American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity

By Dorrien, Gary | Cross Currents, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity


Dorrien, Gary, Cross Currents


The idea of a liberal approach to Christianity--that theology should be based on reason and critically interpreted religious experience, not external authority--has an ironic history in the United States. In the nineteenth century it took root and flowered; in the early twentieth century it became the founding idea of a new theological establishment; in the 1930s it was marginalized by neo-orthodoxy theology; in the 1960s it was rejected by liberation theology; by the 1970s it was often taken for dead.

But liberal theology has long been, and is still today, more significant than is indicated by the usual story of its rise and fall. The entire field of modern theology employs critical tools and theories that the liberal tradition developed. Both of the movements that overtook liberal theology were offshoots of the liberal tradition. The idea of a liberal Christian third way between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief retains its original relevance. And in the late twentieth century liberal theology produced much of its best work. Over the past generation liberals have written a great deal of highly creative and sophisticated academic theology, and several liberals have written popular works that reached very large audiences. Yet the renewal of liberal theology over the past generation has gone unnoticed and unfelt, even by its advocates.

In the first half of the twentieth century American theological liberalism was defined and powered by three schools of thought--evangelical liberalism, personalist idealism, and naturalistic empiricism--that remained vital in the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, all three had withered. By the 1970s the crisis of American liberal theology, like that of American liberal politics, was obvious and pervasive. The certainties of liberal theology faded to nothing as it was overpowered by rising secular, liberationist, and postmodern trends and a huge cultural backlash of conservative politics and religion. The idea of the intellectual and spiritual necessity of liberal theology took on the appearance of a cultural relic.

Liberal theologians were routinely denigrated for holding on to the secular mentality, sterile intellectualism, bourgeois reformism, and pale idealism. Often their modest standing in the church, academy, and public was compared unfavorably to liberalism's glory years in the social gospel era. Sometimes liberals made the point themselves, speaking the language of crisis and decline. Always they struggled to find an audience for their idea of a critical, progressive Christianity.

Yet for all its problems, the liberal tradition has experienced a hidden renaissance in the last decades of the twentieth century. The integrity and necessity of the liberal option was upheld by old liberals who had never been anything else and new liberals who found their way to the tradition of Schleiermacher and Rauschenbusch. A large group of religious thinkers representing an unprecedented diversity of racial, sexual, confessional, and religious identities vigorously refigured the liberal approach to theology. An important new theological school, Whiteheadian process thought, grew out of the Chicago school, anchoring the new liberalism. Refugees from neo-orthodoxy wrote major constructive works that showed the viability of liberal theology beyond its Whiteheadian base. Liberals produced forms of feminist, black, and ecological theology that responded to liberationist and environmentalist movements. American Catholics entered the field without the burden of a celebrated liberal past, producing some of the freshest and most compelling progressive theologies of the past generation. Others sought to renew the various traditions of liberal theology. Liberals created a new theological field, the religion-science dialogue, and also played a leading role in developing theologies of world religions and models of interreligious dialogue. Despite not belonging to a vital movement, liberal religious thinkers kept alive the idea of a progressive Christian alternative to authority-based orthodoxies and atheistic secularisms.

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American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity
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