A revival in liberal theology?

I wouldn’t really recommend watching the entire Bill Moyers Journal panel discussion with Cornel West, Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones, and Union professor Gary Dorrien (video and transcript here).  They talk about the economic crisis in the ways that you might expect three liberal theologians to talk: a lot about how greed got us into it and how economic democracy is the key to fixing it.  Not bad points, necessarily, but nothing too new, either.

But you might find the end of the conversation interesting.  Union has a long history in the liberal theological tradition, and these three are teaching a course together there.  It’s no secret that the more theologically liberal mainline Protestant churches have been losing a lot of members, so the most intriguing portion came when Jones claimed that there is a new wave of students at Union:

BILL MOYERS: What are you seeing and hearing right now that give you some sense of encouragement, despite the fact that everything that’s tied down is coming loose?

SERENE JONES: What I see in my students is powerful. It is a sense that, in the crumbling of all of this, what is being unleashed is an intense sense of the embodied character of faith. Call it Pentecostal. You can see it in my students now. What does it mean to call them Pentecostal? It’s not the traditional things we think of. But these are students who are coming off the set of “American Idol.” Or they’ve been on a war ship outside of Iraq.

Or they’ve been stocking shelves in Texas. And they’re coming to Union committed to social justice. And open to the power of the spirit in physical ways that give them this kind of zealousness that, for a large swath of time, the liberal left lost. They’re doing this as a whole new generation for whom tactility, thinking about the way the body lives in the world. It’s actually exciting to me. Because I think, in their own lives, we’re seeing the contestation of the power of the market to configure desire. Because they don’t want those market desires in the same way my generation did. They’re critical of them. They’re coming up with new forms of music. And they’re very committed to a sense of passion in it. To use a very scholarly term, I think we need to use it more often, I think it’s a crisis of metaphysics. These students are asking, and their liberal professors, questions about, you know, “Do you really believe that God exists?”

Now, the liberal church is sort of, you know, wanting to say, “Well, it might be a myth. It might be a symbol. We can say this about it. We can back away.” These students are saying, “I’m not going to get out there on the front line, and I’m not going to reconfigure my interior world to desire different things…” If this isn’t real, they want something real that is an alternative.

GARY DORRIEN: Certainly, from our experience of the course, this is an extraordinary generation. I mean, it’s, they are connected. They care. They’re looking for, they’re always sort of obsessing about what’s real. I mean, they’ve got radar for what’s unreal.

For what is just merely abstract, or it doesn’t really speak to their condition. What isn’t going to make a difference. What kind of learning doesn’t make any difference at all. They’ve got radar for that. But they’re very hungry for what is going to make a difference. And how it is that they can live out their faith in this world that we’re creating.

SERENE JONES: They’re not afraid of hard thinking. But they also want, they want beauty. The beauty of the thought to inspire.

CORNEL WEST: This is one of the reasons why these new forms that we’re talking about find black forms and afro-American forms so attractive.

SERENE JONES: Absolutely.

CORNEL WEST: Because here you got this leaven in this larger American loaf been sitting here all this time. These young white brothers and sisters, they want to get into hip hop. They want to be able to move their bodies. They want to have an orality that is smooth like Jay-Z. There is something about the black experience in America, at its best.

We know we got black gangsters like anybody else. At its best that speaks to these kinds of issues. You’ve got Martin as the best, in many ways, in the political sphere. You got Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin. So much of the best in the cultural sphere. Now the young folk are hungry for it. We’ll see. We’re in a new transition.

I hope that these students keep asking the tough questions and see that while liberal theology has perhaps preserved some important parts of the Christian faith, it has not preserved the heart: God’s justified wrath against us and His gracious offer of salvation by grace through faith in His crucified and resurrected Son Jesus Christ, which are told to us in His authoritative Word.  It is a message that is offensive to the modern sensibility in which liberal theology is grounded, but I hope that God will use the serious questions that the students are asking to lead them to Himself.



