Protestant theology and missiology have been experiencing a flood, and it seems to be surging right now. It started trickling back in the 1970s and has been building ever since. It is a flood of books all framed by a single umbrella issue. Let me frame it as a question: “Who are you?” It is the great question of our time. What is my identity? What is your identity? How do you define identity? Where do identities come from and who determines them? Can they change? Who decides? Can you prioritize identities so that some are more fundamental than others?
I am a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is a conservative Reformed denomination. The issue of identity is perhaps the question of our time. I became aware of the subject and its related issues about twenty years ago, when I found out that evangelical missionaries were persuading Muslims that they could embrace Christ as Lord and remain faithful Muslims. This opened me up to a world of hybrid identities. My engagement with this led to my becoming part of a denominational committee for three years, studying every aspect of the issue and then reporting back to our General Assembly in 2014. We did not all agree. Eventually, a majority view that opposed these practices (loosely labelled as “insider movements”) prevailed over a minority report. Our denomination overwhelmingly affirmed that one could not, in fact, maintain a dual religious identity.
I made a prediction that summer—and I was right. I said that the issue of dual (or many) religious identities would proliferate, because the underlying issue of identity was postmodernism’s cause célèbre. Let me explain. “Postmodernism” is a largely opaque term that evolved in the literary, art, and philosophy communities—which means that most of us do not really understand what it is, but there is help. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined another phrase that more usefully describes a critical element in this new (mostly post-1945) thinking we call “postmodernism.” He referred to this as “liquid modernism.” To suggest something is postmodern is to imply that it is a way of thinking that replaced modernism. Bauman disagrees (and so do I). He thought of it as a radically accelerated version of the modernism that conquered the West in the past few centuries. While changes in society, the arts, and so on were valued before, we now value faster change and change without inhibition. Liquid modernism sees things such as structures, doctrines, and institutions as impediments to individual freedom and, in particular, the freedom to change.
If you just look around, you see liquid modernism. Some of its proponents describe it as fluid identity. The idea that one may change one’s own identity is de rigueur for the day. It is an assumed right. But what are our identities? Better still, what makes up our identity? Well, there is our biology. Nancy Pearcey’s triumph, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Baker, 2018), explores the impact that liquid or fluid modernism has on human sexuality, gender, procreation, and so on. Liquid moderns do not even find genetics, historical identity, and biology in general as problematic. What matters is who you wish to be. There is nothing that trumps your choice.
When we consider it in this way, liquid religion should be a far simpler matter. There is historical precedent. We used to call much of that syncretism, but let’s leave off that for now. Suffice it to say, it is almost instinctual for liquid moderns to embrace multiple religious identities. One may hold to two or more versions of faith, depending on whom one is with. We may choose to have an inward religion and an outward one. What I am describing is not analogous to ancient Christians and catacombs. The Roman persecutors who raided these would find people who either consented to encountering lions in the arena or asked for forgiveness as they slipped back into paganism. The latter was an easy out for classical Romans. For them, liquid or hybrid identity was perfectly acceptable. The only thing that wasn’t acceptable was Christian exclusivity. One could be exclusively Roman (pagan)—and for liquid moderns, one can be exclusively liquid—but one must not be exclusively Christian.
Some scholars today seek to help exclusive Christians realize that there is no need for such a strident lack of compromise, writing in ways that demonstrate the benefits of a kinder, gentler, more inclusive world. One example of this is When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People (Beacon, 2018), by Duane R. Bidwell. In this book, Bidwell advances the liquid-modern understanding of identity and religion, especially as he describes himself as a Buddhist, as well as a Christian.
I see at least three serious problems with the ideas and overtures Bidwell makes. First, without his admitting as much, his ideas run the gamut from simple syncretism to panentheism. The religion he envisages is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Second, the porousness of religious identity suggests an orientation that favors an Eastern Asian perspective. One immediately thinks of the pioneering work by Peter Jones in exposing the Eastern vein that throbs below the surface of these thoughts. Third, I believe that one more word encompasses the Western fascination with liquid religious identity: Gnosticism.
Philip J. Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford University Press, 1987) illuminates the connections. In the first place, Lee highlights an obvious feature: Gnosticism is inherently syncretistic. He links this to origins in Hellenistic religion, where individual cults devoted to separate deities were routinely combined. Gnosticism also makes sense as a description of liquid religion, given its fundamental rejection of the necessary connection of Christ to the visible Christian church. This is a basic feature of insider movements, and it is fundamental to Gnosticism. Believers are necessary, but the church is not.
Similarly, both Gnosticism and Bidwell’s fluid religious identity leave no room for Christianity’s “scandal of particularity.” Bidwell affirms in his incoherent assertion that Jesus is his savior, but Buddha provides the blueprint for his life. To affirm his second point is to negate his first. There is no Christ as savior without Christ being lord. Bidwell’s God is Gnosticism’s “Mystery”—more of an unidentified who than a what. Mystery apparently has a will or at least good intentions for humanity. In classical Gnosticism, however, the supreme deity is distanced from creation to avoid being tainted by it. The dirty work of creating the material world and interacting with it fell to a sort of demigod, the demiurge. Following the same logical pattern, Bidwell appears to see humans, at least the ones with sufficient insight, as demiurges who not only respond to the world as it is, but who create new worlds out of old material. It is a fascinating and horrible thought.
By denying established religions the right to define themselves, police the ranks and proselytize, Bidwell has autonomous “spiritual” people appropriate those rights for themselves. In other words, people decide who they ultimately are, what they should believe, and what the consequences of their choices should be. There is not much room for God when you have put him out of a job.
The source of the author’s blind spot is shared with Gnosticism in general. The point of Gnosticism is ultimately the lordship of self. The individual chooses who he or she is, how he or she is saved (if the need for salvation is acknowledged), and how to define ancient religions, even if these choices utterly repudiate the sacred texts of these faith systems. This sort of liquid modernism allows any sort of ideological “manhandling.” After all, not only are religions liquid, but so are words, facts, history, biology, and so forth.
This is not Christianity, nor is it partially Christian. Bidwell asserts the logical impossibility of being 100 percent one religion and 100 percent another. That unreality is a denial of God’s own revelation, which makes it a denial of him. I believe that orthodox Christians should be able to spot the foundational conflicts between Bidwell’s understanding of God, humans, and devotion.
We still, however, are not out of the woods. Contemporary Protestants, including self-confessing evangelicals, have gone a considerable distance down the liquid version of reality. We have, with the death of a thousand cuts, already embraced liquid history, liquid Bible translation, liquid theology of religions, liquid sexuality, and most basic of all, liquid identity. Perhaps the greatest value of When One Religion Is Not Enough is that it slows down liquidity enough for us to see how it really functions and where it really leads.
Basil Grafas is the pen name for an American missionary working overseas.