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Beck’s Selective Use of Christian Theology Misconstrues Christianity

August 29, 2010

Glenn Beck routinely equivocates when dealing with theological issues, and in doing so, misleads many of his adherents. He is a dangerous demagogue because of his misrepresentation of Christian theology and the way people who should know better end up following him and his ideology.

One of his criticisms of President Obama is that Obama holds to “liberation theology,” and tell us that Pope Benedict calls liberation theology “demonic.”  Of course, that over-simplification itself is erroneous (as can be seen in the writings of the CDF on liberation theology which indicate their concerns are in some elements of some theologians who engage liberation theology) and ignores many of the positive elements of liberation theology which the CDF Pope Benedict recognized, such as its criticism of capitalism and it consistent focus on the preferential option for the poor.  Indeed, the CDF made sure their criticism should not be used for the kind of rhetoric we find coming out of Beck:

This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the “preferential option for the poor.” It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice. It is, on the contrary, dictated by the certitude that the serious ideological deviations which it points out tends inevitably to betray the cause of the poor. (Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”).

Yet, Beck does not end here. He makes clear his real objection is that Liberation Theology is about “collective salvation” (hinting at socialism, while confusing the unity of community with collectivism) while telling his audience that “collective salvation” is antithetical to traditional Christian theology. He does not define what “collective salvation” is in any concrete way; his objection is that it means one’s salvation is somehow connected to the salvation of others.  In contrast to this, Henri de Lubac’s monumental work, Catholicism, was written specifically to remind Catholics (and Christians) of the communal aspect of the faith. This is a part of what the then Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out in a foreword to the work:

He makes visible to us in a new way the fundamental intuition of the Christian Faith so that from this inner core all the particular elements appear in a new light. He shows how the idea of community and universality, rooted in the trinitarian concept of God, permeates and shapes all the individual elements of Faith’s content. The idea of the Catholic, all-embracing, the inner unity of I and Thou and We does not constitute one chapter of theology among others. It is the key that opens the door to the proper understanding of the whole. [1]

In Europe, de Lubac’s was readily accepted; so much so that Cardinal Ratzinger was afraid that sociology took over in theological circles so that the spiritual, theological content of de Lubac’s message was lost. This can perhaps be seen as the foundation for his own criticism and misunderstanding of much that is found in Latin America and its theologies. He quickly thought his context applied in Latin America, and so everything was becoming sociological there, sociology without spirituality. While it is true some Liberation Theologians followed such a dangerous route, this is not true of the whole of Liberation Theology and one should not judge the whole based upon this over-extension of the social dimension of the Christian faith. Just as we would not condemn scholasticism because of the heretics it produced, heretics who took one or another scholastic doctrine too far, so we should not confuse the mistakes of some in Liberation Theology with the discipline itself. Thankfully, there has been no universal condemnation of Liberation Theology, and there cannot be any without turning the Christian faith into Gnosticism. Any attempt to change the world based upon spiritual principles will end up being a form of Liberation Theology; the question should be whether or not the principles are both correct and complete, not whether or not we should try to transform the world from a fallen state to a better state. This is why many who criticize Liberation Theology end up producing their own without realizing what they are doing — because once one tries to uproot sin from society, what is produced is a Theology of Liberation.

Traditional dogmatics is clear that salvation, by being personal, is communal. No person is an individual cut off from the community. Christ came to save the world, and to bring them together as one body — his body. Glen Beck, in trying to criticize President Obama, does not only Obama a disservice, but Christian doctrine as well. If he wants to engage Christian theology, he should at least take the time to read and research the issues he brings up. The individualism he wants to encourage is what is antithetical to Christian doctrine, not the belief in communal salvation. Christ is after all the vine; let us make sure we are not cut off from him by denying the works which he told us to do.


[1] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. trans. Lancelot Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988),11.

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28 Comments
  1. August 29, 2010 1:42 pm

    14. Against this, drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a “social” reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “city” (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. …
    15. While this community-oriented vision of the “blessed life” is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world—in very different ways, according to the historical context and the possibilities offered or excluded thereby. …
    16. How could the idea have developed that Jesus’s message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others? In order to find an answer to this we must take a look at the foundations of the modern age.

    Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi

    • August 29, 2010 2:04 pm

      John

      Yes, there is much which one could quote from Benedict which would be useful to show his own position, and to show how Beck and others just misconstue it.

  2. August 29, 2010 1:44 pm

    Nice post, Henry. I try to avoid Beck so I had not heard his comments on individual salvation, which of course is nothing less than the religious equivalent of the laissez-faire liberalism that motivates Beck and so many others.

    • August 29, 2010 2:03 pm

      I don’t listen to him much, but this morning I saw him being interviewed on FoxNews and I started to write almost immediately. I was most disgusted with his attempt to use the Pope for an ideology which runs counter to his position.

