Not Dead Yet

A Review of 'Reinventing Liberal Christianity'

Theo Hobson believes that liberal theology disintegrated decades ago and needs to be reinvented. The last liberal theologians worth mentioning, in his telling, were Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom did their major work over half a century ago. Every noteworthy theologian since their time has “dismissively” rejected the liberal tradition—and even Niebuhr and Tillich attacked liberal theology for its idealism, rationalism, and sentimentality. Hobson, a Cambridge-trained theologian who has written extensively about reform in the Anglican Church, allows that there are still a few liberal theologians out there, but they are either “dispersed among single-issue theologies” or reduced to “low profile” invisibility. In the academy and the church, he says, “identity politics has conquered all.” This judgment covers both Britain, where Hobson grew up and was educated, and the United States, where he now lives.

According to Hobson, three theologians have broken the stranglehold of identity politics to win recognition and influence the field of theology: the U.S. American theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who is loosely connected to Yale School “postliberal” theology, and British theologians John Milbank and Rowan Williams, who are leaders of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. (Williams was also archbishop of Canterbury.) These theologians share one thing with proponents of liberation theology: all get their bearings by blasting the liberal tradition. Nobody counters this bashing in a compelling way, Hobson believes, because a bad version of liberal theology overtook the good version long ago, and ruined the entire enterprise.

Hobson explains that there are two traditions of liberal Christianity. Bad liberal Christianity is rationalistic, humanistic, and prejudiced against the ritual practices of the church. Intertwined from its conception with liberal humanism, this tradition began with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who taught that toleration is natural to the rational state, which exists to protect the natural rights of citizens. Once in place, this bad tradition swiftly produced varieties of deism and Christian rationalism holding a merely pragmatic conception of liberty and developed radical forms of biblical criticism.

The good tradition of liberal theology, according to Hobson, goes back to John Milton and other radical Puritans of the English revolution, who contended that the state has a sacred duty to protect liberty. Good liberal theology slightly predates the Enlightenment anthropology and rationalism of Hobbes and Locke, and holds fast to the primacy of faith and religious liberty. It affirms the secularization of politics but does not affirm Enlightenment rationalism or secular liberal culture. Hobson stresses that, contrary to the story told by contemporary secularists and conservative Christians alike, liberalism is not a secular invention. Seventeenth-century radical Puritan idealists invented the liberal state, which sought to disenfranchise religion and to establish a new positive ideology resting on a religious (liberal Protestant) basis.

In this reading, liberal theology experienced a moment of vitality before it became infected by a rationalistic liberalism that defended Christianity in a bad way. Embarrassed by Christian myth and ritual, the rationalistic children of Locke and Kant devised liberal theologies that correlated Christian faith with Enlightenment reason and morality; later they learned about socio-historical consciousness and tried to Christianize that too. Hobson acknowledges that this approach kept theology from getting thrown out of German universities, and that it subsequently played a similar role in the elite universities of England and the United States. But modern criticism scorched everything it touched, leaving liberal theology with little dogmatic content and setting it up for a mighty fall. World War I and Karl Barth’s otherworldly polemics provided the barely needed push. Liberal theology has been falling, falling, falling ever since, to the point that liberal theologians today try to get by without being noticed.

Hobson’s argument has four parts. Part one details the radical Puritan founding of good liberal theology. Parts two and three set forth the development of bad liberal theology and the crash that followed the Barthian revolt. Part four explores the cultic basis of good liberal theology today, a tradition not embarrassed by myth and ritual, which describes a few Anglican congregations that Hobson likes.

The normative parts of this argument—parts one and four—conflict with each other, for the Puritans emphatically opposed everything smacking of ritual, myth, and sacramentalism. For Milton and others in his school, ritual was a tool of reactionary clerical power, whether Roman Catholic, High Church Anglican, or even Calvinist. Hobson reasons that the contradiction between his normative claims helps to explain what happened to liberal theology. Liberal Protestantism was a breakthrough for freedom, but its word-fixated, anti-sacramental bias made it vulnerable from the beginning to secularization and deracination. The rationalistic party prevailed, identifying liberal theology with anticreedal intellectualism. Liberal theologians from Locke to Schleiermacher to Tillich turned gospel wine into humanistic water, yielding sterile forms of religious expression that mimicked secular culture—unsurprisingly, since their proponents wanted to be respected by secular culture, especially the academy.

There is only one way to revive liberal Christianity, Hobson says, and that is to reinvent it. Liberal Christians must rip apart their two intertwined traditions, get rid of the humanistic/rationalistic one, embrace their cultic sacramental basis, and reclaim their role as Christian defenders of the liberal state. Hobson acknowledges that liberal theology, even in its bad version, was right to stand up for intellectual freedom and religious liberty. Liberal Protestants fought long, hard, and alone in this cause, to their immense credit. Today, theologians need to fuse liberty-loving Christian liberalism with the cultic. This prescription, Hobson allows, strikes most liberal theologians as an impossible contradiction, but that is precisely the problem with progressive Christianity. Liberal Protestantism, having made the idea of a cultic liberal Christianity seem like an absurdity, drove spiritual consumers to find nourishment elsewhere. Dismembered aspects of Christian worship—theater, carnivals, icons, meditation, performance art—thrive under postmodern conditions, while churches continue to offer dull and sterile fare for dwindling audiences.

