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