Recently Theo Hobson wrote an article in the Guardian, “My quest for an authentic liberal Christianity.” He asks the question, “ Is [liberal Christianity] the attempt to do Christianity in an honest, modern way; or is it an attempt to dodge the hard bits of this faith?” His answer: “The conclusion I have come to is that liberal Christianity has two meanings: there are two traditions here. They are deeply intertwined, but they must be pulled apart – for one tradition infects and corrodes the other. Only once this separation is made can an authentic liberal Christianity be affirmed.”
He defines these two traditions as follows:
One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.
The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people’s liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such “reform” undermines this religion, falsifies it.
Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
The first type of liberal Christianity that he talks about sounds like process and existentialist theology. In its earlier inceptions we can find this kind of thinking in figures such as David Friedrich Strauss and Albert Schweitzer. We see it in the staggeringly influential Rudolf Bultmann through his “demythologizing” project. Later, during the heyday of process theology, we see it in figures such as John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, and Marjorie Suchocki (though the last of these fits Hobson’s definition least neatly). In its more recent popular forms, one finds it in writers like Marcus Borg.
Hobson’s conclusion is that this first type of liberal Christianity is a dead end. Christianity that is so completely beholden to modernist presuppositions will die on the vine. On this point, I think he is entirely correct. The set of claims that Christians have made about God and God’s work in the world through the ages leads us into the life of God and is key to our salvation.
As for the second type of liberal Christianity that he discusses, the definition he offers probably works better in the UK than the US. Many Christians whose understandings of God and God’s work in the world are thoroughly grounded in modernist assumptions are drawn to high-church ritual. Further, we find figures such as Jim Wallis and other like-minded Christians advocating for a progressive social agenda while affirming evangelical beliefs about basic Christian doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc.). What’s more, these Christians are thoroughly committed to the use of government policy for the widespread implementation of their ideas (see, for example, Wallis’s book, God’s Politics). The outright rejection of partnerships between the government and the Church is more often found in post-liberal thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas.
There is, however, another type of Christianity that has attached itself to progressivism. I will call it “issues-based” Christianity. This type of Christianity leads with issues and couches the issues in God-talk. The goal of our faith is to transform society in such a way as to meet particular ideas of social justice. Salvation is primarily, then, a this-worldly social category. Issues of conversion, personal transformation, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, and eternal life are simply left out of the discussion.
Some would say that I am talking about liberation theology here, but, if so, issues-based Christianity is a rather anemic form of it. Here God is essentially an afterthought, an idea that can provide some religious underpinnings for ethical principles. The basic doctrines of the faith are not rejected as in modernist forms of liberalism, but rather regarded with deep ambivalence.
To be clear, as a Wesleyan I am thoroughly committed to the Church’s role in transforming society. My own passions in this area are mainly around people with disabilities. Our work in society, however, must be grounded in a full-bodied conception of the nature and work of the Holy Trinity. Our claims about God lead to our understanding of how we should live and what the world should look like, not the other way around. Theology must first and foremost be about God.