The nature and future of liberal theology

I’m one of a number of people asked to write 1000 words on ‘the nature and future of liberal theology’ for an upcoming issue of the journal Modern Believing. I’ve found this really difficult, partly because of the demands of brevity and not being able to qualify everything I say a million times, partly because of my ambivalence about liberal theology itself. For exactly the same reasons, it’s been a really stimulating process. At the risk of self-indulgence, I am reproducing my first draft here. If anyone has patience to read and comment, I’d appreciate it.

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Theology is often a matter of images. In the case of liberal theology, two images stand out which define its classical form. Both need critical interrogation.

The first image is of the kernel and the husk. The argument is this: there is a living heart of the gospel which has become trapped in a dead shell. That shell might be composed of institutional structures, rituals, or particular dogmatic formulations. Break apart the husk and what emerges is the vitality of the essence of Christianity, free of the dead hand of orthodoxy and church hierarchy. For Adolf von Harnack, for example, that essence consisted in Jesus’ teaching of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.

The second image is more implicit in liberal theology: it is that of the dawn. It flows out of the idea of ‘enlightenment’ in philosophy. Human beings come to think for themselves, rather than slavishly following authority. As a result, science and political institutions emerge from church control. Experimental science, technological advance and political reforms lead to a democratisation of knowledge, and progress towards a more emancipated humanity. That progress advances and completes the evolution of human knowledge as the light of day spreads over the earth. Religious knowledge too is able to progress, to accept evolution as its own dynamic. We are no longer simply beholden to the past for our sense of God.

Each image has its aesthetic appeal and philosophical power. Strategically, each has been used to advance causes – from acceptance of the validity of scientific method to the acceptance of the moral goodness of same sex relationships – that most readers of this journal would support.

However, images speak on many levels. And these two carry with them the baggage of the modern age.

Take the kernel and the husk. Note how similar it is to the New Testament distinction between the Spirit and the letter of the law. No matter how ‘liberal’ that sounds, the reality is that it was used as part of an argument which consigned Judaism to the realm of a dead, inauthentic legalism. Indeed, as Christian orthodoxy developed, things got worse: the Jews were condemned as those who had actively set out to kill the True Life which was in Christ.

That alone should give us pause for thought. And so should the general tendency of this imagery to divorce a true ‘spiritual’ essence from all the compromises of real embodied life, from all its messy politics and history. The idea that a truth could simply float free of that and remain safe, intact and pure is naïve and dangerous.

As for the imagery of dawn, need we remind ourselves how often talk of spreading civilisation is a mask for Western imperialism; how strongly progress is linked with colonisation or the triumph of ‘flexible’ capitalism; or how the victory of light is won at the expense of ‘dark’ races and continents? For all the talk of leaving outmoded dogmas behind, there is more than a whiff of a secular theology of providence going on here.

Finally, we need to note how the two images contradict one another: the one looking back to recover a timeless truth, the other looking forward to future consummation. Perhaps what links them both is their actual disdain for history, and their lack of recognition for the human labour and conflict driving it.

So what is needed?

I take ‘liberal’ theology, in its most positive form, to be a dynamic set of interventions and possibilities, not a fixed position. As such, I believe two things are called for.

First, a theology without essence, or a pluralistic theology. By this, I do not mean the idea that ‘many religions lead to one reality/God’, still less that ‘anything goes’ and we can pick and choose the truth we want. I mean that theology should be experimental: a production of possibilities which fights against the myth that reality is simply given, that a preconceived idea of ‘Nature’ dictates what can and can’t be done, that there is one Orthodoxy or Providence to which all must submit.

Theology’s temptation is to set out a world structure or essence and then determine where we fit into that structure. The problem is that this obscures the fact that such structures are produced, and that they serve particular interests. The most radical insight of liberal theology is that what God is can’t be dictated in advance. On my account, this is not an excuse for relativism, but an affirmation that theology is anti-imperial, anti-supremacist, anti-capitalist, since it resists the domination of reality by a single principle of value. More positively, this means that God ‘is’ the reality which engenders multiple expressions of militant solidarity, the flourishing difference which is the common wealth of all creatures. God is possible, not in the weak sense of ‘may or may not be real’, but in the strong sense of a real possibility of expressing and living solidarity, curiosity, love or forgiveness in uncountable and unforeseeable ways.

The second thing I think is needed is a theology which is partial. Liberal theologies have found that concerns over method and truth have led them into political commitments: taking sides over issues of power, resources, recognition and visibility. These are profoundly material concerns, to do with race, gender and class. A theology which is not merely an echo of a pre-existing hierarchy cannot avoid these political, worldly entanglements. More than that: it should not avoid them, since they are its lifeblood. If theology does not serve the liberation of flesh and blood human beings, it is part of the problem.

This may look a thin or negative basis for a theology. It’s true that I do think a large part of theology has been and should be therapeutic: curing us of idolatry and fake images of transcendence. Such idols today include the all devouring marketization and commodification of the world, as well as the false gods of fundamentalism and traditionalism and Western racism. However, this ‘no’ is mirrored by an affirmation of respect for creatures and creation in their material, lived, evolving and contested reality. A ‘yes’ to the complex, fragile and contingent ecologies which sometimes make relationships of grace possible, without the naivete which pretends that the world can or should be freed of all struggle, violence or chance.

