"Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world." - Todd Littleton
"I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see." - Anon
"Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all." - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
"Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals." - Jim Forest
"People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone." - Anon
"... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all." - R.E. Slater
"An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst." - R.E. Slater
"Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics." - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
"Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated." - Emil Brunner
"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Showing posts with label Emergent v. Liberal Theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emergent v. Liberal Theology. Show all posts

Monday, February 18, 2013

Can An Evangelical Christian Be Progressive?

by R.E. Slater
February 18, 2013

In Part 1 Roger Olson stated "Why I Am Not A Liberal Christian." To that Scott McKnight asked "What is a Liberal Anyway?" Than Bo Sanders asked "What is a Progressive?" To that I would like to ask, "Can An Evangelical Be Progressive?"

What if an evangelical were to call themselves a progressive evangelical? Are we to then infer that that person is a liberal, or more rather, a progressive liberal?

Or, is the usage of the term progressive a descriptively different term than its noun-form?

But rather than imply that a progressive Evangelical is liberal it might simply imply that that evangelical wishes to move to the left of the conservative elements within his or her's religious affiliation.... By embracing social issues; by questioning existing religious structures, conventions and practices; by mitigating harsher words of judgmental Christianity for kindlier words of grace and peace; or for any number of other reasons.

An evangelical may thus wish to move left of a perceived hardline mentality fraught within their own form of evangelicalism. And so, we might describe an evangelical as one who might be conservative, moderate, progressive, or even leftist. But still, its description hangs upon how an evangelical interacts with his/her own evangelicalism.

So too may a liberal be conservative, moderate, progressive, or leftist, in relationship to their liberalism. Hence, to use the adverbial form of the term "progressive" is meaningless without its context.

Ironically, this same situation had also occurred within Fundamentalist Christianity birthing its more progressive twin - that of Evangelicalism. But one would not consider Evangelicalism as liberal, much less than one would consider Fundamentalism as being non-Christian. Even though each Christian group has their own distinctives, creeds, religious formulas, practices, and ministerial themes.

So then, to use the term liberal, or progressive, must be to use the terms intelligently, or coherently, within their greater context of literary meaning, and not as simply pejorative labels.

To be a progressive evangelical then is unlike being a progressive liberal. They are two different belief structures (or, world-and-life philosophies). The former holds to some form of Roger Olson's 6-point outline (see a summary of the list at the end of this article), the latter to some form of its opposite. They are unlike each other even though each uses the same label of progressive.

Furthermore, an Emergent Christian is one that has moved to the left of Evangelicalism, for the same reasons that an Evangelical had moved to the left of Fundamentalism - they each were dissatisfied with their current fellowship's Christian message. Moreover, an Emergent Christian may be the same sort of creature as that of a progressive Evangelical - though it is hoped that the term "Evangelical" is dropped for the more positive description that Emergent (or Emerging) Christianity brings with it.

And into the term progressive one might apply other terms such as moderate, or postconservative, which in my mind, are more-or-less the same, and utilized to soften, or harden, the label's description pertaining to the context and target audiences involved. For instance, an evangelical professor may wish to distinguish his form of evangelicalism by applying one of those descriptors to describe his approach to theology - and the Christian faith - as one that may be progressive, moderate, or postconservative, depending upon its meaning to the institution and its constituents, and what he wishes to accomplish by using it.

As example, both Roger Olson and Scott McKnight would describe themselves as postconservative Evangelicals (which means that they are some form of progressive, or moderate, Evangelicals as I understand it). A confounding term to say the least. But, based upon their careers, and school affiliations, wisely used in these times of career firings and public slanderings.

Bo Sanders, on the other hand is an Emergent Christian, as am I. We each seem to have been birthed out of the evangelical movement (well, actually, I began Christianity first as a Fundamentalist before transitioning to an Evangelical faith by transfer of marriage and time). Bo, on the other hand, being more widely read and professional trained in philosophy (and philosophical theology) is right at home in a larger framework (even as I attempt to do the same). Whereas my own background derives from a more conservative, evangelical institution that was formerly fundamental. So as I listen to Bo, even as I listen to Roger and Scott (who is a past college classmate of mine, I might add, but one year ahead), I try to understand the context from which they are speaking.
So that from each, has found me working through what it means to be a progressive evangelic. One whose name I prefer to uncomplicate by using the term emergent (or emerging) Christian. Allowing it to breathe in the fresher airs of postmodernism, as versus the enlightened, secular, modernism that Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism had grown up within over the past 200 years.

For the emergent / emerging Christian the question isn't one of either secular modernism or atheistic liberalism (as exampled by Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism's faith adaptations to their eras of Enlightenment and Modernism), but how a postmodern Christian might respond to the various forms of postconservatism on the one hand, and postliberalism on the other. Each, in their own right, was a moving target, even as Emerging Christianity was when it began 15 years ago as one thing, but has since evolved into something else from it's earlier self 15 years later as postconservatives and postliberals have interacted with contemporary society.

So then, just what is an Emergent / Emerging Christian? It is the one we have been writing about for these past two years here at Relevancy22. And just what is an Emergent / Emerging Theology? It too is in various stages of development and expression and can likewise be found at Relevancy22. Overall, Jesus is its center, the Word of God its foundation, and faith's practice its multiplier. The boundary sets are broader, if existent at all, since Emerging Christianity is center-set, and not boundary-based. Moreover, it is a contemporary expression of Christianity - dealing with issues of globalism, pluralism, multi-ethnicity, communication, language (symbols, meaning, and idiomatic expressions), collaboration, societal expression, epistemology, metaphysics, science, justice, equality, and God Himself, to name a few.

