason why we have the diaconate), but in the age of the gospel we do so in a context of suffering service. The servant is not greater than his master. We need to be willing to take up our cross, and follow Jesus.
In that sense, therefore, liberation theology is guilty of what we might call an over-realized eschatology. But it is not wrong in highlighting the liberation that is central to the reality of the kingdom. Most Christians could afford to think a lot harder about the implications of the gospel for our treatment of people less well-off than ourselves. Most churches could work much more diligently to bear witness to justice and mercy in their congregations. Jesus cares about this stuff, he talked about it a lot, and it was at the heart of what it meant for him to take up the form of a servant. The church should not be any different. The servant is not greater than his master.