The following reflection is a response to an article by Gary Dorrien on American liberal theology. [“American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity,” Cross Currents, Winter, 2005-06, Vol. 55, No. 4.]
Finding a way between conservative Christian orthodoxy and secular disbelief drove a lot of my reading and study when I was in high school and then more intensely during my first months at Georgia Tech. A deep sense that our society needed profound reform in the face of nuclear strategy, racism, and even to some degree budding concern for destruction of nature drove me to look critically at what I heard, saw, and otherwise experienced. Unfortunately, my home church had failed to address even my most basic concerns, at least in large part, because of my father's brutal bulling of our pastors. All the time, I knew that religion, particularly certain forms of Christian religion dominated much of the energy, time, and work of people I knew. And I heard something in reading the Hebrew Bible (in English) that caught my imagination and interest because it pertained to the threat of nuclear war, the corrosion of racism, and the ruin of the natural world. These interests drove my study and reading.
Dorrien relates that at the time I began reading theology in a serious way, liberal theology had allegedly declined in the face of trends variously named neo-orthodox even though these neo-orthodox styles of doing theology were in certain ways themselves branches of liberal theology so that I must confess that in some ways the influence of liberal theology on my Christian experience is indirect, though not always. The conflict between neo-orthodox and liberal theologies might, perhaps, be between the notion reason and crucially interpreted religious experience that lies beneath liberal theology and some sort of authority that inspires neo-orthodox theology. Both poles of this contrast present problems for me. Those problems define much of my experience in reading theology and Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Three Presbyterian pastors, all chaplains at the University of Georgia, forced me to take neo-orthodox theology seriously because their preaching had a prophetic edge about the struggle for civil rights. Further, my major professor was, I suppose, a liberal, but one forged by his prior experience as a progressive Baptist minister and encounters with the struggle for social justice.
At the time, I began reading theology, I am not sure whether I had any sense of what evangelical liberalism or personalistic idealism were. I am not certain I know much about either of them now. However, I probably did have some sort of feeling for naturalistic empiricism though I don’t recall knowing that name. Some form of it seems to pervade my thinking.
Part of this is because for me, reading neo-orthodox theology, whatever it is or isn’t, feels problematical. Much of it continues to be after almost 50 years impenetrable, indistinct, and even inarticulate to me, except for the criticism of liberal theology when it is conformist liberal theology. That creative critique haunts me.
Critical liberal theologians write provocative books, but I almost never encounter pastors who embody critical liberalism. The liberal pastors I encounter too often hold to unproductive intellectualism. Too often they subjugate themselves to little more than primitive commercial and industrial interests. Too often they flounder in bland pessimism masked as personal optimism and petty and unbiblical positive thinking Too often they engage in fruitless reformism. But a ghost of prophetic biblical realism endures. It endures in a vast literature of critical liberal theologies that set foundations for critical, progressive Christian experience.