In terms of Christian labeling, an Emerging Christian is one who may have left Evangelicalism or, moved to the right of Mainline Denominationalism's progressive expression of a Christ-less liberalism. However, an Emergent may also be a former traditional Catholic wishing to contemporize their Catholic faith by following the reforms of Vatican II that have become stillborn by its more conservative Catholic constituents and theologs. Or, perhaps an Emergent is one that was either liberal, or without any religious affiliation, wishing to re-express their atheism, hedonism, natural theology, and so on, to that of a biblical theology that is both postmodern and contemporary.

But to any Christian wishing to remain Christian, or biblically theological, Roger's 6-points are a good beginning point for any Christian faith expression wishing to be orthodox - regardless of its religious expression down through the ages of the church. Whether it was that of an early Jewish Christian, or that of one bearing an Hellenistic extract, or pre-Medieval, Medieval, Reformational, Enlightened, Modern, or Postmodern. Even the term "orthodoxy" is as lucid a term as any other Christian label - requiring its re-expression with every passing age of man (cf., The Church's Struggle Today, Not Unlike Paul's Struggle Then, with Inflexible, Dying Traditionalism). Thus Emergent Christianity's task today is one of redefining a Christian Orthodoxy that is postmodern, and progressing towards societal forms of participation and authenticity, one that is narrative and poststructural, decentralized and process-oriented.

Regardless, a Christianity that is orthodox may be postmodern and can indeed observe all 6 points - to which I'm sure we could add a few more.... Throughout all, God will be God. A God who has not left us to our own selves, our designs, nor to our ideological devices. Who actively pursues us in all our endeavors despite sin, this lost world, or our lost souls. Who wishes to redeem us and bring us into active fellowship with Himself. And to His will, as His redemption expands outwards (and inwards) into all of creation, as a greater spiritual ethic and rule, that is unstoppable and unrelenting.

This is God's Kingdom. God's habitat. God's rule of fellowship. One to which humanity is invited to participate actively within. This is how I would understand a progressive Christianity that remains descriptively Orthodox but epistemologically malleable through every age of mankind.
- R.E. Slater
Christian Orthodoxy's 6-Point Manifesto:
  1. A God who is Creator-Redeemer
  2. A Special Revelation that is supernatural in origin
  3. A Christology that is Incarnational and Trinitarian
  4. Scriptures that are Inspirational and Authoritative
  5. A lost humanity requiring God's salvation
  6. A future that looks to Jesus Christ's return and rule

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Demands of Postmodernism upon the Emerging Church

Today I've added a couple of new emergent links - the Ooze and the Center for Process and Faith. They both bear the hallmarks of a radical Christianity willing to revisualize the Christian faith and the church around the centrality of the person and presence of Jesus. However, both will depart somewhat profoundly from the church's traditional understanding of Christianity, God and the Bible.
Curiously, the Ooze will tend to be the more conservative of the two, whereas the Center for Process and Faith will bring with it a more liberal approach to religion and theology in general as it works towards reconceptualizing the meaning of God between the various religions of the world using Process Theology (or, Process Theism).
Process Thought brings a lot of good with it, and certainly it will help in uniting God-conscious believers from around the world in their faiths with one another. However, as stated here time-and-again at Relevancy22 we've elected for the position of Relational Theism (or Relational Thought) and not for its more liberal tendencies while recognizing the benefits of Process Thought in its attempts to unify the world's faithful and that of the church in general.
Even so, though faith is a beginning point for many (however it is found or experienced), for faith to be ultimately pivotal and expressive the personage of Jesus must be the culminating experience of salvific faith in God. Certainly God will use every experience and awareness that we have of Him in this world - whether Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Animist, or whatnot - but it is through His Son Jesus that we find God's ultimate expression of redemption to mankind.
Certainly we may have warrant to disagree with the church's portrayal of Jesus - but like us, the church is fallible and tries as it can to revisualize the infinite God of love and forgiveness. For now, it is what it is, as the all-too-common colloquialism goes. Which is where the Ooze comes in to help searching Christians. Here we may find a collection of Jesus followers who wish to express their Christian faith in a thousand different ways. And as you read along you will discover by their journey that their faith in Jesus is anything but institutional.
As an older Christian wishing to impart assurance and peace in these times of radical personal displacement and uncertainty, I find the Ooze mimicking the spirit of today's media outlets that is found in TV, film, newspapers and journals. Hence, this website may appeal to a less cautious readership ready to judge any-and-all-things through the harsh spectacles of specious words and hypocritical lifestyles. They have high standards for the Christian faith. And well they should.
And though I could sympathize a hundred times with the spirit I observe at the Ooze, I still would wish that we as Jesus follower's develop other habits that are more reconstructive than deconstructive. Statedly, too often we cannot move forward without sometimes burning down the past. But not all the past needs to be burned down (if even a little bit) for the problem oftentimes lies with us, not others!
Admittedly, there is enough good to hold onto in the church's history and doctrines that it is unnecessary to go back and recreate a whole new set of Christian experiences. And although this has been done in the past under various sects and religions, and will be done again, one may well then imagine a repeat of errors and misrepresentations of God to arise as well. But Emergent Christianity is not one of these movements. Though it is true that it does seek to reimagine the Christian faith - to revitalize, and repurpose, it - in order to show Jesus' relevancy to today's pluralistic societies and multi-ethnic cultures. But this is a different matter than heresy.

