I’d just as soon sleep in on Sundays, thanks

Sometimes I like to browse the religion section at major book retailers (Borders, B&N), not because I usually buy anything, but because I like to see what perspectives on Christian faith people are interested in (or at least what publishers think they’re interested in).

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that there seems to be nearly as much liberal tripe on the shelves as conservative tripe. It used to be that anti-evolution screeds and “purpose-driven” drivel dominated the shelves, but I’ve noticed a distinct uptick in left-of-center tomes.

The problem isn’t the liberalism, per se; its the dessicated, uninspiring version of Christianity that so many of these books seem to be peddling.

One book I was flipping through yesterday, written by a confessedly liberal pastor, urged the reader to stop worshiping Jesus and start following him. This is a classical liberal trope, that Christians (or Paul or the Catholic Church or someone) took the “simple” religion of Jesus the mystic/activist/countercultural prophet/shaman/whatever and transformed it into a religion about Jesus.

In this particular book, following Jesus coincides neatly with a litany of left-liberal causes. But what baffles me about this particular strain of liberal Christianity is why anyone would bother with it.

I mean, if Jesus is divine, then we really ought to be worshiping him. Sure, worship will entail, among other things, doing his will, as the gospels attest, but presumably it will also involve the religion about Jesus that some liberals are so eager to jettison.

But if Jesus isn’t divine, but rather is (was?) a mere wise man/prophet/social critic, etc., then why organize your religion around him? In fact, as a moral exemplar, I can think of any number of people who are more immediately appealing than Jesus, not to mention more successful. Plus, if the entire religion about Jesus is a mistake, then he has to be judged one of history’s biggest failures as a teacher, doesn’t he?

The liberal Christianity of, e.g., the Jesus seminar–the one that wants to jettison Christianity’s entire metaphysics and economy of salvation–simply can’t offer a compelling reason why we should take Jesus–particularly the shadowy and fragmentary Jesus of historical reconstruction–as the model and meaning of our lives. At best he would be one member of a pantheon of prophets and sages whose insights we might or might not find helpful and whose lives we may or may not find inspiring and relevant.

You certainly don’t need Jesus to be a good liberal. If Jesus is the norm for human life, it’s only because he’s also divine.

6 thoughts on “I’d just as soon sleep in on Sundays, thanks

  1. Camassia

    I agree with you about a lot of this, but since I’m feeling peckish, I’ll ask a question that’s been niggling the back of my mind for a while: why worship God? Seriously, worshiping a human may be idolatrous, but at least human beings *need* praise and uplift from their fellows. Why does an omnipotent being need to be worshipped? Or is worship something we do for our own benefit?

  2. I suppose any satisfactory answer, assuming there is one, would have several parts. One, I think, would have to be that it’s just fitting to worship God because of who/what God is. Kind of like being presented with Michelangelo’s David or the Yosemite Valley elicits a certain proper response. Obviously there are disanalogies (God is personal; God is not immediately present to our senses, at least in a straightforward way, etc.), but I think that’s part of it: it’s just the correct response. I don’t tell my wife I love her or praise her fine qualities because I think she needs to hear it (well, sometimes I do, I guess), but because that’s the kind of response she evokes in me. (I guess things are complicated because worship includes several different elements (praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession) that we might have different reasons for.)

    Second, though, I do think it’s for our benefit too. We need to rehearse the Biblical story (so much of worship, at least in liturgical churches, involves this), reminding ourselves who God is, who we are, what we’re here for. And part of this is rightly ordering our desires and thoughts, I think. Maybe true worship is the only antidote to idolatry. If humans are worshiping creatures by nature, it seems you want that impulse to be pointed in the right direction.

    More speculatively, I wonder if we’re so sure that God doesn’t like to worshiped? I mean, rightly understood, is it really ill-befitting for God to want us to say that we love him? It seems to go against the grain of a lot of theology, but there is all that husband and wife imagery in the Bible. Doesn’t God want some kind of reciprocal relationship with us? And if God delights in us, maybe he does like to hear us sing praises to him.

  3. Camassia

    I see what you mean, but I’m trying to distinguish *worship* from other ways of relating to and loving people, which seems to be the point of contention in the post. Liberals tend to pit following Jesus against worshipping Jesus, and while there is a clear continuity between one and the other, I think they’re trying to separate the love and obedience aspects of the religion from the bowing and scraping reminiscent of a slave before a king. I remember Marcus Borg admitting that he just doesn’t find a self-important Jesus very attractive, so his theology tends towards a very human Jesus who didn’t even know he was Messiah, necessarily. I don’t find that very helpful, but I do understand the collision between Protestant egalitarian tendencies and all the biblical analogies of God as king, slavemaster, etc. along with the assumptions that he be treated accordingly.

    I expect that another point the author was getting at (without even knowing what author you’re talking about) had to do with the extent to which we rely on God to take care of things, and the extent that we do it ourselves. But that’s a whole other can of worms…

  4. I think the impuse to remove the bowing and scraping stuff is generally a sound one; but I also think that’s one of the things the portrait of Jesus in the gospels helps to do. All the foot-washing, “I came not to be served but to serve,” “The gentiles lord it over one another, but it shall not be so among you,” “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” stuff points–doestn’t it?–to a kind of inversion of the usual relationship of servant to master, worshipper to worshipped.

    Needless to say, though, this awareness has not always (or even often?) been incorporated into Christian worship, which certainly demonstrates its share of bowing and scraping. I think, potentially, the Eucharist is a very powerful symbol of this inversion–instead of us sacrificing something to appease an angry deity, God gives his broken body to us for our sustenance. Maybe a big part of true worship is simply being receptive to the gifts God wants to give us. (That’s the Lutheran in me coming out.) But, again, this is often not how the sacrament is understood.

    To Marcus Borg’s point, however, I’m no scholar, but I have a hard time seeing how you can get around the fact that Jesus regarded himself as integral to God’s eschatological action, however we understand that. If Jesus is just an ethical model, or a teacher of ideals, then he’s ultimately dispensable once we’ve learned his lessons, it seems to me.

  5. Liberals like to reduce everything to ethics–and therein lies the problem. Liturgy and worship are fundamentally eschatological acts rather than ethical ones. They’re how we eschatologically enact who we are as the scattered and gathered Body of Christ.

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