Postliberal Theology

By Reno, R. R. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, February 2018 | Go to article overview

Postliberal Theology


Reno, R. R., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Blood pressure is rising. Folks are worried about "illiberalism." In a November issue of the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum warned of a rising "neo-Bolshevism" assailing the West: "Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Jaroslaw Kacyniski." Others have more moderate anxieties, even about First Things. Matthew Continetti, editor-inchief of the Washington Free Beacon, suggests that we don't do justice to the liberty that gives liberalism its name and purpose.

The anxiety about illiberalism reminds me of my years as a graduate student. I studied theology at Yale in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, there was a conflict between the "Chicago school" and the "Yale school." The former was thought to carry forward the noble achievements of modern or liberal theology: historical consciousness, biblical scholarship, cultural relevance, and openness of mind. The latter, many worried, marked a retreat into sectarian insularity and neo-fundamentalism. As I look back, I see some parallels to our present-day debates about liberalism and illiberalism.

From its founding in 1891, the University of Chicago's Divinity School took pride in its unabashedly liberal theology. That meant declaring theology free from traditional sources of ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority. To draw an analogy to political theory, liberal theology affirms what John Rawls defined as "public reason," the common stock of truths that educated people accept. This approach has been pursued in a number of different ways. Some liberal theologians take Kant's, Hegel's, or Heidegger's philosophy as their point of departure. Others adopt first principles from psychology or other social sciences. The strands of liberal theology go in many different directions, but they are all characterized by openness to and even enthusiasm for the latest intellectual and social trends.

In its optimistic mode, liberal theology seeks to show that the modern age brings out the best in Christianity. By this way of thinking, historical-critical study of the Bible uncovers its original meaning, allowing us to return to the purity of apostolic faith undefiled by the accretion of later rituals and dogmas. Or it means seeing God's hand at work in modern developments such as democracy and secularization. These historical changes reveal, for the first time, the full truth of the gospel. In its pessimistic mode, liberal theology warns that we must adapt to modern realities if we're to have any hope of keeping people in church. Christian faith needs to be updated with concepts and categories that are meaningful to what mid-twentieth-century theologians unselfconsciously referred to as "modern man," a term rejected by today's generation of liberal theologians for whom feminism is authoritative.

David Tracy was one of the presiding figures at Chicago. He was thought to embody the intellectually open and inquisitive Catholicism inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. Meanwhile, something rather different was going on at Yale. There, Karl Barth had been closely studied for a decade or more before I arrived. He was a fierce critic of liberal theology, which he regarded as theologically and intellectually bankrupt. If God is truly other, he argued, then one can reason about God-think theo-logically-only if one begins with God's Word.

Weaned on Barth by my undergraduate mentor, Ronald Thiemann, a Yale PhD, I was naturally attracted to the Yale school. With Thiemann's encouragement, I enrolled there for graduate study in theology in the mid-1980s. Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, David Kelsey, and my dissertation director, Gene Outka, along with biblical scholar Brevard Childs, were influential figures. They had no affinities with the conservative, anti-liberal Protestantism that gets derogated as "fundamentalist." This tradition was no more present on our syllabi than it was at Chicago, which in retrospect was a shame. Some years later, I read J. Gresham Machen's 1923 classic, Christianity and Liberalism. …

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