Sunday, December 13, 2009

Time to Leave behind the Old Liberal/Evangelical Battles -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 15

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Time to Leave behind the Old Liberal/Evangelical Battles
Chapter 15

Nearly a century ago the religious world was rocked by the modernist/fundamentalist fight. Old line denominations were divided and new institutions were born. The “liberals” were the Mainline churches, and for the most part they survived that “war” – perhaps in part because the brand name carried enough power that these groups could overcome any ideological questions that were present. Those battles have continued over time and as brand loyalty has diminished, the old-line churches that relied on prestige to carry the day have suffered. The newer upstart groups, perhaps because they had to start fresh (and many ended up being present in the suburbs at just the right time) seemed to prosper.

In recent years as the old-line churches have experienced decline, that decline has been blamed on the perceived liberalness of these denominations. This label – “liberal” – has become an increasingly pejorative one. “Liberals” are those who don’t believe in anything. They’re too wishy-washy, don’t stand for anything, and they’re not patriotic enough. That a liberal might be open- minded and open-hearted is not sufficient reason to keep the term.

A recent set of books by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner sought to reclaim the word liberal by pairing it with evangelical – in the hopes that by combining the best of both, they could appeal to that relatively silent and ignored middle crowd. I was attracted to their message because I generally find myself in the middle. Like our author, I’ve spent time in the evangelical world – in fact, both of us are graduates of Fuller Theological Seminary (though Philip Clayton was at Fuller a little bit before I was present). Like our author, I’ve become more liberal over time, though I suspect (and I want to learn more of this story) his “conversion was more dramatic and more thoroughgoing than mine. Maybe that’s because I did my doctoral work at Fuller rather than going off to Yale.

This set of introductory thoughts brings me to Philip Clayton’s thesis for chapter 15, a chapter that declares the death of the term liberal. While the charges made against the word “liberal” may derive from stereotypes, there is enough truth in the matter many who would in earlier years accept the label, have chosen to pursue another one. And the word that is being embraced by many is “progressive.” Progressive seems to be more elastic and less defined by stereotype. There are, for instance, Progressive Evangelicals – like Jim Wallis, Tony Jones, and Brian McLaren. Their theologies are fairly orthodox – but open to new insights – but their commitments to social justice puts them in a more “liberal” camp. Indeed, not only does this group embrace women’s rights, but there is a growing openness to the full equality of gays and lesbians. On the other hand, there are those – including the author – who are progressive not only their social justice commitments, but would be described as liberal in their theological commitments.

Progressive is, according to Philip Clayton, isn’t an ideology, but is rather an emphasis. Contrasting the progressive view with that of the conservative, he notes that the conservative is marked by the desire to “conserve” or retain the inheritance of the past, and they do this because “they believe that most beliefs and practices in contemporary secular society are opposed to the Christian tradition” (p. 121). The stress is on the differences between Christianity and the modern world. Progressives, on the other hand, emphasize change and newness. It’s not that they believe the world is getting better and better (that was one of the failures of old-line liberalism, a.k.a. modernism), but progressives do believe that we can learn something from the contemporary world – that is, our experience and reason offer us important insights that can benefit faith. To be progressive doesn’t mean rejecting the past, but a greater focus is placed on change and the future. I would agree with Clayton on these definitions, except in some cases conservative religionists have been more open to changes in style than many so-called progressives. Thus, you can go to a very conservative church that features rock bands and video, and to an extremely liberal congregation that is almost medieval in its worship style.

Clayton turns to this word because it lacks the baggage of liberal and thus offers a more positive word to define this new movement that is marked by its variety. Indeed, he suggests that under the progressive banner you will find considerable diversity – especially on questions such as the ordination or marriage of gays or on pacifism. Observing this diversity, Clayton returns to his call for a “big tent” Christianity that is intent on building upon the seven core theological questions to make a difference in the world.

This book that I’ve been working through seeks to bring together those who range across this varied landscape for serious conversation that can transform and revitalize the church. He speaks of Transforming Theology not as a manifesto but rather a network of networks. It offers not just one theological proposal, but offers room for a variety of answers to be proposed and discussed and lived. It is he says, more a style or mode of being Christian:

Think of it as a call to Christian activism that keeps one eye on the distinctive features of Jesus’ life and ministry, the other eye on the world that’s unfolding around us. We have to learn from and about both if we’re to bring them into redemptive relationship (p. 123-124).

What sets this movement apart from conservatism is that it is less focused on protecting age old doctrinal formulations – looking more closely at how they are lived. It’s not that theology isn’t important, but rather the context in which they’re tested. There is no one “progressive” theology or movement. I’m personally thankful that this is true, for if there was I’m sure that I would be voted out – because I’m sure that I would fail to meet one or two sets of criteria! Of course, as the recent outcry against Barack Obama’s decisions from his erstwhile allies on the left, there are many who would like to define a liberal orthodoxy. If I hear Clayton correctly, such an eventuality is not in keeping with his definition of progressive. And with that, I say -- yes, let's put an end to the old battles and get on with the work at hand!


Anonymous said...

I still lay claim to the baggage of being a liberal.

This reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw, that I figure 100% of people could agree with-

everyone else thinks you're a a** hole

David Mc

John said...

I have a sign in my house: "Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite."

Sometimes I even believe it.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone came to embrace this truth? For each of God's children to live their lives secure in the knowledge that each was God's favorite.


Anonymous said...


I don't think you're an a** hole by the way. I'm not sure why I said 100%. I guess I meant both sides. It's a bumper sticker that both believers and non-believers could relate to. I'm not sure which group the driver espoused. David Mc