If our heritage is one of cultural engagement, what happened to the evangelical movement? What happened to the legacy left behind by men and women like William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Fry? Well, I've written before about an argument that erupted in Christian churches about a hundred years ago. I've talked about how one group of scholars got together and decided that Jesus was merely a wise and moral teacher. He went around doing a lot of good, but he never actually performed any miracles. I mean, miracles don't really happen, do they? Of course not. So, let's dispense with all the nonsense about virgin birth and walking on water and healing sick people and all that. Let's especially do away with the silly notion of a bodily resurrection. Jesus was just a wise and moral teacher, and we would do well to learn from him. Let's not say he was God in a body.
But the other side of the theological spectrum maintained their belief in Jesus as God -- Jesus as second member of the Trinity -- Jesus as sinless, supernatural and divine.
There was actually a deeper argument that led the two camps to these two positions. It had to do with the way we read the Bible. Theological liberals said we shouldn't take the Bible literally when it talks about things like sin and miracles and people being unable to save themselves. They believed that the Bible is really just trying to teach us how to be better people. So, we take the moral and ethical teachings to heart. We leave the rest behind, chalking it up to primitive people trying to understand the unknowable God of the universe.
Theological conservatives fought against liberalism tooth and nail, publishing a series of 12 short books called The Fundamentals (that's where we get the term "Christian fundamentalist" from).
Sadly, the conservative group thought it was so important to defend their doctrinal purity that they felt justified in ignoring social concerns. In fact, bringing up social concerns like feeding the hungry and caring for marginalized people came under some suspicion from conservatives. They began to think that if you talked about human rights, you were probably a liberal.
Liberals seized on this moral high ground and began to criticize capitalism, advocating something akin to a Christian socialism, believing it might be possible to bring about a truly Christian society through political and social action.
Conservatives chose to focus on evangelism. Liberals chose to focus on social and political concerns.
Now, you tell me: Did the conservatives have a point? What about the liberals? Did they also have a point?
Is it possible to bring the two concerns back together, and -- if so -- how?