by David Marshall
from Signs of the Times No. 50 - Jul 2013
Theology in the Church of England is effectively the application of an inherited set of beliefs to questions of social ethics and personal morality. 'Liberal theology' tends to be a flexible version of this, using liberal principles rather than dogmatic teaching to determine the significance of those beliefs for any particular context. Such an approach makes it easier to adapt to changes in culture and world view but retains the idea that theology depends on belief.
This makes 'liberal theology' something of a contradiction. Although it may have socially liberal characteristics, the attachment to inherited beliefs is a fundamentally conservative position. More significantly, the practical endorsement of this orthodoxy discourages consideration of the fact that belief alone is an inherently fallible foundation for any truth claim.
I think I have always understood God and religion as separate. It was only when I gave up church on Sundays and encountered new points of view online that I began to consider the implications for theology. Weekly reinforcement of long-held beliefs in services did not encourage that kind of thinking; most church communities assume that Christian identity implies loyalty to at least the basics of traditional belief, if not to every line of the creeds. By the time I decided to drop parish involvement altogether I was reconciled to letting go of that identity but found myself drawn back. Not out of any desire to 'be Christian' but because, after working through the options, 'Christian' still seemed the most historically appropriate label.
It was however no longer a belief-based identity. That there is some ultimate value in giving intellectual assent to statements about God is one of the myths of Christianity. Apart from anything else it gives 'God' a particular meaning - 'a being for whom human belief has significance' - that is itself a theological assertion. Instead I've settled on what might be called a theology of fact, where 'fact' is something that anyone with the necessary resources can check.
The contrast is more easily illustrated than described. God is no longer an abstract philosophical idea, for example 'a being who is by definition indefinable', but 'the creator and sustainer of the universe'. The entity being referred to might be the same but the focus for theological purposes is on what can be known; the universe is reliable evidence for its creator and sustainer. God is no longer a possibility to believe in but a feature of reality to recognise. Christian identity, rather than depending on assent to a statement of beliefs, becomes attachment to a tradition based on the story and person of Jesus the Christ. (That this for now does not satisfy the requirements of most Church institutions is a matter of religion, not theology.)
There remains the question of what gives religion and theology value. Both in essence are attempts to make sense of life; religion through ritual and community, theology by understanding how the here and now relates to what might lie beyond. For religion, value comes from the quality of relationships within its communities and the usefulness of its rituals. If a religious community is strong, its theology may be merely symbolic and the plausibility and coherence of that theology mostly irrelevant. But where a community is small or dispersed, as in most Church of England parishes, its foundations become important. Theology that makes little obvious sense is unlikely to be attractive to outsiders. If its presentation implies it is of little practical significance either, for example if it endorses a thoughtful secular position as 'liberal theology' often does, it is hard to see a compelling reason for that community to grow.