Defining liberal theology

Friday, April 6, 2007

Modernists. Theological Progressives. Liberal Theologians. Whatever nametag you use, they stand in contrast to conservative or traditionalist theologians. Rudolf Bultmann was a famous liberal theologian who insisted that the modern scientific worldview should be used as a basis for "demythologizing" the Bible. The crowning of modern human reasoning by the Enlightenment resulted in a denial of anything miraculous that violated the "laws of nature." The virgin birth, miracles of Jesus, and the resurrection were "out" replaced by a relative symbolic view of "miracle myths" that found them to be "psychologically useful." Myths were thought to be literary vehicles for expressing ethical or philosophical truths. Paul Tillich was another famous liberal theologian who grounded his theological views in existentialism and philosophy, and claimed that Biblical miracles were "myths to be existentially applied" -- they are "helpful fictions."

Liberal theologians of our own modern era express much the same philosophy. Don Cupitt is the dean of Emmanuel College in Cambridge and has argued that Christianity is nothing more than "human efforts to create existential meaning for our lives." Southern Methodist University scholar Lonnie Kliever calls traditional Christian "miracle" beliefs "fictions" and states that religion is basically a type of "coping mechanism" that helps to make life a little more bearable. Harvard Divinity School theology professor Gordon D. Kaufman believes that theology is the "work of human imagination" and a purely human "search for meaning." A little closer to home Edward Farley of Vanderbilt Divinity School views the "authority of scripture" as expressed in church dogma or creeds as a serious mistake, and sees Christianity as nothing more than a "moving stream of tradition." He has actually predicted that traditional Christianity as doctrine and structure will eventually collapse.

Liberal theology is a little hard to definitionally pin down due its variety. There are process theologians; existentialist theologians; Latin American liberation theologians; socialist theologians; feminist theologians; environmental theologies; radical black theologies; et al. There are, however, central currents of thought that run through most of them. First is that the basis for theological reflection is grounded in human reasoning and experience rather than "divine revelation." The Bible is considered to have been written by very human authors who were conditioned by ancient cultures, and thus mistakes and contradictions are to be expected. They view the Bible as a mixed bag of sound and unsound ethics; historical fact combined with myth and legend; the scriptures themselves as having been edited and redacted by unknown redactors.

The second characteristic common in liberal theology is the urge to make Christianity relevant to modern society -- to make it sensible to secular people who are used to the scientific method and historical investigation as a basis for truth claims. The appeal is made to the philosophical, experiential, and ethical rather than literal divine revelation. Miracle stories are left behind in favor of sermons on the Beatitudes and loving one's neighbor.

The third common characteristic is viewing Christianity not as a lifestyle lived in constant reference to a heavenly transcendent Creator's demands, but rather a lifestyle dedicated to improving social conditions here on earth. Thus the emphasis on the "social gospel" -- working to eliminate poverty; eliminate AIDS; eliminate discrimination, male patriarchy and economic disparity, save the environment, etc.

A fourth characteristic already alluded to is the denial of the supernatural realm. There are no angels or demons affecting us in unseen realms, and no validity attached to claims of the miraculous. If it isn't reasonable to the modern scientific mindset, it's "playful legend." Conservatives often charge that liberal theology is completely relativistic with no fixed absolute standards, but there is indeed an absolute standard -- that of the scientific materialistic worldview that denies the supernatural realm. The model of Darwinian evolution is applied to theology -- religion, and Christianity, should be continually "evolving" to our changing times to further social progress. Next time: what is conservative theology?

(Quotations are from "Tracking the Maze" by Clark H. Pinnock)

Stephen Rowland is a former resident of Lewisburg who is working on a master's degree in biblical literature.