It just seems to me that the argument presented by Alister McGrath - 'The Confession of a Disillusioned Liberal' - in his opening chapter of what is titled at Fulcrum Why Doctrine? runs on a number of claims that need some examination at least. [Update: Attempts here to find the supposed original book have been removed - information on its origins in 1993 is given here.]
The first point to make about doctrine is that it is not the result of individual reasoning, his or any other. He might arrive at views that equate with a given doctrine, but doctrine is a collective 'before' stance for a member of a doctrinally managed group prior to any reasoning. It is the guideposts of the group, and placed there because it is believed to be necessary.
If a point arrived in history, as it did characteristically in the nineteenth century, when doctrine is severely questioned, it is because there is a gap between what people think and what the doctrine insists upon. What happened in the later nineteenth century was that Anglican academics, with a look over their shoulder to Unitarians, were aware of the growing gap between the growing disciplines of knowledge in the university and their own theological enterprise as suggested by doctrine.
That gap has since become much wider, and means that a Christianity that engages with these worldly disciplines is prone to wander off the historical straight and narrow as doctrine had defined it. As it does so, and is seen to be self-undermining of the tradition, the argument is made again about the sureness of putting doctrine first.
The Oxford liberals of 1860 were deemed unacceptable, but Charles Gore of Lux Mundi and 1899 was actually a compromise of the liberal position and a strident Anglo-Catholicism before them, where a re-insistence on Jesus's divinity was combined with a kind of worldly sacramentalism along with a compromise with ongoing intellectual thought. It is the foundation for much liberal Catholicism today, and that against which McGrath once rebelled, despite his use of Gore. Of course, some liberal Catholicism can be a combination of some very liberal views and a lot of liturgical dressing up and mythic theatre, but the point here is that much of Anglican Catholic liberality is based around Gore and a later ongoing ability to trade off more minor doctrines and miracles while keeping the big ticket declarations.
There is, of course, another approach, if related, which is that of the narrative. This isn't so much a trade off, but the maintenance of Christianity as a 'story' while the rest of the world reasons in a different way. It even appears to be conservative and faithful. The story, maintained more or less in full, then 'delivers' its insights and ethical goodies. Some, like Rowan Williams, go so deeply and detailed into the story that it starts to look like raking over bits of history, whereas others may go for a kind of large scale Christian platonism, all within the bubble. For them, doctrine is the story book: it provides the page titles and the text, sometimes all of the text. A Rowan Williams will say that, for example, the Virgin Birth was not important once for him but its importance has since increased for him. You see the sleight of hand, here, and there is a kind of deception involved. Another variation (on this) is to know perfectly well that the whole virginal conception business rests on a Greek mistranslation, and to say so in any biblical study, and then to go on offering prayers to the Virgin Mary in good Catholic form. It is a contradiction a liberal is going to point out.
That's what defines a liberal. It is not someone who doubts a bit of this or that. It is someone who says, look, this is a gap, if there is a gap, and if you think this but say that then there is a falsehood involved. Tell your story if you like, but do explain how one thing matches the other or doesn't. The liberal can be a pain for someone who has Christianity as a resource book or some sort of personal discipline. Fine, but a liberal never stops asking "Why?"
Christianity without doctrine is not a denial of the issue of truth or a denial of truth. The issue of truth is there all the time. It is that Christianity doesn't match up to the demand for truth as it has been developing across the disciplines. It is that Christianity is dislodged, and doctrine becomes one large sticking plaster for a crisis situation. So why have doctrine?
Because, of course, if Christianity is like the other disciplines then it becomes necessarily contingent and relative. That, presumably, won't do - or won't for Alister McGrath. All disciplines are like that: they are open to change. So if Christianity asks for help from history, it realises that history is a careful discipline that has rules that, when applied to Christianity, shows a Jesus who is a strange, distant, and largely unknown figure, one who might be an exemplarist from the received texts, but beyond which little can be said. Again, apply philosophy to Christianity, and you uncover the imposition of Greek Platonism. Remove or replace that, and Christianity becomes far more relativistic.
