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I’ve been working at St Mark’s Church in Sheffield for the last couple of years in a post described as priest and liberal theologian. When I saw it advertised, I was interested that a parish church had created a post with this type of focus, and a little put off by the title. I questioned whether the terminology of liberal theology was outdated but I was also intrigued to find out what St Mark’s were hoping to do through this.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked what my role means. Not ‘What do you do?’ But ‘What does that mean?’ These questions are sometimes linked to negative stereotypes about liberal Christians.
‘Does it mean you can believe anything you want now?’
‘Don’t you believe in God anymore?’
‘Does it mean you make up reasons for behaving however you want?’
St Mark’s Church used to be a church from a liberal tradition. I say used to be because that was part of its identity. But just as the liberal theological tradition has lost is vocabulary and influence since the 1990’s, churches that defined themselves as from a liberal tradition have also floundered in describing who they are and what they believe. Whilst various members of St Mark’s still identify strongly with the term liberal, those who do tend to relate strongly to how the term was used 40 years ago. And strikingly, almost all members under of the age of 45 feel little connection to the term. With a lack of coherence around defining terminology, other terms have been used such as modern or progressive, but on the whole these haven’t stuck. Another term, inclusive, has gained more traction, but whilst this describes an important aspect, it also leaves many questions unanswered about the church’s beliefs and practices.
Liberal theology has gone through different eras, with periods of growth. But more recently it has been heavily critiqued and the terminology has gone into decline within the academy and the Church. Thirty years ago, theologians were asking whether liberal theology, with its foundations firmly in modernist thought, could grow any further. Could liberal theology be reclaimed and reimagined in a postmodern context, or had it reached its end? If liberal theology is dead, what have we been left with? Before looking at whether there is a future for liberal theology, a brief look back at its history may be useful. Let’s take a brief trip through its development and look at what gifts these theological methods have brought to the Church.
Though the term liberal theology did not develop until later, the roots of this movement can be traced back to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s speeches from 1799. Schleiermacher, considered to be the father of modern liberal theology, was interested in exploring the relationship between theology and human experience. This was a significant challenge to the accepted theological methods of the day. At the heart of this challenge are questions of what we do when our experiences and reason do not match up with our religious assumptions and beliefs.
During the 19th and early 20th century, liberal theology developed predominantly within Germany and in the USA. Liberals challenged fundamentalist approaches and questioned orthodox religious beliefs. They argued that truth claims made about the Bible and church teaching had become invalidated by modern thought and scientific discovery. Instead, they proposed a process in which human reason and experience (including scientific advances and historical critical methods) engage in a dialogue with scripture and church teaching. This offered a third way between growing secular scepticism and fundamentalist religion. Accordingly, liberal theology was characterised in two ways. Firstly, by its stance on authority, based in reason and experience rather than religious dogma. And secondly, as a dialogical and integrative process, in which the different elements of reason, experience, biblical texts and church teaching, were mediated and integrated to form meaning.
Process theology developed within the liberal tradition. This contended that an essential attribute of God was to affect and be affected. Thus God, and in consequence church teaching, could be understood as adaptive and responsive to new situations. Whilst conservative responses opposed this turn to the subjective, neo-orthodox approaches, indebted to Søren Kierkegaard and founded on the work of Karl Barth, bridged the increasing divide between modern liberal theology and fundamentalism. These neo-orthodox approaches embraced scientific and historical critical methods but, in contrast to liberal theology, stressed the significance of divine revelation. Liberal and neo-orthodox approaches remained distinct, and their different approaches and concerns were amplified in the search for the ‘historical Jesus’. However, towards the end of the twentieth century neo-orthodox methods were returned to in the shift to post-liberal approaches.
The optimism that had fuelled liberal theology was put into perspective by the middle of the 20th century with the two world wars challenging moral idealism and the assumption of humanist progression. The liberal language of progress appeared naïve in the context of war and economic depression. In the second half of the century, as theologians grappled with these experiences, and the nature of the relationship between God and the world, differing approaches to understanding culture and theologies of a suffering God developed. Niebuhr’s and Tillich’s work on Christ and context demonstrated how belief is formed in relation to culture. Within the Church of England, Bishop John Robinson controversially opened up these themes through the publication of Honest to God in 1963. In the USA, Bishop John Shelby Spong was an influential voice for liberal Christianity within the Episcopal Church.
During the shift to postmodernism in the latter half of the 20th century, liberal theology, and its close alignment to modernist thought, came under heavy critique. From this, Progressive Christianity developed as a post-liberal movement within the church. Like liberal theology, progressive theology was characterised as questioning religious assumptions and engaging in a dialogue between scripture, church teaching, experience, and reason. But as a post-modern approach, it developed from multiple streams including, amongst others, liberation theology, post-evangelicalism, feminist theology, and progressive Catholicism, enabling a breadth of voices and contexts to be heard.
This move away from prioritising the voices of white men has been a welcome move, which accounts for the diversity of streams moving beyond liberal theology, but also accounts for the lack of definition or coherence around terms. Here there is space for a plurality of voices, from postcolonial interpretations, feminist, and black perspectives, and with a strong emphasis on orthopraxy, trauma theology, social justice, and environmental concerns. This marks an important shift away from liberal theology, recognising the importance of differing contexts, and the belief that we find truth in hearing the multiplicity of voices rather than privileging the voices that hold more power.
Does the lack of coherence around terminology matter? On one hand, no; language is always changing and developing. However, the use and the development of language plays an integral role in how we believe and act. I hope in the coming years, new terminology will develop from the church, and become further embedded, whether this will include a connection to the term liberal or not is of less importance.
Which bring us back to the question, is liberal theology dead? Certainly, the terminology has lost the meaning and standing it once had. However, the methods which enabled liberal theology to develop are needed as much as ever. We continue to face the question that shaped Schleiermacher’s work: what we do when our experiences and reason do not match up with our religious assumptions and beliefs. The characteristics of liberal theology, namely, its stance on authority and willingness to challenge religious dogma from reason and experience, and its methods as a dialogical and integrative process are just as important to belief and practice today.
In answer to the negative stereotypes, being from a liberal Christian tradition does not mean believing or doing whatever I want. At its heart it means remaining committed to the teachings and practices of Jesus by questioning, thinking, listening, and integrating our inherited faith, our beliefs, our reason, and our experience.
Revd Dr Beth Keith, Liberal Theologian St Mark’s Church Sheffield