Liberalism’s Interest in Theology

Evan F. Kuehn

In 2013 I attended a dinner hosted by the Lumen Christi Institute, a center for Catholic thought adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. Our graduate theology workshop was co-sponsoring an event with the Institute about Pope Francis, who was then only a few months into his papacy. One of the panelists that night was seated next to me, and I chatted with him about my work, focused on Kant and liberal Protestant theologians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Another attendee sitting across the table from us (not a scholar, but an interested community member) interjected bluntly to express his disapproval. Kant was the problem with modernity, he said. What we needed was to get back to Aquinas and the traditional metaphysical truths of the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the will. These and similar fundamental doctrines are the actual content of the faith. The rationalized religious options of liberalism could only ever be a shell of Christianity’s former self.

What to do with these sorts of criticisms? I’ve heard them frequently, and it is difficult to avoid them when one writes books about liberal theologians but often works within evangelical contexts. I still don’t know quite how to respond.

It is often difficult to know precisely what the critics mean when they talk about “liberalism” or “modernism,” due to the accumulated secondhand impressions. Liberals simply aren’t read at any great length by their critics, who are usually satisfied with being spoon-fed contextless quotes. Often I dodge such confrontations entirely out of fear of scandalizing those who, to repurpose St. Paul, have the faith to eat only the vegetables of conservatism. This may sound condescending, but I have actually been asked by a college dean during an interview for a teaching position, “I see you’ve written about Schleiermacher. I knew a student who lost his faith after reading Schleiermacher. How would you respond pastorally in a situation like this?” The proverbial weaker brother is not simply a figment of my own imagination. Even speaking of myself as a “liberal theologian” rings oddly in my ear because of how carefully I have avoided that identification among my theological colleagues. My typical dodge is to say that I study the history of liberal theology: liberalism as a specimen, that is.

At the Lumen Christi dinner, though, I had been set up perfectly for a response: “Yes, I agree! We do need to get back to some of the fundamental tenets of natural theology: God, immortality, and freedom. In fact, Kant, the arch-liberal, thought so as well. His entire philosophical program was devoted to postulating just these truths —the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the will—in a way that was critical and responsible to an Enlightenment understanding of human reason.” Needless to say, my interlocutor wasn’t satisfied by my reassurances that liberalism had picked up the baton from Aquinas. It is, admittedly, a tough sell, and not one that you can usually make across the dinner table to a stranger who has already determined that there couldn’t be any common ground between you and him.

At least two strategies are available, then, for critiquing liberal Christianity: one can accuse liberals of believing nothing, or else of believing something very concrete that is contrary to traditional religion. An adept critic of liberalism will go the extra mile and accuse liberals of both, shoehorning opposite accusations into one jeremiad. This is usually done by rebranding paradoxes that have long been acknowledged by liberals themselves as newly-discovered fatal contradictions. The errors of which liberalism stand accused sound positively Orwellian: tolerance is intolerance! Pluralism is dogmatism. Science, in fact, is a religion. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism is a classic of such Janus-faced approaches, arguing that liberalism rejected doctrinal “facts” in a way that was antithetical to Christianity, but also that it was a unitary system of belief grounded in naturalism. Leftist critiques of liberal politics sometimes make arguments similar to Machen’s when they present liberalism as both a poll-driven centrism obsessed with across-the-aisle dialogue that goes nowhere, and on the other hand as a massive neoliberal project whose agency and intentions are present in all the establishment political parties.

Despite often trying to play both sides, if forced to choose these critiques tend to emphasize what liberalism lacks rather than what it offers. The problem with liberals, according to their detractors, is that they are more concerned with formalities than with the real thing. In matters of religion, the accusation is that liberals don’t really believe anything in particular. This is thin soil for deep roots of faith, let alone for dogmatic theology. John Henry Newman opined in his 1879 Biglietto Speech upon elevation to the cardinalate that “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another.” Emphasizing liberalism as thin gruel rather than as indifferent cafeteria religion, H. Richard Niebuhr is often quoted from The Kingdom of God in America defining the liberal creed as: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Never mind that he goes on, beginning in the very next sentence, to say that Horace Bushnell, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch—that is, a veritable Who’s Who of American theological liberalism—cannot be pinned with these errors to the extent that their epigones can. Also, never mind the fact that Niebuhr, proponent of radical monotheism and one of the most important early interpreters of the German liberal theologian Ernst Troeltsch, would be no ally to the conservative Protestants who tend to regurgitate his mock credo today. Conservative hatchet jobs are nothing if not fond of pithy caricatures.