I would also expect that as the strong paradigm shifts of postmodernism and emergent theology ingresses into the church's culture and experiences that many of the church's beliefs and tenets, practices and traditions, will accordingly change in response. Which is a good thing. It shows an active recognition to the presence and purposes of God through His Son Jesus by the Spirit of God. And in a way, the traditions and customs of both the church and of the gospel will likewise change upon reflective posturing when met with the demands of today's postmodern needs and wants, apathy and anger, emptiness and disappointment.

Faith is simple. It is rare. It is profound. Throughout all I believe God will actively guide His church. Whether through the younger, more discriminating, generations interested in reapprising their faith in Jesus. Or through scholarly circles seeking to find God in its pervasive, world-wide experience of the Spiritual Other. Still, God is there. He has come to recreate and renew. Today's postmodernism will be as much a part of God's benevolence as were the ages past - though now we realize that even God Himself, like ourselves, must adapt and change with humanity's growth and evolvement.
My confidence in God is strong. And I thank Him for the strong spirits and minds that He has burdened to tell us of Himself however they can. And in whatever ways they can. For its part, Relevancy22 will provide what guidance it can during this intense time of global seismic change. Trusting that it may lend a common-sense voice to the church of God, to its histories and historic institutions, as the church interacts with the paradigm shifts occurring under the prismatic glasses of postmodernism.

At the same time, we must also work towards revisioning what an emergent theology is (and can mean) to the church set within a very difficult postmodern age of nihilism, disbelief, skepticism and denial. To that end, let's then add to the Christian faith the salt of belief, faith, obedience, and optimism, in reconstructive efforts of revisioning our future with the God of the Ages.

R.E. Slater
December 12, 2012 (12-12-12!!)

the Ooze
the Center for Process and Faith

Monday, August 22, 2011

Liberal Theology Part 2 - Schleiermacher, Ritschl

TNT: Liberal Master Class

August 18, 2011 by 3 Comments

Tripp and Bo sit down for an hour-long chat about the term ‘Liberal’. Tripp interacts with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albert Ritschl for a historical perspective and then connects with Douglas Ottati and Peter Hodgson for a contemporary engagement.
Tripp puts them in contrast to Progressive, Emergent and Evangelical. We recorded this before the posts Goosing Emergents into the Mainline.

This is part 2 of 3 for the current TNT series (Theology Nerd Throwdown).

Facebook Peeps Click HERE to Listen

  1. Brandon Morgan says:
    This was a fun podcast, which really helped me to distinguish myself from the approach you guys authentically hold when it comes to liberalism. I suppose I would first mention that Schleiermacher was not the first to articulate the open passivity of human agents to divine receptivity. But you guys know that. So, I’m not sure if that is much of a hallmark from his work. However, I would have thought that you would have critiqued this posture of experiential passivity, which according to Hegel, meant that his dog was the most religious being on the planet. Hegel pretty much hated Schleiemacher, likely because of his inherent Pietism. To that degree, I agree with Hegel.
    I’m also a post-liberal, which means I have a problem, not just with the theological claims, but the methodological presuppositions of internal experience as a (foundational?) ground for theological reflection. Such experiences are an effect of language and practice, and not its cause. Which leads me to understand why the liberal reduction of theology to ethics (which was Bonhoeffer’s experience of American theology when he visited Union) is a product of Kantian demarcation of reason’s grounds and, thus a limitation on the claim Christians can make via contemporary epistemology. This is, of course, why post-liberals question the motivations and authenticity of modern epistemology in general; namely that Kant (and Schleiemacher) felt well and good limiting the authoritative position of the church while enhancing the authority of the state, for which Schleiemacher’s curriculum schema of seminary education was meant to serve (not much has changed.) At this point the reduction of theology to ethics, for which liberals are critiqued, is not just materially, but methodologically different from the post-liberal or neo-anabaptist prolegomena of witness as the practice of theological ethics. In this sense however, (and in a rather Wittgensteinian sense I might add), Christianity as a set of practices is a not a reductive claim, but a normative one for all formations of community virtue, Christian or not. Moreover, the liberal problem of reducing theology to ethics has its source in the inability to make the revelation of the grace of Christ uniquely!! intelligible within a closed off natural framework or an indeterminate “openness to transcendence.” There is just too much content to Christianity to fit within the liberal form. Such is also a product of viewing freedom negatively (liberally) as the absence of constraint lingering from Kantianism. Alternatively, the post-liberal starting point of ethics (read witness) has as its presupposition the unique revelation of God in the fully divine and fully human Christ, which substantiates the role of the church to perform the same witnessing function, bearing with it the extension of grace that reveals to us our sinfulness. The former does vapid ethics by limiting Christology to a posture of interiority, while the latter performs ethics as a public witness of truthfulness and exteriority of Christian practice. So I think your critique of “reducing Christianity to practice” must have dealt with the problems of liberalism and not the centrality of practice in post-liberalism, though it seems like you would have to critique that as well from your position.
    I’m glad you mentioned the liberal schematic term “antimodern” “counter-modern” etc., which is perhaps an overdetermined way of saying that resourcement theologies are critical of Kant on the material level and see him as a hindrance. Barthians, of course, sustain the German Idealist scaffolding to enhance the non-Kantian articulation of revelation while RO would simply love to eradicate neo-kantian thought from the Christian map. I am sympathetic to this since I fail to see the allure of sustaining something like “things in themselves” in order to relativize social, political and linquistic reality. Such reality is already relativized, which then forces the appeal to noumenality to figure as a covert and pre-discursive residue of foundationalism. The same is true, I take it, of the noumenality of indeterminate interior experience found in Schleiemacher. So, it would seem that terms like “countermodern” is modern theology’s own way of sustaining the status quo of reducing theology to the demarcation of the social and hard sciences, granting those methods the platitude of “theological neutrality” that they definitely do not deserve.

