Beth Keith: Is Liberal Theology Dead?April 27, 2023
Alison Webster: Being Critically WhiteMay 16, 2023
Liberal is a strange label. It gets owned proudly by some and flung as an insult by others. It is also used as a modifier on other positions, Liberal Catholic or Liberal Evangelical.
I am not sure it fits me.
In one sense it’s technical and historical: a nineteenth century protestant theological method whose root is identified in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the theological movements that have followed. But even in the late nineteenth century theological liberalism had a broader non-technical sense – with (by then) Cardinal Newman suggesting cheerfully:
‘Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another … It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.’ (Newman Biglietto Speech)
In my formative years of faith as a young Evangelical we had the same view. Liberalism was a constant threat to belief, hiding in the shadows, ready to ambush the unwary. Liberal was used as a dismissal of a stunning range of theologians, thinkers and Christians, everyone who wasn’t ‘sound’. This included most mainstream theology outside of the Evangelical reformed hegemony, including plenty on the evangelical left and most Anglican thought!
Through my twenties I moved away from Evangelicalism, exploring more inclusive Catholic theology and worship. But in my late twenties I had a serious crisis of faith. It wasn’t about the virgin birth, the miracles, or any of the minutiae of the creed. It was more fundamental. It was the first line.
I believe in God.
At the time it was very difficult. I was being ordained after all. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t say the creeds – it was a deeper philosophical struggle. What is God? I wrestled with different streams of theological thought, Non-Realism, Radical Orthodoxy, Fictional Nihilism and Apophatic theology. In retrospect it was a period of transition. The death of my mother, the ending of a significant relationship and the shifting into ordained life. God was God, and yet the model and understanding of God I still held from my teenage years was profoundly inadequate and crumbling.
Not everyone has had this experience, to some it is shocking or incomprehensible. I am reminded of a family member who was a huge inspiration for my faith who never expressed any doubt over the nature of God’s existence, but was firmly convinced that Jesus walked on water by knowing where hidden rocks were. That is a form of Liberalism that more recently in the twentieth century CS Lewis also took aim at:
‘A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia – which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.’ (Lewis, Fern Seeds and Elephants)
I wonder if today Lewis might have taken a different approach – suggesting rather that ‘after swallowing the camel of the Existence of God, strains at such gnats as the Resurrection?’
Lewis and Newman share a sense that Liberalism denies revelation and the supernatural, and I am not convinced that is true of Liberalism today. Yet, what drew me through my crisis of faith, a reconsideration of the nature of God and to a renewed experience of God, was a fresh recognition of God at work. Not in scripture, church, sacraments or reason, but seeing God at work in the world. As Alan Roxburgh asks:
‘What is God up to in our neighborhoods and communities?
How do we join with what God is doing in these places?
Church questions are a subset of these far more important questions.’
(Roxbugh, Joining God in the Neighbourhood)
If God is seen at work in the world, in the Missio Dei, then the rest of it, the supernatural, the creeds, in the past or present are merely gnats that don’t need straining.
Some, including my Calvinist teenage self, would consider me a Liberal today because of my inclusive views around gender and sexuality. But these views do not come from a perspective that God does not act in the world, but rather that God is still speaking. That the church is young and we are listening and growing. As Rowan Williams says:
‘The truth is that WE are the Early Church. We are the early church just as much as the apostles were, and just as much as Gregory of Nazianzus, or Augustine of Hippo. In God’s eternity, we may still be in the early stages of Christian history. Future generations may well look back and see us as part of the early church.” (Williams, A Sermon for Easter Sunday)
Perhaps Liberal can be reclaimed – I certainly don’t judge anyone else for using it. I also refuse to judge others for profound questions about faith, the supernatural or even the existence of God. I also suspect many liberals today don’t fit the negative definitions that have been forced upon them.
But my primary theological identity is found in the Mission of God, active in the world. To listen and learn from that action. To not so much be Liberal, as Contextual and Missional. To be surprised where Christ is found in new places – as Stephen Bevans suggests:
‘The history of the Christian movement is nothing if not the history of Christians struggling to be faithful to God’s Spirit as that Spirit is made manifest in new and surprising ways in new and surprising contexts.’ (Bevans, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today)
Eddie Green is vicar of All Saints Leavesden in Watford, and a part of www.sanctumcollective.org a creative network of sacramental mission. He enjoys weird post-punk and co-op boardgames.