The Reality That Is Making Me More Liberal (theologically)

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People who don’t work with people day in and day out, in the trenches of their lives, can afford to philosophize about people, to make up abstractions, and talk about the rightness/wrongness of people in philosophical terms, holding people up to their abstractions and deciding who fits and who is lacking and how so.

But in all my years working with people, for example, I’ve never seen “homosexuality.” Never once.

I’ve just seen a ton of people at various places on a huge sexual continuum, struggling to make sense of their desires, lives, options, values, and choices, most all of them from within some kind of spiritual framework, desperately hoping that when the proper religious people have gotten their fill of God, there might still be scraps under the table for them.

This, of course, is even as the good straight people who are so confident and sure of themselves on “homosexuality” have affairs, screw animals, hang out with prostitutes, spend time meant for spiritual “renewal” in strip clubs, literally ad nauseum. Real human beings do these things — people sitting next to you in church, perhaps picketing Chick-fil-A with you.

The majority of those who are not doing some of those things above, are yelling at their spouses, or giving them the silent treatment, or being selfish or critical, or treating their partner like cattle, or breaking the spirits of their children.

Some who are doing these things are “sorry” and some are not.

Some call it “sin” and some do not. Some continue to do it despite their apologies. Some apologize less but make genuine change, and of those who actually change, as many don’t identify their bad deeds as “sin” as those who do. Perhaps more.

And the common thread? Most of them talk about God.

Most of them want to know God somehow, and yet are wallowing in so much self-deceit that they can’t see all the ways God is trying to reach them.

Some of them, while engaged in these things, speak judgmentally in various ways about gays, the poor, “secular science,” and many other things they have virtually no understanding of.

Many are deeply in the grip of fear and don’t see how faith in the God they claim to believe, when it’s real and not abstract, should have set them free from fear long ago. That suggestion doesn’t even make sense to them.

So yes, the longer I work with people, the more liberal I become.

This tendency is quite likely (the degree varies between therapists) when one spends large amounts of time away from the abstractions of religion and philosophy and actually meets real human beings. That blurs all kinds of lines. It begins to matter less and less what people call themselves, for example, and more and more how people live, not so they meet my expectations of them, but so they can experience what every person most deeply longs for — contentment. Peace. The daring ones even long for joy.

I’ll take an agnostic person who has stopped beating his wife over a Christian wife-beater any day, for example. Especially if the Christian wife-beater thinks his status as a Christian makes him superior in some way, even as he continues beating his wife (whether or not he’s “sorry” for it after he does it).

Truth: When the agnostic decides he has a problem and needs to get help, that’s a “come to Jesus” moment, whether he calls it that or not. And when the Christian continues beating his wife, it matters little what religion he professes. He is in deep darkness.

Here the agnostic is the son who said to his father, “No, I will not go work in your fields,” but then went and did it, and the Christian is the one who said, “Sure dad, I’ll go work in your fields” and then blew it off. The agnostic has been obedient and the Christian has not. (Jesus acknowledged these realities when he would acknowledge that the faith of Romans and other non-Jews exceeded the faith of the Hebrews.)

So yeah. I have liberalized. Maybe a lot.

But broadening and opening and deepening are the proper response in the face of paradox and mystery, things you can’t nail down precisely, things that present you constantly with contradictions.And every human being, including you and me, is a paradox, a contradiction.

This “liberalizing tendency” has set me free and allows me to do the same for others because, for me, it is little more than being less fearful of naming reality for what it is. And in many cases (of course this is what religious people deeply fear), reality is “I don’t know exactly how to explain, define, or categorize this, but God is good.” And, just as often, “Yes, I know that’s what the Bible says. But that’s clearly not where you’re at is it? What are you going to do with that?”

What is it, specifically, that is liberalizing me? Simply speaking: reality. The realities of people’s lives. Those realities just don’t lend themselves to Biblical lectures.

That is why it doesn’t sit well with me when an untrained person who knows the Bible (usually just enough to be dangerous) lectures me piously about how a certain view I have about the Bible (or people) isn’t Biblical.

The fact is, we can’t know a single thing about the Bible or what it means, in any real sense, until we have logged hundreds of hours hearing the pain of other people. Even then, we must be painstakingly careful, humble, and gentle in our use of Biblical knowledge.

We may claim to “know God,” but a part of God is already in every human being. Do we recognize God there? If not, we’re missing the most important reality, which is the one right in front of us.

Working closely with people has taught me how flawed my assumptions normally are, how thoroughly most people will surpass and defy whatever meager frameworks I might try to apply to them before I have really invested time in getting to know them deeply.