  1. yo brandon. thanks for the listen and comment. just to clarify, i was mostly trying to get liberalism out in its own terms. personally i was not trying to claim it as described. the notion of a living tradition at the end im home in. i would take hegel over kant when picking the modern philosopher for types of liberal theology (but that’s not too much of a surprise for a pannenberg and process fan). the other stuff you mention about readings of particular people is interesting but clarifying or arguing about that is painful on a blog. ill just say that schleiermacher gets a bad read from hegel and they have more in common than hegel acknowledges. what is unique about schleiermacher is how he uses passivity in his anthropology not that he talks about it. his use was new because it presumed kant. hope that clarifies, im not trying to diss the moravians!
    now i am not a post-liberal fan at all. my anti-duke ACC basketball issues may have contributed to it but……any way, I’m interested in what you meant when you said “There is just too much content to Christianity to fit within the liberal form.” What does ‘content’ mean or refer too? The general answer for those under the influence of Lindbeck drives me nutts.
    BTW, you write these huge comments on blogs and i read them. that means i would read your actual blog! (peer pressure!!!)

  1. Brandon Morgan says:
    1. I’m not too savy about putting together the blog thing, but maybe i’ll figure it out soon enough so I can post stuff. This would be despite my joy of creeping around in the comments like a blog stalker.
    2. The question about content rests exactly on the pervasive use of Kant that perhaps has a tendency to reconfigure the exact divine content of transcendence in Christianity. Schlieremacher has a tendency to paint divine transcendence like an “omnipresent-pneumatic-pressure” that bears upon the consciousness of human subjects in their passivity. Post-Kantian views of transcendence seem to have this tendency to construe God according to the recognition of divine sublimity evacuated of the content of trinitarian relations, the transcendentals of beauty, truth, goodness and being in order to “make room” for greater variation in views about the Christian God. Such establishes the ever-controversial practices of “symbolism” used in liberal theology to account for the language us Christianity without succumbing to its ontology. It is only from this it seems that Schleiemacher can put the trinity in the appendix. Kantian views of transcendence as the noumenal reflexivity to the subject of the infinity of reason and freedom confines the immanence to an openness to –well–itself and its own capacity for reason. Such transcendence can perhaps be construed as keeping the form of Christian openness to transcendence without also supplying the content; namely, the uniquely Trinitarian extasis into and out of the divine persons, which is extended via analogy within Jesus’ condescension to creation via incarnation etc. This content, I suppose, is too much for the boundaries of liberal theology (existing as its seems to within at least some of the guardrails set up by Kant) to account for. Of course, I’m not saying it wants to account for that kind of specific content. That is, predictably, one of my critiques of the methodology of theological liberalism in general. But I think some would say that the “broadening” of the capacity for transcendence (thus establishing it as rather indeterminate) is, from the liberal perspective, a good thing. I suppose I disagree with that.

Homebrew Updates: Emergents, Liberals, Progressives & Mainline Churches

Goosing Emergents into the Mainline

August 14, 2011 by 16 Comments

Back Ground : Brandon Morgan attended the Wild Goose Festival and came away with some concerns/critiques that were posted at Roger Olson’s website and responded to by Tony Jones with some great new suggestions .

Tripp and I had some fun recording a Theology Nerd Throw-down (TNT) last week where we discussed Tony’s suggestions for replacing Emergent-Liberal-Progressive as unhelpful and antiquated terms that are unclear and carry too much baggage.

But none of that responded to Brandon’s actual concerns and questions. I appreciate and respect Brandon’s position and involvement – SO since we are on the same team – I wanted to honor his questions with an honest attempt to dialogue about it.

Question 1: Why haven’t Emergent folks joined the mainline denominations?

Response: The simple answer is – because they are doing two different things. People emerge out of something-somewhere. Those backgrounds are varied and diverse, but primarily they emerge into a more open, less institutional, more casual, less hierarchical expression. It doesn’t have to be a full fledged movement (sorry Dr. Olson) for there to be both an appeal and an organizational framework. It is providing a communal and spiritual environment that nurtures and facilitates a less defined- more adaptable entity (expression) in the post-colonial, post-christendom ecosystem.

To me, the better question is “Why WOULD emergent folks join mainline denominations?” They are going two different directions. I mean, except for some behaviors and convictions (ordaining women, justice work, etc.) the mainline is a historical-institutional behemoth that one would only want to take on if there was a significant impetuous. Otherwise the decentralized- organic-contextual capacity of emergence spirituality and practice are much more attractive than the albs & stoles, acolytes and adjudicatories, the liturgy and lectionary of the Mainline.

Why would an emergent type volunteer to take on all of that plus the Bishoprics and Books of common practice?

