You may wish to read my earlier post, God is/is not Conservative

It’s only fairly recently that “liberal” became a bad word in the United States.

After all, the US is the ultimate liberal experiment–born of the Enlightenment, about freedom, choice, individualism, democracy, mobility, progress, rule of law, innately tied to capitalism, Protestant in ethos if not actual religion. Once, not so long ago, only musty grumblers and moneyed royalists would dare not to think of themselves as liberal.

Things have changed–mainly in how we use the term liberal. In our red vs. blue, elephant vs. donkey world, today’s conservatives are very much classical liberals, probably more so than Bernie Sanders. Note the cognates with libertarians or Falwell’s college.

A God of Freedom

To the degree that we want to paste today’s terms on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who took flesh in Jesus, it isn’t hard to make a case that this God is very liberal.

God is about freedom, liberation, setting people free, pushing back on rank and status, urging a world without poverty and disease, giving opportunity, valuing every person. The story of all stories in what we Christians call the “Old Testament” is the Exodus–God bringing the Hebrew slaves to freedom.

In Jesus Christ and the subsequent New Testament, the freedom that God brings includes freedom from guilt and sin, fear and evil, even death. The Apostle Paul proclaims that in Christ we are free from legalism, rules, and moral compunction. “For freedom, Christ has set you free.”

We also understand liberal to mean generous, openhanded, unsparing. These terms don’t so much describe God as much as it is God who defines these terms. God who “did not spare even his own Son, but gave him up for us all and will he not give us all things with him?” is the source of all generosity.

To be liberal is to be hopeful about the future. It is to dare, to reach and risk, to experiment. This too seems in line with following Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is among us, moving, working, creating, wooing and pulling all things toward their hallowed destination. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the future is always bright or that our path is only upward and onward. But as people fueled by apocalyptic energy, we have a deep and undying hope. How very liberal.

Freedom? Meh

But honestly, we Christians have always been a bit uneasy about freedom. I’m not yet decided if that’s because God has some reservations about freedom, or if it is more of our own hang up.

Every elementary school civics discussion has pushed the truism of “freedom for” rather than “freedom from.” Calvinists should feel at home in such discussions. And given our less-than-rosy understanding of human nature, we worry, “Can people–will people–use their freedom rightly?” Does liberalism have a misplaced hope and trust in human capabilities? Many have said so.

We (Christians, generally. Calvinists, specifically) probably still have some lingering nostalgia for hierarchy, too–usually unspoken but sniffable. Freedom too easily equals rabble.

Moreover, the individualism that goes hand in hand with freedom might give Christians pause. Many have argued that Christianity is the impetus for the valuing of and respect for individuals, the seed that birthed human rights, the story that bestowed divine fingerprints and heavenly love on all human flesh. Still, the Bible is a story about church, tribe, a people, a great multitude that no one could number, where individual stories flow into a greater story, where we are supporting actors not stars.

In all of these ways, we might say God is not liberal. Or at least, Christians are wary of being too liberal.

Or maybe this?

Yet, for me at least, we still have not quite gotten to the nub of it.

To be liberal is to have vast vistas, an openness, an airiness. In this there is inclusion, grandeur, and expansiveness. But with that also comes something deracinated, ethereal. There is difficulty with the particular, the local, the concrete, those things that don’t seem to melt in the melting pot. I think of John Lennon’s paean to peace, Imagine. While many say it is inspiring, I find it blank and bland.

Among those things that have not melted well in the melting pot are Jews and Jesus. Sympathetic liberals might say Jews and Jesus are among the best in the genre of mythos, humanizing folkways. The less obliging might call them vexing leftovers of superstition and ignorance.

I came across this, “The incarnation means that the word ‘God’ can no longer be equated with the essence of reason or life or power. God is not what we think he might be or should be. He is the God who wills to exist in his revelation to human beings, Jesus Christ.” (It was attributed to Karl Barth, but it was on Facebook so it might deutero-Barth, pseudo-Barth, or Ruskybot-Barth).

Liberalism is more comfortable equating god with reason or being or essence or life force. Meanwhile, a God with an inexplicable crush on an obscure Semitic tribe, a God who took flesh, died a criminal and rose to new life, a God who is three yet one, and one yet three–all this is difficult to fit in the vast airiness of being liberal. Such a God appears so small, odd, and parochial. So unable to address the human condition, to be universal.

Yet as Christians, we claim that in these peculiarities there is freedom, inexpressible vastness, the source, the destination, and the hope of the universe.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

5 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    There is much to think about here. Well done. In many ways, God can be described as both liberal and conservative. He cannot be described as leftist.

    I agree: “Imagine” is just about the worst song ever written. Right up there with Baby Shark.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Marvelous. And I’m with you and Marty on Imagine. Very clarifying. So what we have in the US are Christians who are, historically speaking, very liberal politically (more Jeffersonian than Federalist, more Tom Paine than Edmund Burke) who regard themselves as conservatives, but this conservatism is actually theological, generated by the debate between modernism vs. fundamentalism, especially over the interpretation of the Bible. So political Jeffersonian liberalism mixed with personal ethical and Biblical-hermeneutical fundamentalism when injected into civil religion gets thought of as Conservatism, which is weird. Even more weird is that this “conservative” movement supports Supreme Court justices and cabinet officers who hold to a primacy of the president and his exemption from law beyond anything in John Adam’s Federalism, which suggests the dangers of Jeffersonian liberalism when mixed with Biblical conservatism. Only in America.

  • Tom says:

    Today’s conservatives are “probably” more classically liberal than Bernie Sanders? that’s an understatement of gigantic proportions (note: Donald Trump is NOT a conservative).

    You are correct that the meaning of liberalism has shifted – flipped on it’s head, really. ‘Progressive’ is a much better term for today’s political ‘liberals’. Conservative, too, is a difficult term because it’s a predicate without a subject – conserving what? Conservative means something very different in today’s US than it does in Iran or the former USSR or the Jim Crow south.

    In reading your essay, I would find it helpful if you ended your first section by stating which definition of “liberal” you’re using the rest of the way. So, does the statement “we might say God is not liberal” mean we might say God is not ‘progressive’ or that God is not a ‘classical liberal’? This reads very differently under one definition than under the other.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thank you for this pair of essays, Steve!

  • Daniel Carlson says:

    Yes, thanks, Steve, for this doublet and especially for introducing a very helpful word into my lexicon: deracinated.

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