Defining liberal Christianity

Posted on July 15, 2012

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There are a number of reports on the Web reacting to last week’s ECUSA triennial convention – Mike Bird linked to one at BeliefNet and one at the WSJ; Several people on Twitter and FB pointed out Ross Douthat’s piece in the NY Times, which took the opportunity to give thought to the wider issue of the ‘collapse’ (his word) of liberal Christianity in the USA. The piece is humorous (‘Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.’) and perceptive in drawing attention to a fact that is also one of the chief lessons of Goodhew’s Church Growth in Britain: there is a strong positive correlation between church growth and conservative theology, and between church decline and liberal theology. (This is not, of course, necessarily a reason to commend conservative theology – our calling is to faithfulness to the gospel, not to worldly success – but it is a reason to greet the (very regular) announcements from the more liberal denominations in both the UK and the USA that the best way to stop their decline in attendance is to become yet more liberal with something akin to a facepalm…)

That said, Douthat’s piece seems to me to be built on a fundamental misapprehension; he asserts that ‘the defining idea of liberal Christianity’ is ‘that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion’ and laments the possible loss of this idea from American national life. As a definition of liberal Christianity, this is astonishingly misdirected; indeed, it might better serve as a definition of classical Evangelicalism, which was, and increasingly is again, precisely about the combination of personal and social transformation in the name of the gospel. Someone might attempt a historical account in which this evangelical holism was lost in both directions, with conservatives holding on to the need for personal conversion and liberals holding on to the need for social transformation, but I don’t see this as being in any way plausible; classical evangelicalism was already defined against a liberal tradition, that had its own clear intellectual position, and that in turn rejected the evangelical position. Further, it does not hold even in relatively recent history, at least in the UK (I suspect it does not in the USA either, but my knowledge of the history there is less sure): in the face of mass immigration from the West Indies in the 1950s, for instance, the mainstream liberal churches were fairly uniformly racist; the reactions of evangelical churches were mixed, but at least some did in fact open their doors and welcome their new black neighbours.

What is liberal Christianity? The question is complex, of course. To give a fully adequate answer would demand reference to renewed confidence in reason, to a high estimate of the possibilities of human endeavour, married to a downplaying of the doctrine of original sin (at least as classically taught), to Biblical criticism, to the turn to history that affected theology as much as every other academic discipline in the early twentieth-century, and to other currents.

That said, most of these currents coalesce in popular expressions of Christianity into a fairly unified stream. So, as a broad approximation, liberal Christianity is Christianity that is acutely alive to the challenges to belief coming from modern philosophy. Kant’s denial of knowledge of the noumenal realm apparently made traditional accounts of revelation impossible, and the more-or-less simultaneous rise of Biblical criticism made traditional accounts of revelation profoundly precarious even if possible. Of course, every intellectually serious mode of Christianity has had to respond somehow to these challenges – this was the sense of Stephen Sykes’ announcement that we are all liberals today; the particular character of liberal Christianity has been to find a response in accepting the force of the challenges and seeing a profound need for doctrinal reformulation to meet them.

The greatest, and still defining, figure in the story is Schleiermacher, who attempted to refound theology on a different basis, an appeal to shared human religious experience. All religious traditions, and all systems of theology, were attempts to analyse this shared experience, and to say what must be the case concerning the divine if the experience was in fact accurate. (I am very conscious that recent scholarship on Schleiermacher has resisted this sort of foundationalist reading of his theology; if it is not accurate, then the story I am telling needs slight revision: ‘Schleiermacher was understood, wrongly, to be saying this; those who misapprehended his programme created a vibrant liberal tradition that proceeded on this basis…’) This central methodological place for human experience has remained, in different ways, central to the tradition of liberal theology ever since. If Douthat wants a ‘defining idea of liberal Christianity,’ the idea that attentiveness and fidelity to human religious experience is more determinative than attentiveness and fidelity to Scripture or church tradition would be a much better starting point than the one he offers.

