Defining Liberal Theology

At the basic level, we can say that liberal theology is based on the premise that human religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.  It has been said that liberal theology tries to articulate a framework within which one can be deeply religious and thoroughly modern at the same time.  From this orientation, liberal theology is characterized by commitments to free and open intellectual inquiry, to the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, to the ethical dimensions of religion, and to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant…

Liberal theologian and social ethicist James Luther Adams put it this way: “Liberal religion by its very nature has aimed to live on the frontier and to break new paths.”

Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century

A Vast Temple of Being

Convento do Carmo in Lisbon. Image by Chris Adams. Used by permission under GDFL.

I came across this beautiful passage in the first volume of Gary Dorrien’s trilogy: The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900, which I am currently reading.  Dorrien takes this passage itself from the Congregationalist preacher, Horace Bushnell (1802-1876).

I stand here then a thinking creature in a vast temple of being.  The sky is over me, the earth beneath, and around me I gaze at the floor and the walls and the shafted pillars of the temple and behold all overlaid and inlaid with types of thought.  Whose thought?  If I am intelligent so is the world.  I live here – amazing thought! – embosomed in the eternal intelligence of God.

Religious Liberalism 101: A Book Review of Paul Rasor’s ‘Faith Without Certainty’

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.

Click here to order this book on

Not Just Another Pretty Picture

Much like the underwater Jesus picture I posted yesterday, this is just another lovely image that I found somewhere online.  I don’t remember where, which means it was probably Facebook.

What you see behind the church is what I like to call “the best view in the galaxy”.  You’re looking out across the galactic core of the milky way.  This is our neighborhood.  It is the slightly larger speck of dust within which the speck of dust that the speck of dust that we specks of dust inhabit revolves around rests.

I’ll leave you to unpack that sentence at your leisure.

I also really like the church in the foreground.  Something about it resonates with where I am in relation to my own spirituality right now.  About a year ago, I made a conscious decision to start verbalizing a shift that had been slowly happening for almost a decade.  The traditional metaphysics of orthodox evangelicalism have ceased functioning as part of my internal theological process.

These days, I consider myself a “recovering evangelical”.  Not because all evangelicalism is evil, but because I can’t handle it responsibly.  I know of many evangelicals who manage to live intelligent, compassionate, and healthy lives within that tradition.  For whatever reason, I could not.

In it’s place, I’ve adopted the label “liberal Christian”.  Some might also justifiably call me a “progressive Christian”, but I prefer the “liberal”.  I’ve written about that choice of words elsewhere on this blog.  I love my church, as well as the Bible, and the symbols & rituals of Christianity.  Jesus continues to be a ubiquitous and central presence in my life, although I’m still figuring out how to articulate exactly what that means to me.

What I like about the above picture is its composition.  The church sits in the foreground but off to the side.  The big picture is the galaxy itself, of which the church is a part.  In the same way, the Christian tradition continues to be a part of my big picture.  It’s a big part, a dominant part, and the part in which I live, but it’s still just a part.

I’ve recently come to accept a series of possibilities that would have scared the hell out of me only a few years ago: There may come a day when Christianity ceases to be a living religion on this planet, a day when the human species goes extinct, a day when this planet is no longer capable of supporting organic life, and yet another day when the sun itself goes dark.

Jesus once told his disciples, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  He was speaking of the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  His disciples thought that the temple and the nation of Israel were eternal institutions that would outlive history itself.  God would never allow these things to be destroyed.  Alas, the disciples were wrong.  I can hear Jesus uttering these same words in relation to my congregation, my denomination, my country, my religion, my planet, my solar system, and my galaxy, ad infinitum.

“You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Some parts last longer than others, but everything is is only a part of everything, and it’s all mortal.  This wisdom of Jesus empowered his followers with the faith they needed to survive the razing of their ancestral home.  They were ready for the Diaspora because they believed that, come what may, God would never be thrown down.

These days, I’m settling into a deeper trust that, even though my best ideas about God (including the word itself) will one day pass out of existence, the reality to which that word refers never will.

Recommended Reading on Liberal Christianity

Here is a link to an excellent annotated bibliography of several popular-level primers on Liberal (a.k.a. ‘Progressive’) Christianity.  For those who wonder what we’re all about, I’d say this is a good place to start.  If your looking for one book to begin with, I’d recommend the one at the very top: Marcus Borg’s The Heart of ChristianityIt’s concise and well-written for folks on a non-academic level.

20 Books on Progressive Christian Spirituality

It’s an article on the website Spirituality & Practice, which I found by hanging around at Abundance Trek, which is just one of the blogs kept up by my friend, John Wilde.  There are many people in this world who strive to be unique individuals who defy all conventional categories; John is one of the very few souls who actually accomplishes it.  How like Jesus…

Ways Through Time to Eternity

Fascinating thoughts on pluralism by philosopher John Hick. 

Warning: Liberal warm fuzzies ahead.  If you don’t want those, feel free to stop reading now.

The future I am thinking of is accordingly one in which what we now call the different religions will constitute the past history of different emphases and variations within a global religious life. I do not mean that all men everywhere will be overtly religious, any more than they are today. I mean rather that the discoveries now taking place by men of different faiths of central common ground, hitherto largely concealed by the variety of cultural forms in which it was expressed, may eventually render obsolete the sense of belonging to rival ideological communities. Not that all religious men will think alike, or worship in the same way or experience the divine identically. On the contrary, so long as there is a rich variety of human cultures—and let us hope there will always be this-we should expect there to be correspondingly different forms of religious cult, ritual and organization, conceptualized in different theological doctrines. And so long as there is a wide spectrum of human psychological types—and again let us hope that there will always be this—we should expect there to be correspondingly different emphases between, for example, the sense of the divine as just and as merciful, between karma and bhakti; or between worship as formal and communal and worship as free and personal. Thus we may expect the different world faiths to continue as religio-cultural phenomena, though phenomena which are increasingly influencing one another’s development. The relation between them will then perhaps be somewhat like that now obtaining between the different denominations of Christianity in Europe or the United States. That is to say, there will in most countries be a dominant religious tradition, with other traditions present in varying strengths, but with considerable awareness on all hands of what they have in common; with some degree of osmosis of membership through their institutional walls; with a large degree of practical cooperation; and even conceivably with some interchange of ministry.

Beyond this the ultimate unity of faiths will be an eschatological unity in which each is both fulfilled and transcended—fulfilled in so far as it is true, transcended in so far as it is less than the whole truth. And indeed even such fulfilling must be a transcending; for the function of a religion is to bring us to a right relationship with the ultimate divine reality, to awareness of our true nature and our place in the Whole, into the presence of God. In the eternal life there is no longer any place for religions; the pilgrim has no need of a way after he has finally arrived. In St. John’s vision of the heavenly city at the end of our Christian scriptures it is said that there is no temple—no Christian church or chapel, no Jewish synagogue, no Hindu or Buddhist temple, no Muslim mosque, no Sikh Gurdwara. . . . For all these exist in time, as ways through time to eternity.

John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths

Romancing the Book (Follow-up Video)

Greetings all!

This was a video that I meant to include in the previous post, Romancing the Book: Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.

It was produced by Fr. Matthew Moretz, an Episcopal priest and classmate of my wife’s at Davidson College.  He does a great job of discussing the Bible in this installment of his enlightening and hilarious series: Fr. Matthew Presents…

You can see them all on YouTube!