Main content | Sidebar | Links

Monday, July 3, 2006

Liberal theology's ambiguous future.

What will I want to talk to other progressive faith bloggers about at the first-ever Progressive Faith Blog Con in two weeks? (I hope you'll consider attending.) Two vitally important observations from the final volume of Gary Dorrien's trilogy on the history of liberal theology in America, which he boiled down into a long but illuminating essay in CrossCurrents earlier this year. (The book comes out in November.)

Dorrien suggests (if I may be excused for oversimplifying) that liberal Christianity's power to shape the culture and to influence public life depends on the strength of its roots in local communities — in churches — and on the ability of theologians to express its core themes in compelling and accessible ways to an audience that extends far beyond the academy. Uh oh.

Here are a few excellent paragraphs from the tail end of Dorrien's retrospective essay, "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (CrossCurrents 55:4, Winter 2005):

A hundred years after the liberals gained control of Harvard and effectively began the tradition of American liberal theology, it faces an ambiguous future. On the one hand the pluralization of theology, the beginning of a religion-science dialogue, and the mere beginnings of multiperspectival interreligous thinking make the twenty-first century the most interesting time in history to pursue theology. Liberals are strong on the skills, tools, sensibility, and attitude needed for engaging in interdisciplinary and interreligious thinking. They do not have to compromise their fundamental principles to practice theology as multiperspectival conversation or interreligious dialogue.

On the other hand liberal theologians have seen their house shrink while evangelicals redefine the sociological meaning of "mainline Protestantism" and the Vatican stifles progressive currents in the Catholic church. Protestant evangelicals boast large membership gains and professional networks, while the scourge of liberal Catholicism, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, has ascended to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI. The generation of theologians that returned to liberalism after the collapse of neo-orthodoxy retired at the end of the century, often to be replaced by theologians committed to postliberalism, evangelicalism, the "radical orthodoxy" movement, Catholic orthodoxy, or a variant of Protestant confessionalism. Having entered the 1980s outflanked by movements to its ideological left, liberal theology generally moved to the left, and struggled to find a public voice in a rightward-moving religious and political landscape.

Liberal theology has no purpose or integrity as anything but a progressive tradition. Its renewal does not depend on selling out its critical spirit or progressive heritage. Throughout its history, however, liberal theology has made its strongest appeal when it fuses its two heritages with spiritual power. From its Enlightenment/modernist heritage it has emphasized the authority of modern knowledge, affirmed the continuity between reason and revelation, championed the values of humanistic individualism and democracy, and usually distrusted metaphysical reason. From its evangelical heritage it has affirmed a personal transcendent God, the authority of Christian experience, the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions.

The movement's historic figures — those who made liberal Christianity compelling to millions — were gospel-centered modernists who fused the two languages with conviction: Bushnell, Beecher, Rauschenbusch, Fosdick, Niebuhr, and King. Even Tillich can be counted in this group, though he was an exceptional case in several ways. Other influential proponents of liberal theology also fused the modernist and evangelical faiths: Gladden, Munger, Bowne, Clarke, Brown, Mathews, Macintosh, Harkness, Knudson, Mays, Van Dusen, Muelder, DeWolf, Ferré. In the past generation liberal evangelicalism has withered as an option for academic theologians, yet whenever liberal theology finds a large audience, it speaks a gospel of personal faith in biblical terms. Gomes, Borg, and even Spong are closer to Beecher and Fosdick than to the (narrow sense) "modernist" and postmodernist academic theologies of their generation. They explicate biblical texts and focus intently on what it means to have a personal faith in the postmodern age.

To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?

The most important task I see for progressive religious blogs is not primarily to rally activists or to "fight the right." (Those are important tasks, but in the long term they are secondary tasks.) Instead, it is instead to strengthen, grow, perhaps even transform communities of faith by developing forms of communication that popularize, contextualize, and evangelize the faith. In their own small way, blogs can help revitalize liberal churches — because liberal churches need revitalization if they are to accomplish the work that only they can do.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 3 July 2006 at 8:05 AM

Previous: Scattered thoughts on a divided spiritual identity.
Next: This week at Jefferson and Adams.




