I haven’t done a book review in a while, but I’ve been reading some good ones. Just yesterday, I finished Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Skinner House: 2005) by Paul Rasor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and college professor who currently works as director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom.
Enemies and allies of liberal theology are similarly inclined to use the term ‘liberal’ as a synonymn for ‘other’. Until the last year or two, I myself was completely unaware of the historical depth contained within the joint traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Knowing only what I’d been told from my evangelical upbringing, I had always thought that Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were ‘loosey-goosey’ and ‘airy-fairy’ liberals who had respect for neither tradition nor truth and adopted an ‘anything goes’ policy in regard to morality and ethics. I would tell jokes like:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist?
A: Someone who comes knocking on your door for no apparent reason.
OK, I have to admit that I still chuckle at that one, even though I know it’s not true. UUs are deeply committed to their theology and ethics. If one knocks at your door, you can bet that it’s for a very good reason. What I discovered is that UUs (as well as other religious liberals) are committed to process over content. In other words, they’re more interested in how you live than what you believe. This is beautifully reflected in the UUA’s Seven Principles. I would love to go into greater detail about them here, but that will have to wait for another blog post. The UUA, while it represents the largest organized group of religious liberals, is not the only place where they hang out. There continue to be many of us who try to embody a similar flavor of religion within our respective communities. What matters is that we who identify ourselves with this label (‘liberal’) must be able to simultaneously hold and share a conscious awareness of who we are and what we stand for in a positive sense.
Given the myriad ways that the term ‘liberal’ gets thrown around without being defined, I’m grateful for Rasor’s concise and readable primer that actually digs into the real roots and trajectories of the liberal theological tradition.
If you don’t have time to read the entire book, the first two chapters after the introduction will familiarize you with what it is that religious liberals believe and how we came to embrace those values. Whether you’re out to support or criticize us, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into. Love or hate us for what we are, not what we’re not.
The remainder of the book lays out some of the challenges and frontiers that liberal theology is currently facing in its ongoing development. With the arrival of the postmodern era, liberal religion (as a decidedly modern phenomenon) is reevaluating many of its core commitments (in much the same way that evangelical Christians (another modern movement) are also doing via the ‘Emergent Church’ movement). Hard and fast categories, such as rugged individualism and universal human experience, are being questioned in the light of community, culture, and language.
Rasor is highly critical of his own liberal tradition in relation to issues of race and social class. Despite its value of diversity, liberal religion continues to exist as a predominantly white and middle-class movement. While his criticisms are honest and accurate, I wish that he had spent more time with them. He mentions social Darwinism and the rise of manifest destiny in America, but he says nothing of Eugenics or the Holocaust, both of which were fueled in part by liberal theology. These massive moral failures demonstrate that no one group, however utopian their ideals, is above the human tendency toward self-justified violence and oppression. My primary criticism of Rasor’s book is that it seems to minimize and/or ignore these most prominent failures of liberal religion.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed by Rasor’s distinction between liberal and liberation theologies. These two categories are often associated with one another in the common mind, mainly because of shared emphases on social justice. However, as Rasor observes, they arise from different historical sources, make use of different methods, and emerge with very different values and convictions. Liberation theologians tend to hold scripture and tradition much more closely, even as they criticize and reinterpret them. Not all theological liberals are liberation theologians (and vice versa). One need only look at the sermons of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador to see his deep commitment to the historical orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism. If anything, I came away from Rasor’s book with an awareness that the construction of a theology that is simultaneously liberal and liberationist would prove to be a most difficult task. Indeed, evangelicals would probably have an easier time of it, given the place they grant to the Bible in their theological systems.
All in all, I highly enjoyed Rasor’s book during my two weeks of vacation. I expect that I will keep it on my shelf and refer to it often as a concise introduction to what religious liberals actually believe.