Friday 12 March 2010

Regurgitating on Liberal Religion

Of course I look at other blogs, but I try not to regurgitate what is said elsewhere. If you can read something there, go there sort of thing. Unless I can add something, what's the point in repetition?

Still, an occasional look at Bishop Alan's Blog had his entry about Brian McLaren's latest book, which I'd looked at a while back, and he was more generous towards it than his commenters. I rather agree with the commenters, if from a different perspective. Anyhow, a discussion formed amongst the comments about liberalism in religion from Si Hollett and Brett Gray in particular using the definition in Grenz, Stanley J., Olson, Roger E. (1992), 20th Century Theology : God & The World In A Transitional Age, Paternoster Press.

Si Hollett wrote:

In their book 20th-Century Theology, Grenz and Olson, no rabid fundamentalists they, describe classic liberalism in five points:

1. Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought.

2. Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy.

3. Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.

4. Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.

5. Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.

Page 52 (1992) outlines these characteristics:

  1. Reconstructing Christianity in the light of modern knowledge, that elements of thinking since the Enlightenment cannot be ignored. It had to adapt to the new scientific and philosophical mindset.
  2. Freedom of the individual to criticise and reconstruct traditional beliefs. Even communally orientated (liberal) Christians reserved this right.
  3. The moralising of doctrine and focus upon the ethical over the speculative doctrinal.
  4. Foundation other than the absolute authority of the Bible. Historical-critical research undermined supernatural inspiration. For liberals Scripture has an eternal gospel 'within' that will survive the critical process and theology is to find the kernel beyond the supernatural husks.
  5. More emphasis in immanence than transcendence. Jesus becomes the exemplary human.

Brett Gray's comments are worth recommenting, I think, for each part.

1. 'Liberals believe doctrine needs to develop to meet the needs of contemporary thought'... but what about those who believe that doctrine does develop (a patent truism from Church History) in conversation with new questions that emerge in new contexts? And that tradition is an ongoing faithful discussion, not a static given?

What tradition does, in this sense, is offer a broad road, a set of concepts and a language to use. This language is inherited, and comes from the past. However, in the liberal approach, as you go backwards in time you become aware of the differences of meaning from what has been kept and the language they used that at some point was dropped. In fact it can go all the way back to opposites, such as the journey backwards from Unitarianism to broader English Presbyterianism to the opposite of Calvinism.

2. 'Liberals emphasize the need to reconstruct traditional beliefs and reject the authority of tradition and church hierarchy.' That is protestantism. Are all protestants liberal?

No they are not, but early on some were (seen from our perspective, but they were not and could not be ideologically). Some used 'ordinary comprehension' in their direct reading of Scripture off the page and found a mixture of unitarian and Arian stances, and equally found less doctrine than some Reformers supposed. In other words, most Reformers saw what they wanted to see through their existing doctrinal spectacles, as many continue to do today despite their Bible based claims.

3. 'Liberals focus on the practical and ethical dimensions of Christianity.' Inasmuch as you did it to them, you did it to me. Is Jesus a liberal?

The problem with the term liberal is that it gains meaning from about the 18th century in an ideological sense. To call Jesus liberal is at best to extract him from his supernaturalist last days beliefs and Jewish traditions. Only aspects can be 'liberal' and to use the old view that the liberal has the religion of Jesus as opposed to the religion about Jesus just won't do: they are all about Jesus. However, the liberal focus on the practical and ethical can mean that focus unhooks from Jesus.

4. 'Liberals seek to base theology on something other than the absolute authority of the Bible.' 'Authority' and how it is constructed is an interesting question. Authority is not a univocal concept and 'absolute' as an adjective adds nothing to the clarity of this statement except to say 'No, it's really, REALLY authoritive!' Which leaves 'authority' and how it operates still undefined.

The first reformers who would be continuous with liberals were still completely Bible centred, but ordinary comprehension said something about the individual and the mind of the reader. So that becomes continuous, eventually, with the focus on the individual mind as authority.

5. 'Liberals drift toward divine immanence at the expense of transcendence.' So do some charismatics I know...