I want to ask you: what are you picturing when you say something like this? [it is an honest question since I do not know you and do not know what you are picturing when you say 'mainline' and what exactly it is that you think would appeal to an emergent type?]

I think the reason that your post has gotten the response that it has and your questions have not been answered is that you must be picturing something when you ask the question that seem outlandish to those of us who are not in your head. Have you had a different experience of the mainline that we have? What aspect of mainline did you think WOULD appeal to emergent types?

Question 2: Why have the negatives of evangelicalism been so easy to describe and virulently rebuked, while the negatives of the mainline denominations have barely shown up in Emergent concerns?

Response: I think this comes down to two quick thoughts:
  1. most emergents have either emerged from an evangelical background or against an evangelical background. It is the reality of our era. TV preachers, mega churches, Christian bookstore chains and the Religious Right have made it so.
  2. The mainline has it’s endowed seminaries and publishing houses to document it’s slow decline. It is neither the primary drive nor the main attraction for most theologically charged conversations.

Question 3: Another way to ask this question would be: Why hasn’t the Emergent critique of evangelicalism’s involvement with the American nation-state and it’s tendency toward creating theologically exclusive boundaries not found root in a critique of mainline denominations, whose political interests also conflate the church with nation-state interests?

Response: I hate to oversimplify it, but it seems really clear. If mainliners are theologically over-aware (maybe even hyper-aware in some cases) then their involvement in the political system may tend toward liberation, justice, and equality. Whereas those movements who are newly energized toward “Theo” heavy themes may tend toward conserving romantic ideals of past formulations without consideration (or awareness) or their capacity and tendency toward institutional hegemony.

So those are my genuine, non-cheeky, responses to your honest questions. I would love to hear your and other people’s thoughts in order to dialogue about this.


Update: Categories Clarification

August 11, 2011 by Leave a Comment

Last week I posted that Progressive is not Liberal and also on the term Evangelical. Both got good response. It was part of a bigger conversation that his happening at several nodes around the interwebs. Here is a rundown of some of them.

Carol Howard Merritt from Tribal Church.org did a good job clarifying her position here. She says:
I agree that progressive and liberal are theological terms as well as sociological ones.
I like “progressive” as a theological term, because the most vital aspect of my faith is a liberating one. As someone who moved from evangelicalism, a key to my spiritual evolution has been understanding the freedom of God and God’s continual liberating process. As we move from abolitionism, to the child-labor movement, to anti-poverty, to civil rights, to gender equality, to creation care, to affirming LGBTs, this has been an incredible, liberating time in our American theology. It’s exciting how our theology has often been at the forefront of making these changes. “Progressive” recognizes and celebrates God’s expanding freedom.

That said, I think that Tony’s right in wanting a new term. “Progressive” did seem to move directly from the political sphere to the theological one, so I’m a bit uncomfortable with that. Also, I believe in the *ideal* of progression and expanding freedom, but I’m afraid that the ideal does not always match with reality. For instance, our business practices no longer allow for child labor in the US, but we thoughtlessly employ children overseas. Is that true progress? When we use the term “progressive” are we feeding a modernist mindset and deluding ourselves into thinking that everything is getting better? Those are my concerns…
Daniel Kirk continues to be a blog worth reading and he has had a lot to contribute lately.

Greg Horton had a characteristically intelligent and … Horton-esqe take. Deep stuff at the Parish.

Austin Roberts, my close friend, focused on the Evangelical aspect , wanting to tighten it up a little bit. We disagree about that. But the conversation is vibrant.

Brian McLaren made some predictions and pointed people to both Tony Jones’ and Roger Olson’s contributions.

Speaking of Roger Olson, he was a guest on Doug Pagitt’s radio show in hour 2 this week and took it up a WHOLE other notch. (it’s also available on I-tunes)

This has given me a lot to think about and I continue to flesh out the frameworks and philosophical underpinnings that drive this conversation. Please feel free to point me to any resources or locations that may be appropriate.


Progressive is not Liberal

August 4, 2011 by 16 Comments

This has been an exciting couple of weeks for evangelicals. Well, at least the term evangelical. Kurt Willems started it all with a post about being an evangelical “reject” and a guest posted about C.S. Lewis being one.

I responded by putting forward a progressive re-interpretation of the classical definition with my Nine Nations formulation.

Then, this week Roger Olson (from Podcast episode 96) had a guest post-er Brandon who was a little confused about his experience at the Wild Goose Festival. He asked some questions about the Emerging Church that Tony Jones responded to … which led to Dr. Jones (Podcast episode 105 ) to suggest that we abandon the term ‘evangelical’ to the conservatives and go a different direction.

The hitch seems to be that both Brandon and Tony (as well as Roger) have real concern / apprehension about the distinction between Liberal and Progressive.

The problem seems to come when people fail to make a distinction between Progressive and Liberal – even equating them.

Dr. Jones says :

The problem with both “liberal” and “progressive” is that they are not inherently theological categories. They are sociological and political. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, is inherently theological.

As odd as this seems – I actually disagree with Jones on all three points. Liberal and Progressive are both thoroughly theological terms and everyone from Carol Howard-Merritt to Austin Roberts has been trying to tell me that Evangelical is a sociological distinction and not inherently theological. ( I still hold out hope)

In Podcast episode 101 John Cobb makes an important distinction by explaining it this way:

  • Liberal simply means that one recognizes human experience as valid location for the theological process. 

