Thursday, December 26, 2013

Liberal Theology and its Pantheizing Tendency

Ninety years ago J. Gresham Machen published Christianity and Liberalism (1923).  Machen was determined to show the differences between traditional Christian orthodoxy and self-confessed "liberal" theology.  On every major topic the differences were so vast as to justify the determination that "liberalism" was not Christianity at all but an alien philosophical system.  I think that some of Machen's most poignant words appear in his discussion about God.  I have found these words to be just as true today as they were almost a century ago.  Machen writes:
In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed. In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name “God” is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely great − in the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of “God.” God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God. It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. It has always been with us, to blight the religious life of man. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. (pp 62-63)
The focus on God's transcendence is crucial.  In liberal theology this idea of transcendence is overthrown.  When Machen speaks of liberalism as identifying God with the "might world process" he is not engaging in reckless rhetoric.  This is, in fact, how modern theological liberalism understands the situation.  For example, consider the words of Gordon Kaufman from his work Theology for a Nuclear Age (1985).  Kaufman is seeking to "reconstruct the central Christian symbols" (p. xi) which includes the words "God" and "Jesus Christ."  Kaufman's denial of transcendence and his affirmation for radical immanence is stated clearly:
The theologically significant function of the symbol 'God', we noted, is not that it names an entity or being which we might otherwise ignore or overlook, but rather it focuses our consciousness and attention on that which humanises and relativises us.  The proper criterion for our talk about God, we decided therefore, is not the postulation of some being or reality beyond the world but rather concern with the relativising and humanising activity going on within the world.  (p. 37)
The "pantheizing" tendency that Machen spoke about is also seen in Kaufman's discussion.  Consider these words from Kaufman:
The divine activity which has given us our human being must apparently be conceived now as inseparable from, and as working in and through, the activity of the human spirit itself, as it creatively produces the cultures which make human life human.  (p. 40)
 God should today be conceived in terms of the complex of physical, biological and historico-cultural conditions which have made human existence possible, which continue to sustain it, and which may draw it out to a fuller humanity and humaneness...  Though we understand ourselves to have been brought into being by a complex configuration of factors, powers and processes (physical, vital and historico-cultural), it is appropriate to symbolise and hold all this together in the single symbol or concept, God.  (p. 42)
The symbol 'God' suggest a reality, an ultimate tendency or power, which is working itself out in an evolutionary process that has produced not only myriads of living species but also at least one living form able to shape and transform itself, through a cumulating history, into spirit, i.e., into a being in some measure self-conscious and free, living in a symbolical or cultural world which it has itself has created.  (p. 43)
Machen's argumentation about liberalism's pantheizing tendency are manifestly illustrated by Kaufman's conception of God.  For Kaufman, God is simply the symbol we used to describe the whole evolutionary process.  There is not transcendent Creator and the gap between Creator and creature is erased.  This liberal conception of God has profound implications for understanding Christ Jesus and the gospel message.  Kaufman, again, illustrates this dynamic:
The conception of sin as primarily a kind of personal disobedience or violation of the divine will, and salvation as being rescued from that condition of alienation and guilt, is rooted almost completely in the mythic picture which presents God as a divine king and father, and our relationship to God as the interpersonal and political one of subjects and children.  Similarly, the traditional notion that what is needed by women and men in their condition of alienation and disobedience is God's forgiveness, an act of love restoring them to communion with God, and that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross in some way makes this possible, is a direct expression of this same personal/political picture of human existence and its context.  But, as we noted in chapter III, human life can no longer be understood in terms of such an overly simplistic kind of personalism.  Today we must think of it as emerging out of a long and complex evolutionary and historical development which included creation of both the biological eco-system and a whole complex of socio-cultural systems capable of sustaining human existence.  Moreover, the most profound human problem today is not estrangement from God, as understood in such highly personalistic terms, but rather the steady undermining of the conditions that make meaningful and fruitful human life possible, through our pollution and poisoning of the eco-system, on the one hand, and through social and political and economic arrangements that are oppressive and dehumanising, on the other.  (p. 55)
When the transcendence of God is denied then the gospel message is lost.  There is no personal Creator from whom we are estranged by sin.  There is only the "world process" and our attempts to manipulate it for human flourishing.  This liberal gospel displaces the transcendent Creator and in so doing places humanity as the ultimate value.