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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Doing liberal theology well

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I once thought that many theological positions can be grounded in Jesus’ life and teaching, even fundamentalist ones, but that one could never call Jesus liberal. I thought that because I misunderstood liberalism (and perhaps fundamentalism too). I had thought that liberals were those who make the Bible say what they want it to say by twisting and manipulating God’s words. Of course, they are morally corrupt too. And it’s almost generous to describe this position as wishy-washy.

Of course, liberals don’t want to listen to the criticism. It’s far too easy to retort ‘Pharisee’ than begin the painful task of removing the English oak rafters from our eyes. From bishops to Sunday school teachers, convenient claptrap is peddled because it’s easy to digest. They are the fast food snacks of theology: McDoctrine. It’s a McDoctrine to explain away difficult gospel passages by saying that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, as is introducing a discussion on church teamwork by describing the Trinity as Team. These things are superficial in that they have no place in the Christian tradition, biblical interpretation or rational understanding. Saying that God’s love is your first and last principle is good and right, but the theological imperative from this is not one to cosy niceness.

I’ve read a couple of articles recently that made me think that non-liberals should stop creating a strawman of liberalism, and that it would help if liberals did their theology better. Giles Fraser wrote in the Church Times about the appointment as new Bishop of Peterborough of the problematic Donald Allister, who had once labelled liberalism satanic, and who’s on record as saying his game plan is to rid us of liberalism first, then purify the church of ritualism. Fraser says

Why do people so consistently fail to understand the idea of liberalism? Liberalism is not a wishy-washy style of biblical interpretation, or an indifference to biblical truth — although the Bishop’s advice here is pretty amazing: “If in doubt what a passage means or how it applies we will believe it literally and obey it absolutely.” What about Psalm 137 verse 9?No, liberalism is a commitment to human freedom and a hatred of authoritarianism. That is why many of us celebrate the Reformation as an emancipation from the abuses of Roman authority. To describe liberalism as satanic is to align oneself with flag-burning ayatollahs who chant against the United States as the “great Satan” and against Israel as the “little Satan”.

Yes, liberalism acknowledges that biblical interpretation is more complex than ‘God said it; I believe it; end of argument’. Yes, that means we should have a deeper respect for scripture than simple literalists. The McDoctrine interpretations are just as offensive to real engagement with God’s word as unthinking literalism. I would also add the phrase ‘human dignity’ to ‘human freedom’, as any interpretation that impinges on our dignity and freedom as human beings, and our responsibility to uphold the dignity and freedom of others, has no place in a belief in our Creator God, the Word made flesh and the body as temple of the Holy Spirit. This is my definition of Christian humanism, and, perhaps, I use those words because of the difficulties of the term ‘liberalism’ in Christian dialogue.

The other article is Simon Hall’s piece Politics and Theology: Something to Say. In a self-admittedly fragmented article, he touches on the misuse of scripture to defend US gun culture. Further on he says

Christians of the left tend to think that their own theological positions are more nuanced. We generally refrain from proof-text tennis, although it’s my experience that this is often because we haven’t spent so much time memorising our proof-texts. Sometimes it appears that our entire theology is based around one idea: Jesus loves everyone and doesn’t really like it that there are rich people and poor people.

Many of us who are involved in local or national politics would be somewhat suspicious of any policy document or local initiative that was as simplistic (dare I say shallow?) as the theology that justifies our work. As activists we are often guilty of building the flimsiest foundations to justify our strategies. But such an approach to theology – in which God merely agrees with us, rather than the other way around – leaves us vulnerable to blindness, to mistaking a monolithic ideology for a monotheistic ideal.

Liberalism treasures both the rational and existential paths: we begin with ourselves because there is no other place to begin. However, we must be aware not to convey to this upward movement of our exploration of faith a sense that it is an end in itself and place God in the mechanics of our meditations. If we were to do that, God becomes no more than a rubber stamp on our beliefs, and McDoctrines flourish. Liberal theology should be packaged with sufficient self-awareness to discern when one is engaging with the glimpses of the divine interpreted within the commonality of faith and when one is committing theological onanism.

As Hall resolves to say to his gay friend, liberal theology does not cast homosexuality as a sin, and, just as much as we cannot approve of food but disapprove of eating, that stance includes not prohibiting the consequent action of a God-given nature, the sex. However, liberal theology does not say that because there is no condemnation you can do whatever you want. Just because the rules are not as traditionally conceived, that doesn’t mean there are no rules. In the end, just as laissez-faire capitalism leads to a crash, so do laissez-faire ethics.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

One thought on “Doing liberal theology well

  1. Pingback: Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace? « Ad Fontes

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