  • Progressive means that one takes seriously the critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms.

I know that when many people think of Liberals they think of a caricature of Marcus Borg and have him saying something about the laws of nature and how no one can walk on water or be conceived in a Virgin so we know those are literary devices that need not be defended literally. It is someone stuck in the Enlightenment who puts more faith in physics than in the Bible.

Similarly, I often hear a flippant dismissal by those who don’t get the Progressive concern so resort to the cliche that “progressive is just a word non-conservative evangelicals who don’t like the word ‘liberal’ hide behind as camouflage.”

Both are woefully cartoonish.

Tony Jones, on the other hand is addressing a real concern. So if he wants to say “Those of us who are not conservative need a new label.” That is fine and I would probably even join team TJ – whatever it says on our uniform.

Just don’t say that Liberal and Progressive are not theological. They are inherently so and the distinction between the two is worth the effort. They, along with the term ‘Evangelical”, come with a historical framework, a theological tradition and a social application. They are not interchangeable nor are they disposable. They come from some where and the represent a group of some ones.

I think that they are worth clarifying, understanding, and maybe even fighting for – and over. They matter.

what went wrong with the Mainline?

May 10, 2011 by 2 Comments

I was editing the 101st episode of Homebrewed Christianity, a conversation primarily between Paul Capetz and John Cobb. It was a fantastic theological dialogue … and then then subject turned toward practical matters.

What happened to the Mainline church? Why is it in such decline?

It turns out the answer, according to Cobb, is both complex and not completely absent of theology.

He details three major shifts that spelled out a recipe for disaster:
The first shift was an acculturation. In post World War 2 America, there was a boom in church attendance as it played a vital role both socially and in the family. In a twist of fate, the Mainline churches (and social gospel) were successful – maybe too successful. The church got comfortable. The church liked its forms – especially liturgy. The church was satisfied with the direction and changes of society. Cobb doesn’t use the word complacency but self-satisfaction about success can become paralyzing in future discussions.

The second shift was a diminishing of the importance of theology. It was the ecumenical mentality and apathetic attitude toward theological difference that somehow resulted in a mentality that it doesn’t really matter so much what you believe about this specific or that. At some point one has to think that this casualness about theology is not simply laziness but an abdication of core responsibilities.

The third shift came in the 70’s when the Liberation Theologies showed up and “they knew exactly what they believed and were not afraid to say so.” The Mainline was impotent and irrelevant by comparison. (my words, not Cobb’s)
When you put these three together, you see a perfect storm: loss of intensity due to acculturation, loss of identity due to theological abandonment, and loss of relevance (potency) due to shifting contexts.

The first shift gets a lot of attention. Philip Clayton has talked about the ‘collapse narrative’. Dianna Butler Bass has done great work on both dying forms of liturgy and efforts of revitalization. Brian McLaren had some powerful and innovative thoughts on the subject [toward the bottom of the link].

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that purely theological explanations are too simplistic and miss the overarching interrelatedness to the shift in the surrounding culture. I have always been told that it is because they “sold out” to the culture and “compromised the gospel”. I never bought that – there was too much good coming out of churches like that and I had met too many people sincerely committed to Christ’s work.

It is the second shift that really piques my interest. Cobb doesn’t specifically talk about hermeneutics, but I have been bewildered at, what seems to me, a willingness of Liberal thought to saw at the Biblical limbs on the tree side of the limb that they stand on. This is self-sabotage! You can not undercut the very thing that your existence stands on without weakening your ability to stand at all.

The third shift is potentially the one with the greatest consequences… and the most potential for turn around. It is the church’s willingness to engage its surrounding culture and embrace the task of forging an authentic expression of the gospel in our local context that gives us relevance. This can be done with a progressive reading of the Bible and a Liberal, generous stance – no matter what our weekend gatherings look like.

The old wooden beams in the sanctuary may not make it through this shift. But I have great confidence that both the work of the church and the people of Christ’s spirit will endure in multiple streams. A progressive reading and expression of the gospel is a message of great hope to many in our emerging, decentralized, inter-connected culture and world. The forms and structures may need to change, but the historic impulse can be cultivated and harnessed.

Cobb and Capetz have me thinking about this stuff from a new angle.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What is Theological Liberalism?

by Roger Olson
posted July 14, 2011

One of my biggest pet peeves is people throwing labels around when they don’t understand them. I teach at a seminary often accused by the ignorant of being “liberal” because it allows women to study for the ministry. I’ve been asked when I “became liberal” and started believing in women’s ordination and women as lead pastors. The first denomination to ordain women as pastors was the theologically conservative but socially progressive Free Methodist Church and it did that way back in the mid-19th century. (Quakers, or Friends as they prefer to be called) had women leaders before that but they didn’t exactly “ordain” anyone or have lead pastors in our modern sense.) I grew up in a very conservative denomination that ordained women. We had women pastors and evangelists. Both my birth mother and stepmother were licensed to preach.

People tend to throw the label “liberal” around without regard to history. Most of the time it means little or nothing more than something they don’t like or agree with and perceive to be too progressive. When someone says a person or church or institution or book is “liberal” I have no idea what they mean until I press them for a definition. Usually they can’t give a real definition; they can only say something about their disagreement or dislike.