This may be why Diarmaid MacCulloch (in his BBC 4 series A History of Christianity) sees some Pentecostalism as marking a route away from Christianity. There is nothing particularly exclusive to liberals about a focus on immanence. The Secular City approach did this, and it was not liberal (in the sense of asking questions, of taking new routes of faith).

Liberalism has so many definitions. Last Sunday, at the Hull congregational meeting (that decides things) one person said being liberal is to be broad and generous in your welcome, like saying someone was liberal in their hosting of a dinner party. That adds one more meaning to so many.


Erika Baker said...

I can't remember if it was on that blogpost or another one this week where Bishop Alan criticised those who use labels like Liberalism, Fundamentalism and Orthodox about and at others.

Liberal, when used by you, is a hugely multi-faceted and complex term. Liberal, when used by those on the religious right, is a term of abuse hurled against all those who disagree with them.

And I liked Alan saying that the terms should only be used if someone self-identifies as liberal, fundamentalist, orthodox or whatever.

June Butler said...

What Erika and Bishop Alan said about labeling others liberal. If I self-define as liberal, fine. If you call me liberal at this point in time, I don't know what you mean. I once defined myself as liberal, but no longer, because the word has too many different meanings to be at all descriptive. Right now, I don't know what broad label I'd choose for myself with respect to religion or politics. None seem to be a good fit.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I do use the word liberal because it is part of the inheritance I am using. The multiple meanings is something that just have to be handled. But this is because I have shifted out to a dedicated liberal grouping, and to use that recent lecture, my own personal memory/ identity is tied up with that collective memory/ identity: one that values evolving, change, mixing with difference and different expression, and trying to make sense of things that don't easily make sense, in a time when many of these faith-inheritances have come off the rails.

Murdoch Matthew said...

In recent years, leftists have used "Liberal" to refer to people who claim to favor human rights and individual liberty but support corporate agendas. These Cold-War Liberals speak against war and in favor of choice for women, but vote for arms spending and go along with steps that limit women's access to abortion.

The Left has favored calling its adherents, "Progressives," but the right-wing has caught on to that and started a campaign to stigmatize that word, too. (US newsmedia bend over backward to avoid any appearance of being "liberal." They don't fear liberal attack as they spread right-wing slants -- Liberals are too courteous to make a fuss.)

Experience of the Bush years has begun to convince humanists that the right-wing will call them names and disparage them, whether they challenge or cave in to the powers that be. Might as well stand for something -- civil liberties, banking regulation, campaign finance reforms. All that "socialist" stuff. (In the US, only the Left can achieve extremism; the mantra is IOKIYAR -- It's OK If You're A Republican.)

[Verification word: psicho.]

Erika Baker said...

Gosh, Murdoch's explanation highlights that the term liberal, even if used in a purely political context, means something completely different in different countries!

Murdoch Matthew said...

I realize that I went off on US political connotations of liberal (and the long right-wing campaign to demonize the "Liberal Media"), where Adrian is referring to Liberal Christianity. Is there any correspondence? Perhaps, as liberal Anglicans avoid literal readings and happily use analogy and metaphor to understand scripture, but shy from active defense of gay and lesbian churchpeople. Unity and order are valued over justice and experience. "Liberals" may be taken to mean people with positions that fall short of convictions, much less principles.

Erika Baker said...

even in a political arena there are, apparently, huge differences. I can't think of any liberal over here who would vote to restrict abortion (not such a hot topic over here anyway), and none of my friends would support arms spending.

Having followed the US Health debate a little, I get the impression that what we call Liberal over here is already a Socialist in the eyes of the US media.

Anonymous said...

"Last Sunday, at the Hull congregational meeting (that decides things) one person said being liberal is to be broad and generous in your welcome, like saying someone was liberal in their hosting of a dinner party."

There is a new Bahá’í movement that hosts a very broad welcome indeed:

The community is Unitarian, the fellowship is Bahá’í.

It would be remiss of me to not wish you Naw-Rúz Mubárak!

You might enjoy these recipes:’s-bowl-beggar’s-banquet/



Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Excellent group and very good, because there are many Bahais now who have been removed from the UHJ. They can't touch you and this is a proper role for dissent, particularly under the UU umbrella. You also get away from the literalism. You are now on this weblog and I'll do some more connecting as well on my website.