church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

I have been reading liberal theology since my college days—i.e. theologies which deny many, most, or all of the major tenets of the traditional Christian Faith.  The theologies are as many and as varied as their authors, but they all share a conviction that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say and do all the things which the New Testament recorded that He said and did, that the Gospels are not to be trusted as history, and that therefore the basic dogmas of the historical Church are wrong.  The late Bishop John Spong (inset) is a modern and sterling example.

The multiplicity of the various liberal theologians was brought home to me as I read the (voluminous) works of Bishop N. T. Wright, whose works I enjoyed immensely.  Being a scholar, he mentioned and interacted at length with the views of many, many other scholars, modern and not so modern, so that I had a kind of déjà vu experience of being back in college listening to the sceptical denials of liberal theologians.  With all due respect to the diligence, ingenuity, and learning of those theologians, I couldn’t shake the feeling that their re-interpretations and denials were perverse, and the question kept arising in my mind, “Where do they get this stuff?”  In other words, how does it happen that such intelligent and no doubt virtuous men come to write such drivel?

Bishop Wright, of course, being a polite Englishman and writing as part of an ongoing scholarly debate, would never describe the work of his scholarly colleagues so bluntly.  But given some of their conclusions that have been published in the past 100 years or so, I insist that the characterization is not unfair.  I could give examples, but that would require a book as thick as those written by Bishop Wright.

I do, however, have a theory to help account for the genesis of liberal theology, one offered some decades ago by C. S. Lewis.  It can be found in his book The Great Divorce, encapsulated in a discussion between a heavenly Spirit (i.e. a soul now in heaven, named “Dick”) and a Ghost (i.e. a damned soul in Hell, a former liberal bishop).  They met in a place between Heaven and Hell and the saved Spirit tried to convince his old friend the episcopal Ghost to cast away his apostasy, to repent and believe the Gospel, and to return with Him to Heaven.  Part of their conversation went like this.

When the damned Ghost (the bishop) learned that the grey town in which he now lived was regarded as Hell by the Spirit, he said, “Go on, my dear boy. No doubt you’ll tell me why, on your view, I was sent there.”

“Don’t you know?  You went there because you are an apostate.”

“This is worse than I expected.  Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions?  Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken…Honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.”

“I know we used to talk that way.  I did it too until the end of my life when I became what you call narrow.  It all turns on what are honest opinions.”

“Mine certainly were. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it.  I preached my famous sermon.  I defied the whole chapter.  I took every risk.”

“What risk?  What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

“Dick, this is unworthy of you. What are you suggesting?”

“Friend, I am not suggesting at all.  You see, I know now.  Let us be frank.  Our opinions were not honestly come by.  We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful.  At College we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things what won applause.  When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned:  whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur?  When did we put up one moment of real resistance to the loss of our faith?”

“If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel.”

“Oh, as you love your own soul remember.  You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice.  We didn’t want the other to be true.  We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.”

There is more, but you get the idea.  At the end of it, the episcopal Ghost declined the Spirit’s invitation to repent and believe, and went off back to his grey town humming softly to himself the hymn, “City of God, how broad and far”.

Of course no one, least of all me, can see into the hearts of anyone else, including into the hearts of the liberal theologians who write books denying the basic tenets of the Faith.  But knowing only too well from looking at my own heart how worldly temptation works, I find that Lewis’ explanation has the ring of truth to it.

All of us tend to take on the colour (spiritually speaking) of those we hang out with, which is why St. Paul could warn that “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33).  If one identifies oneself with a particular community that rewards scepticism, it will be nigh unto impossible to resist the temptation to scepticism oneself.  To swim upstream in the liberal academy in which one lives and moves and has one’s being would be to invite ridicule from one’s peers, and possibly ruination of one’s academic career.

But it should not all be put down to ambition and selfish desire for advancement.  At the root of it, I submit, is what Lewis called a fear of real spiritual fears and hopes.

In reading the works of the liberal scholars, I could not avoid the feeling that for them it was all something of a game for them—an interesting game, a fascinating game, a game sincerely played.  But a game nonetheless.  I could not discern in any of those authors the conviction that they were dealing with matters of life and death, matters upon which eternal souls hung in the balance.  And I wondered if any ever turned to God in solitude and desperately cried out for guidance, for help, for truth.

I wondered, in fact, if any of them travelled down the path of real spiritual fears and hopes that people like Barry McGuire once travelled.

Barry once shared his story.  He said that he had read the New Testament, and was impressed and attracted to the figure of Jesus (despite his utter lack of attraction to contemporary Christians).  He said, “I remember the night that it came down for me.  I’d been fighting with it and fighting.  Finally it came down for me, after about eight months, I just got real. I said, ‘Listen, I can’t hassle this anymore. You gotta show me where it’s at.  If I were to say right now that I believed in You and You really are here, You’d know I was lying.  Because I don’t believe in You.  But I don’t not believe in You.  I don’t have anything to base a belief on.’”   He then said, “I tried to get it as straight with it as I could.  I said to Him, ‘Don’t put me on:  if you’re not here, don’t tell me that You are.  I don’t want to go on another journey.  I gotta know, once and for all.’  I got just as straight as I could get with Him.  I said, ‘ARE. YOU. REALLY. HERE?’  And that was my moment of truth.”

A moment of truth; a time for facing real spiritual fears and hopes, a cry from a heart that desperately wants to know what is real, a hand reaching up for help from one who feels himself drowning and going down for the third and final time.  I believe that the lack of such a moment truth ultimately accounts for and explains how intelligent and good men can play games with things that are matters of life and death, things for which men and women have been martyred throughout the centuries.

As I continue to read the works of liberal theologians with their many and varied alternatives in which the cardinal points of our faith are denied I cannot help thinking how ultimately insignificant their works all, for all their ingenuity and prolixity.  That is, millions of Christians who believe the Faith, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant alike, have no time for them, write them off as unbelievers, and leave their books unread.  Millions of secular people who share their unbelief never read their books, since the books profess to be works of theology, and such people who disbelieve the Christian faith have (not unnaturally) no interest in theology.  They are, it seems, writing their books for the select liberal academics who inhabit the same liberal echo chamber.  Their works have no real significance in the minds of the overwhelming majority of men who live and work in the real world, despite the fact that their books continue to multiply like mushrooms sprouting after the rain.  For all their labour, their work deserves to be forgotten.

Ultimately, of course, the issue is not what other people such as liberal theologians believe in their secret hearts or the paths they once travelled or the roads they refused to take.  It is about you and me.  Whether or not we write theological books or have academic careers, we will all have to face the truth at our life’s end, whether or not this truth brings endless sorrow or eternal joy.  As you love your own soul, remember, and ask yourself now:  Have you cried out to God to know what is real?  Have you pounded on Heaven’s door, desperate for answers?  Have you had your moment of truth?

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.