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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Liberalism's enemies.

Last night I mentioned Paul Berman's essay on the theological vision behind al Qaeda. Sayyid Qutb "opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, not because the United States failed to be a liberal society." The liberalism that al Qaeda opposes is not just libertinism or secular democracy, and it's much deeper than a complaint about the unfairness of U.S. foreign policy. Berman believes that this new Islamist illiberalism represents a growing militant threat to liberal civilization.

The last time that liberalism confronted a radicalized philosophical challenge, that threat emerged from within Western civilization. Unitarians responded with two major theological renewal movements: Humanism (with a 1933 "Manifesto") and what I'll call, for lack of a better term, chastened Christian liberalism. Unitarian Universalists today are better acquainted with Humanism — although they may not realize how much that movement was a response to the rise of antireligious materialism. William F. Schulz, in Making the Manifesto: The Rise of Religious Humanism, writes that

while religious humanism abandoned the God language of the modernists, it sought to salvage religious sympathies from the throes of a vacant, rock-ribbed materialism. Repudiating the irrationalism and pessimism of the rebellious young, humanism looked to human intelligence and the insights of science to rework the world. Far from seeing the scientific developments of the last half-century as threatening to religion, humanism insisted that they could provide the foundation for a satisfying religious system. (12-13)

But Unitarian Universalists who discuss the "Humanist controversy" of the 1920s and '30s usually imagine that the only other party in the debate was the old-fashioned "lyrical theism" of late-19th century Unitarians. Humanists themselves have certainly played up this version of the story. There was another critical movement that emerged in the 1930s, however, although we remember it today in terms of its leading advocate, James Luther Adams.

Adams brought the theologian Paul Tillich to the United States and was his first translator. Adams launched the Journal of Liberal Religion back in 1939; the journal's opening editorial declared that "Liberalism is dead! Long live liberalism!" A social ethicist as well as a theologian, Adams offered the most trenchant critiques of theological liberalism — and helped religious liberals reshape their core commitments in light of new conditions. He also helped usher in the Unitarian denomination's resurgence in the 1940s and '50s, most notably through his work on the Commission of Appraisal.

Which brings me to the following excerpt, from the Commission's first report, Unitarians Face a New Age (1936). Adams's trademark concerns are evident in these selections from the introduction:

[T]here can be little doubt of the need in the modern world for some organized expression of the liberal spirit in religion. In a time when revolution and chaos are everywhere threatening, when ideals are again forming an alliance with tyranny and dogmatism, when intellectual confusion and social discontent are blindly trying to fight their way out of situations where only the problem-solving temper of mind can be of real help, when a fresh birth of the nationalistic spirit is everywhere offering its spurious comfort to tired and discouraged people — in a time like ours there is imperative need for a religious fellowship that will bring order and hope and confidence to men of the liberal tradition . . .

What is needed in the world of 1936 is an association of free churches that will stand and fight for the central philosophy and values of liberal religion, as set over against any philosophy that denies the spiritual nature of man, making him merely the product and plaything of a material universe in which only blind chance and ruthless force have sway . . .

[F]or without the support of religious principles and religious enthusiasm liberalism cannot hope to fight a long, hard campaign in any field. Political liberalism has suffered serious defeat whenever it lacked foundations of philosophic thought or the stamina or moral endurance which religion can supply. Social and economic liberalism have fallen into disrepute for the same reason. But religion can supply the basic ideas and the inexhaustible driving-force of emotion and will that are necessary to meet on equal terms the forces now arrayed against democracy, provided it be a religion that is itself consistent with the principles of liberalism. (3-5)

Adams worked tirelessly to identify some of the religious affirmations under key liberal commitments. His work can help us ask deeper questions about liberalism today, but we have our work cut out, too. The Unitarians in 1936 defined their mission in terms of a fundamental value — liberalism, or the freedom and dignity of the individual human being. How would we define our basic affirmation today?

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 26 March 2003 at 5:35 PM

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November 16, 2004 03:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Julian Sanchez writes:

Paul Berman writes, in Liberalism and Terror, that intellectuals—and that means novelists and filmmakers no less than political theorists—have forgotten how to prevent a robust defense of liberalism even as it's most needed to combat the growing appeal of illiberal fundamentalist Islamism. Something similar, I think, is true domestically.

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