Dr Doolittle with the two-headed llama 'pushmi-pullyu'

Now that recent controversies have revealed the downside of hardline dogmatic Christianity, there is increasing interest in liberal theology. What is it, and who are the liberals?

I have been involved with Modern Church for 30 years and have just stepped down after 11 as General Secretary. I’ve got to know a lot about liberal theology, both in the academic world and in the churches. Here I describe my experience of liberals in the churches.

We seem to be moving in two different directions, though most of the time there is no conflict between them. Every movement is to some extent a reaction against an earlier movement, so a bit of history may help.

I start with the rise of atheism in the 19th century. It seemed to many that science was disproving the existence of God. If we take the controversy over Essays and Reviews (1860) as a starting-point, ‘liberals’ believed Christians could deny the existence of hell with a clear conscience. And then, accept evolution. And then, accept the evidence of archaeological digs that the biblical histories were sometimes inaccurate. By the end of the nineteenth century this was a very common view among educated churchpeople, expressed by the foundation of Modern Church in 1898. This kind of liberalism

  1. seeks a unitary account of reality, so that science and religion are consistent with each other;
  2. has an apologetic dimension, in that it defends religious belief by denying that it contradicts scientific truths;
  3. seeks to be engaged with the issues of society. Liberal Christianity expects to be informed by, but also to inform, the questions of the day.

Let us call this ‘apologetic liberalism’.

Most church leaders moved in a different direction. There was a rise of what later became known as ‘fundamentalism’: the infallibility of the Pope and the Bible were emphasised against modern society. Across the Catholic-Protestant spectrum, western Christianity became more dogmatic. Today this is expressed in the heavy emphasis on single issues where church leaders differ from secular society: Catholics on abortion, Protestants on homosexuality. Dogmatic Christianity thus identifies itself by defying secular society.

This makes dogmatic Christianity oppressive. Currently, women are often oppressed by dogmas of male headship, gay and lesbian people by condemnations of their relationships. In times past other issues have dominated. It is not just a matter of doctrinal disagreement: countless people have been severely traumatised by oppressive doctrines.

When people rebel against the dogmatism, some become atheists; others want to cling onto church life but find freer, more tolerant versions of Christianity. In practice this means having permission to disbelieve while remaining a church member.

This is  a more focused liberalism. It does not react against atheism, so does not have an apologetic dimension and is not necessarily engaged with society. It is more rooted in church life, seeking to make it more open, inclusive and tolerant. We might call it ‘permissive liberalism’.

Both apologetic and permissive liberalisms permit doubts and welcome debate about Christian teaching, so both are characterised by people who like to think for themselves. As I see it, the key theological difference is about the existence of God. Apologetic liberalism defends religious belief against atheism as well as fundamentalism. Inclusive liberalism permits disbelief, without necessarily drawing the line at God.

The waters have been muddied. 60 years ago either you believed in God or you didn’t. Since then theologians have drawn on the philosophical concepts of non-realism, relativism and constructivism to produce alternatives: you can believe ‘God exists’ in different ways. Being, myself, a bog standard critical realist, I think the effect of these theories is to allow people to become atheists gently, often without realising it. This meets a need: those busy divesting themselves of oppressive Christian dogmas may well divest themselves of God as well, especially if they think God is the source of the oppression, without feeling they have crossed a significant line.

If you don’t believe in God, doesn’t that make you an atheist? Some accept the label and its implications: if there is no God, there is no point in churches, no point in praying. Others do not go so far. Perhaps their church means a lot to them. Perhaps the believing side of things was never important to them anyway. They would rather think of themselves as liberals than as atheists. Although the logic of it baffles me, I know some Modern Church members who are much better than me at praying, meditating, producing good liturgies and conducting services but whose beliefs about God are effectively atheist. I console myself with the thought that God enables us to relate to the divine in different ways.

Of the two liberalisms, apologetic liberalism is more self-sufficient. If atheism and dogmatism both collapsed, apologetic liberalism would just become normal religious believing, as arguably it has been in the past. Permissive liberalism, on the other hand, would change character. No longer needing to react against oppression, it would lose its emphasis on disbelief and perhaps become more positive about what it did believe. In this way it would become more like apologetic liberalism.

Asked to choose between the two types, some like me would see themselves as apologetic liberals. Others would see themselves as permissive liberals. Others again, probably most, would not recognise the distinction. Nevertheless tensions between the two do crop up; characteristically apologetic liberals want to make some claim while permissive liberals feel the claim is too dogmatic.

I think these two liberalisms are likely to move in different directions. Permissive liberalism has an important therapeutic role within church culture, and will continue to have it as long as there are oppressive versions of Christianity. Outside church culture, permissive liberals fit easily within normal secular culture. It is religious dogmas they disbelieve, not society’s norms. As far as society’s norms are concerned they usually have nothing distinctively religious to offer, no religious reason to challenge the status quo.

Apologetic liberalism does have the tools to challenge the status quo. With its unitary account of reality it expects to play a significant part in exploring how society understands the way things are and how we ought to live. Its commitment to God is a commitment to an authority higher than national governments, an authority which knows how things work and how we ought to live, and therefore passes true judgement on what governments actually do.

Dogmatic Christianity also claims to pass judgement on society. Dogmatic Christianity, however, is hampered by its own dogmas. Even when it reaches beyond its narrow list of bêtes noires – homosexuality, evolution, abortion, etc – it feels the need to relate its concerns to biblical texts, thereby ensuring that it only speaks to other dogmatic Christians. Liberals by contrast can speak the language of ordinary people, and care about poverty, climate change and cancer for the same reasons that ordinary people do. What liberals add is that we see it as God’s world, and use our religious resources to explore the implications of new issues.

For the foreseeable future, permissive liberalism will have an important role, if only within the churches. Apologetic liberalism seems liberal in the present ecclesiastical context, but in the longer term is just normal religious belief. Most liberals are a bit of both. The need to choose between them does not often arise. I suspect it will arise more often in the future.