The Muddled Thinking of the Liberal Christian

A conversation I had with a family acquaintance typifies the fuzzy reasoning I often encounter with believers of a liberal bent. It began with a post I had written on a March for Life rally, commenting on the contrasting behaviors of the pro-choice and pro-life camps. Taking issue with my comparisons and conclusions, “Jane” engaged me at a social gathering.

Spiritually formed in a church steeped in legalism and judgmentalism, Jane was on a spiritual quest that led her out of that congregation and into a local Episcopal church. The dysfunctions of her past association have made Jane allergic to any absolute moral principle other than “tolerance.”

“Regis, all I got from your post was a one-sided view of the pro-life movement. What about all of the ‘so-called’ pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, terrorize clinic staff, and block women’s legal access into such clinics?”

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“Jane, sadly, Christians have been guilty of incredible acts of violence—the Inquisition, witch trials, the condoning of slavery, etc.—injustices that were in direct conflict with Christ’s teachings. So while Christians who behave badly do so against the Scriptures and the historic teachings of the Church, the incivility of pro-choicers is consistent with a worldview that reveres choice as sacrosanct and dissenters as ignorant rubes needing education or oppressors that need to be silenced.”

Not about to budge, Jane responded: “Well, I can see both sides to this moral dilemma. On each side there are moral and decent people.”

“Yes, Jane, there are sincere and decent people on both sides. I’m sure we could find some atheists who outdo many Christians in altruistic acts. However, those acts do not make the atheist good any more than the lack of acts make the Christian bad. So what is your position in the choice/life debate?”

“All I know is that there are situations when to allow a child to develop to full-term would be cruel to both parents and child. To outlaw all abortions, to me, would create more problems than it would solve. I believe getting an abortion should not be easy, but it should be available in extenuating situations. So you could say that I am pro-choice if strict regulations and controls are applied. ”

“Jane, shouldn’t the issue be plain? If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for abortion is necessary; but if the unborn is a human being, no justification is adequate.”

Conjuring the “seamless garment,” Jane replied:

“You know, Regis, ‘pro-life’ is really a misnomer. Pro-lifers believe in protecting life only within their interpretation of the Bible. If we are to take the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ at face value, then we should be opposed to all killing, including capital punishment, wars, and the killing of animals.”

Stunned by her exegesis, I responded:

“First off, the sixth commandment is, ‘Thou shall not MURDER,’ which is the willful taking of innocent (human) life. Thus, the scope of this command is not ‘killing’ in general, as God sanctioned capital punishment, animal sacrifice, and many of Israel’s campaigns against its enemies.

“I know that you revere love as Jesus taught and demonstrated it. Well, one of the ways he did so was as the Advocate and Defender of the powerless, voiceless, and unwanted. And who today is more powerless, voiceless, and unwanted than the unborn? That is why Christians who take up the pro-life banner in legal and respectful expressions of protest are reflecting the advocacy of their Savior.”

In an abrupt re-direction, Jane replied, “You’re right, Regis, Jesus was an advocate and defender of the victims of society. I wonder how he would stand on the issue of homosexuality today. Gays have certainly been victims of persecution.

“How often have we seen them ridiculed and discriminated against?  I am ashamed to say that in the past I have laughed at the jokes about them and looked at them in disgust. But no more. Because that is not what Jesus would do. I know this because I know him!  Unlike the religious Right, Jesus would have been an advocate for the homosexual—anyway, Jesus accepted people, never condemning anyone.”

“Jane, I will agree with you to a point. Jesus fully accepted individuals, gracing them with the compassion of healing, feeding, and forgiveness. But he never left them in the state he found them. Note that when Jesus told a person to ‘go and sin no more,’ he was expressing judgment against a moral absolute.”

As I settled back in my seat, Jane responded: “If homosexuality is such an important issue and such a grave sin, why was it not specifically forbidden in the Ten Commandments?  Why did Jesus not condemn it?”

I swallowed hard and said, “Jane, if you question the immorality of homosexuality because of its omission in the Decalogue and in Jesus’ proscriptions, do you also question the immorality of things like bestiality, cannibalism, pedophilia, rape, and child abuse?”

Evading the question, Jane responded, “How can we judge the behaviors of others who have struggles that we can’t begin to understand?”

“Jane, you suggest that if a moral constraint is too difficult because of genetic propensities, environmental circumstances, or whatever, it shouldn’t be imposed. Regrettably, the culture has largely bought into that sentiment. Today, as moral responsibility and accountability have become vestiges of a forgotten past, even perpetrators of crimes are being portrayed as victims of bad parenting, bad neighborhoods, and bad genes.”

Jane countered, “How do we know for sure that homosexuality is not a genetic trait?  Maybe homosexuality is just another example of nature’s diversity? I have a very difficult time believing that the majority of homosexuals choose to be that way.”

“Jane, based on design considerations alone, the natural function of sex is reproduction. Since homosexual sex is intrinsically infertile, it is dysfunctional, making same-sex desire abnormal and same-sex orientation unnatural. Every man I’ve talked to who was involved in the gay culture has told me that those who claim the gay lifestyle is not a choice are living the lie. In the words of Paul (Romans 1), they are those who ‘suppress the truth’ and ‘exchange the truth of God for a lie.’”

More pointedly, I added:

“I feel that you have been so burned in the past by legalism, you are hesitant to take any stand on exclusive truth in the name of compassion and tolerance. But truth, by definition, IS exclusive. In that light, the Church is called the ‘pillar of the truth.’ So, while Jesus was compassionate to people, he was intolerant of behaviors and beliefs at odds with moral truth. Out of compassion he gave people what they needed, not necessarily what they may have wanted, with the challenge to correct their wrong thinking and behavior.”

“Regis, since I left my old church I’ve been on an ever-growing spiritual journey. As God and I continue to work out my personal theology, I am always amazed at how often my intuitive (and I believe, Spirit-led) thoughts are affirmed by others. Often, that which I considered original thought, appears in a book, or I hear someone else express it, or I see something in the natural world that illustrates a concept.” (Notice the postmodern themes of personal theology and truth by feelings, experience, and community.)

As I patiently listened, she continued: “The truth I know and accept is just this:  Truth is a person and not a set of beliefs, moral absolutes, doctrines or a creed.  Truth as a set of beliefs is exclusive, but Truth in the person of Jesus Christ is inclusive. I would also like to suggest that the basis of tyranny, like church violence past and present, has been absolute truth.”

“Jane, yes, Truth is a Person, a Person who established a set of truth claims exclusive toward counter claims.”

Interrupting, she said, “Look Regis, to be his followers, all we have to do is look at his life!  It is so very simple. We don’t even have to agree on the words he spoke; his life spoke much more loudly than his words.”

Trying not to look too condescending (and probably not succeeding!), I said:

“Jane, your line of reasoning self-destructs. If we ignore what Jesus said in favor of what he did, we throw out his whole ministry because his life was lived in complete congruence with his words. Also, think about his statement, ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.’ If true, his words are of the utmost importance. If not, he doesn’t deserve our attention, much less our worship.”

At this point, our discussion tapered off as Jane offered no further defense of her position, nor any suggestion that her personal theology had budged. We departed, agreeing to pick this back up in the future. In the meantime, she is in my prayers.

(Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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