17 September 2006

Link: What is Liberal Theology?

Joel at Connexions has an excellent post entitled What is Liberal Theology? I think I agree with most everything he's said and we even seem to come to very similar theological conclusions.

I have always said that my theology is "liberal in process and orthodox in doctrine". Joel's post points that out, I think, without necessarily using those words. I think his 22 points amount to a "way to do theology" - to a process. And, as he points out, the conclusions can be quite varied. Like him, I'm nowhere near being a Tillichian.

I expect that a lot of theological conservatives would say that having a conservative theological process is the only way to be certain that one will have orthodox outcomes. I disagree. I'd point to the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians and those who believe in "The Rapture" all use conservative theological processes.
Indeed, one of my bugbears - as many people will know - is that it sometimes seems to me that all you have to do is call yourself a theological conservative and then you can spout any old heresy you like and people will believe that it's orthodox.

For many of us, having "liberal" (as per Joel's post) theological processes, is the only way to be a Christian with integrity. It doesn't help Christianity to blame other Christians for the decline of the church; I think the situation is a lot more complex than that.

11 comments:

Stephen Murray said...

As someone who identifies with the 'liberal theology' articulated in the link I have a question. I consider myself a conservative, I'm not here to pick a fight or try and poke holes in your theology, I'm simply enquiring.

Point 18 intimates that liberal theologians (of that variety at least), aim to imitate Christ. My question is: How can that be possible? How can one imitate Christ - there just seem to be so many obstacles in the way. Here's a few of the obstacles:
1)The Jesus of early church history comes to us through reactions to numerous 'heresies' and the subjective opinions of numerous bishops and other leaders.
2) Each of the four canonical gospel writers had were heavily contextualized by their time in history, their ethnicity, their level of learning etc. etc.
3) They could have misinterpretted many of the events, down playing some insights and giving emphasis to others so that the general sense you get from a cumulitive reading of the gospels is completely different to the historical figure.
4) Those four gospels might not be the most accurate accounts in terms of manuscript evidence.
5) Paul, in his interpretation of so much of what Jesus was about completely blurred some of the principles that the historical Jesus stood for because he was so steeped in Judaism.

I could write pages of possible obstacles that are likely if the text is 'not inerrant'. How can I ever possibly imitate Christ? I would end up merely imitating one version of Christ? How do I reconcile all this or don't I?

I ask this with all sincerity and a genuine desire to know, as my deepest desire is to imitate Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

PamBG said...

Stephen: I'm answering in a personal / devotional way rather than in an intellectual / theological way.

I think that the way we imitate Christ is to dedicate our lives to "incarnating" (fallibly, in our case) the Love of God. And we persist in "incarnating" that Love even if the consequences are death.

My theological basis for this is Jesus' statement that loving God and loving one's neighbour is the greatest commandment and that in keeping this commandment one fufils the requirements of the law and the prophets.

That is a sincere answer.

I do not see imitation as re-duplication. Or do I misunderstand you?

stephen murray said...

Thank you for your honest reply. I'm afraid it leaves me with too many uncertainties and I fail to see how I can follow Christ in this way and maintain integrity.

I cannot believe in words that he might have said. Or dedicate my life to following something that might be the construction of a redactor. The Bible is either a lie or it is truth it cannot be both, because that stands diametrically opposed to the rules and laws that govern this universe that are evident to us in everyday life. Not even a post-modern epistemology can deny that. But thank you for sharing.

PamBG said...

Stephen, I'm not sure what sort of a conversation you are looking for here.

The post I linked to caught my eye because, in practice, the concepts of "theologically conservative" and "theological liberal" seem difficult to define.

You seem to be reacting as if I were intending to convince everyone to be a "liberal". And you're defining theological liberalism as being a set of unbeliefs that I do not hold.

So, if your intent is to tell me that I'm wrong, then I heard you. If your intent is convince me that you're right, then you'll need to address what I actually believe instead of offering a rather simplistic epistemology ("lie or true") against a belief that I do not not hold - viz, I do not believe that the bible is untrue.

Can I also say that the argument "bible either 100% true or lie" is an argument that anyone who has grown up in a conservative church will have heard many times. For those of us who left, this is one of the phrases that will have been used as a weapon against us. So it makes a poor apologetic for conservative Christianity, in my view.

stephen murray said...

You misunderstand me, I have not come here to prove anyone right or wrong. I have grown up in a conservative setting, I've worked in a conservative church, I'm now doing further studies at a conservative college. My aim to is to try and hear the other side. The one thing I do not want to be accused of by anyone as I work in ministry is that I don't listen.

The difficulties that I raise are not intended to be attacks on you but rather just to air what is going on in my own mind, and the difficulties I have trying to reconcile what I read. I have come here as an enquirer - that's all. If you think I've misunderstood you and you'd like to offer something of a corrective then I'm sorry it was not intentional - I'm willing to listen to any corrective.

I 'defined theological liberalism as being a set of unbeliefs' because to me, on an initial reading, that seemed to be the logical trajectory of the points in the link. Please forgive me for any offence caused, it was not intended.

