THE RIVER OF LIFE: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014. 84 pages.
What is a liberal Christian (I realize that there are those who think that these terms are mutually exclusive)? Can a liberal Christian meet up with a conservative one and have a truly constructive conversation? Lee Harmon, a writer/blogger, sets out to present his vision of liberal Christianity in order to prepare for that conversation. He does so by addressing the chief dividing issues by seeking to interpret them in light of the biblical story.
In The River of Life Harmon offers us the defining marks of what he believes a liberal/agnostic Christian faith looks like. He offers a vision of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, even if he finds it necessary to be agnostic as to the nature of the God whom Jesus seeks to represent. In other words, he’s not too sure about the God we find described in the biblical story, even if the one representing God seems to be a good guide to life.
This is a brief book. It’s not an exhaustive study. But it does address key issues that people inside and outside the church wonder about. Because most conversations focus on questions of salvation – that is, whether one will get to heaven or end up in hell – he concludes that there really is no biblical rationale for the traditional view of hell and therefore we needn’t worry about that particular fate. As for heaven, he’s not so sure that is a big focus of the biblical story either. No, the message he finds here is very this-worldly.
I was asked the other day what I thought of the Left Behind series – I said that I try not to think about it! Apocalyptic eschatology has been a favorite of many Christians who have been envisioning the soon to come end of the world for some time. But Lee doesn’t think that this vision stands at the heart of the biblical story either and so can be safely set aside. What Lee believes is that the promise of the second advent can be seen fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus has already returned. Having dispatched these two central talking points of many conservative Christians, he focuses on the positive – the good news. He finds this message defined in Luke 4, where we hear a message of liberation for the poor and the marginalized. When it comes to the beatitudes, he thinks Luke's less spiritualized version is closer to the true vision of Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, he addresses in brief, the issue of the historical Jesus. He's fine with it -- by the way. He would like us to stick with the historical Jesus rather than speculate about the Christ of faith. He also notes that even in the first century there were divergent views about the person and mission of Jesus, noting that one branch – the Ebionites -- rejected the divinity of Christ and may be the descendants of the earliest Jerusalem church. So, who got it right?
In a chapter entitled "Doing Our Part," Lee offers his vision of God's kingdom -- a kingdom that embraces all creation, and not just Christians (or Jews). It is a very inclusive vision -- probably more inclusive than some would be comfortable with (see Scot McKnight’s very different vision in Kingdom Conspiracy). It is focused on doing things with God for the world. Here is where he thinks liberal and conservative Christians can come together. Even if they can’t agree on theology, perhaps they can join together in hands on work.
One of the chief points of departure has long been the matter of miracles. With regard to them, Harmon wishes to remain agnostic (chapter six). Like most liberals who have been influenced by the Enlightenment/scientific age, he approaches claims of miraculous activities with a degree of skepticism (and well we should). At the same time, he notes that a majority of biblical scholars acknowledge that Jesus engaged in a ministry of healing. Therefore, with a degree of reluctance he's willing to embrace the idea that something happened with Jesus’ healing activities. That leads to his analysis of the nature of faith. Faith is not encapsulated by assent to creedal statements. Instead, faith is defined as trust in God. Remember as to the nature of that God, he wants to remain somewhat agnostic.
In a final chapter, Lee speaks of the prophetic visions of rivers of life in the biblical story. He invites us to consider how we might share in this refreshment. He closes by defining his religion in terms of "participatory eschatology." What he means by this is this: "This is Jesus' dream, and it’s happening. This world will become what we, through the help of God and the inspiration and example of Jesus or Savior, transform it into."
Although I'm probably more "orthodox/traditional" in my theology, I appreciate Lee's attempt to first lay out a liberal vision of the faith, and to engage the Bible in the process. This is important because at times liberals would rather not engage the Bible. By engaging it, he is able to provide a bridge to more conservative Christians who might want to not just debate but have a conversation that might enlighten.
The world is fragmented – as noted by my own denomination (we call ourselves a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world”). If the church is to be a movement of wholeness – bringing a word of healing to the world – then it is definitely problematic that the church is as polarized as the rest of the world. Lee wants to issue an invitation for a conversation. He’s laid out his vision – now he invites a response.