Looking up “liberal” in the dictionary doesn’t really help. Most ordinary dictionaries don’t include theology among their definitions. You can look up “liberal” in most dictionaries and be enlightened about politics and society and perhaps philosophy. But you are unlikely to find anything there about liberal theology. Besides, it is a mistake to think words have essences. There is no “essence” out there corresponding exactly with the sound “liberal.” The label “liberal” has a history theologically and we should stick to that as closely as possible while recognizing flexibility.

Once again, as before here, I want to suggest a helpful distinction. This time between “liberalism” as a movement and “liberalism” as an ethos. (And now I am restricting my comments to theology.) It is anachronistic to refer to anything as theologically liberal before Friedrich Schleiermacher, the early 19th century “father of liberal theology.” Schleiermacher was certainly influenced by previous and contemporary thinkers in philosophy and theology, but he almost single handedly created “liberal theology.” On this most historical theologians are agreed. (Before Schleiermacher there were “free thinkers” and deists and unitarians but not liberals per se.)

But even Schleiermacher did not found a movement. In many ways he serves as the paradigm of a liberal ethos in Christian theology. But that ethos only began to breathe with him; even Schleiermacher was not consistently liberal. Compared to many later movement liberals such as Adolf Harnack he would be considered relatively conservative insofar as he strove to hold onto as much of Christian tradition as he thought possible in the modern world.

So, the liberal ethos pre-dates the rise of the Christian liberal theological movement that I call “classical Protestant liberalism.” The latter appeared first with German Lutheran theologian Albrecht Ritschl and his followers in the later 19th century. Ritschl founded a movement. His followers came to be called “Ritschlians.” Classical Protestant liberal theology is tied to the METHOD of the Rischlians (not necessarily to all of their conclusions). The leading Ritschlians were Harnack and Willhelm Herrmann. There were, of course, many others. They disagreed among themselves about many things, but they agreed on theology’s basic method which followed that of Schleiermacher but in a somewhat altered way.

After WW1 and the existentialist revolution in philosophy and theology in Europe classical liberal theology struggled as a movement. It didn’t exactly die out, but it underwent some significant changes so that historical theologians tend to call its mid-20th century heirs “neo-liberals” or “chastened liberals.” The main difference was the recognition of a tragic dimension to human existence and history that was lacking in the pre-WW1 liberals.

[Strictly as defined] the liberal theological movement has had its ups and downs and perhaps doesn’t really exist anymore although I have met and read people who seem to agree with it to a large extent. But, again, I would tend to call them liberal in the “ethos” sense. Some have come along and tried to breathe new life into the liberal community to restart the old liberal theological movement but with little success. There are many freelance liberal theologians running around, but I look in vain for an actual movement that includes all or even most of them.

So what is the liberal theological ethos started by Schleiermacher that defines theological liberalism (including the Ritschlian movement and the neo-liberalism of its post-WW1 descendents)? And where do we find it today? Who are its contemporary spokespersons?

Schleiermacher introduced into the stream of Christian theology a “Copernican revolution” in theological method that regarded it as necessary to adjust traditional Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment–what we call “modernity.” To be sure, Schleiermacher did NOT do this uncritically. However, he clearly felt it necessary to rescue Christianity from the “acids of modernity” by redefining Christianity’s (and religion’s) “essence” so that it did not and perhaps could not conflict with the “best” of modern thought [(thus, liberalism was a reaction against modernism - skinhead)]. He redefined Christianity as PRIMARILY about human experience [(existentially - skinhead)]. That is, as he put it, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God (God-consciousness) to speech. Schleiermacher placed universal God-consciousness at the center of religion and Christ’s God-consciousness communicated to the church at the center of Christianity. All doctrines and all teachings of Scripture became revisable in the light of human God-consciousness.

What Schleiermacher accomplished was to separate religion (including Christianity) from the realm of “facts” discoverable by science and philosophy. He rescued religion and Christianity from the acids of modernity by reducing them and restricting them to an entirely different realm. Also, rather than objective divine revelation standing at the center or bottom of the theological enterprise, human experience was placed there. This was Schleiermacher’s “Copernican revolution” in theology. All liberal theology (whether by ethos or tied specifically to a liberal theological movement such as Ritschlianism) is defined by that move first made by Schleiermacher.

Ritschl borrowed heavily from the philosopher Immanuel Kant to distinguish between two types of propositions–facts (which belong to the sciences) and values (which belong to religion). Religion, including Christianity, has to do with the way things ought to be (the Kingdom of God) and not with the way things are. If Ritschl was right, religion (rightly understood) and modern philosophy and science (kept where they belong) cannot conflict.

Harnack is the paradigm of the classical liberal Protestant theologian. He reduced Christianity to a minimal ethical core–it’s true “essence”–which cannot be undermined by science or philosophy. The liberal theologians did not throw out belief in the Trinity or the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, etc. They simply reduced their importance (they are not of the essence) and reinterpreted them non-metaphysically [(into existential terms - skinhead)].

The leading Ritschlian theologian in America (at the same time as Harnack in Germany) was Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College. His book Reconstruction in Theology was published at the same time as Harnack’s What Is Christianity? (1901) King’s “reconstruction” of Christianity theology was done under that influence (viz., Ritschl). The leading Ritschlian public figure was Harry Emerson Fosdick, Jr., pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and author of numerous books of liberal theology. Fosdick’s countenance graced the cover of Time magazine twice in the 1920s. He was widely considered THE leading spokesman for liberal theology in America.

