Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dorrien, pt. 6: On revealing the hidden theological renaissance

This is the final post presenting ideas from Gary Dorrien's latest book, the final volume in the series on 200 years of liberal theology in America. See others introducing the subject and focusing on specific Unitarian Universalist theologians below. This post deals with the summation and the call, focusing on the irony of the situation that as liberal churches and the movement in Protestantism and Catholicism declined in the last half of the 20th century, that liberal/progressive theology in many forms flourished in "a hidden renaissance." Upshot for me or my take on it: The shift from a churched to unchurched culture hit the churches hard who had been the place for putting liberal theology into action, which is why the ways it expanded and renewed itself often went unnoticed. The audience shrank for all the new stuff coming out of divinity schools, and in a post-denominational world where seminaries connected to denominations are perhaps the dying canaries in the cave, that being the location for vitality is a sure fire way to keep things hidden.

But, as this piece from Dorrien makes clear, the vitality and just plain truth of the matter for Christian faith that these progressive theologians have captured should be a compelling force for creation of new communities and audiences where the theologies can be deepened and spread. Which is the focus of the mission of this blog itself. I often bring progessives up to task for failure to engage with the post-evangelical Evangelicals and what they have to teach us, and as this series of posts and Dorrien's book make clear there is a lot that Evangelicals have to encounter and learn from the progressive theologians. They may be doing all right now ignoring this strand of liberal/liberation/progressive theology, and locating their own in the postmodern and postliberal theologies of Stanley Grenz, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, Frei, Niehaus, and successors, as liberals themselves can learn from engaging with these too, but if they look at the theologians in Dorrien's book and treat them as lepers, they will be cutting off God's oxygen to their brain and forgetting Jesus' life lessons.

D: American theologians of the later twentieth century demonstrated the continuing vitality of the liberal tradition by fashioning complex and illuminating theologies that responded to secularism, new social movements, postmodernity, and a dramatically expanded awareness of religious and cultural pluralism. Yet they never felt that they were part of a renaissance...The secularizing tidal wave and social revolutions of the succedding generation fell hard on liberal schools, just as they flattened a regnant neo-orthodoxy. Personalism withered from lack of conviction and advocacy; evangelical liberalism was forsaken as well; even Niebuhr and Tillich were often forgotten; only the Whiteheadians sustained the conviction, productivity and ambition of a movement. [RR: Process theology saved my faith, gave me back God language and led to becoming Christian believer, but if your main theology takes a college or graduate degree to comprehend, you are in trouble; some of the most powerful stuff comes from pastors interpreting it and presenting it to general audience, and why it was good that Dorrien's book goes into the work of Borg, Spong, et al even though I haven't mentioned them in these posts.]

D: Theologian John H.S. Kerr explained that liberal theology was a strategy to keep increasingly secular modernists in the church, but by the late 1970s they were gone. Thus liberal theology lost its institutional mission. 'Those outside the Chruches were no longer interested in the liberal theologian's desire to qualify rather than replace what the Churches officially said in the realm of pure theology." The shades of difference between 'above' and 'below' Christologies meant nothing to secular types that associated religion with their grandparents. Liberal theology still appealed to some individuals, Kent allowed, but it no longer had important work to do for the church....[Dorrien then goes on to talk about the way the more conservative theologians of the past decades challenged liberal theologies as giving away too much faith, and counters with a good critique of their dismissals]...Contrary to Kent, the ecclesial relevance of liberal theology did not vanish with the church membership losses of the post-1960s generation. The mainline Protestant and progressive Catholic ectors of American Christianity claimed tens of millions of members; church study groups turned several theological liberals into best-selling authors; and intense ecclesiastical debates over gay and lesbian rights, war, and feminism made theological discourse unavoidable even for religious communities predisposed to avoid it.