  3. Mark Gordon permalink
    August 29, 2010 4:25 pm

    Glenn Beck is an adult convert to Mormonism, which means that as a grown (and presumably sober) man, he came to believe that an angel named Moroni led an epileptic grifter named Joseph Smith to secret tablets containing “another testament of Jesus Christ.” These tablets were written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, so Moroni gave Smith a magic rock through which Smith was able to transliterate the tablets from hieroglyphics to English. Turns out Jesus, once he was done with his business in Judea, alighted upon the North American continent and brought the “Gospel” to the people living here. That this “Gospel” is essentially – not marginally, but essentially – different than the original Gospel, and that there is no archeological evidence of the people Jesus supposedly ministered to, was apparently not a bar to Beck’s conversion … which tells you everything you need to know about Reverend Beck.

  4. August 29, 2010 5:22 pm

    Of possible relevance:

    http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/printerfriendly.html?articleid=10081315

    Perhaps Austin Ruse will comment.

  5. August 29, 2010 7:17 pm

    Nice quote, John. Yet again, the American bishops are asleep at the wheel, and Catholic university presidents testify to Beck’ s awesomeness.

  6. August 29, 2010 7:21 pm

    It’s even worse than that, Mark. Being ultimately Gnostic, Mormons believe that we are as God once was and we shall be as God is. Good Mormons who get to the top level of heaven (the celestial kingdom) will be God of their own planet. And our God lives on a planet called Kolob.

  7. August 29, 2010 7:38 pm

    This is a thoughtful and well put response to Beck’s ill-advised use of the Pope and liberation theology as part of his rationale.

    With all due respect to him, which I offer out of some basic sense of human dignity, he would not really have much of a clue about the theology of which he speaks. And sadly, neither do many of the Catholics I know who seem to think that he is the greatest thing.

  8. Ellis permalink
    August 29, 2010 8:40 pm

    Okay, so if Beck is a *Mormon* why do we nail him for his *Christian* theology being off?

    He’s not Christian. Mormon’s aren’t Christian. How does his theology comport with Mormon theology, is the question.

    • August 29, 2010 10:08 pm

      Okay, so if Beck is a *Mormon* why do we nail him for his *Christian* theology being off?

      He’s not Christian. Mormon’s aren’t Christian. How does his theology comport with Mormon theology, is the question.

      1) Mormons consider themselves to be Christians even though they fall outside what is generally accepted as “Christian orthodoxy.”
      2) He presents himself as a Christian and claims that what he is teaching is basic Christian theology, not simply Mormon theology.

  9. Kathleen Paul permalink
    August 29, 2010 8:54 pm

    Gentlemen, please also consider Bishop Fulton Sheen’s remarks on this topic way back in 1949, in his classic book, Peace of Soul:

    “We are willing to be saved from poverty, from war, from ignorance, from disease, from economic insecurity; such types of salvation leave our individual whims and passions and concupiscences untouched. That is one of the reasons why social Christianity is so very popular, why there are many who contend that the business of Christianity is to do nothing but to help in slum clearance or the develoment of international amity.

    “This kind of religion is, indeed, very confortable, for it leaves the individual conscience alone.”

    Sheen goes on to say:
    “The first temptation of Satan on the Mount was to try to induce Our Lord to give up the salvation of souls and to concentrate upon social salvation by turning stones into bread-on the false assumption that it was hungry stomachs and not corrupted hearts that made an unhappy civilization.”

    In 1984, then Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to agree when, in his Instruction for all Catholics concerning Liberation Theology, he pointed out–according to author Malachi Martin, that “no political and economic liberation of people–however needed and justifiable–can be confused with the only liberation the Catholic Church promises, which is liberation from sin and sin’s effects.”

    Maybe this is the source of Beck’s understanding of Catholic Church teaching.

    • August 29, 2010 10:02 pm

      Kathleen – While I would agree that advocating justice in society at large and neglecting the demands of your conscience in private matters is a bad idea, it is also true that making religion purely a personal matter neglects the obligations we have to right wrongs and correct injustice. Where would we be without the civil rights movement, for example?

    • August 29, 2010 10:14 pm

      In 1984, then Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to agree when, in his Instruction for all Catholics concerning Liberation Theology, he pointed out–according to author Malachi Martin, that “no political and economic liberation of people–however needed and justifiable–can be confused with the only liberation the Catholic Church promises, which is liberation from sin and sin’s effects.”

      Maybe this is the source of Beck’s understanding of Catholic Church teaching.

      I have no doubt that Beck’s writers are drawing to some extent on Ratzinger’s writings on “liberation theology.” However, the idea that liberation from political and economic oppression and liberation from sin are two different and confusable things is silly. “Sin” is an abstract category, a reality that is embodied in life. Political and economic oppression IS A TYPE of sin. Christ liberates us from sin of all kinds.

      Arguing about the primacy of “sin” or of “oppression” when discussing liberation is like opposing “abortion” and “sin.” Abortion IS sin.

    • August 30, 2010 2:04 am

      Kathleen

      Did you read my post? I discussed the CDF’s response, and pointed out how they didn’t want people to use their concerns as a way to remove the social dimensions of Christian thought, and especially, the need to work for the poor. More importantly, saying “this is not all there is to the Christian life” is not the same thing as saying “this is not part of the Christian life.”