  1. Tip of the recognition hat to Scott Kistler for an on-target summary with a most accurate description just how the pointless liberal aka ‘social gospel’ is in reality: a totally futile exercise in man based religion. With it’s roots in the book of Genesis clearly described as the Creator deemed rejection towards Cain’s illegitimate concocted, yet required personal sin offering -but instead was pleased and accepting of Abel’s offering, who performed exactly as required by and to unto God Himself.

    The very core of the whole revelation of God; the Creator of man who as the anointed Messiah is also the very redemption of fallen man, by a gracious Salvation offered explicitly through only one passage door: the Son of Man Christ Jesus crucified and risen, by exercised faith in the unseen, nothing less.

    It is quite ironic that alleged scholarly, degreed men and women, study the Word of God all their adult lives but completely missing the ‘keystone tree of life’ because of the convoluted forest of man’s imagined fruitless religions. Yet through the eyes of a child’s faith, these crucial spiritual matters are clearly seen and readily accepted. Truly ironic.

  2. I thought that the most telling moment was that, by Dr. Jones’ account, some of the professors at a theological seminary were even noncommittal on God’s existence.

  3. Your interesting post (which I came across after doing an unrelated search on Google) got me thinking.

    Being not only a Muslim but a theological (i.e., ecumenical) “liberal” like those you mention, I naturally come at this from a different angle (e.g., my respectful but very emphatic disagreement with Calvin on faith and grace http://tinyurl.com/onxbg5). I hope you don’t mind me sharing some objections, meant in the spirit of intellectual exchange.

    I suspect that spiritual life in Christian communities exhibits the same paradox as Muslim ones: The liberals often who grasp the moral impossibility of a loving and just God arbitrarily damning most of his creation for trivial offenses of doubting or guessing wrong, are, for complex reasons, often lukewarm in faith and practice today; the conservatives, for their part, keep religious tradition and serious spiritual commitment alive in our cold, spiritually barren day yet are often too trapped in binary categories and zero-sum theology to see God’s bigger plan.

    No disrespect intended–I have similiar objections to exclusivist positions among my fellow Muslims–but I find it perplexing how Christians who are hermeneutically astute enough to reconcile complex christological creeds (e.g., the Chalcedonian Confession of hypostatic union) with the idea of monotheism can find it completely inconceivable that John 14:6 (“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”) might be intended to be interpreted in an open, non-exclusivist manner that affirms Christ’s mission and centrality for Christians without closing the door to salvation outside Christianity.

    Why must it be either/or? Sure, we human beings prefer our truths in convenient, binary packages, but I don’t think God is under any obligation to slavishly cater to our limited perspectives and sectarian sensibilities.

    I submit that both camps have something very vital to learn from the other.The liberals desperately need to get the fire of lived faith back in their bellies, and the conservatives need to stop shoehorning God in this little, sectarian box.

    Such a more nuanced and humble hermeneutic approach isn’t easy, but since when is faith supposed to be easy?


    • svend,

      Interesting comments. To me, the hermeneutic continuum could probably be divided into two related extremes: (1) blind faith premises, and (2) formal logic.

      While we can accept a discordant nature of God and call it “reconciled”, we really don’t understand it. And just because most Christians have blind faith in one aspect is not a good reason that they should have blind faith in any other. Indeed, particularly for the purposes of pursuasive discussion, I think we should minimize our blind faith premises rather than expand them.

      “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

      What is the point of the second sentence if not to say that all people come to the Father through Christ? Limiting it only to Christians is circular, both since there were no Christians then, and since a Christian is defined as one who knowingly goes to God through Christ.

      Your syncretism is fascinating. e.g. Do you believe there are any mutually exclusive aspects of Islam and Christianity? Do you believe that Christ died for your sins? Do you believe that Christ died for my sins? How would you address apostasy from Islam?

  4. Hi Kevin

    Thanks for the stimulating response. I’m happy you took my comments in the constructive way they were intended.