There have been five mass extinction events in the earth’s prehistory. We are busy manufacturing the sixth. Nothing says things couldn’t have been different. There could be no life at all here, let alone human beings. Nothing justifies the suffering of the world. There is no supernatural end point which will save everything and tell us what it all meant. Theology, corrupt and compromised as it is, preserves memories and stories of resistance to the grand narrative that calls us to submit to death or sacrifice (not least, but not only, that of Jesus). If theology is to speak of all things in the light of God, this no longer means a flight into otherworldly knowledge, or a reduction of everything to some common measure, but a discovery of what this world is truly capable of. Creation is being reinvented, always, and not only in ways we find comprehensible or comfortable. Theology has to live with that.

A final thought. Liberal theology opened the door to an engagement with science, democracy and critical thought, and it cannot now fall back on the dream of preserving islands of pure divinity in the storm of life. Perhaps now, we have to do theology without a foundation, without even the sight of land.

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5 Responses to “The nature and future of liberal theology”

  1. Robert Saler Says:

    “And so should the general tendency of this imagery to divorce a true ‘spiritual’ essence from all the compromises of real embodied life, from all its messy politics and history. The idea that a truth could simply float free of that and remain safe, intact and pure is naïve and dangerous.”

    Very good.

  2. John Says:

    Amongst all the shrill talk of the demise of not just liberal theology and religion but of theology itself, I found your concise, eloquent treatment very helpful and worthy of a wide readership. The notion of a weaker theology, less apologetic, and less foundationalist is not a demerit but an opportunity for the gospel to take a shape; even a cruciform shape that can and should speak to not just human beings but creaturely reality in all its plurality, beauty, possibility and even failure. I suppose a next move, that is left out in your brief piece, is a Christological take on all these fronts, and that, it seems to me, is the hope of the gospel, that Jesus Christ is caught up in all our ecologies, not just humanistically centered theological existence, but in all the variegated forms of existence and becoming that technology and progress are creating.

  3. david cl driedger Says:

    Would you care to comment about the future of liberal theology as, or not as, Christian theology? You talk around it a bit and was not quite sure where those thoughts were directed.

  4. Jordan Says:

    “Liberal theology opened the door to an engagement with science, democracy and critical thought, and it cannot now fall back on the dream of preserving islands of pure divinity in the storm of life. Perhaps now, we have to do theology without a foundation, without even the sight of land.”

    This reminds me of the sentiment found in 124 (In the Horizon of the Infinite) of the Gay Science:

    “We have left the land and embarked, we have burned our bridges behind us– indeed, we have gone further and destroyed the land behind us…Woe when you feel homesick for the land, as if it offered more freedom– and there is no longer any ‘land’.”

    In fact, I think there is a Nietzschean chord struck throughout the the article, particularly where you write:

    “this no longer means a flight into otherworldly knowledge, or a reduction of everything to some common measure, but a discovery of what this world is truly capable of. Creation is being reinvented, always, and not only in ways we find comprehensible or comfortable.”

    But I can’t say I particularly understand what is Christian about it– if, indeed, you understand there to be. Nor is it clear to me, in this movement, what the “theo” of theology is. You write that “God ‘is’ the reality which engenders multiple expressions of militant solidarity,” but what exactly is it about this reality that engenders solidarity? Why does God continue to be linked to a ‘standing together’ if there is no common measure (or is ‘reduction to common measure’ to be distinguished from the idea of there being no common measure?). Is God the measure by which we are made common to one another? If so, it would seem to me that theology can never excise from itself the danger of the reduction to the same, but even requires this danger.

    I hope that’s alright as a question.

  5. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Thanks to all for these helpful comments and questions. Of course, it is only a brief piece so I don’t develop any Christological thinking here. But, in a sense, that is also deliberate. Honestly, I’m not too worried about how Christian it is. I can certainly see readings of the incarnation or death of God which can be worked out in relation to this perspective, but I want to avoid any suggestion that the truth is simply a matter of unfolding what is already there in Christology, for example.

    Jordan goes further and asks about the nature and effect of God in what I write. In effect, am I just using ‘God’ as a placeholder for something that could equally well be captured by ‘possibility’ or ‘hope’? Again, I’m not wholly worried by the ambiguit, though I suggest that what the language of God enables is a thinking of, and symbolic, ritual experience of, unconditional commitment and the refusal of death as the definition of our life. It is a particular way of intensifying multiplicity: Kierkegaard’s ‘idea for which I would live and die’.

    The question about whether the risk of a common measure is needed is an excellent one, to which I do not have a ready response. My initial reaction is that there is a difference between a fixed ontological basis for analogy and the more radical equality implied by univocal immanence, out of which shared ‘measures’ of solidarity have to be contingently built. But I obviously need to think it through more fully.


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