13 July 2006

Theological liberalism – in memoriam

From time to time, I dip into the Fulcrum website to keep an eye on what is happening in moderate evangelical Anglicanism. A couple of weeks ago they posted a piece, misleadingly called a sermon, by Oliver O’Donovan (the new professor of Christian ethics at Edinburgh University) on ‘The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm’. Since then, I have had occasion to read it over more than once and those re-readings have just confirmed my initial impression that this was a very incisive analysis of the demise of the liberal consensus within Anglicanism.

O’Donovan sees the current divisions within Anglicanism, highlighted by the consecration of Gene Robinson, as symptomatic of the collapse of the Anglican liberal consensus. The tried and tested technique of maintaining unity by ‘synthesizing’ opposing dogmatisms (traditionally evangelicalism and catholicism) ‘within a central, undogmatic stream of opinion’ (what one of my theological teachers used to call ‘the unexamined Anglican via media’) is no longer working.

In order to understand why the middle way appears to have been closed off, O’Donovan analyses the theological liberalism that gave birth to it. He characterizes theological liberalism thus:
When qualifying a religious posture, "liberal" suggests independence in relation to spiritual authorities, scriptural, hierarchical or congregational. This distance may be no more than a questioning habit of mind, an independence of judgment that may lead back to a new and clarified recognition of authority. It may, on the other hand, be a deep alienation that fosters resentments that never quite proceed to an open breach.

More specifically, the independence of theological liberalism is achieved by giving priority to human reason over all spiritual authorities. This was, of course, the Enlightenment solution to the problem of religious intolerance – the Kantian vision of a religion humanized by being contained ‘within the bounds of reason alone’. And that led in the nineteenth century to the ethical reconstruction of Christianity as the most developed expression of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (as Ritschl et al. put it). In keeping with that slogan and programme of reconstruction, Christian doctrines were redefined to purify them of any offensive particularity. For example, ‘incarnation’ ceased to refer to God becoming a particular human being at a specific time and in a specific culture and became instead, in O’Donovan’s words, ‘a paradigm or model for a conjunction of the human and divine to be effected in all times and places. The incarnation of the Word takes place continually. Being party to the positive conjunction of God and world is the specific form of theosis offered to believers in liberal theology.’ Classical theological liberalism was nothing if not world-affirming.

Unfortunately for classical theological liberalism it affirmed a world that simply is no more. The world it affirmed, with its evolutionary optimism and its easy identification of the dominant moral tradition of post-Enlightenment Europe with universal truth, died on the battlefields of the First World War. Ninety years ago Karl Barth rightly rejected a theological liberalism whose moral bankruptcy was made only too clear by the support of his theological teachers for the Kaiser’s war. It took much longer for the liberals to recognize (if not admit) the same. However, O’Donovan suggests that recognition eventually came with the pluralism of the postcolonial era, which left liberalism ‘without a dominant moral tradition that it could claim as forerunner of the Kingdom of God’. Thus, ‘Comparatively late in the story, the tradition of theological liberalism reached for narratives of emancipation to give its cause fresh propulsion.’

The various causes that recent theological liberalism has espoused have certainly breathed new life into it, allowing it to re-present the gospel as promise of liberation to oppressed minorities of all kinds. However, there has been a price to pay. As O’Donovan points out, ‘From that point on, it became identified with one kind of moral cause to the exclusion of others. It became a church-party proper, a specific agenda to pit against other agendas.’ In other words, it has abandoned the centre ground, the position that once gave it the mediating role between conflicting dogmatisms within Anglicanism.

Personally, I am not convinced that classical liberalism can survive the enthusiasm of the causes it has espoused. Liberation from injustice is a matter for passion rather than cool critical reason. Liberalism may have espoused the cause of liberation but mainstream liberation theology looks elsewhere for nourishment – to the Bible and to Marxism rather than to liberal thinkers of the past or present.

That raises one final question for me. To what extent can theological liberalism today be regarded as a source of spiritual nourishment? Perhaps it was at one time, when it was identified with the moral tradition of the social and political Establishment. But those days are long gone.

That theological liberalism has failed is only too apparent from trends in contemporary religion. Where is the growth? Not in liberalism but in fundamentalisms of various kinds, from the religious right of the USA to the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Not in liberalism, but in a variety of experientialisms from charismatic/Pentecostal Christianity to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of New Age spiritualities. Theological liberals constitute a tiny (and ever-shrinking) minority of affluent Western Christians.

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