Defining liberal Christianity

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…


  1. andygoodliff
    Jul 15, 2012

    what about the percy and markham book why liberal churches are growing …

    • Steve H
      Jul 15, 2012

      Don’t know the book, Andy – reference? But in the UK, Europe, and the USA, churches that self-identify as ‘liberal’ are generally haemorrhaging people at horrible rates – those stats are incontrovertible…

  2. Ian Jennings
    Jul 15, 2012

    Worthwhile reading. Thank you. Ironically – or providentially (?) – placing a high value on experience can lead someone with liberal views who encounters the power of God personally or in others to a high view of scripture. The positions people hold are not always fixed.(Charismatics also place a high view on personal experience [as did St Paul] and most in this country would probably describe themselves as Open Evangelical not liberal.).

    • Steve H
      Jul 16, 2012

      Welcome Ian.
      Much of evangelicalism has a high view of religious experience (‘You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!’) but it generally serves as a justificatory apologetic, rather than as a driver of doctrinal innovation.

  3. Andrew Wilson
    Jul 16, 2012

    This is oh-so-helpful, Steve – I’m linking to you this week …

  4. David McIlroy
    Jul 16, 2012

    Really helpful Steve, as ever.

  5. Spot on Steve, but it would be wrong to assume that the whole of classical liberalism will disappear. While the majority simper into oblivion one (small) stream morphs into postliberalism almost, but not quite, bumping into postevangelical adventurers en route and another (in a way remaining true to its core instinct of taking on the dominant shape of western intellectual culture) seeks to find consciously pluralist ways of reshaping itself. It’s interesting to see this latter trend taking hold in a big way within that most classically liberal outgrowth of Christianity, Unitarianism. It seems to me that postmodern Unitarianism at least has the potential to find new life and growth by responding to the Zeitgeist, the catch being of course that in the process it ceases to be Christian.

    I’m also left wondering just how, in the long run, mainstream evangelicalism with its historic unconscious absorption of the modernist mindset will respond to its own version of the postmodern dilemma. In all likelihood, for the most part, unconsciously. I’m not convinced that postevangelicalism is sufficiently rigorous philosophically and I doubt that a retrenched conservatism will be anything more than a temporarily (two generation?) resurgent refuge. Time for us all to become postliberals?

    • Steve H
      Jul 16, 2012

      Thanks, Glen.
      Yes to all that. In trying consciously to write about the internal intellectual orientation of the mass movement, rather than the theologians, one thing that occurred to me is that I don’t think we have seen a postliberal denomination yet (very open to proposed examples that might not be on my radar…), and I’m not sure what one would look like. Maybe we need to set up a ‘Futures process’ to do some reimagining?!

  6. pneumaandlogos
    Jul 16, 2012

    Thanks for another thoughtful piece of work. We need more clear thinking like this. Keep your contributions coming, they always stimulate the little grey cells.

  7. Alan Jacobs
    Jul 16, 2012

    Steve, I should say that I think your most general points, about the corner theological liberalism has painted itself into, are strong and true. And I want to clarify my objections. You say that Douthat’s definition of liberal Christianity is “astonishingly misdirected,” which I believe is quite unfair. Douthat is clearly talking about the American context, specifically the early-to-mid-twentieth-century American mainline context, and within that context his description is accurate.

    Rauschenbusch is the key figure here, because his message got passed on and amplified by many others, especially people at Union Seminary in New York, and from there passed to Martin Luther King, Jr., and from there to contemporary Protestant liberalism — but with the piety amputated. For Rauschenbusch, and many of his followers, really were concerned about personal piety and even, yes, conversion. Look just at the opening pages of his Theology for the Social Gospel and you’ll see: “The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him.” Rauschenbusch doesn’t think he is abandoning that “old message of salvation” but rather accepting it and drawing the consequences. And he clearly thinks that if your own heart isn’t changed you won’t see our “collective sins” and structural evil. This emphasis on the link between personal piety and social conscience was continued at Union Seminary, and many other places as well, and was tremendously influential in mid-twentieth-century America.

    Now, it was a liberal pietism, which in this case means a non-Christocentric one, so it was doomed to failure — indeed, doomed to create the conditions of the contemporary liberal church that Douthat talks about. But it was nevertheless an attempt to combine American evangelical conversionism with social justice. If you read Frederick Buechner’s memoir Now and Then, with its portrait of Union in the 50s, you’ll see how much of that old emphasis on personal transformation remained.

    English liberalism — and I meant “English,” not “British” — took a rather different course, and ended up with the mixture of progressive and reactionary opinions that you note. I think this was a function of Establishment (see now why I said “English”?) and the deep influence of Anglo-Catholicism with its combination of passionate social ministry with deeply traditional theology. But those forces were not at work in America; here we got a straighter road to progressive politics pure and simple, altogether denuded of theology.