PamBG said...

Thanks for the explanation, Stephen.

For me, personally, in trying to explain my view(s) to you, I'd not expect you to agree with me in order to "understand". If we approach it with the expectation that we can reach a point where we understand but don't agree, I'd say that's a good outcome.

What I thought was interesting about the article to which I linked was the fact that I thought it said that "liberals" will end up with a fairly wide range of theology because of the nature of the approach.

This is partly why I think it's hard to define the cross-over point between liberal and conservative theology. I am a person who can wholeheartedly say the creed without crossing my fingers, yet I agree with most of the article. Does that make me a liberal or a conservative?

So, for me, it's quite clear that I don't believe or accept the idea that the bible is either 100% true in all detail or it is a lie. To me, that statement is epistemological and not theological, at any rate. I don't understand why such strong words as "lie" need to be used.

Clearly, we don't have to know 100% about Nelson Mandela's life to say with some certainty that he was imprisoned for a long period and then played a crucial role that probably avoided civil war at a turning point in your country's history.

At any rate, I'd argue that the "100% certain" position is not a position of faith but it is a position of knowledge.

I hear that you think "100% true or lie" is important for you. I think I even understand that point of view - after 42 years in conservative churches. I do not, however, agree with you. Doesn't mean I'm going to try to change your mind. I am, however, happy to converse. Blessings, Pam

Sally said...

thanks for the link Pam, very intresting and very helpful- so often we apply labels without understanding

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Pam, I linked to Richard's post and to yours on my blog. Like you, I find myself "liberal" according to that definition. But I am not sure that I like his definition. If Hauerwas or Willimon are liberals, I'll eat my hat. As a discerning reader of my blog notes, he seems to want to classify all non-fundamentalists as theological liberals and that seems an extreme view.

I am not sure that any and every use of experience in theology makes one a "liberal." I would rather reserve that theological term, whether in praise or condemnation or mere description, to the classic liberal tradition (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack) or the neo-liberal tradition (Tillich, Bultmann, John A. T. Robinson, Don Cupitt, etc.).

I want labels to mean something and not just be thrown around. There has to be more choices than "liberal" or "conservative."

PamBG said...

But I am not sure that I like his definition. If Hauerwas or Willimon are liberals, I'll eat my hat. As a discerning reader of my blog notes, he seems to want to classify all non-fundamentalists as theological liberals and that seems an extreme view.

I grew up in a "fundamentalist" denomination. (I'm using "fundamentalist" here in the traditional sense of the word: taking the bible as verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible. I know "fundamentalist" now has an added pejorative sense and I want to use the word here in the "old fashioned" way.)

I grew up in a fundamentalist denomination - the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. They do think that anyone who is not a fundamentalist is a liberal. I've also been part of an extremely conservative Calvinist Anglican congregation in the UK and they would see non-fundamentalists as liberals as well.

In a practical sense, I think it's absolutely correct to define "liberalism" in this way.

The liberal / conservative border is really difficult to define.

I am not sure that any and every use of experience in theology makes one a "liberal."

That would make all of historic Methodism "liberal"! But I'd also like to be somewhat rigourous in how one uses "experience" in theology. Wesley never meant "individual subjective experience".

I would rather reserve that theological term, whether in praise or condemnation or mere description, to the classic liberal tradition (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack) or the neo-liberal tradition (Tillich, Bultmann, John A. T. Robinson, Don Cupitt, etc.).

Well, so would I. But I'm not sure that flies in the pews.

I want labels to mean something and not just be thrown around.

Grin. Yes, I think this is almost more of a relgio-sociological question than a theological one. I've never thought that one can impose a definition on something. (Witness the abject failure of the Acadamie Francaise to "control" the evolution of the French languge). I believe that, at the end of the day, words carry the meaning that people mean when they use them. And "liberal" and "conservative" are words that seem to have many meanings.

There has to be more choices than "liberal" or "conservative."

I agree. I've been throwing around the idea of "radical fideist" in my mind to describe my own position. I'll think about it more when I'm not jet-lagged.

Joel Thomas said...

I've enjoyed reading the exchanges here. Good dialogue. Sorry I couldn't join in at the time but I had a lot of stuff to do.

I realize Pam is likely to be the only one reading this, but I do say thanks for the link.

I'm a yin and yang person. While there can only be one "truth" we mortals struggle to understand it. Conservatives and liberals are both needed. The tension keeps each side from totally flying off into outerspace.

My definition of liberal theology was not intended to be definitive. Indeed, because I am an "armchair" theologian, there are limits to my means of expression.

PamBG said...

Joel - Glad you enjoyed the discussion.

I guess I think that the world needs the benefits of conservative theology and the benefits of liberal theology and that we also need to avoid the risks inherent in each approach.

My own philosophy - and I tell this to all Christians that I meet - is that I will embrace anyone who consents to embrace me, no matter how liberal they are or how conservative they are. Most people do seem willing to acknowlege me as a Christian sister.