How presumptuous of me, that I would think that my training allows me to size a person up and discern a solution to their issues before I have walked with them and suffered with them for a while.

How presumptuous that Christians do this to other people constantly (people do it whether they’re Christians or not). Most of the time, even with all our knowledge of what the Bible says, we in fact know almost nothing.

My great concern about the Bible, about “spiritual knowledge” is that so much of it seems to have developed in a vacuum.

A theologian may know Greek and Hebrew and the history of the church, and everything there is to know about God in a theological sense. Even if this were possible, he knows nothing of any lasting value until he knows, deeply, intimately, and truly, another person, until his heart connects with them and cares for them as he cares for himself.

It is then and only then that his theories, interpretations, and understandings are put to the test. Whatever interpretations and understandings do not correspond with the reality revealed in front of him, he must revise, reimagine, or discard. Or, at the very least, give very serious thought to the discrepancy, and consider the possibility that he may be wrong.

Does this sound like heresy? Why? We are told we have the “spirit,” the “mind of Christ.” Do we trust this, or do we not?

What if it’s not so much the case that God reveals himself to us individually, and then we simply lay that knowledge over others to understand them, but what if instead, God reveals himself to us through the flesh and blood relationships and struggles around us? In that case, we must enter into those, find those struggles to be our own, and see what God is telling us about himself in those encounters.

Of course, often I cannot talk outright about a lot of this with clients because they do not see the world the way I do. But in those times when my work allows me to talk about God, the source of freedom and life, then I’ve really arrived, really found my sweet spot. But even when I can’t go there, I know God is still at work, in me and in the lives of my clients — even just in their seeking of peace — and I know I can trust the Spirit to do what I cannot.

In the end, it’s never me really doing it to begin with.

And for Christians who feel reassured with more traditional language, I am glad to use it here.

We always know when God is working, revealing himself, and growing in people’s lives, because it produces identifiable fruit. Some of these fruits were named once as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

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  • Thanks for this gracious and really enlightening post, Jan. It makes my post better and that’s why I love blogging!

    When I used the word “liberal” in my post, I was referring to theologically liberal, not politically, although it’s probably hard to separate the ways by which I have liberalized politically and theologically. I think my work in counseling has led to both, because what it has shown me, more than anything else, is complexity. While conservative solutions to problems are not always over-simple, I find they often lack nuance and a deep and real understanding of how human beings think and operate day to day. If/when that is the case, any policy built on a short-sighted understanding will be short-sighted as well.

    On the other hand, sometimes liberal political ideas are overly-simple. This too is a problem and I oppose simplistic (which literally means “over-simplified” or “simple to a fault”) ideas wherever I find them. But conservative thinking, in its relentless hunt for certainty (both theologically and politically), falls into this trap more often.

    One thing is clear: thinking WELL is difficult, whether liberal or conservative. Not many people commit the time to it, and are willing to admit they may have been wrong for years about things they felt very strongly about. Thinking well is a constant gut-check, and that’s not always very comfortable, and people are pleasure-seeking creatures.

  • Kevin

    Dave, why the huge revision to the article and title?

  • Kevin

    Well Dave, when an individuaul takes a certain position, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily arguing. There is a right and a wrong. Anything otherwise is a position in the gray area. I suppose people that communicate from a sophmoric position would be controversial. We as humanbeings can desire to know the truth,embrace the truth, or simply reject it. Oppinions very I suppose. However, people are certainly entitled to have false oppinions. I wouldn’t deem those as being argumentative either, but rather, just holding on to falsehoods. God said the heart is a great deceiver and lean not unto your own understanding. With that said, I can conclude that there must be a manuscript that mankind can utilize to know the truth.
    Arguing with people is not God’s will Dave and it is tiresome to converse with people that is flat out quarrelsome and is exhaustive. If you find yourself arguing with people Dave, just simply refuse to entertain the idea. Easier said than done. I know this all to well.

    • I think you might have posted this under the wrong post title!

      I have made great progress in avoiding argument lately. And, as you said, it can be really difficult.

      I don’t disagree about right and wrong, but I prefer to help people discover that on their own rather than just tell them what it is. That is my calling. It may not be everyone’s, but it’s mine.

      • Kevin

        I can’t help but notice after a closer examination of the past three articles you have written Dave, there is a strong connection amongst them. If I’m wrong; then, so be it. In no way did I stipulate that you are arguing. Great to hear you have made progress in steering clear of disputive positions.

        • Kevin

          Not past three articles,but three of the most recent articles written. Sorry Dave.

        • I didn’t think you were suggesting I was being argumentative, Kevin.