    • Steve H
      Jul 16, 2012

      Thanks, Alan.
      ‘[A]stonishingly misdirected’ was too strong, on reflection; I’ll withdraw that and substitute something along the lines of ‘if one is seeking a “defining idea” of liberal Christianity, it lies at least deeper, and perhaps elsewhere…’
      Yes, absolutely, the American liberal tradition was enormously concerned with personal piety through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth – I suggest in my book on Baptist theology that one of the reasons liberalism got a hearing from people like Ira Chase and A.H. Strong (who I assume would have taught Rauschenbusch in seminary, but I don’t have a source to confirm that to hand) was precisely this strongly pietistic strand (which in its German origins was actually very christocentric – even christomonist…), which chimed very well with a Baptist concern for experiential religion.
      And, yes, English Anglican liberalism has been deeply affected by the lasting catholic tradition.
      That said, I think I want to see more in common between the traditions than you do: Scottish liberal theology is not that different from English liberal theology, despite the lack of a catholic wing of the established Presbyterian church here; the theological commerce between Germany and the USA in the 1930s managed to happen despite the different developments of the two traditions of Christianity.
      As with any historical movement, we can tell the story stressing local distinctiveness, or stressing translocal commonalities – it may be that the choice finally comes down to something as trivial as taste, or academic formation – we systematic theologians have a deep-seated need to make everything connect or fit into a pattern, which occasionally drives our historian friends mad! If I have been guilty of over-systematising, I plead only that it is a collective sin caused by a structural evil embedded in my upbringing and formation…

      • Alan Jacobs
        Jul 16, 2012

        That all seems fair enough! — and it’s not like you can help yourself, enmeshed in social forces as you are. . . .

  8. Joel
    Jul 16, 2012

    Thanks Steve,

    I have become increasingly convinced of the hopelessness of trying to define ‘Evangelical’, ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ Christianity etc… They all seem to mean slightly different things to different people, and most of the time there are various prejudicies involved (and, alas, I am probably going to proceed with such prejudicies now!).

    Firstly it seems to me that there is a great difference between American and British (European) thinking on this issue. Generally it seems to me that in America there is a stronger link with political ideologies. Conservative Christianity = conservative politics, liberal Christianity = more progressive politics. This is somewhat anathema to me as a Brit. Evangelical Christians here are, as you have said, very passionate about the social gospel, environmental concerns etc… Our evangelical churches don’t seem to care if you vote Tory, Labour, LD, Green or any other (except perhaps BNP!). Whilst the Christianity of Martin Luther King seems to be described by many in America as ‘liberal’, it seems to me to be much more akin to ‘evangelical’?!

    Theologically speaking ‘liberal’ is used so widely as to be absolutely useless. There is the liberalism of those who remain theologically orthodox but, nonetheless, more open, as you have said, to religious experience (though you have also rightly pointed out that Evangelicals are open to this too), to biblical criticism, to the insights of other religions etc…(though I know loads of self-identified evangelicals who also believe a lot can be learned from other faiths, biblical criticism etc…). Anyway I think Percy and Markham (and the likes of Keith Ward and Rowan Williams) do fit into this orthodox but open-minded understanding of ‘liberal’. But ‘liberal’ is also used for those who I would more readily understand as ‘revisionist’ (ie Spong). These are people willing to revise every doctrine of the historic faith. It seems silly to me to lump together Keith Ward and Rowan Williams with John Shelby Spong (and the Sea of Faith Network, also sometimes described as ‘liberal Christians’!!!). After all Keith Ward has been very critical of the ‘beliefs’ of the Sea of Faith Network and Rowan Williams very critical of Spong.

    I really like Rowan Williams, but would not wish to be considered ‘liberal’ (if I really had to I would describe myself as open-evangelical) because of its associations with the likes of Spong (reading Spong, if it doesn’t want to make me shoot myself in the face, makes me want to become a Roman Catholic [I belong to a self-identified ‘evangelical’ Baptist Church, and thus I am very similar to you, Steve]). ‘Evangelical’ and ‘liberal’, I think, should be labels at home within ‘orthodoxy’. Outside of orthodoxy is not ‘liberal’ but ‘revisionist’.

    I recognise the irony in critiquing all the labels and then subsequently using them. But that probably highlights my point. We need these labels, and yet, they are defined so widely as to be almost useless, and probably even harmful (even more frustrating and harmful are the terms ‘exclusivist’ and ‘inclusivist’).

  9. Joel
    Jul 16, 2012

    Also if you have not already read it I can highly recommend the article ‘Religion in America: Ancient and New’ by the great David Bentley Hart. He has his own labels, admittedly. For example he describes Spong as ‘a notorious simpleton’ which is about the most apt label I can think of. He also has a jab at Europeans! Anyway he also concludes that ‘liberal’ Christianity in America will soon be practically obsolete. A superb article by one of my favourite theologians at the moment.

  10. William Dalton
    Jul 17, 2012

    The best book for defining Christian orthodoxy, from the American evangelical perspective, and its liberal alternative, was, and still remains, J. Gresham Machen’s “Liberalism and Christianity”.

  11. rachelmuers
    Jul 17, 2012

    Tiny point about a thought-provoking post, Steve, but – there are gay Nigerians. Nothing particularly incredible about claiming that “gay people and Nigerian people share moral intuitions” (and the same is true in spades when you start talking about “Black African” and “non-Western”). I know what you meant.

    • Steve H
      Jul 17, 2012

      Yes – and there are homophobic New Yorkers! But I do take the point; an very unfortunate slip of phraseology given the current political situation. Sorry.

      • Marcia F. Steiner
        Jul 23, 2012

        One must also consider the extent to which African homophobia is itself a product of Western imperialism. I’m far from an expert on African indigenous religion but my understanding (and do correct me if I’m wrong) is that most of them had no problem with same-sex relationships until European missionaries started showing up to teach them the “error” of their ways.

        • Steve H
          Jul 24, 2012

          Thanks for stopping by, Marcia. I’m no expert either, but I think the story is more complex than that. In particular, the use of male-on-male rape in warfare rendered (rightly or wrongly) gay intercourse deeply problematic for many communities.


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