Scott Wells:

July 3, 2006 09:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think you're making a subtle but unsustainable jump by matching liberal theology (in general) with liberal Christianity which, by the quotation you cite, has access to resources that "general liberalism" doesn't. If there's hope, it would seem to be from the old Mainline, from which many liberals (Unitarian Universalists in general included) have abdicated.


July 3, 2006 10:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scott, would you mind helping me unpack that a bit? I do assume that there's a difference between liberal Christianity's influence on the culture (sustained by the churches influenced by liberal theology) and the religious left's influence on politics (as a coalition of faith communities including liberal Christian churches and other smaller progressive faith communities).

But I think you're saying something else: that liberal theology now extends beyond Christian boundaries. I think that's true, and evident in the rest of Dorrien's survey of academic liberal theology, but in terms of cultural impact, liberal Christians still have larger social foundations that the other movements some of these theological projects are connected to.

And yes, I do think UUs are marginal to the truly important task of reviving a liberal Christian witness in the larger society. We can help, but we can't lead that project. The mainline churches have profoundly important work to do, and I hope they find ways to revive and prosper. UUs are better positioned to build bridges between the mainline churches and the smaller progressive faith communities.

Help me clarify the unsustainable part of what I'm saying.

doug Muder:

July 3, 2006 10:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'd like to generalize a little: Liberalism has to have a compelling vision. It can't just be a collection of definitions and arguments and critiques. I think that point goes beyond liberal Christianity.

And this allows me to advertise myself: I made the case for Humanist vision in a sermon "The Cosmopolis: a positive Humanist vision" in Middlebury, Vermont in January. The text is here:

Scott Wells:

July 3, 2006 11:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris/Philo -- I meant just the opposite. Progressive Christians and Jews have something to say (and each different from the other) but Unitarian Universalists, Religious Humanists, Ethical Culturalist, liberal religious academics and other liberals are too far removed from the culture to be taken seriously except among themselves. (And perhaps not even then.) I'm not at all optimistic. Even by backwater standards, it is pretty stagnant.

Tom Schade:

July 3, 2006 12:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

So why does liberal religion lack the ability to create and sustain transformative communities?
Is the unsettled situation of liberal theology really the core of the problem?
It seems to me that the mainline Protestants, at least where I work, have exactly the same problems as the UU's: an inability to go beyond "the habits of the churched culture" to create new communities. Their greater theological clarity only seems to be more reassuring in its respectability, but the worship of respectability is the problem.
Look at blogging as an example of the process of community building -- certainly, among the political left, blogging has energized and created communities. It's not the ideological clarity of the blogging effort that creates community. Instead, it is the constant effort at connection, at mutual reinforcement and support, at keeping up a level of chatter. (Isn't it interesting that the Department of Homeland Security is always interested in the "chatter"?, just an aside).

Chris T.:

July 4, 2006 07:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm behind on blogs -- only just read this post.

But I strongly agree, esp. with your last paragraph. I would actually disagree with Scott that liberal Protestants have much of anything to say -- certainly not a lot more than UUs. And it's precisely because they've been so obsessed with fighting the influence of the right instead of putting forth a positive religious vision. (I mean positive in the sense of not reactive, not positive in the sense of smiles-and-daisies.)

I look forward to talking about this (and many other things!) and the conference.

Joseph Santos-Lyons:

July 5, 2006 02:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

i'm glad you're going to the Progressive Faith Bloggers conference, i wish i could attend. i'm free that weekend, and will try to catch some of the webcasting. Philo - want to come to ConCentric to do a workshop, incorporating your own interests and your experiences at this event? joseph - ps - nice to see you headlining on the PFB website


July 7, 2006 04:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Don't miss the publication of the proceedings of the UU Theological Symposium just finished in Kolozsvar (Transylvania). Paul Rasor and John Buehrens, among others, have a few suggestions to make about the future of liberal theology. It is a pity that few American UUs actually attended the meeting (but it was full of young Transylvanian Unitarian ministers, so expect competition from a new generation of Hungarian-speaking quality U theologians!

Comments for this entry are currently closed.