Fourth in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Religious liberals perceive themselves as being profoundly ambivalent about God. There are the death-of-God people, there are the humanists, there are the moral atheists, there are the traditionalist theists, there are those who tell the local clergyperson, “I’ll believe whatever I want to believe.”
While most religious liberals believe that they can never agree on questions concerning God, in fact we religious liberals all share several basic beliefs about God:
— We all share a belief in heterodoxy, that is, that our opinions about God will differ. Some of the more theologically sophisticated among us are aware of the wide variety of definitions of god/divinity among those who are more orthodox within their faith traditions; proving or disproving one conception of god/divinity does not prove or disprove other concepts of god/divinity (e.g., disproving Karl Barth’s God does not disprove the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna); thus a firm belief in heterodoxy seems the only sane response to the bewildering variety of of proofs and disproofs and beliefs and disbeliefs in gods, goddesses, and other divinities.
— We all share a belief that regardless of whether or not god/divinity exists, we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We do not believe it is acceptable to say, “It is God’s will that your baby died”; we know it’s the drunk driver’s fault, or the fault of the drug-resistant staph infection that we are unable to cure, or the fault of a random accident. A theological term for this is the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; that is to say, whether or not you happen to believe/disbelieve in god/divinity, from a functional perspective we all believe that humankind is ultimately responsible, allowing of course for the possibility of random chance.
— Generally speaking, we are less interested in ontology, and more interested in practical ethics. While we do have energetic ontological arguments, e.g., about the existence or non-existence of God, we are more inclined to work to make the world a better place. Those who are more interested in ontology than practical ethics are not likely to remain religious liberals for long. Thus over time the fundamentalist humanists who insist on an orthodoxy of non-belief in God get frustrated with religious liberalism and drift away to form their own orthodox humanist groups; pagans who insist in absolute belief in goddess/es over time find that they are more comfortable in orthodox pagan groups; etc.
Because we are so committed to heterodoxy, it may seem hard to understand why we religious liberals spend so much time arguing about God, when arguments about God are really appropriate only for the orthodox (who actually want to make other people think and believe just like themselves). However, we have to remember that the surrounding culture is dominated by orthodoxy as a mindset; it is a culture in which it is difficult for heterodoxy to survive at all, let alone thrive. It’s a miracle that we manage to hold on to our heterodoxy at all.