What is (theological) Liberalism?

The word “liberalism” comes with much contemporary baggage – especially in particularly religious circles. Often […]

Todd Brewer / 11.17.10

The word “liberalism” comes with much contemporary baggage – especially in particularly religious circles. Often even on this blog, we throw the term around in a fairly negative fashion. Sometimes it is popularly spoken of as a threat to the eternal truths of God and traditional creeds. Other times liberalism is seen as replacing the time-honored values and customs with fashionable cultural trends. Setting aside the unhelpful dichotomies, such accounts of liberalism rarely define the word itself. I would like to argue that theological liberalism properly defined is not an enemy, but integral to faith (it should be said, though, that the word is rarely used with this classical definition in mind)…. According to Karl Barth:

“Being truly liberal means thinking and speaking in responsibility and openness on all sides, backwards and forwards, towards both past and future, and with what I might call total personal modesty. To be modest is not to be skeptical; it is to see what one thinks and says also has limits. This does not hinder me from saying very definitely what I think I see and know. But I can do this only in the awareness that there have been and are other people before and alongside me, and that still others will come after me. This awareness gives me an inner peace, so that I do not think I always have to be right even though I say definitely what I say and think.”
–Karl Barth in “Final Testimonies”

Theological liberalism, according to Barth, is openness to an imaginative understanding of God that illuminates the present. This openness is not a product of the supposed indeterminacy or incomprehensibility of God – any theology which is Christian has as its subject the person and work of Christ. Instead this liberalism is predicated upon an awareness of one’s insignificant place in this history of thought. Barth opens himself to the certainty that others are correct and he is wrong. This humility, or as Barth says “total personal modesty,” is the origin of an “inner peace” that enables creativity of thought and the immodest endeavor to assert one’s opinion.

This seems counter-intuitive: by acknowledging oneself to be wrong one finds the resources to say one is right. Said another way, if one embraces the negative through the dispossession of the self (as Rowan Williams would say) one receives from God anew. One must lay down their certainties and presumptions of God which limit the possibility of true understanding. It is not simply that one must listen for God in unusual or unexpected places; rather one must first admit that one is deaf if one is to hear at all. Anything short of this pure passivity and we have simply made God in our own image.

To be theologically liberal means to come before God naked and without any self-defined identity, agenda, or ideological commitments. It is an openness to hear from God and understand Him afresh. Without such a liberal impulse, Christian faith is in danger of becoming a static, fossilized list of truths that testify of a God who “died” a long time ago.

[For further reading, see also Jacob’s wonderful post on fundamentalism and its relation to Christian faith.]

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4 responses to “What is (theological) Liberalism?”

  1. JMG says:

    I would like to push back just a bit on this one. While I don't proclaim to be an expert on Barth, me thinks that his point is more along the lines of our pre-suppositions and ethnocentricity. In other words, we can actually NEVER come to any subject or person, including God, "naked and without any self-defined identity, agenda, or ideological commitments."

    This is an impossibility. We are incapable of expunging the filters which result from the biological, environmental, socio-economic, etc…, particularities we all have.

    If this is understood, I think it does result in humility on our parts. I certainly realize that I need other 'voices' in my life because my own too often rings of myself and my "stuff."

    This is not to say that 'objective truth' doesn't exist – it most certainly does. His name is Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: Even the post above has my baggage and presuppositions all over it.

  2. Michael Cooper says:

    I understand and agree with the basic premise concerning the value of small l liberalism. In fact, I am so liberal that I am open to the possibility that the fundamentalists may be right. On the other hand, it seems that if we are honest with ourselves, we do not and cannot come before God with anything, even our own claim to "openness" and intellectual/theological humility. I think this is why we don't see any biblical depictions (that I can think of) in which God rewards supposed theological "openness" with fresh new insight. What we see over and over is just the opposite: God, through an act of radical and often violent grace, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh. David before Nathan and St. Paul struck blind come to mind. Real openness to God seems to be a gift of grace, otherwise known as a shattered life.

  3. StampDawg says:

    Thanks Todd. Thoughtful and interesting piece.

    I'd love it if you can flesh out a bit more, however, how you see this praiseworthy liberal impulse (and I share your liking for it) interacting with the historic creeds and other classic statements of Christian doctrine.

    Your piece seems to place the impulse in conflict with "a static, fossilized list of truths", which is just what folks like Jack Spong, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong and other revisionists object to in the creeds.

    My guess is that these people would read your piece and feel like you were on their side, and that you opposed any attempt to make normative assertions for what constitutes minimal Christian belief. I'm guessing that's not true, but it's hard for me to say why based on what you've written in this short piece.

    Can you help us out more?

  4. Todd says:

    JMG – I too, wouldn't call myself a Barth scholar, but I think you bring up a valid point. I never indicated that it was possible to come to God without any presuppositions – we are too bound. I tried to specifically designate that one must be free of self generated presuppositions. In fact, one must come to God from a presupposition – that which I call the negative, for Barth he speaks of total personal modesty. It is the negative "Paul why are you persecuting me" which creates the space for true receptivity and subsequent conversion. If I were to use traditional theological terms I would call this a version of a theology of the cross, placed within the field of epistemology and hermeneutics. For further reading, Simeon's talk at the MB conference was fantastic…

    MC – see above, I think you'll enjoy it 🙂

    Stampdawg – great question! I think that Spong et. al. occasionally recognize the danger of a faith which is strictly intellectual or largely unintelligible. I have not read enough of Spong, Borg or Armstrong to comment on their work in detail, but I will say that generally the crew you mentioned believes that the problem of faith lies in the creeds themselves. So either we must get rid of them or make them more persuasive. I would instead argue that the creeds are full intelligible, but the problem lies on our ability to understand, interpret, or hear them in their true voice. In many ways, Borg, et. al. represent the exact opposite brand of liberalism I advocate here: they interpret according to their presuppositions!

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