So what? Several things:

1. This explains the complexity of liberal Christian ethics much more successfully than Douthat’s definition. Giving priority to personal experience will inevitably lead to the embracing of an ethic that reflects the general ethic of the culture to which (the majority of) the denomination’s members belong. So, liberal Christianity assumed European racial superiority in the nineteenth century; supported imperial warmongering and  argued in favour of eugenics in the early decades of the twentieth century (see particularly Anna Poulson’s doctoral research on the Lambeth conferences of 1920 and 1930); was unwelcoming to immigrants from the West Indies in the 1950s; turned in favour of the sexual revolution in the 1960s or soon after; became active in arguing for racial equality in the 1980s; embraced environmental concerns in a major way in the 1990s; and so on. This is not to say any of the positions are wrong or right (I have my opinions…), but to point out that the history of liberal Christian ethical reflection, which is a complex mixture of reactionary and progressive positions, can be very plausibly narrated if we assume that a granting of primacy to human experience is somewhere near the intellectual heart of the movement. Oliver O’Donovan comments somewhere (first chapter of A Conversation Waiting to Begin – I don’t have the book with me) to the effect that the tragedy of liberal theology has been that it has discovered no critical purchase on ethical issues that mirrors its critical purchase on doctrinal issues. Quite.

2. This also explains the reason that the, heretofore extremely successful, liberal tradition of Christianity is currently in meltdown. It is not difficult to see that the idea that true notions of the divine can be derived from an examination of universally shared human experience is vulnerable to at least two, apparently devastating, lines of criticism: the claim that human experience is no guide to reality (a claim made classically by Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity, and forming the basis of neo-orthodox criticisms of liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century); and the claim that there is no universally shared human experience to serve as a basis for the argument. This latter line has become extremely powerful in contemporary theology. The early liberation theologians developed a postcolonial critique of such claims: supposed accounts of ‘normative’ human experience are in fact an attempt to force others to conform their experience to norms created by white male Europeans. The explosion of contextual theologies demonstrated the power of such a criticism in contemporary culture: every proposed account of shared human experience is, on this analysis, a hegemonic attempt to impose a false consciousness on others. So African-American women properly refused to be assimilated to the project of feminist theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too white, and properly refused to be assimilated to Black theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too male. Instead, they constructed their own narration, womanist theology. (The great womanist theologians are poets, not just theologians: Emilie Townes somewhere entitles a chapter ‘To love our necks unloosed and straight’ – why can’t I write like that?!).

The effect of all this is to make classical liberalism – ‘we all feel like this, so…’ – culturally incredible. For two centuries, it caught the mood of a culture which believed in metanarratives; for the last two decades (or more) the culture has been incredulous towards metanarratives, and so has been profoundly unreceptive to classical liberalism. Today, liberalism sounds like cultural imperialism; when it tries not to, it simply sounds incoherent. (The best example is also the obvious and tedious one: White, metropolitan, Western culture regards the acceptance of gay/lesbian relationships to be an ethical imperative; the churches of sub-Saharan Africa (to give only one example) see the matter differently; one may be affirming of gay/lesbian people by dismissing the moral intuition of Black Africans, but not otherwise. To claim that gay people and Nigerian people share moral intuitions, or to claim to be simultaneously attentive to gay people and non-Western people, alike appear simply incredible.)

Classical liberalism has failed to cope with recent intellectual and cultural shifts. To the extent to which the culture is now reflexively postmodern – and my observation is simply that it is – classical liberalism finds itself attempting a self-justifcation on the basis of attentiveness to contemporary culture, whilst simultaneously being unable to narrate the very visible differing ethical positions of contemporary culture in any convincing way. It appears to be an explanatory scheme that is unable to explain the key data it purports to narrate. It is no surprise that it is failing massively across the world.

UPDATE: Wesley Hill kindly pointed me to some comments made by Alan Jacobs of Wheaton (@ayjay) on Twitter, to the effect that in the above I wrongly conflate American and English (sic…) liberalism, ignoring the profound effect of Rauschenbusch had in redefining US liberalism. This seems to me a very fair point in terms of my account of liberal ethics in ‘so what point 1′ above, which I accept is rather parochial and based on UK examples; I think my broader point, ‘if you have to come up with a one sentence journalistic definition of the heart of liberal Christianity, what would it be?’ stands; Rauschenbusch provided a compelling narration of a particular set of religious experiences – pastoring in Hell’s Kitchen for him, but of course wider for others – that gave the US conversation a particular shape (just as the experience of the 1914-18 war gave the European conversations particular shapes – very different in Germany and the UK), but I think the heart of the issue remains the same. Of course, I’m open to correction on this, as on all things not contained in the Creed…

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