After WW1 in Europe and after WW2 in America theological liberalism underwent some changes. The main one was the death of its historical optimism and adoption of a more realistic sense of human existence and history (largely under the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr). But it retained its basic attitude toward modernity as an authority for theology’s critical and constructive tasks. (This was often more implicit than explicit.)

Gradually the liberal theological movement associated with Ritschl and his followers died out. But the ethos it embodied remained–entering into the warp and woof of mainline Protestant life and thought. Today it is represented by public intellectuals such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong. Several theologians are attempting to breathe new life into it. Among them are Gary Dorrien (perhaps THE leading scholar of liberal theology especially in America), Peter Hodgson, Donald Miller (of USC, not the author of Blue Like Jazz), and John Cobb.

So what are the usual, if not universal, hallmarks of true liberal theology or family resemblances among true liberal theologians? First, here are books you MUST read if you want to discuss liberal theology intelligently (read at least one of these):
  • Alan P. F. Sell, Theology in Turmoil
  • William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism
  • Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism
  • Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology (3 volumes)
  • Peter Hodgson, Liberal Theology: A Radical Vision
  • John Cobb, Progressive Christians Speak
  • Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Christianity

So what do all these people from Schleiermacher to Dorrien have in common? I think the liberal theological ethos is best expressed in a nutshell by liberal theologian Delwin Brown (a convert to liberal theology from evangelicalism) in his dialogue with Clark Pinnock in Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue. There Brown asks THE CRUCIAL QUESTION of modern theology: “When the consensus of the best contemporary minds differs markedly from the most precious teachings of the past, which do we follow? To which do we give primary allegiance, the past or the present?” Brown rightly gives the evangelical answer: “We ought to listen to the hypotheses of the present and take from them what we can, but ultimately the truth has been given to us in the past, particularly in Jesus, and the acceptance of that is our ultimate obligation. Everything the contemporary world might say must be judged by its conformity to biblical revelation.” (Of course evangelicals differ among ourselves about WHAT biblical revelation says, but all evangelicals agree that the revelation of God given in Jesus and the biblical message takes precedence over the best of modern thought WHEN THERE IS AN UNAVOIDABLE CONFLICT between them.)

Then, Brown speaks for all liberal theologians when he gives the liberal answer to the crucial question: “Liberalism at its best is more likely to say, ‘We certainly ought to honor the richness of the Christian past and appreciate the vast contribution it makes to our lives, but finally we must live by our best modern conclusions. The modern consensus should not be absolutized; it, too, is always subect to criticism and further revision. But our commitment, however tentative and self-critically maintained, must be to the careful judgments of the present age, even if they differ radically from the dictates of the past.” (p. 23)

(Now, a good illustration of the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be given in an anecdote about the Pinnock-Brown dialogue in this book. Some years ago I used the book as a textbook in an elective class. One of the students, a theology major, objected strenuously to having to read it. He argued vehemently that dialogue between liberals such as Brown and evangelicals has no value and that Pinnock’s attempt at it proves he is not a true evangelical. I would consider that an expression of a fundamentalist as opposed to an evangelical attitude.)

Pinnock well expresses ALL evangelicals’ response to Brown, this in the context of a disagreement about eschatology in which Brown expressed skepticism about belief in a final triumph of good over evil. Pinnock to Brown: “Here we are back to where we started in the book, back to the difference between us concerning the nature of the authority of the Bible. … You allow the Bible a functional but not a cognitive authority; that is, you will not bow to the content of Scripture but accept it only as a power that authors your life in some (to me) vague way. This means in the present case that you are not able to rest your hope on the revealed promises of God concerning eternal life in Christ beyond death. Usually I appreciate your modesty in the way you do theology, but when it comes down to your not affirming clear promises of God in the gospel, the modesty is being taken too far. Lacking guidance from the Scriptures and, as if to underline my anxiety, you are forced to resolve the issue rationally and then cannot do so. Thus is the problem of liberal theology highlighted.” (p. 249)

In a nutshell, then, the liberal theological ethos accords to “the best of modern thought” the weight of authority in theology alongside or stronger than biblical revelation (and certainly than tradition). This is what Yale historical theologian Claude Welch meant when he wrote that liberal theology is “maximal acknowledgement of the claims of modernity.”

What is ironic is that Pinnock has been labeled “liberal” in spite of his strong rejection of real liberal theology in this and many of his writings. Those who called Pinnock a liberal simply revealed themselves as neo-fundamentalists (who often if not usually use “liberal” as an epithet for anyone and anything they think deviates from their version of “the received evangelical tradition.”)

There are, of course, other family resemblances among theological liberals such as:

  • a tendency to emphasize the immanence of God over God’s transcendence,

  • skepticism about anything supernatural or miraculous (if not rejection of those categories entirely),

  • out-and-out, open universalism (a true denial of hell as opposed to a hope for eventual ultimate reconciliation),

  • an emptying of the “dogma” category and corresponding reduction of all Christian beliefs to the opinion category.

Someone like Pinnock is called a fundamentalist by those on the “left” and a liberal by those on the “right.” These are fallacious and invalid uses of these labels. They have NOTHING to do with history. Theological labels should not be torn away from history and used in such an informal manner as epithets to insult or marginalize people. That is why I have written this post and I hope it helps people who want to use labels with integrity to do so. I realize, of course, that many people don’t care about that; they just want to demean other people they don’t like by slapping negative labels on them.