What is a liberal to do, who contrary to all these rumors, still harbors the quaint notion that theology—dogma, even—is an important part of their faith? Many of the recent efforts to rehabilitate liberal Christianity’s standing as fertile ground for theology have tried to play the same game as their critics and offer positive doctrinal fundamentals upon which to build a liberal theology. These efforts have borne some good fruit, especially around central theological concepts like divine love, human reason, and perhaps most promising, freedom. But in reconstructing fundamentals we also risk forgetting one of the great lessons that liberalism has learned through past attempts at finding some theoretical ground to stand on: when a theologian tries to pin down the kernel of faith beneath the husk, or the essence of the Gospel, or the historical Jesus of Nazareth, what they always end up with are the conditions and the contexts of their own quest for the truth. This is a revelation of sorts, and an important one. But it is a revelation of the self rather than of doctrinal fundamentals.

For this and other reasons, I wonder whether the idea that liberals don’t believe anything in particular might, counterintuitively, stand as a better basis for finding some theological richness in liberal religion. To understand why, though, we need to reframe the accusation of formalism. I would put it this way: liberalism is concerned with conditions of validity and claims to authority more than it is with any specific doctrinal content. Theological liberalism is interested in the formation of free humanity and in being responsive to the results of free inquiry. Insofar as there are liberal credos in Christianity or other religions, they largely do not concern tenets of belief. Dogmatic commitments that are often associated with liberalism—a rejection of original sin, for instance, or universalism—were not original to, and have never been universally held by, self-professed liberals, and so do not function very well as a definition for liberal theology. In other words, liberalism does not have fundamentals the way that fundamentalism does. It does, however, have an identifiable fundamental interest, and wherever so-called liberal doctrinal commitments are held, these beliefs can almost always be read as proxies for liberalism’s real interest: challenging the hegemony of ecclesiastical authority over faith.

The liberal project has tended to be anti-dogmatic not because liberal religion stands against dogmatic theology itself, but rather because liberalism introduces a new pluralism of criteria for rendering theology plausible, which challenges the terms upon which traditional dogma is accepted. These new criteria don’t reject ecclesiastical authority per se, any more than they reject the authority of Greek metaphysics or biblical narrative enshrined in Christianity’s ancient creedal formulae. Liberalism does, however, reject approaches to faith that treat mere appeal to these older standards as sufficient for understanding the meaning of the Gospel in today’s world.

When theologians were trained exclusively in schools recognized by papal bull or royal charter, where episcopal investigation could restrict the curriculum and professors faced excommunication for teaching restricted doctrines, the dogmatic task was, by definition, underwritten by the very authority structures whose exclusivity liberalism would one day challenge. Small wonder, then, that absent the ecclesiastical foundation of theology departments, it is difficult for many (including many liberals themselves) to conceive of a “liberal dogmatics” as anything other than an oxymoron. Unrecognized assumptions about the infrastructure necessary for genuine theological research creates a snowballing effect in our practices.

Even today, theology with an explicitly liberal self-identification rarely attempts systematic dogmatic works. When it does, these efforts are largely undertaken by white male academics like myself. The social conditions under which academic theology used to be done produce inertias of institutional privilege that determine how liberal dogmatics continues to be done. Privilege in turn prolongs a problematic provincialism and elitism that belies liberal claims to egalitarianism and inclusivity. But this failure to escape past hierarchies is not proof positive that dogmatic theology needs such elite structures of authority to be maintained, nor that liberal religion is antithetical to dogmatic theological reflection. Dogma implies an authority relationship of some sort, but liberalism simply argues that any given authority can never make reasons of faith authoritative by fiat. Rather, religious discourse, like any discourse, always exists in a context of a plurality of interlaced traditions of authority, none of which are granted memory eternal, much less inherent legitimacy.