D: American liberal theology began as a pastoral enterprise, and in its heyday it was led by academics at seminaries and divinity schools that maintained vital ties with affilliated religious communities. But its critics were right that liberal theology became more narrowly academic in the later twentieth century and that its academic versions did not win much of a following within the general population or among academics in other disciplines. [RR: because the culture-bound churches of the 60s-90s couldn't plant church planting churches in the new cultures, and I wonder to what degree liberal theology and its loss of gospel-centered focus and imperatives of melding liberal understandings of the Great Commandment and Great Commission had to do with creating the very environment which shrunk its audience and (seemed to) marginalize itself?]

D: [moving through the good work of Borg, etc. back to the academy with concluding remarks pointing the way to the future through the new postliberalism and renewed/new evangelism and understandings of Christian faith and culture as presented in the works of younger theologians like Kathryn Tanner and Philip Clayton, Chicago and Claremont respectively. He calls them postmodernized postliberals. I am more aware of Tanner's work, as mentioned below, and recommend as a good place to start her work on Theories of Culture and what it has to do with locating Christian identity] Christian identity based on shared beliefs is a mirage, she argued. For Tanner, Christian identity derived from shared questions and discussion topics, not shared beliefs. [which is why her work is a good foundation for more liberal emergent Christians, and good parallel read with Brian McLaren's and Leonard Sweet's]. On Clayton, D. writes: Integration was 'the birthright of liberal Christianity.' By its nature and history, Clayton observed, liberalism worked constantly to integrate the best human knowledge with the Christian tradition. "It takes some courage; it takes prohetic voice; it takes a hatred of the trivial; it takes a willingness to be hard nosed; it takes a constant refusal to become self-absorbed." ..Liberal theology is a great tradition and a high calling, he exhorted; what it lacks is convictional advocates. "God knows, in the present political climate liberal Christians need passion--earth-shaking passion--when speaking of our faith." [RR: and beyond speaking, incarnating it in new communities responsive to new culture].

And then Dorrien writes his powerful conclusion in a final two pages. You need to buy the book. I wish I had the stamina typing right now to present them. I will do an unjust excerpt.

"A hundred years after the liberals gained control of Harvard and effectively began the tradition of American liberal theology, it faced an ambiguous future. On the one hand, the pluralization of theology, the beginning of a religion-science dialogue, and the mere beginnings of multiperspectival interreligious thinking made the twenty-first century the most interesting time in history to pursue theology. [RR: since his book ends with the year 2005, I think he actually meant two hundred years after that 1805 event, but maybe he was talking about 1905 and the 20th century, a little confusing. He goes on to summarize his book in a few paragraphs]

"Throughout its history, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is the language that sustained the liberal movement as a whole. The civil rights movement thrived on its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good, and the social-gospel movement would have been nothing without it. Something like it needs to be recovered today if liberal theology is to flourish as a public and spiritual force; something like a gospel-centered theology of personal spirit. Instead of defining the spiritual in terms of the personal and moral, one might define the personal and moral in terms of spiritual aliveness, fashioning a scripturally grounded theology of universal spirit and love. [RR: He goes on to advocate for the "ultimate concept of spirit". I resonate with this and my own constructive paper in seminary was on my understanding of The Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God].

His credo:
"God is creative and personal Spirit, motivated by love. In Jesus the Spirit of God dwelt fully. Love divine is the final meaning of Spirit. Evil is the lack and nihilating negation of the flourishing of life. Eternity is the life of divine love. Theology begins with the experience of the Holy, moves to the critique of idolatry, and presses to the prophetic demand for justice and the good." That, he says, is one way to advance interreligious tought and the critique of oppression from a Christian center. "

I hope you can see why we brought him as one of the keynoters to Revival in NYC. The UU Christian Fellowship is one of the many good progressive Christian homes for such a credo, and for the multiple versions of liberal theology undergoing a renaissance as described in his book. Our Revivals and other major events are part of incarnating these theologies. As is our support of people in their own churches into becoming incarnational homes for the theologies. And I hope our small groups gathered under the umbrella of the UUCF but reaching out beyond UUism are ways to incarnate these as well. What I try to do in my own church-planting and through this blog is part of the same incarnational mission to put finite failing and flawed flesh on such a Spirit of God.