Liberating Christianity: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith in the New Millennium, by Thomas C. Sorenson (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2008)
After earning a Ph.D. in Russian Imperial History, Thomas C. Sorenson decided that he would rather be a lawyer than a history professor. He earned a law degree and became an attorney. Then three things happened.
He began reading theology, starting with Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. With his wife, he became an active participant in the process by which the United Church of Christ congregation to which they belonged became an open and affirming congregation in regard to “equal rights and dignity of gay and lesbian people.” He experienced a period of serious depression during which his pastor introduced him to Jungian psychology.
The result was that at the age of 48, Sorenson turned away from the law, earned an M.Div. degree, and became pastor of the United Church of Christ congregation in a community of 17,000 outside of Seattle. Early in his pastorate, it became clear to him that his congregation’s role “was precisely to be a progressive, Open and Affirming alternative to the religious conservatism that so pervaded the community” and its 26 churches (p. xxiii).
Sorenson is aware of the popular understandings of Christianity that dominate the news and have led many people to abandon Christian belief and practice. To counteract this tendency, Sorenson wrote a book, Liberating Christianity: Overcoming Obstacles to Faith in the New Millennium. These obstacles are: 1) philosophical materialism, 2) biblicism, and 3) the denial of grace.
In a very short Part One, Sorenson presents his answer to the first problem, the belief held by many people “that only the material, only the physical, is real.” His intention in this chapter and “A Philosophical Appendix” at book’s end is to show that “belief in a spiritual dimension to reality…is both reasonable and intellectually defensible.” While I affirm Sorenson’s line of thought, the subject needs fuller treatment than it receives in this book.
Part Two, three times longer than Part One, discusses the problem of biblicism, which to Sorenson is the foundation for much of the popular misunderstanding of Christianity. In contrast to much naysaying literature of our time, however, Sorenson does not begin this part of the book by denouncing views that he believes to be wrong. Instead, he develops a constructive line of thought, based on Tillich, concerning the nature of religious truth.
Its significant components are myth and symbol, which Sorenson describes as “images and stories taken from the world of ordinary sense perception and experience and applied to the spiritual, to which they point and in which they participate but cannot fully capture and cannot ultimately define” (p. 31).
Sorenson then discusses how biblicism, which insists that the Bible is literally and factually true, misunderstands what the Bible actually is and leads to conclusions and convictions that cannot be sustained by thoughtful people in our time. As might be expected, issues related to homosexuality are important illustrations in this section of the book.
A full half of Liberating Christianity is devoted to the third obstacle, which in my experience in liberal congregations today is the most serious. Sorenson identifies it as “the denial of grace,” but the range of his discussion is indicated by the four chapter heads which state his topics: beyond the classical theory of atonement, the meaning of the cross as a demonstration of God’s solidarity, the dynamics of salvation, and the teaching of Jesus for our time.
An example of his exposition is this except from his chapter on the meaning of the cross: “God’s solidarity with us demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus is, when we truly understand it, the best news there ever was or ever could be. It means that even in our times of greatest pain and greatest grief God is there with us, holding us in God’s everlasting arms of grace, keeping us existentially safe from harm. Though we die, God is there with us, dying with us, and keeping close in death and beyond death” (p. 124).
Throughout the book I noted places where I would develop Sorenson’s themes somewhat differently, but the book as a whole is an articulate and persuasive presentation of a version of Christianity that I readily affirm.
Sorenson believes that many pastors already understand Christianity in ways that are consistent with the ideas in this book. He urges them to be more forthright in preaching and teaching these ideas that can liberate the church.
He is convinced that a liberated church is liberating to people and that as a result they can affirm the Christian faith and live effectively as Christians. The book includes two or three pages of questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.
Liberating Christianity is a good book that deserves a wide readership.