Even if we grant that liberalism is best understood as a sort of formalism, the traditionalist criticism still seems to nag at us: what is the content of a liberal theology? It’s not as if liberals literally believe nothing. So, perhaps more fundamentally we need to ask: whose doctrinal content do they believe? Liberalism can claim a formal criticism as genuinely its own, but in doing so, it remains parasitic upon traditions of religious authority for the marrow of its faith.

This problem is a theological version of the political one re-popularized by Jürgen Habermas through his recent engagements with Catholic thinkers in The Dialectic of Secularization and An Awareness of What is Missing, and canonically stated already by the jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde in the 1970s: “the free, secularized state lives off of presuppositions that it cannot itself guarantee.” For theological liberalism, this means that the task of theology depends upon sacred teachings that liberalism itself fails to provide.

Liberals do not often adequately grapple with this dilemma, and as a criticism it deserves direct attention. But ultimately it rests on a fallacy. Any claim of ownership over dogma—any structure of final theological authority, that is—is precisely what liberalism has rejected as specious in the first place. We are prejudiced to think that the work of a church council can only be appreciated insofar as it is also a recognition of ecclesiastical authority. Liberalism, however, recognizes the ongoing work of the Spirit in historical communities, even (indeed, especially) in the absence of a recognition of a universal and absolute authority attributable to these communities. The interest of liberalism in theology is to question the divine right of these human structures, not the divine work within them.

Recognizing the social conditions of theology gives us a better picture of the real possibilities of liberal theology. God willing, liberal religion will not only find its footing in Christian communities (I think it already has), but also find a way to help other religious folk realize that all of us are engaged in a common project of religious reflection. In fact, most of us are doing liberal theology whether we know it or not.

The ubiquity of liberalism is an irony inherent in traditionalist critiques of liberalism: although they make gestures of appealing to scripture and tradition, even the harshest critics of liberal Christianity these days do their own theological reflection largely independent of ecclesiastical authority. Such an assertion might sound odd, when one of the most celebrated systematic theologies of recent years (and not by any stretch the most traditionalist) literally says in its preface, “Now, all hail, Chalcedon!” Classic texts and church hierarchies still captivate theologians, to be sure, and are even experiencing a new lease on life. In some ways, this new traditionalism is the fruit of the post-liberalism of the 1980s-1990s, as well a resurgence of conservative populism over the last decade.

But the theologians reasserting and repristinating old confessions or doing theology as a confessional ministry of the churches rather than as an academic discipline, are not doing so under any actual constraint of ecclesiastical censure, not even when they posture as if they were. The authority that theologians attribute to creed, bishop, and scripture in their theology is, except on very rare occasion, purely voluntary. Traditionalism these days is more likely based on personal feelings of revival or nostalgia than on formation by any strictly ecclesial voice with power of imprimatur or inquisition. When was the last time that you read about a theologian who managed to get themselves excommunicated or dismissed from a university department and didn’t simply pick up their work elsewhere? There are certainly still ecclesial boundaries in liberal modernity, but they have long since ceased to represent anything more than an elective affinity between theologians and their favored sect. In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr, “theology has always had to choose whom it would serve and in what service to find its freedom.” Sometimes this mandate to choose has been described as the “acid of liberalism,” which dissolves older ties. I prefer to describe it as a leaven, which by nature leavens the whole loaf.

I hate to be the bearer of what will sound to some like bad news, but we are all liberal theologians now, and it has been quite a while since we were not all liberals. Which is to say: we happily write theology for publics that measure the plausibility of our ideas against a more diverse array of criteria than merely orthodoxy as established by hierarchy. We couldn’t write a non-liberal theology if (and sometimes precisely because) we tried. In saying so, I do not mean to offer a revolutionary response to earlier conservatisms, but merely a recognition of where things stand for us.

Evan Kuehn researches modern religious thought and is interested in innovative methodological approaches that can offer a coherent account of modern transcultural religious complexities. His writing includes Troeltsch’s Eschatological Absolute(Oxford University Press, 2020).