  10. Mark Gordon permalink
    August 29, 2010 10:38 pm

    More. From a Mormon apologetics website: “Before we came to this world, we all lived as spirits under his care and guidance. We believe that God begat or created the spirits of Jesus, Lucifer, and all of the human family as his children. Our Heavenly Father is literally the father of our spirits.”

    The pre-existence of souls (Origenism). Jesus as a created being raised to divinity and subordinate to the Father (Arianism). This is the strange theological stew Beck represents.

  11. August 30, 2010 9:20 am

    Mark Gordon,

    So long as we don’t confuse Origenism with Origen, who in that passage (I belive in “On Principles” [or some approximate title]) admitted that he was speaking speculatively and with not a lot of confidence in his assertions. I just don’t want to see one of my favorite Fathers so closely linked with Beck! ;)

  12. August 30, 2010 9:47 am

    WJ, Amen to that. Origenism is something that happened a long time after Origen.

    • August 30, 2010 10:00 am

      I would only add that debates over Origenism itself become more complex when one explores them. There were many different groups and debates going on. Just look to St John Chrysostom vs Theophilus of Alexandria in relation to an early battle over Origenism. Then what we have under Justinian is really a different debate, and it appears, Justinian interpolated the condemnations into the records of the council.

  13. David Nickol permalink
    August 30, 2010 10:09 am

    You can see Glenn Beck speaking on Christianity in general and liberation theology in particular on one of his shows posted on Youtube in four parts here, here, here (includes Catholic liberation theology), and here.

  14. Mark Gordon permalink
    August 30, 2010 11:52 am

    So long as we don’t confuse Origenism with Origen …

    I’m not confused about the distinction, and anyone who reads an even cursory summary of the controversy will quickly see that Origenism had little to do with Origen.

  15. August 30, 2010 6:34 pm

    Also from De Lubac and germane to this discussion, although from another of his great works (Mystery of the Supernatural):

    We are saved individually, but not separately.

  16. Sid Bell permalink
    August 30, 2010 7:24 pm

    I am not a theologian but I know this. Jesus never meant to make His message so complicated that we don’t know what we are talking about for he brought the promise of Jeremiah 31 to the world. I will put my law on your hearts and minds and you will all know me from the least to the greatest. I am one of the least and to complicate the promise the way this theological diatrab does makes the part of knowing God in the heart vanish. Jesus came to each of us as individuals to give the gift of salvation through grace if we believe in Him and He lives in my heart as He promised. My heart is saying enough of all this talk. Salvation is a spiritual theology while collective salvation is a social theology and they are not the same.

  17. August 31, 2010 8:12 am

    When Catholics say there is no salvation outside the church, they are saying there is no salvation outside of community. We are one mystical body.

  18. August 31, 2010 9:35 am

    When Catholics say there is no salvation outside the church, they are saying there is no salvation outside of community. We are one mystical body.

    YES.

  19. Dennis permalink
    August 31, 2010 4:46 pm

    Americans need to wake up the fact that Beck is simply another opinion pushing charlatan. He does not possess a single ounce of journalistic integrity, he has no qualifications and he is definitely not conservative. But then, what can anyone expect from someone who can’t find anything filthier than their own personal reflection. Since people like Beck cannot exist on the basis of any personal merits, they survive by puting others down with lies and half truths in order to feel good about themselves. The truth about Beck is that he a dry mormon alcoholic who never got the counseling required by alcoholics. He flippantly throws around Christian terms like “God”, “Jesus”, “Holy Spirit” as well as voices of other so called “Spirit Powers” on his radio talk show. Beck is a mormon in active standing with the mormon church and is not a Christian. Mormonism teaches many gods, that the god of the earth was once a man who attained godhood status and that Jesus Christ and Satan were brothers. Because Beck does not possess a single ounce of journalistic integrity, he is the perfect abortion poster child for Fox Network. The people who love what Beck says are no different than the impressionable sheep who loved every speech made by Adolph Hitler in his early years when he brought Germany into an era of economic prosperity. These same sheep (like the ones who listen to and believe the lies of Beck) also blindly followed Hitler into one of the darkest chapters of world history. Beck and the Fox Network both cater to the same lowest common denominator of demagogery. The man would not know the first thing about God as he is a mormon. Someone should ask him which of the many mormon gods he kept talking about during his argument with himself on Saturday. Unfortunately, these teabaggers out there do not realize that Beck is talking about a different god than that of Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

  20. August 31, 2010 4:52 pm

    I am re-reading Aristotle “Politics” right now, in preparation for an article on monarchism, and it is uncanny how current his comments on demagoguery are. Surely, Beck is precisely the kind of character he had in mind in identifying the demagogues as the destroyers of constitutional government.

  21. Sid Bell permalink
    August 31, 2010 7:22 pm

    Many of these comments are so hateful and sad. I feel sorry for those who can’t seem to find the good in people that God found that caused Him to send his son to all of us. I minister to jail inmates every week and find more love there than some of the responses written here. It is not about Glenn Beck it is about you. I think I remember something like love your neighbor as yourself being said in the bible, by, lets see was it Jesus?

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