McGrath wants neither the relevance of a 'useful story' nor the relativity of a Christianity amongst the disciplines. He needs something that has to be true. For me, truth has to be established; doctrine is a short cut for truth, because it is a laying down in detail of apparent foundations that declare themselves true. Often doctrine is about what you want to be the case rather than what you can establish: it involves a leap across a gap.
But all having doctrine does is take one back to a position where the liberals started from, where the gap exists, unless one is going to declare living in the Christianised bubble (like the Radical Orthodox do in their Christian Platonist separation). The only other position, a realist insistence on objective doctrine of truth, involves a kind of violence on to the rest of the world and its thought forms (actually, so does the narrative Radical Orthodox, though they claim no worldly objectivity for their Church of pure peace).
From such an objectivist stance we end up, unsurprisingly, with a lot of loudly stated, aggressive even, biblical quotations, laying down the rules, laying down a privilege of knowledge.
It then becomes a 'Whose side are you on?' and very macho. It becomes about obedience and, as McGrath puts it, who to obey, as if anyone should be obeyed.
The notion is that obedience to another than this world gives a Church some backbone against the culture in which it finds itself. But why should this be so, if a Church has regularly committed itself to ethical values of compassion and service that it has discovered in its, yes, relative engagement with its and other traditions in the setting of varieties of knowledge? To reflect and contemplate, as in worship and meditation, and to do so in full relationship with a culture, is not the same as accepting that culture in all of its ways and activities. Liberal Churches do not worship greed simply because Western society uses it (though, I notice some doctrinal charismatic churches operating an apparent biblical prosperity theology).
The argument, rather, is that the Church should engage with the world, and that's what gives it contact and relationship, and then to say there are ethical bases that we have to discuss that are surely better for a communal humanity and our relationship with the natural world.
Common human experience is important: after all it is the difficulty of human experience that gives rise to a call to stop, to think again, to do something differently, and to offer the new suggestion outwards.
McGrath's need for otherness then comes down to the question of Christ. He's right that Christ over the others as 'the best moral teacher' doesn't work, though it doesn't work because there isn't the historical information, and also why should any human embody what is best in a consistent manner - and, if anyone has done, why should we know about them? There are going to be many worthy ethical people who have lived and expressed their stance quietly and about whom we rightly know nothing at all. Equally, many a person has made a great deal of their position, and we might know about them, but doesn't mean we should take any notice.
The problem with turning Jesus into an authority is that it is actually a Jesus and Paul show, an early Christian community show. It is credible that in his sayings Jesus was pointing away from himself to the belief he had in a God who acts and was going to do so very quickly. Like other healers and preachers of his time, who also culturally mixed healing, an ethical stance and the world of demons, he thus acted as an active agent of God, healing and declaring sinlessness so that the person could be ready for the coming Kingdom of God about to be realised. His tradition was that of the suffering servant Jew, mixed with the immediacy of the time, with a Messiah coming.
None of this points to doctrines. It points to the fact that here was yet another fallible human being, wrong about his cosmology (the world wasn't going to end) and as much trapped in his culture (demons, sin equals ill-health and death) as any earth dweller. Indeed he focused upon his own tribe, and the missing tribes that would return. Thus he had twelve disciples (and, apparently, made another mistake regarding one of them).
Indeed, it is the Western world of now that has made the greatest strides (though the ancient Greeks tried) to break out from the limitations of culture. The fact that we now cannot reason chains back to origins - because like leads to unalike, the fact that we have quantum discoveries and relativity on a large scale, and that these deliver in maths and in experiment (and are thus sustainable) are arguably anti-cultural. Yes, a culture of money drives them, and much is missed and interests develop, but they still repeat and deliver. Whereas Jesus was simply lost in his own culture, but able through human experience and through that culture to make some ethical stances at least. Good - but these are open to reasoning.