Hobson is a bold, engaging, and assertive writer, and much of what he says is dead-on. He has a lucidly aggressive style, which he honed by writing religious journalism, and he renders brassy judgments with a declarative flair, supported by an ample scholarly knowledge base. In graduate school he specialized in Luther, Kier-kegaard, and Barth, writing a dissertation on the role of authoritative rhetoric in Protestantism. He then authored a polemic, Against Establishment (2003), declaring himself a “post-Anglican” theologian and announcing that the Church of England was doomed. His next book, Anarchy, Church, and Utopia (2005), debunked the ecclesiology of Rowan Williams, describing it as standard Anglo-Catholicism sandwiched by an unwieldy Radical Orthodox compound of anarchy and utopia. In subsequent articles Hobson has argued that theatricality is an essential component of religion, that carnival-style celebration must replace church worship, and that Protestantism suffers from a serious drama deficit.

Reinventing Liberal Christianity imagines a better liberal Christianity than the one skewered by Kierkegaard, Barth, Hauerwas, and Milbank. Hobson’s training during the high-water mark of Radical Orthodoxy, however, shows through in every chapter. He takes Milbank’s antiliberal rendering of modern theology very seriously, recycling its trademark tics and biases, and he has nothing to say, apart from a few sweeping dismissive judgments, about the liberal theologians over the past half-century who have continued to struggle with the implications of biblical criticism, the social and physical sciences, religious pluralism, and much more. Hobson would not be able to dismiss recent liberal theologians if he studied the works of Edward Farley, Robert Neville, David Ray Griffin, Langdon Gilkey, David Tracy, Sallie McFague, Gordon Kaufman, Peter Hodgson, Catherine Keller, Roger Haight, Elizabeth Johnson, and James Gustafson, religious thinkers who compare favorably to theologians of any generation for creativity, depth, and insight. Neither would he remain comfortable ignoring recent Catholic theology if he absorbed the work of Tracy, Haight, Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Paul Knitter, David Hollenbach, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. On Hobson’s telling, strong and creative liberal theology has not existed for fifty years. Having written three large volumes on liberal theology in the United States, and having struggled to hold volume three under seven hundred pages, I disagree.

Moreover, if Hobson actually reads liberal theologians for his next book and tries to apply his “good versus bad liberalism” argument to them, he will run into difficulty, as there are more than two kinds of liberal theology. His scheme has some affinities with the evangelical-liberalism-versus-modernist-liberalism distinction that ruled this field for decades, with similar limitations. But at least that distinction had a real history, as major theologians did actually identify with these categories (or variations of them). Evangelical liberals claimed an essential continuity with historic Christianity, and modernist liberals emphasized the discontinuities between the premodern and modern contexts. Two questions were fundamentally defining: Is it possible for a modern theology to be based on material religious norms from the past? And is God transcendent to, or located wholly within, the historical realm?

Hobson’s dichotomy does much less work in handling the historical data, because his fusion of cultic and Miltonian liberalism has no history, and his rationalist pole describes only a small part of the field. For example, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, two works of liberal dogmatics dominated introductory theology classes at leading Protestant divinity schools and seminaries in the United States: William Newton Clarke’s An Outline of Christian Theology (1898) and William Adams Brown’s Christian Theology in Outline (1906). These textbooks shaped and represented the broad mainstream of American liberal theology for decades, and neither of Hobson’s categories applies to them. Rationalism was not a defining factor, as Clarke and Brown were not rationalists. Both were ecumenical and robustly evangelical theologians, gospel-centered Pietists who taught that historical criticism recovered the Jesus of history. On the other hand, mythic sacramentalism was not in play for Clarke and Browne either, as both were emphatically nontheatrical, noncultic, low-church types, like most liberal Protestants. Moreover, Milton versus Locke was not a subject of debate, as the legitimacy of the liberal state was taken for granted in the Social Gospel of Clarke and Brown. The Social Gospel was about transforming social structures in the direction of social justice and infusing the moral values of Christianity into society and culture, not re-litigating the separation of church and state.

The latter issue marks a key difference between the American and British contexts. Some of Hobson’s argument does not cross the ocean very well, and a half-century of liberal Catholic theology should have dissuaded him from using “liberal Christian” and “liberal Protestant” as interchangeable terms. But Hobson is addressing something familiar, with keen insight: the rise of postmodern theologies and the fundamentalist right, the ubiquity of spiritual-but-not-religious spirituality in the middle class, the upsurge of militant atheism, and the crumbling of nonfundamentalist churches. This chaos, Hobson believes, requires an assertive response. Liberal Christians need to ditch their “false humility” and be the meta-discourse that Milbank calls Christians to be. In this telling, Milbank is right to be feisty and aggressive in speaking to postmodern disarray; he is wrong only in condemning liberalism in the process. Hobson urges liberal Christians to stand up for both liberalism and Christianity, resisting “progressivism” (which is regressive) and insisting that the best context for speaking and living the gospel is the liberal state.

I would put a similar point differently. In my field of social ethics, all three of the dominant perspectives associated with progressive Christianity—the Social Gospel, Niebuhrian realism, and liberation theology—have tended to reduce Christian ethics to political or ideological causes. As a consequence, progressive Christianity has not had enough to say or do in its own language, in its own way, and for its own reasons. The figures who made liberal Protestantism compelling to millions—Henry Ward Beecher, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Martin Luther King Jr.—were gospel-centered modernists who spoke with conviction about God’s holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative social and ethical mission of Christianity. The civil-rights movement thrived on its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good, and the Social Gospel movement would have been nothing without it.

Though I am an Episcopal priest, I do not believe that sufficiently imaginative worship will save the churches from expiring. But I share Hobson’s regret that the churches have missed every opportunity thus far—notably nineteenth-century Romanticism, twentieth-century existentialism, and twenty-first-century postmodern disarray—to make themselves less boring. Hobson provides a sparkling antidote to boring theology.

Published in the October 11, 2013 issue: 

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include ‘Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit,’ which won the Association of American Publishers’ PROSE Award in 2013, and ‘The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel,’ which won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017.

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