    I can see why you’d have this suspicion, but I don’t consider myself syncretic. While I respect the impulse involved–better to do bad theology that embraces your fellow man in my book than bad theology that doesn’t–I actually find New Age syncretism unappealing and at times extremely tiresome (i.e., I’m not a fan of much New Age spirituality, even if I may think some of its unorthodox conclusions are–in spite of the problematic methodology–warranted). My theology is universalistic, yes, but it is (I believe and hope) not the result of apriori assumptions but rather prayer and careful consideration of the evidence within my religious tradition and sound theological principles (foremost among them being God’s justice).

    The outcome is similar in some respects, but I think the process of arriving at that conclusion is very different. I don’t to comment on the truth of any other faith–all I feel I know is that 1) my tradition is true; 2) an exclusivistic reading of my tradition is unwarrantedgiven the evidence; and 3) whatever the truth or falsity of other traditions may be, from a strictly logical standpoint an exclusivistic reading of them does not follow, as since to my knowledge no other religious tradition anywhere includes language so specific as to preclude this position.

    Also, that’s my perspective vis-a-vis my own tradition. I don’t presume to make comparable claims regarding Christianity (however much I find, say, Rahner’s notion of “anonymous Christianity” appealing). As neither a Christian nor a non-scholar of Christianity I would not presume to speak of what Christian faith should be.
    But while I may not be able to contribute to discussions Christian faith, that doesn’t make all beliefs equally compelling “formally” or internally consistent.

    Thus, my objection is almost a technical one but it’s very important: My contention is that it does not follow from acceptance of the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christian (or Muslim) faith that God’s forgiveness *must* be denied to all people who–for whatever reason (and I think there are as many as there are fish in the sea)–take the same path.

    So, I’m not making a relativistic claim that all beliefs are equally valid, but rather questioning an assumption that many (IMO wrongly) treat as an inescapable corollary of orthodox faith within the monotheistic traditions. To give an example, I happen to have fundamental objections to some Christian doctrines (especially the Vicarious Atonement), but I do not think this means that a Christian who holds that belief must be lost, that Allah cannot judge (and possibly forgive) that person just as he does me, even the criteria involved in that case would be beyond my understanding. The process through which non-Muslims are judged may be mysterious, but it would hardly be the only theological “mystery” or paradox that orthodox Muslims live with.

    This may be my Sufi leanings, but while I understand your point abour circularity, I think it overlooks the fact that no human language can capture the Ultimate Reality fully. Many positive assertions concerning divine traits (i.e., “God is merciful”) about God are, from some perspective, wrong (or at least incomplete). Hence the tradition of negative theology. Look at the question of free will–neither answer (i.e., Yes or No) is theologically possible if contrued in its broadest, most literal sense; absolute free will impinges on God’s sovereignty, while the complete absence of free opens an even worse can of worms. Language cannot but fail us on such question so long as we insist on strict literalism.

    Also, there is the question of the constraints that accompany a medium in any given time or place. Prevailing linguistic conventions, levels of education, the reliance on orality, and so on, perhaps did not permit a long excursus spelling out all these subtleties with the clarity of a modern theological text. Perhaps longer, less polyvocal expressions of dogma like those we take for granted today would have been inappropriate to the needs and circumstances of premoderns?

    There are various statements by Jesus Christ in the Gospels which are taken figuratively or as operating on multiple levels in Christian tradition (e.g., “I am but for the lost sheep of the House of Israel”, “Why dost thou call me good; there is none good but God”) . I don’t see how that statement I cited or others like it have to have to be so monovocal, at least not from a logical or textual standpoint.

    As is so often the case, my beef isn’t with particular conclusions, but with the IMO arbitrariness with which others are excluded from consideration. I don’t think conservatives are philosophically or hermeneutically justified in dismissing universalistic interpretations as self-evidentally un-scriptural (much less signs of deficient faith).

    As the foregoing probably hopefully shows, I realize that Christian belief and Islamic belief are mutually exclusive in some respects. They cannot both be equally right, but that doesn’t mean that God’s mercy must be limited only to those on the right (or “most right”) path, IMO.

