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Fall 2000, Volume XV, No. 3 - Jubilee Year
Liberal Christians falsely 'freed' from creeds
by James Hitchcock
Liberal Christianity, now almost two hundred years old, regards creeds as unimportant. It is "liberal" because it has "freed" itself from the past, allowing its adherents to follow Jesus more authentically, a luminous figure who came to teach us the path to virtue, by living as He urged us to live. True Christianity has little to do with doctrine and is almost entirely a matter of conduct.
Of course it would indeed be a kind of heresy to think that we are saved simply by what we believe. We are required to be doers of the Word, not hearers only. But the attempt to emancipate Christianity from its doctrinal heritage has finally shown itself to be a dead end.
This is because no one can make the simplest decision about religion without assuming some kind of doctrine. Why should anyone want to join a church, and which one should it be? Most church-members observe at least minimal practices -- getting married in church, having their children baptized. But why should they?
A social club
It is possible to reduce the Church to a social club, which people join because they like the other members. Then the rituals of the Church become like fraternity initiations -- they don't make much sense, but they serve to define membership. For Catholics and some others, the Eucharist is the heart of religious life. But, again, why should it be? Merely because Jesus told us to celebrate it? Does it have any inherent meaning?
Some people solve this problem by seeing the Eucharist as a communal meal, rather like the family dinner. But then what on earth (and in heaven) did Jesus mean when He said, "This is My Body", or when He warned that no one could enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood?
Throughout the history of Christianity many different answers have been given to those questions, and the questions are unavoidable. Unless we fall back on a defiant ignorance ("I don't know why we do it, we just do"), we have to formulate creeds to try to understand Jesus' teachings. It would have been a lot simpler if He had not made so many mysterious statements in the Gospel.
But the most basic reason we need dogmas is to answer the question why we follow Jesus at all, instead of Buddha or Confucius. Most liberals would probably say that the teachings of Jesus are superior to those of anyone else, but that conclusion is usually reached by those who are already Christians.
Perhaps most important, Jesus did not present Himself simply as a moral teacher. He is the center of the Gospel. But He speaks continuously of His Father in heaven, and He refers to the Spirit who is yet to come. Anyone not totally devoid of curiosity has to wonder what the relationship is among these three beings. If abstruse theological speculation is a perversion of Christianity, why did Jesus confuse us by talking about such things at all?
Of course liberals do have a way out, an escape route provided in our day by the Jesus Seminar. The latter group conveniently "proves" that Jesus never said or did most of what is reported in the Gospel.
But, apart from the fact that the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar looks suspiciously like an American of the year 2000, this escape route gives us no reason to be Christians at all, as we are forced to conclude that Jesus didn't really teach anything we don't already know from secular sources and most of the beliefs that grew up around Him are fraudulent.
The pioneers of liberal Christianity were for the most part earnest people who really did think they were purifying the faith. But at the beginning of the third Christian millennium we can finally see the results of trying to create a faith free of all doctrine.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes on Catholic issues. His column appears regularly in Catholic newspapers, and this one is reprinted with the author's permission.
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