Liberal Christianity’s intellectual roots

By Adrian Worsfold

There is a lot of casual writing about apparent liberal Christianity these days, much of it dismissive of course, and over and again seems to me to be based on a fundamental misidentification.

Much of the more responsible and, indeed, progressive theology these days derives from the modernist theologians: Karl Barth (1886-1968), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Every single one of these created a special space for the heart of Christianity, its special message that is said to be different from all other knowledge disciplines. Karl Barth with his one way cultureless and religionless revelation dialectic focused on Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasised the doing of Christ in a busy secular world, Paul Tillich had a Christian systematic answer system for an existential questioning world, for all his demythologising Bultmann revealed the remythologised essential message of the key texts, and Reinhold Niebuhr was a pragmatist for whom the cross was a central ideal and sin was corporate.

These stood as reactions against the optimism of nineteenth and early twentieth century theologians, and these predecessors were liberals indeed. What made them liberals was that they had no divisions between theology and other academic subjects, no special space for revelation to exist that cannot be discovered by other forms of enquiry.

Let’s be clear about this today. In the modern university, theology courses (where they exist) may draw upon social sciences and sciences for their supports and explanations, but social sciences and sciences never draw on theology for explanations. Sociology may have Sociology of Religion, but it never asks in all the causal relationships uncovered “what God might be doing here.” Yet theologians happily use sociological tools as it suits. Scientists looking at the local and specific environments and their evolving species, and seeing convergence where separate if similar environments produce similar creaturely results never ask “what God may be doing here” as part of the science. It is all one way: there is no need for the God hypothesis.

Theologians became pessimists after the really liberal period of theology, due to the First World War, the economic depression and Nazism. However, they ought to be pessimistic, given the subsequent isolation of their subject.

I was asking myself to which of these modern theologians I come closest, and I concluded none of them. Tillich was once a little influential, until I realised it was a one way street with him – you could not get to Christianity through the existentialism, he was providing it just through different wrapping paper. I couldn’t understand Bonhoeffer’s contradictory religionless Christianity, or Harvey Cox’s derivative. Bultmann seemed not to do what he said he was doing.

But looking at the actual liberals you can go back as far as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who would be the grandfather, if Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1899) is the father, with two sons, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) and Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923).

For Schleiermacher, we are all dependent on the infinite, and Jesus is simply the one with the clearest vision, which he was able to communicate supremely. This means he is not special, just more capable, and of course the question always is a) How do you know? and b) What happens if someone else is similar or more clear?

Ritschl rejected metaphysical speculation on the basis that this established nothing. Ritschl did think that Christianity had a core essence. He thought it lay in the building of the anti-nationalist Kingdom of God, which Jesus introduced and we complete. It is grounded in the motive of pure love. Through real pleasure, humans develop the Kingdom under God. Jesus becomes a saviour figure through a direct value judgment by ourselves.

So although Ritschl starts with Christology, it is entirely accessible and humanistic, based on the subjectivity of believers, the Kingdom being built within culture and in history.

Harnack wanted to ground Christianity into history. History was his speciality. Like Ritschl, Harnack wanted to know what the essence of Christianity was. He concluded, as a historian, that Jesus taught the coming of the Kingdom, and not about himself; and that Christianity and the commandment of love relates to higher consciousness under God the Father’s rule.

Hellenisation had complicated Christianity, following in the footsteps of Paul and the Gnostics all the way to Chalcedon, and Harnack thought that the historical Jesus was accessible as a rabbi freed from institutions and encrusted doctrines.

There are two huge objections to this, that the later modern theologians knew. One is that such a liberal Jesus is but a reflection in Harnack’s mirror, and secondly the historical Jesus is rather more inaccessible than that.

This was Ernst Troeltsch’s view too, and yet he maintained the link with history. He was also a historian and sociologist, and they all interplayed with his theology. Like James Martineau (first) and Max Weber, he understood the difference between Church and Sect in Christian expression. Troeltsch also had a category of “mysticism”, meaning the religion of the individual and intellectual that is post Enlightenment rather than Church or Sect out of the New Testament.

Troeltsch had a historical method of a) probability, b) the more familiar before the less, and c) the importance of un-isolated phenomena (thus: what is likely to be right, what is generally understood over the bizarre, and things must connect). The result of this method was anti-miracles, not to know Jesus historically well at all (so much is strange) and a relativist view of all religion. There is no method in history for establishing the salvation-superiority of Christianity or any other faith. Christianity did transform via its role in European culture, but this is not the same as saying Christianity is itself superior or that Christ is unique.

My own view comes down to that of Ernst Troeltsch. I think he understands the issues, and he combines the disciplines. I cannot see why theology should be privileged (in any sense) or be inaccessible. Mystery has to be mystery.

The problem for the liberals was that they became associated with evolution, optimism and social progress, that was shattered; but this seems to me to be revisable – it can also be a pragmatic and a limited theology. Indeed, it is, as it asks for nothing special.

These were the real liberals then. I was fascinated to see that British Radical Orthodoxy, that postmodern conservative bubble of ineffective Christendom (John Milbank etc.), now in its new home at Nottingham, has an attack on Troeltsch via news about a new book on the centre’s home page. Discussing Nathan Kerr’s Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission, Nicholas M. Healy includes this about the book:

He sets up the issues by means of a lucid and penetrating analysis of Troeltsch’s universalist historicism, which attempts to place Christ and Christianity in the service of the political and social projects of modernity, a form of ‘Constantianism’.

The critique of Stanley Hauerwas will surprise some, since in spite of his intent Hauerwas ends up looking much more Troeltschian than one would expect.

Troeltsch clearly remains important; perhaps he is coming back into prominence and will irritate the postmodernists in their world-denying bubble. I skip before even the theological modernists, and Troeltsch seems to have done the work already.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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