    Regarding apostasy, there are a lot issues involved here, but suffice it to say that like many Muslims today I think the death penalty for apostasy is utterly un-Islamic and a relic of the Middle Ages, the result of the culture and geopolitics of that day. The Quran contradicts this “traditional” penalty this quite explicitly and the sayings of the Prophet customarily aduced clearly refer not to changing one’s religion in itself but changing religion and joining an enemy in time of war. (A distinction that would have seemed overly fine to many medievals, whether Christian or Muslim.) Thus, those sayings were about what we’d call *treason* today, I think.

    I wrote an article that touches on this once. http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/election08/281/who%E2%80%99s_smearing_obama

    Sorry for the long note. Hope it made sense.

  5. Please excuse the many typos.

    One cries out for correction, though: I meant to write “As neither a Christian nor a scholar of Christianity” (i.e., disregard “non” in “non-scholar”).

    Also, I should note that I am not implying that the same arguments for extending salvation apply across traditions, or that each religious tradition contains the same evidence for it. Some arguments apply equally to all monotheistic tradition since they concern God’s nature, but the decisive ones (if they exist) will presumably be specific to the scriptures and interpretative tradition involved. In other words, I’m not saying that my conclusions about Islamic theology somehow have standing in Christian theological discussions.

    I just think theologically liberal Christians probably deserve to be cut a little more slack. They might be onto something, whatever their other faults may be.


  6. One other thing. While I wouldn’t claim to represent this school of thought, I do agree with some of its insights, especially its simultaneous insistence on fidelity to one’s own tradition while recognizing the existence of divine truth in others. http://planetgrenada.blogspot.com/2005/04/perennialism-and-traditionalism.html

    It is admittedly a very small movement in contemporary Islam–as I think movements that grapple with such complex issues are generally “doomed” to be– but it gives you one example of diversity on these issues among contemporary Muslims.

    If this helps, I believe in universal values, but only after arriving at them through the particular (in this case, Islamic tradition). The problem with New Age thinking, in my view, is that it often tries to start with universal precepts even though such notions are unsustainable and uninspiring for most people in the absence of the guidance of a specific sacred tradition. (I respect humanists greatly, but there’s a reason why Secular Humanism has not taken the world by storm.)

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Svend.

    I guess it depends upon what you mean by “exclusivistic” and what aspects you are comparing — as you note, there are both commonalities and incompatibilities between traditions. e.g. In terms of eschatology, there are many traditions which insist on excluding non-believers to varying degrees, brands of Christianity and Islam included.

    In this life, I think that a relatively just and peaceful coexistence amongst diverse traditions is certainly feasible within a classically liberal political framework such that no one need be excluded, above some minimal threshold.

    However, I thought that Islam was a socio-political religion intended to govern universally. e.g. is it required that non-Muslims have fewer legal rights? Or should Shari’a be dismissed or only apply to Muslims?

    Svend wrote: “Thus, my objection is almost a technical one but it’s very important: My contention is that it does not follow from acceptance of the fundamental beliefs of orthodox Christian (or Muslim) faith that God’s forgiveness *must* be denied to all people who–for whatever reason (and I think there are as many as there are fish in the sea)–take the same [a different?] path.

    Interesting contention. IMHO (and, actually, everything I say is IMHO :)), God works with everybody where they are at. Your contention is not false but, for Christians, it doesn’t quite make sense since God has already chosen to forgive everyone because of Christ’s sacrifice.

    If God’s son died for our sins and we refuse to accept it, could we gain forgiveness by other means? Regarding the latter part in isolation, some atonement seems reasonable, as in the Old Testament. However, if we believe the former part’s premise, it seems like a schizophrenic question because we would be both rejecting God’s forgiveness and seeking it. As you indicate, we would also be abandoning the certainty of divine forgiveness in exchange for the uncertainty of it.