Yet if we allow that Jesus has authority simply because he echoes what we happen to believe to be right, we are setting ourselves above him in judgement. It is our own concepts of morality, our own standards (wherever they come from) that are judging him.
Indeed so, in that he derived these standards; so did the Buddha 500 years before him, and Zoroaster, and also many unknown, and others created ethics of cruelty and evident destruction like the (mixed up) Romans and like Hitler. Of course discussion and debate are going to apply concepts of morality to Jesus, just as to any one else making this claim or that. We condemn Hitler by sheer experience of cruelty, not due to doctrine.
What is derived ethically and lived ethically still allows for transformations. Buddha says, "Suck it and see," and also, "If the raft is not needed, stop using it." The fact that we generate constructive ethics doesn't prevent them transforming us.
McGrath also says:
Christianity does not assert that Christ has authority on account of the excellence or acceptability of his teaching; rather, the teaching of Christ has authority and validity on account of who he is - God incarnate. The object of Christian faith is not the teachings, but the teacher.
Quite so for Christianity the Religion, that it is after Paul and the early Christian communities, producing the 'cult of the person'. Instead of focussing on what matters: how we go on to live, how we go on to deal with our fellow human beings and animal life, how we develop compassion and the good, it turns the whole thing into a person cult. I mean 'cult' without derogatory undertones, and also avoiding 'cult of personality', though the generation of these by national leaders themselves has usually been of a fictional personality. Here, regarding Jesus, it is that his person, his being, is the object, so personality might not be quite right. But then, of course, Christianity contradicts itself (as it often does) as prayer is supposed to go through Jesus Christ, the one Paul set up as the sole route to salvation, God's sole worker to earth. (And all without meeting the actual person: imagine Paul as Saul in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed, not having any interest in the 'yet another foreign occupation State death' event at Passover in order to bully the locals.)
In the end, though, what is at issue is not saving the place of Jesus, who can stand up for himself, but saving Christianity. The commentaries of Gore and Temple and the rest are all about keeping Christianity as a self-resourced, dominant, hierarchical religion. They are all about the worry that, if the rope is cut, all the institutional apparatus starts to fall apart.
There is another argument, that the sort of liberal presentation here is a kind of doctrine of its own. Well, it has presuppositions about the capability of humans. It simply states that we are pretty much all alike, and there are no privileged offerings from heaven. Social Anthropology made this point clearly, that primitive people are as capable as Western people, and there is no biological blockage to what and how we all understand. But that declaration, that non-doctrine, came about as a result of reseach - and why it is nonsense when Radical Orthodoxy tries to call Sociology 'secular theology'. No it isn't because it uses research. Very important, research, and it has important rules of procedure (sociology has qualitative and quantitative, and understands the limitations too).
So the doctrines of liberalism are not equivalent to the doctrines of orthodox Christianity. One is allowed to develop, to be corrected, and to bubble up from below, whereas the other is a start that determines the finish, and is, frankly, bogus as a method of knowledge.
As for pastoral sensitivities, well we of course like to treat people nicely, but in the end religion should be about coming to terms with death, not trying to prolong life in an imaginary sense. Who knows about consciousness - of course - but that is an unknown. Actually, many people prefer to have the issue of their coming end straight, and then in illness be prepared. A last breath should be a peaceful breath - an amen, the end.
Doctrines were created through the politics of institutional religion, and came with the idea that you set up a truth and the highest truth was unchanging. That is not so any longer, and if doctrines are the bones for a body then they are brittle and misdesigned. A body that works best is a flexible body, where it evolves how it evolves. Strength, as evolution shows, comes in flexibility, in adaptation to change. If Christianity is declining in the West, there are good reasons, and the clamour for doctrine is simply the arguments of those inside it worried that the bones are indeed brittle.