What is a Liberal Christian?

We often talk about various Christians in broad categories like  “conservative,” “liberal,” “evangelical,” “progressive,” and “moderate.” In this post, I want to explore the term “liberal,” because I think of these terms it is the most difficult to define.
Part of the reason for the difficulty is that “liberal” has at least two meanings that are really quite different from one another. On the one hand, “liberal” could mean a commitment to intellectual virtue. In this sense, a liberal is someone who wishes to get all the ideas out on the table and argue them out using the tools of reason and logic. Opposing ideas are given fair consideration and are accurately represented. Conceivably, one’s mind could be changed on even very deeply held convictions. This is the idea behind a “liberal” education. Students are taught to think, not simply what to think. Yes, there are certain facts and ideas that one should simply have in hand, but all ideas, at least in theory, are subject to critical examination. Theology, then, is as Anselm put it, faith seeking understanding. While it is entirely permissible, even expected, that one will hold certain faith claims, all ideas are subject to intellectual, reasonable, and critical examination.
On the other hand, Christian liberalism represents a set of theological positions. Because this is a blog post, I’m going to have to paint in broad strokes, so please bear with me. Most often, Friedrich Schleiermacher is identified as the father of liberal theology. For Schleiermacher and others like him, individual experience authorized theological claims. This idea would come to bear in powerful ways on subsequent liberal Christian theology. Scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss and Albert Schweitzer would advance theological claims based upon their own modernist formation and experience of the world. In the 20thcentury, existentialist theologians such as Bultmann and Tillich, owing much to the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, would become leading voices in Christian theological discourse. These scholars, and Bultmann in particular, would have a tremendous influence upon biblical scholars. Bultmann’s project of “demythologizing” the Bible came to bear in extraordinary ways up on the methodological presuppositions of many who came after him. Ostensibly intellectually responsible scholarship would have to proceed from a modernist perspective in which God’s direct intervention into the cause and effect of history was methodologically eliminated from consideration.
Later, particularly in mainline Protestant traditions, process theology would come to dominate the theological landscape. While not incompatible with existentialist theology, process theology does involve a set of metaphysical claims that differentiate it from other forms of liberal theology. Scholars such as Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, John Cobb, and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki are among the leading figures in this area. Like existentialist theologians, process theologians do not see God’s direct intervention in the cause and effect of history as reasonable. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, must be understood as a story or symbol, but not as an accurate representation of a historical event. In this sense, both existentialist and process theologies involved significant revisions, and even abandonments, of many of the claims of historic Christian orthodoxy, even while employing much of the same language. The popular Christian writer Marcus Borg is heavily indebted to process thought, as is made apparent in his book The God We Never Knew.  It is difficult to overstate, moreover, the effect that these traditions had upon theological education in the so-called “mainline” traditions.
At some point, things changed again. In particular, during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, theological positions emerged that were grounded explicitly first and foremost in the life-situations of particular communities. One’s lived experience authorized particular religious claims. In a way, we’re back to Schleiermacher now, except that lived experience is now defined communally, rather than individually. Essentially, the argument goes that belonging to a particular community of interpretation gives one a unique perspective that authorizes faith claims that people outside of this community are ill-positioned to see. Liberation theology often proceeds in this way. Clearly there is a great deal to say for this position. Our communities and life settings do in fact come to bear in remarkable ways upon how we see the world. People who write from the perspective of disability studies, for example, have things to say that able-bodied and able-minded people may not see at all.
One liability of this type of argument, however, is that some people see the claims made from inside a community as immune from critique from outside a community. If you criticize the position of a community not your own, you are only demonstrating your own prejudice against that community and therefore validating its claims to marginalization. This is an intellectually unhealthy perspective. A second liability is the danger of emphasizing communal experience to the neglect of divine revelation. Yes, our lived experiences shape the ways in which we think about God, but that is not to say that they should be wholly determinative of our faith claims. Christians have long held that God has taught us things about God’s own nature, being, and relationship to humankind. We sometimes talk about this as “special divine revelation,” meaning that these ideas are not ones that we could discover on our own.
This type of identity-based theology is not necessarily revisionist in the senses that existentialist and process theologies are. In other words, you need not significantly revise traditional understandings of the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, salvation, and other historic doctrines in order to speak out of the experience of a particular community of interpretation. If, however, one gives epistemological precedence to communal experience over divine revelation, then it is likely that the historic doctrines of the faith will do little heavy lifting.
At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term “liberal” and started using the term “progressive.” I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term “progressive” expresses a positive value judgment that “liberal” does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education. It is difficult to identify what characterizes progressive Christianity today, but I’ll go out on a limb (and I’m putting on my Kevlar jacket right now). Its emphasis is on social justice, variously conceived, rather than on the Trinitarian economy of salvation. This is not to say that progressives necessarily reject the Trinitarian economy of salvation (though some do), but it is not the main emphasis of their proclamation. Some progressive Christians, however, would identify salvation as almost entirely defined by social justice.
Now, I don’t know any Christians who would say that they are against social justice. We may conceive of it differently from one another, but, generally speaking, we all believe that God offers to us a righteous, life-giving way of ordering our relationships. What sometimes gets lost in talk about social justice, however, is that, as Christians, we cannot know what social justice is apart from God’s self disclosure through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. In other words, special divine revelation is necessary for us to know what social justice is. Additionally, the Christian life is not simply about emulating Jesus or abiding by his teachings (though these are important), but the transformative power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection mediated to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, a well-articulated understanding of the Trinitarian faith of the Church, and an experience of the Trinitarian economy of salvation, are necessary in order for us to reach a point at which we can talk about social justice as Christians.
This is why I stopped identifying with progressive Christianity years ago. It’s not that progressives don’t have important things to say.  Clearly they do. It’s that, for me, Christian proclamation must lead with a clear articulation of the nature and identity of the God we serve. This God is revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God shows up in history. This God really did become human, really did die, and really did rise from the dead. And this God does not leave us alone, but is at work powerfully, all over the world, leading people into more righteous lives that will continue into eternity. An emphasis on social justice that does not first reckon with these beliefs is not enough, at least not for me. I’m a liberal in the first sense discussed in this post: I believe in getting the ideas out on the table and having open, honest, intellectually virtuous discussion. The emphases of the liberal/progressive Christian movement today, however, are not such that I feel comfortable identifying with it.

I’ve tried to represent liberal/progressive Christianity as fairly as I can here. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and perhaps gotten a few things wrong. I think this is the longest post I’ve ever written (and congratulations if you made it to the end) because it deals with a very complex topic. I welcome your comments, but I’d appreciate your adopting a liberal perspective (in the first sense).

25 thoughts on “What is a Liberal Christian?

  1. David, this is a thoughtful and intriguing essay, both intellectually honest and gracious toward differing views. I'm going to republish it on United Methodist Insight. I think it's a model for us to consider as we continue to struggle across the UMC with many issues.

  2. My favorite paragraph is the second to last, where you drop the mic, albeit in a very diplomatic and politically correct way. I think this mic should be be dropped with authority, though. Otherwise, the Liberation Theologians win. Or maybe I have it all wrong. Layman.

  3. I suppose this might not be the most fair definition since it pegs me as a conservative theologically in generally, but I see liberal theology as “an over valuing of unity at the cost of truth.” I see unity and truth as key principles in the bible, but liberal theology tends to over emphasis unity. Many liberalizing denominations draw compromise after compromise to keep unity at the cost of truth. You will see some conservative churches of course which seem to lack a robust concept of unity and adiaphora.

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