Gary Dorrien in the newly installed Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is not only one of the leading experts on liberal Christianity, he is one of progressive Christianity's most articulate voices. In a highly informative discussion of liberal theology in a recent issue of CrossCurrents, he traces its history, present vitality, and promise for the future. The opening paragraphs of the article follow.
AMERICAN LIBERAL THEOLOGY Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity by Gary Dorrien
The idea of a liberal approach to Christianity—that theology should be based on reason and critically interpreted religious experience, not external authority—has an ironic history in the United States. In the nineteenth century it took root and flowered; in the early twentieth century it became the founding idea of a new theological establishment; in the 1930s it was marginalized by neo-orthodoxy theology; in the 1960s it was rejected by liberation theology; by the 1970s it was often taken for dead.
But liberal theology has long been, and is still today, more significant than is indicated by the usual story of its rise and fall. The entire field of modern theology employs critical tools and theories that the liberal tradition developed. Both of the movements that overtook liberal theology were offshoots of the liberal tradition. The idea of a liberal Christian third way between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief retains its original relevance. And in the late twentieth century liberal theology produced much of its best work. Over the past generation liberals have written a great deal of highly creative and sophisticated academic theology, and several liberals have written popular works that reached very large audiences. Yet the renewal of liberal theology over the past generation has gone unnoticed and unfelt, even by its advocates.
In the first half of the twentieth century American theological liberalism was defined and powered by three schools of thought—evangelical liberalism, personalist idealism, and naturalistic empiricism—that remained vital in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, all three had withered. By the 1970s the crisis of American liberal theology, like that of American liberal politics, was obvious and pervasive. The certainties of liberal theology faded to nothing as it was overpowered by rising secular, liberationist, and postmodern trends and a huge cultural backlash of conservative politics and religion. The idea of the intellectual and spiritual necessity of liberal theology took on the appearance of a cultural relic.
Liberal theologians were routinely denigrated for holding on to the secular mentality, sterile intellectualism, bourgeois reformism, and pale idealism. Often their modest standing in the church, academy, and public was compared unfavorably to liberalism's glory years in the social gospel era. Sometimes liberals made the point themselves, speaking the language of crisis and decline. Always they struggled to find an audience for their idea of a critical, progressive Christianity.
Yet for all its problems, the liberal tradition has experienced a hidden renaissance in the last decades of the twentieth century. The integrity and necessity of the liberal option was upheld by old liberals who had never been anything else and new liberals who found their way to the tradition of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. A large group of religious thinkers representing an unprecedented diversity of racial, sexual, confessional, and religious identities vigorously refigured the liberal approach to theology. An important new theological school, Whiteheadian process thought, grew out of the Chicago school, anchoring the new liberalism. Refugees from neo-orthodoxy wrote major constructive works that showed the viability of liberal theology beyond its Whiteheadian base. Liberals produced forms of feminist, black, and ecological theology that responded to liberationist and environmentalist movements. American Catholics entered the field without the burden of a celebrated liberal past, producing some of the freshest and most compelling progressive theologies of the past generation. Others sought to renew the various traditions of liberal theology. Liberals created a new theological field, the religion-science dialogue, and also played a leading role in developing theologies of world religions and models of interreligious dialogue. Despite not belonging to a vital movement, liberal religious thinkers kept alive the idea of a progressive Christian alternative to authority-based orthodoxies and atheistic secularisms.
The essential idea of liberal theology did not change in the twentieth century from that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but just as liberals of the social gospel era dealt with problems and social forces unimagined by their forerunners, so did late-twentieth century liberals confront issues that were distinctive to their time and which altered the meaning of liberalism. In my three-volume work, The Making of American Liberal Theology, I define liberal theology primarily by its original character as an attempt to create a progressive Christian alternative to established orthodoxies and a rising tide of rationalistic deism and atheism. Fundamentally, liberal theology is the idea of a Christian perspective based on reason and experience, not external authority, that recon-ceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and ethical values. It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary. Specifically it is defined by its openness to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences; its commitment to the authority of individual reason and experience; its conception of Christianity as an ethical way of life; its advocacy of moral concepts of atonement or reconciliation; and its commitments to make Christianity credible and socially relevant to contemporary people.
Note: Dorrien's article is a must read for further insight into the work of the following: Walter G. Muelder, L. Harold DeWolf, S. Paul Schilling, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rufus Burrow, Jr., Charles Hartshorne, Daniel Day Williams, Bernard Loomer, Bernard Meland, W. Norman Pittenger, John B. Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin, Marjorie Suchocki, Valerie Saiving, Schubert Ogden, Ian Barbour, Catherine Keller, Philip Clayton, Gregory Baum, Richard McBrien, Charles E. Curran, David Tracy, Anne Carr, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Roger Haight. James Luther Adams, Delwin Brown, Sheila Davaney, Nels F. S. Ferré, Langdon Gilkey, James M. Gustafson, Gordon D. Kaufman, J. Deotis Roberts, Peter Hodgson, Edward Farley, Sallie McFague, Robert Neville, William Dean, Victor Anderson, Thandeka, Nancy Frankenberry, Forrest Church, John S. Spong, Marcus Borg and many, many more.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.