    Svend wrote: “This may be my Sufi leanings, but while I understand your point abour circularity, I think it overlooks the fact that no human language can capture the Ultimate Reality fully.

    True, but, by definition, to the extent that human language cannot capture Reality, we cannot discuss it.

    Svend wrote: “Look at the question of free will–neither answer (i.e., Yes or No) is theologically possible if construed in its broadest, most literal sense; absolute free will impinges on God’s sovereignty, while the complete absence of free will opens an even worse can of worms. Language cannot but fail us on such question so long as we insist on strict literalism.

    Well, we are stuck as long as we insist upon either (1) logically conflicting definitions for those terms (literalism?), or (2) resolving the paradox.

    For #1, we can debate better definitions based upon greater logical consistency throughout Scripture. For #2 — just accepting the logical contradiction as both true, such as both free will and God’s determinism (i.e. the free-will-conflicting interpretation of God’s sovereignty) — we nevertheless somehow reconcile the two in our behavior and thought processes, and I find it is often more productive to discuss that rather than abstractions.

    But I think the hurdle you face in this case is that you are advocating a paradox within Scripture where Christians do not see one. i.e. There is no motivation for Christians to reinterpret it. As such, I guess the practical question is, what do you or I gain from it? What problem is solved? What behavior would be changed? Are you trying to reduce evangelism or some other specific exclusivist behavior or attitude?

    Svend wrote: “While I wouldn’t claim to represent this school of thought, I do agree with some of its insights, especially its simultaneous insistence on fidelity to one’s own tradition while recognizing the existence of divine truth in others.

    I agree about recognizing and also uniting upon the aspects of divine truth in other traditions. And certainly respecting each other. At the same time, I seek what is best and most true, and so I do not necessarily advocate each person’s fidelity to their respective traditions. In other words, while some parts may be flexible, I do not generally believe that one tradition is as good as any other, even if we may disagree about which is better. Thankfully, we only need minimal agreement in order to live together in a classically liberal society.

    This is getting long, so I’ll stop here for now. Thank you for the links and sharing the fascinating explanation regarding Islamic apostasy and treason; I had not heard that before.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Kevin.

    re: Islam and world domination [my words, not yours 🙂 ]

    Not an easy question to answer succinctly, especially given how confused many Muslims are about it.

    Certainly medieval Muslim jurists considered it an obligation to ensure that all of humanity had the opportunity to hear God’s message and in practice this meant waging war to “open” non-Muslim societies to the message. That was the theory of a very different time–and one that admittedly went largely unchallenged until the modern period.

    I’m no jurist, but I’d contend that the world works so differently today that the *only* way to spread a religious message effectively is to preach and manifest it in oneself. Heavy-handed and coercive measures backfire and in any case are morally out of place in the modern world.

    Also, within Sunni Islam religious authority resides in the collective class of traditionally trained (and recognized) scholars (among Shiahs, among the descendants of the Prophet). Among Muslim legal scholars such doctrines are in flux. The process of renewal and reform is complicated and slow because we lack papal authorities, a tradition of ecumenical councils and don’t even have denominational fora empowered to settle such questions definitively (or at least officially). Which means the process of change–i.e., new thinking spreading among scholars–is slow and sometimes hard to detect, but there’s no question that reform is happening.

    As for the motivation for proposing this, I guess for me the motivation would be to clear God’s name. I realize that most people do not see anything fundamentally sacrilegious about the idea of eternal damnation for non-believers, but such things aren’t settled by opinion polls, of course.

  9. Svend,

    “clear God’s name” — as in, it would seem unfair of God if people who strive to do good and seek forgiveness their whole lives would be judged simply for not recognizing the Christ?

    Well, even if forgiveness and salvation cannot be found through other paths, that does not preclude God from making the truth brilliantly obvious and providing an opportunity to repent and embrace His forgiveness through Christ prior to His Judgement. In fact, that seems very likely to me.

    It has been a pleasure discussing this with you, and I appreciate your insights into Islam. Thanks!


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